The meeting between China President Xi Jinping, on a tour of Central Asia, and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) at a summit organized by the Sangai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and SCO 15 September, emphasizes the region as part of the strategic alliance signed by both countries on February 4.
The war in Ukraine has changed the balance between China and Russia in this part of the post -Soviet space, an area consisting of weak and interdependent states. Russia is gradually losing the economic and political presence in an area that is relatively geopolitical and resource. The commitments in times of war may have accelerated this tendency. To this is added the geopolitical gap to the area created by the departure of the United States from Afghanistan.
China’s presence is gradually increasing in a new iteration of its peaceful rise on a local scale in a strong way. The opportunity presented to the Asian giant is undeniable, however, its success would result in Russia’s strategic involvement and, moreover, create a relationship of dependence.
The history of the “isolated” Central Asia
Central Asia is, to the West, a vast plateau of steppes and deserts covering more than four million square kilometers. A vague, distant and unknown space, which moreover is not even homogeneous geographically, culturally or ethno-linguistically. Close to legend, the area is associated with Alexander the Great, the Silk Road, the lost kingdom of Prester John or the Mongol hordes.
The set of countries (Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and Central Asia) that make up the post-Soviet space constitutes an arc of instability due to the contribution of a multitude of faults that turn the region, in general, into a zone of mixing, transition between cultures that are not sufficiently known in the West, such as Russian, Persian, Turkish and Mongolian. Added to this is its geopolitical importance, not only because of the dictates of geography that make it a crossroads, but also because of the discoveries of oil and gas and other strategic raw materials.
In terms of geography we could define Central Asia as the whole of Asian countries that are not in the Caucasus region and come from the collapse of the former Soviet Union: namely Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.
It should also be included in Afghanistan, with which Iran, China, and even Turkey itself, are in this area, which certainly have an influence, cultural presence and undoubted interests in the region. And in some of these territories there is a Turkish cultural root, and others, such as Tajikistan, very focused on Russia, have Persian influences. Uzbekistan suffers from double isolation, that is, it is necessary to cross two soils to reach the nearest coastline of free seas.
This space is historically inhabited by four main tribes, namely: Europeans, Mongols, Turks and Iranians, whose intersection is the source of others. The involvement of Europeans and Mongols led to Turks and Tatars. Of the Iranians and the Mongols in the Tajiks (“crowned heads” in Persian). That of the Turks and the Mongols led to Kazaks and Kyrgyz (Turkish for “wandering” and “forty tribes” respectively), while the Turks and Iranians gave way to Uzbeks (“true men” in Turkish).
The Kazaks, the Kyrgyz and the Turkmen have been relatively recently nomadic populations. Currently, the area is primarily rural, as four of its five countries are rural and have 306 million hectares of crops, in which cotton is of unique importance, in fact, in some countries, academically and legally, work is foreseen. School age minors in their collection, an aspect renounced from the human rights perspective.
In religious terms, today there are more than 75 million Muslims from the former Soviet Union, mostly Sunnis belonging to two tolerant legal schools (madhabs) such as Hanafi and Shafi. However, Azeris are 75% Shia. About two-thirds are in Central Asia and make up about 20% of the population of the former Soviet Union. The most pious are, traditionally, the Chechens and Dagestanis.
More recently, the region is associated with the Russo-British “Great Game”, a rivalry that caused it to be divided into three parts. China occupied the Levant, the British Empire occupied the South, while the North fell under the rule of Russia, eager to replace the supply of cotton interrupted by the American Civil War as it moved toward warmer seas.
How Central Asia was formed in modern world
Central Asian countries conquered and colonized by Russia (by Tashkent, today’s Uzbek capital, ruled the destiny of the region) in the second half of the 19th century were isolated from the rest of the Islamic world by placing themselves on the other side of the curtain. From steel that gradually waterproof the border. Adding to this a whole process of Russianization after the Bolsheviks revolution with the excuse of the creation of the new Homo sovieticus.
In the Fercanana Valley, starting in 1916, the Bashmachi uprising took place (in Uzbek “robbers”, Uzbeks constitute about one -third of the Muslims in the former USSR), which coincided with a fall of agricultural production by 62% against recruitment. troops in the context of World War I and lasted after the arrival of the Soviet Union. They, acting as guerrillas from the mountains, attacked the Red Army positions and supplies.
