The Greater Caspian Region
Competition and Cooperation
Ambassador (ret.) Richard E. Hoagland
Ask any passerby in the United States or Europe what comes to mind when they hear the words Caspian Sea, and, after a pause, their answer might be, “Caviar?” A small number of more knowledgeable individuals might answer, “Natural resources like oil and gas?” Few people beyond the Greater Caspian Region have a great awareness or understanding of the eight countries on the southern rim of Russia that emerged from the fall of the Soviet Union—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Most have little knowledge of why the Greater Caspian Region has been a center of competition for global power and influence over the centuries—think the Han Chinese and the Roman, Persian, and Ottoman Empires, not to mention the Russian Empire. Similarly, most would be surprised to hear that the Greater Caspian Region is a focal point of increasing strategic importance.
Stories about the Greater Caspian Region are usually only a quiet, background hum against the cacophony of news stories concerning more volatile countries and non-state actors, such as Syria, North Korea, or ISIS. But the region bears watching, because it’s one of the major hydrocarbon-deposit centers of the world. The region contains the Tengiz, Kashagan, and Karachaganak gas fields in Kazakhstan; the Galkynysh in Turkmenistan; and the Shah Deniz in Azerbaijan, to name only the most well-known. The Caspian is also the locus at which four global powers are currently vying for influence: Russia, China, the U.S., and Europe. As a result of the increasing competition in the region, the Greater Caspian Region is gaining new strategic importance globally.
The emerging foreign policy of the Trump administration, which lacks the same emphasis on promoting democracy and human rights that other administrations have tended to make, has ironically, and to the discomfort of some in the U.S. foreign-policy elite, enhanced the position of the U.S. as a partner for most of the former Soviet states in the greater Caspian region. We have seen evidence of this in Azerbaijan, which has recently been signaling its desire for a closer relationship with the U.S. If nothing else, the Trump administration has introduced an element of hard-core realpolitik into U.S. foreign policy that has been absent for at least the last 20 years, during which “calling out,” “naming and shaming,” and “finger wagging” in public policy statements, as well as the well-intentioned but excruciatingly detailed Congressionally-mandated reports on human rights and religious freedom, have too often countered Washington’s somewhat restrained offers of engagement. An exception was when the U.S. needed support for the war in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom.
This emerging reality does not mean that the U.S. has dramatically shifted to amorality, but it does enhance the opportunities for engagement. The ultimate irony that few special-interest
ideologues are willing to admit is that this kind of realpolitik engagement fosters change and gradually leads to enhanced Western liberal values and global engagement for the new states on Russia’s southern periphery, especially as the younger generation comes into power.
Why is this so hard for the West to accept? The one fundamental point that the U.S., and the West in general, does not fully take into account is that the intellectual heritage of the former Soviet states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus is not the same heritage that developed in the West over centuries from the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment—the three great intellectual transformations that created the institutions, cultural values, political structures, and world view of the modern West. Rather, the former Soviet states inherited the values of the Soviet and the earlier Russian Tsarist empires, with an unbroken line directly back to the Byzantine Empire. This world-view and system of governance de-emphasized the importance of the individual and glorified the power of the state headed by an autarchic leader. Especially during the Soviet period, this non-Western system established an unholy alliance of political leadership in the hands of the privileged few, a tolerance for and even acceptance of organized crime as an element of power, and the use of powerful intelligence agencies to knit it all together. Without the existence of any long-established institutions to mount a challenge, this trifecta benefited only a privileged few. To put it succinctly, the heritage that continues to influence the region is radically different from that of the West.
But first, to better understand the significance of the Greater Caspian Region, let’s look at the international players that vie for influence in the eight countries on the southern rim of the former Soviet Union.
Russia has long declared a privileged sphere of influence over its former republics. Russia’s near-absolute dominance there should be a foregone conclusion, given the history, economic ties, a colonial lingua franca, the Russified culture of the elites, and the tsunami of propaganda on the Russian broadcast media that blanket the region. Yet somehow it is not. Each state in the Greater Caspian Region has warily guarded its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, especially since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The annexation was a quiet game-changer and a wake-up call for each of the governments in the Greater Caspian Region.
Furthermore, Russia whispers a greatly over-exaggerated account of the threat of the Islamic State into the ears of the region’s leaders. A threat does indeed exist because of ISIS’ declaration of a sub-caliphate of Khorasan in Afghanistan and its neighboring regions. However, Russian admonitions purposely construe it as more dire and imminent than it actually is in order to impel the Greater Caspian Region states to turn more fully to Moscow for security. Russia already has a permanent military presence at Gyumri in Armenia and in Central Asia at the Kant Airfield outside Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan and with its 201st Motorized Rifle Division at three locations in Tajikistan: Dushanbe, Qurghonteppa, and Kulob. The 201st is Russia’s largest
military base outside the borders of the Russian Federation. By contrast, Washington has repeatedly stated it has no desire for permanent military bases in Central Asia, though the U.S. did have military facilities in Central Asia for a time to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan, 2001-2005, and the Manas Transit Center at the Bishkek International Airport, 2002-2014).
