foreign policy in central asia

Written by Muhammad Abubaker 11:47 am

Foreign Policy in Central Asia: Discontinuing the Soviet Legacy?

In a world motivated by soft power, states steer and adapt their foreign policies according to the evolving nature of global affairs. Central Asian states are no exception to this reality, especially since they are motivated by geostrategic and geoeconomic interests. The shifting world order presents both interests and risks, and hence they must carefully design their foreign policies – and hedge their bets. Image credits: U.S. Department of State | Flickr

Introduction

Central Asian states gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. These states found themselves thrown into a situation of intense pressure, experiencing internal changes and mounting competition for influence over friends and foes in the outside world. These independent states in Central Asia were forced to find formulas to solve their domestic as well as regional problems through foreign policy

They were not prepared to conduct foreign relations, they had no foreign policy experts or resources to do so. The central Asian region was attractive due to its richness in natural resources; it consists of gas, oil reserves, gold, uranium, and cotton. These natural resources increase the interests of global powers, to fulfill their strategic interests in the region and in that way revived imperial aspirations and fueled international rivalries.

If we look at the foreign policy orientations of Central Asia, we can experience both positive and negative diversification. Positive diversification avoids zero-sum game and is inclusive in nature where there is cooperation with external great powers and coordinated policy with regional states for common interests and goals.

Negative diversification revolves around the balance of power that is approximately equal distribution of power to safeguard vital vested interests and believe in a zero-sum game at the expense of a state within the same region. Central Asian states are very active in all sorts of regional state alliances; they are part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

They find themselves locked between three major regional organizations that include EEC, SCO, and Greater Central Asia (GCA).1 The most important organization is the SCO; perception prevails among the political analysts that the SCO is a Russian-Chinese joint initiative to establish their monopoly over the Central Asian region and to block the presence and influence of the West, particularly the United States.

The SCO is not considered a military bloc, but its sole purpose is to combat separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism. The Greater Central Asia is a project that aimed to bring crisis-hit Afghanistan and Central Asian states together for socio-economic development. The GCA project was aimed at counter-terrorism, security assistance, strengthening institutions, and supporting the democratic process.

China and Russia opposed the creation of such an international organization that is led by the US and challenges their interests.2 There is another important thing to be highlighted; all Central Asian states are part of NATO’s partnership for peace program, paving way for the reorientation of foreign policy and security agendas based on western standards.

Foreign Policy of Uzbekistan

When Uzbekistan gained independence back in 1991 after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it did not have experience in conducting foreign relations. It had to look in all directions which is why Uzbekistan’s foreign policy is fluctuating. Islam Karimov, the first President of Uzbekistan, and his pursuit of political stability, economic reforms, and safeguarding of sovereignty provided the basis for cooperation and conflicting relationship with the outside world especially with the global powers and regional states.

In the beginning, Uzbekistan lacked traditions of statehood and hence suffered challenges of ethnic and national identity because the current boundaries of all five Central Asian states were artificially imposed during Stalin’s rule. Uzbekistan like other Central Asian states faced the issue of Soviet legacy, depending on the Soviet distribution network for both goods and transfer purposes.

President Islam Karimov became the driving force behind every aspect of policy formation in independent Uzbekistan. He focused on three-pronged endeavors that revolved around emergence from the shadow of the Russian influence, diversification of relations with the outside world, and establishment of strong military structures to ensure security and defense.  

After independence, an aversion mechanism by Karimov was designed to sustain Russian influence in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan resisted Russian-led Integration efforts within the CIS; its entry into other international structures aimed as a counterweight to the CIS included the Central Asia community, Partnership for Peace with NATO, the economic cooperation council, and most important its participation in GUUAM reflects Islam’s efforts to limit Russian influence.3

Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov strengthened its relations with the US, meeting some success particularly in anti-terrorism efforts, Islamic fundamentalism, and a mutual goal to limit Russian hegemony. Islam Karimov faced a serious challenge in the form of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It emerged from the ashes of Adolat in Namangan and its sole motive was to remove the un-Islamic government of Islam Karimov.

