TFR 54 – The New Central Asia: In Search of Stability



Please note: tables, maps and footnotes from the published text are omitted from the following text.

Though the states of Central Asia are known in Trilateral countries largely for their energy potential, they are in fact part of a thorough-going strategic transformation of Eurasia. This strategic transformation is most vividly seen in the fall of the USSR and the ongoing transformation of China, but it has a Central Asian dimension. It is the purpose of this report to describe this dimension and to show the strategic stakes Trilateral countries have in a stable outcome there.

However, at the outset, the authors must acknowledge a dilemma. We have chosen to focus primarily on the states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan). These states are thought of as a unified region largely because of their common Soviet past. But they are all in a state of flux, internally and in their external orientations. They are also increasingly seen as part of a larger whole—the Caspian Basin if viewed as potential energy producers, or Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “Eurasian Balkans” if viewed as a source of instability.

We have also found it necessary at times in this report to range beyond our defined region and speak of Azerbaijan and, less frequently, of the other states of the Caucasus, Georgia, and Armenia. Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, and even India are involved as new economic, geopolitical, and security orientations take shape. Yet we believe the narrower focus of our report is justified because it is not about energy or conflicts alone but rather the region’s increasing integration into the wider world, its potential for both stability and instability, and Trilateral interests in the better outcome.

The flow of oil and gas into the world market will create links across the Caspian Sea and common economic opportunities and problems for the entire Basin. However, we are struck by the vast differences between the states of Central Asia and those of the South Caucasus, differences that are more important than similarities when the focus is, as in this report, the broader political, economic, and security factors that produce a stable or unstable outcome.

We also believe that, while there is the chance of Balkan-like conflicts across a broad geographic range from eastern Turkey into Mongolia, it will be crucial to understand the root causes of particular conflicts. While common threads of state weakness, ethnic divisions and economic failure do exist, there are specific regional, country, and even local ingredients that must be understood. We think an appreciation of these unique factors is more likely to emerge from an examination of the “new” Central Asia and of the states within this region.


Successful Trilateral engagement in the new Central Asia depends upon understanding three interrelated sources of potential profit and peril: the dynamics of a complex and changing region, the increased engagement in the region of neighboring large powers, and energy development.

1. Challenges from a Complex and Changing Region
The Russian historian, Sergey Soloviev, once complained that, for much of Eurasia, nature was less a mother than a “stepmother,” hiding whatever riches were given under harsh climatic extremes. Central Asia knows these extremes, from waterless, scorching deserts to high mountain plateaus. Large areas east of the Caspian Sea, across the steppes of Kazakhstan and the deserts of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, are uninhabited or sparsely populated. The great urban civilizations of the region grew up around the oases and the watercourses that once formed part of the Great Silk Route linking China with the Mediterranean. The bands of populated areas still stretch along two rivers—the Amu Darya and Syr Darya—that flow toward the Aral Sea. The most heavily populated areas in Central Asia are far from the Caspian Sea. Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, has a population of about 4 million. The fertile, well-watered Ferghana Valley not far southeast of Tashkent has some 10 million inhabitants, divided between Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.

The region has inherited a sub-standard transportation network, the result of both natural conditions and long-term neglect. Often the best connections between two parts of one state are through another. The road and rail links were built by Tsarist or Soviet engineers who never imagined that internal administrative boundaries would become international ones. Rail and air links aimed to tie the region to Moscow, not to encourage regional integration or links to neighboring areas outside the empire. The prospects of oil and gas development and foreign assistance have decisively improved direct air links between the capital cities of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan and major outside capitals.

Historically, the states of Central Asia have been shaped in succession by Islam, the great Mongol invasion, isolation, Russian imperialism, and Sovietization. The great Silk Road cities, such as Bukhara and Samarkand, were integral parts of the Islamic world well before the coming of the Mongols in the 13th century. Outside the great urban centers, nomads wandered the steppe and desert regions. The Portuguese discovery of the sea route from Europe to China led to the decline of the Silk Road and the region’s isolation and decline. Russian imperial encroachment into the northern Kazakh steppes already in the 18th century and into the rest of the region in the 19th brought new political and economic subordination.

