No. 5 - Sept. 1996
Vol. 44 - pp. 26-31

The Central Asian region in a new international environment

B. Coppieters Bruno Coppieters is a lecturer at the Centre for Political Science of the Free University of Brussels (VUB);
B. De Cordier
Bruno De Cordier is currently working at the Press Department of an international humanitarian organization
B. Coppieters Firouzeh Nahavandy is Director of the Research Centre on Muslim non-Arab Asia at the Free University of Brussels (ULB).
B. De Cordier
This article was written in conjunction with Werner Bauwens who is Liaison Officer for Belgium and Luxembourg at the NATO Office of Information and Press.

Overall stability in the Central Asian region depends on both the attitude of the international community and the policies of the individual Central Asian governments. In the following article, the authors analyse the global approach to the region taken by the main outside actors and then conclude by stressing the need for a comprehensive approach to security in Central Asia to which the OSCE as well as the NACC and Partnership for Peace can contribute. The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of NATO or member governments.

The Central Asian region is witnessing an increase in diplomatic activity. Russia is strengthening its economic and military ties to all countries of the region. The United States, Germany and Turkey are demonstrating their interest through economic investment, military cooperation initiatives, and full diplomatic representation. The European Union, experienced in implementing large economic and humanitarian programmes in the region, is working to present itself as a significant political partner. With diplomatic initiatives in the region, Iran, too, wants to gain ground lost elsewhere; its harbours in the Persian Gulf are proposed as the best route for the shipment of goods and raw materials to and from Central Asia. And NATO is, for the first time, directly present beyond the Ural mountains through the participation of Central Asian countries in the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) and Partnership for Peace (PfP).

All these actors consider that they have legitimate interests to defend in Central Asia, interests which coincide in as far as no power involved in the region can neglect the negative consequences of ethnic turmoil on the stability of the post-Soviet order. All foreign countries involved in Central Asia are making important investments in the energy sector, necessitating international agreements concerning the transport routes westwards. Having gained full political sovereignty, the Central Asian governments perceive the involvement of these various states and international institutions in their region as one of the basic guarantees for their stability, independence and economic development. They also use foreign policy as a marker of differentiation in their relations with the world community.

Competition between the geopolitical interests and perceptions of all regional and non-regional states, will not necessarily lead to open conflict but may make it more difficult to resolve basic security clashes in the economic and military spheres.

The economic exploitation of the oil and gas reserves of northern Kazakhstan and the eastern Caspian needs a political consensus between all the actors involved. Central Asia has experienced severe ethnic conflicts in the last decade which have spilled over national borders: in Uzbekistan in May-June 1989 when Meskhetian Turks originating from Georgia were massacred; in Kyrghyzstan in 1990, when violent clashes occurred in Osh and other places between Uzbeks and Kirghiz; and above all Tajikistan, where civil war has raged since 1992. Foreign involvement may have positive as well as negative consequences in the settlement of such crises, thus the question arises as to how diplomacy could be used in such circumstances in order to minimize the effect of irreconcilable interests.

Outside actors


Russia's approach to Central Asia is determined by the common Russian and Soviet heritage. The retreat from Central Asia during the first year following independence was subsequently considered a mistake, as it appeared to neglect the interests of the large Russian communities in the region, the huge reserves of natural resources and the area's strategic importance as a buffer with both China and Iran. Currently, the Russian peacekeeping forces stationed in Tajikistan and the border guards posted not only in Tajikistan but also in Kazakhstan and Kyrghyzstan (on the border with China), and in Turkmenistan (on the border with Iran and Afghanistan) testify to the importance of the region for Russia's military.

The massive emigration from Kazakhstan of ethnic Russians, estimated in 1994 to have climbed to 450,000, has created great concern to Russian public opinion. The industrial northern region of Kazakhstan is also closely integrated economically to neighbouring Russia.

In Kyrghyzstan, the Russian community constitutes about one quarter of the population. Trade and industries are Russian-oriented. Large credits have led to high indebtedness both towards Russia and the West.

Uzbekistan is economically less dependent on Russia (in 1995, 40 per cent of Uzbekistan's imports came from Russia, while this was still 85 per cent for Kazakhstan), but as a land-locked country it remains largely dependent on Kazakhstan and Russia as long as transport possibilities through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are not significantly expanded.

