While new challenges to international peace and security have emerged in recent years, many of the old ones have not dissipated, including the state of U.S.-Russian relations. One area of growing tensions is post-Soviet Eurasia—a region of geostrategic significance to both Russia and the United States, and a new emphasis of concern for Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The Birth of Eurasia
The fall of the Soviet Union a decade-and-a-half ago was sudden and swift. It came with little warning as Washington policymakers tried to come to terms with the realities of Europe transformed, Germany unified and the world moving at an unprecedented pace. They had to deal with ex-Soviet nuclear weapons scattered all over a country that was no more. They had to send home thousands of ex-Soviet troops stranded in newly free Eastern Europe—a home that often didn’t exist. The last thing they had time to think about was what to call the new countries and regions that emerged from the fragments of the Soviet empire.
At the State Department, where diplomacy is organized by region or continent, the European bureau had had the responsibility for relations with the Soviet Union. Notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet Union had been the biggest country in Asia, it also had been the biggest power in Europe, and Europe was where U.S.-Soviet relations were focused throughout the Cold War. With Russia still the biggest power in Europe (as well as Asia1) even after the fall of the Soviet Union, it made sense to keep the European bureau in charge of U.S.-Russian relations.
With many important details of the Soviet divorce yet to be finalized, it made perfect sense, as well, to put the European bureau in charge of dealing with all the other former Soviet republics. Many of them are in Europe and the task of setting up relations with these new states could be coordinated more efficiently from one office at the State Department.
But not all of them are in Europe. Five—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan—are indisputably Asian. Three—Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia—claim solid European credentials, which are nonetheless disputed by some geographers who maintain that the southeastern boundary of Europe runs along the Caucasus ridge, thus relegating Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia to Asia. However, if Turkey can be in Europe, why not the latter three?
This fusion of geography and bureaucratic politics produced a new definition—Eurasia—which sidestepped the thorny issue of who does and who doesn’t belong to Europe and enabled the European bureau to keep its domain intact. Of course, the word Eurasia is not new and traditionally has described the great landmass, which includes both Europe and Asia. It is still in use.
The new Eurasia has been endowed with a far less precise meaning. For the past fifteen years, it has denoted those post-Soviet countries that are located either on the periphery or outside of Europe. Linked to Europe by their shared legacy with Russia, they were “grandfathered” into the continent when the USSR broke up, and the United States recognized them as sovereign, independent and equal heirs to the old empire. Recognition accorded to Russia was formally extended to all other former Soviet states.
However, it would be unfair and misleading to treat that decision as a matter of bureaucratic inertia or political correctness. Anyone retracing the origins of Eurasia has to take into account the atmosphere of the early 1990s with its high hopes for the novel phenomenon of globalization, the historic victory of democratic values and their universality and, as a result of modern technological advances, the growing irrelevance of boundaries—geographic, political, economic and intellectual. The fall of the Iron Curtain—the “mother of all boundaries”—became the symbol of a new world without boundaries.
In that atmosphere, what did it matter that the new concept of Eurasia lacked precise geographic boundaries? And when all ex-Soviet states in Europe and Asia lined up for membership in the OSCE—the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—and pledged to observe its underlying principles of respect for democratic norms and human rights, it made good sense to bend geographic definitions for the sake of progress in Eurasia.
History and Geography Are Back
Progress, however, proved slow and often painful, once the new states of the new Eurasia confronted the challenges of independence. They also discovered that boundaries and geography still mattered.
Borders may have seemed irrelevant to students of globalization at the outset of the new and seamless world, but to the new states of Eurasia they mattered a great deal. Overnight, when the Soviet Union fell apart, the old internal administrative boundaries that had had so little meaning inside the old empire became international borders. Many, if not all of them had been drawn with little regard for ethnic or religious factors, as a result of 19th century imperial conquests or 20th century big-power diplomacy.
For example, Azerbaijan’s border with Iran is the product of the 1828 Turkmanchay treaty with Persia, which was signed after the latter’s defeat by Russia in the second Russo-Persian war of 1827-28.2 Ukraine’s modern borders include Crimea, which until 1954 was a part of the Russian Federation, as well as Lviv, which before World War I was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, belonged to Poland between World Wars I and II, and became part of the USSR as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Soviet victory in World War II.
