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NG Dipkurier
No. 1
January 2003
[translation from RIA Novosti for personal use only]
By Azhdar KURTOV

Not so long ago, Russia thought, naively, that its
influence in Central Asia was as firm as it could ever be,
because it derived from the old Soviet tradition. Russian
bureaucracy focused on gaining rather tangible benefits from
the privatization in new Central Asian states, leaving the
responsibility for conducting foreign policy to the loose and
amorphous structures of the CIS. The payback for such
negligence didn't keep them waiting for too long. As soon as
they sensed the opportunity, the Americans jumped into the
region, rich in natural resources, covering their true intent
with the slogan of the fight against Islamic terrorism. Many
Russian politicians were taken by surprise with such a
development of events, although it had been quite predictable.

For hundreds of years, Central Asia had been an enclave
supported by three geopolitical pillars - China, Islamic Iran
and the Russian Empire, which dictated the foreign policy of
all Central Asian states. During the Soviet times, the borders
of Soviet republics in Central Asia were securely barred by the
"iron curtain". However, with the demise of the Soviet Union,
those republics started to rebuild historically established
foreign connections. Such changes not only created new trade
and humanitarian ties, but also revived the long-gone rivalry
between the newly emerged partners of the former Soviet

China initially decided to transform Central Asia into an
export market for its goods, trying to solve the rest of the
problems through trade. The Chinese used the economic collapse
and the plunge in the well-being of the majority of the
population in the former Soviet republics to achieve their

The Islamic world attempted to play on the religious
feelings of the indigenous population. Numerous emissaries from
Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and UAE tried to convince the
Kazakhs, the Uzbeks, the Turkmen, the Tajiks, and the Kyrgyz
that they finally received an opportunity to join the family of
Muslim nations. Thousands of new mosques were erected with the
financial help of the Islamic world. However, the mosque
builders came accompanied by those who wanted to instill the
word of Allah with weapons.

The arrival of the United States in the region changed the
geometry of the foreign policy completely - a triangle became a
square. This geometrical figure might be shaping the situation
in the region for a long time in the future, unless the USA
starts a war in Iraq in 2003. In that case, Kazakhstan and
Uzbekistan would have to make a major effort to survive the
fall of oil prices worldwide, which will certainly affect the
economies of those countries in a negative way. Turkmenistan,
on the contrary, might benefit from the dividends brought by
the Trans-Afghan oil pipeline project supported by the United
States. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan shouldn't expect anything
positive from such a development. Overall, the region might be
facing a difficult economic situation, which could force the
Central Asian members of the CIS to resort to foreign aid.

Kazakh leadership will most certainly try to stage
large-scale political maneuvers again, including the
announcement that it wants to join NATO. Uzbekistan, lagging
behind with its economic reforms, would most probably appeal to
the IMF and the World Bank. Tashkent, consequently, would
soften its position in relation to the transfer of its
industrial facilities into the hands of foreign investors.

China wouldn't miss the chance to benefit from the
situation, either. Beijing has already reached favorable
agreements with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan settling
border disputes with those countries. The next step would
probably be the increase of pressure on Central Asian countries
in order to force them to give Chinese companies new preferable
business status in the region.

The Islamic world might take some sort of a time-out. Politicians in the Muslim countries are more concerned about
the situation in the Middle East, nowadays. Besides, the
situation in Afghanistan has not become stable, yet.

Judging by the latest developments, Russia realizes that
this year is going to be decisive in terms of re-establishing
its status in the region. Recently, the Russian president and
the head of the Russian Security Council paid visits to
Kyrgyzstan in a short time span. The agreements reached during
the talks allowed Russia to establish its military presence at
the Kant airfield. More to it, next year, the Russian air wing
based there will obtain the status of the base for the joint
rapid deployment forces of the countries members of the
Collective Security Treaty. Beside those forces, there are
about 100 Russian border guards, who continue serving their
duty in Kyrgyzstan.

Vladimir Putin promised Kyrgyz leadership that Russia will
cooperate with Kyrgyzstan (severely affected by the catastrophe
on the gold mine Kumtor, which used to bring profits making
one-sixth of the republic's budget) on the issue of the legal
status of migrant workers. There are 700,000 Kyrgyz migrant
workers, and their earnings help to ameliorate significantly
the severity of social problems in Kyrgyzstan. The republic's
foreign debt to Russia, which is estimated at $170 million, has
been restructured. As a result of the recent agreements,
Kyrgyzstan will benefit more from cooperating with Russia than
from allowing the anti-terrorist coalition forces to be
deployed on its territory.

Only time would tell whether Kyrgyzstan could become
Russia's major strategic ally in Central Asia. But the Kremlin
is not limiting its foreign policy in the region to the
development of bilateral ties with Bishkek. It's not a
coincidence that at the end of December Vladimir Putin promised
the Kazakh president to extend the lease of the Baikonur space
center, which brings around $115 million into the republic's
coffers every year. The meeting between the respective
presidents clearly showed that geography is more important
than politics. Russia remains a strong neighbor of Central
Asian states, and this factor alone could outweigh many others.
Besides, we've all learned from the geometry course at school
that a triangle is a more rigid and stable shape than a square.

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