The leaders of the Greater Caspian Region states, who already consider stability as a sine qua non for continued rule, do not need regular sermons from Moscow about the evils of so-called color revolutions, supposedly plotted in Washington – the unconstitutional changes of government in Georgia (the Rose Revolution of 2003), Ukraine (the Orange Revolution of 2004 and, subsequently, the Maidan of 2013), and Kyrgyzstan (the Tulip Revolution of 2005). However, such warnings are part of the regular Russian liturgy in its former republics. Moscow demonizes democracy and trumpets authoritarian rule in the service of stability and in an effort to herd its former sheep into its own exclusive, pasture.
Russia has created two multilateral structures for regional integration. The first is the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in which the members pledge to mutually support and defend one another from security threats (“Permanently Neutral” Turkmenistan maintains only observer status). However, the CSTO is not regarded as an especially effective organization by either its members or the greater Eurasian region, despite annual summits and regular military exercises. It is questionable whether its members would respond in an emergency situation, for example in a renewed war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is notable that Kyrgyzstan asked for security assistance from the CSTO during the ethnic turmoil in Osh, that began in June 2010, but Moscow did not respond.
The more recently formed, Russia-dominated multilateral organization in the region is the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which initially comprised Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, and now includes Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Moscow is also putting pressure on others, such as Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, to join. Tajikistan, arguably the weakest state in the region, has responded to Moscow unenthusiastically, neither accepting nor rejecting Russian overtures. Azerbaijan continues to kick the can down the road.
Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev proposed the EEU in the 1990s, but Moscow tended to pooh-pooh it until Putin’s third presidential term when he apparently recognized its potential as an effective tool of Putinism, which some go so far as to dub neo-sovietism. Some suspect that Moscow sees the EEU as a bloc structure – led by Moscow – that will inevitably take on a political dimension. However, Kazakhstan has so far said nyet to any kind of political dimension – or, to go even further, a common currency – for the EEU. Kazakhstan rigorously guards its independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, especially because its population, concentrated largely in the northern part of the country bordering Russia and around the former capital, Almaty, is still just under 25 percent Slavic unlike the populations of the four other Central Asia states. It is especially the north that concerns Astana, because influential voices in Russia (and not just the clownish Vladimir Zhirinovsky, himself born in Almaty) have continued to call for the annexation of the northern third of Kazakhstan, which some insist is historically a part of Russia, since the 1990s. Annexation was such a concern to Nazarbayev that he moved the capital of his country from Almaty to Breshnev’s “Virgin Lands” city of Astana on the steppe, virtually placing it in the middle of nowhere.
China is the increasingly looming elephant in the Greater Caspian Region. The country’s presence has been politically benign for the most part, as China has sought to gain access to the hydrocarbon and mineral wealth in the region to fuel its own economic growth. The West, including the U.S., saw no problem, even as China increasingly bought into the oil sector of Kazakhstan and the natural-gas sector in Turkmenistan (where it is the only foreign nation allowed to operate its gas wells and pipelines directly on Turkmenistan’s sovereign soil), because there was no perceived political threat.
However, the West perked up its ears when China’s President Xi Jinping announced plans for its New Silk Road Economic Belt to run from east to west across Central Asia, through the South Caucasus, and on to northern Europe at Nazarbayev University in Astana in September 2013. Initially, the U.S., which began its own New Silk Road Initiative during the early Obama administration, paid little attention, because the U.S. version of the New Silk Road focused on forging north-south links from Russia’s southern border into India, whereas China’s stated goal was to facilitate transport of its industrial production, especially from Western China, overland to Europe. We now know that China was making plans up as it went. China had mostly formulated and announced its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, now known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, by 2014. OBOR, which would stretch from the Karakorum Mountains to the warm-water port of Gwadar, reaches far beyond Central Asia to connect elements in Pakistan and Southeast Asia, maritime lanes through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and all the littoral ports, including those of East Africa. China released a comprehensive action plan by March 2015 for what it had come to call the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [see author’s end-note for the entire text], emphasizing that its adherence to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. The action plan stated that the BRI would uphold the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, which are “mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, mutual noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.”
