While larger or more unstable Asian countries often make the headlines, Central Asia and its ever-increasing importance of resources, its geographical position and the allegiances of the countries that compose it are now the subject of a growing interest. Expert in the region, Ms. Tamara Makarenko, explains her point of view on how this interest has developed.
Having been interested in Central Asia since 1998, both in an academic setting and in a professional setting, I have come to the conclusion that this region perfectly illustrates the way in which the relations between national interests, legitimate economy, criminality and political violence can collide and/or converge.
Initially, this analysis was the result of my academic research on the links between crime and terrorism, which led me to consider, in 2000, that if the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan had gained ground, it was because Djouma Namangani had succeeded in interweaving (apparently) legitimate commercial activities and drug trafficking.
The schemes then evolved, over the years, into more sophisticated operations, as the convergence between commercial, criminal and political interests grew stronger. Thus, for example, the situation in Kyrgyzstan tends to indicate that even if the main economic sectors are often closely linked to illegal activities, they have carte blanche to access the banking system and attract foreign investment.
Instead of adopting the democratic ideals and market mechanisms dear to the West as the a priori means of achieving economic growth and political stability, Central Asia has seen its development hampered by the power accumulated by the regimes authoritarians, oligarchs and criminal networks.
Moreover, despite the region being regularly admonished for its lack of democratic progress or its inability to control crime and rising extremism, the behavior of external actors perpetuates autocracy and corruption, which fuels the climate of economic, political and social instability.
Central Asia is at the heart of various struggles that intermittently see external actors competing for attention and, ultimately, access to resources.
Geoeconomics – new geopolitics
Central Asia’s historical significance derives from its location at the crossroads of East and West, nestled between empires and adjoining areas of conflict and insecurity (such as the Afghanistan, China’s Xinjiang Province, and Iran). While the region was largely ignored throughout the Cold War, its vitality and importance were quickly rediscovered.
Central Asia is widely regarded as an important stakeholder in the Caspian Sea energy game, a hub of Chinese energy security, a playground of Russian power politics, and a staging area for activities. criminal and religious fervor which we see in extreme manifestation in Afghanistan.
Given these regional realities, Central Asia is at the center of various struggles that intermittently see external actors competing for attention and ultimately access to resources. The competition for control of the region’s resources is often illustrated in the bilateral and multilateral economic and military agreements that are negotiated with the Central Asian states.
Tout en étant bien conscientes que les États extérieurs ont le pouvoir de dicter les règles du jeu, les élites de la région se sont rendu compte qu’elles pouvaient néanmoins utiliser les intérêts concurrents à leur profit (souvent personnel). En conséquence, des concepts tels que la primauté du droit, la gouvernance d’entreprise et la transparence des opérations commerciales sont souvent considérés comme des éléments qui peuvent être sacrifiés à l’intérêt national.
The game of power politics is no longer limited to the actions of states; it also includes their ability to use commercial interests and circumvent criminal control of economic spheres without aggravating short-term instability. If we take the activities of China, Russia and the United States in isolation, we can say that each of these states has thus contributed to maintaining the status quo in the Central Asian republics. Access to resources and infrastructure have become priority tools in the context of soft power, which should allow them to gradually increase their influence in the region.
An extension of China’s African strategy
Involved in Central Asia since the 1990s, the Chinese certainly adopt a multi-faceted strategy there, but their policy seems largely aimed at reproducing in the region that which they apply in Africa. In other words, China is steadily increasing its presence by investing in the energy and infrastructure sector, and by providing loans that do not come with strings attached. Beijing, for example, recently decided to grant Astana a US$10 billion loan that will be used exclusively for the development of the oil and gas industry – a move that will certainly be used to expand its energy ties in the region.
Although several bilateral agreements have been finalized between Beijing and, respectively, Dushanbe, Tashkent, Almaty and Bishkek, and if China occupies a balanced position with Russia in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is however its investment strategy carefully targeted that enabled it to gain a solid foothold in the region. This is evident in Tajikistan, with Chinese participation in the aluminum industry, and in Kazakhstan, with the key trade agreements that have been signed with KazMunaiGaz and Kazatomprom. Europe is beginning to show concern about the investment behavior of China, whose foreign direct investment and long-term loans are estimated at US$13 billion in the region.
