The Opacity of Central Asia

A region that has always defied predictions is becoming more confusing than ever.

Tajikistan remains beset by political, social and economic problems from every direction, and these should only increase when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan with almost nothing in the way of leading indicators to suggest what may result in the country. The new federal government in Kyrgyzstan has halting control over the south of the country, and many observers express increasing concern that the country will face further economic and ethnic jeopardy. Right now, forecasting the future in Uzbekistan is nothing short of useless. And in Kazakhstan, the richest nation in Central Asia and its most politically stable, a January 2012 report from the Carnegie Endowment underscored the difficulty ahead, saying “there is already a growing sense of nervousness, in all sectors of society, over the political uncertainties that lie ahead.”

Depending on who wins the American election, triangulating Russian power in Central Asia may become a key foreign-policy objective of the United States. Meanwhile, the majoritarian view that Russia owns the ultimate ascendency in the region, usually assumed by Central Asian analysts, has come in for criticism, as in a well-researched January 2012 white paper on Central Asia’s future for The Asia Society:

There are significant limits to Russian influence, however. Despite having troops stationed in Central Asia, Russia has been reluctant to get involved in even limited peacekeeping operations. When a desperate Kyrgyzstan asked for Moscow’s help in stopping the ethnic violence that erupted after the 2010 revolution, Moscow demurred, sending a powerful signal that local governments should not count on Russian security assistance. And despite investment by Russian companies across the region, it seems likely that Russian economic influence will continue to decline relative to that of China.

The research paper also notices an emerging Sino-Russian tactical alliance, an “axis of convenience” between Beijing and Moscow. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan is noted to be drifting ever more firmly into a Russian embrace. Meanwhile, the United States has both failed to pay attention to Central Asia and “in recent months, Central Asia has gained even more stature among American military planners because U.S. relations with Pakistan, always difficult, nosedived in the political fallout over the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in his home near Islamabad.” There was nothing confused in the thinking or analysis of the paper; rather, the region is covered with fog and has become consumed with more significant contradiction than usual.

The situation across the region has become much more difficult to parse.

Ilan Greenberg is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington DC.