Entire centuries’ worth of injustice and imperial domination were incorporated in these arbitrary lines drawn with little regard for local custom and pride. Righting the wrong meant restoring just borders.
Disputes over just borders began even before the Soviet Union broke up. Some escalated into full-fledged wars as two fundamental desires of nations—for self-determination and sovereignty—clashed. Few, if any of these newest members of the international community showed respect for the basic principles of the OSCE or democratic norms and values hailed by the international community as universal after the Cold War.
In the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh—part of the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan—ethnic Armenians took up arms in pursuit of their independence from Azerbaijan and unification with the neighboring ex-Soviet republic of Armenia. Azerbaijan responded with force in defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The war, which began in 1988 and ended with a cease-fire in 1994, resulted in thousands of deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees, economic devastation and is currently stalemated.
When they joined the OSCE, both Armenia and Azerbaijan pledged to obey its founding principles, including commitment not to change borders by force. Since then, the Azeris have vowed to fight to the last drop of blood to restore its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Armenians have pledged to do the same to keep Nagorno-Karabakh.
This conflict marked the first significant outbreak of hostilities in the new Eurasia, but it was certainly not the only one. In Moldova’s breakaway Transniestrian region, in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as in Russia’s Chechnya, violence erupted as nations sought to fulfill their twin, but often mutually exclusive aspirations for sovereignty and self-determination. Active conflicts have been extinguished—with the exception of occasional skirmishes across cease-fire lines—but none have been resolved and all remain in a state of suspended animation.
Despite the euphoria associated with the fall of the Soviet Union elsewhere in the world, Russia’s withdrawal from Eurasia was traumatic for all involved. The glue that had held together the provinces of the old empire for so long was no more. Gone also was the sense of belonging to a greater whole—albeit discredited and often despised—a superpower that for a brief moment in history was second to none. In its place were left countries struggling with uncertain boundaries, unclear national identities, surrounded by hostile powers and lacking clear strategic orientation or ability to integrate into something new.
From Independence to Integration
Besides, who would take them? The United States and Europe were busy in the Balkans, in Somalia, in the Persian Gulf. The United States famously declared its lack of interest through Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who rejected the atavistic “Great Game” approach to the region, suggesting that it become instead free of great powers. The “Great Game,” of course, referred to the term pioneered by Rudyard Kipling in his 1901 book Kim and used for generations to describe the struggle for influence in the heart of Eurasia between the British and the Russian empires in the 19th century.3
Would Europe embrace the new Eurasia? Not knowing how to handle Turkey’s European aspirations and saddled with the prospect of new members in Eastern Europe, whose Europeanness was a matter of fact, not political correctness or bureaucratic convenience, it certainly was not interested in casting its membership nets even farther afield.
Russia, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, began to talk about gathering its old possessions in an exclusive sphere of influence—a Russian Monroe Doctrine put forth by some Russian politicians and analysts—but was neither welcome as a big brother nor capable of playing the role of the regional hegemon. Its economy was in a free fall, its military went hungry, homeless and unpaid, its politics was chaotic and unpredictable.
For the states of Cen-tral Asia comprising the biggest slice of the new Eurasia, there was also the challenge of defining their relations with China—the rising giant, whose intentions were unclear. Caution would be the by-word in their dealings with China.
For China, too, the emergence of five newly independent states at its doorstep was a development to be viewed with caution. Its own Sinjiang province with its Muslim minorities bordering on ex-Soviet Central Asia was a source of headaches for Beijing as it sought to balance economic growth with political stability. Russia’s loss of control across the border in Central Asia and the prospect of instability there was therefore troubling for China’s leaders who didn’t seem to be looking for new commitments in the restive region. Anything that would preserve the status quo in the region and keep its troubles contained would serve their interests just fine for the time being.
A Difficult Divorce
The status quo in the meantime was not to be taken for granted. The new Eurasia’s economies were in a free fall. The breakup of the Soviet Union disrupted the arcane economic links created in the course of more than half a century of Soviet central planning. From raw materials to spare parts, factories all over the former Soviet states had come to rely on supplies from trading partners that were now not only thousands of miles, but also several international boundaries away. Russia—the biggest link in this chain—shared the plight of its former possessions. And, as if the trauma of economic disruption caused by the Soviet breakup was not enough, the domestic marketplace of the new Eurasia was now open to external competition rendering many goods uneconomical and noncompetitive.
