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Growing Russian influence in Central Asia

Since 1991, the Russian Federation has always considered Central Asia an area of state interest in terms of strategic and economic linkages underscored by historic connections, proximity and the presence of a large Russian diaspora.

Moscow has always reacted to attempts at changing the existing geopolitical status quo and security alignments. Regional experts and academics share a view that a combination of interests, power and access make Russia the natural choice for exercising influence and underwriting Central Asian regional security. What is significant is that Russia is attempting to address years of neglect due to its preoccupation with its own political and economic turmoil by enhancing regional engagement.

Russian Strategic Objectives in Central Asia

Having lost its superpower status, Russia still remains an important player in world politics. Given the changing contours of Moscow's regional dynamics, accentuated by increasing U.S. and Chinese influence and the creeping engagement of the European Union in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it is obvious that Russia cannot afford to be a bystander to the changing military and strategic balance of power in its backyard.

Following N.A.T.O.'s recent policy announcements of increased engagement in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Moscow leaders such as Konstantin Kosachev, the influential head of the Russian State Duma's Committee for Foreign Affairs, have argued that Russia should use its influence in the region to encourage democracy and show local governments that the Kremlin does not want to re-impose Soviet-style military and economic dominance on the region. Kosachev has stated that Russian clout with the domestic political processes in these countries should be used to promote the development of truly democratic states.

It is important to highlight that, traditionally, Russia has considered the region as a strategic buffer against outside threats; consequently, many strategic interests compel Russia to retain Central Asia within its sphere of influence. Moscow's major objectives and interests could be ascribed as:

•  Help transform the Central Asian Republics (C.A.R.) into politically and economically viable states with friendly policies towards Russia.

•  Strengthen Russia's role in the system of intergovernmental political and economic relations.

•  Extend and further institutionalize integration among the member states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.).

•  Secure Russian economic interests in the region.

•  Maintain Russian hold over regional energy resources, in addition to Caspian Sea oil transportation routes that will be advantageous to Russia.

•  Counter the threat of religious extremism while encouraging the prevention of drug trafficking and arms smuggling.

•  Ensure Central Asia's ecological security, especially concerning environmental disasters in the Aral and Caspian Sea.

•  Protect the rights of Russians living in the region.

Safeguarding Russian economic interests is one of the most important objectives of Moscow's C.A.R. policy. In order to protect these interests, Russia has kept a tight rein on the states it considers most critical, such as Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is the single most important country for Russia, both politically and economically. It is the home of significant ex-Soviet defense/industrial facilities including the Baikonur space launch complex and a nuclear weapons testing facility.

Kazakhstan is the second largest oil producer after Russia in the former Soviet Union. Control over its energy resources and their means of transportation provides Russia tremendous strategic and economic leverage. Similarly, there are large enterprises in Russia that are dependent on cotton imports from Uzbekistan. Overall, there is a great amount of interdependence in the economic sector between Russia and C.A.R.

Russia also has vital interests in the oil and gas complexes of Central Asia. The region possesses enormous reserves, making it important for Moscow to pursue economic advantages while simultaneously fulfilling the strategic role of ensuring Russian control in the sphere of oil and gas production and transportation in its near abroad. In addition, Russia seeks to avoid economic isolation by building new pipelines across its territory. The activities of Russian oil and gas companies in Central Asia are growing in Kazakhstan, where the struggle for control of oil exports has already started. This is true to a lesser degree in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

Russian political analysts tend to look at their country as a status quo power in Central Asia that prefers gradual transformation as a choice between rapid transition to democracy and maintaining stability. They prefer a process of gradual transformation underscored by stability rather than attempts at the imposition of Western-style democratic models alien to these states.

Changing Contours of Russian Engagement

Concerned with the growing American and Chinese influence, and given its strategic interests in the region, Russia has been incrementally enhancing its engagement with the intention of expanding, consolidating and further strengthening its relations with C.A.R. Under President Putin, Russia is aiming to establish a stronger position in the region with emphasis on greater cooperation in the energy and military sectors; this is signified by a series of bilateral and multilateral agreements into which Russia has recently entered.

Following the U.S. denial of aid to President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan due to his government's dismal human rights record, Russia seized the opportunity to formalize economic and military agreements with Uzbekistan that are likely to not only enhance its standing with Uzbekistan but in all of Central Asia. Under the terms of the agreement, the two countries are to develop a wide-ranging security system that encompasses ministries of defense, interior, foreign affairs and security councils. Tackling terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, narcotics trade and organized crime are some of the stated objectives of the partnership.

