Fear and loathing in the 'stans'

From the heart of Eurasia, the world looks scary. Five impoverished states left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed find themselves in the middle of a fundamental geopolitical realignment.

The "stans," as they're called when reporters and diplomats tire of tongue-twister names - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan - had to chart their own course as Russia shrank; China towered; Turkey and Iran searched for centuries-old legacies; Afghanistan fell apart; and India and Pakistan pondered what, if any, stake they, too, might have in the region.

The sole remaining superpower, the United States, made sure there weren't any loose nukes left and offered advice on markets and democracy. Washington decided it didn't have a major stake in Central Asia, and American interests would be best served if the struggle for influence there could be avoided altogether. In other words, it would be best for the US if the fundamental geopolitical shift in Central Asia didn't happen at all.

For much of the 1990s the "stans" tried to court the "indispensable nation." By the end of the decade, they realized the US was busy and Washington's strategy of wishing away the inevitable wouldn't help them survive in a neighborhood full of rogues.

Russia proved the easiest to handle for the Central Asians. Local leaders have dealt with Moscow for decades and know both how to cater to its lingering post-imperial neuroses and how to maintain their distance from it. They also know Russia can no longer give them what they need the most - protection, money, and muscle to police the neighborhood.

Still, were Russia to withdraw completely from Central Asia, its departure would leave a void no other power could or would fill. Russia's military presence in Tajikistan - a frontline state between the Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and the rest of Central Asia - is indispensable to the fragile status quo in the region. Not one of the countries seeking to carve out a sphere of influence in Central Asia is ready for Russia to leave.

Russia's national security establishment, frustrated by the unending Chechen rebellion, is increasingly concerned about the spread of militant Islam - from Afghanistan's Taliban to Chechnya and the rest of the Caucasus, to the Russian heartland republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. Regardless of the credibility of these fears, Russia sees its first line of defense against militant Islam in its military outposts on Afghanistan's border.

In a remote Central Asian capital last fall, a group of American foreign-policy specialists, including me, lectured senior local officials on the state of the world. The locals looked bored as the Americans went on about presidential succession in Russia, Gov. George W. Bush's foreign policy, and Europe after the Kosovo war.

But the half-dozen men snapped to attention when China came up. China was what worried them most and what they understood least.

Living next to China has proved difficult for the "stans." Despite their extensive common border, they had virtually no experience dealing with it prior to 1991. During the Soviet period, the relationship with Beijing was managed in Moscow. Confronted with a giant, nontransparent, dogmatic neighbor with great power ambitions, the young states of Central Asia knew they'd have a hard time dealing with it on their own. Their ethnic kin across the border, long chafing under Beijing's rule, could only make them more apprehensive about China's intentions.

Beijing has been on the defensive in Central Asia since the Soviet Union fell apart. Presumably, China's leaders fear the contagion of independence that swept across Soviet Central Asia and could spread to Xinjiang - its westernmost province full of Turkic Muslim minorities. This comforts few in the small Central Asian states, because Chinese defensive anger is no different from Chinese offensive anger. Best not to provoke Chinese anger at all.

The "stans" have tried hard to placate China. They used border accords signed by five Central Asian neighbors - China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan - in Shanghai in 1996 to engage Beijing on a regular basis. China got commitments from the "stans" not to support Muslim separatists in Xinjiang, while promising to respect their borders.

At the July "Shanghai Five" summit in Tajikistan's capital, Dushanbe, they shared their concerns about separatism, terrorism, and religious extremism. These have become more, not less, of a problem since 1996.

The Taliban's brand of militant Islam across the border in Afghanistan has fanned fears of destabilization in Central Asia, as well as in Muslim provinces in China and Russia. Uncertain of Russia's resources and resolve, Central Asia's young states have no faith in their own ability to keep things stable. Nor is China likely to have any illusions about the ability of the "stans" to maintain a firm grip on domestic affairs.

The specter of Chinese intervention frightens the "stans." They don't know how to deal with this challenge other than to cast in all directions for allies and partners at all costs.

Where does all this leave the US? Having taken it as an item of faith that geopolitical competition in Central Asia is not in its interest, the American foreign-policy community has yet to come to terms with the fact that the competition has already begun. If it isn't in the US interest, how does the US protect itself?

Without a compelling US interest in the heart of Eurasia, but with a multitude of such interests around its periphery, what is wrong with China, Russia, and others jockeying for position in Central Asia? Why not accept it and, if possible, benefit from it, especially since it is well beyond our power to stop the geopolitical realignment on the continent?

*Eugene Rumer is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. The views expressed here are his own.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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