The initial U.S. view of China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt was rather simplistic: “They do hardware; we do software,” meaning that Beijing would focus on upgrading the East-West highways and rail lines along the southern rim of the former Soviet Union, while Washington focused on technical capacity building for things such as customs modernization and border security. However, it became apparent that China was actually creating more of an industrial investment scheme, when the country began to develop its BRI policy, invest in upgrading port facilities in Azerbaijan and Georgia, and buy up industries all the way from Xinyang to the Black Sea. Furthermore, China began to emphasize as never before the value of greatly expanded people-to-people engagement, a fundamental element in any super-power’s foreign policy.
U.S. diplomats met with appropriate contacts in Beijing for the first time near the end of 2014 to compare notes on each other’s New Silk Road policies. [Full disclosure: This author led that U.S. delegation.] Those initial meetings seemed friendly and surprisingly forthcoming to some participants and observers, but they only scratched the surface. Follow-up came in May 2015, again in Beijing, where the U.S. offered a short list of possibilities for concrete cooperation in Central Asia and beyond. Not much came of this at that time – in part, because China was uncertain of U.S. intentions. The U.S. was “testing the waters,” but it was not fully committed to cooperation. Furthermore, China had already nominally allied its New Silk Road Economic Belt with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Because U.S. policy was not fully invested in seeking Chinese collaboration in Central Asia and beyond, Washington let these initial forays fall by the wayside. Yet potential certainly exists for Sino-American cooperation in the Greater Caspian Region. Indeed, U.S. companies are already participating in China’s upgrade of Georgia’s Black Sea ports and seeking contracts elsewhere.
The China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) plays a more important role in Central Asia than the Russia-dominated CSTO. For many years, outsiders and even some participants saw the SCO as just one more “talk shop.” Member-state Uzbekistan recommended that the U.S. be granted observer status soon after the SCO was founded. However, Washington rejected the offer, before the SCO could decide on this recommendation, because it was unwilling to be associated with an organization comprised of Russia, China, and “un-reformed” former Soviet states, even as an observer. While understandable, this rejection was short-sighted and typical of ideological decision-making in Washington at that time.
Iran, which shares borders with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia, is a wild-card in the Greater Caspian Region. Tehran has long been interested in its former-Soviet neighbors but the international sanctions that have crippled its economy have also constrained its options. If the U.S. continues to lift international sanctions against Iran– certainly a big “if” – that may begin to change. Still, Iranian-Caspian infrastructure continues to emerge, like the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran railroad, and is likely to increase over time.
Nevertheless, Iran will have an uphill slog to gain any significant political influence in the Greater Caspian Region. The most natural affinities should exist between Dushanbe and Tehran, because, unlike the other Central Asian states that by their heritage are Turkic-speaking and share Mongol-culture, Tajikistan is a Persian-culture nation, having once in the long-distant past been an outpost of the ancient Persian Empire. The Tajik and Farsi languages are mutually intelligible. But even Dushanbe is more than a little leery of Tehran, because Tajikistan’s population is majority Sunni, despite the large, remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast where Ismaili Shi’ites predominate. Likewise, Iran and Azerbaijan, two Shia-majority states, should be natural allies, but secular Azerbaijan has kept its relations with Iran to the “correct” level at best, and Iran keeps a wary eye on its significant Azeri population in northern Iran. The other Greater Caspian Region states, which are determinedly secular, also cast a wary eye toward Iran, because it is a self-proclaimed Islamic revolutionary state. Still, Iran can expect to gain more influence in the region in the coming years. Iran’s influence in particular will grow due to increasing trade and energy linkages with the Caspian-littoral states.
Despite its significant potential, Turkey never fully emerged as a major player in the Greater Caspian Region and currently seems more focused on its own internal issues. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ankara made a full-press effort to gain clout in Central Asia, where four of the five states of interest (minus Tajikistan) are Turkic. However, it overplayed its hand and was perceived as seeking dominance rather than partnership. In the South Caucasus, Turkey and Armenia maintain their post-Ottoman Empire standoff. Turkey is allied with Azerbaijan, primarily against Armenia, but is not a dominant and decisive partner for Azerbaijan, despite its public rhetoric. Indeed, Israel is as much a key partner for Azerbaijan as Turkey is. Ankara will remain a minor player in the region so long as Turkey remains inward-looking due to its unresolved struggle to determine whether it will pursue its own neo-Ottoman (and increasingly authoritarian) course or become truly European.
