Negative Scenario II

Despite my role as a skeptic in the pairing of alternative scenarios, the need for objectivity demands that I acknowledge that I share most of the arguments advanced by Richard Weitz in his first positive scenario. They, however, are fixated on the ongoing situation and practically do not consider many potentially destabilizing factors. One consideration is that Sino-Russian cooperation in Central Asia is quite an “artificial” situation, being a result of the forces of diplomacy of the two countries, above all by their two leaders. It hardly has any economic basis; rather, it rests on two main pillars: first, on the impression that the principal threat to Russia and China is Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, possible in Central Asia, and second, on readiness by both sides to consciously limit their ambitions and seek compromise in the interest of stability. This readiness stimulated by the presence of major foreign policy challenges for Moscow and Beijing on other “fronts”: for Russia the confrontation with the West in Eastern Europe, and for China the problem of territorial disputes and control over maritime trade routes in East and Southeast Asia. Against this background Central Asia appears important, but not the most important region for policymakers in the Kremlin and Zhongnanhai, who are most concerned here about creating a “reliable backyard,” which enables them to turn their attention to priority tasks.

Another conclusion drawn by Weitz is that Russo-Chinese cooperation in Central Asia is, to a large degree, personalized and depends on the will of today’s two leaders, who often successfully contact each other and seem to copy each other in their approaches to domestic and foreign policies—to the point it is sometimes hard to say who is copying whom. This factor is important for understanding why Russia and China, two powers rather dissatisfied with the outside world, trust each other in Central Asia and do not give room to nationalist voices which, otherwise, are all the more audible in the two countries, drowning out voices of constructive dialogue.

Weitz ignores the role of Central Asia itself in furthering cooperation there between Russia and China. Five countries in Central Asia consider themselves to be a “team of statists,” in no way falling prey to the schemes for realigning the region of Moscow and Beijing even if this way of thinking absolutely does not correspond to reality. First, the Stans among themselves are in very complex and contradictory relations, and no “team” has taken shape. Second, all find themselves in the stage of active nation-building, easily aroused by questions of national prestige, sovereignty, and foreign interference in their sovereign affairs. Events of the past month clearly show this.

Not long before the October election for president in Kyrgyzstan, its relations with Kazakhstan seriously deteriorated. Kazakhs and Kyrgyz—two related peoples united not only by a common culture and very similar languages, but also by political cooperation—are members of all of the integrative formations in the post-Soviet space. Nonetheless, accusations by Almazbek Atambaev, the former president of Kyrgyzstan, in an address in Astana, which supported one of the candidates in his replacement, caused a skirmish between the diplomatic organs of the two countries. Interference in the affairs of a sovereign country was considered in Kyrgyzstan categorically unacceptable even on the part of a brother nation. In a wave of populism, the candidate loyal to Atambekov won, and Kazakhs actually closed the border with Kyrgyzstan, maximally complicating the lives of Kyrgyz businessmen, working laborers, and dealers in contraband, who transfer Chinese goods to the Russian market via both countries.

Another textbook example is relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which could not, no matter what, agree on the use of joint water resources. Dushanbe wants to construct the tallest hydroelectric station in the region, for which it is necessary to dam up the flow of the Vakhsh River, one of the main tributaries of the Amu Darya.  Uzbekistan is categorically opposed since it would suffer economic losses and ecological risks on its territory directly dependent on this river. Construction of the Rogun Dam requires huge resources, which Tajikistan lacks. China has them, but it is already the country’s main creditor and wisely does not get involved, fearing a negative reaction from its neighbors, which do not appreciate outside interference. Since Shavkat Mirziyoyev took power, Uzbekistan has followed a course of normalization of relations with all of its neighbors, not excluding Tajikistan. However, he has already visited Turkmenistan (twice), Kazakhstan (twice), and Kyrgyzstan, but not Tajikistan, with only recent indications that a visit is under preparation, as shown in a Facebook account of one of Uzbekistan’s official think tanks.

Central Asia is far from enjoying the “unity” that it may seem to be in Moscow and Beijing, which must be taken into account. The key player in the “great game” of Russia and China is Kazakhstan, which is the connecting link in transcontinental logistics schemes, the development of which are one of the main goals of the “Eurasian policy” of Beijing. Moreover, it is the only Central Asian country that directly borders Russia, and, thus, is potentially a “bridge” through which Russia prevents all that it fears: Islamic terrorism, illegal migration, and narco-trafficking. Ethnic Russians have a major presence, and the Russian language, as before, is the language of the intellectual and political elite of Kazakhstan. Russia’s position there is strong, and it categorically cannot allow it to weaken.

The “eternal president” Nursultan Nazarbayev is much older than Putin and Xi and his authority keeps Kazakhstan both at the center of overlapping, yet varied organizations and on the track of forging a secular, multi-national state. (Even so, the position of the “national-patriots” who hate all Russians and fear everything Chinese is quite strong in society.) It is no exaggeration to say that today’s agreement in tandem with “Russia-China” is based on the figure of Nazarbayev. At present, Astana is succeeding in establishing relations of equal respect with both Moscow and Beijing. Perhaps, that will be possible under his successors or perhaps not. He is already 77, and the question of “what lies ahead” is, one way or another, on everybody’s tongues. Will new authorities in Astana be able to maintain this equidistance and not quarrel with their hegemonic neighbors?