Later, General Enver Pasha, a former Turkish war minister, was led, who had strangely offered to Moscow to put an end to it and added another defeat, offering a Panislamic and Pan -Turkish proposal. The Soviet regime, through political measures, a return of territories that surrendered in the 19th century to Russian settlers and policies of respect for local culture, and military measures have finally defeated the movement around 1924, as will the borders of the new autonomous Soviet democracies.
The years of Soviet rule changed its social and economic structure deeply and even destroyed the environment. In this latter field, the damage was enormous, combining development, modernization and destruction in the same act. We can mention the diversion of rivers for agriculture that influenced the Arali Sea, the mass use of polluting pesticides to produce cotton that caused the infection of huge areas of agricultural land; , and other activities such as those carried out in the semi -semi -semi -semi -semi -test area or the use of contaminated water for human consumption.
There was a huge attempt to alter the cultural identity of the region, even Russianizing people’s names. Not only Islam was persecuted (though his private practice was tolerated) but also the cultural model built by this religion. A kind of “official Islam” was promoted near Sufism and Tarika. Pilgrimages were banned in Mecca, mosques were handed over to state institutions that prompted atheism, border control was reinforced by seeking to separate from the surrounding cities, all with occasional modifications to strengthen the regime.
The ethnic borders have also changed large human masses, entire peoples, victims after World War II, were violently displaced. Or trying to put an end to the conflict that emerged in the areas where they settled (Turks, Tarters, Russians, Germans, Chechens …) a huge process of collectivization was taken … Paradoxically of the current situation and also in the establishment of important nuclei of a population, partly nomadic then, outside the Soviet border.
In the administrative field, the five Soviet Socialist Republics mentioned were created on borders that were redefined in different cases, without taking into account the criteria Threat (Panislamic or Pantouric) for the central authority in the region, while interdependent from each other.
Overall, Islam did not play an important role in the destruction of the former USSR, though it is also true that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, one of the most important centers of which was in Tashkent, highlighted the deficiencies and restrictions of the regime.
The collapse of the USSR, unable to take control of its region, brought an independence, the opening of Pandora’s box, which is not pursued by the hand of the same communist nomenclature, which established strong and authoritarian presidential regimes. In the case of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, who remained in power until his death in 2016.
All of this made the forms of governance heirs of a political culture (old totalitarian formulas applied to new situations along with the will to remain in power, regardless of the means) that are maintained even though the changes have already begun slightly. Islam Karimov, who was president of his independence in 1991 and previously leader of the Communist Party, succeeded Savkat Mirziyev, who has been his prime minister since his death in September 2016, continuing in previous policies. with changes especially in the relationship with the environment.
Even more, the transition from a designed economy to a market economy and the relative change in values creates a great deal of confusion, if not lawlessness, due to the loss of reports, which causes paradoxical behavior and promotes corruption.
The so -called tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan is one of the color revolutions that, on this occasion, has tried to connect with the Arab sources. Since then, there have been electoral processes, constitutional reforms and changes in the dominant elites, in procedures that were declared fair (not all) by the OSCE eg. The upheavals caused in October 2020 by an attempt to massive electoral adulteration for the benefit of the pro -government parties.
Central Asia as a mound against the expansion of Russian and Persian Empire
After the collapse of the USSR, a kind of vacuum was created in the area, which was looking for the country that would cover it. The result is that the states that had originally developed, interconnected and specialized together, after the collapse- were prompted immediate misery and loss of quality of life in the populations- moving all of these countries to adopt increasingly divergent roads, politically, politically, politically their own benefit and deliberately worsening mutual disagreements and controversy to stand out, so that they can lead to the region of central Asia.
In Uzbekistan, since Mirziyev took over, the country has improved both in both corruption perception and human rights and in particular expression, as the international transparency states in its report on 2021 although, though, although It seems that he has a long way to go. Tajikistan has gone through a civil war that left half a million dead.
The case of Turkmenistan is an expression of balanced geopolitical and demonstrates the evolution of the region. This country has 992 kilometers of border with Iran, 379 kilometers with Kazakhstan and 1621 with Uzbekistan. Natural gas accounts for 90% of imports and 40% of its revenue. We are facing a person who is maintained by the customer nature of gas rents with which it ensures social peace. The country has also chosen a “permanent neutrality” and remains on the sidelines of most international and regional organizations, participating only as an observer or invited before some of them, although its dependence on Russia is clear. The “constant neutrality” and patronia guarantee the stability of the state and its survival.
