Security Dilemmas in Central Asia: Competition for Influence

By
Erin Trouth Hofmann

European strategists in the 19th century "saw Central Asia as capable of becoming a 'pivot region' in the competition for control of the Eurasian landmass," according to Peter Sinnott, Adjunct Assistant Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. Sinnott, along with 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 recent re-emergence of international rivalry over Central Asia at a 23 September 2003 seminar cosponsored by the Kennan Institute, the Asia Program and Middle East Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX). 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 economic system established Central Asian republics "in the role of crude resource suppliers," creating a situation of dependency. In addition, the Soviet state deprived citizens of authentic Islamic religious authority by "espousing a policy of militant atheism, periodically arresting Islamic activists…[and] shutting down the overwhelming majority of mosques and Islamic centers of higher learning."

Sinnott described the current generation of Central Asian leaders as "very Sovietized in its behavior," citing leaders' willingness to accede to Russian economic demands, their continued administrative control over the economy, their persecution of Islamic activists, and their rejection of democracy. According to Sinnott, ineffective leadership in conditions of economic collapse has led to unemployment and a sense of alienation from the state, especially in the countryside. "The states' legitimacy hardly extends to those areas simply because of the lack of social welfare provided," he said. This has fueled Islamic extremism. However, Sinnott argued that militant Islamic groups have only limited roots in Central Asian society. He stated that militant Islam can be overcome through effective and representative 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 stated: "Outside of the Middle East, Central Asia poses the greatest security challenge [to the U.S.]."

Haghayeghi presented an assessment of the successes and failures of U.S. policy in the region. He argued that America's greatest success has been in the fight against terrorist organizations in Central Asia. According to Haghayeghi, "at least in the short term we don't need to worry about the so-called global Islamic jihadi component of our fight against terrorism in Central Asia." However, he also warned that terrorist organizations "have an uncanny ability to regenerate." The U.S. has also had some success in containing nuclear and biological materials through the cooperative threat reduction program, and in investing in Central Asian energy resources, according to Haghayeghi. He contended that the U.S. has been much less successful in promoting political and economic reform in Central Asian states and in combating trafficking, and this weakness is very detrimental to our security interests in the long term.

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 explain Russia's simultaneous acquiescence and opposition to U.S. involvement in Central Asia. "On one hand Russia needs the United States there…to ensure that…Russian security interests are okay there, but at the same time Russia wants to have a leading political influence particularly in Central Asia," he said.

Zlobin argued that Russia attaches special importance to Central Asia as its power on the global scale decreases. 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.

All three speakers agreed that the security situation is highly complex. All states of the region will face difficult issues in the future. According to Haghayeghi, "In terms of future threats, long-term questions such as…leadership transition, and questions of legitimacy, are very important…and the question of failure of economic reforms…is as important to the future of these countries, and therefore to our security, as the fight against terrorism." Addressing these threats effectively, the speakers noted, will require the efforts of the Central Asian states, the U.S., and Russia, as well as other states in the region.

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