Caught Between Two Big Powers? Central Asia Under the Weight of Russian and Chinese Influence

Sebastien Peyrouse

In 1991, the Soviet Union’s collapse reshaped the East/West problematic as it had emerged after World War II. Inside Soviet space, a number of cultural elements distinguished the five states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) from the rest of the former Russian empire, namely their shared cultural, linguistic, and religious traits with the Middle East. In the beginning of the 1990s, these traits were perceived by many observers to be indicators that Central Asia would “rightfully” return to its allegedly natural space, that of Islam. However, after twenty-five years of independence Central Asia’s purported “return” to the Muslim world must be relativized. In the domains of politics, geopolitics, economics, and culture, the continuance of a Russo-Soviet framework of thought, remains rather striking. Moreover, in two decades since independence, Beijing has become one of the Central Asian countries’ main partners. It positions itself as the second most influential external actor in the region, surpassing Russia in economic terms.

This article presents the evolution of the Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asian states, and the numerous questions it raises. How can Central Asian governments conduct an independent and balanced foreign policy in light of the weight of their two big neighbors, and the lack of interest and/or geographic distance of other Middle Eastern or Western potential partners? Moreover, have Beijing and Moscow succeeded, so far, in conducting in this region a concerted policy, or do we see a rivalry emerging between the two powers? Lastly, Russia’s recent foreign policy (annexation of the Crimea, politics in Ukraine), and the strong influence of China, raise growing concerns among the peoples of Central Asia, especially on the ability of their governments to withdraw from what some see as geopolitical shackles.

Differing Historical Legacies of Russia and China in Central Asia

The presence and influence of Moscow and Beijing have been shaped by two very different legacies in Central Asia. Despite significant strengths in the areas of politics, economy, and culture, Russia’s reputation in the ‘90s was that of a former colonial center; keeping it at distance was the order of the day. By contrast, Central Asia perceived China to be a major asset in its attempt to “de-Russify” itself. But the Chinese had to create relationships with the five states virtually from scratch and to allay Central Asian suspicions about their regional ambitions. In less than two decades, both of these legacies have been reshaped in a rather positive way: Russia has partially succeeded in inverting its Soviet legacy, turning it into an asset of shared proximity, while China has managed to set itself up as a reliable partner of Central Asian governments.

Russia: Advantages and Disadvantages of Post-Soviet Continuities

Russia benefits from a considerable heritage in Central Asia. Despite some reforms, the 25 years of independence have seemingly been insufficient to “undo” the politico-economic system that prevailed for several decades. The political field remains the most obvious element of continuity with the Soviet Union, which did not disappear because of war, foreign occupation, or military defeat but self-imploded. Political elites in Central Asia have long remained the same as those that were in place during communist times. The majority of current ministers and deputies have careers as apparatchiks behind them. Today they are vacating their places, which are being taken up by their children, who themselves have been educated in cadre-training institutions linked to the presidential apparatus similar to the former Party schools.

These broad patterns of continuity do not mean that significant developments have not occurred since independence. New public figures have emerged thanks to the economic liberalization, in particular in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Yet, the current regimes in the five states have—to very different degrees, which, nonetheless, belong to the same lineage—inherited ideological characteristics from the USSR that have, in turn, been transformed by the new conditions of independence. Despite the few years of “Western-style” democracy in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and, in a more limited way, in Tajikistan, all five states have adopted an authoritarian structure and endorse Putin’s notion of “vertical power.”1

These post-Soviet continuities have given Russia the upper hand in its competition with China and with any other country for influence in the region. Although, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, resounding critiques rang out throughout Central Asia about Russia and its “colonialism,” these lasted for a brief period only. Since 2000, Russia has once again become a respected power in Central Asia, admired for its economic and geopolitical revival. Moreover, the onset of social difficulties in the independent states quickly attenuated their criticisms of Moscow. Nostalgia for the Brezhnev years have become an increasingly popular leitmotiv, and Russians were, soon, no longer being blamed for all evils.2

On the cultural level, the advantage is also clearly with Russia. Russian remains the most spoken international language in the region, and even has an official status in three states, namely Kyrgyzstan (officially bilingual), and Kazakhstan and Tajikistan (language of inter-ethnic communication). Russian culture remains very present, in particular through the television and cable channels that Moscow broadcasts to Central Asia. As a whole, the Central Asian populations continue to look at the world through the prism of Russia, which they perceive as more familiar than that of any other country in the world (China, Iran, Turkey, or Western Europe and the United States).