According to President Yeltsin's September 1995 decree on The Establishment of the Strategic Course of the Russian Federation with Member States of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a leading role in the CIS is an indispensable condition for Russia's continued recognition by the world community as a global power. Russia is accelerating the process of reintegrating former Soviet republics both through multilateral and bilateral agreements and institutional arrangements. The establishment of a Customs Union with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghyzstan and Belarus is aimed at securing the flow of goods between production and transport facilities that were created in Soviet times. The implementation of an integrated military security structure within the framework of the CIS, as a Moscow-centred political consultation mechanism, is supplemented by a series of bilateral military agreements with all states of Central Asia.

The United States

Central Asia is featuring proportionally high on the American agenda. The US has full diplomatic missions in all Central Asian capitals and official visits to the region have been organized at the level of the US Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense. The main US interests in the region are strategic and economic in nature and the US has helped to dismantle the considerable nuclear arsenal which Kazakhstan inherited from the Soviet Union. The US Administration is also attempting to counter the regional influence of neighbouring Iran. In the economic field, American companies are attracted by extensive reserves in natural resources such as gas, oil and uranium.


Clinton & Nazarbaev
President Clinton with President Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan at the White House in 1994.
(EPA/Belga 34Kb)
Ankara has placed high hopes on the emergence of an independent Central Asian region. Historical and cultural ties could have made Turkey a natural leader and its secular traditions and policies of gradual democratization have been referred to as a model, with its Western-oriented economy a possible bridgehead into the region capable of countering Iranian influence. Central Asian leaders, however, have tended to consider Turkey to be no more immune to the threat of extremism than their own societies. Furthermore, Turkey's function as a Western bridgehead into Central Asia has been of less importance since the governments of the region began to establish more and more direct links with Western firms and governments.


Until now, Germany is the only European Union state with diplomatic representation throughout Central Asia. An element of specific interest is the presence of large German minorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrghyzstan; their emigration to Germany (for instance, 106,000 Germans left Kazakhstan in 1994) requires active intervention and regulation.

The EU

The European Union (EU) as a whole constitutes for Central Asia the largest market outside the CIS for their raw materials and, at the same time, the Central Asian market, consisting of more than 50 million consumers, is not insignificant for Europe's export industry. Western Europe is potentially not only the largest trading partner and donor, but also the principal source of investment capital. The region may become one of the main energy providers for Western Europe, for instance, the EU is presently a major consumer of uranium from the Central Asian republics.

The EU has signed Partnership and Cooperation Agreements (PCAs) with Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan and Uzbekistan. PCAs are considered as the principal vehicles for promoting the EU's interests and objectives which include the following: to support the evolution of democratic institutions allowing the republics to reinforce their internal cohesion; to reduce the scope for conflict through political and economic reform; to improve Europe's own economic security especially regarding the energy sector and mining. Western Europe wants particularly to ensure that it will play a key role in the negotiations on the routing of pipelines.

The democratization of state institutions is a major issue in the political dialogue between the EU and Central Asia. The preamble of the PCAs include the commitment of the parties to meet democratic standards, i.e., the principles expressed in the OSCE documents. According to sources in the European Commission, these relatively high standards are yet to be met.

The European Union has expressed serious political concerns about authoritarian governments as an antidote for divisive tendencies and ethnic conflicts. The extension of Presidential rule to the end of the century in Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, circumventing the principle of regular elections, has been criticized. The European Union considered several elections organized in previous years in Central Asia as unfair. It declined to send observers for parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan (December 1994), Tajikistan (February 1995) and for the referendum in Kazakhstan (April 1995) and the dissolution of parliament by President Nazarbaev even led to the postponement by the European Parliament of its assent to the PCA negotiated with Kazakhstan. Despite difficulties with the implementation of the human rights conditions, PCA agreements are generally considered to favour market reforms and to constitute a firm basis for further political dialogue.

Unlike Russia, the US and Turkey, the European Union has a low political profile in the region. This reflects its difficulties in formulating a common foreign policy for all its members, its insufficient diplomatic representation in the region and (to a decreasing degree) its fear of increasing Russian suspicions of political competition with the West. This low visibility is leading to a lack of recognition of the EU as a political partner by Central Asian governments, which is in turn hindering the European Union promoting its interests and objectives. The European Union will have to develop a higher profile if it wants to counterbalance the attention Russia and the US are getting in Kazakhstan or that is given to Russia and Iran in Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan seems to have been the first to understand and recognize the political importance of the European Union.