THE EUROPEAN UNION
All eight Greater Caspian states practice to varying degrees what they call a multi-vector foreign policy, meaning they seek to balance their relations with Russia, China, the U.S., and the European Union. Sometimes they also seek to play one off against the other. Kyrgyzstan in particular has lurched between Moscow and Washington in recent years, attempting to instigate a bidding war for Bishkek’s love. Some Central Asian officials, as well as leaders in the South Caucasus states, will readily admit that Russia and China are immediate neighbors; Europe and the U.S. are rather far away. The EU, as an entity of 28 voting nations, must make policy by consensus and is consequently not as big a player in the Greater Caspian Region as are some of its individual members. These include the United Kingdom, Germany, some of the Scandinavian countries, and even Latvia, which takes a quiet but effective approach in the region. Even so, the EU in 2015 updated its Greater Caspian Region policy and significantly increased its development assistance within the region. Clearly, the EU sees the region to its southeast as one that deserves a certain degree of attention.
Now, let’s look more closely at the individual states of the Greater Caspian Region.
After its independence from the Soviet Union, Armenia went to war (1992-94) with its neighbor, newly independent Azerbaijan, to gain control of the autonomous oblast of Nagorno-Karabakh in western Azerbaijan. To this day, Armenia occupies Nagorno-Karabakh and seven of its surrounding districts, roughly 15 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. Armenia is currently the only country in the world militarily occupying the sovereign territory of another independent state. Nagorno-Karabakh remains one of the “frozen” or “prolonged” conflicts of the former USSR, although it differs from others, since Russia did not foment violence there to keep Armenia from allying itself with the West. After the 1992-94 war, the international body that became the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe created the Minsk Group process of Co-Chairs for Nagorno-Karabakh (Russia, France, and the U.S.) that manages the conflict to this day. The Minsk Group Co-Chair process has maintained peace for the most part, with the exception of the serious four-day flare-up in April 2016. However, the process has yet to resolve the conflict, and Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to stare at each other with daggers drawn over Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Armenian border remains officially closed, because of Armenia’s difficult relations with Turkey to the West. Landlocked, and with Azerbaijan to the East, Armenia has only one egress to the world through Georgia to the North and, to a lesser degree, through Iran to the south. The important Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that carries Caspian hydrocarbons to western Europe bypassed Armenia in the late 1990s, due to long-standing and unresolved conflicts, though a route through Armenia would have been far more logical, shorter and cheaper. Armenia has allied itself with Russia by default and allowed Russia to built a major military base at Gyumri. Armenia was among the second wave of former Soviet republics to join Russia’s EEU. However, its troubled relations with its neighbors to the East and West keep this small, landlocked nation relatively isolated and poor.
This country of the South Caucasus is a key Caspian littoral state. Azerbaijan owes its wealth to its significant gas and oil deposits, which it fully exploited after independence by inviting Western companies in as investment partners. But the 1990s did not mark the first era of significant Western presence and influence in Azerbaijan. The Rockefellers, Rothchilds, and Nobels—the first major Western investors in Azerbaijan’s Caspian oil—turned Baku into a substantial and glittering cosmopolitan European outpost at the beginning of the 20th century. President Aliyev consolidated power and brought stability to Azerbaijan after several nominally democratic but weak governments failed in the immediate aftermath of independence.
The West has maintained a sort of love-hate relationship with Azerbaijan—“love,” because of its hydrocarbons and strategic location, and “hate,” because of disagreements over issues of human rights and democracy. The Aliyevs have worked hard to maintain a multi-vector foreign policy, balancing Russia, Europe, and the U.S., while keeping them at an arm’s length. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has maintained a “correct but not too close” relationship with its southern neighbor, Iran, which contains a significant minority of ethnic Azeris in its own north. Both nations are Shia Muslim, but Azerbaijan is resolutely secular, whereas Iran maintains its status as a revolutionary Islamic state. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has developed positive military and economic ties with Israel.
The U.S. has an interest in Azerbaijan for several reasons. First, U.S. hydrocarbon companies have major investments there. Azerbaijan was also willing to work closely with the West to build the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, the first pipeline to bypass Russia to export Caspian hydrocarbons to Europe. Since 9/11, Baku has also provided Washington with both a reliable trans-shipment point to supply the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as well as troops for the international presence there. Most recently, ExxonMobil and Chevron acquired a 16% share in the ACG oil agreement on September 14, 2017, a promising development that will indirectly add impetus to the Southern Gas Corridor. Nevertheless, the addition of Section 907 to the FREEDOM Support Act, instigated by the Armenian lobby and intended to limit U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan immediately after 9/11, put a damper on U.S.-Azerbaijan security cooperation, even though the provision has been regularly waived each year. Some in the West decried the February 2017 appointment of Ilham Aliyev’s wife, Mehriban, as First Vice President. However, early indications are intriguing because she is slowly bringing a younger generation with international education and exposure into positions of significant power while quietly retiring the old Soviet generation. Early results of this new-generation presence suggest a more nuanced and sophisticated foreign policy emerging in Baku. Time will tell.