Furthermore, Russia—the biggest economy and the biggest market of the old Soviet marketplace—was also the source of uncounted subsidies for its former colonies. Those subsidies paid for major industrial, infrastructure and social welfare projects in regions—now countries—that had long suffered from chronic poverty and underdevelopment. Much of that money was stolen and misspent—a record of theft and mismanagement amply documented in the Soviet press during Gorbachev’s campaign of glasnost. But with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the flow of that money ended, with little foreign aid coming in to replace it.
The financial system—or systems, rather—had to be created anew. Cur-rencies had to be created from scratch, central banks stood up, exchanges opened—all hugely important but tasks for which none of the Eurasian states, including Russia, was prepared. Russia had inherited the Soviet Union’s Central Bank and ruble currency, but its coffers were empty, the ruble was in a free fall, and for other former Soviet states, using rubles as currency meant compromising their sovereignty and their finances.
Much as they sought to free themselves from Russia and secure their independence, the states of the new Eurasia found it impossible to sever the links. The most important ones were in the area of energy and transportation. Russia—the region’s biggest oil and gas producer—continued to supply its former possessions with cut-rate hydrocarbons and electricity, thus exercising considerable leverage over them.
Russia also controlled their links to the outside world. It controlled the railroads, the pipelines and even some of the ports through which these new entrants in the global marketplace would conduct their trade.
But the dependency sometimes cut both ways and does so to the present day. Russia has had to rely on its neighbors to reach key markets. The Russian-Ukrainian relationship is the most notorious in this regard, for Russia relies on pipelines through Ukraine to reach markets in Europe. In 2004, for instance, Russia relied on Ukrainian infrastructure for the transit of 78 percent of its total natural gas exports.4
Central Asia, too, has come into this picture, especially of late. Ukraine has sought to wean itself from Russian gas by cultivating Central Asian suppliers. But Russia controls Central Asia’s gas exports by virtue of its control of the pipelines. Moreover, with doubts arising about Russia’s ability to sustain gas production to satisfy domestic demand and maintain an ambitious export program, speculation is growing that Russia will soon need Central Asian gas more than its Gasprom gas monopoly is willing to admit.5 Recent reports of reduced Russian gas deliveries to Europe amid severe cold weather in Russia are certain to fuel further speculation about the reliability of Russian gas supply and the need for Central Asian gas. Winter cold is hardly a new phenomenon in Russia, yet Gasprom admitted in January 2006 that it was unable to meet the needs of its customers in Poland, Hungary and Italy because of domestic commitments.
Economics and trade were not the only challenges facing the new Eurasia. None of the new states had a lot of experience with foreign and security policy, yet they ended up in a tough neighborhood after the divorce.
Afghanistan, left to its own devices by the United States and Europe after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989; Iran, emerging from the revolution and nearly a decade-long war with Iraq; Russia, with its own rebellious North Caucasus region; as well as the civil war in Tajikistan that lasted from 1992-97, and secessionist conflicts in Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and North Ossetia—this was the security environment of the vast region that was sometimes called the “Eurasian Balkans.”
Yet, none of the countries that made up the new Eurasia had the military or the diplomatic establishments necessary to survive, let alone thrive in the tough neighborhood. Here, too, ties to Russia proved difficult to sever.
Pictured: Protests in Ukraine.
Russian military presence throughout the new Eurasia proved both unwelcome and indispensable. Absent foreign military assistance, Russia’s residual military presence in Central Asia or the Caucasus helped maintain a very unsatisfactory status quo, the alternative to which would have been quite possibly even less satisfactory. In some instances—in Abkhazia, for example—Russian military involvement became part of the problem rather than solution. However, no major power except for Russia took active interest in these conflicts.
All states of the new Eurasia took on the challenge of building their own militaries. To date, none has succeeded to the point of being able to secure its own borders. All are still looking for an outside partner to serve as the region’s security provider and manager.
