U.S.-Central Asian Security: Balancing Opportunities and Challenges

By Babus, Sylvia; Yaphe, Judith | Strategic Forum, January 1999 | Go to article overview

U.S.-Central Asian Security: Balancing Opportunities and Challenges


Babus, Sylvia, Yaphe, Judith, Strategic Forum


Conclusions

* The newly independent states of Central Asia exhibit relative stability although economic progress is slow. While their greatest security threats are internal--political repression, inequitable distribution of income, ethnic and tribal unrest--their leaders focus instead on external threats such as hostile neighbors and the spill-over of Islamic extremism (especially in Afghanistan).

* The potential wealth anticipated from the region's as yet untapped energy resources may be greater than the actual return from oil and gas deposits. The resources will help diversify world energy supply, but will not replace Persian Gulf oil or gas.

* Neighbors--Russia, Iran, and China--worry about U.S. military intrusion in the region and encirclement by hostile European, Western, or NATO forces. They are also competing for access to and control over pipelines exporting the region's gas and oil.

* The Central Asian states are comfortable with the current U.S. level of engagement in the region, but the growing momentum of economic interests, diplomatic ties, and military relationships risks unintended consequences. Leaders of the Central Asian states may interpret U.S. military and diplomatic initiatives as a commitment to regime survival and preservation of the regional status quo, policy decisions the United States has not yet made.

Central Asia as a Work in Progress

In the seven years since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the five states that comprise the predominantly Muslim states of Central Asia--Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan--have made significant progress in their search for political independence and economic stability. Their independence is established and their northern neighbor is unlikely to be able to reestablish domination. Their regimes are relatively stable if not democratic. Most practice a repressive, autocratic-style of political rule with symbolic elections, few true political parties, and no succession mechanisms. With some variations, these are leader-dominated systems with few opportunities for citizen voices to be heard and little tolerance for opposition or political critics. Most credit their stability to strong control from the top; many of the governing elite cite the civil war that convulsed Tajikistan until last summer as proof that democratic changes and Islamist political activism can destabilize society. They are restructuring their economies, moving hesistantly toward market systems. They export commodities or natural resources, and two of them--Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan--could become very wealthy from oil and gas exports. Their societies have ethnic and religious fault lines but no open conflict at present.

The Five Republics

Each of the five Central Asian states has different political leadership styles, resources, and needs.

Kazakhstan has huge oil reserves. Western oil companies are major investors in the area, but China has small oil field investments and talks about financing an 1,800-mile pipeline to Xinjiang. American companies are the largest commercial actors in the Tengiz fields in western Kazakhstan, as well as in the consortia that are developing undersea Caspian oil (primarily in Azerbaijani territory). A large Russian population lives along the northern border.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor, mountainous country with few resources. It depends on foreign assistance, and is politically more progressive than its neighbors.

Tajikistan, also poor, saw ethnic and political unrest between Islamists and old-line secularists from 1992 through 1996. A Russian military force of 18,000 monitors the 1997 peace agreement.

Turkmenistan hopes to gain wealth from its huge natural gas deposits; but it has no outlets and needs pipelines to exploit its natural gas fields.

Uzbekistan is self-sufficient in gas and oil, and an exporter of cotton and gold. …

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