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Central Asia: Great Game Replayed?

Great Game Replayed?
(1) Central Asia: The Challenges of Independence edited by Boris Rumer and Stanislav Zhukov; Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2003; pp ix+307+tables, Rs 650.

Central Asia: Great Game Replayed?

(1) Central Asia: The Challenges of Independence

edited by Boris Rumer and Stanislav Zhukov; Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2003; pp ix+307+tables, Rs 650.

(2) Central Asia: A Gathering Storm?

edited by Boris Rumer; Aakar Books, New Delhi, 2003; pp xiv+442+tables+map, Rs 1,050.


he five central Asian states (CAS) of the former Soviet Union have been passing through a major socio-economic and political transformation during the past decade and more. As the disintegration of the Soviet Union was sudden and unexpected, the CAS were least prepared to face the challenges of independence that they attained in 1991. The period since independence has been eventful for the CAS – from civil war in Tajikistan in the early 1990s to bloody terrorist violence in the Andijan Oblast in Uzbekistan and political revolt in the Kyrgyz Republic in 2005, leading to a change of regime. Living under the system of communist ideology for over seven decades and enjoying a certain socio-economic security in the socialist system, the transition to a market economy and political democracy has been painful and is yet incomplete. Developments in the international sphere are also equally significant for the CAS. The region has been an arena of “great game” rivalry for the second time in history. While in the 19th century, the players were the two imperial powers of Russia and Great Britain for oil in Azerbaijan, in the 1990s, Russia, the US and China were major players. The great game in central Asia has also assumed geopolitical and geo-economic significance because besides control over energy resources of the Caspian Sea in central Asia, threats of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism have been the focus of international attention. How the situation will unfold itself in the near future will be of importance for the CAS themselves and for the rest of the world. These and other related issues have been analysed and discussed in the two edited volumes on central Asia. Boris Rumer, a Russian émigré economist at the Harvard University, has used both Russian and some central Asian academics in examining various developments in central Asia.

It is important to note that none of the five CAS existed as sovereign entity in modern history nor did they undergo a prolonged anti-colonial, anti-imperial struggle to prepare themselves for independence. In fact, independence was thrust on the CAS, which was evident in the fact that the elite and nomenklatura of these countries actually resisted the dissolution of the USSR since they were beneficiaries of the Soviet system. Subsequently, however, the leaders consolidated their power to establish authoritarian regimes in their countries in which, to varying degrees, presidential authority was unlimited, state order was weak and the bureaucracy was powerless. It is contended by Umirserik Kasenov that such regimes were justified since political stability was the main concern so as to deal with several challenges, namely, securing political independence, averting a full-blown economic collapse and containing radical Islamic movements.

Geopolitical Vacuum

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet break-up, a geopolitical vacuum was created for the CAS, which had served as a critical buffer between Russia, China and the Islamic countries. While Russia was looking more to the west under the Yeltsin-Kozyrev policy in the first half of the 1990s, China was trying to increase its influence in the region. Initially Islam Karimov, the president of Uzbekistan gave priority to expanding relations with the US and often distanced himself from Russia by joining the GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova) regional association in which Russia was not a member. In fact, Moscow-Tashkent relations have witnessed ups and downs during the past decade and more. The geopolitical vacuum gave an opportunity to western countries to enhance their position in the region and to promote their ideology of political democracy and market economy in these countries. Sultan Akimbekov has opined that after the tragic event of 9/11, the US became an active player in the region having realised the geopolitical significance of central Asia. In fact, this region moved from the periphery to the centre of US strategic interest. It is opined that Russia, China and the US have a common agenda in blocking the spread of radical Islam in central Asia while competing with each other in economic and other spheres.

For instance, the US and the western countries have managed to lay an alternative Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, bypassing Russia, for getting oil and gas from the Caspian region to supplement oil supplies from west Asia. Similarly, on its part, China has been extending support to authoritarian regimes, while maintaining a guarded attitude towards the fundamentalist ideologies prevailing in the region. It is argued that the Chinese strategy had been to isolate Xingiang from the Islamic terrorists, counteract the influence of the US and replace Russia in central Asia. The authors state that Russia was a loser in the region, being mired in domestic political struggle in the early 1990s but it managed to regain its position to some extent by the end of the decade when Vladimir Putin took over as president of Russia. Both China and Russia reluctantly conceded the setting up of US military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz Republic after 9/11, but did not want the bases to remain for a long period. This is a valid assessment because as subsequent events have shown, in the summer of 2005, Russia and China strongly supported the Uzbek decision of asking the US to close down its military base.