Despite being the birthplace of Stalin, Georgia was always a thorn in the side of the Soviet Union, because of its adamant insistence on maintaining its own very distinct identity and historic joi de vivre. Georgia has also been a darling of the West since independence, not just because of its world-class wines, but also because Georgian native and Foreign Minister to Gorbechav, Eduard Shevardnadze, helped effect the peaceful fall of the Soviet Union before becoming the first president of the independent Georgian state. Subsequently, President Mikhail Saakashvili looked to the West for membership in the EU and in NATO following the Soviet Union’s first “color revolution” (2003). Neither goal has become a reality, although both international organizations rhetorically “keep the door open.” This is in part because Russia has hindered Georgia’s move westward by supporting the aspirations for independence of two important Georgian provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, thus creating two significant “frozen conflicts.” In fact, Russia invaded South Ossetia in 2008 when Saakashvili misjudged and overplayed his hand. The EU now provides observers and peacekeepers in Georgia by international agreement, but Russia is slowly and inevitably absorbing South Ossetia.
Almost four times the size of Texas, with a population of only just slightly over 18 million, Kazakhstan is another key player in Central Asia. Though the northwestern section of Kazakhstan across the Ural River lies on the European land mass, Kazakhstan differs immensely from the other players in the region not because of its geography, but because of the decisions that President Nursultan Nazarbayev and his government made in the immediate months after independence. Three of these decisions are especially important.
First, Kazakhstan rejected the Soviet command-economy model and committed to macro-economic reform shortly after its independence, with the result that its banking and other financial systems are on a par with Central Europe’s today. This means that Kazakhstan is much more deeply embedded in the global economy than the other four countries in the region, which are still limping along with the tattered remnants of an outmoded command economy.
Second – and more importantly – President Nazarbayev decided after independence that if Kazakhstan were to emerge someday as a major player on the world stage, it would need a new generation of forward-thinking leaders. He created the Bolashak Program (bolashak means future in Kazakh) that sent young Kazakhstani citizens abroad for full university educations and even graduate degrees for some; he established this far-sighted policy in the earliest days of independence even before Kazakhstan began to rake in the wealth from its Caspian oil deposits. There are now 10,000 alumni of the Bolashak Program in Kazakystan, who are globalized, often multi-linguistic, young people rising in both the public and private sectors.
Third, Kazakhstan, which found itself with the fourth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world at its independence, became an exemplary nuclear non-proliferation partner of the U.S. Kazakhstan. President Nazarbayev committed to total denuclearization, in part because of the devastation that Soviet nuclear testing had inflicted on the land and population around Semipalatinsk in northeastern Kazakhstan. The decade-long U.S.-Kazakhstan effort to clean up the BN-350 nuclear fast-breeder reactor site at Aktau reached a significant milestone in November 2010 when Kazakhstan secured and locked down 3,000 kg of weapon-grade plutonium and 10,000 kg of highly enriched uranium at Baikal-1, near Semipalatinsk, under the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards.
KYRGYZSTAN (THE KYRGYZ REPUBLIC)
Kyrgyzstan, the second-smallest country in Central Asia, not quite the size of South Dakota and with a population just a little over 5.6 million, is the second-poorest country in the region after Tajikistan. It established a reputation in the West soon after independence as “the only democracy in Central Asia” with an independent parliament, relatively free (if biased) mass media, and a vibrant civil society. The U.S. established one of its two temporary military facilities located in Central Asia in Tajikistan soon after 9/11 to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. This facility, which was located at Bishkek International Airport, came to be called the Manas Transit Center. The other facility was at Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan (see below). Kyrgyzstan has generally conducted relatively free and fair elections, but it has also
seen two unconstitutional overthrows of government, the first of which ousted President Askar Akayev in 2005 in the so-called Tulip Revolution, the second, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010. Some human rights activists in the West applauded these overthrows as “democracy in action”; nevertheless, they were extra-constitutional.
Kyrgyzstan faces significant internal and external threats to its stability, including its own volatile political culture. Poverty, which runs rampant because the country’s only significant natural resource is gold, and ethnic divisions, primarily Kyrgyz-Uzbek divisions in the turbulent Fergana Valley, threaten it from within. Kyrgyzstan’s generally unguarded borders and mountainous terrain mean that threatening elements from terrorists to narco-traffickers can seep in from the outside without much resistance from the state’s weak military and law-enforcement bodies. Kyrgyzstan has developed a strong security partnership with Russia to address these weaknesses, creating a relationship that alarms Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors. The current government of President Almazbek Atambayev has grown even closer to Moscow after prematurely closing the Manas Transit Center in 2014. This is much to the Kremlin’s satisfaction but to the distaste of many of Kyrgyzstan’s immediate neighbors, who would prefer a more “multi-vector foreign policy” in Bishkek.