The reconquest of the region by the Soviets brought increased development, as well as new administrative divisions outlining the Union Republics that are now the independent states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The separate Soviet administrative districts provided not only the boundaries for the new states but a nascent and subordinate administrative apparatus that turned out to be a key supporting structure for independence. The Union Republics of the Soviet era also gave an organizational, cultural, and political boost to the Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks.

Of course, the Soviet purpose was not to create new nations but to manage a multinational empire. Moscow wanted to deepen divisions in this Islamic region. Along with giving titular nationalities a boost in their respective republics, Soviet authorities drew borders designed to leave significant minority populations stranded in each republic. They divided in order to rule. Thus, at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union, nearly 30 percent of the residents of Uzbekistan were not ethnic Uzbeks, while ethnic Uzbeks comprised a quarter of the population of Tajikistan. With the large concentration of Russians in Northern Kazakhstan—over 6 million—the Russian and Kazakh populations were nearly equal, though Kazakhstan claims that ethnic Kazakhs are now an absolute majority. The Ferghana Valley is an especially complex area. It was divided between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, with each portion containing significant numbers of at least one other nationality (e.g., 14 percent of the population in the Kyrgyz portion of the Ferghana are Uzbeks, rising to 28 percent in the urban center of Osh). Riots between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in Osh over housing in 1990 led to hundreds of deaths. These riots provided for many observers the model of what could—and for some, almost surely would—go wrong in these new states.

The potential significance of this patchwork ethnic distribution extends beyond the new Central Asia into neighboring states. There are large numbers of Uzbeks and Tajiks and Turkmen in Afghanistan and an important presence of Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in China. (There are also more Azeris in Iran than in Azerbaijan.) The Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, and Uzbeks (and Azeris) are Turkic peoples; the Tajiks speak an Indo-European language related to Farsi spoken in Iran.

Islam is a major factor in the mix. Central Asian states are part of a world Islamic civilization, though in the past these links have been weakened, suppressed, and managed by Moscow. Trilateral countries, Russia, and China are of course concerned with radical Islamic movements which might arise in one or more Central Asian states. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, a fundamentalist regime in Central Asia would become a source of drugs, terrorism, and regional instability. But the fear of Islamic radicalism should not obscure the central importance of Islamic culture to the stabilizing of these countries. The growth of civil society will ultimately depend on the emergence and flourishing of mainstream and moderate Islamic forces, which Trilateral states should support and encourage.

The lens of basic economic and social indicators gives a picture of considerable distress in what were already the poorest areas of the old Soviet Union. Output held up better in Uzbekistan than in any other country. Tajikistan, suffering through civil war, had the sharpest fall to 1997, to 32 percent of the 1991 level. Life expectancy has fallen during the 1990s in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Infant mortality has risen in Kazakhstan. The number of physicians per 100,000 has dropped in all of the countries but Turkmenistan, dropping by nearly 20 percent in war-torn Tajikistan. Nearly universal literacy rates are falling, especially in the region’s rural areas, as schools close or receive inadequate government support. Basic social infrastructure, from hospitals to schools and universities are coming under increasing stress. These strains in the economic and social fabric are a potential source for failed states in the coming decade.

Independence has brought profound changes to trade patterns, most markedly a relative decline of trade with Russia. The biggest beneficiaries, though, have not been other Central Asian states but outside trading partners, including Trilateral states and China. As might be expected, foreign direct investment has been low, especially outside the energy sector.

In the past decade, an increasing number of analysts inside and outside the region have ceased to question whether the new states of Central Asia will survive. Instead, these analysts assume their persistence and turn instead to the pressing question of what kind of states they will be. The most troubling answer is that these will be weak states, which under stress could become failing ones. Tajikistan has been on the edge of this abyss, as has Georgia across the Caspian. Afghanistan is already the regional model for such a negative outcome. The great hope or fear of the early and mid-1990s that a resurgent Russia would swallow these states has given way to the realization that no state in or outside the region is in the position to manage a serious and sustained crisis there.

