Dialogue January-March, 2007, Volume 8 No. 3
Central Asia in the New World System
International relations started to change radically towards the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century due to changes in the political, economic and social structures. The new system started to emerge as the bipolar world came to an end. First, we observe the changing world geostrategic balance with the appearance of multi-polar power centres. The power struggle to control the world is growing to the extent that some countries are openly trying to be the dictator. Consequently, countries are resorting to threats that were traditionally not resorted to, like, international terrorism, religious extremism and fundamentalism, drug trafficking, illegal weapon trade, chauvinism and separatism. These threats endanger modern international relations, integration and globalization system, national, regional and international security. Under these conditions to maintain world peace and stability in each territory, including Central Asia, is very important. Hence, the role and significance of each region is growing rapidly. The growing connection among them requires cooperating with each other.
Central Asia comprises of the five newly independent republics—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. “Central Asia is a great geographic territory, which occupies the territory from the Caspian Sea in the west until Chinese Xingjiang Autonomous Region in the east; from Kazakhstan in the north until borders of Pakistan. It lies on 4 million square kilometers in Eurasian plain. Fifty ml. people live in this continent, which borders on Russia, Iran and China”, says A.Jalilov.1 Geographic factors are closely connected to the state policy in geopolitics. Even if a country is favourably situated in its geographic position and has abundant natural resources but it can help development only if these factors are exploited fully. Judging the Central Asian region from its geostrategic condition and natural resources we shall try and see how the economic and political measures have influenced its role and importance in the sphere of international relations.
The importance of Central Asia is that it is situated in the “hub” of geopolitical struggles of many countries and it is a bridge connecting eastern countries with western ones. Connecting Asian and European continents, its significance is recognized for its geopolicy, geoeconomics and geostrategy. A hundred years ago the territory was the main route for the Great Silk Road that connected Europe with China and India. The Great Silk Road is being reorganized again. Many countries are interested in this and the idea will succeed.
The future will see the significant geopolitical role of Central Asia, as the transnational rail, automobile roads and new transport communications in Afghanistan will facilitate this. It will give a chance to the five Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics, and also to China as it continues building the Great Silk Road to China. Transport communications will give an impetus to trade, economic and cultural relations. The future will see Central Asia as a bridge connecting the two geopolitical centres—Asia and Europe.
Central Asian republics are situated in a great geopolitical territory, they have the same infrastructure and economy but they are far from sea communications. That is why Central Asia cannot be compared with other countries, i.e. it is a continental territory. Europe, Asian-Pacific continent, South Asia and the Mediterranean countries are coastal countries; this factor gives them an edge, which facilitates trade and hence the development of its economy.
One of the geostrategic problems for Central Asian republics is their continental position. This geopolitical situation causes certain problems for the countries in dealing with their foreign policy. But it can be used favourably for economic integration, which would resolve the problem. This continental integration would help to maintain peace and security in Central Asia.
Central Asia is a unique territory not only from the geopolitical point of view, but also from the geoeconomic one. The land-locked position of Central Asia is compensated by the existence of rich natural resources2. The riches of Central Asia, for example oil and gas reserves attract many foreign countries. Explored oil reserve is equal to 15-31 bin barrels or 2.7 per cent of world reserve; natural gas reserve is 230-360 trillion cubic feet or 7 per cent of world reserve. Comparison brings out its real significance: Near East oil reserve consists of 55 per cent and South American reserve 8 per cent of all world oil reserves. According to some geologists, who are researching on this, state that Central Asian and Caspian territories have not been explored completely.3 The exploration of more hydrocarbon reserves is expected in the near future. These five republics are working in cooperation with many foreign countries to explore the above-mentioned reserves.
Central Asian republics are trying to solve the problems and obstacles connected with the exploration of oil and gas reserves, mining and exporting. Hence, we see the significance of cooperation and integration in the case of continental countries; it is a requirement of the present day.
The role and importance of Central Asian region in modern international relations is defined by the factors shown above. Having gained independence the challenge before the nations is their economic development. Socio-political, socio-economic and spiritual changes stimulate the countries to develop. But each republic of Central Asia is of paramount concern to many countries of the world. Their strategic position attracts Russia, China, Iran and Turkey. The US, European countries and Japan are interested in the economic potential of the region.
As a result, political games around the region have begun, which have caused many problems for these countries. The power resources of Central Asian and Caspian countries have given rise to geopolitical questions that should be solved mutually. It is very important for the world strategic powers whether the oil and gas pipelines pass through this or that country. These are the reasons for fierce competition among the leading world countries, leading to new contradictions, and threats to peace and security in the continent. Central Asia is a part of such region where lie the interests of world geostrategic powers. Some external powers are trying to destabilize the Central Asia.
