Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program

June 2012

Summary: The Central Asian governments often — and rightly — complain that their voices are not being heard when it comes to issues related to Afghanistan. However, while they were invited to the NATO Chicago summit in May 2012, the five Central Asian presidents played “no show” politics. Explanations include complex components. There is an overall misunderstanding of NATO’s mission and the legal basis on which it operates exists in Central Asia. Even if there is no uniform view of Central Asian states with regards to Afghanistan, they are all pessimistic about the future of the country. And the departure, or at least the drawdown, of Western troops is also problematic because it leaves the local regimes with little strategic room for maneuver.

What does Central Asia’s “No-Show” at the NATO Chicago Summit Mean?
by Marlène Laruelle

The Central Asian governments often — and rightly — complain that their voices are not being heard when it comes to issues related to Afghanistan. For a long time, their views have been ignored and the focus of the West turned towards Pakistan. At best, Russia was considered a unique and uniform representative of all post-Soviet points of view. Faced with increasing difficulties in Afghanistan and the shift to the north that followed the establishment of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), Central Asia suddenly has become a more valued partner, and no longer a silent one. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan all signed transit agreements enabling the shipment of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), equipment from Afghanistan to Europe through both the Northern and Western Lines of Communication. However, while they were invited to the NATO Chicago summit in May 2012, the five Central Asian presidents played “no show” politics. They were content to send their foreign ministers, thus downgrading the importance they placed on the summit. Explanation of the Central Asian presidents’ glaring absence is all the more difficult because the local regimes are not the type to coordinate policy or to display a uniform regional front.

Some analysts have posited the theory of coordination with Russia, since Vladimir Putin also decided not to attend Chicago. However, this argument seems somewhat implausible. Uzbek President Islam Karimov does not typically seek to please his Russian counterpart, especially since his country became a key partner for the NDN and, since 2008-9, turned away from Moscow and moved much closer to the United States. Failure to secure a personal meeting with Barack Obama does not justify Karimov’s absence either. The absence of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who is an experienced attendee of many international summits and particularly sensitive to his country’s international image, is also inexplicable. The strategic proximity of Kazakhstan to Russia has never prevented Nazarbayev from prominently displaying the multivectored position of his country at international summits. Furthermore Kazakhstan wanted to become an ally of the international community in Afghanistan, which was demonstrated clearly during its OSCE chairmanship in 2010. To see Vladimir Putin as solely responsible for the absence of the Central Asian presidents would overestimate Russia’s capacity for leverage over its

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neighbors. Although Moscow is trying to make the structure of Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) more efficient in the region, and recently won — at least on paper — better coordination of the foreign policies of member states, it does not control “dissent” from Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan and is faced with the reluctance of Tajikistan. Moreover, the Chicago summit should not endorse major strategic decisions for the Central Asian region, but only demonstrate NATO’s willingness to better take into account the views of regional stakeholders. The Central Asian presidents, accustomed to symbolic statements without real weight, could have attended the summit without Moscow seeing it as a challenge to its “sphere of influence” in the region. Explanations must be sought elsewhere and include more complex components. First of all, there is an overall misunderstanding of NATO’s mission and the legal basis on which it operates exists in Central Asia. Its operations in Libya have strengthened the general sentiment in the region that Western countries have “double standards” and hide their political objectives behind so-called humanitarian operations. This rhetoric is not new. It was already present during NATO operations in Yugoslavia in the late 1990s and the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. The Arab revolutions of 2011 accentuated the feeling of the Central Asian regimes that they had been backed into a corner. The Uzbek authorities for instance feel trapped between their increasingly important role in the NDN — a very profitable rent-seeking strategy — and the vague feeling that Western support could suddenly stop in the case of a popular revolt. More conspiratorially, the West might have an interest in regime change in order to better take advantage of the opportunities that Uzbekistan’s wealth and geostrategic location offer. In Tajikistan, the combination of Russian pressures and President Rakhmon’s bad relationship with Putin, a possible U.S. or Israeli attack on its Iranian neighbor, and Tajik elites’ unawareness of long-term U.S. strategies for the region in the face of the NATO withdrawal arouses the widespread feeling of being in the most complete geopolitical deadlock. Second, even if there is no uniform view of Central Asian states with regards to Afghanistan, they all share common elements of analysis. All are pessimistic about the future of the country, believe that the Karzai government cannot remain in power after the international coalition leaves and that the Afghan armed forces are unreliable, do not believe

