Local Rules for the New Great Game in Central Asia

In his new book Great Games, Local Rules, Alexander Cooley suggests that the countries of Central Asia have become players rather than pawns in a new “great game.” Because of a change in their fortunes—due to the discovery of huge reserves of oil and gas, and their geostrategic location near Afghanistan—countries of the region are now signalling that great powers such as China, Russia, and the United States need to play by local rules in order to get what they want. To some extent, the dragon, the bear, and the eagle have been tamed.

More than a century ago, British geographer Halford Mackinder described the Eurasian heartland as the pivot region of the world’s politics—whoever controlled this region would control the world. This still rings true at the beginning of the 21st century. Central Asia is at the crossroads of Asia, Europe, and Russia, and on the doorstep of Afghanistan, India, Iran, and Pakistan. Therefore, it is a critical zone for trade and security, and, more broadly, influence. As a result, as Cooley points out, what is going on in Central Asia is not only interesting in itself, it gives clues about the great power rivalry in other parts of the world.

Great Games, Local Rules explains the motivations for the policies of the United States, Russia, and China in the region, particularly in the context of post 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan.

Cooley explains how the scramble for influence among the great powers has empowered the local elites. “Patrimonial” regimes, which are a carry-over from Soviet times, have been able to strengthen their patronage networks due to their ability to act as brokers between external actors and local constituencies. They have shrewdly leveraged their positions in order to extract benefits from their suitors who seek cooperation for access to energy resources, base agreements, and counterterrorism. Some states have capitalized on their strengths—for example, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan because of their hydrocarbons, and Uzbekistan because it is the main conduit for the Northern Distribution Network to and from Afghanistan. Others such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have asked for help to deal with internal tensions and external threats such as a spillover of instability from Afghanistan.

Sometimes a government has played one great power off against another. The example of Kyrgyzstan’s base bidding war between the United States and Russia is described in considerable detail.

One of the rules in this new “great game” is that human rights have been downplayed for the sake of political expediency. In the period of post-communist transition, Western countries lectured their Central Asian counterparts on the need for living up to their international human rights commitments. In a revealing anecdote, Cooley says that in an internal meeting about how the United States should react to a massacre in the southern Uzbek city of Andijan in May 2005, former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice apparently said “human rights trumps security.” This policy changed after the US was evicted from the strategically important Karshi-Khanabad airbase in southeastern Uzbekistan and subsequently had to renegotiate an agreement to return. Uzbekistan is now the key corridor for the Northern Distribution Network for most NATO supplies going into and out of Afghanistan. Furthermore, the American “values”-based approach was eroded by the “global war on terror.” Cooley provides interesting information about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition in the region, particularly to Uzbekistan. In short, security now trumps human rights.

Cooley also points out how the “war on terror” has enabled regimes to justify crackdowns on opposition groups, and to violate human rights in the name of security. Two such examples which he cites are the return of suspected Islamic extremists to Uzbekistan, and the return of Uighur refugees to China.

The great powers are also being obliged to play by local rules in terms of lubricating the decision-making machinery with bribes. As Cooley remarks, “the types of external revenues that have flowed from the international economy and community into the Central Asian countries–security assistance, international aid, rents from the sale of natural resources– are among the types of revenues most susceptible to graft, misappropriation, and corruption on the part of ruling regimes.” Again, the bidding war over use of the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan is cited as a grievous example of how the Americans and Russians tried to win over support from President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, and how tens of millions of dollars–which the Kyrgyz managed to squeeze out of both parties–were then siphoned off by the Bakiyev family. Cooley pointedly observes that while American officials were criticizing the Afghan government for its crippling problem of corruption, American policy in, for example, Uzbekistan, “necessitates tolerating and actively contributing to Central Asia’s corruption and governance problems.”

Whereas the United States views Central Asia mostly through the prism of the war in Afghanistan, Cooley points out how Russia is seeking a “privileged role” in the region. This is being done through bilateral agreements (such as base agreements in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), energy policy, as well as through multilateral bodies where Russia plays a leadership role such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the Customs Union. The Central Asian states play along, but as Cooley points out, they “will always seek alternative partners as a strategic hedge and to provide some protection and leverage with Moscow.”

For China, Central Asia is attractive for its resources, and as a buffer against instability. China has moved quickly to make bold investments in oil and gas rich counties such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The most stunning example is the pipeline that was built in less than three years to ship natural gas from Turkmenistan to China. China is also interested in working with its neighbors to the West in order to ensure stability and development in Xinjiang province. Through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), it has mobilized Russia and the Central Asian states to unite against separatism and terrorism. It has also used the SCO’s anti-terrorism agreements to apprehend and extradite Uighurs–a contradiction of international law.

Cooley looks briefly at the interests of other actors as well, such as the European Union and India. Unfortunately, he leaves out Turkey, which has emerged as a serious player in the region.

Cooley observes that “by constantly framing Central Asian politics in terms of timeless imperial competition, we have overlooked the important changes in world order and global governance that the region now visibly embodies.” This is true, which is why it is disappointing that Cooley himself cannot escape a few clichés. Firstly, he displays a rather disparaging attitude to governments of the region, overlooking the positive developments that have been made in some countries in recent years. Secondly, he overstates the idea of the region as an arena where great power interests conflict. Maybe Central Asia is actually a region where the interests of the three powers converge. After all, none of the three is interested in instability, extremism, or the spread of drugs and organized crime. Therefore, they could work together to unlock economic opportunities, contain a spillover of instability from Afghanistan, and promote greater regional cooperation. As one observer has said, it is time to shift thinking from the idea of the mutually exclusive “great game” to that of the win-win idea of the “great gain.”

Yet, as Cooley points out, even if the interests of external players converge, the governments of the five Central Asian countries seldom show political will to work together. Despite numerous attempts, regional cooperation has proved elusive. Cooley goes so far as to say that it is hard to consider the five countries as a cohesive region at all. He attributes this to the fact that “state elites continue to profit from the arbitrage opportunities provided by the endurance of national boundaries and regulations.” In other words, they have a vested interest not to work together. This is manifested, for example, by the cumbersome barriers to trade: in Central Asia, officially clearing borders, whether importing or exporting, can take over one hundred days–twice the global average.

Lack of regional cooperation is self-defeating in the long run since, as the author points out, the countries of Central Asia face challenges that can only be addressed together. These include improving the conditions for cross-border trade, water management, disaster relief and confronting environment degradation, dealing with transnational threats (such as drugs and terrorism), protecting public health, coordinating border management, and upgrading regional infrastructure.

Since Eurasia is again becoming the “heartland” of geostrategic and economic power plays, it is vital to understand the roles of the various actors, both local and international. Great Games, Local Rules is a valuable resource for explaining these shifting dynamics. It is a well-researched and well-written book that enriches our understanding of what is going on in Central Asia.

Walter Kemp is Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Peace Institute based in Vienna.