The characteristics of weak states are ineffective institutions, authoritarian regimes, and corruption. In the region, only Kyrgyzstan can be called truly committed to democratic institutions and pluralism. Though not without problems of internal corruption, crime, and weak social services, Kyrgyzstan has managed to create the only state in the region where basic laws are fair and relatively transparent, discussion is free, and economic risk predictable. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan are dominated by strong and authoritarian-minded presidents; though Turkmenistan is a full-fledged police state and Kazakhstan is not, with Uzbekistan in between. Soviet-style elections are in fashion here and across the Caspian in Azerbaijan. Strong rulers warn of Islamic fundamentalism and prefer order to human rights. The leadership defends its preferences as the key to economic and social recovery, yet a strong hand at the top has so far not brought prosperity or stemmed the decline in basic social services. Corruption is eating away at the heart of the ruling elite, making the state appear strong in police functions but nearly invisible as a provider of basic social services. An additional source of instability is the fact that these regimes are over-personalized. They will in fact be sorely tested as the great leaders—some in frail health and in their seventies-pass from the scene and succession struggles emerge.

Trilateral policymakers need to remember that weak states, economies, and societies are breeding grounds for ethnic and religious conflict, nationalism and Islamic radicalism, drug trafficking, and a wide variety of social ills. Moreover, it is vital to remember that internal weakness and decay in one or more states of the region now arises in the context of the breakdown of the region’s former isolation. Though none of these states is next door to Trilateral countries, problems there will simply be more difficult to contain. They will spill over into Russia, China, and other adjacent states of importance, ultimately posing challenges to Trilateral interests as well.

2. Regional Powers: The Changing Eurasian Context
Eurasia is in the midst of a strategic transformation, and the new Central Asia is part of it. Moscow, the once powerful center of Eurasia, has become weak and distracted by its internal challenges; new states like those in Central Asia have emerged; and major states of the Eurasian rim, such as China and India, exhibit a dynamism now absent from the heartland’s old center. For decades, Moscow exerted continuous pressure of one sort or another on the outer rim, but it now appears that the pattern has changed. A more dynamic rim has begun to influence the states at the center.

President Putin has, of course, radically altered the image and substance of Russian leadership. Yet this new dynamism has yet to transform the economic, political, and military foundations of power that will ultimately determine whether Russia has a strong hand to play in the region. Putin has to date played a more skillful hand in the region, recognizing the destructive results for Russian influence of the combination of old-fashioned imperial demands and new-fangled Russian weakness. Yet, even with Putin, Russia remains a declining power in the region and is widely seen as such by the leaders of the region.

The remarkable “reversal of polarity” in Eurasia driven by Russia’s decline from the role of regional hegemon is the new context for Trilateral engagement. New patterns of diplomatic interaction have arisen. Economic dynamism in China, India, and elsewhere in Asia is shifting patterns of energy consumption and creating new trade links. The proliferation of advanced military technology, particularly ballistic and cruise missiles and weapons of mass destruction, is creating a new military context in Eurasia, especially in the Persian Gulf and in South and East Asia.

In Central Asia these trends are less dramatic but present nonetheless. The states of the region have small populations and have suffered a decade of slow growth or outright economic decline. Their militaries are modest; Soviet hand-me-down equipment predominates. Only Uzbekistan has made a serious attempt to create even modest projection capability. But the Central Asian states are finally actors in their own right. They have potentially conflicting interests in their own region. Long-term Uzbek-Kazakh rivalry, for example, is a major and potentially unsettling dynamic within Central Asia. Central Asian states are influenced by neighboring lands and see their own interests engaged there. They have all fashioned “multi-vectored” foreign policies—the term is a Russian one—which seek to develop new ties with Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, New Dehli, and the Trilateral countries. Their very vulnerability inclines them to broaden their circle of friends and partners. Moreover, they cannot pursue their newly defined national interests on their own. They need the cooperation of others inside and outside the region, creating potential sources of competition and rivalry within Central Asia and outside it.

