The most important question for the Central Asian Five may be their ability to overcome the trap where they’re at a level of development when the destruction of the state is impossible, but so is reaching a new level in terms of the quality of life of the population. It is unlikely that Russia wants its most important southern neighbours to be in a position where the gap is insurmountable, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
The fact that Russia assumed responsibility for the security and development of the peoples of Central Asia was historically accidental, although it was connected with obvious geopolitical circumstances. Now relations between our countries are undergoing a new transition period, as is the internal development of Moscow’s partners in this vast but sparsely populated region. Inevitably, there is a temptation to assess their prospects by comparing them with existing practices of interaction between major European powers, or the United States, and their immediate neighbours. Such comparisons reveal that there is only one example where a neighbour of a large industrial power does not find itself in distress — this is Canada, which shares its main cultural practices and political institutions with America. In all other cases, whether we are talking about countries south of the United States, or about the states of North Africa and the Middle East, being in the same neighbourhood as a powerful nation does not benefit the southern neighbours. However, what provides relative confidence in the future is that Russia, by its nature and in the perception of its neighbours, is not a typical country of the developed North. Therefore, getting into a situation similar to Mexico or Libya will require much more effort from the countries of Central Asia than it might seem at first glance.
So far, the states of Central Asia are showing rather contradictory signs in their internal political and socio-economic evolution. On the one hand, all of them emerged as independent countries within a fairly short historical period of 30 years. Despite numerous internal political conflicts, none of these states collapsed, as many in the West expected, and even hoped, in the first stages of their independence process after the collapse of the USSR. Each of the countries in the region is developing along its own unique path, reflecting historical experience and cultural characteristics. Speaking of public administration practices, it is hard to find anything in Central Asia from the era of modernisation in the 20th century with a legacy powerful enough to overshadow earlier practices of maintaining comparative stability. Virtually none of the current development trends have destroyed Central Asian societies; rather, they are absorbed by them, adapted by the powerful cultural and civilisational layers accumulated over the centuries.
Due to its geopolitical and ethnic composition, the Central Asian region cannot serve as a jumping-off point for the formation of states or their unions that would pose a danger to neighbouring powers. Here, first and foremost, we are talking about the interests of Russia and China, connected with the region by long common borders on both sides, where ethnically and religiously related people often live. Theoretically, the Central Asian countries could be considered by the West as an excellent territorial base for launching an offensive against the rear of Moscow and Beijing. However, the lack of direct access to these countries, as well as their own responsible policies, makes such a prospect unlikely. Moreover, these same factors determine the serious influence of Russia on the security of Central Asia and potentially significant influence from China. Although Beijing has so far shown no desire to take direct responsibility for security in Central Asia, in the future we may see a more active policy from the Chinese government.
We have observed that clandestine American and European diplomacy is doing more and more to undermine the internal stability of the countries of Central Asia. The mood of segments of urban population (albeit extremely insignificant given the general background) is partly related to these efforts, and the authorities, who also seek to use external factors to channel public discontent, respond to them. It seems that numerous initiatives whose content is directed against the interests of Russia and, to a lesser extent, China, sometimes feel invisible support from those who make political decisions. At the same time, the governments of the Central Asian countries themselves feel confident and have no doubt about their ability to keep such destructive moods under control. This confidence deserves respect — in 30 years of independence, we have not seen a single example when movements inspired from abroad became strong enough to threaten social stability. Moreover, a significant proportion of the resources allocated by the West to undermine internal stability in the region is successfully absorbed within the framework of traditional public institutions.
The most striking examples of an internal crisis were after the dramatic civil war in Tajikistan (1992-1997) as well as the mass protests in Kazakhstan in January 2022, when the authorities even had to turn to Russia and other CSTO allies for help normalise the situation in the country. However, most observers still believe that there were very few driving factors of foreign origin in these incidents. The main reasons lay in internal socio-economic problems, the “facade” economy and public institutions. Now the Kazakh government is showing a desire to rebuild the state and society that it received from the hands of its first president Nursultan Nazarbayev. But recent protests by oil workers in Kazakhstan’s westernmost regions show that these efforts are still struggling to meet the needs of the population. According to reports, the situation in the infrastructure inherited by independent Kazakhstan from the USSR is not getting much better either. Thus, the question arises of how long the country’s peaceful development period will last and what may follow. To a lesser extent, this applies to smaller Kyrgyzstan, which also experienced several revolutionary episodes over the past 15 years, the results of which were consolidated for the time being.
Now the efforts of all the governments of the countries of Central Asia, without exception, are aimed at gradually increasing the degree of economic openness and involvement in international relations. The leader in this regard is Uzbekistan, where a policy of openness has been pursued for several years, often bringing very impressive results. Other states act less consistently or do not have such serious demographic resources as those that are at the disposal of Tashkent. However, in general, we can be quite optimistic about the stability of the state systems in the region and should not be afraid that they may fall into the abyss of disasters in the coming years, as has happened with Afghanistan, Syria and a number of African countries.
This, however, does not mean that it will be easy for the Central Asian states to achieve the level and quality of life of their largest neighbours — Russia and China. Taking into account the fact that all five countries are relatively protected from the most terrible existential challenges, the most important question may be their ability to overcome the trap where they’re at a level of development when the destruction of the state is impossible, but so is reaching a new level in terms of the quality of life of the population. A number of countries have followed this path, often showing relatively good figures for the overall development of their economies: Mexico, Algeria, Morocco, and some of the countries of Southeast Asia. It is unlikely that Russia wants its most important southern neighbours to be in a position where the gap is insurmountable. The answer to this challenge can be, among others, more active regional integration, the creation of common labour markets and the spread of related social policy practices, as well as the avoidance of the archaisation of society through the formation of a common cultural and educational space.