Central Asia: what lies ahead? (updated)

Happy new year! This is my fifth year of blogging on Central Asia, focussing on issues relating to higher education and social change. I open the year with an interesting analytical think piece from global intelligence agency Stratfor that attempts to surmise what the future might hold for the region. It’s available on their website at https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-asia-different-kind-threat and copied below, (c) Stratfor 2016.

*UPDATE* 7 January 2016: Hot on the heels of Stratfor’s piece, I read another similar ‘future gazing’ article from Middle Eastern site Al-Monitor. This one is authored by Turkish journalist Zülfikar Doğan. It is written in the same realist vein as the Stratfor article, i.e. using states as the main actors of analysis. Though focussing more on Turkey’s role, I’d argue that the piece comes to somewhat similar conclusions. This article is copied below underneath the Stratfor article, is (c) Al-Monitor/Zülfikar Doğan and is also available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/01/turkey-losing-its-standing-in-central-asia-after-middle-east.html.

The Stratfor article generated some interesting discussions (see the Comments section at the end of the piece) and I’d love to know your thoughts on the Al-Monitor story too.

Central Asia: A Different Kind of Threat

JANUARY 1, 2016 | 10:15 GMT

Editor’s Note: This is the last installment of a five-part series that explores the past, present and future of the confrontation between Russia and the West on the Eurasian landmass. Part one explored the origins of the conflict, part two examined Ukraine, part three looked at Eastern Europe, and part four considered the Caucasus

Much like the Caucasus, Central Asia serves as a relatively new but no less important staging ground for the ongoing competition between Russia and the West. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the region has been somewhat of a melange of indecision and opportunism: Kazakhstan has stayed close with Russia, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stayed relatively neutral. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, on the other hand, have had difficulty settling on which foreign patron to support as violent upheavals have swung their foreign policies back and forth.

Over the coming decades, instability and internal conflict will continue to pose the greatest threats to the region as the influence of Russia and the West in Central Asia fades. But in their place, two new powers will rise that will shape the future of the region: Turkey and China.


Throughout history, powerful empires, including Persian, Mongol and Turkish empires, have fought to control Central Asia. Russia did not join the fray until the late 18th century. When it did, its expansion into the region was gradual, starting in the area that is now Kazakhstan. From there, it slowly penetrated southward into modern-day Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

The Russian Empire’s initial forays into Central Asia coincided with the British Empire’s expansion into the Indian subcontinent, giving rise to what would be known as the Great Game, a long-running battle for regional control. Imperial Russia wanted an outlet to the sea and a buffer between potentially hostile powers in Asia, be they indigenous peoples or imperial armies. Afghanistan would later become just that, separating the Russian and British empires and eventually playing an important role in subsequent conflicts between Russia and the West in Central Asia.

Though the Russian Empire’s collapse in 1917 led to a brief and unstable period of independence in Central Asia, its Soviet successor would once again pull the region into its orbit in the following decade. Soviet rule dramatically changed the politics of Central Asia. Peoples from other parts of the Soviet bloc were forced to resettle throughout the region, while Russification programs emphasized the adoption of Russian language and customs. Central Asia became closed off to the West and to the Muslim states surrounding it, including Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.

However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 accelerated the bloc’s undoing and gave the West the upper hand in the Cold War. Substantial support from the West, especially the United States, enabled the Afghan mujahideen to counter the Soviet military’s efforts to prop up the communist government in Kabul. This exposed the Soviet Union’s military weakness and drained its economic and political resources, reducing Moscow’s ability to continue contending with the West on a global scale.

The Past 25 Years: The Afghan Conflict Creates Volatility

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, each of the five Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — gained their independence. With the exception of Tajikistan, which descended into a chaotic civil war almost immediately, all installed their former Communist Party secretaries as their new presidents.

In Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s two largest states, these presidents have remained in power at the head of highly centralized political systems ever since. Under President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has maintained a close relationship with Russia by joining the Moscow-led Customs Union (now the Eurasian Union) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance. Though it has relied on the West to develop its large oil and natural gas resources, Kazakhstan has remained tied to Russia strategically. Uzbekistan, however, has remained neutralunder President Islam Karimov’s rule, eschewing alliances with both Russia and the West. While it did host U.S. and NATO military bases for a time during the West’s war in Afghanistan, it later closed them after the West raised concerns over human rights abuses. Uzbekistan has also retained close economic ties with Russia but has avoided participating in Moscow-led integration projects.

Like Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan has attempted to keep its distance from both Russia and the West. President Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov has maintained his predecessor’s isolationist policies, keeping power highly centralized under his office. Though Turkmenistan initially sent most of its considerable natural gas output to Russia, in recent years it has rerouted much of its supplies to China amid a steep drop in Russian imports. Meanwhile, Turkmenistan continues to explore other export options, including the Trans-Caspian and TAPI pipelines to Europe and South Asia. In the wake of the crisis in Ukraine, Europe has been particularly interested in courting Turkmenistan as an alternative natural gas supplier to Russia, though the Kremlin has so far been successful in halting projects that would send Turkmen natural gas to the Continent. Now approached by the West, Russia and China, Turkmenistan continues to seek a balance between all three without formally aligning with any of them.

Unlike their other Central Asian neighbors, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been politically unstable since the fall of the Soviet Union. In Kyrgyzstan, revolutions took place in 2005 and 2010; the first brought to power an administration friendly with the West and the second replaced that government with one that favors Russia. Since then, Kyrgyzstan has strengthened its ties to the Kremlin, joining the Eurasian Union and allowing Russia to expand its military presence in the country while expelling the United States from the Manas air base in 2014. In Tajikistan, civil war raged from 1992 to 1997, when the pro-Russia faction led by President Emomali Rakhmon emerged victorious. Rakhmon has ruled the country ever since, pulling it closer to Russia, particularly in terms of security and military cooperation.

Along with each country’s unique circumstances, the evolution of Russia’s relationship with the West inAfghanistan has shaped the rivalry in Central Asia. At the start of the U.S. invasion and during NATO’s occupation of Afghanistan in the early 2000s, both sides cooperated extensively. In fact, Russia brokered access to strategic military bases and lines of supply in Central Asia on behalf of U.S. and Western forces. But as the war dragged on, Moscow grew fearful of the West’s intention to maintain a long-term military presence in the region, potentially challenging Russia’s role as a regional heavyweight. Central Asian states then evicted Western forces from their bases and severed their supply routes. Now, with the Taliban and the Islamic State gaining strength in Afghanistan, Russia and the United States are lobbying for competing border security initiatives with the countries of Central Asia.

The Next 25 Years: Other Powers Overtake Russia and the West

As in the rest of the former Soviet periphery, the competition between Russia and the West will be heavily influenced by the demographic changes set to take place in Central Asia in the next 25 years. But unlike Eastern Europe and the Orthodox countries in the Caucasus, Central Asia is on the verge of a tremendous population increase. By 2050, Kazakhstan’s population will rise by 27 percent (from 17.6 million people to 22.4 million), Uzbekistan’s by 24 percent (from 29.9 million people to 37.1 million) and Turkmenistan’s by 22 percent (from 5.4 million people to 6.6 million). At the same time, Kyrgyzstan’s population will grow by 39 percent (from 5.9 million people to 8.2 million) while Tajikistan’s will rise by an astonishing 70 percent (from 8.4 million people to 14.3 million).

While such population growth is normally conducive to economic growth and military strength, it will occur in Central Asia at a time when the region’s resources, including water and food, are already strained. The population explosion will hit hardest in the Fergana Valley, which is the region’s demographic core and is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There, the Soviets designed convoluted borders to intentionally create divisions between the Central Asian states. The area has already been the site of several ethnic conflicts. With the number of people expected to rise dramatically in the next 25-35 years, the Fergana Valley will likely become a hotbed of tension and conflict in the region.

Meanwhile, Central Asia’s cultural makeup will undoubtedly change. The widespread use of Russian as a lingua franca, which is rooted in the Soviet period, will probably decline as new generations with no memory of their countries’ Soviet past grow up. Russia will see its influence over the region decline as such cultural bonds — as well as its own capabilities to project economic and military power — weaken. The transition from Soviet-era leaders like Nazarbayev and Rakhmon, who have favored Russia over the West, to new rulers from the post-Soviet generation will make Central Asia a more unpredictable place that is open to contestation — a change that is unlikely to favor Russia.