Tajikistan, which is slightly smaller than Wisconsin and contains a population of just over 8 million people, is the second-most-mountainous country in the world (after Nepal) and the poorest country in the region. Tajikistan limps along by exporting migrant laborers to Russia. It has come to depend on remittances from these guest workers for about 50 percent of its GDP, one of the highest percentages in the world. The current economic downturn in Russia threatens social instability in Tajikistan, as returning workers face bleak economic prospects abroad and in their home country. The country’s economy depends on two outmoded resources: a Soviet-legacy cotton monoculture and a Soviet-legacy aluminum tolling plant, Talco, in the eastern part of the country. Unfortunately, Talco is also a source of significant pollution.
President Emomali Rahmon (formerly Rahmanov) from the Khatlon Province in the South came to power in November 1994 during the devastating north-south Civil War (1992-1997) as part of an internationally assisted power-sharing agreement. Over the years, Rahmon has become increasingly authoritarian.
Yet, Tajikistan should be taken very seriously. It’s a front-line state to Afghanistan and could have significant natural gas deposits that have yet to be fully explored. Moreover, it could become a major tourist destination with a better-developed infrastructure and greater adherence to rule of law, because of its spectacular natural beauty.
Slightly larger than California, with a population of about 5.5 million, Turkmenistan should be one of the most promising nation in the region, because it boasts the fourth-largest natural gas reserves in the world and a long Caspian-sea coastline. Instead, it has become somewhat of an international joke – “the North Korea of Central Asia.” To call is such is a wild exaggeration, of course, but Turkmenistan is indeed a curious country.
Turkmenistan has been a surprisingly good, if publicly skittish, partner for the U.S., despite its official policy of “Permanent Neutrality” that generally eschews all bilateral relations in favor of international bodies. During the height of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Turkmenistan quietly provided a refueling operation at Ashgabat International Airport for U.S. and NATO aircraft. Ashgabat has for a long time maintained discreet diplomatic relations with Afghanistan’s Taliban and furnishes natural gas to northwestern Afghanistan.
The U.S. has championed or at the least given lip-service to the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline in recent years as a means to link Central and South Asia through the Obama Administration’s New Silk Road Initiative. The failure, to date, of this TAPI effort is primarily due to Turkmenistan’s idiosyncratic and self-defeating policy of not allowing international oil companies that have the financial resources to build such a pipeline, other than China’s, to function on-shore in Turkmenistan in a production-sharing capacity. The U.S. talked a good line to promote TAPI, but it never seriously devoted significant diplomatic capital to ensure the completion of the project as it did in the 1990s with the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyan pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey.
The U.S. cannot afford to relegate Turkmenistan to the comedy club of international relations. It borders Afghanistan and Iran. It could provide natural gas to Europe via a long-discussed Trans-Caspian Pipeline should Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan ever resolve their long-standing dispute over ownership of significant mid-Caspian natural-gas deposits. Like Russia and much of the rest of Central Asia, Turkmenistan is economically constrained by low hydrocarbon prices, and some observers now suggest that its economy might be reaching a breaking point. However, if it maintains a reasonable degree of economic and political stability, Turkmenistan could play a certain role in Iran’s economic emergence as a key through-way for China’s New Silk Road Economic Belt, part of its Belt and Road Initiative.
Just a little smaller than California and with a population of somewhat over 29 million – by far the largest in Central Asia – Uzbekistan could be the economic powerhouse for the region. Yet it is not. It was ruled following independence by the wily former-Soviet aparatchik Islom Karimov. Karimov isolated Uzbekistan from the world economy and held the country firmly mired in the past with a hobbled command-style economy, as well as debilitating import-substitution and currency-exchange policies. However, it is interesting to note that under
Karimov Uzbekistan saw itself as the natural leader of Central Asia and by extension all Turkic people, including those in western China. Uzbek officials in the early 1990s are reported to have sniggered privately that civilized Uzbekistan taught the “benighted nomads” elsewhere in the region “not to piss in their teapots.” This attitude drew on the fact that Uzbekistan’s great Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were centers for the celebrated Arab Renaissance of the Middle Ages that strongly influenced the Western Renaissance. But past glory does not necessarily translate into modern achievement.
Uzbekistan developed an especially pernicious reputation under Karimov for repression and violation of human rights. The so-called Andijon Massacre of May 2005 is one of many examples of such violations. Interior Ministry and National Security Service forces fired into a crowd of peaceful economic protestors in the Fergana Valley city of Andijon killing at least 200 but perhaps as many as 1,500 civilians. The international human-rights community and the U.S. strongly condemned the government of Uzbekistan for this incident.