However, a few contentions of the authors in the two volumes seem to be questionable. On the concept of triangular relations – “Russia-China-India” and “Russia-China-Iran”, it is opined that Moscow demonstrated the archaic and limited thinking of its geopolitical strategists. Rumer does not seem to agree with the former Russian prime minister Yevgenii Primakov who had initiated these concepts. But these contentions

Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006 underestimate the potentiality of Russia in the central Asian region since Russia has partly succeeded by vigorously pursuing its geo-political and geo-economic policies during the last several years in the energy and other sectors of the CAS.

Economic Issues

In both the books there are many sections, which deal with economic issues of the CAS. The CAS faced an economic crisis in the early 1990s. What were the main causes for that crisis? In the opinion of the authors, first, the inherent features of the former Soviet system was one of the causes. Secondly, most of the CAS were against the “shock therapy” policy of Boris Yeltsin, which had a catastrophic effect on the Russian economy. But Kazakhstan, having a strong influence of Russian specialists and a close interdependence with the Russian economy, adopted some elements of shock therapy in the initial few years. On the other hand, Uzbekistan took an independent economic policy and adopting a different path evolved its own model of economic development which preserved many elements of the Soviet era. It is rightly observed that while the economic decline in Uzbekistan was the least in the first half of the 1990s, Islam Karimov was unable to diverge from his chosen economic trajectory which had become a constraint rather than an asset by the end of the 1990s. Thirdly, the implementation of economic policies was characterised by half measures: not carrying out cardinal changes, which often resulted in negative effects. An example of this was the South Korean Uz-Daewoo automobile plant, which went bankrupt within a short period of implementation in the early 1990s. Subsequently, major efforts had to be made to improve the condition. Fourthly, the CAS lacked resources for economic development particularly in the initial period of independence. This problem was partly solved, thanks to the substantial assistance provided by the international economic agencies such as the World Bank, IMF and Asian Development Bank, which helped in bolstering relative economic stability in these counties. Writing on central Asia’s relations with the European Union, Murat Laumulin has stated that since the late 1990s EU has taken an active policy by supporting economic transition, increasing investment in the CAS and enhancing EU presence in the region.

With regard to the policy of implementation of economic reforms, it has been observed that the pace and content of transition to market economy vary among the CAS. In the 1990s the Kyrgyz Republic made rapid progress in implementing economic reforms and achieved some success. On the other hand, the relatively closed character of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and slow pace of market transformation enabled non-competitive enterprises to survive leading to greater inefficiency in production. Qualitative changes in the economic structure and discernible impact of globalisation on the economies of the CAS have been discussed in detail by the authors.

Criticism on Policy-Makers

Boris Rumer has made a valid criticism of the policy-makers of the CAS for squandering intellectual capital and scientific technical institutions inherited from the Soviet era due to which there has been a sharp decline in the educational level of students. In all of CAS, economic disparities have increased and the standard of living of the population has gone down by over 80 per cent between 1991 and 2002. Hence millions of “poor” have a nostalgia of “the good old days” of the Soviet era. In the opinion of the authors, the macroeconomic stabilisation achieved by 2002 had not made a positive impact on the social sphere – 30 per cent of unemployment; 40-70 per cent of the population living below poverty line; poor state of public health system leading to declining life expectancy, high infant mortality and so on. In view of the above, the authors have argued that in the short run, the CAS face many objective challenges in the task of economic development – ensuring sustainability of economic development; developing financial sectors; developing private sector; initiating effective agrarian reforms; avoiding the dangers of excessive reliance on raw material export and reversing decline in FDI.

Regional cooperation has been a matter of great importance for the CAS. Efforts were made in the early 1990s, which gave rise to the formation of regional organisations such as the Economic Cooperation Organisation, Central Asian Union, etc. But the policies in creating these organisations and their significance and viability were questioned by the experts who contend that they were more in the form of intention rather than a serious implementation. The lack of regional cooperation was also evident since the intraregional trade among the CAS declined in the 1990s when Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were not able to get deliveries of grain, oil and natural gas from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Similarly, there have been disputes between upstream countries of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and downstream countries of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan with regard to the sharing of water from the two main rivers, namely, Syr Darya and Amu Darya. On the other hand, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), initiated by China and Russia in which four CAS are the members, has been more successful with a wider agenda to deal with not only political and economic issues, but also terrorism in the region.

The subtitle of the second book A Gathering Storm? has been vindicated considering the political revolt involving a regime change in the Kyrgyz Republic and terrorist violence in the Andijan Oblast of Uzbekistan in 2005, that is subsequent to the publication of the two books. The authors have also opined that regime changes in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where presidential elections are to be held in the near future, might not be smooth. This shows that the authors have a deep knowledge of the undercurrents prevailing in the region. Developments in central Asia have direct relevance and implications for India, which has close and cordial relations with the CAS. Hence, both the books are useful to those who are interested in understanding contemporary developments in central Asia.



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Economic and Political Weekly January 14, 2006

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