Security Dilemmas in Central Asia: Competition for Influence
In a recent seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Peter Sinnott, Adjunct Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, Mehrdad Haghayeghi, Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Missouri State University, and Nikolai Zlobin, Director of Russian and Asian Programs at the Center for Defense Information, discussed the many complex security issues faced by the states of Central Asia. Sinnott provided background information on the Central Asian region and the security challenges that it faces. Haghayeghi and Zlobin discussed U.S. and Russian interests in and policies toward the region.
Sinnott argued that security threats in Central Asia stem primarily from the mistakes of the region's leaders – both today and in the Soviet period. In his view, the Soviet government turned the Central Asian republics into economic satellites, and Soviet anti-Islamic policies alienated the population, depriving them of authentic religious authorities. Sinnott described the current generation of Central Asian leaders as very Soviet in mentality, citing their willingness to accede to Russian economic demands, their continued administrative control over the economy, their persecution of Islamic activists, and their generally authoritarian style of rule. According to Sinnott, ineffective leadership in conditions of economic collapse has led to unemployment and a widespread sense of alienation from the state, especially in the countryside. This has fueled the fire of Islamic extremism. However, Sinnott claimed that militant Islam has only limited roots in Central Asian society, and could be effectively addressed if the next generation of leaders allows citizen participation in governance.
Haghayeghi listed several objectives that drive U.S. policy toward Central Asia: preventing terrorism, preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, preserving the stability of global energy resources, promoting democracy and human rights, using foreign aid to pursue policy objectives, promoting economic reform, fighting corruption, and curtailing drug and arms trafficking. He presented an assessment of the successes and failures of U.S. policy in the region. He argued that America's greatest policy successes have been in destroying terrorist networks, containing nuclear and biological materials through the cooperative threat reduction program, and investing in Central Asian energy resources. Even these areas have not been completely successful. Haghayeghi cautioned that the root causes of terrorism remain, and that terrorist organizations are likely to re-emerge. The U.S. has been much less successful in promoting political and economic reform in the Central Asian states, and in combating drug and arms trafficking, according to Haghayeghi.
In order to explain Russia's foreign policy in Central Asia, Zlobin described the general objectives of Russian foreign policy. He explained that policy is based on two essential but often contradictory objectives: increasing Russia's security, and ensuring a leading international role for Russia. According to Zlobin, the interplay of these two objectives helps to explain Russia's simultaneous acquiescence and opposition to U.S. involvement in Central Asia. Cooperation with the U.S. is in Russia's security interests, but maintaining a leading role in the region is equally important to Russian policymakers. Zlobin argued that Russia attaches particular importance to its influence in Asia – and especially Central Asia – as its global power degreases. President Putin's goal, in Zlobin's view, is to make Russia a junior partner of the U.S. in dealing with global issues, while maintaining its role as a major player in Eurasia. He stated that Russia has the potential to act as a regional power because of its control over transit routes and because the Central Asian states are turning to it for protection against a potential change in U.S. policy toward the region.