What are Russia’s grand designs in Central Asia?

By David Lewis, University of Exeter

While international attention has focused on Russian military operations in Ukraine and Syria, Moscow has also been involved in a flurry of diplomatic and security initiatives to address the growing instability in northern Afghanistan.

But its moves to bolster regional security are more than just a response to local security concerns. Russia has a broader strategy that could leave it as the dominant security actor across much of Eurasia.

Even before the shock of the Taliban occupation of Kunduz in late September, Russian officials were concerned about the fragile security situation in northern Afghanistan, including the rise of Islamic State in northern Afghanistan and its potential spread to Central Asia and thence to Russia’s large Muslim community. As if to emphasise the domestic threat, on October 12 Russian police announced that they had uncovered a terrorist plot in Moscow apparently involving a group of Central Asian militants.

Insecurity in Afghanistan may pose a potential security threat for Moscow, but it is being seized upon as a major geopolitical opportunity. Against a backdrop of failed Western policies across much of Russia’s southern flank, Moscow is moving quickly to fill a security vacuum in the region. It is strengthening existing alliances to consolidate its hold over former Soviet republics in Central Asia and reshaping the security dynamics of the region around its own favoured security groupings – the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

The first step has been a series of meeting with Central Asian leaders, all on the front line in case of renewed Afghan insecurity. A meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Emomali Rakhmon, the president of Tajikistan, led to promises of more attack helicopters to bolster the existing Russian military based in the country, which has become the hub of a well-developed defence system against cross-border infiltration.

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Central Asia is a sitting duck for ISIS

Deirdre Tynan writes: The appearance of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov in an Islamic State propaganda video on May 27 sent a chill across Central Asia. The head of Tajikistan’s Special Assignment Police Unit (OMON), a key element in President Emomali Rahmon’s security apparatus, had disappeared shortly before. In the video he promised to return to wage violent jihad.

A veteran of brutal Tajik government operations, Khalimov has the qualifications. And Tajikistan, a desperately poor country ruled by a venal elite, is a vulnerable target. As I drove to its capital, Dushanbe, last summer through the ancient city of Khujand and the rickety, fume-filled, Iranian-built Shariston tunnel, I saw poverty and isolation that eclipses the worst pockets of deprivation in neighboring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Khalimov has been an intimate of that elite, but at 40 years old he is relatively young and forceful, unlike the elderly, usually corrupt figures who have previously promoted themselves as Islamist guerrilla leaders in Tajikistan. His defection is a blow to Rahmon’s regime on many levels. He speaks to the parts of the elite not yet bought off and to the alienation of a substantial segment of society.

His message may be draped in Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric, but it is based on some of the potent, more worldly aspects of the Islamic State’s appeal. “Going out to work every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: Are you ready to die for this state or not,” he said directly to the underpaid, overstretched Tajik security forces. “I am ready to die for the Caliphate — are you?” [Continue reading…]


America’s alliances with Central Asia’s despots

The Guardian reports:

The post-Soviet state of Uzbekistan is a nightmarish world of “rampant corruption”, organised crime, forced labour in the cotton fields, and torture, according to the leaked cables.

But the secret dispatches released by WikiLeaks reveal that the US tries to keep President Islam Karimov sweet because he allows a crucial US military supply line to run into Afghanistan, known as the northern distribution network (NDN).

Many dispatches focus on the behaviour of Karimov’s glamorous and highly controversial daughter Gulnara, who is bluntly described by them as “the single most hated person in the country”.

She allegedly bullied her way into gaining a slice of virtually every lucrative business in the central Asian state and is viewed, they say, as a “robber baron”. Granted diplomatic status by her father, Gulnara allegedly lives much of the time in Geneva, where her holding company, Zeromax, was registered at the time, or in Spain.

She also sings pop songs, designs jewellery and is listed as a professor at Tashkent’s University of World Economy and Diplomacy.

The British ambassador in Tashkent, Rupert Joy, was criticised by human rights groups in October when he helped boost Gulnara’s image by appearing with her on a fashion show platform.

Der Spiegel reports:

The US is anxious to broaden its influence in Central Asia — and limit that of Russia. The result, however, are questionable alliances with some of the strangest despots in the world.

The secret country assessment from the US Embassy in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe, prepared for General David Petraeus on Aug. 7, 2009 ahead of his visit later that month, described a country on the brink of ruin. Tajikistan, a country of 7.3 million people on the northern border of Afghanistan, is a dictatorship ruled by Emomali Rakhmon, a former collective farm boss and notorious drunkard. “Parliament acts as a rubber stamp, barely discussing important legislation such as the national budget,” the dispatch noted.

Some of the state’s revenues were from criminal sources: “Tajikistan is a major transit corridor for Southwest Asian heroin to Russia and Europe.” The country had “chronic problems with Uzbekistan,” its neighbor, and the impoverished former Soviet republic faced the prospect of civil war fomented by Islamists in the east of the country.
Nevertheless, Petraeus, at the time head of US Army Central Command, was urged to court Rakhmon. The US needed his help in Afghanistan. The US had other ambitious goals in the region as well. The US, in recent years, has serenaded several former Soviet republics in Central Asia — oil interests, counter-terrorism assistance and American influence in the region inform the approach. As a result, US diplomats have had to cozy up to a collection of decidedly shady characters.

In the case of Tajikistan, Petraeus’ task was clear: “Secure Rakhmon’s agreement to accept transit of lethal materials to Afghanistan through Tajikistan” — arms and ammunition for US troops. In return, the US could offer assistance in quelling the Islamists: “Assure Tajikistan of our support as it works to contain militants in the east of the country.”


For the West, ‘Game over’ in Central Asia

For the West, ‘Game over’ in Central Asia

Last month, the West officially lost the new “Great Game.” The 20-year competition for natural resources and influence in Central Asia between the United States (supported by the European Union), Russia and China has, for now, come to an end, with the outcome in favor of the latter two. Western defeat was already becoming clear with the slow progress of the Nabucco pipeline and the strategic reorientation of some Central Asian republics toward Russia and China. Two recent events, however, confirmed it.

On Dec. 14, Chinese President Hu Jintao and the heads of state of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan personally opened the valve of a new gas pipeline transporting Turkmen natural gas from the state-of-the-art processing facility of Samandepe to the city of Khorgoz, in China’s western province of Xinjiang. The pipeline, developed by the Chinese state-owned energy giant, CNPC, has a capacity of 40 billion cubic meters and traverses almost 1,250 miles through four countries.

Earlier in the month, on Dec. 3, the venture had received the blessings of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who declared that Moscow was comfortable with the idea of Turkmen gas flowing eastwards to China. Putin’s words further underscored ongoing Sino-Russian energy cooperation, which has made significant advances and is shaping the new political economy of energy in Central Asia and elsewhere. In an accord signed on Oct. 13, the two countries set the basis for a long-term partnership based on joint explorations in Russia and third countries, as well as cheap loans from Chinese banks to the Russian energy sector, even if complex pricing issues remain unresolved. [continued…]