NATO has been involved with the countries of the region since the moment Central Asian states gained independence. The announcement of the Soviet Union's dissolution was made at the founding meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in December 1991, and all the successor states of the Soviet Union which had formed the Commonwealth of Independent States entered the NACC the following March. The participation of Central Asian countries in the NACC is confronting them with a different type of multilateral consultation and diplomacy from the one they experience in the CIS.

With the exception of Tajikistan, all Central Asian countries have also joined PfP. Individual Partnership Programmes have been developed between NATO and Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan and Uzbekistan. NATO has also received the PfP Presentation Document from Turkmenistan and work is currently under way to develop an Individual Partnership Programme. The strategic objectives of NATO and PfP in this context can be summarized as follows:

  • to involve Central Asian countries in the European security architecture based on cooperative processes and on mutual consultations in case of threat;

  • to increase military cooperation and information exchange;

  • to contribute to stability in the region through democratic control over the military and balanced civil-military relations and

  • to increase interoperability for inter alia peacekeeping operations on the basis of a common conceptual approach.

At their meeting in December 1995, the NACC member states stressed the importance of strengthening democratic control over armed forces, and developing strong civil-military relations. They noted that these are essential elements of any mature democracy, while recognizing that each country will need to develop its own particular approaches based on its own national circumstances and characteristics.

According to the Central Asian governments, the PfP programme serves the objective of strengthening and modernizing their national armies. They consider this cooperation, supplemented by other military cooperation agreements with individual NATO countries, especially with the US, Turkey and Germany, as an efficient way of reducing their dependence on Russia. Contrary to proposals by Moscow to reform the CIS armed forces - reintegrating their forces in a common military structure before their modernization - both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have sought to strengthen their military independence with Western support. This would give them a certain margin for manoeuvre in negotiating the military integration process with Russia. Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrghyzstan decided to create an international battalion for peacekeeping operations which could be used under the United Nations but could also be helpful in avoiding foreign involvement in the region in case of ethnic conflicts spilling over their borders.

In all three countries, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs were initially seen to be more in favour of cooperation with NATO and NATO countries than the Ministries of Defence. The strong presence of Russian officers in the general staffs of the national armies and in the Ministries of Defence was considered by some foreign observers as a reason for the hesitant or even negative attitude towards an active involvement in PfP. The necessity to modernize the armed forces and to strengthen national sovereignty was, however, the decisive motive for the Heads of State of all three countries to go forward with the PfP programme, even if financial restraints are expected to hinder full implementation. The fact that Russia signed its Individual Partnership Programme in June 1995 was a further incentive for them to cooperate with Western countries.

A Summit meeting of Turkish-speaking countries in Bishkek, Kyrghyzstan is attended by (left to right) the Presidents of Turkmenistan, Turkey, Uzebkistan, Kyrghyzstan, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan.
(EPA/Belga 39Kb)
NATO's enlargement process eastwards does not seem to be a direct cause of concern to Central Asian countries. They consider this a matter of the sovereign choice of all the states concerned but they did not publish official statements on this subject, thereby avoiding polemics with Moscow. Even if they do not feel that their security interests are directly at stake, Central Asian governments do have to be attentive to the indirect consequences of NATO's enlargement. The announced 'special enhanced dialogue' between NATO and Russia should also be of interest to them.

In 1995, Moscow threatened to build a 'counterbloc' with the CIS and other countries but Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrghyzstan, together with most other CIS-partners, were quick to oppose such a move. The economically and politically still weak Central Asian countries will, however, have more difficulties in opposing Moscow's drive for military reintegration through bilateral agreements, as announced at the end of 1995 after the failure of the 'counterbloc' approach.

