July 18, 2005
Opinion: Shifting sands in Central Asia?
MOSCOW, (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle) - Will the United States be forced to withdraw its military bases in Central Asia? Have the Central Asian republics decided to throw their lot in with Russia and, to some extent, with China, out of fear of more "colored" revolutions?
Judging from media reports and expert analyses, it appears Central Asia is about to experience a paradigm shift. However, Central Asia is not looking to revolutionize, but institutionalize the status quo.
The final statement from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprising China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, reads like a Central Asian declaration of independence. Not only did it indirectly criticize the United States for its unilateralist foreign policy, but also directly demanded that non-regional powers eventually remove military bases stationed in member countries - again a reference to the United States. Western media has suggested that Russia and China actually penned the document as a united front against U.S. influence in the region.
The SCO summit and the ensuing statement have also been interpreted as the latest chapter of the "Great Game", with powers such as Russia and China vying for influence at the expense of the United States. This may certainly be the case on the surface, but the essence of the SCO summit was more of a consensus among like-minded elites reacting to what they increasingly perceive as common threats at home and on their borders.
Much has been written about the SCO's comments, but few have ventured to call the SCO what it is - a private club no different than the G8. Like the G8, the SCO does not make binding policy decisions for members, nor is it a substitute for bilateral relations. SCO countries used the statement to express sentiments without claiming they are defined foreign policy aims. This approach suits the Kremlin just fine - claiming to accept group consensus without suggesting the statement reflects Russia's foreign policy.
It is unlikely that Central Asia is preparing to reject American presence in the region in favor of Russia and China. Although China is likely to want to exercise its influence in the region, Chinese control would not be in Russia's interests or in those of the region. Many of Russia's political elite are wary of the American presence in Central Asia, but the same sense suspicion is reserved for China's regional ambitions, meaning the United States is somewhat a convenient check on China's growing influence.
In essence, the summit put the U.S. on notice for what many in the region interpret as a two-track policy of pursuing terrorists while undermining ruling elites. As for the Central Asia republics, the fight against terrorism and the promotion of regional security means maintaining the status quo, as well as avoiding the kind of uncontrolled political changes that have swept other former Soviet republics.
Uzbekistan has been the most strident member of the SCO, reassessing the American base stationed at Karshi-Khanabad. Willing to help the U.S. with its campaign to force regime change in Afghanistan, Uzbek President Islam Karimov has no tolerance for American policies that seek to eliminate terrorism while undermining his strong-fisted regime at home. Given the plethora of news reports that the U.S. military has used its base in Uzbekistan as a "torture chamber" to interrogate terrorist suspects, Karimov most probably came to the conclusion that American commentary on the tragic events in Andijon smacked of duplicity, considering America's own hard-line policies in dealing with terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Does Karimov really want the Americans to exit his country? Do the Russians as well? Probably not any time soon. The Uzbek government cited its specific grievances against the U.S. as the lack of financial compensation - payments for flight take offs and landings, environmental damage, and the negative impact on the local population. Calling the U.S. to present a timetable to withdraw from Karshi-Khanabad sounds more like "greenmail" than an impending eviction notice.
This makes a lot of sense when one considers that the American occupation of Afghanistan is at odds with the comments made by the Uzbek Foreign Ministry that American military intervention there is largely complete. The recent upsurge of violence in Afghanistan suggests that the American occupation is not going well and that countries like Uzbekistan - irrespective of its domestic policies - is still a needed member in the anti-terrorist alliance. The fact that the American occupation of Iraq is turning into a quagmire surely encourages Karimov to remind the White House of Uzbekistan's geopolitical importance.
It is unlikely the U.S. will be forced to remove its military bases in Central Asia any time soon. What appears to be clear is that the White House will have to pay much more for its presence in Central Asia and mute its commentary about the democracy and civil society in the region, as well as accept that ruling elites define security as a balanced outside influence to promote the status quo.