by Yuri Fenopetov
The historic Silk Road connected China to Central Europe and the harbours of the Mediterranean, reaching through the historic cities and lush steppes of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The trading route allowed for the mingling of peoples and brought prosperity to those living in its vicinity for centuries. Today, the Central Asian region faces many challenges manoeuvring great power politics, fostering economic development while combating organized crime and Islamic extremism.
The region has always been squeezed between the Chinese and Russian superpowers, British India to the south, and periodically, Persian dynasties to the west. Turkic peoples dominate the north, dating back to migrations and conquests spanning from Mongolia to Turkey, while various forms of Persian influences dominate the south, stretching from Iran and Afghanistan to Tajikistan, known as the Persian Triangle. Culturally, its inhabitants split primarily into two groups: the northern traditional nomadic lifestyles and southern city-dwellers.
Central Asia was conquered and administered by the Russian Empire throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, challenged by the British Empire in Asia. Apart from traumatic Stalinist deportations in 1930s, the Soviet Union has left a largely positive mark in this region, greatly improving literacy, industrialization, the rights of women, and preventing ethnic and religious conflict. Jobs were plentiful, travel was easy and inter-marriages were creating genuine “Soviet families.”
After the five Central Asian countries gained independence in 1991, power politics again overshadowed the search for national identity. Russia remains the main security player in the region today, with military bases and infrastructure serving both security calculations and political agendas, as during the civil war in Tajikistan and Afghanistan’s instability during the 90s. The Russian language remains a lingua franca in the region.
The greatest economic investment, however, is from China, building roads, buildings, and energy infrastructure, particularly after the establishment of the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB). Projects, managers, materials, workers and equipment virtually pour into the region, as China envisions a revival of the Silk Road.
Economic development of Central Asia in turn contributes to pacifying China’s unstable Muslim Uyghur north-western province of Xinjiang. Furthermore, Turkmenistan has become China’s number one gas supplier. As a high-level Chinese People’s Liberation Army General put it, “Central Asia is the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese from the heavens.” Turkey, too, is eying the region, hoping to expand both business and religious ties in competition with Saudi Arabia by building religious institutions and schools, and supporting university exchange programmes.
The West, embodied by the U.S. and the EU, has fostered relations with each country. After 9/11, the U.S. set up an air force base in Kyrgyzstan and logistical hubs in Uzbekistan, preparing to invade Afghanistan. But the soldiers deployed were also affluent consumers.
The EU, with soft power influence, has launched multiple development projects in the spheres of education, private sector development and human rights, including large-scale programmes to combat Afghan-EU heroin trafficking. Former Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet, speaking before the European Parliament, “[the] European Union could offer greater cooperation and support for the development and regional balancing of Central Asia countries.” According to him, Europe should too be concerned about the growing regional security risks as the number of IS fighters from Central Asia continues to rise.
While Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have experienced economic growth through their booming energy exports, Uzbekistan has remained largely dependent on its cotton industry. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan severely lack foreign investment, suffering from political instability, some regions are at-level with the Afghan economic development. Water-rich Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, energy-rich Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and populous Uzbekistan have developed a rivalry rather than cooperation, greatly inhibiting the overall economic development of the region.
With a GDP growth hovering around five percent for the past few years, Kazakhstan has significantly improved domestic living-standards, while Turkmenistan ranks 4th in the world in terms of gas reserves, with exports increasing from year to year where currently around 70 percent go to energy-hungry China.
Uzbekistan’s cotton exports are still the largest among Central Asian states and remain the government’s main cash crop together with wheat. However, the government has had difficulties in handling population growth and is under international scrutiny for high-level corruption and alleged serious human rights issues such as a lack of political freedoms and use of torture, both greatly inhibiting the country’s economic growth rate.
Kyrgyzstan, although hailed by the international community as a relatively free and democratic political society, has suffered from political instability and investor uncertainty, as the country has gone through multiple violent revolutions and has little to offer in exports. Similarly, Tajikistan suffers from a lack of interest to investors, with over 60% of workers impoverished and over half of the country’s GDP dependent on remittances of migrant workers in Russia.
The Central Asian governments have launched a number of development projects. These will require the support of the West and Russia if they are to be successful and add value to the region’s geopolitical significance as a Eurasian centrepiece between Europe and China. Otherwise, the region runs the danger of increased rivalry and proxy politics reminiscent of the Great Game, an era of competition in Central Asia between the Russian and British Empires throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, which provoked century-old nationalist and ethnic hatred as well as explosive competitions for resources. Such dynamics could result in increased instability and economic degradation, early warnings of which have been observed in the Tajik Civil War, the Kyrgyz revolution of 2010 and resulting ethnic cleansing of Uzbeks in the south.
The World Bank has conducted feasibility studies regarding the completion of the Soviet-era Roghun Dam in upstream Tajikistan, which could become one of the world’s largest hydropower plants. But downstream Uzbekistan is concerned about possible damage to its cotton production. Its opposition and a lack of financing remain obstacles to this and similar projects in Kyrgyzstan.
The Asia Development Bank (ADB) aims to construct the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, which would add to Turkmenistan’s export destinations, Pakistan and India, acting as a stabilizing factor in Afghanistan too – given the shared interest of its surrounding neighbours. The security situation in Afghanistan and financing connected to regional politics hold up this process.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China and Russia, has financially supported Pakistan to develop the CASA-1000 electricity infrastructure project, which would connect the hydropower potential of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But corruption, lack of the rule of law, and political rivalries inhibit its realization.
To solve these difficulties, concerted effort committed to Central Asia’s independent development is necessary, in order to develop and become a potent economic community connecting Europe to China. The EU, Russia, and the Asian regional powers must refrain from playing out their oppositions in Central Asia, but focus on its potential as a partner for economic prosperity.