However, the West will also see its ability to influence Central Asia decline as the regionalization of Europe forces the Continent to focus on matters closer to home. Still, countries in Central and Eastern Europe may seek to import Central Asian energy supplies through the Caspian corridor to diversify away from Russia. Meanwhile, the United States will remain an important player in the region. As in the Caucasus, it will be selective in how it engages in Central Asia, preferring to step in from time to time to keep any single external power from gaining too much influence.

While the reach of Russia and the West recedes over the coming decades, two other powers will rise in their place: Turkey and China. Four of the five states in Central Asia are ethnically Turkic, and as Russia’s cultural bonds in the region fade, Turkey’s will strengthen. Because Turkey’s population is predicted to grow by more than 20 percent, reaching 96 million people, it will have greater economic and military power to match its rising soft power. China, for its part, has already made economic inroads into the region over the past decade, and its economic influence will likely continue to grow. Such growth will be aided by the fact that Russia will not continue to be able to financially support many Central Asian states. That said, China will still have to contend with Turkey, which will be more active in the region. But this contest is unlikely to take on a military dimension; China and Turkey will have more immediate security concerns in East Asia and the Middle East.

Afghanistan will continue to have a significant impact in Central Asia, not as a regional power with influence but as a weak state with the potential to destabilize the region. Cross-border ties between ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens on either side of the boundary between Afghanistan and Central Asia will grow. This could increase the likelihood of Islamist and militant elements spilling over into the region. Although they will continue to compete at a strategic level, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States will cooperate at a tactical level to prevent the rise of powerful radical Islamist groups in Central Asia. For the foreseeable future, instability and conflict within and between Central Asian states will continue to pose the largest threat to the region, one that will be far more difficult to contain.

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

First the Middle East, now Central Asia slipping away from Turkey

Author Zülfikar DoğanTranslator Timur Göksel

Posted January 6, 2016

The sanctions Moscow imposed after the Nov. 24 downing of a Russian plane are spreading to Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as Central Asian countries that had established close ties with Ankara after the collapse of the Soviet Union appear to be preparing to distance themselves from Turkey. At the December 2015 Moscow summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) — which includes the Turkic states of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan in addition to Russia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus and Armenia — calls were made for Turkey to apologize to Russia.

Armenia holds the term presidency of the CIS-Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance of former Soviet republics. The military chiefs of member states met before the gathering of heads of state to hear their term chairman, Gen. Yuri Khachaturov, Armenian chief of the General Staff, harshly criticize Turkey. Khachaturov noted, “Chiefs of staff of all member states of the organization supported the Russian actions and denounced Turkey’s attack against the Su-24 plane that was seen as an incendiary, shameless aggression. As Russia said immediately after the attack, we also saw it as a stab in the back.”

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, term chairman of CIS, also asked the summit to express its support for Russia and denounce Turkey. He said, “As member states, we declared our support for the Russian position and decided to urgently declare unity to combat terror. Turkey’s attitude and its shooting down of the Russian plane have been a setback to the struggle against terror.”

The real shock for Ankara was not Sargsyan’s words, but those of the Kyrgyzstan head of state, President Almazbek Atambayev, who in the past had addressed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as “my older brother.” After the August 2014 presidential elections, Atambayev had appeared with Erdogan, who was delivering his victory speech, andlavishly praised him. At the CIS summit, Atambayev expressed support for Moscow and President Vladimir Putin and suggested Erdogan and Turkey apologize to Russia.

The support for Russia among the Central Asian Turkic republics, which have received billions of dollars of credit and financing support from Turkey, and Atambayev’s call for an apology shocked Turkey, disillusioning Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party government. In 2014, the Cooperation and Coordination Agency of Turkey had provided the republics more than $3.5 billion. When asked about Atambayev’s comment, Erdogan spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said, “If nothing else, it was an unfortunate statement.”