The region—long referred to by students of geopolitics as the “Eurasian heartland”—is the backyard of every major power of Europe and Asia. China, India and Russia share it along with Iran, Turkey and Pakistan. Despite its critical importance for all, it is their strategic backyard, whereas their top strategic interests are concentrated elsewhere—in the Pacific, in Europe and the Persian Gulf. None has so far generated the resources or the vision to step into the void left by the Soviet collapse and assume the role of the region’s security manager and strategic partner.
Thus, by default, Russia remains the biggest actor in the new Eurasia despite the entry into this arena of a whole host of new actors, already mentioned in the preceding paragraphs and especially because of its diminished presence, which in turn is a product of its vastly diminished capabilities. Russia’s continuing role in the region is a product of geography, history, culture and economics—all enduring, systemic factors only some of which will change with time.
Russia’s withdrawal from what became the new Eurasia in 1991 was very much a product of Russian domestic politics. Gorbachev’s glasnost revealed fatal flaws in the Soviet system. Ethnic Russians, residing mostly, but not exclusively in the Russian Federation, which itself was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union, saw themselves as victims of Soviet rule as much as any other ethnic group of the old empire. This realization of their victimhood gave rise to a powerful political concept of “little Russia,” or Russia without its empire.
Captured by the relatively unknown politician named Boris Yeltsin, this brand of Russian nationalism motivated millions of Russians to support Russia’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union. The old empire proved too costly and by withdrawing from it Russia would be able to focus its material resources and spiritual energy on the urgent task of domestic reconstruction. This idea was not new: Alexander Solzhenitsyn articulated it forcefully in his 1974 open letter to the Soviet leaders.7 But it took perestroika, glasnost, and Boris Yeltsin for it to become reality.
Ironically, the breakup of the Soviet Union and Russia’s retreat from the old empire almost immediately gave rise to neo-imperial thinking among Russian political elites. As early as 1992, prominent Russian politicians—Yevgeniy Ambartsumov, Andranik Migranyan, Sergei Stankevich to name just a few—articulated a vision of Russia as “something more than the Russian Federation in its current borders.” Russian interests, wrote Ambartsumov, who served then as the chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign relations committee, know no boundaries.8
Russia’s withdrawal from the old empire prompted fears that the vacuum left in its wake would be filled by hostile powers or remain unfilled, creating dangerous instability in Russia’s “soft underbelly.” The United States, mulling over the prospects for NATO expansion to the East, Iran’s fundamentalists seeking new converts or Turkey bent on restoring long-lost links to the Turkic peoples of the Caucasus and Central Asia, all made worthy rivals from whom to safeguard the new Eurasia as Russia’s exclusive sphere of influence.
Russia’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union also rekindled the old debate about whether it belonged in Europe. Rejecting integration with Europe—and echoing some of the 19th century Westerner vs. Slavophile debates about joining Europe or gathering all Slavic nations and going Russia’s own special way—a group of Russian scholars and politicians have embraced the ideology of Eurasianism.
The Eurasian idea was articulated most prominently by Russian geographer and philosopher Lev Gumilyov, the son of the famous 20th century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. A man of tragic fate persecuted during Stalin’s reign, Gumilyov, through his many writings, had laid the intellectual foundations for the argument that Russia’s interests would be best served by forging alliances with the Turkic peoples of Eurasia, rather than with Europe, which he considered in decline.
Gumilyov died in 1992, but his ideas about the pitfalls of aligning with Europe and the need to secure alliances in Asia have gained some currency in Russian political and intellectual circles. However, more often than not they have served a rather transparent utilitarian purpose of lending intellectual credibility to irredentist movements and parties, including the Communists, advocating the return of the old empire.
Throughout the 1990s, Russia could do very little to put these ideas in practice. Its economy was collapsing, its military in retreat and its foreign policy chaotic. Despite all the talk by political scientists and politicians about reconstitution of the old empire or establishment of its exclusive sphere of influence in the new Eurasia, Russia could do little to achieve those goals.
Moreover, the internal chaos of Yeltsin’s Russia in the 1990’s resulted in a policy of—not always benign, but nonetheless—neglect with respect to the new Eurasia. Russia’s foreign policy priorities in the 1990s were defined by its dire circumstances at home and the need to find external resources for domestic reconstruction. Thus, priority in Russian foreign policy was given to relations with the United States and other major powers, as well as international financial institutions where U.S. and European influence was needed to secure much-needed loans.