This situation demands that Central Asian countries collectively secure peace in the region. Central Asia is an area of potential conflicts. There are destabilizing factors both inside and outside the region. There are ethno-political, economic conflicts and some social, demographic and ecological problems that are waiting to be resolved. Besides international terrorism and religious extremism, drug trafficking is on the increase too. The collapse of bipolar world security has changed the essence of security system; it is now connected with globalization and integration, which determines international relations. As globalization of international relations and interdependence of the countries have increased, problems of any nature be it political, social or economic, all lead to bankruptcy. Hence, politically and socially the countries become unstable.
Under the new international security system, countries are unable to resolve their problems alone or by resorting to traditional methods. The current problems in Central Asia, of course, affect the other countries. Adequate solution is required to solve these problems on a timely basis. To maintain peace in the world all countries should unitedly fight against the threats that are facing the Central Asian countries.
The continental problems are doubtlessly a threat to the common security of the world. The destabilizing factors can be divided into internal and external factors. The internal factors consist of:
l Problems connected with spiritual growth and ideological processes;
l Poverty and unemployment among certain sections of the population generally associated with the transition period. There is outgrowth of radical aggressive ideas very often, which if not controlled keeps the situation deteriorating;
l Inability to prevent the growth of separatism closely connected with terrorism and extremism.
l Internal disagreement of the continental countries leads to political destabilization
The external factors, which are a threat to security and peace, and spread of international terrorism and religious extremism, are the following:
l The interests of some external powers to destabilize Central Asia by weakening the local government and establish their long-term ideology, control the geopolitical situation and the rich power resources;
l Countries have problems that border areas, such as Afghanistan, North Caucasus of Russia and Kashmir. Because of religious extremism, international terrorism and drug traffic there is spillover, for example, citizens war in Tajikistan, events in Kyrgyzstan and Andijan;
l Problems of pure drinking water are growing in the internal border countries.
To trace the origin of these problems, the external policy of Central Asian countries in their post-independence period is analysed. Three interrelated tendencies can be seen in the transition period of Central Asian countries: disintegration, reintegration and integration.
Disintegration occurred after the collapse of the USSR while they were still under the influence of centre-oriented factors. The countries, during 1991-96, stepped into the period of market transition. This process brought disintegration and not integration. The explanation of it can be in the trade competition of raw materials and products both in the external and internal markets. They also competed to improve their image in order to receive favourable foreign credits and investments. Aid came from large financial organizations. This rivalry among the countries, which were closely interrelated, led to decreased production output. Along with this came the problems of unemployment and decreasing living standards. External debts of some countries grew fast (for example, according to 1999 data Kyrgyzstan’s external debt was US $ 1000 per capita). Threats from the nearby countries rocked them while their own external policy was still in its formative, better still infancy, stage and a single security system had not been established yet. These factors brought destabilization in the continent and became effective ‘weapons’ for the great powers.
Reintegration process occurred in its second stage that lasted from 1996 to 2001. The nations tried to rehabilitate by establishing economic links with the outside world. After a decade of cooperation the external policies started to emerge. Cooperation required time. To keep a strategic balance, security and peace, and mutual solution of problems became the leading task for the Central Asian countries. It was possibly connected to the 9/11 event in the US and the beginning of antiterrorist campaign in Afghanistan. Peace in Afghanistan has heralded a new era for Central Asia. Today the legal basis for integration and its development has become imperative. Some examples are: establishment of Central Asian Cooperation Organization, Central Asian Bank and the Aral Sea International Fund, and no customs restrictions.
Continental integration cannot grow in conditions of autarchy. Assistance of political help, multi-stage finance, technological know-how, etc., from the developed countries and international organizations is a prerequisite. Purposeful allotment of aids by the UN, IMF, World Bank, and European Institutions are considered to be essential Or else social destabilization in Central Asia will grow. First of all, it should be of major concern to its neighbouring countries, such as China, Russia, and Islamic Conference Organization.
Many foreign experts are pessimistic about the political, economic and national integration possibilities of these countries. Z. Bzhezinsky, an American politician evaluates the continent as ‘Balkans of Euro Asia’. In the ‘Great chess-board’ he expresses that ‘the continent is not only powerless but also internally unstable and is characterized by its usual destabilization. Each country of the continent has serious internal problems. They all have border or ethnic territory problems. Some of them face territorial, ethnic and religious disorders.’4
Andiland and N. Platt in their book Empire drawings write that Central Asian republics should work out their external policy and develop economic, ethnic and geopolitical factors with other countries. They conclude that these republics cannot solve the problems mentioned above.
The citizens’ war in Tajikistan, events in Kyrgyzstan, Tashkent and Andijan proved these prognoses. Despite these events the countries have managed to protect their sovereignty from the internal and external threats during the last fourteen years of independence. They have the potential to stabilize the situation. Uzbekistan, through the presidential elections in 2000 and the referendum in 2002 demonstrated its existing stable situation. Despite 16 February 1999, Tashkent (2004) and Andijan (2005) events, the republic of Uzbekistan showed its capability to stabilize the situation, and could grow its defence potential and also introduce economic reforms.