This condemnation reverberated elsewhere in U.S.-Uzbekistan relations. Uzbekistan with Moscow’s concurrence granted the U.S. access to its air base at Karshi-Khanabad in south-central Uzbekistan almost immediately after 9/11 to support the American military in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. U.S. diplomats [including the author] who negotiated that agreement remember a marathon 36-hour negotiating session. When the blurry-eyed diplomats straggled back to the Intercontinental Hotel in Tashkent after signing the agreement, they met with excited Uzbeks watching CNN in the hotel lobby, who shouted, “Look! We’re helping you bomb the Taliban!” The U.S. air war had begun.
Late 2001 to 2005 might have been a sort of Golden Age for U.S.-Uzbekistan relations, but Andijon helped to end that. Washington’s high-profile condemnation of Tashkent for the massacre contributed to Uzbekistan’s decision in the summer of 2005 to annul the agreement for U.S. use of Karshi-Khanabad. Tashkent annulled the agreement for the additional reason that it discovered Kyrgyzstan was receiving rent payments from Washington for the use of Manas International Airport, whereas Uzbekistan was receiving no such reimbursement under the terms of the original U.S.-Uzbekistan agreement for Karshi-Khanabad. Tashkent asked to renegotiate the agreement, but then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld would not entertain the notion. Thin-skinned Tashkent, already irked by the U.S.’s condemnation of its actions at Andijon, said, “Fine. Dasvidaniya!” sending U.S.-Uzbekistan relations into a deep-freeze for close to a decade. It was only Russia’s recent actions in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, along with adroit U.S. diplomacy, that caused leaders in Tashkent to reconsider relations with the U.S. While the relatively reformed and increasingly globalized Kazakhstan might appear to be leaving Uzbekistan in the dust, the U.S. cannot ignore this important Central Asian nation.
In fact, there is more reason than ever to pay close attention to the state. President Karimov died in September 2016, and Shavkat Mirziyoyev became Uzbekistan’s second president since independence through a peaceful transition of power. Mirziyoyev’s initial efforts to reform
Uzbekistan’s financial and economic policies, which were frozen in the Soviet-past, could very well put the country on a path to becoming a regional powerhouse. It could take years, even decades, to make up for lost time, but these reforms are a step in the right direction. Furthermore, Mirziyoyev’s efforts to improve Uzbekistan’s often testy relations with its neighbors, especially Kazakhstan, could be a game-changer for the region. Only time will tell.
U.S. POLICY IN THE GREATER CASPIAN REGION
U.S. policy was colored after the fall of the Soviet Union by irrational exuberance. Washington assumed through its rose-colored glasses that the peoples of the former Soviet Union were yearning to breathe free and would embrace free-market democracies with the right American assistance. Using the authority of the 1992 FREEDOM Support Act – one of those quirky Congressional acronyms that stands for “Freedom for Russia and Emerging Eurasian Democracies and Open Markets” – Washington dedicated considerable resources to support the former Soviet states as they transitioned from communism and central planning toward democratic governance and free market economies. We now know transitioning fully from one ideology to another is not as quick and easy a process as we formerly envisioned.
U.S. core policy interests in the newly-independent countries of the former Soviet Union are to support independent, sovereign states that uphold regional security, increase their economic integration with regional and global markets, and demonstrate respect for human rights and democratic governance.
Over time, Washington has learned to take each country as it is. Policy makers in Washington recognize that the countries of the Greater Caspian Region have differentiated their own paths and sometimes jostle with one another. The interests of one sometimes conflict with the interests of another. For example, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have been at loggerheads since the Tajikistan civil war of the mid-1990s (although that could change with the new president in Uzbekistan), as have Armenia and Azerbaijan. Upstream and downstream countries are still working to sort out water rights throughout the region. Borders were poorly-defined at the beginning of independence. An example of this is the enclaves and exclaves that the Soviets created in the sensitive Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan as part of their “divide and conquer” cartographic and ethnographic exercise in the 1920s and 1930s. Another example is the significant Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, which is surrounded by Armenia and Iran. Independence also meant that supply chains for food, electricity, and other essentials were suddenly split among separate sovereign entities that initially had no desire to cooperate.
Nevertheless, the passage of time and a healthy dose of strategic patience suggest that regional cooperation in the Greater Caspian Region might be more than just a schematic, idealistic gleam in Western eyes. During the Fall 2015 UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met in a collective setting with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states – a historic first—in a format called the C5+1. Kerry and the five foreign ministers discussed the potential for regional cooperation on many matters, including regional cooperation to counter violent extremism. The summit, which surprised many with its favorable results and lack of sharp elbows, was a diplomatic success. To his credit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson continued the C5+1 format at the 2017 UNGA.
