Central Asia is important but largely ignored


“Too many ‘Stans.”

So declared an important Englishman in the dining room of the National Liberal Club in London some three decades ago, after the dramatic disintegration of the Soviet Union. His voice was quite loud, reflecting the frustration of trying to remember a new and complicated geography.

A variety of members and guests were dining, relaxed and engaged in their own conversations. Nonetheless, this writer, dining alone on a business trip, took note of the comment sympathetically.

In other words, a lot of complexity arose in Central Asia, thanks to President Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union undertaking dramatic reforms that fatally weakened the already crumbling structures of that huge nation.

The Soviet Union comprised several Soviet republics in addition to Russia, the largest. They included what is now Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan along with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine.

All of these entities are now independent nations.

In fact, that’s a lot of “Stans”, especially when you add in neighboring states like Afghanistan and Pakistan. They represent both an analytical and a practical political challenge, even for businessmen, diplomats, military professionals, politicians, or anyone else most skilled in dealing with that huge and complex organizational, political, and physical landscape.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia is now trying to harness this constellation of countries into a working coalition that will bolster his much weakened position.

On October 14, he delivered a major policy speech in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, before the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia. The 28 members include Russia and some of the former Soviet states, as well as China, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam and others.

President Putin warned in his speech that the Ukraine war represents an effort by the United States and other Western nations to expand their influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Rationalizing the invasion of Russia as self-defense is a lie.

During the same two-day visit to Astana, Mr. Putin participated in the first Central Asia Summit. The presidents of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan also participated in this meeting, organized by Russia.

In addition, President Putin held talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Both nations now communicate regularly with Iran, including occasional summits.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan proposed the CICA initiative in the fall of 1992. He served as head of that country from independence in 1991 until he was forced to resign in 2019 amid corruption allegations and public protests, a sign of the times in Central Asia and elsewhere. . President Nazarbayev remains a powerful figure even when he is out of office.

Of particular interest is the continuing irregular armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, fueled by traditional ethnic hostilities. A ceasefire established in 1994 broke down in 2020, resulting in a brief but large-scale war.

The renewed armistice is tenuous. On October 12, President Emmanuel Macron of France accused President Putin of provoking armed clashes to destabilize the region. Putin’s meddling is due in part to Russia’s weak and deteriorating economy.

“The Great Game” refers to the long-term competition between Britain and Imperial Russia for influence in Central Asia in the 19th century. The comrade from the National Liberal Club echoed the challenges involved.

American foreign policy should emulate Britain’s traditional approach. We need disciplined, focused leadership not seen since President George HW Bush.

Arthur I. Cyr is the author of “After the Cold War: American Foreign Policy, Europe, and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at acyr@carthage.edu.


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