After six years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency and uninterrupted economic growth, the memory of the Yeltsin era is fading. Mr. Yeltsin’s successor has struck a very different policy line in the international arena, less dependent on the West, confident of Russia’s recovery and ability to chart its own course vis а vis the major powers in Europe, Asia and the United States.
One of the key aspects of President Putin’s new line has been renewed attention to the former empire. Russian tensions with Ukraine and Georgia over gas supplies, opposition to their respective Orange and Rose revolutions, as well as renewed partnership with Uzbekistan and an open challenge to continuing U.S. military presence in Central Asia, have given rise to speculations about Russia’s “return” to its neighborhood.
However, these speculations and Moscow’s new image of confidence and prosperity ignore the many systemic factors that have put an effective limit to Russia’s neo-imperial ambitions. Those factors are many and grave, and include the lack of structural reforms in its economy; underdeveloped and crumbling infrastructure; an obsolete industrial base; declining population; difficult investment climate; and last, but not least, a military institution that by all accounts lacks credible capabilities for power projection and for over a decade has not been able to restore peace in Chechnya. Moreover, the people of Russia still remember the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. They are reminded on a daily basis of the threat of terror from Chechnya, where after two wars and thousands of casualties, peace and stability are nowhere in sight. They are unlikely to exhibit a strong appetite for new conquests in Central Asia even in the name of rebuilding the old empire.
Ties That Still Bind
Russia’s newly found prosperity and assertiveness in dealings with its neighbors help conceal one other fact: Russia’s neighborhood, most of which is comprised of the new Eurasia, is the only part of the world where Russia still can act as the heavy. In Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa, let alone Latin America, Russia’s role is marginal at best. On the one hand, it is yet another sign of the depth of its retreat. On the other hand, it is testimony to the fact that Russia still holds considerable sway over its neighborhood.
Beyond energy and transport, it retains a good deal of soft power over the new Eurasia. Although Russian has lost its mandatory place in the life of the former Soviet states, it remains the lingua franca and is likely to continue for a considerable period of time. For the elites and the educated classes English will serve as the language connecting them to much of the outside world. But for the common folk, Russian has yet to lose its importance.
Karshi-Khanabad air base, Uzbekistan. In 2005, Uzbek authorities asked the U.S. to leave the base; American personnel were gone by the end of the year.
Many of the new Eurasia’s elites are still the product of the Soviet Russian-dominated education system. Many have attended universities in Russia, sent children to study there and have been deeply immersed in Russian life and culture. This connection is likely to fade with time, but only slowly, as generational change takes hold in the region’s political and cultural elites.
In recent years, Russia’s economic growth has created a vast market for exports from the new Eurasia, of which many would not have found a market elsewhere. For example, Georgia’s agricultural commodities are unlikely to find a significant market outside of Russia, which has traditionally looked to its southern neighbors to deliver fruit and vegetable crops that are difficult to cultivate in Russia’s harsh climate.
Russia’s economic growth combined with its demographic decline has created an insatiable appetite for migrant labor. This, in turn, has led to a mutual dependency between Russia and the states of the new Eurasia. The former, lacking its own manpower, has come to rely on foreign workers. The latter sends hundreds of millions, possibly billions of dollars in remittances back home, where Russian-generated revenues represent a major building block of economic welfare and political stability. In Moldova, for example, remittances from Russia represent 30 percent of GDP, while in Georgia, this figure is approximately 25 percent of GDP.9 Through its regime of visa-free travel, Russia thus holds considerable sway over its former colonies, but it can cut off the flow of labor to its internal market only at its own peril.
Recently, Russia has acquired yet another cachet vis-а-vis some of its neighbors. In contrast with the U.S. policy of democracy promotion, Russia has sought to forge relationships with its former colonies regardless of their internal conditions. It has thus pursued its own form of realpolitik, emerging as a counterweight to the U.S. and potentially the last refuge of rulers fleeing from unrest in their own countries.
For example, Kyrgyzstan’s former president Askar Akayev, swept from power by mass protests in March 2005 after a fraudulent election, found refuge in Moscow. Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov, criticized repeatedly by U.S. and European officials for human rights violations, sought and received political backing from Russia. His family was reported to have acquired real estate and business interests in Moscow. Banned from travel to Europe and the United States, Karimov is likely to view Moscow as his safe haven in case of a domestic emergency.