Islamic extremism

Yeltsin & Velayati
President Boris Yeltsin welcomes Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to the Kremlin during the Minister's visit to Russia last March.
(EPA/Belga (37Kb)
Islamic extremism has been considered by Russia, the West and the Central Asian governments as a destabilizing factor. The fear of extremism has been used by the governments in the region to legitimize repressive policies towards their opposition. Even if several Muslim countries have forwarded funds and resources for the construction of mosques and for theological training in Central Asia, Iran was the only one to be directly accused of fostering Islamic extremism in the region. In April 1994, the US Administration announced the enforcement of a trade and investment embargo against Iran. The implementation of this policy has proved difficult since West European competitors or West European branches of American companies were eager to replace American firms retreating from the Iranian market. The American embargo has, however, considerably enhanced the difficulties for Tehran to find investors for pipeline projects linking Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. Hence Iran has lost an important trump card in the power game in Central Asia.

On the whole, Russia seems to be the main beneficiary of this situation. The difficulties of establishing transport routes towards the Persian Gulf are enhancing the significance of the Turkish, but even more of the Russian, option. Besides this, a rapprochement has taken place between Iran and Russia since the end of 1993. Both governments were talking in 1994-95 about construction of a 'strategic alliance' and, in January 1995, they signed an 800 million dollar contract for the delivery by Russia of an atomic plant to Iran, despite the possible threat which a nuclear weapon capacity may constitute for Russian security. Uzbekistan, in particular, fears the possible proliferation risk resulting from this deal. Iran seems willing to accept Russian efforts to reintegrate the region into the framework of the CIS since Russian domination of Central Asia is considered by Iranian observers as a lesser evil compared to an expansion of Western influence.

Kassymov & Soubanov
General Alibek Kassymov, Defence Minister of Kazakhstan (left) with his Kyrghyz counterpart Myrzakan Soubanov at the meeting of the NATO Defence Ministers with Cooperation Partners at NATO headquarters last June.
(NATO photo (32Kb)

A comprehensive security order

For Russia, Central Asia and the West, the OSCE and NACC constitute a cooperative framework for their security policies. These institutions especially help Central Asian governments to establish political ties with non-regional states, allow them to have first hand information concerning Western strategies, and ensure that their specific concerns and interests are acknowledged by the international community.

The security perceptions of Central Asian governments differ from those of the West and Russia. Contrary to some Russian views, the radical shift that has taken place in the military balance in Europe, as a result of the gradual integration of former Warsaw Pact members into the Western community, has not been perceived as a security threat by Central Asian governments. Their cooperation with Western governments remains, however, to a large extent dependent on the ability of NATO countries and Russia to avoid creating new lines of division. The West will especially have to be attentive that Russia does not become marginalized in the new security architecture in Europe, and that NATO's military cooperation with Central Asian governments is not perceived in Moscow as another attempt to extend its sphere of influence. Any confrontation between Russia and the West will have far-reaching consequences for all countries involved in the Central Asian region. It may not only freeze governmental cooperation programmes in the framework of PfP, but also hamper the large economic investment plans in Central Asia, considered by all interested countries as being strategically important.

The OSCE and NACC have been designed to supersede the post-Cold War conflicts in Europe. Their extension into the Asian continent requires new diplomatic skills from Western governments. They have to demonstrate that they will not exclusively be attentive to their specific security interests, such as the settlement of only those ethnic conflicts that are impeding free access to raw materials, but that they can address new security challenges in the Central Asian region, such as promoting ethnic and political integration, reducing the economic disparities and ensuring access of all countries to water resources. A preventive diplomacy focusing on the rights of the Russian minority in Kazakhstan seems as indispensable as the recent Western initiatives concerning the Russian population in the Baltics, in order to preserve stability in the region.

Western governments rightly consider democratic control over the military as a necessary condition for peace and security. Western public opinion usually equates democratic control with civilian control. Civilian power and democracy are, however, far from constituting synonymous concepts in Central Asia. The lack of political integration of the Russian minorities in the civilian governments and their over representation in the higher military ranks are constituting destabilizing factors in the region, especially in Kazakhstan. A balanced relationship between the different ethnic groups in all state institutions should be considered as a necessary precondition for an equally balanced relationship between civilian and military authorities. Both these aims are pursued by the OSCE and NACC. The protection of minority rights has developed into one of the core functions of the OSCE and is an integral part of the future security model for Europe. NACC members have stressed the importance of civilian-military relations for democracy. In this respect, the aims and strategies of both the OSCE and NACC are fully compatible and complementary in the process of building a comprehensive security order for the Eurasian continent.

Back to Index Back to Homepage