Russia’s freeze on issuing transit permits to Turkish truckers in October has severely disrupted Turkish exports to the Central Asian republics. Concerned with the prospect of losing the Central Asian market, where Turkey has sizable construction contracts and investments, Ankara began using the Caspian Sea for its exports thanks to Azerbaijan opening its gates.

Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, ordered that Caspian port capacity be increased and transit documents waived for Turkish trucks. Even if Turkish truck traffic through the Caspian reaches 50,000 a year, it would still fall far short of sustaining exports to the Central Asian market.

With the sharp decline in oil and natural gas prices, Azerbaijan had to devalue its currency 47% against the dollar and euro. Given the economic bottlenecks it faces, no one can be sure that the country can indefinitely be a contributor in regard to Turkey’s commercial and energy needs.

Moreover, an Aliyev-Sargsyan meeting in Switzerland Dec. 19 did not yield a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. Instead, both countries announced that their cease-fire had ended. This development greatly concerns Turkey, because it could negatively affect its use of the Azerbaijani route for its exports. Meanwhile, Russia and Armenia, which have been boosting political and economic links, in late December decided to also expand their military cooperation.

In mid-December, Putin announced that visa requirements for Georgian nationals would be eased and soon thereafter abolished. It has become clear that the Russian-Armenian air defense agreement, normalization of Russian-Georgian relations and resumption of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia will impede Turkey’s access to the Caucasus. There are also fears that Russia, which has been firing cruise missiles from its navy based in the Caspian, could block passage through that sea, severely restricting Turkey’s access to Central Asia via that route.

Russia also made use of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) to move against Turkey’s relations with the Turkic republics. Turkey-EEU negotiations to establish a free trade zone were suspended, and instead, Putin announced, the EEU would enter into talks with Iran. Thus, Russia is helping advance Iranian economic interests in Central Asia by closing the doors on Turkey advocating a customs union and regional free trade. No doubt, this brought Turkey one step closer to losing Central Asia in the wake of its isolation in the Middle East.

12 thoughts on “Central Asia: what lies ahead? (updated)

  1. Albina

    Another typical article on Central Asia with the same instability rhetoric. Back in late 1990s many Eugene Chausovsky type authors were predicting Turkey’s influence, now in 2016 still don’t feel it. Such important factors as globalization and migration are not taken into consideration. This instability and radicalization focus is so sort of shabby and unfortunately it is very much widespread. Many were saying that when the former President of Turkmenistan Niyazov (Turkmenbashi) would be out of the presidential post something “bad” will happen since his crazy internal policies, including 8 year school and 2 year university education only, will leave the people in grievance. Surprise. The new President is almost the same and nothing “bad” has happened (except that the whole situation in Turkmenistan is not at its best).
    Such type of papers are so not worth it, the only thing they do is legitimize the authoritarian control and let the governments ignore the real problems, such as water issues, corruption, infrastructure, gender issues, poverty and many others.


    1. Dear Albina,
      Thank you for your thoughtful response. I’d agree on the one hand that the article does reiterate some of the realist rhetoric we have seen in the West, but on the other hand doesn’t fall into the trap of suggesting Central Asia as a potential hotbed of Islamic extremism that other similar papers have evoked. You are right to point out that migration is a key issue that is overlooked, particularly when the piece makes some interesting points about population growth. I have not really seen anyone talk about the potential risks for Tajikistan if many labour migrants return from Russia in the face of the devaluing rouble – that for me will be a trend to watch in 2016.
      I do think papers like these are worth reading, because nation states continue to be important in world politics despite (because of?) globalization processes. However, I also completely agree with you that other issues such as the ones you suggest – environment, corruption, infrastructure, gender, poverty – are vital elements to the debate and they are missing from this article.
      Thanks again for your valuable contributions.


