The West Needs Central Asia To Be a Strategic Partner

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Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many international observers naively believed that the 15 newly emerged states would develop democracies and spring markets and Western-style institutions overnight. In some cases, this held true.

Georgia pursued aggressive political and economic reforms, and the Mikheil Saakashvili administration fought hard to eliminate structural corruption. Throughout its journey, Georgia always was supported by the West. Other states in Eurasia, however, were less successful. Many suffered from corruption and squandered their nations’ potential. Kyrgyzstan has writhed in political acrimony, Belarus regressed into a facsimile of Soviet misrule, and Tajikistan is plagued by corruption.

For years, the five Central Asian (C5) states (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) have endeavored to develop modern economic institutions. Graft, power struggles, Russian meddling, and Chinese influence, however, have stymied the C5 from reaching their full potential.

Russia is trying to force Central Asian states into a gas union, and Russian state gas company Gazprom is planning to ship gas to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. This would increase Russia’s energy clout, while China is looking to expand its relationship with Central Asia so that the region becomes a dependent “major energy partner.”

This is a comparatively new development, not a legacy of Soviet rule. Upon independence, post-Soviet leaders, such as the first president of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev, navigated the complex web of hostile forces buffering the region through a multi-vector foreign policy that invited Western influence. The U.S. and Europe assisted in laying the foundation of cooperation in the region by helping Kazakhstan denuclearize, answered local calls for investment especially in Tengiz, Kashagan, and Karachaganak oil fields, and assisted with technical assistance, educational efforts, and civil society training. The state-building vision championed by Nazarbayev, however, was hobbled after U.S. policy in Central Asia became Afghan-centric after Sept. 11.

Unlike the West, Russia and China understand the importance of Central Asia. The region is well-known for its vast natural resources, and Russia and China have sought to exploit them. Recent developments, however, have seen Russia and China’s roles change. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s influence has declined in the region as the West has imposed stiff sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression.

While Nazarbayev managed to maintain good working relations with Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, today, public enthusiasm toward China has declined. Research suggested the “sentiment of Kazakhstanis, Uzbekistanis, and Kyrgyzstanis toward China has followed a recent downward trend.” Elsewhere, Eurasianet reported that China was “somewhat reluctant to assume regional hegemony” in Central Asia while Russia’s influence declined.

Today, the West has an opportunity to help Central Asia strengthen its economic markets and energy security to free itself from the Russo-Sino hold. In essence, the West can re-establish the security architecture that visionary leaders such as Nazarbayev championed—Central Asian cooperation, Western investment, a regional nuclear-free zone, modernization, and nation-building. Otherwise, China may choose to fill Russia’s vacuum.

This opportunity is incredibly timely. Last year, Central Asia was faced with a cold and brutal winter. Kazakhstan struggled to boost its domestic gas supply as water and electricity systems faltered. Uzbekistan is scrambling to revamp its electricity system. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan faced power outages during the recent cold winter. Experts predict the upcoming winter will be yet another difficult period for Central Asia.

Fortunately, the United States and Europe want to be involved as witnessed by the recent U.S.-Central Asian Summit. During the session, President Joe Biden and senior C5 leaders discussed how Central Asia can expand its regional economic connectivity. The group established a new business initiative to complete diplomatic engagements between the Central Asian states and the United States. The U.S. promised to invest in and develop Central Asia’s energy infrastructure. Finally, the United States said it would help Central Asia “expand new energy export routes and reliably supply global markets” by strengthening energy security in the region.

Europe has also sought to strengthen relations with the C5. German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz met with leaders from the C5, while French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, a House of Commons report called on the U.K. to strengthen its relationship with the C5. European Union officials also met with representatives from the C5 in October to discuss how they can “facilitate trade within and beyond the region.”

The West is actively working to engage itself with Central Asia, but it should not forget what was previously neglected. Central Asia has long had pro-Western leaders like Nazarbayev and his successor Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev to engage with, but the C5 leaders have difficult neighbors and border powerful countries. If the West wants its engagement with Central Asia to succeed, then it needs to listen to the local leaders. Central Asia can live up to its potential, but the West must act now.

Source : Newsweek