7 January 2022

Three decades on, the West still lacks a Central Asia strategy

By Robert Tyler

The 1970s Soviet film White Sun of the Desert – set on the steppes of Central Asia during the Russian revolution – popularised a phrase in Russian; The Orient is a delicate matter. This expression, often used as a throwaway remark to dismiss a problem as too difficult, is perhaps now more relevant than ever. The recent uprising in Kazakhstan, and the subsequent intervention of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), have demonstrated how fragile Central Asia truly is.

But perhaps more alarmingly, it has once again demonstrated that 30 years after the five nations of Central Asia declared independence from the Soviet Union, the region remains a blind-spot for Western policy makers. Little has been done to support the development of these strategically important countries, either economically or democratically. 

No US presidents and only one British Prime Minister, David Cameron in 2013, have visited Kazakhstan or other countries in the region. Even during the height of the War in Afghanistan, when the Western Allies used airbases in Uzbekistan, the rest of the region was mostly left alone.

What’s more is that the public has little interest in the region, or even understanding of it. It is telling that the only reference to Kazakhstan in popular culture is Sacha Baron Cohen’s portrayal of Borat – a film not even produced in the region. Likewise, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are are largely unknown to most of the Western world.

So it’s little surprise the Western governments such as the United Kingdom, United States, or European Union pay much attention to Central Asia. This was perhaps epitomised in a recent White House press conference on the Russian intervention in Kazakhstan, that amounted to an admission of ignorance on the part of the Biden administration. 

In a similar vein, most of the Western media have given higher priority to a tennis player’s immigration status than a huge, bloody uprising on Europe’s eastern periphery.

Stepped in history

One of the easiest explanations for why Central Asia never enjoyed as much attention as Eastern Europe did during the fall of Communism, is that the West was caught off guard. Very few analysts in the Foreign Office, State Department, or elsewhere were prepared to see the Central Asian states declare independence from the Soviet Union. Books and articles had been written in the West throughout the 1970s and 80s discounting the view that if and when the USSR collapsed, countries like Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and others would ever leave.

As such, the same contingency planning that was put in place to support the independence of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, never existed for Central Asia. They didn’t enjoy the same influx of outside investment that other post-Communist states in Europe benefited from – nor did they receive the much-needed structural reforms that came with the abandonment of the Soviet system. 

Some in foreign policy circles even questioned why it was that these five nations claimed their independence, while others such as the Kalmyk Republic, Tuva, or Dagestan did not. This scepticism is rooted in the wider history of the region – and these nations’ relationship with Russia. These outlying regions had been part of the Russian Empire before the birth of the Soviet Union, unlike many of Russia’s European possessions, which had simply been reabsorbed in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Russian conquest of Central Asia began in the 1700’s, however the lion’s share of the land was conquered in the reigns of Nicholas I and his son Alexander II between 1825-1885. Britain had interests in the region, as it bordered India – triggering the Great Game.

Throughout the Soviet era, Central Asia was further absorbed into the Russian sphere. Revolts in the region during the period of the Civil War were quickly put down, and a process of aggressive Russification took place. The steppe also served as convenient dumping ground for political undesirables, with a number of gulags set up across the region. Famously Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent time in internal exile in Kazakhstan, surrounded by bandits, thugs and petty criminals. His novel Cancer Ward was set in a Tashkent hospital.

In the 1970’s, further seeking to secure their frontiers, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan from its Central Asian base. With a bulk of those fighting in the Soviet Army coming from Central Asia itself. As such, the prevailing view was that these territories were integral parts of Russia. When they did break away in the early 1990s, they were a far lower priority to Western policymakers than the newly liberated eastern bloc,

Another  reason that Central Asia has remained a low priority is simply geography. For those supporting the development of democracy and the market economy, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, and the Baltic are far closer to home than Dushanbe, Tashkent, or Nur-Sultan. The nations of Central Asia are no longer part of Britain’s neighbourhood, and thus no longer of concern. Long gone are the days of ‘Shooting Leave’, in which British officers and civil servants would travel around exotic oriental capitals, filing reports on the movements of Tsarist Russia.

Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, there is the ongoing sense of Western complacency – a recurring theme in a decade whenthe UK, US, European Union, and other Western powers have shyed away from promoting and defending our values abroad. The days of the Western world acting as a bastion of freedom, stepping in to mediate in foreign conflicts, are now largely a memory. 

Nor is it just the withdrawal from Afghanistan, though that stands as the epitome of Western geopolitical failure in recent years. In 2020 we watched as Armenia and Azerbaijan waged a full-scale conventional war against one another with minimal input from the West. Instead, it fell to Russia and Turkey to broker the peace agreement. In 2021 we watched as Russia backed up the regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus, triggering a hybrid attack on Europe through an artificially inseminated migrant crisis. And in the opening days of 2022, we are watching as Russia and her allies deploy forces to the streets of Nur-Sultan, Almaty and Shmykent.

The fact is that even three decades since these countries became Independent, the West has still not yet worked out what its role in the region is. And so long as we prevaricate, Russia will continue to treat Central Asia as its own back yard. Countries such as the UK need to work on developing a long-term strategy for the region, including contingency for the regime collapsing. But it must do so quickly and delicately, after all the Orient is a delicate matter. 

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Robert Tyler is Senior Policy Advisor at New Direction - The Foundation for European Reform.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.