This has been followed by a breakthrough in relations with Tajikistan. A recent bilateral agreement will create the establishment of a Russian military base, border cooperation wherein Russia will assist Tajikistan in development and performance of its border guard structures, as well as military aid. Furthermore, Russia's Federal Security Service will establish a border operations group to coordinate such partnership and assist Tajikistan in guarding its border. At the signing ceremony in Dushanbe, Putin stressed that a Russian military presence in Tajikistan will guarantee Russian investments and overall stability in the region.

Another prong of Russia's multi-pronged regional engagement strategy has been its formal joining of the Central Asian Cooperation Organization (C.A.C.O.) on October 18, 2004. Set up in 1994 as a purely economic organization, C.A.C.O. is now being transformed into an all-encompassing regional setup with an agenda that includes political, economic and anti-terror issues. This move is increasingly seen as a check of the U.S. and Chinese push into the region.

Similarly, Russia, as mentioned earlier, has extensive economic and political linkages with Kazakhstan, renewing the lease deal of the Baikonur space center for the next fifty years. It is also discussing Kazak gas exports to Europe through Gazprom. Russia has also developed significant military and economic ties with Kyrgyzstan by opening a military base near the city of Kant.

Beyond this economic and military bilateral engagement, Russia is enhancing its hold through the Collective Security Treaty (C.S.T.), now transformed into the Collective Security Treaty Organization (C.S.T.O.), making Russia a dominant player in this arrangement. Russia is also forging close ties with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.) to keep Chinese influence in check. As part of the increasing security interaction, Russia has promised to hold large C.S.T.O. exercises in Tajikistan during the first half of 2005.

On the energy front, despite moves made by the U.S. and China to exercise control over energy routes, Russia still has an edge. Most of the existing Central Asian pipelines pass through Russia. At present, Russia contributes nearly 15 percent of the oil supplied to the U.S. According to Russia’s Minister of Economic Development and Trade German Gref, Russia can start to freely compete with the Arab oil-producing countries to supplement the American market.

Moscow Aims for Stability

Russia's approach in enhancing its influence and engagement with C.A.R. is centered around fundamental premises. Attempts at territorial domination of erstwhile C.I.S. states no longer play a significant role in Russian strategy. Moscow's aim appears to be to use the plank of stability as a dominant foreign policy formulation within which Russian national interests are best served by exploitation of economic and military levers of influence. The stability factor is also central in persuading the large, ethnic Russian population to remain in the region rather than to immigrate to the Russian Federation. The ethnic Russian diaspora in Central Asia is looked upon as a key asset in attempts to tie regional economies to Russia's.

Russia, in spite of relatively good relations with the U.S., remains circumspect about the long-term consequences of increasing American presence and influence in the region. It would not like to see the region overly aligning with Western interests. Military and economic linkages, including energy, remain significant to Russian national security interests. This is reflected in the statement of Russian Colonel General Valery Manilov, that, "if Washington does move to set up a permanent military base in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, the new situation will be viewed within the context of an integrated system for formulating the Kremlin's overall political strategy for asserting our national interest." This, however, does not underscore the fact that Russia does not want confrontation with the U.S. It is most likely to work out a mutually acceptable and accommodative agreement.

Interestingly, Russia has of late hardened its approach towards China. In the October 2004 meeting of the S.C.O., it vetoed the idea of a free trade area suggested earlier by China, a move that was endorsed by other members of the organization. It appears that Russia is concerned about Beijing's growing economic and military influence, which is likely to subvert its own interests given China's increasing economic clout.

Yet, another perspective relates to the permanent presence of Russian troops on the Afghan-Tajik border, particularly in the context of the post-presidential election scenario and the run-up to general elections in Afghanistan. Given the relationship between the Northern Alliance and Tajikistan and, to an extent, Russia, this is likely to embolden local Afghan warlords in resisting subservience to the central authority in Kabul. This resistance will increase if warlords see the intended disarmament and reorganization programs as covert attempts at restraining their influence. Growing Pashtun influence and the marginalization of the Northern Alliance in the ruling hierarchy could also induce feelings of insecurity leading to alignment with its traditional supporters, namely Russia and Tajikistan. This is an issue that could become a focus of concern in the medium term.

Conclusion

Safeguarding Russia's economic and security concerns in its sphere of influence has been one of the enduring objectives of the Russian Federation. Its recent forays, in terms of bilateral and multilateral engagement, are to be seen as an attempt at regaining its declining clout and using it as leverage in shaping its regional strategy. This is also important in the interim in preventing Central Asian strategic space from being usurped by powerful extra-regional actors such as China and the United States. Within the above context, Russian developments need to be seen as an attempt to preserve its strategic space in the area that it perceives as its buffer zone. This is being achieved by an incremental enhancement of interstate relationships, using the plank of "stability" rather than "democracy."


Dr. Arun Sahgal

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