China: Developing Good Neighborly Relations and Settling Border Disputes

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was quick to become aware of the unique opportunities contained in this new geopolitical situation. However, in 1991, Beijing was, above all, concerned about the impact of Central Asia’s independence on the situation in Xinjiang, as well as about the risks of conflict linked to the non-resolution of territorial borders.

Although China immediately recognized the independence of the five states, it considered that it had been a victim of the “unequal treaties” signed in the nineteenth century with European powers. According to Chinese authorities, these treaties excised, among others, some 910,000 km2 from China to the advantage of tsarist and then Soviet Central Asia. Beijing however agreed to reduce its territorial claims to “only” 34,000 km,2 chiefly out of a desire to secure political allies in Central Asia. It signed border demarcation treaties with the three bordering Central Asian countries. This cession of territory was viewed very suspiciously by some in the Central Asian region, in part because they fear that Chinese will seek more.3 Even today, the sentiment that this peaceful solution might only be provisional remains very present in Central Asian public opinion.

Furthermore, the Sino-Kazakh cross-border river management remains unresolved. Both of Kazakhstan’s main rivers, the Ili and the Irtysh, have their source in Xinjiang and the Chinese Altay. In the framework of its Xinjiang development program, Beijing has increased its withdrawal of water upstream from both rivers. For the Kazakh authorities, this spells economic and ecological disaster.4 Also, relations between Central Asia and China have been concerned with managing the difficult Uighur question. The Uighur diaspora in Central Asia includes about 300,000 persons, based mainly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.5 Anxious about the political radicalization of sections of Uighur society and the spread of an autonomist narrative with Islamic connotations, China demanded that the Central Asian states prevent any anti-Chinese movement from emerging on their territories.6

However, despite its initially negative overall image in Central Asia, China has succeeded in improving its reputation with soft-power diplomacy. For more than 15 years, it has succeeded, with Russia, in establishing itself in the region, eclipsing many other actors and partners. The two powers have shared, without apparent serious clashes, their geopolitical influence.

Russia and China: Common Political Objectives

Russia and China have similar geopolitical objectives in Central Asia: both desire stability on their borders, are concerned about the ability of states to withstand destabilization (whether from civil war, popular uprising, or palace revolution), and consider the region the main transit zone for drug-trafficking from Afghanistan. They have, therefore, coordinated their regional surveillance activities through measures designed to control military aid to the five states, to shape their chief security policies, and to give the regimes political support.

This political rapprochement between Russia, China, and Central Asia has been facilitated by the common struggle against the Islamist threat. Both Moscow and Beijing established themselves in the region chiefly by its will to fight against the Islamist movements. A Sino-Central Asian geostrategic rapprochement has also materialized on the Afghan question. For the Central Asian states, with the withdrawal of most NATO troops in 2014, Afghanistan remains an “open wound,” which feeds Islamism, drugs, and arms networks, and prevents the development of relations with the south. So long as there is no stability in Kabul, it will be difficult for the Central Asian states to develop economic relations with India or Pakistan (in the form of pipelines, export of electricity, or business relations). China shares Central Asia’s concerns and wants to see stability on its short Sino-Afghan border. Beijing has, thus, financed a growing number of projects in Afghanistan, gaining recognition from them as one of their essential strategic partners.

Both Moscow and Beijing reject the notion that the West ought to have any right to oversee Eurasian space. Central Asian governments’ growing anti-Western arguments have, therefore, received the support of both. These governments have indeed criticized the West’s constant reproaches about democratization, civil society, good governance, and human rights. This triangular cooperation intensified after the “colored revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s and the Arab Springs in the 2010s: Moscow and Beijing have refused to accept that neighboring countries could wind up in the hands of pro-Western political forces. Understanding that they faced the same kind of danger, Central Asian presidents sought the support of forces that would enable them to hold onto power. In this context, they all have fallen in line behind Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao/Xi Jinping, echoing their accusations of unacceptable Western interference, and arguing that strong regimes were needed to avoid Islamist destabilization. 