The 1999 blasts in Tashkent and the invasion of IMU in the Batken region of Kyrgyzstan increased the friction among regional states. After the Tashkent bombings, Karimov acted against militants based in Tajikistan.4 The year 2012 was important because Uzbekistan introduced a new phase of its foreign policy. They introduced 4-nos, not allowing the deployment of foreign troops and not allowing mediation of any external power for the resolution of the Central Asian conflict.5

That was a clear shift from multilateralism to bilateralism. Uzbekistan’s foreign policy under new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev saw a more proactive foreign policy. He focused on improving ties with all Central Asian neighbors and deepened relations with international institutions. Shavkat visited Moscow, Beijing, and Washington to deepen Uzbekistan’s ties with all great powers. 

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The newly adopted concept ‘Development strategy for 2017-2021’ focused on national independence and sovereignty and maintaining a balance with other countries.6 The development strategy focused on goals of joining the ranks of developed democratic states and creating security, stability, and a good neighborliness belt around Uzbekistan, among others.

Mirziyoyev’s administration is also promoting regional cooperation for water management. They no longer oppose Rogun dam built in Tajikistan and Kambarata hydroelectric plant in Kyrgyzstan; instead of opposing, they offered to jointly build and share access to its electricity. Simultaneously, they are successfully neutralizing the transnational threats in the form of IMU, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS.7

On the economic front, they sought to expand national exports, attract foreign direct investment, end protectionist policies, focused on importing free market, and working to make the national economy more competitive. Mirziyoyev has continued his rapprochement towards Russia and supported Uzbek-Russia cooperation against the transnational threat from Islamists emanating from Afghanistan.

Russia plays the role of main security partner in Central Asia, while China is considered the most important economic actor. It can be seen that Moscow and Beijing efforts have been directed towards forms of regional cooperation. For China, Central Asia is a key energy source and a geographic corridor at the heart of BRI.

Uzbekistan also desires to obtain preferential Chinese financing through Chinese banks to help improve transportation services and to complete a strategic transport corridor between China, Eurasia, and Europe. Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev has also pursued greater ties with the US, expanding cooperation on fighting terrorism, countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) proliferation, supporting the war in Afghanistan, improving economic ties as well as improving the human rights situation.

Foreign Policy of Turkmenistan

The foreign policy of Turkmenistan is different from the rest of the Central Asian states. Positive Permanent Neutrality (PPN) has been a principle of its foreign policy that remains unchanged. PPN was acknowledged and endorsed by the international community. This concept promises the prospects of Turkmenistan’s own development and helps regional and international actors.

After independence, it focused on national construction and the building of foreign relations so that its national interests can be served. They launched ten years of stability program and connected their internal task and foreign policy with that program. Internal stability was aimed at the fundamental reformation of state structure and economy.

In 1992, Turkmenistan proclaimed Positive Permanent Neutrality in politics for the first time. Later in 1995, at the ECO conference, Turkmenistan accepted all the obligations of permanent positive neutrality. His motive was to have a center in Asia to resolve international problems without any convention. Later, its neutral status was endorsed by the international community; 185 members of the UN unanimously voted for the special status of Turkmenistan in 1995.8

That status was based on international law and was a pledge to peaceful progress. That special status cannot be changed and no one can cancel without the agreement of all UN members. This status guarantees foreign investment that will improve its economy, a greater regard for human rights, and the ability to strengthen stability, security, and prosperity in Turkmenistan.

Russia has long-term interests in Turkmenistan and considers its neutral status as an opportunity to establish a connection between Russia and other states. Russia is controlling the main transportation network from Turkmenistan. The US wanted to connect Turkmenistan with the military of the West under the partnership for peace program. 

Since Article 3 of its constitution is about permanent neutrality focuses on equality of rights, mutual respect, and non-interference in internal affairs of other states, it doesn’t have foreign military bases of the US and Russia.9 Turkmenistan became a member of IMF, World Bank, UN, OIC, and ECO but did not join Eurasian regional organizations.

In 2017, Turkmenistan has given a new foreign policy concept from 2017 to 2023. It pledged that it would cooperate with the UN and follow its principles. It will work with the UN for energy, security, sustainable energy system, and transport corridor to expand its relations with regional and international organizations to develop close and multilateral relations to solve Caspian sea-related issues.

To become a regional transport corridor, it is working on the construction of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Tajikistan railway network, which is supported by China. China also aims to spread that network to Iran. The Turkmenbashi Airport was established to export gas to China. Turkmenistan is not part of CSTO, SCO, and EEU, which gives its government more room to maneuver and allows it to evade international scrutiny of its domestic policies.  

