In November 10, General John Abizaid, Chief of U.S. Central Command visted Kazakhstan (America’s best friend) and stated that US presence in Central Asia is in no way part of “a repeat of great games of the 18th and 19th centuries”.
Indeed, he is right, this is definately not Arthur Conolly’s “Great Game”. In the latest alliance shift between the US, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan were just as active in the game as were the major players (China, Russia and the US). And specifically for the US, its hand is rather weak to play such a game.
Indeed, the West should stop its obsession in painting the situation in Central Asia as some Great Game with the Central Asian states as pawns played by China, Russia and the US. The situation is more complicated with the US in a weak position and the Central Asian states are by no means passive.
First Uzbekistan drops the US and finds a new friend in Russia…
Not too long ago, Karimov’s Uzbekistan was the “bully” of Central Asia, out to make a name for itself as the hegemone. It’s the largest nation – more than half of Central Asia’s +50 million inhabitants live in Uzbekistan – and has the largest military force among the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan military has unilaterally mined along disputed borders and cut off gas supplies to neighbors during disputes.
Uzbekistan quickly attempted to establish itself outside of Russia’s orbit, first resisting Russia’s CIS reintegration plans and later withdrawing from the CIS in 1999. After 9/11, Uzbekistan welcomed U.S. forces in the region as a snub to Russia and to allow the U.S. to fight its common enemy the Taliban.
But relations with the US turned soar after the May 13 Andijan Massacre, leading to U.S. forces being kicked out and Uzbekistan shifting instead towards China and Russia . And, now RFL reports (Nov 15) on a new treaty between Uzbekistan and Russia:
Karimov said on 14 November that he hopes the new treaty will strengthen Russia’s position in Central Asia, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The “consolidation of Russia’s presence in Central Asia will be a reliable guarantee of peace and stability in the region” and will benefit Russia, Uzbekistan, and the rest of the world, Karimov said.
Out with the troublesome US and their human rights, in with a Russia that reaffirms Uzbekistan’s sovereignty and right to use force.
Then Kazakhstan follows up its own great game switch…
Kazakhstan always played a multi-vectored foreign policy, but is constrained geographically (its northern neighbor is Russia) and demographically (Russians are 30% of population). It has made some move towards economic independence (away from Russian pipelines) with the opening of the Sino-Kazakh pipeline and later joining the US-backed BTC. The only missing “vector” was a closer relationship with the United States.
But now after losing Uzbekistan, the US has unabashedly embraced Kazakhstan:
“We are not ashamed to say that the U.S. has strategic interests in the region,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told the Chamber. “These interests were not just military, he said: America also had an interest in Kazakh fossil fuels and in promoting democracy in the region.”
Unlike its relationship with Uzbekistan, the US from the start has attempted to maintain its position as a reformer for democracy despite closer ties with the despotic government of Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazerbayev has ruled Kazakhstan before the break up of the USSR and now has his daughter as the leader of an allying political party.
In Condi Rice’s trip last month to Central Asia, Rice attempted to reiterate the “US as reformer” stance by portraying Nazarbayev as a potential reformer: “The Nazarbayev government has a chance to be a real leader in Central Asia on both economic and political reform”. She also said during the trip:
America will encourage all of our friends in Central Asia to undertake democratic reforms and as they do they will solidify a lasting partnership of principle with the United States…Our goal is not to lecture our friends on how to do things the American way. Rather, we seek to help our Central Asian partners to find the stability they seek and our historical experience has taught us that stability requires legitimacy and true legitimacy requires democracy
The US is forced in an interesting position of needing to maintain strategic influence over the region – for counterterrorism efforts and hydrocarbon resources – while also needing to stick to its rhetoric of spreading democracy in a region that lacks it. This leaves the United States handicapped in its relationship with the Central Asian states – limiting its flexibility towards nondemocratic and in many instances repressive governments. This is a weakness that China and Russia doesnt have. Indeed, both countries stated their respect for Uzbekistan’s soverignty immediately after the Andijan Massacre.
Meanwhile, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan find themselves in a pretty good position…
While the Andijan Massacre has left Uzbekistan isolated, it seems to have quickly found new friends with the other two states that matter, Russia first and surely China next. And, assuredly, Russia will not make noise like the US does over any human rights issues in Uzbekistan.
Kazakhstan’s President Nazerbayev gets to look like a reasonable and moderate leader compared to Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan. And with the US out of options on establishing its footprint in the region, it is forced to play nice with Nazerbayev and is also hooked by its vast oil resources, as well (supposedly as large as the North Sea). Other countries in Central Asia are out of the question; Kyrgystan and Tajikistan and are not fully stable and Turkimenstan is much like a closed totaltarian state.
Kazakhstan wins in gaining a closer relationship with the US and nice PR too – “with President Nazerbayev hailed by former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle as a ‘visionary leader.’”
For a supposed Great Game player, the US is holding rather weak cards against Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. So no Gen. Abizaid, the US is not playing the Great Game in Central Asia…it doesnt have the leverage to.