Whether or not Russia will stand up to this alleged commitment or play the ultimate realpolitik card and renege on it in pursuit of a more attractive bargain remains to be seen. However, for the time being Russia’s nonjudgmental approach to its neighbors represents a powerful card in dealing with regimes that feel threatened by U.S. pursuit of its democracy objectives.
U.S. Policy in Eurasia—A Matter of Shifting Emphasis
Emphasis on democracy promotion is but the latest in a series of priorities of U.S. policy in the new Eurasia. The earliest and most urgent priority for U.S. policy was preventing “loose nukes” or securing the Soviet Union’s nuclear patrimony, major portions of which were deployed in Kazakhstan. Securing and removing weapons, components and materials left over from the Soviet Union’s vast WMD complex scattered all over Eurasia was the task that trumped all others; some of the programs that began immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union continue to the present day.
Beyond that, U.S. policy in the new Eurasia focused on two priorities: securing the independence of its new states, primarily from Russian encroachment, and promoting political and economic reforms. To that end, the United States had committed considerable funds. During the first decade of its independence, U.S. aid to Kazakhstan was approximately $1 billion; Uzbekistan, $600 million; Kyrgyzstan, $725 million. To be sure, support for, or insistence on democratic reforms was an important element of U.S. engagement throughout the new Eurasia, but not the absolute priority.
Throughout the 1990s, no issue on the U.S. policy agenda in the new Eurasia attracted as much publicity as the issue of oil, gas and export pipelines. Important oil and gas fields in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan became the subject of intense interest on the part of U.S. and other international energy companies. U.S. officials sought to leverage the region’s hydrocarbon wealth to generate economic growth, promote economic reforms and secure the new Eurasian states’ unfettered access to global markets with the help of carefully chosen export pipeline routes. These would have to bypass Russia, which already controlled the region’s existing transportation links, and Iran, which was targeted by U.S. sanctions.
The American government’s active involvement in issues relating to Eurasian energy production and pipelines overshadowed other aspects of U.S. policy—support for reforms throughout the region, humanitarian relief and diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the so-called “frozen” conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
However, none of these pursuits, with the exception of “loose nukes,” qualified the new Eurasia for the top tier of U.S. foreign policy concerns. This lack of major interests was reflected in the 1997 speech by then-Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, already mentioned in the preceding pages. The speech made it clear that the United States was not interested in becoming the region’s security manager. It would be content if the region remained free of great power domination.
With pipelines taking longer to build than originally expected, oil cheap—below $20 bbl—and democratic and market reforms slow to bear fruit, Central Asia’s importance for the United States steadily declined until the fateful date of September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the military campaign against the Taliban turned the new Eurasia and especially Central Asia into the frontline states in the new U.S. war—the war on terror.
The two bases established—with Russian acquiescence10—by the United States in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan played an important role in securing access for U.S. forces during the military campaign in Afghanistan. With U.S. bases came renewed U.S. interest in the region, as well as security assistance and a further push to promote political and economic reforms.
These reforms came to be viewed in a different light than before 9/11. The reform agenda was undoubtedly a major component of U.S. policy in the new Eurasia throughout the 1990s. However, it was pursued largely as charity, an obligation that the U.S. took upon itself to help the former Soviet states overcome their legacy. As such, the reform agenda lacked the urgency it acquired after 9/11, when failure to implement po-litical and econo-mic reforms triggered concerns about radicalization of local pop-ulations and even the specter of state failure in the new Eurasia, as well as comparisons with Taliban-era Afghanistan. The reform agenda thus acquired new ur-gency and signi-ficance for U.S. security interests; without reforms, policymakers felt, the countries the U.S. was relying on in the near term as the frontline states and partners in the war on terror would become problem states in the long run.11
However, to local entrenched elites, as well as many observers in Russia, U.S. insistence on political reforms appeared dangerous and fraught with the prospect of destabilization. The U.S. was perceived throughout the new Eurasia as not merely supporting, but encouraging the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and the “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan.