Foreign Policy of Tajikistan

The main objective of Tajikistan’s foreign policy was to maximize its gains for socio-economic development. Tajikistan’s foreign policy is centered on the articulation of national security and stability in the region. During 2002, a new trend was witnessed, the open door policy (multi-vector) based on mutual respect and cooperation with all countries in the world, which is also evident from its participation in multiple forums such as the CIS, CSTO, SCO, OIC, IMF, WB, NATO’s Euro Atlantic council, and Partner for peace program.

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After 9/11, Tajikistan became important for the US foreign policy agenda, but unfortunately, the US failed to make huge investments in the poor economy of Tajikistan. Tajikistan was the first country in Central Asia to offer three military facilities to the US for an offensive against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.10

In 1997, Tajikistan created the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), where it developed the foreign policy aspects of its relations with Russia. Russian PM Viktor visited Tajikistan in 1998 and signed an agreement related to cooperation in foreign affairs, defense, cooperation in terms of economy and the humanitarian sphere. Russia has also played an important role in conflict settlement.11

Tajikistan is the only country where Russia has armed forces. Tajikistan is strategically important for Russia and a reliable partner. Tajikistan is aware of its low prospects for economic cooperation because of the country being in the Russian foreign policy orbit and extensive cooperation militarily.

Tajikistan’s relations with China are based on developing trade and economic relations. They are also collaborating to dismantle terrorist networks like the East Turkistan Liberation Front. With the US, they are contributing in the field of trade and economic development, military collaboration against international terrorism, the education sector, and public health services.

China is investing heavily in Tajikistan, investing around $273 million in 2015 in some important sectors. These foreign policy efforts will help the country to deal with its problem of extremism, the weak economy, reliance on Russia, instability in Afghanistan, water and border issues, and corruption.  

 Foreign Policy of Kazakhstan

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the significance of Kazakhstan increased manifold because it was located at the junction of Asia and Europe. It adopted a multi-vector foreign policy and transitioned from a single-sided orientation towards Russia to the extension of economic, military, and political ties with other countries including the US and China.

Kazakhstan is fearful of the two nuclear states, Russia and China, considering it a threat to its territorial integrity. The other threat is from extremism and transnational terrorism from Tajikistan and Afghanistan and hence the reason behind its rapprochement with the US in the initial years.

The main interests of the US are defined by the common geopolitical significance of the region as Kazakhstan is rich in resources such as coal, oil, gas, and uranium. Kazakhstan considers NATO partnership for peace as a possibility of real integration and guarantees security and interests of the state protection.

After the disintegration of the USSR, Kazakhstan was a poor state and lacked the experience of self-governing. The administrative power was held by the Russian, and indigenous people were left out of the system. The crisis was well managed by President Nursultan Nazar Bayev, who is credited with ensuring Kazakhstan’s national sovereignty.

Currently, it is working on 2030 and 2050 strategies to attain economic goals and to change its status from a developing country to that of a developed.12 Its main goals are to ensure national security and safeguard its sovereignty. Kazakhstan had successfully closed down the Semipalatinsk nuclear testing site. It also destroyed and relocated 1200 active nuclear weapons with the help of Russia, China, the US, and international institutions like IAEA that contributed positively to its international image.

It is part of NATO’s partnership for peace program, individual partnership action plan, and the Euro Atlantic partnership council to help attain its goal of closer and political collaboration. The China National Petroleum Corporation has constructed a gas and oil pipeline that decreases the reliance of Kazakhstan on Russia.

Foreign Policy Of Kyrgyzstan

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Kyrgyzstan experienced structural changes like other Central Asian states. Regional and international environments pushed it towards limited choices. It also struggled to contain demonstrations, bloody clashes, and witnessed two political regime changes.

In the beginning, Kyrgyz foreign policy was very similar to Russia’s, and two bodies, the Ministry of foreign affairs and the international department of Presidential Administration competed for influence. Askar Akayev exercised his personal authority in making decisions related to foreign policy.13

Issues of geopolitics and geoeconomics complicated the pursuit of independent foreign policy, and so it introduced a multi-vector foreign policy. Under Askar, the country issued its own currency, Kyrgyzstani som in 1993, and became a member of WTO in 1998. Politically, it moved towards democratic transformation. Kyrgyzstan is also a member of NATO’s partnership for peace.

In the 1990s, Kyrgyzstan developed relations with the US to receive financial assistance for democratic and radical reforms. It also maintained good ties with Russia because of its Russian-dependent economy. China has great influence in Kyrgyzstan as well and it is the largest non-CIS trade partner.

