NATO’s Central Asia strategy: What next?

Advocating democracy is neither a “remedy” to Central Asia’s political ills nor a sound “strategic option” for NATO.

NATO is trying to establish a larger presence in Central Asia's energy sector to reduce Russian dominance [GALLO/GETTY]

London, United Kingdom – Dubbed as the “pivot region” of world politics, the five Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have collectively gained an immense strategic importance over the last two decades, thanks to their geography and vast deposits of natural resources including gold, gas, oil and uranium.

Today, China has its eyes on Central Asia as a source of energy and raw materials for its expanding economy, as well as a “critical frontier” for its trade expansion and ethnic stability. Chinese state-owned enterprises have penetrated deep into the infrastructure and energy sectors across the region, especially in Turkmenistan, while the government has sought to increase its soft power by sponsoring a large network of Confucius Institutes in the region’s capitals.

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In what seems to be both a response to NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe and an attempt to keep the US and China’s Central Asian ambitions at bay, Russia – the traditional Central Asian power – has been seeking to expand its power in, and relevance to, the region since the late 1990s.

Currently, Moscow exerts a great deal of influence over the politics of Central Asian states. It is also a crucial market for Central Asia’s “surplus labour” and therefore, a key source of remittances, which in turn make some regional governments extremely vulnerable to Moscow’s demands. The recent spat between Moscow and Dushanbe over the imprisonment of a Russian pilot by Tajik authorities is a case in point. Angered by Tajikistan’s apparent independent decision, Moscow secured Vladimir Sadovnichy’s release by threatening Rahmon’s government with mass deportation of Tajik workers. 

Preoccupied with Eastern Europe in the 1990s, NATO’s Central Asian strategy was limited to the expansion of ties with  energy-rich Kazakhstan and prevention of a Russian monopoly over pipelines carrying oil from the Caspian Sea region. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, however, Central Asia’s proximity to Afghanistan elevated its strategic importance by offering a “natural” force projection platform as well as a relatively safe exit gate from the Afghan theatre.

Depending on Russian gas

In addition, Europe’s ever increasing dependency on Russian gas and the various strategic vulnerabilities embedded in such dependency have encouraged NATO to try to establish a firmer presence in Central Asia’s energy sector in order to reduce Russia’s dominance over the international gas market.

Aware of this ongoing and intensifying great power rivalry in their region, Central Asian states themselves have embarked upon a geopolitical chess game playing, albeit to various extent, Washington, Beijing and Moscow against one another so to maintain and secure their holds on power in their respective countries.

As NATO tries to utilise the region as its “exit road” from Afghanistan and pursues its ambitious New Silk Road Strategy, therefore, it is imperative to explore NATO’s options and their limits, for securing these ends, especially that a regional political crisis of some kind over the short to medium term seems inevitable.

Like their counterparts in the much of the Arab world, lives of average citizens in Central Asia are marred with misery and misfortune. Central Asia, in other words, suffers from autocratic rules, widespread corruption, endemic poverty, chronic human rights abuses, a youth bulge, high rates of inflation and unemployment, imposed secularism and religious intolerance.

Since 2005, in fact, the region has gone through a series of political crisis evident in public strikes in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and indeed, Kyrgyzstan, which has managed to set a world record by undergoing two revolutions over a five-year span.

And to make matters worse, there are unresolved intra-regional disputes over border demarcations and management of scarce water resources which have not only sharpened mutual distrust and recriminations, but have also exposed regional states to political developments in each other’s territories.

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Last year’s quarrel between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan over a railway blast near the Uzbek-Afghan border, which Uzbekistan described as a terrorist attack, is a testimony to this. Dependent on Uzbekistan for its rail connections with the outside world, Dushanbe first blamed Tashkent for the explosion and then complained that it had been “inexplicably slow in repairing the bridge”.

Influence of Russia

Hence, advocating democracy is neither a remedy to Central Asia’s myriad political and economic ills nor a sound strategic option for NATO. In the context of entrenched authoritarian political cultures inherited from the Soviet era, rise of China and the continuing influence of Russia whose developmental model does not equate trade and economic prosperity with democracy and a lack of state institutions as well as civic entities in largely nomadic societies of Central Asia, any democratisation project could have the unintended effect of complicating matters further, while also pushing regional states towards the Chinese and Russian orbits.

Any attempt at democratisation in Central Asia should be painstakingly slow and confined to assisting Kyrgyzstan, as it tries to consolidate a parliamentarian system of governance. Should Kyrgyzstan succeed in its democratic experiment, there can then be hopes that other nations might follow suit in the future. The bad news here is that the current, democratically elected government in Bishkek seems to be tilting closer to Russia and thus, it might not ask for any Western assistance.

NATO could also go at it alone and try to capitalise on Central Asian regimes’ desire for its continual engagement with the region as a “counterbalance” to Russia and China in return for a permanent base. Although appreciative of Chinese investment, regional states are nonetheless fearful of becoming a “mere raw materials appendage” to China.

Russia, on the other hand, is distrusted due to her continuous meddling in the internal affairs of Central Asian states. Nevertheless, a unilateral NATO approach to the region would certainly irk Beijing and Moscow, encouraging them to forge closer ties and transform the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) into a truly anti-NATO organisation.

Notwithstanding official statements, institutionalisation of Sino-Russo rivalries in both Central Asia and further afield – not an anti-NATO posture – has been the key reason behind the establishment of the SCO. This is evident in the fact that Belarus became a dialogue partner at the organisation immediately after its completion of lucrative trade and military agreements with China; a development that Russia was not particularly content with.

Dwindling economic influence

Alternatively, NATO could forge an alliance with Russia in its effort to stay engaged in Central Asia. Despite having troops stationed throughout the region, Russia has proved incapable of contributing to peacekeeping operations there, while Moscow is genuinely concerned about its dwindling economic influence in the region vis-à-vis that of China.

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For its part, NATO has much to gain through co-operation with Russia, especially that it has readily turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in the region in recent years. Not only the two have a vested interest in curbing drug trafficking and terrorism, but they also have a common interest in limiting Beijing’s influence in Central Asia.

What is more, history shows that Sino-Russo co-operative gestures have been strongest only when their bilateral ties with Washington have suffered setbacks. A NATO-led co-operation with Russia in Central Asia, hence, could be an opportunity for the US to improve its ties with Moscow and deprive Beijing of an important ally on the world stage provided that the US government is prepared to satisfy certain Russian demands.

All in all, as NATO member states prepare themselves for the upcoming meeting in Chicago, there is an urgent need for prompt discussions and contingency planning on Central Asia. This is so because, not only Central Asia is of immense importance to NATO’s ability to successfully execute its wider geostrategic interests in the world, but also because a political crisis in the region is now a matter when not if.

The anticipated turmoil and instability could be driven by a dangerous rise in Kyrgyz nationalism directed at ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, a succession crisis in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan where lifelong leaders have yet to nominate their successors, or a surge in Islamic militancy in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan since states’ inability to provide basic social services for the public, violent crackdown on dissent, proximity to Afghanistan and a lack of secular opposition are giving rise to Islamic extremist discourses.

Since both Russia and NATO have a broad range of common strategic interests in Central Asia, efforts must thus be made to pave the way for a NATO-Russo co-operation in Central Asia as this present the least bad option available at NATO’s disposal. Failure in doing so, however, could, at the very least, jeopardise NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, thereby plunging the US into another calamity born out of the ashes of the Afghan war.

Nima Khorrami Assl is a security analyst at the Transnational Crisis Project in London.