Russia’s Influence in Central Asia
Central Asia, which was formerly under Russia’s colonial power, comprises 5 states that are: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The countries gained their independence in 1991 (“Russia Uses Competition Over Resources to Increase Leverage in Central Asia”). The region is sparsely populated and has a population of about 51 million people representing more than 100 different ethnic groups. Rich in natural resources such as oil, coal, zinc, iron ore, copper, gold, and natural gas, these nations barely reap the benefits of having these resources. The reason is that the borders of the countries, drawn in the 1920s and 1930s by Soviet policy makers, have forced them to depend on each other for resources (“Russia Uses Competition Over Resources to Increase Leverage in Central Asia”). However, even after the independence of the states, Russia seems not to have let them off the hook, and this is apparently due to its interests in the natural resources found in those countries; therefore, it continues to colonize them indirectly. The borders that demarcate these countries were imposed by Russia and thus it uses the associated conflicts to gain power. The Russian provision of funds to these countries is just a way of hoodwinking them to facilitate plundering of their resources. Russia should, therefore, not influence these countries and let them manage their resources for their benefit.
Russia has maintained historical, economic, and political ties with Central Asian governments since these countries still need Russia’s leadership and protection (Marantidou and Cossa). To ensure that it maintains its position and has secured its leading role in the region, Russia has introduced policies that safeguard its close relationship with former members of the Soviet Union. It works on strengthening economic cooperation with Central Asian states by establishing Custom Unions aimed at building common/joint market and expanding bilateral trade with Central Asia. However, Russia’s main goal is to protect its international security and economic cooperation (Pisarev 5). Its position in these countries is based on the priority of cooperation in energy, mineral resources, infrastructure, transport, communication, new technologies, and nuclear power. Over the years, Russia has not been paying much attention to Central Asia, which has in turn diminished its influence and economic leverage in the countries. Despite being a major external player, Russia has to share now its position with China, the U.S., and other European communities in Central Asia.
Economically, the Central Asia region stagnates and struggles (Oliphant). The reason is that the region depends greatly on Russia to contribute capital and funds for development projects to improve their economic cooperation; however, Russia does not fulfill its promises. Central Asia also suffers from a lack of infrastructure that has forced it to depend on Russia’s old Soviet pipelines to export its energy products (Marantidou and Cossa). Russia has taken advantage of the situation and controls these pipelines with the aim of minimizing competition with Central Asia since energy export is Russia’s economic backbone. In addition to this, Russia blends its oil products with the ones of Kazakhstan, which are considered high-quality; consequently, it maintains and controls the prices and supply of oil. Russia also has control over Kazakhstan’s oil export to Europe by preventing the use of the Caspian Sea in which Russia will be bypassed. Russia does this to maintain control of Central Asian energy and export of resources to protect its position in the market. Despite the fact that trade between Russia and Central Asia has been decreasing since the 1990’s, Russia has been pushing Central Asia towards Eurasian Economic Integration by minimizing the US influence in the region. The effort aims to reduce the economic differences between Russia and Central Asia since the region’s economic power is increasing (Laruelle 1). Despite Russia’s reluctance to invite China to deepen economic integration in the states, China is the leading investor in Central Asia, disposing of Russia’s economic position in the region.
Russia absorbs approximately 3 million seasonal laborers each year from Central Asia (Pisarev 6). The statistics emphasize the dependency of this region on Russia. However, it is very difficult for the migrants to get free visas because Russia demands geopolitical fidelity and access to their armed forces in these countries.
Politically, Russia maintains a geopolitical influence in the region as it can shape the strategic direction and position of Central Asia. It continues to play a crucial political part since the relationship between the two regions is influenced by the Soviet past, same values, and codes of conduct (Laruelle 2). To ensure that it still has the political leverage, Russia only invests in regional integration of countries under its leadership. For example, Kazakhstan considers that it has equal rights and is independent in its decision-making. However, Russia would like it to relinquish part of its sovereignty for supranational institutions. Countries like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are the recipients of Russia’s aid, have no room to maneuver. This reason proves that Russia is unconcerned with Central Asia’s regimes and clearly benefits when the Central Asia’s governments perform poorly. This impact helped the region to establish a relationship with China that treats it honorably unlike Russia that treats it condescendingly.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a scrapping of centrally planned economy, Central Asia was seen to have a great advantage for national economic development due to the available resources in the region. These resources contributed greatly to the region’s independence, economic prosperity, and political stability. Foreign investors from the U.S., China, and other European communities gave the region an opportunity to develop. However, there was also the negative side, which could seem like the natural resource curse of the region. Despite having some of the most highly valued resources such as oil, gas, and gold, the region’s economy continues to be stagnant (Finch). Central Asia faces violence and conflicts amongst its countries and is considered to be a volatile, failing, and unstable region.
The number of issues causes increased tension and conflict in the region. The reasons include the lack of political reforms which has contributed greatly to instability and the lack of development in the region. In some of the states, the government regime is the dictatorship. This nature of rule has led to the misuse or loss of all the revenue earned from exports. In some cases, it is used for the survival of authoritarian and repressive regimes. For example, Turkmenistan’s political legitimacy and regime stability are linked to the state’s ability to provide free gas, electricity, and water to its population. The contest for wealth and power in the region has also contributed to the increases in social tension which have led to the death of hundreds of people, a case in point is 2005 Uzbekistan violence case. The region also faces the high rate of corruption and inequality due to the lack of viable tax system. This problem has greatly contributed to investors’ fear of investing in these countries despite many resources available.