Russia: the Primary Security and Military Partner

Russia’s return to Central Asia is not solely political, but also military and strategic. Since independence, the five states have been politically incapable of developing military cooperation among themselves. They require a lot of help: their armies are badly trained, they lack quality equipment and materials, they are undermined by corruption, and their mediocre living conditions mean that military personnel are small in number and unmotivated.7 Russia has, thus, managed, without much difficulty, to remain their principal military partner. In most Central Asian countries, it has military bases, rents strategic sites, or participates in joint military exercises.8 Moreover, it continues to train the majority of Central Asia’s military cadres, and remains the primary partner of the five states with respect to purchases of military equipment.

For Moscow, regaining ground in the military sphere has been a way to counter the Central Asian states’ cooperation with NATO, which started in the ‘90s. Since 2000, the Kremlin has launched a series of multilateral security initiatives with them, especially in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) framework,9 which holds training or joint military exercises to simulate terrorist attacks or to fight against drug trafficking. The CSTO includes a provision for the preferential sale of Russian military equipment to member states. The Kremlin has aimed to transform the CSTO into a force on a par with NATO, so that it can speak to the latter as an equal, and oblige the Central Asian regimes to go through Moscow before engaging in any common military initiatives with the West.

At the level of security cooperation, China has remained far behind Russia. Its military aid to Central Asia remains very limited. Moreover, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is the only multilateral tool that China has at its disposal to influence the geopolitical positioning and military stances of the Central Asian states. It is the only regional organization to which both China and four of the five Central Asian states belong.10 The SCO has had undeniable success: it has worked to attenuate old historical tensions between the Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, established mechanisms of cooperation enabling the states of the former USSR to become more familiar with their Chinese neighbor, and also to establish a common discourse on the menaces that the region’s states judge to be threatening, the foremost being Islamism.

However, on the strictly geopolitical level, the SCO has no clearly defined common objectives. While this organization has been important in defusing potential border conflicts, unlike the CSTO, it has no solidly constituted military structure, does not present itself as a military defense alliance analogous to NATO, and has not tried to form multilateral military or police units. At the strategic level, the SCO’s activities are numerous but remain mostly at the declaratory level. The absence of coordination between member states is patent, the willingness to exchange information restrained, the financial means way too few. Moreover, the Central Asian governments are concerned about infiltration from the Chinese secret services and popular reactions that would arise from any involvement of China in the local military sector. Beijing has, thus, had difficulty transforming the SCO into a security-oriented organization like the CSTO. Nevertheless, it seems quite satisfied to leave Moscow in charge of the main security questions, which are difficult and costly, preferring to concentrate on economic development and trade relations.

Russia/China: Economic Competition or Collaboration?

The economic question is central in the debate over Russo-Chinese collaboration/competition in Central Asia. Their economic power differential is a potential source of tension. Like Central Asia, Russia is a producer of primary resources. However, it cannot do without Central Asian reserves: it gets part of its revenue from transit rights and resale of Central Asian production with a significant price markup on the European market. China, for its part, is in need of primary resources and is seeking to diversify imports by expanding overland trade with landlocked Eurasia to mitigate the geopolitical vulnerabilities of relying one-sidedly on sea-borne imports. Both therefore, have motives for collaborating, but also concerns that have created competition.

