Winter 2021

Central Asia: Between the Elephants

S. Frederick Starr

When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers

Kenyan proverb

Ever since Versailles and the collapse of empires, pundits have sought to come to grips with the fate of small countries in a world of mega-powers and muscular mid-sized states. In recent years Rory Stewart’s engaging The Places in Between helped reignite discussion of this theme. Stewart grounded his study on Afghanistan, but the world today offers a large and variegated collection of smaller polities, all of which are wrestling with many of the same issues. Viewed globally, it is doubtful that any other world region displays as many of the key features of small state/mega-state relations as Central Asia. Even though its countries also present many unique features, Central Asia nonetheless offers rich material for anyone seeking to understand the fate of in between” countries in today’s world.

Five of the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – are distinctive in that they gained (or regained) their sovereignty only in 1991. The sixth, Afghanistan, has the distinction of having existed in recent decades under five very different systems of government. Unlike most such states in other parts of the world, they live cheek-by-jowl with superpowers China and Russia – with rising India far closer than the heartlands of either. Nearby, too, are mid-sized but powerful Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey.

A further distinction, and one of decisive significance, is that all of the six Central Asian countries are landlocked. As are two of the three countries of the region’s near neighbors in the Caucasus: Azerbaijan and Armenia. Eight out of nine of these countries in between” are thus enclosed. This imposes what might be called a distance tariff” on all goods, whether incoming or outgoing. Seizing the opportunity, first Russia and then China moved aggressively to open rail and road routes to their own territories, the goal and effect of which was to monopolize the foreign trade of all Central Asia. Meanwhile, no Central Asian country could export goods or energy directly to Pakistan, India, or all southeast Asia, not to mention Africa and the Americas.

These realities limited these countries’ immediate possibilities and larger prospects. In effect, they allowed Russia and China to dismiss these lands with the back of their hand, which they did by adopting three very negative practices. First, on key issues the major powers turned their backs on the new small states, preferring instead to address key issues pertaining to Central Asian by dealing with other powers.

Two striking examples of this pertain to Afghanistan. Immediately after 9:11, Russia’s President Putin telephoned every one of the Central Asian leaders and warned them not to enter into any agreements with the United States without consulting first with him. In the same spirit the more distant major power, the United States, withdrew abruptly from Afghanistan without announcing its intentions to any of the Central Asian leaders, although it would affect each of them profoundly. Then, only days later, the Pentagon, seeking access to Central Asian airfields, turned not to the Central Asian themselves, with whom they had collaborated for two decades, but to the Kremlin – which was clinging to its bases left in the region.

Registan Square, Uzbekistan
Registan Square, Uzbekistan


A second and equally popular approach was for major powers to practice the ancient tactic of divide and rule.” Russia rushed to draw Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into its Eurasian Economic Union, expecting that by splitting the region it could bring about the enrollment of recalcitrant states. Indeed, except for Japan and Korea, all the major states, east and west, have applied this tactic – sometimes consciously, at other times inadvertently. Whatever its intentions, the United States’ practice of rewarding countries that claim to embrace democracy and human rights, while ignoring others, was effectively a divide and rule” approach.

Yet a third tactical technique employed was to absorb the six Central Asian states into some larger trans-national entity controlled by great powers. This was the purpose of Russia’s initial Commonwealth of Independent States and, equally, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing’s effort to co-opt Central Asia was reflected in the fact that two of the recent operational heads of that organization were from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, NATO created the Central Asia Security Battalion (Centazbat), the Partnership for Peace, and the Central Asia Security Force for Afghanistan. All but the last involved Central Asians.

Nur-Sultan, Capital of Kazakhstan
Nur-Sultan, Capital of Kazakhstan


The in between” countries deftly responded by joining each of these initiatives, and then cautiously indicating the limits of their involvement. They even welcomed the addition to those organizations of like-minded states, whose presence they hoped would dilute the organizer’s intentions. But these were all tactics of response to forces majeures – ways of limiting damage but by no means proportionate to the scale of the dangers they faced.

Did there exist more effective measures the states of Central Asia could take in response to the existential pressures exerted on them? For two decades policies adopted by the newly independent states themselves severely limited nearly all such possibilities.

Over several centuries prior to the Russian conquest, what little sovereignty existed in Central Asia was fragmented into micro-states. These proved utterly incapable of resisting imperial pressures from the Russian north or from British-controlled regions to the south. Russia reorganized the region into five separate republics, carefully assuring that none could aspire to regional leadership. This territorial arrangement continued after 1991, with each of the new sovereignties striving to build and maintain the self-rule that Moscow denied them. To do so they strove to reclaim what they perceived as their national histories, building up ancient heroes like Tamerlane or bards like Manas. Where such uniting figures were not available, as was the case in Turkmenistan, the new ruler simply penned his own compendium of national values, the Ruhnama, and specified the norms of behavior that embodied them.

The Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan
The Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan


This regional fragmentation was accompanied by a general hardening of borders and a sharp decline in intra-regional contact that extended from national leadership to commercial relations, transportation, information, and even sports. The presence of well-armed and powerful Islamist forces in Afghanistan, as well as a rising tide of narcotics, not only furthered this hardening of borders but opened the way for Russia to attempt to reassert its role as champion of regional security that it had only recently lost.

It was clear that the economic cost to the new in between” states was high, but there seemed no way out of post-colonial self-isolation. As early as 1992 Kazakhstan proposed a Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia. It took a full decade before such a conclave was actually held and its impact on Kazakhstan’s immediate neighbours was negligible. Other things constraining intraregional links included Turkmenistan’s 1995 declaration of non-alignment, Afghanistan’s struggles after 2001, and widening economic and social disparities between the other regional players.

Nevertheless, in 1994 Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan – later joined by Tajikistan as an observer – managed to form a Central Asia Economic Union (CAEU). Little noted then or since, this cooperation organization embraced security as well, by fostering contacts among the military of participating countries. So successful was this initiative that the members changed its name to the Central Asia Union.

But success brought Vladimir Putin to their doorstep. When he asked to join as an observer, the Central Asians were in no position to refuse. Several years later, he demanded that Russia be included as a member. Again, the Central Asians could not refuse. In 2004 Putin abolished the Central Asia Union, merging it into his own Eurasia Economic Union, thus destroying the most promising effort by these countries to take charge of their own fate.

History never ends, and at least three very different scenarios have emerged from the confusion.

But not completely. As early as 1992 Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed to free the region of nuclear weapons. Five years later a conference in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, advanced this project. It took a further decade of delicate negotiations for the five countries to reach an agreement. Their 2009 treaty banning the production, acquisition, and deployment of nuclear weapons across all Central Asia was an important landmark in their self-transformation from mere objects of big-power diplomacy and tactics to becoming sovereign subjects, actors capable of defining and defending their own interests.

However, during these years the neighbouring mega-powers were by no means passive. In 2012 China’s incoming leader, Xi Jinping, travelled to Kazakhstan’s capitol, Astana, to announce China’s Silk Road Economic Belt – which became the Belt and Road. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev, having failed with the Central Asian Union and seeking to balance China’s growing influence in the region, joined Putin in planning what became the Eurasian Economic Union. In 2015 both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan joined. Both actions were taken by presidential action, with little or no prior discussion in parliamentary bodies or the press. The in between” states, individually and as a group, were thrown on the defensive.

Neither Russia’s nor China’s initiatives took place in a diplomatic vacuum. In 2002 Japan launched a program of regular consultations with the countries of Central Asia. The European Union followed suit with a program of region-wide consultation. Turkey continued its efforts to engage the Turkic states of Central Asia in its program of pan-Turkic consultation. Only in 2021 did the United States mount a parallel effort with its C5+1” consultations involving all five of the region’s countries. It did so, however, at the prompting of Kazakhstan – not on its own initiative.

Kazakhstan’s demarche manifested a strategy that its foreign minister, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, proposed in a book published in 1996. This outlined a multi-vectored” approach to the big powers – meaning, in effect, balancing relations with external forces. In due course the region’s other states recognized such balance” as the most effective way to preserve their own sovereignty.

Even as they were embracing this simple but effective concept, the countries of Central Asia were achieving for the first time since independence a level of social peace. Afghanistan, too, with the help of the United States and NATO, achieved enough social peace to enable it finally to look to economic development. In the process of this welcome change, all six nations expanded their interactions with the developed world. Such contacts forcefully brought home to them their relative backwardness and the absence, at home and in the region as a whole, of the institutions and practices that are essential for achieving development.

Thus, economic development, rather than mere survival, became their first priority. Far from being simply a way to raise living standards, the governments recognized that without economic progress they would fail as states and place their very sovereignty in jeopardy. Most important was the growing realization that none of these countries could develop in isolation from their neighbours.

As they applied this insight, the Central Asians came face to face with a formidable impediment to the advancement of their new goals: the continuation by Uzbekistan of its go it alone” approach. Until Tashkent opened its borders with its neighbours, regionalism and hence development was impossible. Many Uzbek officials were well aware of this and were quietly plotting a more open future for their country. In 2017 President Islam Karimov himself convened a major region-wide conference in Samarkand at which the five core Central Asian states proclaimed their resolve to strengthen cooperation.

Kazakh Steppe, Kazakhstan
Kazakh Steppe, Kazakhstan


Karimov’s death in 2016, and the rise of former prime minister Shavkat Mirzioyev to the presidency later that year, marked the transformation of both Uzbekistan and the region.

