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Rice Attempts to Secure US Influence in Central Asia

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By Erich Marquardt and Adam Wolfe

Power and Interest News Report
October 17, 2005

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's October 10-13 tour through Central Asia marked Washington's attempts to secure its ties with the former Soviet republics. The Bush administration finds these ties especially important now that it is being evicted from its military base in Uzbekistan. Relations between the United States and Uzbekistan have weakened recently; indeed, while the trip saw Rice visiting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, she did not visit Uzbekistan.


Instead, Rice called Uzbekistan "out of step with what is happening in [Central Asia] as a whole." Her comments close the recent chapter of U.S.-Uzbek relations. With the loss of the U.S. military base in Uzbekistan, the United States has moved quickly to prevent a further loss of influence in Central Asia. With the recent announcement by Kyrgyzstan that the U.S. could keep its airbase at Manas airport, Washington appears to be partly successful in this aim. However, if conditions in Afghanistan stabilize, calls for a U.S. withdrawal from Central Asia are expected to increase.

Washington's Loss of Uzbekistan

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, Tashkent offered Washington the use of the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southeastern Uzbekistan. U.S.-Uzbek relations were at a high point, a development that distressed the Russian Federation since it saw its former Cold War enemy encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, not only did the United States secure military base rights in Uzbekistan, but it also secured base rights at the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan, another former Soviet republic. Russia could do little to prevent U.S. involvement in these countries.

However, once the invasion of Afghanistan was over and the country began to stabilize, policymakers in Washington began to second guess having positive relations with states that could easily become unstable due to their authoritarian rule and repression of opposition movements. As stated by PINR analyst Dr. Michael A. Weinstein in September 2005, consensus was finally reached in Washington "that Uzbekistan's authoritarian regime led by President Islam Karimov is not stable in the long run, that it should be pressured on its human rights violations and that opposition to it should be nurtured." Therefore, in 2004 the U.S. canceled aid to Uzbekistan ostensibly due to its poor human rights record. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Uzbekistan-C.I.S."]

The cancellation of aid combined with the March 2005 revolution that overthrew Kyrgyzstan's authoritarian government caused obvious concern in Tashkent since it too faced revolutionary forces. Tashkent deduced that while there were many benefits to further cooperation with the United States, there was also the risk that growing U.S. involvement in Uzbekistan could destabilize Karimov's authoritarian government.

The catalyst occurred when Karimov suppressed a rebellion in the city of Andijan on May 13, 2005. The United States joined the European Union in calling for an independent investigation of the incident. Moscow, however, stood with Tashkent. A little more than a month after the protests, Tashkent restricted U.S. flights out of Karshi-Khanabad. Then, on July 29, Tashkent chose to evict the United States from the base altogether, giving it a January 2006 eviction ultimatum. To retaliate, in early October the U.S. Senate voted to block payment of US$23 million owed to Uzbekistan for the Pentagon's past use of the base. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Uzbekistan-C.I.S."]

Now, both the U.S. and Uzbekistan have hardened their respective positions, and it appears that relations between the two states will not improve for the foreseeable future. Rice exempted Uzbekistan from her October visit to the region, and Uzbekistan just conducted joint war games with Russia. Tashkent has also been speaking more positively about its relations with Moscow.

Moscow, of course, is happy to see Uzbekistan back in its court, and will pursue a policy that keeps Karimov in control of Uzbekistan and on Russia's side in the struggle for influence in Central Asia. Indeed, after the recent Russian-Uzbek war games, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists, "These should not be the only Russian-Uzbek exercises. These joint military exercises should be conducted regularly, and made an integral part of our military cooperation." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov offered stability assurances of his own, rebuking the European Union for placing sanctions on Uzbekistan, saying that they would have little effect, calling the sanctions a "purely political instrument which has shown its lack of effectiveness in Iraq and other regions."

U.S. Secures Use of Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan

The loss of Uzbekistan had the potential to pose a problem for U.S. operational capability in Afghanistan and in the region. However, it appears that Washington has secured itself from any further loss of influence by receiving a guarantee from Kyrgyzstan's new government that the United States can keep its airbase at Manas airport. The new government of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in Bishkek signed a joint statement on October 11, 2005 with Rice, stating, "We support the presence of coalition forces in the Kyrgyz Republic until the mission of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan is completed."