Russia-Central Asia and China-Central Asia Commercial Flows

Strong economic relations with Central Asia seem to have provided Russia with a single solution for its multiple objectives: first, to maintain political influence over the Central Asian regimes through the control of resources; second, to continue to collect considerable transit revenues from these landlocked countries; third, to slow down the emergence of competing export routes. Russia, therefore, regained an important, though no longer monopolistic, economic position in Central Asia at the beginning of the 2000s.11 Russian-Central Asian trade tripled between 2003 and 2007, shooting from USD 7 billion to USD 21 billion.12 It decreased with the international crisis, falling to USD 14 billion in 2010, but rose again in 2013 to around USD 30 billion. In 2015, these commercial exchanges stand at almost USD 22.5 billion (reflecting a decrease in commodity prices), positioning Russia as the region’s third-largest trading partner behind China and the EU.13  

More so than other international actors, Russia plays a structuring role in the development of the Central Asian hydrocarbon market. Russian companies (Lukoil, Rosneft, and Gazprom) have made significant inroads into Central Asia. Always on the lookout for possibilities to export resources and collect transit rights, Russia contributes to increasing the export levels of Central Asian resources and to reducing internal trade between the five states. It is also reinforcing the region in its role as an exporter of primary resources by neglecting to develop the local hydrocarbon refining capacity, especially the manufacture of products with high added value, which makes it an inefficient trade pattern from the point of view of Central Asia’s long-term interests.

Besides energy’s predominance, Russia’s trade with Central Asia involves other important sectors: uranium, electricity, hydroelectricity, construction, telecommunications, transport and railways (but not the automobile market), banks, and, lastly, certain agribusiness sectors. Russia remains important in mineral resources, which are important for the heavy industry sector, but is a relatively limited and uncompetitive actor in terms of small and mid-size companies, new technologies, etc. This stratification reflects a more general one in the Russian economy, which continues to be rent seeking and is finding it hard to diversify. But it can also be explained by the equally restrictive state of the Central Asian economies, in which small and mid-size enterprises and new technologies struggle to find a place.

Moscow has, however, lost more and more control over the Central Asian economies, where it faces competitors like Turkey, Iran, South Korea, Western countries, and, most important, China. Its strategy has been to update the Soviet legacy by promoting with some republics an integrated space in terms of transport, electricity, and communications—deemed the “integrating” factors par excellence, that slow down the economic dissociation between Russia and Central Asia that results from Chinese pressure. The Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is aimed at creating a market of 160 million people and maintaining common dynamics in terms of trade.14 Through this union, the Kremlin has been openly mulling creating some supranational mechanisms—in mainly the economic and financial domains, but also potentially the strategic sector—that would guarantee an integrative dynamic between Russia and Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and, potentially Tajikistan, currently under  pressure from Putin to join the union.

The weight of China on Central Asian economies: Burden or factor of development?

Growing Chinese influence has, above all, profoundly changed the economic status quo in Central Asia. As in other regions where Beijing is establishing itself, its strategies respond to many objectives, seen by the Chinese authorities as intrinsically related. First, China consolidates its geopolitical influence in Central Asia by creating economically-based good neighborly relations that work to diffuse potential tensions. Secondly, it contributes to regional development in order to avoid political and social destabilization, which could have domestic consequences in Xinjiang and slow down Chinese economic growth. Lastly, the Central Asian states provide new markets for Chinese products, markets that could open up to the whole of Russia, Iran, and Turkey. For landlocked Central Asia, the Chinese economic engine opens up the prospect of new trans-Eurasian corridors and is, thus, seen as a unique historical opportunity.

Hydrocarbons—mainly gas from Turkmenistan and oil from Kazakhstan—and uranium—from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—are at the forefront of Chinese activity in Central Asia. But China also aims at a multitude of other sectors, in particular those linked to infrastructure and communications. It is one of the only external actors that attaches importance to the frequently neglected banking sector, which enables the Central Asian states to pursue large-scale projects. Chinese aid for development is granted either by subsidies, which are generally paid in kind in order to reduce the risks of corruption, or by preferential or concessional credit paid by the Export-Import Bank of China (Eximbank), the Development Bank, or the State Bank. They offer higher lines of credits than those extended by Islamic or European banks, and at lower interest rates than those of the main international lenders.15 Though the money from loans is, on paper, granted to the beneficiary country, it is generally transferred to the company in charge of the project, which makes it possible to keep the money inside the Chinese system. This gives China a certain advantage over countries with privatized economies.

The Central Asian states as well as China have every interest in developing mutual relations as their economies are more complementary than in direct competition with one another. China has the capacity to export consumer products to Central Asia at low prices, which suits the low living standards of the local populations, whereas Russian, Turkish, and Iranian, not to mention Western, products remain too expensive. It is also able to provide technological goods to the middle and upper classes, whose consumption patterns were constantly rising, in particular in Kazakhstan.

