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connecting central asia, the south caucasus, and beyond

Connecting Central Asia, The South Caucasus, and Beyond

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The best way to learn is to listen to others.  To this end, the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies of the U.S. National Defense University, in cooperation with the Caspian Policy Center of Washington DC, organized a regional conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, July 10-12:  “Connecting Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Beyond.”  The participants were leading think-tank representatives and academics from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, Turkiye, Turkmenistan, the United States, and Uzbekistan.  Because the two-day conference of presentations and open discussion was under Chatham House rules, no one is identified by name, and their views and comments, summarized below, are paraphrased summaries of the most important points they made on security and policy.  

SECURITY CHALLENGES WITHIN THE REGION

Countries in the region see China as another great-power option but are wary.  While they are grateful to have an option to balance Russia, they want to be certain that they will maintain their sovereignty as they build stronger relations with Beijing.  One Central Asian participant commented that China doesn’t really see the Central Asian states as truly sovereign but, rather, are like orphans waiting to be adopted. On the other hand, Beijing offers aid and projects without making the kinds of political demands that sometimes come from Brussels and Washington.

In Afghanistan, China is feeling out its options with the Taliban.  In general, however, Afghans are cautious because there are currently no other great powers fully present in Afghanistan to balance China.

One Central Asian participant suggested that China currently has the upper hand in the region because Russia is “distracted” by its war against Ukraine:  “To balance this, we need a more consistently visible presence by the West.”

AFGHANISTAN AND THE TALIBAN

The intemperate and chaotic withdrawal by Washington from Afghanistan harmed the image of the United States, in Afghanistan and throughout the region.

Only the Afghan military has fully accepted the rule of the Taliban, whereas among the population in general there is a broad range of views.

One of the current problems is that the Taliban are like a hydra-headed dragon – different heads, meaning different factions, have different views, and each faction is vying for supremacy.  Foreign powers are taking advantage of this.  China, the United States, and India are each cautiously building relations with different Taliban factions.

INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS

 The China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the most significant international organization in Central Asia.  However, some fear that its continuing expansion – most recently adding Saudi Arabia – will turn it into little more than a “presidential talk club.”  One participant noted that to be truly effective in the region, international organizations need to be results-oriented.  So far, few would put the SCO in that category.

The other increasingly significant international organization for Central Asia is the Organization of Turkic States.  Its downside, though, is that it keeps Tajikistan from full membership because Tajikistan, by origin, is a Persian-culture and Persian-language state.

Of long-term interest for Central Asia, the increasing emergence of the five Central Asian states forming their own organization is truly important.  Their fourth presidential summit on July 20-21, 2022, in Cholpan-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, was the first major concrete step toward regional integration.  The Central Asian states will certainly maintain their sovereignty and independence, but increasingly they will harmonize their interests so that “stronger together” will become a concrete reality.

THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE CONFLICT AND ITS IMPLICATIONS

We need to remember that the current world is organized on international law, and that Russia has violated that international law by invading its sovereign neighbor.  If this is not called out and stopped, it opens the doors for other countries to do this, too.  For example, what if the India-China border conflict erupts into a real war?  We need to stay focused on the values of international law.  Without international law, we descend into chaos.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly raised concerns among the population of Central Asia, but that doesn’t mean that Russia is automatically dead in the water in the region.  It’s important to remember that the five Central Asian states, each in its own way, have inherited the strong Russian political tradition of the confluence of oligarchs and intelligence services; that always plays a role in government decision-making.

Further, it’s important to remember that Russia is still strong in Central Asia in the cultural, social, and even historical sense.  The current war might be troubling, but a fair number of people are able to compartmentalize that problem, especially the large number of Central Asian guest workers who need employment in Russia.  And so, to the extent they can, the Central Asian states (except Kazakhstan) are trying to stay neutral in public.  This is not a moral decision; it’s simply pragmatic.

Expansionism has always been part of the Russian mindset and how it sees the world.  Without expansion, Russia feels endangered.  It believes that it must constantly enlarge its strategic depth just to survive.  It’s important to remember that there are some Russian officials who feel that President Putin has been too soft in this war; they believe he should take a much harder line.

EXTERNAL POWERS AND THE GREATER CASPIAN REGION

Overall, the current war in Ukraine has re-opened the doors of the region to the great powers.  The countries in the region want more choices and are recalibrating their options.  The United States is possibly more welcome than it has ever been.  

Most understand that the United States has a presence in each country, but that presence is not nearly as visible to the general public as China’s or Russia’s.  The Russian viewpoint daily blankets the region with print, broadcast, and social media sources, most of which criticize the United States as being dangerously immoral and fundamentally corrupt.  

The only caution for Washington, should it choose to take advantage of the current opportunity in the post-Soviet space, is to work with the countries as they are.  That means, first and foremost, finding areas of convergence and making those convergences widely visible to the general public.  If there are hard messages to pass because of endemic problems in the countries, especially about good governance and respect for human rights, pass those messages mostly behind closed doors.  Please continue to support universal human values, but do so in a way that truly works in the region and leads to results.

If Washington builds on the positives, it will find the doors to the region opening wide.  Its influence, over the long term, will grow significantly.  This is what we want to happen.


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