      1. Albina

        Dear Emma,

        Thank you so much for your reply. My comment sounds a little too straight and I by no means intended to be rude or something….just saying.
        I live in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and I am really tired of this “instability” thing and nowadays, we are having “усиление” (when the government “strengthens control” and checks everyone) because of the Paris attacks and potential “instability”. And now that the law enforcement agencies check up on everyone because of this potential instability they can fine everyone for anything(since this instability is such a vague notion) and people in order not to be fined and get an official record pay bribes and this is only one of the many outcomes of instability thing….
        By the way, I like your blog:) I started following in summer 2015 while writing my MA thesis which was about higher education in Uzbekistan. I found pretty useful data on education in Central Asia via your links, thank you very much for them.


      2. Dear Albina,
        I didn’t think your comments were rude in any way – and I too prefer to take a direct approach so I really appreciated you doing the same! Especially as you are based in Central Asia, where I have noticed that many people find it difficult to feel comfortable speaking up about problems. What are you doing in Tashkent now? And I’d love to learn more about your MA thesis – maybe you would consider writing a guest post for this blog summarising your findings?


      3. Albina

        Dear Emma,

        I would certainly like to write a guest post for your blog. Thank you for the offer. Maybe we could exchange email addresses, or I think you can email me directly?
        I graduated from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek in September 2015 and have recently started working as an Academic Officer at the Westminster International University in Tashkent.


  2. The Disobedient Author

    Interesting article. I would like more on the cultural influences as Russia’s influence and grip on the Central Asian countries recede. What about religious aspects? I notice that the article does not mention the significance of a new focus towards re-traditionalisation in countries like Tajikistan as a reaction to the cultural vacuum left by the declining influence of Russia. I have written a novel about this, set in Tajikistan, ‘The Disobedient Wife’ (published by Cinnamon Press). It is a work of fiction based on stories I heard when I lived there, but it focuses heavily on the impact of re-traditionalisation on women in particular. At the same time, the importance of migration to Russia in countries like Tajikistan remains high. Thanks


    1. Dear Annika,
      That’s an interesting point about the cultural aspect to the debate. Albina’s comments also touch on other issues such as gender, poverty and environmental issues that are also overlooked.
      Re-traditionalisation is certainly an important trend which has strong connections with religion (although I would argue aren’t necessarily intertwined). We are seeing the impacts of this in education where female participation in higher education is dropping in most regions, with the important exception of the Pamirs (Badakhshan Province). Thanks for the book plug – sounds fascinating. You link re-traditionalisation with a reaction to a vacuum left by Russia’s declining influence: another way of looking at this might be to consider whether the Soviet period repressed customs and practices that have now come (back) into the open since the fall of the Soviet Union. It might also be because the government, despite its many proclamations and bans (beards for men, hijabs for women, Christmas/New Year trees for kids…), hasn’t actually created a new sense of identity in the way that, for example, President Nazarbayev has emulated in Kazakhstan. As such, communities are (re-)creating their own sense of what it means to be Tajik. I find all of this even more fascinating to see it taking place (especially tendencies that appear ‘anti-modern’ such as the role of women) when Tajikistan is now much more part of the world community than it ever was before.
      Thanks very much for taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Disobedient Author

        Sure. It is fascinating. I hope that Tajikistan has not ‘thrown the baby out with the bathwater’ with regard to gender and education, especially as I read recently of increasing child marriage and the decline of girl students in Secondary schools in Tajikistan. Yes, it is possible that this is just a backlash against the Soviet repression. I tend to think though that it is also a product of civil war and the brain drain.


      2. Annika – I’m keen to read your book and would be happy to review it either for this blog or for another website. Do you have any review copies? I’m based in Canada but will be in the UK briefly during February if that’s easier logistically. But I see you are in Rome!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. The Disobedient Author

        Sure! I can ask my publisher to send you a review copy. Bare in mind though, it is a novel and therefore not academic, nor a treatise on the situation of all women in Tajikistan. I do think you might enjoy it though, judging from this conversation.
        If you send me your address to annikastanley at hotmail dot com I will ask Cinnamon Press to send you a review copy. They can also send you an ebook. Are you attached to a university? Which websites do you review for? Email me and I will organise. Thanks


  3. Pingback: Central Asia in 2016 – part 1 | Emma Sabzalieva

  4. Pingback: Central Asia in 2016 – part 2 | Emma Sabzalieva

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