Central Asia and Russian Relations: Breaking out of the Russian Orbit?

By Swanström, Niklas | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview
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Central Asia and Russian Relations: Breaking out of the Russian Orbit?


Swanström, Niklas, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


The Central Asian states have been dependent on Russia since they gained their independence in 1991, not just in economic and energy terms, but also militarily and politically. In the years after the Central Asian states gained independence, the Russians largely ignored them, reflecting not just the financial realities in Russia at the time but also Russia's lack of interest in its former colonies. Even so, there has always been a large degree of reliance by these countries on Moscow due in large part to the lack of alternatives and the long-established linkages. Russia bounced back into the region under Putin's leadership. However, since 1991 a relative decline in Russian influence had already become clearly visible. Some have even argued that Russian foreign policy effectively pushed the Central Asian states away from the imperial embrace and toward real independence.1 To what degree this is true is open to discussion, but it is apparent that the decline of Russian influence has worked to the advantage of China by increasing its economic leverage in Central Asia and other areas as well.2 Even though the Central Asian states have to some extent broken out of the Russian orbit, their level of dependence on Russia (and, more recently, China) continues to be unhealthy, much to Central Asia's anguish.

This article will examine how the Central Asian states are increasingly breaking out of the orbit of Russia much to the benefit of China. It will also focus on economic relations, particularly the important energy relationships that Russia has been trying to control in an effort to dominate the export of oil and gas to EU, China, and other actors. These energy relationships are predicated on the political and security relationships between Moscow and the regional capitals. Neither China nor Russia has been eager to allow the Central Asian states to diversify their economic relations too much, which is even more accentuated in the political and military spheres. Russia is wary of the Central Asian states deepening their relations with China, and both Russia and China are concerned about these states developing their political, economic, and military relations with the United States and Europe. However, the political elite in Central Asia leans toward Russia as well as China for support in sustaining their nondemocratic regimes that are often criticized in the United States and Europe.

The attempts on the part of the Central Asian states to extend their political and economic relations beyond Russia (and China) have been made more difficult by problems of infrastructure, geographical location, and history, as well as by failures on the part of external actors (including Europe and the United States) to act in Central Asia, despite some serious engagement in Afghanistan from the United States and the European Union. However, the recent competition between China and Russia has created some space for the Central Asian states to decrease one-sided reliance, something seen prominently in energy relations. In effect, despite supposedly strong Sino-Russian relations, the failure of Russia and China to cooperate over a broad range of issues has opened up space for other actors in Central Asia, if there would be an interest to do so. If this is sufficient to allow the Central Asian states to break out of their authoritarian structures is very debatable.

In any discussion of Central Asia, it should be noted that Central Asia as a regional concept is extremely problematic, not least because the Central Asian states do not view each other with a great deal of affection. Rather, these states often define themselves against their neighbors. A cultural and historical animosity, reinforced during Russian occupation, has created problems in Central Asia's intraregional relations today. In military and economic terms, the states differ greatly, with Kazakhstan as the region's economic engine and Uzbekistan as the military strongman.

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