By 2009, the destination of 90% of Turkmenistan’s gas was Russia, which, acting as a monopoly, resell it in Europe. But that year, a Turkmen-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China gas pipeline was inaugurated, which was expanded with new branches. Also, in the same year, a new gas pipeline was put into operation with the ability to significantly increase gas exports to Iran, thereby differentiating demand.
As a result, in the gas sector, China has displaced Russia, although its purchases are not at the same level and are at privileged prices. In 2019, due to financial disagreements with Iran and Russia, China was again the only buyer of all Turkmenistan gas, restoring the monopoly regime, though with a different customer who also set prices. However, the profits acquired were used to pay all the infrastructure made by the Asian giant in the country, which resulted in a serious liquidity crisis in the Turkmenistan fund.
The axis of stability in the region lies in Uzbekistan. Moreover, Uzbekistan is the strategic hub of the region both in terms of population and focal location: it borders the rest of the countries, but not China or Russia, which gives its decisions considerable autonomy. In fact, the other countries show levels of integration as states that are significantly lower than Uzbekistan’s.
More and more pressure on the relations of the states of Central Asia
Relations in Central Asia are under deep pressure as a result of disputes between administrations due to the mismatch of geographical and national distribution. Thus, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are geographically difficult to rule because they are separated from mountains (50% of Tajikistan is over 3,000 m) that cannot be crossed all year. The southern and northern part of these two countries are isolated from the rest and some areas are accessible only through Uzbekistan, but Uzbekistan has difficulty both accessing its territory and in the use of its communication roads.
Tajikistan is shared 1,400 kilometers long with Afghanistan, the main national minority in this country is Tajikistan (almost 30% of the total population) and is the main entry path for heroin reaching Russia.
The point is that the appearance of borders that do not correspond to ethnic specificities in a space that is considered integral and in which there was freedom of movement breaks its geographical unity.
Problems add synergies. Thus, drug trafficking finds stimulus in poverty and proximity to the Afghan production center and helps finance Islamist organizations with its production and distribution capacity and means. And drug trafficking is linked to other criminal behavior.
The most visible of these tensions has been the destruction of border posts on both sides of the border, as well as the death of quite a few third-country nationals at the hands of their own ethnic group (Uzbeks) when crossing illegally.
In response to these conditions, Uzbekistan has tightened its border controls by adopting measures aimed at restricting movement, which have left isolated enclaves that had previously enjoyed freedom of movement. The borders of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan were mined, from the air and inaccurately. In some areas they dropped three thousand mines per square kilometer, with a particular frequency in the 42 kilometers of the Kyrgyz border in the Ferghana Valley.
Landmines have caused many casualties, mainly Uzbek civilians residing in Tajikistan. Demining procedures, which began in 2004, reduced tensions. However, these were not very effective because there are no accurate maps detailing their placement.
The issue of security has emptied the agenda of other relevant issues, relegating local problems to other concerns. The Karasu Bridge disaster in 2005 is a good example. Strategic infrastructure for the region economically as it allowed transit of (Chinese) goods between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan; rebuilt by the population in clear defiance of President Karimov’s regime. It is also worth noting the difficulties in transit (especially with dangerous goods such as natural gas) across the country.
Uzbekistan as the axis of stability in the region
In Uzbekistan, the nationalist fear of developing a Tajikistan culture associated with autonomy makes it appear in the West as a barrier to the expansion of the Russian and Persian Empire. And even though relationships are not particularly strained and even improved, the Kyrgyz think they can end up as a Kazakh protectorate as a result of Uzbecca and the Tajiks believe that Uzbeks can get back and down Hanato The rest of Tajikistan delivering Gorno-Badakistan in Afghanistan for integration into Badakistan.
Central Asia is a dry and anhydrous land, but with a well -established rural tradition, so it has been transformed between the 1960s and 1970s creating an impressive irrigation system and a huge cotton growth. However, this emphasis on agricultural production had devastating consequences as the Amu Darya and Sir Darya rivers, the main tributaries of the Aral sea, were diverted. A great environmental disaster.
Keep in mind that agriculture accounts for 19.3% of the country’s GDP (industry 33.9% and services the remaining 46.8%), which makes it particularly timely. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan mainly export raw materials for processing. Only Uzbekistan exports more than four million tonnes of cotton, 90% of its production.
