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Russia Slouches towards Central Asia

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives April 14 in Kazakhstan, on the first leg of a week-long tour of Central Asia that will also take her to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The visit occurs against a backdrop of increasing Russian diplomatic activity in the region in the period since Vladimir Putin's appointment as Acting President by Boris Yeltsin and subsequent election in his own right. This coincidence opens speculation about United States-Russian relations in Central Asia and the directions Central Asian countries themselves will choose to chart their futures.


Questions about the strategic political realignments of the Central Asian nations are being whispered around the region. This should not come as a surprise. Even before Vladimir Putin was elected Russian president, he showed signs of undertaking a more dynamic and active foreign policy towards Central Asia. This trend has since accelerated. On April 8, members of the CIS collective security treaty, signed on 15 May 1992 in Tashkent, met in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe. Vladimir Zemskii, head of the CIS Collective Security Committee, presided over the meeting. In attendance were the security chiefs of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikstan, Russia, Belarus, and Armenia.

The Dushanbe meeting was also attended by representatives from Uzbekistan, which left the pact last May but has since been drawing closer to Russia. Uzbekistan has been the pivot of the United States strategy in Central Asia since the mid-1990s. Yet when Putin met President Islam Karimov in Tashkent towards the end of last December, it was clear that political relations between Uzbekistan and Russia were thawing. Karimov publicly stated that he recognized "Russia's interests in Uzbekistan." The country's mass media have since received directives from the highest level to tone down and limit any anti-Russian propaganda.

The United States has responded to the April 8 meeting in which Russia's Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov signed agreements with his counterparts from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and the participants agreed to continue working to strengthen their cooperation. The United States and Russia have Central Asian regional security concerns in common. These concerns not only focus on militant Islam-inspired terrorists but also the trafficking of narcotics and the smuggling of uranium. Indeed, FBI Director Louis Freeh and CIA chief George Tenet separately visited the region during the first week of April. However, these were only lightning fast trips lasting just long enough to briefly touch base with local counterparts and set up the smallest of field offices.


Putin's focus on Central Asia is qualitatively new in the post-Kozyrev period. Boris Yeltsin's foreign minister Evgenii Primakov's attention in Asia went to traditional Soviet allies such as Iran, India, and China. Under Primakov, a "Eurasianist" strand did enter post-Soviet Russian foreign policy in the mid-1990s. But NATO's intervention in the Balkans and its encroachment into former Soviet bloc countries have greatly strained ties with Russia and exacerbated this "Eurasianist" strand. Russia's turn to focus on Central Asia is in part an expression of its exasperation with what it sees as NATO's intrusions into the South Caucasus.

In Uzbekistan, the perception is that Secretary Albright is visiting the region because of Tashkent's rapprochement with Moscow. After she leaves, President Karimov will meet again with President Putin and, Russia hopes, make a strategic choice in favor of Moscow. Although Russia and Uzbekistan still require Western trade and credits, Russia emphasizes that Uzbekistan needs not only economic assistance but military cooperation as well. Karimov may decide that Russia has more to offer Uzbekistan in terms of actual military and combat support should impoverished insurgents raise the banner of Islam in a struggle against the Uzbekistan government. Whether this will translate into a "strategic" shift is open to interpretation.

It is not yet clear whether a pragmatic organizational basis exists for concrete United States cooperation with Russia on common security threats such as narcotics and smuggling of radioactive materials. On the other hand, the CIS collective security group has already agreed to set up its own coordinating center on such problems in Moscow. For his part, Putin has already targeted Kazakhstan as his highest priority in the region. Almost the day after his election, one of President Nazarbaev's closest advisors, the head of the Kazakhstan National Security Council, Marat Tazhin, visited Moscow and signed a cooperation agreement with his Russian counterpart.


Russia looks southward from the center of the Eurasian landmass and sees a buffer zone appearing as a perilous political near-vacuum, threatening collapse and the influx of chaos. It appears to be a "greater Tajikistan" as it were. Russia is moving to fill the vacuum by consolidating its influence. The current direction of Russian foreign policy continues a Eurasianist trend, balanced by selective engagement with Western diplomacy and international institutions. Russia's moves in the Asia-Pacific region are taking the form of renewed attention to Central Asia rapprochement and the development of limited strategic cooperation with China.

Western hopes for democratization of the Central Asian governments are in tatters. The deepening misery of the Central Asian populations has established a fertile field for dissident doctrine and political opposition, creating a potential security nightmare that the governments themselves would be unable to handle without Russian assistance. Perhaps Putin's rapprochement with Central Asia might have occurred irrespective of NATO's creeping involvement in the South Caucasus. But Secretary Albright's visit to Uzbekistan and President Karimov's response to it may well be a weathervane for the region's near-term strategic future.

Copyright © Robert M. Cutler unless otherwise noted.
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URL:  http://www.robertcutler.org/blog/2000/04/russia_slouches_towards_centra.html
First published in Central Asia - Caucasus Analyst, vol. 2, no. 8 (12 April 2000): 7–8.

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