Central Asia: The Stronghold of Russian Foreign Policy, part I

Foreign policy projects domestic interests and goals to the exterior, executed by diplomacy, and it is, as such, a fundamental tool for the positioning of states in the international system. One tends to consider that foreign policy doesn’t undergo significant changes, maintaining the status quo, and thus giving rise to a definition of historical continuity. It employs questions of cultural nature, such as national identity which, in conjunction with an external enemy, is an integral part of the normative formulation of foreign policy, and the confrontation with said enemy reinforces the sentiment of national identity. It’s important to note that in the study of foreign policy, systemic perspectives have dominated international relations. However, it is the understanding of many authors that a bigger focus needs to be given to non-material issues, such as discourses, motivations, public opinion, and issues of domestic policy. In the case of Russia, the war in Georgia (2008), the participation in the Syrian war (essentially from 2015 onward) and the invasion of Crimea (2014) constitute cases over which the Russian public opinion has a favorable leaning, supporting these incursions.

Taking this definition of foreign policy into account, in this article I intend to explore the relevance that Central Asia has to Russian foreign policy, in particular since the end of the Cold War. This is a geographic zone that includes five states that were part of the former Soviet Union – Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -, and its strategic relevance derives from the fact that it is situated at the crossroads of several regional powers, such as Iran, Russia and China. This area comprises the region between the Caspian Sea to the west, up to China and Mongolia to the east, and from Afghanistan and Iran in the south to Russia in the north. The variety of landscapes in the region is notable, going from steppes to deserts, valleys, and more. It’s also the region of the globe with the most landlocked states.

On a political level, it’s characterized by its high level of authoritarianism, although with different levels of intensity. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are semi-authoritarian states, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are ruled by authoritarian regimes. The republics of Central Asia were the only ones in the Soviet Union which voted in favor of the continuation of the USSR in a referendum, having become, as some authors propose, independent against their own will.

In terms of economics, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been an effort towards a transition from state controlled economies to market economies. However, reforms have been gradual and selective, as governments take steps to curtail social costs and improving living standards. In particular, there have been efforts to modernize their industry and cultivating the development of the service sectors through favorable fiscal policies, among other measures, aiming to reduce the weight of agriculture on their respective GDP. Kazakhstan is the country that shows the largest growth potential, with an ample market: 17 million people in the internal market; a legal structure focused on attracting investors; a complex non-oil economy development program and the creation of favorable conditions for investment in those spheres.

Historically, Central Asian countries were conquered by various empires (Arab, Mongol, Russian), with these successive invasions generating a vast cultural interaction, a variety of languages, cultures and religions, which made the notion of national identity a more complex subject. Even today, local political power (clans and tribes) has a fundamental role in formulating national policy. At the end of the 19th century, the Russian and the British empires fought among themselves over influence in the region, in what was known as “The Great Game”. Central Asia remained under Russian administration until 1991, the year when these states first knew independence, after the break of the USSR.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was made general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, leading to deep reforms in Russian society. Among those reforms, the perestroika and the glasnost were the most notable. The first concerns the economic sphere, and its goal was to initiate a process of liberalization of the economy, since up until then,the economy was state-planned, without the existence of private property. The second was concerned with the political sphere, and its aim was to bring the population closer to the decisions of the Soviet Union, as well as fighting corruption within the Communist Party. From 1985 to 1991, when Gorbatchev was in power, Russia underwent significant changes in its structure and economy, culminating in the break up of the USSR in 1991. Also this year, the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) was formed, a set of post-soviet states, of which five Central Asian republics were a member – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan – and there was also a change in power, with Boris Yeltsin becoming president of Russia.

In the aftermath of the Cold War, Russian elites in Moscow showed a clear lack of vision in terms of the future of relations between Russia and the old empire, privileging relations with the USA and Europe. Despite a period of initial enthusiasm of closer relations with the west, by the mid 90’s, relations with Central Asia became a fundamental vector in Russian interests. This reshuffling of priorities coincided with the opening of this region ot the dynamics of globalization, attracting distinct centers: Russia, the west and China. Despite the difficult context folowing the end of the Soviet Union, the transition years helped to outline guidelines for action and what was known as the multivectorial foreign policy (formulated by the former foreign minister of Russia, Yevgeny Primakov). The latter is focused on organizing preferential spheres of action, with special attention placed on geopolitics, and it has, since then, defined the post-Soviet space as a priority.

This reflection will be concluded in part II.

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