For a long time, China and Russia were not in competition with one another, since each has its own sphere of activity. But this situation has evolved. Both are trying to reinforce their political leverage over weak Central Asian states pragmatically through their growing economic presence. Such a strategy is made easier by the two countries’ large, state-run energy companies, which function as instruments of official political interests. Although Russia was more present in Central Asia than China through the 2000s, this dominance has been reversed in the 2010s.

China has launched several offensives to increase its economic influence in the region. Since the first half the 2010s, it has been trying to widen the SCO’s competencies in the economic domain, sensing an opportunity for the development of its “Far West” region, Xinjiang, and the conquest of new markets. But China’s dynamic in favor of a common market has revealed divergence in Central Asian states and even contradictions of interests. In view of the growth differential, Russia and the Central Asian states are all fearful of becoming Chinese economic protectorates. They have underscored the differences in economic levels between the states, and argued that a free-trade zone is only possible between countries with similar rhythms of development. In a post-Soviet space where the industrial sector is yet to recover after the USSR’s collapse, the existing enterprises are unable to match either the efficiency or the profitability of their Chinese competitors. Trade between member states is considerably impeded by the absence of any payment agreements, transport problems, the complexity of border and customs procedures, and the refusal of some states, like Uzbekistan, to facilitate the circulation of goods and people. The One Belt One Road (OBOR) confirms China’s economic offensive over the region. Announced in 2013, this new development strategy focuses on connectivity between China and Eurasia, and underlines China’s will to gain bigger influence in Central Asia and, more generally, in global affairs. It is supposed to ease the movement of goods, services, and people, and to integrate the region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, and developing trade exchanges.16

Central Asia’s economic relations with Russia and China follow the same logic. The five states are increasing the amount of raw materials (energy, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, and minerals) that they export to Russia and China, which account for two-thirds of their exports, the rest being made up of services but not a single finished product. They import a massive amount of Russian and Chinese finished products, which account for 65 percent of Russian exports, and more than 80 percent of Chinese exports. Whatever the future of Russo-Chinese competition, the region is bound to experience a reinforcement of its economic specialization. Their last transformation industries are at risk of becoming completely extinct. This specialization, coupled with continuing deindustrialization, may lead to social destabilization, insofar as it will accelerate the declining living standards of certain strata of the population, and reduce Central Asia’s stock of human resources and labor skills in an increasingly globalized world.

New Factors of Influence

The political and economic weight in Central Asia of Beijing and Moscow raises many questions. The capacity of both to exert influence in the coming decades will depend on their ability to alleviate political and cultural apprehensions among the population and governments. New factors (migration, Russian foreign policy and annexation of the Crimea, increasing Sinophobia) have already changed the influence of Moscow and Beijing in the region and the perceptions of Central Asian states.

For at least ten years, labor migration has reinforced Russian’s influence, enabling it to recover cultural and linguistic sway in the region and to provide a new pole of development for Central Asian societies. At least five million Tajiks, Kyrgyz, and Uzbeks now work seasonally in Russia, thereby recreating, in all its complexity, relations with the former metropole that is at once economic and social.17 Consequently, Central Asian societies continue to view the world through the Russian prism, regarded as a more familiar “West” than the more alien one of Western Europe or the United States.

The choice of Russia for migration seems natural, since the Russian Federation has the most dynamic economy in the region and it is possible to earn salaries that are much higher than in Central Asia. In addition, with the exception of the citizens of Georgia and Turkmenistan, Russia does not require entry visas for post-Soviet citizens. The latter’s Russian language skills and their shared Soviet past means that they can move to Russia and still live in a familiar cultural space. The networks facilitating emigration are also more developed than elsewhere, due to the fact that the Russian market for Central Asian produce was already established in Soviet times.

These migratory flows have important consequences for Central Asian societies. Money transfers ensure a regular source of income for families, create a rise in domestic demand for goods, support economic growth, and broaden investment possibilities. Migrants return with much better training and linguistic competencies than they can acquire in their home countries. This also indirectly compensates for the disappearance of an efficient Russian language learning system in the rural regions of Central Asia.

