Surveying the Challenges and Opportunities of America's Foreign Policy Toward Central Asia

By Andreas Borgeas
Cornell International Affairs Review
2015, Vol. 8 No. 2 | pg. 2/3 |

Surveying Central Asia's Regional Challenges

Beyond the internal issues facing each republic, a number of regional challenges exist that compromise stability efforts in Central Asia. Many of these regional challenges include border disputes, natural resource conflicts, ethnic minority mistreatment, drug trafficking and terrorism. Uzbekistan, for example, shares borders with four neighbors and is often at the center of regional disputes, by either its own actions or those of organizations such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization which aims to topple the Uzbek government and is known to operate within the neighboring republics.

The worst problem of ethnic violence in the region has been between Kyrgyz and ethnicUzbeks in southern Kyrgyzstan near the Uzbek border.36 In June 2010 violent clashes reportedly resulted in 470 deaths with nearly 2,000 injured.37 Most of these casualties were considered ethnic Uzbeks. While Uzbekistan did not become involved in the fighting it did host over 100,000 Uzbek refugees on a temporary basis. As a result of this violence, the IMU vowed retaliation against the Kyrgyz government and has successfully recruited ethnic Uzbeks from southern Kyrgyzstan to join their movement. Both countries blame the other for harboring terrorists. Since 2010 gunfire and violence at the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border have resulted in tighter border crossings and a movement by the Uzbek government to seal and mine large portions of the border regions.38

Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have also experienced reported terrorist attacks in their respective countries from perpetrators with links to the IMU and other Islamic extremist groups. In 2003 Kazakhstan established the Anti-Terrorist Center as part of its National Security Committee and claims to have convicted over 300 people of terrorism since 2005.39 The 2010 terrorist attacks in Tajikistan, including a suicide car bombing and attack on a military convoy, have also been linked to the IMU40 Uzbekistan itself has been accused of bombing the Tajik Supreme Court building in an effort to overthrow the Tajik government.41

Tajikistan also faces substantial threats from terrorism and drug trafficking activities arising out of Afghanistan, which have resulted in instability in the shared mountainous Badakhshan region. This region is a major transit corridor for drugs and other illicit goods smuggled into Tajikistan as well as weapons and financing being sent into Afghanistan. Making matters worse the Tajik government lacks the resources to properly secure the border, and border agents themselves have been reportedly participating in the trafficking enterprises.42 The Tajik government is also concerned about ethnic violence towards several million Tajiks in Afghanistan and the nearly one million Tajiks living in Uzbekistan.

Regional tensions are further exacerbated by the “water wars” between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and – to a lesser extent – with Turkmenistan. In an effort to min- imize its energy shortages, Kyrgyzstan plans to build a hydroelectric power plant on the Naryn River despite fierce opposition by Uzbekistan, which claims that such a project will restrict its own water supply. Similarly, Tajikistan would like to build a dam for its own power plant on the Vakhsh River but it too faces Uzbek opposition on grounds it will alter the environment and harmUzbekistan’s agricultural industries. In political brinksmanship, the Uzbek government restricted railway and road access to Tajikistan, boosted rail tariffs and cutoff gas supplies.43 The international community has proposed a water-for-gas trade between the countries but so far this idea has not been successful.

Turkmenistan has had the least amount of strife with Uzbekistan. However, it too has had tension with Uzbekistan regarding water sharing and accusations of regional interference, accusing Uzbekistan of attemptingto orchestrate a political coup in 2002. Another regional challenge is the border dispute in the Soviet apportioned Fergana Valley, with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan each vying for geographic control and regional influence in this Islamic heartland.

Tools Helping Achieve Stability in Central Asia

Each Central Asian republic has aspirations extending beyond the US withdrawal, and they invariably include lucrative relations with Russia and China. Both Russia and China have established military alliances to secure against Islamic extremism and post U.S. withdrawal instability, oil and gas pipelines, trade links for commercial goods, and strategic partnerships to extend their respective influence. China also has acute security interests in the Xinjiang region near the Kazakh and Kyrgyz borders where ethnic Uighurs are considered a substantial security risk. While population numbers remain disputed, it is estimated over 350,000 Uighurs live in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.44 Security disputes and accusations of mistreatment have at times caused tense relations between these neighboring nations.45 The Central Asian countries, with the exception of Turkmenistan, belong to both the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The SCO includes China and Russia and focuses on security and combating terrorism. The CSTO, however, is anchored by Russia only and is intended to provide military support to CSTO members in prevention of outside aggression. The CSTO requires members to obtain CSTO permission before it can host a foreign military bases. Perceiving the treaty terms as excessively interfering with its sovereignty, Uzbekistan suspended its membership from the CSTO in 2012.

The Central Asian countries have not focused their interests exclusively on Russia and China. All five states are members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has fifty-seven member states from Europe, Central Asia, and North America. The OSCE’s focus is on security, democracy, human rights, economic development and integration, and environmentalism. Recent OSCE agendas have included promoting stability in Afghanistan and encouraging economic integration between Afghanistan and Central Asia.46 Additionally, all five countries are members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace and participate in Annual Bilateral Consultations with the US. These groups provide a forum for high level discussions on political and economic matters. On the economic side, Kyrgyzstan joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1998, and Kazakhstan is expected to join in 2015 followed sometime thereafter by Tajikistan.47 While still in its formative stage, Russia and Kazakhstan are working to formallyestablish the Eurasian Economic Union by 2015.48 This economic trade zone will likely seek to include the other nations of Central Asia.

Each nation has also made known its own policy goals for beyond 2015. As identified in the Strategy Kazakhstan 2050, Kazakhstan’s priorities are upgrading and diversifying its energy infrastructure, promoting regional security, attracting foreign direct investment and strengthening the Customs Union to establish the Eurasian Economic Union .49 In addition, Kazakhstan will maintain its existing multi-vectored approach toward economic, security and political relations with Russia, China and the United States.

Kyrgyzstan aims to fight internal corruption and attract FDI to repair and upgrade its electrical system and agricultural infrastructure. It also supports a new railway proposed by China through Kyrgyzstan to Uzbekistan and another north-south railway. Kyrgyzstan currently leads Central Asia in the privatization of business and industry and would also like to continue to encourage foreign capital and investment.50

Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are seeking foreign investment to expand their hydroelectric stations that would accommodate sales in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Additionally, Tajikistan has agreed to cooperate with Afghanistan and Iran to build rail, electric, and water pipeline links for greater regional opportunities. Other major goals for Tajikistan include battling drug trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism. This includes encouraging regional cooperation and strengthening security in Central Asia. Additionally Tajikistan claims to have put forth a new effort to target government officials and authorities involved in drug trafficking.51

One of Uzbekistan’s political objectives is strengthening its regional influence amongst the republics, maneuvering against heavyweight Kazakhstan, and limiting interference in Central Asia from outside influences, especially Russia. This includes expanding its own hydroelectric facilities to prevent Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan from expanding their facilities and weakening Uzbekistan’s position in the region.52

While Turkmenistan has significant cultural and economic ties with Iran, one of its stated goals in 2011 was to diversify gas routes via a trans-Caspian pipeline in hopes of accessing European markets.53 Additionally, it has agreed to construct the TAPI pipeline pending financing that will connect Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

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