Competing World Orders

Three different powers, namely China, Russia, and the US, are involved in the region for their geoeconomics and geostrategic interests. There are other smaller powers like Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, and India that are pursuing their vested interests. Primarily, there are five world orders: the Russian Slavic order, the Western Liberal order, the Chinese world order, the Islamic world order, and the Residual Socialist model.

These world orders are competing in the political, economic, and social domains. The issue for the Western liberal order is that it does not have geographical proximity, but the other two great powers Russia and China have the edge with respect to geographical proximity. The Islamic order has both geographical proximity and they are also residing within the Central Asian region.

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After 9/11, NATO forces were stationed in Afghanistan for counter-terrorism operations, and their presence in K2 base, Khanabad base, and Dushanbe base gave the US an opportunity to exert its influence in the region. The analysts termed world orders that prevail in the region as less cooperative because the intensity of conflicts is greater than cooperation among them.

So, we can conclude that there are different dynamics of these world orders. Before independence, the Russian Slavic world order dominated the region in the form of the Soviet Union. After independence, the Slavic order receded from the region because Russia faced several problems; the other world orders like the Chinese and western liberal order tried to fill that gap.

Islamic countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, and Afghanistan tried to exert their influence through the religious link. Turkey had long historical links and other states tried to utilize Islamic connections for influence and to fulfill their goals. The Residual Socialist model is that the Central Asian states are still following the soviet-style political system that is semi authoritative in nature.

In my point of view, Russia continues to dominate the region and its world order is prevailing at the movement. It is collaborating with different world orders and trying to redeem its lost glory. Russia is against the Islamic world order and is collaborating with China through the SCO platform to combat terrorism, extremism, and separatism in the whole region. China is also exerting greater influence through BRI projects and is challenging the monopoly of the American western and Russian-led world orders.


Endnotes

[1] Farkhod Tolipov, “The Foreign Policy orientations of Central Asian States: Positive and Negative Diversification,” Jstor 18, no.1 (January): 26-27. https://src-h.slav.hokudai.ac.jp/coe21/publish/no16_1_ses/02_tolipov.pdf

[2] Ibid., 32.

[3] Leila Kazemi, “Domestic Sources of Uzbekistan’s Foreign Policy, 1991 to the present,” Jstor 56, no.2 (Spring 2003): 207-210. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24357728

[4] Ibid., 211.

[5] Farkhod Tolipov, “Uzbekistan’s new foreign policy concept: no base, no blocks but national interests first,” CAC, August 12, 2012. http://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/12557-analytical-articles-

[6] Richard Weitz, “Uzbekistan’s New Foreign Policy: change and continuity under new leadership,” Silk Road studies 4, no.7 (January 2017):10-12. http://www.silkroadstudies.org/resources/pdf/SilkRoadPapers/1801Weitz.pdf

[7] Davide Cancarini, “Like a bull in China Shop: Uzbekistan Traces a new Foreign Policy Direction,” Istituto Affari Internazionali 6, no.5 (October 2017): 2-3.  https://www.iai.it/en/pubblicazioni/bull-china-shop-uzbekistan-traces-new-foreign-policy-direction

[8] Boris o. Shikhmuradov, “Positive Neutrality as the Basis of the Foreign Policy of Turkmenistan,”.  http://sam.gov.tr/pdf/perceptions/Volume-II/june-august-1997/BORIS-O.-SHIKHMURADOV.pdf

[9] A. Menteshashvili, “Security and Foreign Policy in the Central Asian and Caucasian Republics,”.  https://www.nato.int/acad/fellow/97-99/menteshashvili.pdf

[10] Ibid., 29-34.

[11] Mouzaffar Olimov, “The policy of Russia in Central Asia: a perspective from Tajikistan,” Jstor 7, no.1 (may 2007): 5.

[12] “Foreign policy Concept for 2014-2020 Republic of Kazakhstan,” Jstor 33, no.6 (February 2020): 4-5.

[13] Yasar Sari, “Foreign Policy of Kyrgyzstan under Aksar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev,” http://sam.gov.tr/pdf/perceptions/Volume-XVII/autumn-2012/yasar_sari.pdf

Bibliography

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About the Author(s)

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Muhammad Abubaker has done his bachelor's in international relations from Bahria University, Islamabad. IHis publications include a piece titled "The emergence of a new Cold War mentality and the role of Quad" and a policy paper titled "The US security leadership in Asia-Pacific and China's countermeasures".

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