It was also widely noted throughout the region that in all three instances, rulers overthrown by these revolutions were hardly inimical to the United States. Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze had long been a welcome guest in Washington; Ukraine’s Leonid Kuchma had pursued the course of integration into NATO; and Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akayev had earned the reputation as one of the most, if not the most, tolerant ruler in Central Asia. In a region imbued with the spirit of realpolitik, U.S. rationale behind support for democracy was neither welcome nor well understood.
This tension between U.S. policy priorities on the one hand, and the interests of local elites on the other, led to renewed competition between the U.S. and Russia for influence throughout the new Eurasia. Having acquiesced to U.S. military deployments in Central Asia in the aftermath of 9/11, Russia grew increasingly suspicious of U.S. methods and motives with their heavy emphasis on democracy promotion.
For the entrenched rulers of the new Eurasia, Russian opposition to U.S. democracy promotion provided an opportunity to snub the United States. Beyond that, it is not clear how much Russia can do for the region. As was mentioned in the preceding pages, Moscow’s ability to manage the security affairs of the new Eurasia and provide resources for long-term sustainable development is very much in doubt.
In the near term, however, Russia presents an alternative as a strategic partner for some of the new Eurasia’s most entrenched and retrograde regimes. Nobody knows how long this partnership can last. Some of Moscow’s off again-on again partners are already feeling used. It is a matter of public record, for example, that Russia takes advantage of Central Asia’s land-locked gas producers and sells their gas to Ukraine for a fraction of what it charges clients in Europe for Russian gas.
None of this makes the task for U.S. policy in the new Eurasia any easier. The ability of the U.S. to promote reforms in these remote—and after fifteen years of independence, still poorly understood—countries is inherently limited. Uzbekistan, long the closest U.S. ally in the war on terror, as well as one of the most reform-resistant states in the new Eurasia, is a case in point. Uzbek military and security personnel put down a disturbance in the city of Andijon in May 2005. Hundreds of civilians reportedly died, though exact numbers and circumstances remain unknown because Uzbekistan’s leaders refused demands for independent investigation. U.S. condemnation of the massacre was swift and resolute, leading to a rapid decline in relations between the United States and Uzbekistan—until then its staunchest ally in the region. In July 2005, Uzbek authorities asked the United States to leave the base it had used since 2001. U.S. personnel were gone from the base before the end of 2005.
By contrast, Russia and China endorsed the actions of the Uzbek government. Uzbekistan’s president Islam Karimov was accorded red carpet treatment when he visited Beijing and Moscow recently. Russia has signed a treaty of partnership with Uzbekistan and offered to expand military cooperation with it.
Few analysts inside or outside of Russia would argue that Russia has the resources and the vision to act as the pillar of stability in Uzbekistan beyond ambitious declarations and limited assistance. At the same time just as few analysts would deny that Russia has major interests and considerable influence in the new Eurasia. None of which offers a clear answer to the question facing U.S. policy in the new Eurasia: “What is to be done?” How to safeguard the region against itself?
Current U.S. policy in the new Eurasia puts democracy promotion at the top of the list.12 In the wake of three revolutions—Rose, Orange and Tulip—prospects for consolidation and expansion of democratic gains in the region hinge more on slow, evolutionary development of institutions of civil society, free press, independent judiciary, etc., rather than revolutionary change. Furthermore, consolidation of revolutionary gains through evolutionary change requires major resources, which throughout most of the region can only come from the outside at a time when U.S. attention and resources are drawn elsewhere—Iraq, North Korea, Iran, the greater Middle East.
To complicate matters even more, U.S. promotion of democracy is at odds with the interests and policies of two other major powers—Russia and China. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the regional forum where China and Russia play the leading role and which includes four out of five Central Asian states,13 as well as Iran, India, Pakistan and Mongolia as observers, has appealed to the United States to clarify its timetable for withdrawing from Central Asia.
Armenian separatists seized the town of Lachin in Nagorno-Karabakh, (pictured), during their war for independence from Azerbaijan.
The SCO, initially established in 1996 by Russia and China, as well as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to manage post-Soviet borders in Central Asia, has grown into an important regional forum where the major powers—Russia and China—sit at the same table with their junior regional partners. Its capacity for action—to provide resources for economic development or as a regional security organization—are still very limited at best. However, for the countries of Central Asia especially, long cut off from the outside world and still lacking a clear framework for integration in the international arena, the SCO is an important destination. Of all the major actors in Central Asia the United States is the only one without a seat at the SCO either as a member or as an observer. Moreover, SCO member states have made it quite clear with their appeal for U.S. withdrawal that the United States is not welcome in the organization, which has long been used by Russia, as well as China, as a counter to U.S. influence in Central Asia.
