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Balancing Acts in Central Asia

Who is balancing what range of issues in Central Asia? The United States has reviewed its options in the light of the attention that is being given to the region by others. Some policies need re-balancing in the light of conflicting objectives.

The notions of ‘economic and social development’ can be somewhat purist, for good reasons. Those interested in economic development often prefer to tackle development as an issue independent of other considerations such as questions of political power or of foreign policy and strategic issues. In today’s world such views are likely to collide with national security interests or with the diplomacy of natural resources (largely but not uniquely oil). A.S. Natsios, in a reference to the threat of international terrorism, has talked about the ‘darker side of globalization’ and changes that this has brought. A shift in US AID policy (bringing it into line with UK and World Bank thinking on ‘governance’ to some extent at least) has been with in the attitude towards the development, including the political development, of fragile states. The key idea is to use the opportunities created by global economic change to assist states to become stable, prosperous and, just as importantly, democratic. The general notion is ‘out with supporting autocratic leaders’, formerly useful in keeping a region stable and out of the hands of the (former) Eastern bloc, and ‘in’ with addressing issues of democratic change.

There is the possibility of a collision between the objectives of ‘transformational development’ leading to stable democratic societies and the interests of nations engaged in a strategic and diplomatic as well as a commercial struggle for interests. Such a possibility may be evidenced in Central Asia and in the ways in which Russia, China, Japan, India (both in cooperation with, and independent of ,the United States) and the United States are all trying to develop further connections, of a variety of sorts, to the countries in the region (Kazakhstan; Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan; Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). It’s a touchy and tough region (Uzbekistan closed a US airbase when acts of political repression brought forth US criticism) where local journalists can have a difficult time in maintaining freedom of the press.

Last October, Condoleezza Rice visited the region. May (2006) brought Dick Cheney to Kazakhstan. In early August, 2006, the Asia Times reported India’s attention to and strategic interest in Tajikistan. In late August, 2006, the Japanese Prime Minster visited Kazakhstan and talked natural resource cooperation. Putin is making his claim through trade and security cooperation. The region is a potential crossroads for all sorts of trade, including trade relating to the ‘darker side’ of globalization. There are sound reasons for each countries interests.

These countries, with the exception of Kazakhstan, are poor, turbulent countries, in competition for water resources, potentially isolated, fragile and needy states in any-one’s terms. Kazakhstan is an exception. It is stable, ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev, and has been growing, as a result of oil, privatizations and a balanced approach to economic development, at (roughly) an impressive ten percent a year over recent years. Such is the flurry of interest in the region that it has caused journalistic references (in the Asia Times) to be made to the ‘Great Game’, a competition for influence in the region between the British in India and Imperial Russia.

Kazakhstan shares borders with China and Russia and with three other Central Asia countries. It has access to the Caspian Sea. It is linked to Russia by the Eurasian Economic Community. It is linked to China by strategic activities related to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), an organization with expansionary interests. This called for in mid-2005 for the withdrawal of US troops for the region. It has links with the United States through the opening of Kazakhstan’s oil fields to United States exploration. Nazarbayev is widely held to be an autocrat, going for growth whilst keeping tight control, like the Chinese, over the levers of power and securing benefits for his immediate family. He has long-held the view that Kazakhstan is geopolitically of huge significance. He is now being courted by the US as a result of a significant policy review, prompted partly by the influence of China, the aim of which is to encourage Central Asia to think again about its involvement with SCO. What the United States is pointing out the countries of the region is that they have a southern option, effectively opportunities to link to the growing economies of South Asia. What is envisioned for Kazakhstan (for the time being, of course, this means Nazarbayev) is US backing ‘to be a true leader in the region’ and hence to become the ‘Regional Anchor’. What is at stake is connectivity with the rest of the world through huge investments in oil pipelines. Nazarbayev’s foreign policy is ‘multidimensional’ which means that he can manipulate diplomatic outcomes by a deliberate balancing act, playing one off against another, one of the benefits of foreign policy competition.

Nazarbayev is to visit Washington D.C. He is widely portrayed as an autocratic leader, though one that is highly successful in the even-handed management of economic change. There is some sense of contrast between what President Bush made a central value in development policy and the geo-political realities of the situation. It will be interesting to see to what extent further ‘democratization’ (part of the newly stated strategic objectives for the region set out in the State Department’s statement: ‘Balancing Priorities’) will be balanced by the US against ‘security cooperation’ and ‘commercial and energy interests’ in future discussions. The ‘Anchor’ metaphor suggests strong reasons to go with stability, a kind of regional hegemony. Nazarbayev has, in addition, a personal agenda. He wishes to be seen as a player and leader on the wider world stage and not just in the region. He is reported to have his eyes on the Chair (2009) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He will have a balancing act of his own to follow if he is to overcome skepticism, particularly in Europe, about his suitability for the role he craves.

Is history repeating itself and in more ways than one? Taking the region as a whole it would seem that it is still a question in Central Asia of 'who is balancing what, with or against whom?'