Uzbekistan’s economy is largely based on the export of its natural resources, whose international prices have allowed a continued increase in GDP in recent years. The decline in prices of these raw materials (other than gold), the international economic crisis and the recession in Russia (its main commercial partner) caused a slowdown in economic growth that had influenced the quality of life of its large population. The mining sector accounts for 25% of GDP and has the option of more. His recovery after the pandemic will help to stabilize the regime.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as China’s security provider in Central Asia
The problems of the controversial areas, along with the water issue, have led to transnational and border conflicts, which quickly recruit ethnic and nationalist lines and lead to violent conflicts between farmers.
The presence in the fields of organizations such as the 2002 CSTO Agency (CSTO), which brings together many of the former members of the Soviet Union under Russian leadership, is comparable to a range and structure with NATO and is still a stability element. .
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization has a biceps (Russia and China) that unites countries with more populations and resources that unite their forces to fight the so -called three wounds, reflecting their common concerns: extremism, autonomy and terrorism. But also to offset the presence of other factors in the area. It has a permanent anti -terrorist structure based in Tashkent. For some analysts, China applies SCO to promote an alternative to Russia as a security provider in the region.
The Ferghana Valley as a geopolitical axis of the region
One of the geopolitical centers of the region is, without a doubt, the Fergana Valley. The valley combines three countries, since it includes the three northeastern provinces (regions) of Uzbekistan (Adijan, Fergana, and Namagan), the three southwestern provinces of Kyrgyzstan (Bakhten, Jalal-Abad, and Osh), and northern Tajikistan. Uzbekistan has the lowlands, Kyrgyzstan the mountains and Tajikistan the western access with roads and trains accessing the valley.
The boundaries of the Ferghana Valley are intersected by a multitude of perspectives. To give an example that will be further developed later: the irrigation swamps of Uzbekistan were in Kyrgyzstan, while Uzbek cotton was ginned in Kyrgyzstan and the necessary route for its transportation passed through Tajikistan.
It is the aforementioned valley, a unique space connecting Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, surrounded on three sides by large mountain ranges that separate each national part of the valley from the rest, and despite its relatively small size, is a relative economic center.
In fact, it accounts for 25% of Uzbekistan’s cotton production despite accounting for only 4.3% of the country’s total area and 27% of its population, including five of the ten largest cities. It also includes 75% of Tajikistan’s arable land and about 65% of the country’s industrial output. In addition, exchanges and assignments of land would be made between the republics through leases.
The region is home to approximately fourteen million inhabitants, with very high birth rates, as more than half are under the age of 18. 70% Uzbeks, 20% Kyrgyz and the rest Tajiks. In the case of the Ferghana Valley, the population density in some places reaches as high as 2,300 inhabitants per square kilometer, making it the most overpopulated area in the region.
In the Ferghana Valley, the devastation of Tajikistan’s 1992-97 civil war left the region without industry and Tajikistan plunged into unemployment and poverty. According to its own statistics, in 2009 53% of the population was poor and 17% very poor. The average monthly salary is 50 dollars. The deindustrialization process has taken the country from 63% of the rural population in the 1980s to 77% in 2009. It also has a severe deficit in electricity generation.
The Kyrgyz section depended on Soviet subsidies for agriculture and livestock. And in the Uzbek part, poor management of resources has caused the destruction of agriculture and related industry. The majority of the population under the age of 18 has been forced to migrate to Russia or Kazakhstan. Unemployment reaches levels that are difficult to understand. The valley has experienced a deep impoverishment due to the collapse of the Soviet model and the disappearance of industry, as well as a lack of economic resources, which has led to a significant increase in unemployment (it is between 70% and 80% of the population) and tensions between different countries.
The geopolitical environment
The region is surrounded by four nuclear powers (Russia, China, India and Pakistan) and also includes areas as deeply unstable as Afghanistan or the outbreaks of Uyghur separatism.
Kipling thought that the Great Game would be won by whoever could build the strongest railway network. Today the railways – the main freight route in Uzbekistan – seem to have been supplemented – though not completely – by oil pipelines.
The region is presented as a trade corridor connecting China, the Asian giant, with European markets. And the fact is that this is an area of expansion in which trade is the spearhead, to which are added no less geopolitical considerations: direct land access to Iran and rapprochement with the Western world through the construction of the Trans-Asian railway.
Each country in the region has its own foreign policy, but maintains all kinds of ties with Russia: Russian is the language of all of them and the language of culture. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan seek a balance between the actors present in the region (Russia, China and the United States), while Uzbekistan pretends to be the regional leader and oscillates between being closer to Washington.