Central Asia borders some of the most important states in the new Eurasia: a weakened Russia, an emerging China, and a changing Iran. Turkey and the countries of a nuclear South Asia are, in the geopolitical sense, nearby. There is a Central Asian dimension in the strategic thinking of these neighboring states, one frequently neglected in Trilateral analysis. Major sources of conflict, such as Afghanistan or the various conflicts in the Caucasus, influence the region. Every Central Asia leader saw chaos in Tajikistan as a continuation of the struggle in Afghanistan, and thus as a potential source of instability for the rest of Central Asia. Prospects for economic gain, the fear of instability, and the emerging competition among neighbors draw outside actors to Central Asia. Even as the players and stakes of the game mutliply, the rules are far from clear and the local and regional institutions to manage this growing interaction and competition are less developed. Assumptions about the interests of other parties are untested, and the threshold for the use of force is presumed low, much lower at any rate than in Europe or East Asia.

In this context, it is important to understand the interests and perceptions of the key outside actors, particularly Russia, China, and Iran. Russia has been since Tsarist times the dominating force in Central Asia. It is the power that has had to adjust the most to the independence of the region’s states, for that very independence is a sign of declining influence. Throughout much of the 1990s, Russia sought to stem its loss of influence there through the creation of an integrated political, economic, and security community the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Central Asian states have been among the most enthusiastic in supporting the CIS, especially in the beginning. In 1994 President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan in fact floated his own version of a Euro-Asian Union.

Russia has also been involved from the very beginning of the post-Soviet period in armed conflicts in and around the region. It now maintains stationed military forces only in Tajikistan, though it has a series of bilateral agreements with other states that give it access to strategic sites and transit rights, and that establish a range of cooperative programs with regional militaries and border guards. Yet it is obvious that Russia’s declining military capability, its distractions in Chechnya, and local interests in maintaining control over key security institutions have created in the past several years an accelerating decline of Russia’s military presence and influence in the region. That decline includes the collapse of the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty, with Uzbekistan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan formally withdrawing from what was already an admittedly moribund collective security regime. Russian border guards are being phased out in Kyrgyzstan. Russia’s forces—regular military and border guards—in Tajikistan have become largely indigenized at the lower ranks, with ethnic Tajiks flocking to Russian service for the better pay and provisions ethnic Russians want no part of.

Russia's economic influence in the region remains important, chiefly because of Soviet-era connections among Russian and local elites and the continued importance of local Russians in various sectors of the economy. China has become in several states a leading supplier of consumer goods. Non-Russian energy and mining companies, including from China, dominate the big projects in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. Attempts to create CIS or special free trade and customs zones have not stemmed the shift away from trade with Russia or other CIS partners toward the outside world.

Beyond the practical issues of security and economics, Russia’s self-definition is in some sense tied to the role it carves out in the former Soviet Union in general and in Central Asia in particular. Old imperial attitudes and temptations remain in some quarters of the Russian foreign policy community. Even if President Putin embraces a more realistic and modernized definition of Russian interests, freeing Russia from the trap of seeing each and every development in the region as potentially a matter of vital interests, Russia can never be indifferent to developments there. Russia’s own security and internal development would still be influenced by the fate of its neighbors, particularly if that fate included state collapse, ethnic violence, and regional conflicts that could spill over into Russia itself. Russia is thus a key continuing player in the region, though no longer in the driver’s seat.

Russia’s declining fortunes affect China. In the near term, China would like to see Russia remain a guarantor of stability in Central Asia, even as Moscow cedes its position in the local economies to China. However, in the long run, China wants to establish its own levers of influence in the region. Several key elements of the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership focus on Central Asia, including agreements with three Central Asia countries on transparency and demilitarization along the old Sino-Soviet border there. Russia, China, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan have created a regular summit meeting of the five state leaders (in which the President of Uzbekistan participated as an observer in 2000).

China has become a major trading partner for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. However, Beijing’s strategic interests in the region arise from its own concern for stability in Xinjiang, a region with a large Muslim minority population. Beijing does not want to see weak states in Central Asia become havens for its own Muslim separatists or to have instability in Central Asia spill over into northwest China. It wants to see, at least in the short term, Russia continue to provide a security blanket for the new states. However, Chinese strategic analysts see the growing weakness of Russia in Central Asia and know Beijing must be prepared to act if chaos emerges there.