In impoverished societies—the Soviet Union’s demise has chiefly meant decreased living standards—the possibility of going abroad to find a job constitutes a veritable “safety valve.” The populations that travel to Russia regularly have access to a society which, though far from being democratic, nonetheless, constitutes a model of development for their countries. Despite their double-edged nature, these migratory flows have shown the emergence of new kinds of interaction between Russia and Central Asia. This includes the maintenance of cultural exchange, and the preservation of ethnic mixing.

However, Russian influence has suffered reversals and criticism. Russian foreign policy, after the annexation of the Crimea, has provoked debates among the Central Asian elites. Maintaining economies in a state of dependence on Moscow could be particularly risky, as the current crisis in Russia and its consequences for Central Asia have shown. The EEU has raised many controversies in recent years in the two Central Asian member states, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and has aroused local nationalist circles.

China, by its economic strength, financial capability and investment in the region, can be a counterweight. However, its influence in these countries has raised controversies too, which have ranged from issues of national integrity to economic questions, and both Sinophile and Sinophobe groups have rapidly formed.

To date, all Central Asian governments have spoken very positively about their “excellent relations” with Beijing. They are not Sinophile by conviction, but have little choice and are driven by a logic that also has a Sinophobe dimension: a desire to build closer ties because it is better to maintain healthy relations with a large and feared neighbor. Moreover, the “Chinese question” has become increasingly central to political debate in Central Asia. According to many surveys over the last 15 years, the majority opinion is that China remains a challenge for Central Asia. The topic of trade and economic relations remains highly sensitive. The energy issue raises concerns: an increased dependency on China would jeopardize national sovereignty.18

China is thanked for attenuating Central Asia’s landlocked character, for building infrastructure (roads, railways, tunnels, electricity lines, etc.), and providing consumer products appropriate to the low standard of living of the Central Asian population. It is also able to provide goods to the middle and upper classes, whose consumption patterns were on the rise, particularly in Kazakhstan. However, many Central Asians are persuaded that Beijing is trying to transform the economies of Central Asia to suit its own interests, to weaken their potential for autonomy and even to establish their status as Chinese protectorates dependent on China for technological know-how.

Moreover, views of China are still stamped by the old clichés of Soviet propaganda casting China as the historical enemy. Discourse on the Chinese “slow expansion” (tikhaia ekspansiia) is frequent in Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Tajik newspapers. The idea that Chinese authorities conceal their imperialist objectives is widespread. Many Central Asians share the feeling that there exists a “civilizational difference” between China and Central Asia. Diverse arguments are used to justify the existence of this apparently impassable “culture barrier”: some conceive of it in terms of Islam, others in terms of Russo-Soviet acculturation, and still others as involving a difference in national essence.

The question of China’s increasing influence in Central Asia is sensitive; few have an unequivocal response. Sinophilia and Sinophobia go hand-in-hand in Central Asia. Both can be present in the same person depending on the question addressed. However, Sinophobia is becoming increasingly prominent with possible long-term consequences. Violent recent incidents targeting Chinese traders in local markets demonstrate the sensitivity of growing Sinophobic feeling, which is being used more and more by some nationalist political circles , as in Kyrgyzstan, where some groups even justify polygamy in order to counter the loss of identity which supposedly would result, among other things, from the growing presence of Chinese migrants.

Finally, the quasi-alliance between Moscow and Beijing within the SCO, despite growing rivalry, raises concerns in Central Asia.Itis viewed positively insofar as it has a stabilizing, supervisory role on Central Asia. However, it simultaneously limits the foreign policy options of the region’s states, which struggle to make their differing viewpoints heard. Local elites are generally aware that they are treated like a buffer-zone and share the sentiment that the quasi-alliance is more a form of control over them than a real partnership.