Thus, the Russian military presence is concentrated in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In Kyrgyzstan, a unique case, Russia opened a military base forty kilometers from Bishkek, balancing the presence of the American base in Manas, then open, with its license to operate in Afghanistan. Russia now controls the Baikonur, Sary-Shagan and Balkhash military bases in Kazakhstan, the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan and the Dushanbe military base in Tajikistan.
It remains Uzbekistan’s main trading partner and accounts for more than half of the investments the country receives. The import substitution policy implemented by the Putin administration after the imposition of sanctions by the United States and the EU had positive consequences for Uzbekistan, which in 2017 increased Uzbekistan’s exports to Russia by 17%.
And it is that the war in Ukraine reverberates in the region and gives rise to contradictory feelings in countries that were once part of the Soviet space. First, the fluctuations of the ruble reduced the value of remittances and, moreover, not a few immigrants lost their jobs. The Russian narrative is the most prevalent because of media penetration in that country.
Politically, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan cannot openly support Russia in this conflict because of the parallels with Ukraine, but neither can they oppose it because of political and economic ties with it. And in addition to economic concerns, there is also the fear of new “special operations” to protect Russians.
Not surprisingly, Kazakhstan and Russia share the world’s second longest land border (6,846 km) and the northern part of the country is home to a significant Russian community. Kazakhstan has enough population and territory to establish itself as the regional power of Central Asia.
The country is trying to economically integrate this territory and prevent it from being contaminated by instability in the region, which, according to some analysts, seems to have created a kind of paranoia among the country’s leaders. For these reasons, China prioritized a security approach in which it promoted the resolution of existing border disputes between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as promoting defense cooperation to protect its interests in the region and eliminate of extremist movements such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) which prevents them from settling in Xinjiang by changing its internal balance.
China is also approaching the region under its general policy of access and resource control. The New Silk Road concept that gives the program its name is a concept defined in the 19th century by the German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen to describe the trade network linking China to the Mediterranean.
There is a program of policies and investment and infrastructure that demonstrates the importance of China in the region. In fact, it has become one of the largest trading partners, with bilateral trade exceeding $40 billion – 20 times more than at the turn of the century – and accounting for about 20% of all exports and 37% of imports. from the five countries. A business, moreover, in development. Uzbekistan alone has more than 1,500 Chinese companies on its soil. In 2018, trade between China and Uzbekistan increased by 48.4% to reach US$6.26 billion. However, anti-Chinese sentiment, the result of years of Soviet propaganda, still persists in the region.
Russia and China, neighboring countries, share the vision of Central Asia. Both seek to maintain their stability and prevent third party access. Moreover, they also converge in the region as members of three associations: the EAEU, led by Russia, the OBOR, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), led by China. Both countries have created a kind of non-exclusive “division of labor” in economic and security matters, so that, although both have managed to coordinate their strategic interests in this area, often on the contrary, they have not incorporated the initiatives promoted by each one.
The war in Ukraine was able to change the current geopolitical balance
Russia has gradually lost economic and political presence in the region. And this war may have accelerated such a decline, even as it maintains military potential and cooperation with countries in the region. Added to this is the geopolitical void resulting from the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is thus moving away from the Middle East and South Central Asia and closer to the Indo-Pacific. While China’s economic presence is growing in a new iteration of its peaceful rise at the local level. The opportunity presented in China is undeniable.
Both countries share 4,000 kilometers of border and a past full of disputes. Furthermore, the Siberian desert is the natural hinterland of an overpopulated China. Unlike Russia, China has 20% of the population and 7% of the planet’s territory. For this reason this relationship is considered casual, but nevertheless it originates from China. And a Chinese triumph in this natural Russian hinterland, apart from symbolizing that such a shift would result in that country’s strategic involvement in Asia, would, with all that it implies, result in the closure of the Arctic.
This is a space connected to the sea from which he believes he can escape the siege of the Western powers and which he designates as one of his backyards. For their part, these countries value Iran’s strategic location and access to the southern seas, an escape route from the Russian Empire.
Iran has been particularly active in the new millennium, approaching the region on the basis of pragmatism while at the same time making use of the advantages that geography provides. Thus, it is part of organizations such as OCS and EAEU and in infrastructure projects such as the OBOR corridor or INSTC.
In the best diplomatic tradition, he knew how to exploit the Sino-Indian rivalry to establish himself as the key piece of the economic framework pursued by the two Asian powers both individually and jointly, which makes Iran, on the one hand, the gateway for Chinese and Central Asian products through the Central Asia-Southeast Asia Corridor; and on the other, the Indian Chabahar Corridor project.