The wealth that the nations receive from oil exports has done little in remedying the rate of poverty and poor infrastructure in the rural areas. The reason is the over-dependence on the government revenue while the revenues earned are not divided equally. Moreover, the lack of transport networks has led to a dependence of the states on Russia, which still controls the Soviet pipelines, thus leading to the growth in export losses. These countries compete for the available resources to increase their economic status; however, the regimes have different economic policies, for example, Uzbekistan and Turkistan have dirigisme economic system where the government influences and directs investment while Kyrgyzstan has liberal economic policies. The difference in the economic systems holds the region back (Pomfret 2). During the Soviet Union when the borders of the states were drawn, the nations’ resources were split in such a way that they forced to share the resources. As a result, this led to territorial disputes and misunderstandings.
For the region to become independent and to develop, some factors that will improve its economic growth, political position, and social sector should be put in place and enforced. Stagnation in the region is greatly influenced by the government failures that in turn affect the economy of the sector.
Politically, the governments of Central Asia should take a proactive role in ensuring the stabilization of their nations. Firstly, the governments should avoid over-dependency on other dominating and economically developed countries, for example Russia and China, and start to play a part in shaping the regions’ future. This is because over-reliance and dependency have contributed greatly to hampering the region’s development and stagnation. Secondly, the governments of Central Asia should continue to make forward steps that include the passing of new legislations, training of new leaders, and creating new electrical mechanisms that ensure that the region’s political stability is maintained. Thirdly, the Central Asia’s governments should work and cooperate together to improve the trade, communication, and economic cooperation of the region by introducing policies and unions that will ensure that the resources available to them are shared equally and used sustainably. This will reduce and fully avoid conflicts that occur in the region due to utilizing and sharing the resources found within its boundary. Fourthly, the governments should also make an effort to eradicate and abolish former Soviet-era methods and systems in government that have greatly contributed to dictatorship and corruption; this will lead to the long-term economic and social stability in the region. Finally, they should resist Russia’s move to have security service and military around their borders since Russia uses the military to control the states.
Economically, Central Asia can be a major player in the world of the energy market. However, some economic incapability is holding it back. However, if the problem is tackled, the region will reach its maximum potential. To do this, Central Asia should continue diversifying its economic relations with other countries, for example People’s Republic of China and the United State; this will increase the number of investments in the region. The investments from China and Western oil companies are areas that Central Asia should tap into to improve its economy since foreign investors will help the region. This is because they provide the financial base needed by the governments of Central Asia to exploit the resources available. China alone has invested approximately 15 billion dollars in Central Asia to establish cultivating networks and soft power mechanisms in this region. As a result, this has frustrated Russia and reduced its control in the countries.
The region faces a challenge of poor infrastructure as it still depends on the old Soviet-era pipeline routes to transport its oil. The routes that pass through Russia make Central Asia be dependent on Russia and operate according to Russia’s terms. To ensure its economic independence and reduce the leverage Russia has over the region, new pipeline routes that are controlled by Central Asian governments, to transport oil and gas, should be built. More new routes mean that there will be the increase in exports for the region, thus earning it more revenue that in turn will lead to economic growth of the region (Pomfret 6). Recently, China and Turkmenistan collaborated to build a new gas line pipe. The gas line passes through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and China. The building of the new gas line pipe has led to an expansion of trade in these countries. Also, China has expanded energy cooperation and exports hydrocarbon to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan thus increasing the amount of gas export in the region. This proves that better-developed infrastructure will improve the export revenue.
The sanctions placed on the region by the U.S. will also increase the amount of supply of its products since the market will develop thus increasing the region’s revenue and reducing the overdependence of countries on the Russian market. China’s and U.S investments in the region are viewed as a counterbalance to the Russian influence because the region still wants to maintain its independence.
Despite the fact that the region gained its independence, it should continue to cooperate with Russia, since it still plays an important role in the development of its economy. Russia continues to serve as the main market for the region’s goods because the international market remains closed due to Central Asia’s political instability. Russia still controls the Soviet-era pipelines. Therefore, good relations between the two regions will not only increase Central Asia’s energy potential but will also lead to the growth in exports thus earning more revenue for the countries. The government should also work hard to establish institutions and economic policies that are market-friendly to ensure that development occurs.
In conclusion, even after the change of political power to current Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Central Asia is still a pawn to the Russian society. Russia uses the region’s resources and discards them when it is not in need of them. For example, Russia stopped depending on Central Asian hydrocarbon and started relying on its resources and export. This has led to the decline and stagnation in Central Asia’s economy that depends on Russia for infrastructure and political guidance on its economic development. Russia established policies that alienated Central Asia from the West and over time its influence in the region has declined. To gain its position, Russia has re-established connections with Central Asia by expanding economic cooperation and backing the elections of Central Asia. It proves that Russia is not concerned with regions’ development and thinks only about its benefits. Central Asia has been trying to improve it economic status. However, corruption, conflicts, violence, and political instability have led to stagnation. To overcome dependency and over-reliance on other countries, the governments should work to improve the political situation that will attract investors and lead to development. Infrastructure, transportation, and communication network should also be improved. Moreover, new routes should be built to increase the exports and revenue that will improve the economic position of Central Asia. The region still has a long way to go before it achieves economic stability, this will not be easy but economical and political changes in policies, international cooperation, and proper management of resources will contribute greatly to the achievement of its goals.