Still, the United States has important cards in its hands. Its presence in Afghanistan is not lost on China, Russia, Iran or any other country whose security interests would be badly damaged by premature U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or failure to complete the mission there. Neither Russia nor China is up to the task of stabilizing that country.
Moreover, Russia and China, united in their opposition to U.S. policy in the new Eurasia, are hardly each other’s natural allies. Russian-Chinese relations, normalized and much improved in the 1990s after a protracted period of tensions in the 1960s, 1970s and much of the 1980s, harbor the seeds of future tensions that are coming to the surface. In the simplest terms, Russia is a declining power. Its population is shrinking and its eastern provinces are becoming depopulated. The topic of Chinese expansion has become routine on the pages of Russian newspapers and academic publications. How to manage its relations with China—the rising giant of Eurasia—is Russia’s biggest foreign policy headache.14 Increasingly, Russian foreign policy experts view this challenge as exceeding Russia’s capacity to handle it alone.15 The prospect of junior partnership with China, be it in Central Asia, or in Russia’s own Far East, is hardly an attractive one for them.
But what are the alternatives? The United States is the only other power with the resources needed to play a major role in the fortunes of the new Eurasia. The question that has yet to be answered definitively is whether it has the will and the interest to do so.
Russia’s staying power in the new Eurasia is a pale ghost of what it once was, but due to a combination of geography, history, economics and politics, its decline as a regional power is likely to be protracted, while there will remain significant pockets of Russian influence. It will therefore remain a presence to be reckoned with in the new Eurasia for a long time.
Unlike Russia’s, whose interests in the region are strategic and long-term, U.S. interests appear to be cyclical and global in nature. It appears that reconciling U.S. global interests with Russia’s regional interests is the major stumbling block for both nations. Their ability to do so is the key to future security, stability and progress in the new Eurasia.
The outlook, however is not encouraging at least in the near term. The major fault line dividing the United States from virtually every other country in or near the new Eurasia is U.S. commitment to democracy promotion as the major organizing principle of U.S. policy in the region. The United States, Russia and China agree that stability in Central Asia is an important interest they all share. The United States sees the path to stability in political, as well as economic, reform. China and Russia view political reforms as destabilizing and prefer to maintain the status quo for as long as they can.
The record of the three revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan offers plenty of arguments for both sides of this debate to make their points. Kyrgyzstan is a country teetering on the brink of being ungovernable, as competing factions maneuver to consolidate their control on key government institutions and the country’s meager resources. Georgia, despite areas of progress, is facing an uphill struggle to consolidate its independence, sovereignty and launch itself on the path to prosperity, while increasingly concerns are being raised about the quality of its democracy. Ukraine, despite its size, proximity to Europe and resource wealth has stumbled from one crisis to another since the Orange Revolution, occasionally raising questions whether anyone can govern it in the aftermath of that dramatic event.
U.S. policymakers view these three countries as representing hopeful, albeit difficult progress toward democracy and stability. Russian and Chinese foreign policy experts take the opposite view; they see nothing there but the threat of chaos, which holds the danger of cross-border spillover.
A very recent innovation in U.S. policy entails breaking up the new Eurasia into two separate parts. The five former Soviet Central Asian countries16 have been moved out of the European and Eurasian bureau at the Department of State into the Bureau for South Asian Affairs, renamed as the Bureau for South and Central Asian Affairs. While this change is likely to de-emphasize the Russian aspect of U.S. policy in Central Asia, it is unlikely to diminish the role that Russia continues to play in the region. This change is equally unlikely to bridge the gap between U.S. policy, driven by a strong commitment to democratic change and the region’s ruling elites who fear its destabilizing consequences.
Given Russia’s limited reach and systemic constraints on its foreign policy, it is likely to continue in its role of a reactive, rather than proactive force in the region, whose actions are driven by opportunities that present themselves rather than a clear strategic vision. For the United States then the main challenge is not Russia, but a clear sense of its own priorities and interests in the new Eurasia.Eugene Rumer