The shifting fortunes of Russia and China in the region are thus a medium- and long-term issue of some importance for stability in Central Asia. Though some Trilateral analysts see Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation as detrimental, at least in Central Asia it is creating a basis for managing what could well be a very uncertain future. Russian-Chinese strategic cooperation might be a building block of regional cooperation. Trilateral countries have an interest in encouraging this kind of cooperation in the region and perhaps broadening it to create a mechanism for increased Trilateral-regional dialogue.

Like China, Iran has been content to date to support Russia’s role as security guarantor—both in Tajikistan and in the Caucasus. Tehran sees a greater near-term danger from unpredictability in the new states and the outright challenge of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan than it does from traditional Russian imperialist ambitions in and around Iran. Islamic militant groups do support like-minded groups inside the former USSR, but Tehran has been very careful to avoid in Central Asia the kind of state-sponsored Islamic radicalism that it pursues in the Middle East.

Iranian and Russian views have overlapped in the dispute over the legal status of the Caspian Sea and its energy resources. Like Russia, Iran sees little it can do about efforts by Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to move ahead with national energy projects in nearby offshore areas. However, also like Russia, Iran sees the importance of becoming a larger player in the energy sector in the area. Iran has negotiated energy swaps with Turkmenistan and supported the opening of rail and other transportation links between the two states. Tehran clearly wants a larger role in energy development in the region, one that could more easily emerge if U.S.-Iranian rapprochement gathers momentum. The coming to power of reform-minded President Khatami and the success of his supporters in recent elections may eventually make possible improvements in U.S.-Iranian relations, something that would certainly give Iran's role in Central Asia a boost.

Turkey, India, and Pakistan each have an increasing presence in one or more states of the region, foreshadowing what will eventually be a much wider pattern of interaction between Central Asia and key states of the Eurasian rimland. Turkey especially got off to a fast start in the region and continues to be the sponsor of the “Turkic Summit,” a yearly gathering of leaders from Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Turkey’s influence on the west side of the Caspian, in Azerbaijan and Georgia, is of unquestioned importance, but it is not as important a player as it would like to be to the east of the Caspian. Early evocations of common Turkic linguistic and cultural bonds were not enough to sustain relationships that required large amounts of trade, assistance, and strategic cooperation. Pakistani strategic analysts s


Sherman W. Garnett, Dean, James Madison College, Michigan State University
Alexander Rahr, Head of the Unit for Russian and CIS Studies of the Körber Foundation and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), Berlin
Koji Watanabe, Executive Advisor, Japan Federation of Economic Organizations (Keidanren), and Senior Fellow, Japan Center for International Exchange, Tokyo

Table of Contents

 I. Introduction

A. The Context for Trilateral Engagement
B. Challenges for Trilateral Countries

II. The United States and the Caspian Basin
Sherman Garnett

A. The Building Blocks of U.S. Policy
B. Challenges to U.S. Policy
C. The Way Ahead

III. Japan and the New Central Asia
Koji Watanabe

A. Introduction
B. Overview
C. Current Political Objectives and Concerns
D. Current Economic Interests and Involvement

IV. Europe in the New Central Asia
Alexander Rahr

A. Europe’s Presence
B. Future Political Strategies: Giving Substance to the Common Foreign and Security Policy
C. A “Stability Plan” for the Region?

V. Conclusions and Recommendations

A. Elements of a Common Approach
B. Addressing Internal Sources of Instability
C. Heading Off Regional Rivalries
D. A Long-Term Energy Strategy
E. Conclusion

  • Topics: Economics, Energy, Trade, Security, Multilateral Cooperation
  • Region:  North America, Europe, Pacific Asia
  • Publisher:  The Trilateral Commission
  • Publication Date:  © 2000
  • ISBN:  0-930503-79-1
  • Pages:  79
  • Price:  $10 US plus shipping and handling
  • Source:  Brookings
  • Click here to order from Brookings
  • Complete Text: Click here to download