Is Russia Winning in Central Asia?
Martin C. Spechler and Dina R. Spechler

In keeping with an increasingly assertive stance in Russian foreign policy, especially since 2004, President Putin declared that the Central Asian part of the “near abroad” is a “key national interest.” In light of the independence the five ex-Soviet Central Asian states displayed in their less than supportive reactions to the invasion of Georgia, one might ask whether Russia is succeeding in this former colonial area—as many Western analysts have asserted. Despite Russia’s many ways of exerting influence among these disparate states, Moscow has not done well, even on its own appraisal. 

BACKGROUND: To evaluate Russian success, one must consider the Putin-Medvedev administration’s objectives in the region. These include exclusion of the U.S., NATO, and other potential rivals. In this Russia has had little success. Though the Americans were expelled from the airbase at Karshi-Khanabad in 2005, NATO airmen remain in Uzbekistan.  American business, never expelled, has reasserted its presence there with a General Motors contract. President Karimov’s much acclaimed strategic accord with Russia in 2006 was in fact just a framework agreement. It envisaged cooperation in case of instability but required prior Uzbek approval for any entry of troops.

The Kyrgyz Republic turned down the Shanghai Cooperation Organization recommendation in 2005  to close down the US-NATO airbase at Manas, near Bishkek, and apparently has done so again at the recent summit meeting of that organization at Dushanbe. The NATO base has more than twice the number of personnel as the Russian one at nearby Kant, although reinforcements for the latter have been promised. It is true that Kazakhstan and some of the other Central Asian countries receive deeply discounted equipment from Russia, and that Moscow maintains military forces in the two smallest and weakest states of the region, but all the Central Asian countries participate in NATO’s Partnership for Peace and receive both arms and training from the West, not to mention China.

Another declared Russian objective has been protection from Islamist attacks and entry of drugs into the Russian Federation territory. Islamists from Chechnya are active in and around the Caucasus, and the flow of narcotics to Russia’s millions of addicts continues.  This is one consequence of Russian military involvement in Tajikistan, where drug-related illness is rising fast.

Russia also wishes to obtain an unlimited share of the oil and natural gas from the region at prices permitting profitable resale in Europe. Here the situation is gradually slipping away from Gazprom, even if some pipeline projects are supposed to accommodate all the energy Russians can buy. Turkmenistan continues to sign contracts with all sides for more oil and gas than it can probably produce. Naturally, such competition is forcing Gazprom to offer higher prices for Central Asian natural gas. The price charged has risen to $150 per thousand cubic meters. Following the Russian invasion of Georgia, European governments may well be more eager to step in to build the long-awaited Nabucco gas pipeline from the Caspian to Central Europe to which Azerbaijan is committed.

Export of oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline will also increase significantly with Kazakhstani participation. Russia was not able to block this initiative by Azerbaijan, financed by American and other Western oil companies. Kazakhstan will also send 20 million tons of oil to China, or about one-fifth of its projected output. Even if Russia can extract more energy from Central Asia, increased supplies of either gas or oil benefit consumers everywhere by reducing the market price. Russia has not been able to control either the world oil price or even the price of natural gas, a market where it encounters powerful customers.

IMPLICATIONS: As for trade in consumer or capital goods, Russia is far from reconstituting Soviet exclusivity. The ambitious Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), a project long championed by Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbaev and joined by Uzbekistan in 2006, has registered little practical progress. Besides petro-energy and hydropower, Russia is interested in buying the non-ferrous metals of Central Asia. But what does Russia have in return, besides arms and nuclear plants? Overall, Central Asia is not an important market for Russia. It accounts for just 4% of Russia’s exports, about the same as in the 1990s. Meanwhile, both China and other countries have established themselves in all the Central Asian markets. China has been very successful in Kyrgyzstan, where 62% of its imports in 2007 came from China, as compared with 17% from Russia. China supplied 20% of neighboring Tajikistan’s modest imports, about the same as Russia in 2007. The West has also increased its share.

As for economic assistance, Russia has the money—or did up to the recent financial crisis-but there are many claimants closer to the Kremlin, not least the personal fortunes of the siloviki themselves. Russia reportedly denied the Tajiks assistance during the last winter, but the EU sent €8 million. The EU also promised financing for the Rogun Hydroelectric Power Plant, a project neglected so far by the Russians. Russia has announced energy projects throughout the region, but action is slow. For example, the modernization of the Aqtau-Samarqand oil pipeline is “not progressing very fast,” according to a Kremlin source.   Meanwhile, China’s Export-Import Bank is financing $300 million for the Zeravshan hydropower station in Tajikistan. Other current projects include railroad and road links to China.

With regard to its public diplomacy aimed at creating a positive image, Russia is not escaping blame for atrocities and environmental depredations committed in Central Asia during the Soviet period. President Islam Karimov has recently announced two new buildings to commemorate victims of the Russian “colonial regime.” Here school children and other visitors will view exhibits from Tsarist times and “the Soviet period…when the cruelest repressions took place.” On that site in Tashkent, Soviet secret police executed masses of “enemies of the people” during the 1930s.

Russia’s efforts to win friends in Central Asia are hindered by popular attitudes. It is not too much to assert that Russians lack respect for Central Asians, who are associated in the public mind with terrorism, Islamism, and criminal mafia. The nearly two million Central Asian migrant workers within the Russian Federation are frequently exploited, abused, and cheated with little interference from the authorities. A Federation law of 2007 limits the number of non-Russians in wholesale and retail markets. References in respectable publications to the cultural and historical traditions of Muslim Central Asia or its contributions to Russia are “extremely rare,” according to one observer.

CONCLUSIONS: Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership Russian foreign policy became more ambitious and assertive. This has especially been the case since 2004, when Putin’s hopes for a partnership with the Bush Administration finally came undone owing to the Baltic States’ acceptance into NATO and Western support for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Since, rising revenues from oil and gas have strengthened the apparent consensus among Kremlin policymakers and the public in favor of restoring Russia’s dominant role in the now independent parts of the former Soviet Union. However, Russia is not winning in Central Asia, and according to one Moscow source it lacks a “national strategy” even to succeed in the region. Rather than submitting to some new “great game,” during the last twenty years the Central Asians themselves have learned to encourage competition among all the outsider powers for their rhetorical and other favors.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Martin C. Spechler is Professor of Economics, IUPUI, and faculty affiliate of the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, USA 47408. Dina R. Spechler is Associate Professor of Political Science at Indiana University-Bloomington. Email:, phone: (812) 336-3656. Both are associates of the Russian and East Europe Institute of Indiana University. A longer and fully documented version of this essay may be obtained from the authors.