A leading Russian political scientist asserts that the Kremlin’s influence in Central Asia is exaggerated and Moscow’s regional impact is likely to “become less and less,” despite President-elect Vladimir Putin’s desire to expand Russia’s role in Eurasia.
Alexey Malashenko, a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, offered an iconoclastic analysis of Russia’s position in Central Asia. He spoke at the inaugural March 8 seminar of the new Central Asia Program at George Washington University in the American capital.
Malashenko described Russia’s political, economic and cultural influence as being in a “situation of decline” in Central Asia, adding that Russian leaders have failed to appreciate changing realities in the region. “In some Russian brains” the same views persist as existed “15 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago,” Malashenko said.
The primary geopolitical shift in Central Asia, one first embraced by Kazakhstan and then mimicked by other Central Asian states, is the notion of a multi-vector foreign policy, essentially diplomatic diversification. Policymakers in Russia have been slow to respond to this change, and many philosophically still expect Central Asian states to act deferentially toward Russia.
“Even in Kyrgyzstan, Russia is only one of the vectors” that must compete with the United States, China, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Europe, and others, Malashenko noted. “When I hear about the huge impact of Russia in Kyrgyzstan, I remember that the trade between China and Kyrgyzstan is equal to $2 billion.”
“Does the Kremlin understand this?” Malashenko rhetorically asked. “I do not know.”
According to Malashenko, who often consults with Russian diplomats, officials in Moscow cannot readily describe Russia’s priorities in Central Asian countries, except for Kazakhstan.
There are several multilateral organizations -- including the Commonwealth of Independent States, the Collective Security Treaty Organization [CSTO] -- that, in theory, can bind Russia to Central Asian states. In practice, however, “practically all relations are built on a bilateral basis,” Malashenko said.
He took a dim view of the proposed Eurasian Union’s chances of success, and characterized the CSTO as a paper tiger. “When something happens inside Central Asia—as in Andijan in 2005 and Kyrgyzstan in 2010—what did this organization do? Nothing!”
Malashenko, who is also a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, believes that Russian leaders are underestimating the revival of Islam in Central Asia and the challenge this presents Moscow. Putin and his team “are not ready for the future in Central Asia,” he said.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.