The transit of Chinese goods for the European market is today barely the only economic factor that unites the interests of the Moscow-Astana-Beijing triangle. China and Kazakhstan are continuously going forward with their transportation infrastructure, which exits into the European part of Russia (routes through the Caspian Sea and its south are widely discussed, but, as before, they are not economically profitable). Considering that China is ready to subsidize losses in trans-continental logistics, from which both Kazakhstan and Russia make money, stable functioning of this part of the “New Silk Road” is of interest to all three countries. But they have no other shared economic interests. On issues of attracting technology to the countries of Central Asia, purchasing equipment, and developing deposits of natural resources, Russia and China are, in full measure, direct competitors. In these conditions, the foundation on which cooperation between Russia and China is constructed bilaterally and with regional countries is the threat of Islamic terrorism, but this factor has side effects also.

In the run-up to the 19th Congress of the ruling Communist Party, security measures were made harsher across the China and especially in minority regions, which violated the rights of Turkic and other Islamic populations: not only the Uyghurs—the titular nation located within the Xinjiang-Uyghur autonomous region—but also Kazakhs (1.5 million persons), Kyrgyz (200,000), Tajiks (50,000), and Uzbeks (10,000). All of these nationalities are titular for the young states of Central Asia, and the attention of the entire society is drawn to the fate of their fellow nationals in neighboring China. News that somewhere in China, without recourse to courts and any trace, people are being detained only because of their ethnicity and, thus, treated as “suspicious,” arouses a cascade of emotions on the Internet. Such negative resonance is aroused also by the disregard with which the Chinese relate to representatives of their “Western area” and those married with ethnic Chinese.

This dissatisfaction at any moment could spread to Chinese businessmen and workers at projects in which Chinese invest in Central Asia, even to the point of pogroms. It is easy to imagine how China would conduct itself in this situation—especially considering the rise in nationalist emotions in precisely this country. Among the variants are: insertion of military contingents in defense of the rights of its citizens; the spread of military bases; and establishment of an openly pro-China regime at the head of one or several countries of Central Asia (taking into account “levers of pressure” through credits and cultivation of a loyal elite, who have been educated through Chinese grants and institutions of higher education, this would not be so complicated). Clearly Russia would be strongly against any variant.  

And this is only the first of two “painful questions” through which issues of sovereignty involving the Central Asian powers could destroy the entire system on which the strategy and diplomacies of Moscow and Beijing are built. For Russia, such a “painful question” can be found in the position of the Russian language and culture, the importance of which for contemporary Russian politics I discussed at length in my first scenario. In Kazakhstan, it is legally mandated in the service sector that one cannot answer a client in the Kazakh language if he speaks in Russian. Such policies of “ethnic compromise” yield their fruits, but, let us suppose that a decision to shift the Kazakh language to Latin letters caused an uproar in Russian social discourse, which, in turn, offended Kazakhs, who would wonder “why this interference in their affairs—their language—their laws.”

And what would happen if a new leader of Kazakhstan were inclined to solidify his nation with the help of “returning to its roots” and “liberating it from the multi-century colonial yoke of Russia” (real appeals spread on the Kazakh Internet)?  Under these circumstances how would the Russians or 20 percent of the population in the country feel? And how would the Kremlin be obliged to react, given its position “we defend the interests of Russians in any country of the world where they live,” which was finally formulated during the “Crimean events.” How would China react, in turn, if Russia switched to active intervention under the pretext of defending the rights of the Russian population in Kazakhstan? In other words, not only in relations between Russia and China in Central Asia, but also in relations of these two states with each local state separately, there exist quite a few contradictions which can make themselves known at any moment.

Insisting on one’s interests (interpreted through the prism of nation-building) with regard to these contradictions, the countries of Central Asia would come into conflict with the hegemons (Russia and China), and, in turn, considering that the basis of legitimacy for the regimes in power is through appealing to the revival of national greatness, would lead to demands to answer the actions of the “hegemons."

In the worse case scenario, Central Asia would stop being a region of a “fragile world,” which keeps in power authoritarian “khan regimes” of the post-Soviet world amid expectations of economic miracles from China, and turn into one of the main regions of international instability, of the type seen in the Middle East and the Balkans at the time of the Yugoslav wars. Russia and China would find it difficult to restrain themselves within the confines of the “strategic partnership” if the situation went out of control and one of the countries began to act more decisively than the other desired. The expansion of one’s military presence, heavy lobbying of economic and humanitarian interests through “political puppets”—are among the steps that could finally destroy the Russo-Chinese agreement in this region. Equal to other key contradictions in Russo-Chinese relations, about which I wrote in the prior scenario, this could make these two most powerful states in the world (in population and territory) principal opponents, which already occurred in the post-Stalin era a half- century ago.

The balance of forces in Central Asia is fragile. Maintaining it demands from all actors not only restraint and reasonableness, but also the need to undertake compromises and the intelligence to sacrifice their ideological positions for the sake of the benefit of what Russia, China, and the secular, authoritarian regimes in the “Stans” consider “stability.” Most importantly, it requires time, both for the lengthy process of equalizing the levels of development of economies, political institutions, and nation-building, and for neutralizing many cultural contradictions in order to reduce the danger of the “negative scenario” occurring in Central Asia.