The power games of the Russian oligarchs
Russia has also managed to use the commercial sphere to consolidate its influence and power in Central Asia. This is particularly evident in Kazakhstan, which can be said to be Moscow’s only direct link with the other republics. Russia began to penetrate the Kazakh banking system through direct and indirect acquisitions of shares in state banks. In theory, this policy will allow Moscow to influence the Kazakh economy by controlling access to loans and decisions on commercial debt. Vnesheconombank, for example, granted Astana a loan of US$3.5 billion earmarked for the purchase of Russian products. It is also likely that the Kazakh bank BTA will follow a restructuring plan involving a possible sale to the Russian bank Sberbank.
While Russia is emphasizing financial market capture, it is also gaining influence in the energy and mining sectors. Companies like Polyus Gold and Polymetal have a huge impact in gold and copper deposits, and LUKoil continues to expand its presence. Moscow has, for example, offered crisis capital so that LUKoil can buy BP’s shares in the Caspian Pipeline Consortium project. It should also be noted that in 2003 President Nursultan Nazarbayev invited LUKoil to sit on the Council for Foreign Investments of Kazakhstan.
The adoption of commercial strategies by China and Russia to gain influence in the region has meant that they have both helped to entrench the current political status quo. Analysis of different business transactions that have involved Chinese or Russian interests has confirmed that in many cases the rule of law, corporate governance and transparency of beneficial ownership are seen as luxuries that can be pass. State participation in commercial transactions therefore has little to do with contributing to the creation of sustainable economic growth. In fact, several of the transactions carried out simply helped to support the “phantom state”,
US emphasis on security priorities
Unlike China and Russia, whose involvement in Central Asia was not dictated by security considerations, the United States’ involvement in the region after 9/11 was largely aimed at allow the conclusion and management of agreements concerning military bases. It is within the framework of such trade agreements that the United States has adopted procedures analogous to those of China and Russia – the circumvention of market mechanisms dear to the West to guarantee its own national priorities.
The case of the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan is a typical example which has been the subject of numerous documents. In 2005, the FBI launched an investigation that uncovered the misappropriation of millions of dollars from fuel contracts the Pentagon had made with companies controlled by the then president’s son and son-in-law. This trend continued when President Bakiev replaced President Akaev, with lucrative fuel contracts now being made with companies that would be controlled by the son of the current president. The United States not only paid a high price for access (trade agreements combined with increased aid),
The heightened importance of Central Asia after 9/11 has created an altered reality
Geoeconomic Power Games and Security in Central Asia
Security in Central Asia very quickly entered the geopolitical category, its territory being used as a stage allowing external actors to engage in power politics games. The increased prominence of the region after 9/11 has created an altered reality in which, however, it is not the fundamentals of the game that have changed, but the way of playing. The immediate repercussions of this slight distortion of the context are not obvious, but by building an economic house of cards, one runs the risk of seeing Central Asia having a more direct impact on the instability of the region.
The emergence of legitimate commercial interests and investment opportunities will no doubt continue to contribute to some form of generalized economic stability, as has been the case throughout Central Asia since the independence of the countries concerned. But at the same time, this business environment is built on a shaky foundation of corruption, competing political interests, social unrest and disappointment, and instability caused by crime. Wealth is still the prerogative of influential figures, capital continues to be sent to offshore accounts (which often facilitates the movement of illicit money), and civil society must content itself to look at internal and external political actors. pursue contradictory policies.
As long as the United States, Russia and China continue their geoeconomic games in the region, a semblance of stability will hold. It is in their interest to ensure that this is the case. It is nevertheless necessary to question the longevity of this policy and to recognize that any slight decline in interests, for whatever reason, can be the catalyst that will lead the region into a situation of more open instability.