Mirzioyev began opening borders and renewed and expanded contacts in many fields. And he announced his government’s readiness to undertake fundamental reforms in the name of economic development, both in Uzbekistan itself and in the region.

Notwithstanding these bold advances, caution prevailed. Rather than simply charge ahead, the Central Asians brought to the United Nations a resolution that affirmed the UN’s recognition of Central Asia as a distinct world region, with its own needs and interests that the major powers should acknowledge and respect. Faced with a landslide of support, both Russia and China voted in favour. This opened the way for a tide of region-wide consultations, the establishment of a Central Asia Economic Forum, a Central Asia Experts Forum, and a Joint Dialogue of Women Leaders of Central Asian Countries.

How should cooperation among these five in between” countries be further institutionalized, so as to strengthen their individual sovereignties and yet enable them to collaborate effectively?

Several began studying foreign models of regional cooperation, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Nordic Council emerging as the most attractive. In 2019 the Foreign Ministry of Singapore and ASEAN, in collaboration with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Rumsfeld Foundation, organized a study visit to ASEAN headquarters by young leaders from these states.

For two reasons, all five of the former Soviet republics affirmed that in due course Afghanistan should be included in their joint effort. First, all acknowledge their deep historical and cultural ties with Afghanistan and, second, without the ability to transport materials, products, gas, and hydroelectric power to Afghanistan and beyond to India and Southeast Asia, their dreams of development would come to naught.

The abrupt departure of the United States and NATO from Afghanistan in August, 2021, threw all these aspirations and plans into a state of confusion. Dreams of balanced foreign policies were temporarily eclipsed, if not destroyed, leaving the countries naked in the face of neighbouring mega-powers. But history never ends, and at least three very different possible scenarios have emerged from the confusion.

First, the United States will continue to distance itself from the region, and neither the European Union nor India consider it a sufficient priority to serve as a counterweight to China and Russia. The latter then move to dominate the region, fully absorbing its member states into their structures while allowing the region’s small states a shell of institutions. This prospect does not obviate the possibility of future competition between the two major powers.

A second possibility is that some combination of Europe, the United States, Japan and India link arms to provide a new element of balance. This would allow these states quietly and steadily to reassert themselves and once more begin moving carefully towards institutionalizing their mutual relationship. Russia and China might well respond by reverting to some form of divide and conquer” tactics.

At various points, each of them
has itself been a major power

A third possibility is that the five – or six – Central Asian countries begin more actively to reach across the Caspian Sea to forge links with Azerbaijan, with which they share a significant common culture. Such an expansion of the number of linked states could extend also to include Georgia and Armenia, although this would require Georgia to recast its links with America and Europe and for Armenia to do the same with Russia. By expanding their zone of economic and political commonality, the Central Asians would increase their valence and geopolitical weight, individually and collectively. This possibility could enable them to engage more effectively with all external powers, and even to revert to their earlier strategy of balance.

It is instructive to conceive each of these scenarios in terms of centrifugal versus centripetal forces. This Newtonian approach is relevant both to Central Asia and the Caucasus as a whole, and to each of the nine individual states. As in Newtonian astronomy, it also depends on the intensity and nature of gravitational pull generated by the large external powers, especially China, Russia, Europe, and the United States.

At the same time, the actions of the neighbouring mega-powers will be partly shaped by their perception of stability and instability in each of the nine countries. If these mega-powers continue to focus on Central Asia as a region of weak states balanced on the edge of instability, they will be tempted to intervene in ways that dilute the sovereignties of them all. If, on the other hand, their perception of threat diminishes, they may consider the possibility that a more self-governing region of small but sovereign and coordinated states is in their own best interest.

On this basis, one can even imagine the development of relations among their big-power rivals akin to what in the nineteenth century would have been called a concert of major powers, east and west. However, such a relationship can only exist if the major powers conclude that in the region as a whole they have achieved conditions permitting policies of mutual self-restraint.

Does this leave the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus in a condition of helpless dependence? Not necessarily.

On the one hand, the strength and viability of each of these small states is shaped above all by their own domestic policies. If they continue to adopt prudent policies that strengthen their economic and social conditions without threatening major powers they will enhance their chances of success.

On the other hand, much of the progress towards regional coordination that has been achieved to date has been largely of these countries’ own making. These in between” states share a deep history of manoeuvring between large external powers. Indeed, at various points in their long histories, each of them has itself been a major power, exercising hegemony over surrounding territories and interacting successfully with other major powers.

These realities cannot be dismissed merely as the arcana of history. Such skills are part of the heritage of all of the in between” countries whose fate so concerns us today. In the long run, these very local factors, which inhere in their cultures and national psychologies, may well prove of decisive importance as they, and we, grope forward.

S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and author of numerous books on Central Asia, including Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age and Rivals in Reason.