The implementation of U.S. policy in the Greater Caspian Region, as in other parts of the world, is not always readily visible and is almost never front-page news. Russia is still the primary security partner for almost all of the Greater Caspian Region. But, where it is welcome, the U.S. partners with Caspian states to modernize their militaries and to ensure that border guards are increasingly capable of executing their responsibilities, which included preventing the transnational flow of contraband, narcotics, and the components of weapons of mass destruction, while simultaneously facilitating the passage of legitimate travelers and enhancing trade and commerce.
In brief, the best recommendation for the U.S. in the Greater Caspian Region today is this: “Engage, engage, engage!” While the U.S. has engaged with all eight of the states in the Caspian region for the past quarter century, its engagement has too often been conditional and even baldly transactional, especially in the post-9/11 world. We court the region’s states when we need them, but we remain stand-offish when we do not. Washington should never abandon its commitment to good governance and human rights – values that ultimately create stable societies – but those goals are best achieved through quiet diplomacy behind closed doors, where real results can be achieved.
A PROPOSAL FOR CENTRAL ASIAN SECURITY AND PROSPERITY
One of the hallmarks of the Central Asian states has been their go-it-alone policy of the past quarter century. There has been a notable absence of region-wide cooperation, despite occasional bilateral meetings or meetings conducted under the aegis of Russia or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This can be attributed in part to the legacy of the Soviet era, during which all roads led to Moscow. It is also the result of each of the five littoral states’ wariness for its sovereignty in the early years of independence. Furthermore, there is serious competition among the five, especially for regional water rights, and for regional leadership in some cases.
But imagine for a moment if the five Central Asian states, six with Afghanistan, set aside personal rivalries and formed something that might be called the Association of Central Asian States (ACAS). ACAS would work to fully modernize and harmonize its members’ customs regulations in order to stimulate economic growth and international trade. ACAS would improve and strengthen border security to facilitate the legitimate movement of people and goods. It would also augment protections against the illicit smuggling of contraband, including elements of weapons of mass destruction, and the illegal transit of terrorists and of human traffickers. ACAS would work to build associations of mutual trust and respect with existing international organizations. Azerbaijan could become an ACAS member over the course of time, because it has more in common with the Central Asian states than it does with its geographically contiguous neighbors, Armenia and Georgia.
Central Asia is currently one of the most isolated regions of the world and would benefit immensely by fostering conditions that would enhance its participation in the global economy. China plans for the Central Asian portion of its Belt and Road Initiative articulate this development as a priority. But external actors alone cannot impose the kinds of fundamental shifts and reforms necessary to transform Central Asia. The Central Asian states must feel that it is in their mutual interest to form a coalition such as ACAS. ACAS would strengthen its members’ sovereignty and independence, which they long feared intraregional cooperation would damage. Central Asia would finally become a region to be reckoned with on the international stage. U.S. diplomacy in the region should focus on encouraging this outcome. Furthermore, the U.S. must take Central Asia off the back burner to accomplish this. It needs to establish regular and sustained high-level diplomatic engagement with the region because, in the end, that is the only thing that the Central Asian states will take seriously. The C5+1 summits of the five Central Asian foreign ministers with the U.S. Secretary of State are a promising start, but they are not sufficient on their own. As the U.S. seems poised to enter a new era of realpolitik, it is possible that the U.S. will become a more significant player in the Greater Caspian Region and a more reliable partner its states.
All opinions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Caspian Policy Center.
This essay is derived from the author’s personal experience and knowledge gained over 32 years as a U.S. diplomat in the Greater Caspian Region, as well as in South Asia. Part of this essay is drawn from the author’s chapter, “Strategic Central Asia,” in Cultural Perspectives, Geopolitics & Energy Security of Eurasia published in 2017 by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
For a more in-depth study of China’s Belt Road Initiative through the Greater Caspian Region and its implications for U.S. foreign policy, please see “The Return of Marco Polo’s World and the U.S. Military Response” by Robert D. Kaplan published May 2017 by the Center for a New American Security. http://stories.cnas.org/the-return-of-marco-polos-world-and-the-u-s-military-response
The full, English-language text of China’s “Action Plan on the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative” as released by the National Development and Reform Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Commerce and authorized by the State Council can be found at http://www.fmcoprc.gov.hk/eng/Topics/ydyl/t1383426.htm .
For a detailed (non-U.S.) study of hydrocarbon pipelines in the Greater Caspian Region, see Oil and Gas Pipelines in the Black-Caspian Seas Region; Zhitsov, Zonn, Kostianoy, eds.; Springer International Publishing (Switzerland), 2016.