Bakiyev, who was elected in July 2005 following a revolution that removed long-time leader Askar Akayev from power, is balancing between three superpowers: Russia, China and the United States. It already hosts military bases from Russia and the United States, and there are plans to host a new base for Chinese troops. Bishkek is pursuing a foreign policy that has the objective of gaining benefits from all three major powers, while also securing its independence from any one of those powers by cleverly balancing them off one another. The reason such a policy is successful is because if any one power puts too much pressure on Kyrgyzstan, then Bishkek can rely more on the other two, signaling a loss of influence for the state that initiated the pressure.

Indeed, Rice recently stated at a briefing in Bishkek, "It is important for Kyrgyzstan to maintain friendly relations with its neighbors, there are no reasons for the republic to choose between Russia and the USA." Russian leaders have made similar comments. However, while the United States did not expect Bishkek to close the Russian airbase, Moscow was hoping that Bishkek would agree to evict the U.S. from Manas. Indeed, Kyrgyzstan originally signed a joint Shanghai Cooperation Organization (S.C.O.) statement calling on the U.S. to leave the region. Later, however, it backed away from the statement and allowed the base to remain. [See: "The 'Great Game' Heats Up in Central Asia"]

Nevertheless, Moscow is being careful not to be overly aggressive with Bishkek since a worsening of relations with Russia would move Kyrgyzstan further into the U.S. camp. Therefore, expect Kyrgyzstan's balancing act to continue for the near future provided there is not another change of government.

No Pressure on Tajikistan to Host a U.S. Military Base

When meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rakhmonov, Rice assured him, "We have no intentions of having a military base in Tajikistan. We are not trying to increase our military presence anywhere. On the contrary, we are reducing our military bases throughout the world." Rice's statements should come as relief for Tajikistan, which doesn't want to be in a position to choose between the U.S. and Russia.

Russia plays an important role in Tajikistan, helping to prevent Islamic terrorism from destabilizing the government in Dushanbe. When Tajikistan won independence from the Soviet Union, it fell into civil war between ruling elites and Islamists loosely organized in the United Tajik Opposition; the war lasted from 1992 to 1997. Russia still garrisons the 201st Motorized Rifle Division in the country, and helps patrol Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan. Additionally, on October 7, Russia announced that it would build a new airbase outside Tajikistan's capital. Russia's move is aimed at fortifying its interests in the former Soviet republics.

While Dushanbe has called for the United States and the European Union to provide it with technical assistance needed to prevent smugglers from moving illicit drugs out of Afghanistan and into Europe, it has not placed into doubt its strong relationship with Russia.

Kazakhstan as a Regional Model

While in the region, Rice also visited Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since before the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Nevertheless, despite his long rule, Rice called him a reformer. She said, "The Nazarbayev government has a chance to be a real leader in Central Asia on both economic and political reform." Her comments stem not so much from the personal track record of Kazakhstan's leaders, but from the carefully cultivated relationships pursued by the country since the early 1990s.

Kazakhstan is one of the three post-Soviet states with the highest proportion of ethnic Russians -- the other two being Ukraine and Latvia. That fact alone meant that from the beginning of independent, post-1991 Kazakhstan, the government has had to respect the rights of its large Russian minority. Since the 1920s, it was the large Russian population that built today's infrastructure, industrial and scientific institutions inside the country. The ethnic Kazakhs had a relatively small role in their republic's affairs, a process that began to change only in the last two decades of Soviet rule. Russians in Kazakhstan constitute an important and already inseparable part of the state in practically all aspects. Thus, Nazarbayev's track record with respect to the treatment of ethnic minorities is one of the best in the former Soviet Union, although not without its own occasional blemishes.