The question of peace and security are the real challenges in the geopolitical territory of Central Asia because global security emanates at the continental level. Despite the peace in Afghanistan and Tajikistan there are still certain contradictions in the continent.
Unfortunately, the development process of Central Asian republics coincided with the appearance of unstable zones in their neighbourhood, which sent tremors of global threats locally. In addition to the geostrategic interests of the neighbouring countries the powerful countries are also interested, which sometimes leads to a conflict of interest. These controversies favour some powers to keep their influence, protect themselves and tilt the situation in their own favour.
Being aware of the serious threats and responsibilities of the present period, the Central Asian countries should cooperate to maintain continental and national security and peace. It is, of course, connected with the formation and development of the integration process among the countries. To achieve this objective in a new historical situation is certainly not an easy task.
The future of economic stabilization in the continent depends to a large extent on their economic relations with Russia. This process was rather slow during the earlier years of independence; now it is accelerating. There are similarities in their economic and ethno demographic sphere of the countries with Russia. With Russia, Kazakhstan tries to ascertain its role as a strategic bridge between the East and the West. Turkmenistan tries to get the status of ‘guarantee’ and ‘strategic partner’ in the sphere of security. Kyrgyzstan is striving to attain special ‘democratic’ relations with Russia. Dushanbe is strengthening its economic-social role in the struggle under the protection of Russia. Today, Uzbekistan has joint interests with Russia to fight against international terrorism. Russia becomes the leading partner in the political life of Central Asia. The continuity and success of the process depends on the cooperation of the countries under equal and mutual interests.
The growing political participation of Russia in Central Asia helps the region to integrate and cooperate in the economic sphere. Besides helping the development it also helps maintain the strategic balance. Because of their similarities they can cooperate on a large scale. They have a common history, language, traditions, religion and a comparatively same level of economic development.
Resolving the current threats, internal and external, can help the geopolitical stability. This would be a great contribution towards the global security. The relations are improving gradually but surely. Creating a nuclear-free zone in Central Asia becomes a guarantee to mutual cooperation of the countries in the region to keep peace and security. Central Asian Cooperation Organization is a step in that direction. A single zone, which keeps international legal norms is being organized here and thereby the community will be able to withstand any threat.
The external political realities cannot express the internal situation of Central Asian countries. They are sitting on a ‘weak balance’, which can be disturbed easily by any factor. For example, the struggle for the privatization of state property by different social strata may serve as one of the destabilizing factor. This embittering struggle is not only fuelled by economic factors but also to get political domination. To control the competitive interests of different parties, clans and some other powerful groups the countries sometimes have to resort to peculiar policies. If it fails the internal political situation may collapse. The war in Tajikistan was the bitter result of disagreement among different clans and cooperative groups and their leaders.
The situation becomes more complicated in Central Asia due to the absence of a mechanism to resolve the differences and the delicate relations that are very new. The collective security system has not been worked out completely and is under threats.
Terrorism is like a monster that gripped the Central Asian countries before they could work on the main reforms that are required to rework both, internal and external, policies of the countries. In such a period, integration is necessary for the security, peace and development of the countries. If they fail to cooperate and stand united they will find it difficult to resist the pressure of the ‘interests’ of the world power centres, and development will certainly slow down.
The international political analysts comprehend the role and the place of Central Asia. There is much for them to learn from the external powers. The sudden appearance of new independent states and their economic strengthening not only brought new possibilities but also was the reason for new threats. Several analysts have harped on the ‘big game’ around the continent that is continuing.5 The results are unpredictable. The contradictions are not only due to ideological reasons but also economic reasons. Many examples can be given of the resource and market struggles in Central Asia. This theory is accepted not only by American analysts but in the Russian political circles too. A new outlook is necessary. The situation connected with the events in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Andijan is a part of the beginning of this ‘big game’.
The interests of large influential corporations run into conflicts with each other. Sometimes this struggle can be economic and other times political. To solve these problems is not only in the interest of the Central Asian countries but also, in a broad sense, concerns the CIS countries, Russia and China. This process, of course, has enormous difficulties and challenges.
Each country of this region should participate in this process according to its own potential, on the one hand. On the other, the need for international security requires the united effort of all countries. Cooperation is necessary. The internal and external policy of each country plays a vital role. The countries are basing their policies taking into account their national interests. National interests are no doubt of paramount importance but the countries should take into consideration the external factors too.
1. Jalilov, A.T., The Geography of Central Asia: The system of attitudes, analysis and perspectives, 2003 ¹ 1, pp. 31-35.
2. Central Asian Integration: Problems and Perspectives // Perspective, 1993 ¹1, p.6.
3. Jaffe E, Printing out the Richness: Power grids and the future of Central Asia and Caucasus // Central Asia 2010. Perspectives of Human Development, Development Program of the UN, p.29.
4. Z. Brzezinski, Great Chess-Board, M. 1998, p. 151.
5. V. Parmanov, On the Analysis of the Role of the US in Geopolitical Situation in Central Asia, Politology in Uzbekistan. T. Shark. 2002. p.156.