in the notion of “moderate” Taliban, and are preparing for the worst case scenario — a return to civil war. Their position on NATO/U.S. commitment is therefore contradictory, even schizophrenic. Since 2001, they have continued to criticize the nature of Western engagement in Afghanistan, condemning its military rather than political nature, the lack of socio-economic objectives, the number of civilian casualties, and the serious cultural errors (burning of the Koran, etc.). But now they complain about the departure of Western troops. To the Central Asian states, ISAF is leaving in haste but “the job is not yet finished.” Yet the idea that U.S. troops could remain in place does not suit them either because they see a complex geopolitical game between the United States, Russia, China, and Iran, in which they feel like victims or potential pawns. The uncertainty of the U.S. position towards Iran in recent months has also reinforced their impression that Washington has a hidden agenda in the region.

The uncertainty of the U.S. position towards Iran in recent months has also reinforced their impression that Washington has a hidden agenda in the region.
The departure, or at least the drawdown, of Western troops is also problematic because it leaves the local regimes with little strategic room for maneuver. The fear is not so much a strengthening of the Russian military influence in the region, but rather Moscow’s inability to assume this role there. For the Central Asian regimes, strategic uncertainty is worse than managing Russia’s influence. They all know how to bypass, negotiate, and leverage Russia’s favor, but cannot deal with the unknown. All doubt the efficiency of Moscow’s strategic instruments in the region, and would like to avoid a situation where the CSTO has to be tested on the ground, with few chances of success. It is the same, to a lesser extent, for China. The Central Asian elites do not believe in an increased military role for Beijing in Central

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Asia and Afghanistan, and consider, probably correctly, that China only cares about securing its economic interests and remains reluctant to increase its involvement in more sensitive areas. However, for China’s neighbors — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan — the risk of an abrupt change of Beijing’s strategy in case of instability in one of the Central Asian states weighs like a sword of Damocles over their sovereignty. Moreover, the departure of Western troops from Afghanistan exacerbates internal tensions between the Central Asian states, instead of pushing them to unify their strategies. Tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are at their highest, again because of a water-energy nexus. The risk as seen from Tashkent is that Dushanbe will gain more autonomy from its Uzbek neighbor if planned hydroelectric projects become reality, and that Tajikistan will then be able to compete with Uzbekistan’s near monopoly on electricity exports to Afghanistan. Even Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, traditionally neighbors with good relations, are experiencing tensions due to the establishment of the Customs Union, which penalizes Bishkek and weakens its economy, while Astana took the opportunity to try to reclaim the very profitable status as the main platform for the re-export of Chinese products from Kyrgyzstan. So far, the Central Asian states have refused to coordinate their policy on Afghanistan. Each assists Kabul in its own way and with its own objectives, networks, and local allies among ethnic groups. In the case of a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, it is likely that each would pursue its own strategy and that traditional support for the Northern Alliance will be penalized by these divergent logics, in particular between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, while Turkmenistan would develop its own autonomous strategies. The contradictions of the Central Asian regimes with regard to the Afghan issue have been underscored by the planned NATO/U.S. withdrawal. Their legitimate desire to be considered as actors with the right to participate in the regional resolution of the Afghan conflict is at odds with their positions as victims of the war in Afghanistan, which helps nurture Western interest and allows the local regimes to receive material and financial benefits, although probably to a lesser extent now that Pakistan has agreed to reopen its territory to transit. These contradictions, for which the local leaders as well as poorly defined Western policies are

responsible, make the position of the Central Asian states on the 2014 withdrawal contradictory, and therefore not easily maneuverable. It is now the duty of the transatlantic allies to better clarify their long-term commitment to the region in order to help the local governments out of their internal contradictions. They need to formulate a clear position on their own interests in wider Central Asia, beyond purely transactional relationships such as transit agreements.

About the Author
Marlène Laruelle is a Director of the Central Asia Program, and a Research Professor of International Affairs, The Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She is also a member of Europe-Central Asia Monitoring (EUCAM).

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Wider Europe Series
This series is designed to focus in on key intellectual and policy debates regarding Western policy toward Wider Europe that otherwise might receive insufficient attention. The views presented in these papers are the personal views of the authors and not those of the institutions they represent or The German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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