Most importantly, Kazakhstan has little choice when it comes to relations with its Russian population. Bound to Russia by industrial and ethnic links, Kazakhstan has been one of Russia's most reliable partners in the former Soviet Union. Since the large Russian community did not openly oppose Nazarbayev's rule, Astana has had no need to employ heavy-handed tactics that often characterize the way other former Soviet states deal with internal problems -- such as Lithuania and its growing pressure on its ethnic Russian community.

While Astana enjoys a fruitful and growing relationship with Moscow, Kazakhstan has been able to relatively successfully diversify its international relations portfolio, most notably in the energy sector. While Kazakh oil and gas flow through the Russian pipeline system, the country has been able to ship its energy out to foreign partners that do not rely on Moscow for energy transportation. Kazakhstan recently came on board of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, and several major American and Western energy companies are extracting oil and gas in partnership with local companies.

At the same time, both India and China are in the process of finishing agreements and constructing their own projects to ship oil and gas out of Kazakhstan. Since the United States designated the Caspian Sea region vital to its national security, Kazakhstan occupies an important position as one of the principal regional energy suppliers to the outside world -- be it Washington and Western Europe, or East and South Asia. Maintaining stability in a country as large and important as Kazakhstan is crucial to the uninterrupted flow of energy, and the United States is keen on keeping its current relationship with Kazakhstan on track -- even if Astana is moving closer into the Moscow-designed security and economic strategy for the former Soviet Union.

A Central Asian Grouping Without Russia

What the U.S. desires most is the creation of a Central Asian organization that does not involve Russia and China. Such an organization would be an economic and political grouping that would be an alternative to the S.C.O. and the Eurasian Economic Community (E.E.C.). Additionally, it would involve Afghanistan, one of Washington's test cases and a country that it hopes to further integrate into the region. The theoretical organization would likely be composed of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

The viability of success for such an organization is questionable. For one, it exempts Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan may consider such a grouping too inflammatory to Russian interests and be unwilling to pursue it.

With the prospects for creating an alternative grouping appearing unlikely, it can be expected that Washington will continue to deal with each state in the region on a bilateral basis. This strategy is designed to weaken the S.C.O. and E.E.C. by forcing each country to adjust its foreign policy in respect to individual arrangements reached with the United States.

U.S. concern over the S.C.O. comes as Russia and China forge closer relations in order to better coordinate the organization. While not a unified bloc, the S.C.O. has grown in strength and numbers this year. The July 2005 S.C.O. meeting saw a tightening of the ranks with a joint statement hostile to U.S. interests and the enlargement of the organization with the addition of India, Iran and Pakistan as observers. [See: "The 'Great Game' Heats Up in Central Asia"]

In August, Russia and China participated in their first joint military exercises. Afterward, both states indicated that they expect the S.C.O. members to partake in future exercises. Such an exchange, if conducted under S.C.O. auspices, and not through state-to-state relations, would further Russia's interests in the region. Both China and Russia will likely continue their attempts to strengthen the S.C.O., while the U.S. will work to underline the differences between members with the hope of weakening the bloc. [See: "The Significance of Sino-Russian Military Exercises"]

Conclusion

Rice's visit to Central Asia comes on the heels of Washington's loss of influence in Uzbekistan. The United States needs to secure access to Central Asia in order to continue its ongoing operations in Afghanistan, and to monitor developments in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region; for this, continued use of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan is especially important.

Additionally, in order to calm fears that the U.S. is a destabilizing force due to its criticism of authoritarian regimes, Rice assured the region's leaders that it recognized their rule as legitimate. While she continued to speak of the need for democracy and free elections, she did not overly reference opposition leaders and movements, and took a very mild stance toward democracy in general.

For instance, while Rice said that "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," she followed the statement with, "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."

Therefore, while Rice's visit will work to calm the nerves of Central Asia's authoritarian leaders, it will not result in any new inroads for the United States. Washington's assurances offered to Moscow that the United States is not planning to build new military bases in the region, and that its base in Kyrgyzstan will only remain until operations in Afghanistan are completed, will be welcomed by Russia. However, Russia will likely continue its attempts to strengthen the S.C.O. in order to create a power bloc that will be able to reject any new U.S. or European attempts at wooing the former Soviet republics.


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