Conclusion

For years, Central Asia has been playing a careful balancing game between Moscow and Beijing. As a result, many Central Asians argue for a third way to pull their countries out of what they see as the impasse of the Russo-Chinese partnership. This third way generally takes the form either of building relations with the West, or of a Central Asian alliance, occasionally with pan-Turkic accents. However, experts often argue that the West has caused much disillusionment in Central Asian societies, obliging their leaders to opt for more pragmatic ties with Moscow and Beijing. The West is perceived as too far away and too little involved to act as a reliable partner, and the distrust that has crept in will require time to heal. Concerns are also expressed about the poor prospects of forming a Central Asian alliance. Many Central Asians, especially in think tanks and political circles, criticize their governments for having failed to unify the region at the beginning of the 1990s, which has weakened long-term geopolitical leverage. The leadership struggle between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan is particularly detrimental. Long after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the dominant feeling in Central Asia is of a lack of credible alternatives, leaving no choice other than to side with Moscow and Beijing.

1. See "Nazarbaev: Zhelanie Zapada sdelat’ u nas demokratiiu po obrazcu SShA nesostoiatel’no," Sputnik, November 25, 2016; and Mariya Omelicheva, Democracy in Central Asia : Competing Perspectives and Alternative Strategies (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

2. On post-Soviet nostalgia in Central Asia, see Timur Dadabaev, Identity and Memory in post-Soviet Central Asia : Uzbekistan’s Soviet Past (New York: Routledge, 2016).

3. M. Laruelle and S. Peyrouse, The Chinese Question in Central Asia. Domestic Order, Social Changes and the Chinese Factor (London, New York: Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2012).

4. S. Peyrouse, “Flowing Downstream: The Sino-Kazakh Water Dispute,” China Brief 7, no. 10 (May 16, 2007): 7-10.

5. Y. Schichor, “Pawns in Central Asia’s Playground: Uyghurs Between Moscow and Beijing,” East Asia, no. 32 (2015):101–116

6. R. Castets, “Uyghur Islam: Caught between Foreign Influences and Domestic Constraints,” in China and India in Central Asia. A New “Great Game?”, ed. Laruelle, Huchet, Peyrouse, and Balci (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 215–234.

7. Erica Marat, The Military and the State in Central Asia: From Red Army to Independence (London: Routledge, 2009).

8. D. Gorenburg, "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," SIPRI/Open Society Foundation working paper, 2014.

9. P. Baev, "The CSTO: Military Dimensions of the Russian Reintegration Effort," in Putin’s Grand Strategy: The Eurasian Union and Its Discontents, ed. Frederick Starr and Svante Cornell (Washington, DC: Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, 2014), 40-48.

10. Turkmenistan has refused to participate in any regional organization except the UN Special Program for the Central Asian Economies (SPECA), and the Organization of Economic Cooperation (OEC). See Sebastien Peyrouse, Turkmenistan. Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2011).

11. M. Laruelle and S. Peyrouse, Globalizing Central Asia. Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2012); Craig Oliphant, Russia’s role and interests in Central Asia, Safer World, 2013.

12. V. Paramonov, and A. Strokov, Ekonomicheskoe prisutstvie Rossii i Kitaia v Tsentral’noi Azii (Shrivenham: Defence Academy of the United Kingdom: Central Asia Series, 2007), 3-4.

13. See the statistics provided by the European Union: http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/.

14. S. Roberts, A. Marin, A. Moshes, K. Pynnöniemi, “The Eurasian Economic Union, Breaking the pattern of post-Soviet integration?” The Finnish Institute of International Affairs, 2013.

15. R. Pomfret, “Turkmenistan’s Foreign Policy,” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 6, no. 4 (2008): 29.

16. T. Winter, "One Belt, One Road, One Heritage: Cultural Diplomacy and the Silk Road," The Diplomat, March 29, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/03/one-belt-one-road-one-heritage-cultural-diplomacy-and-the-silk-road/; S. Djankov, S. Miner, eds. "China’s belt and road initiative motives, scope and challenges," Peterson Institute for International Economics, March 2016.

17. M. Laruelle, ed., Migration and Social Upheaval as the Face of Globalization in Central Asia (London: Brill, 2012).

18. S. Peyrouse, "Discussing China: Sinophilia And Sinophobia In Central Asia," Journal of Eurasian Studies 7, no. 1 (2015): 14-23.

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