Southern Watch: Russia's Policy in Central Asia. (Foreign Policies toward the Region)

By Trenin, Dmitri | Journal of International Affairs, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Southern Watch: Russia's Policy in Central Asia. (Foreign Policies toward the Region)


Trenin, Dmitri, Journal of International Affairs


With regard to Central Asia, as well as globally, Russia has dropped all ideological claims. Neither Soviet modernization nor the czarist mission civilisatrice inspire the present ruling elite in Moscow.

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Contemporary Central Asia is a product of the Soviet Union's disintegration. If the USSR had survived the 1990s, the independent nations of Central Asia would not exist. Although Russia's influence in this volatile region remains significant, the strategic foundations on which it was established have shifted. Whereas Moscow once defined its interests in Central Asia in terms of lucrative trade routes and buffer zones with other great powers, and later as a laboratory for Communist and anti-imperialist ideology, new interests have now emerged.

With the end of the Cold War, Russia no longer perceives its most pressing security challenges as emanating from the West. The former East-West rivalry is growing increasingly meaningless as Moscow seeks to boost its standing as a European power. The threats Russia has faced over the last twenty years, from Afghanistan to Tajikistan to Chechnya, has led its leaders to see the North-South axis as a major source of insecurity. Meanwhile, the discovery of abundant oil deposits in the Caspian Region and the construction of pipelines across Russian territory have caused Russia to re-evaluate its economic interests in the region.

In the context of the global war on terrorism, Russia has come to see itself as a shield for the West, bearing the brunt of the militant Islamic threat amassing in Central Asia. The events of 11 September 2001 and the U.S.-directed overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan have underscored the importance of military, diplomatic and intelligence cooperation between Russia and the West in building stability in Central Asia. In the coming years it will be imperative for Russia to play a pivotal role in this project.

A TROUBLED HISTORY

Central Asia was one of the last territorial acquisitions of the old Russian empire, absorbed between 1800 and 1900, and one of the last to break away from the disintegrating Soviet Union. During their imperialist drive of the 19th century, the Russians extended their power to Turkestan, as it was called under Russian rule, pitting them against the British in the famous Great Game. While military commanders fought to win new lands for the czar and diplomats extolled the virtues of Russia's mission civilisatrice, the merchants of Moscow dreamed of their own overland "passage to India." (1) Eventually, after a few skirmishes, the world's two greatest empires, Britain and Russia, reached an accommodation, leaving Afghanistan as a buffer zone between them.

The czars, however, had too little time to integrate Turkestan properly. The Bolsheviks who seized power in 1917 sought to foment a worldwide revolution by appealing to the "toilers of the East" as well as to the "proletarians of the West." To them, Turkestan became another front in the battle against Western imperialism and its local feudal underlings. It was there that the Soviets had their first taste of the Muslim guerilla warfare that would haunt them at the end of the 20th century. Not until the mid-1930s were the last of the basmachi, as these guerillas were called, finally defeated and driven into Afghanistan.

Central Asia was a testing ground for the universality of Communist ideology. Soviet leaders hoped that successful modernization of the region would be a powerful stimulus to galvanize ideological support from the peoples of the Third World. Yet the reality was far different--at least from the 1960s onward--from the picture of successful modernization presented to visiting Asians and Africans. True, there was a degree of Soviet-style modernization, but feudal norms and habits eventually came to coexist with Communist rhetoric. The five Soviet republics carved out of the former Turkestan--Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan--occasionally and pejoratively referred to in Moscow policy slang as the "stans," became a Soviet backwater. …

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