Central Asia and the wider world: splendid isolation or nascent receptivity?

Fri 24 Oct 2014

Central Asia and the wider world: splendid isolation or nascent receptivity?
While the whole world is looking at the conflict in Ukraine, another former Soviet space  - Central Asia – remains underexposed. The five Central Asian nations – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have traditionally been relatively independent, isolationist countries with repressive regimes led by authoritarian presidents. The geostrategic location of Central Asia is key, and coupled with the region’s immense hydrocarbon reserves means that it continues to draw considerable interest from external actors. In this increasingly globalised and interconnected world, can the Central Asian states afford to maintain their policies of splendid isolation or is it inevitable that they (involuntarily) become more receptive to the outside world?  
Relations with Russia

The “great power balance sheet” in Central Asia places the Russian Federation as the most prominent external power in the region, in terms of its high-level political relationships, its security cooperation in the region and its wide range of investment projects. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitious Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) project aims to further tie the Central Asian nations to Moscow. The EEU builds on the existing customs union linking Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan and will begin functioning as of January 1, 2015. Besides including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and from 1 January Armenia, Central Asian nations Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have also shown interest. Kyrgyzstan intends to join the EEU as soon as possible, while Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon is currently analysing the Union’s legal documents and does not rule out that his country might join.

Although the Russian Federation’s support and money are generally appreciated by the Central Asian states, the inequality inherent in the relationship has also brought with it a dangerous degree of dependence. For example, Moscow has been sanctioned by the European Union (EU) for its role in intensifying the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In part due to those sanctions, the ruble is down 20 percent against the dollar since the start of the year. The fall accelerated in September as the price of oil – Russia’s main export product – dropped to a four-year low. The feeble ruble has helped push down currencies around the region, sometimes by double-digit figures. In Bishkek, for example, food prices have increased by 20 to 25 percent over the past 12 months.

Furthermore, the Ukraine crisis and the swift de facto Russian annexation of the Crimea has also opened the eyes of many of the Central Asian leaders. Kazakhstan, for example, that also has a substantial Russian minority, fears the Kremlin might also actively start to meddle in its internal affairs, like it is doing in Ukraine at present. Added to this is Putin’s dubious statement regarding the Kazakh statehood. On 29 August of this year he angered the Kazakh people by saying that that “the Kazakhs never had any statehood.” He credited President Nursultan Nazarbaev for creating “a state in a territory that had never had a state before.” Nazarbaev responded by threatening to leave Putin’s EEU project, saying Kazakhstan will not be part of organisations that pose threats to its independence. In sum, the Central Asian nations entertain significant and generally good relations with Moscow, however, these relations are not always friendly nor beneficial. 

Relations with the European Union

Parallel to deepening relations with Russia via the EEU, many Central Asian nations at the same time aim to further anchor their partnerships with the European Union. In 2007, the EU, with the aim of stepping up its commitment to Central Asia, developed a regional strategy called: “[t]he European Union and Central Asia: the New Partnership in Action.” As recently as 9 October, Kazakhstan was the first Central Asian nation to conclude an Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union. According to outgoing EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso, “[t]his agreement will greatly facilitate stronger political, economic and strategic relations as well as the flow of trade, services and investment between Kazakhstan and the EU, and contribute to Kazakhstan's political, rule of law and economic reform, as well as modernisation and prosperity.”

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s relations with Brussels are still governed through the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs). Turkmenistan signed a similar PCA with the Union in 1998, however, the agreement has still not entered into force. Complicating the Central Asian nations’ relations with Brussels is the difference in terms of how they do business. Whereas the EU prefers to establish formal relations based on concrete agreements, the Central Asian regimes traditionally favour personalised relations with European national leaders rather than build ties with the EU. The Turkmen authorities, for example, are more eager to negotiate with European companies, over which they can gain leverage, than to work with EU structures whose goals and modes of operation they do not understand. Another complicating factor is the EU’s human rights agenda which, although not leading in its relations with the Central Asian states, obliges the EU to pay some attention to the issue that is rather unpleasant for most Central Asian leaderships.

Isolation vs. dependence?

Even though the Central Asian nations have to different degrees opened themselves up to most importantly the Russian Federation, the European Union and China (that for example has concluded a highly stable gas deal with Turkmenistan) and received various kinds of benefits from it, moving away from their policies of splendid isolation has also put them at a risk. Deepening relations means increasing mutual dependence, and when you entertain relations with an unpredictable partner, that dependence might end up causing more harm than good. 

Sources: the Guardian, European Forum, Eurasianet.org (1), (2), ISN, Academia.eu, European Commission, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty