The Georgia Factor in Central Asia: What lessons will the Region’s Leaders Take Away from the South Ossetia Crisis?
The only leverage the US has ever had in Central Asia relates to our implicit counter-balance to Russia. The Central Asians have lived under Moscow’s shadow for decades, and they have constantly sought ways to slowly distance themselves from Russian control. With the fall of the U.S.S.R., the U.S. presented itself as the obvious source for counterbalancing Russia in the region. While no Central Asian states have been prepared to bank on the United States entirely as an alternative to Russia in the region, America’s presence has meant that the Central Asian states do not always need to take marching orders from Moscow. No Central Asian state, therefore, has been prepared to turn its back entirely on the U.S. As soon as Uzbekistan found out what it meant to be entirely isolated from the west after Andijan, for example, it looked to re-establish relations with the U.S. Likewise, other Central Asian states have always made just enough concessions to American interests to keep us engaged.
While the U.S. has not always taken full advantage of this leverage (witness our complete inability to engage a post-Turkmanbashi Turkmenistan in a meaningful way), it has led to what has been a mutually beneficial relationship between the U.S. and the Central Asian states. In the early 1990s, Kazakhstan let western oil companies in to develop its oil fields at the exclusion of Russia, and after September 11th, both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan went out on a limb to allow the U.S. to set up airbases on their territory, an act, which annoyed the Russians to no end. Most importantly to the Central Asians, however, engaging the Americans has always allowed them a means to circumvent Russia when they really needed to do so. Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Central Asians in this regard has related to their export of energy resources. While the region remains dependent upon Russia for the transport of their oil and gas exports, the involvement of the west in the extraction of natural resources has limited Russia’s ability to completely low-ball the Central Asians on the price of their energy resources and the terms of their transport.
The recent conflict between Georgia and Russia, however, may change these geopolitical dynamics in Central Asia entirely. Everybody in the former USSR considers Georgia to be one of America’s closest allies in the region, and they are all watching to see what the U.S. can actually do to help Georgia as it faces a Russian onslaught. This is not to say that most former Soviet citizens, Central Asians included, are cheering the Georgian side in the conflict – in fact, the contrary is true. Fed a regular diet of Russian news and information, most people likely view Georgia as the aggressor. The Central Asian media, for its part (even the opposition press), has been generally silent on the conflict. But, nonetheless, one has to think that the Central Asian leaders are watching carefully to see how strong a partner the U.S. actually can be in the face of Russian agression.
If Russia succeeds, after it has bombed strategic sites inside Georgia, in emerging from this conflict without any substantial repercussions (which it probably will), the Central Asian leaders will inevitably see the U.S. as a weak partner, unable of providing support when a country faces a Russian onslaught. The Russians will also likely capitalize on this sentiment by reminding Central Asian leaders that they cannot rely on the U.S. and that Russia is the only power able to provide them security. Furthermore, Russia will be embolden to dictate to Central Asians all the more, since – if the Americans cannot help Georgia, they will definitely do little against Russian aggression in Central Asia. And, the United States is unable to act any differently because – as with China – we have put ourselves in a position where we cannot outwardly defy Russia, especially in an armed conflict. We have burned too many bridges internationally by provoking conflicts ourselves, and we have become too invested in Russia’s economic success.
As a result, U.S. leverage in Central Asia can be expected to diminish substantially. Central Asian leaders will only become less trusting of relations with America and less tolerant of U.S. efforts to engage them on democratic reforms. In short, the conflict in Georgia is likely to have serious ramifications that reach far beyond the imaginary borders of South Ossetia. It has the power to reinforce a long-held belief in Central Asia, and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, that western liberalism is not a realistic path for former Soviets to follow. The only path to follow is one dictated by Moscow and the Kremlin. Whether one likes it or not, that path will be understood popularly in Central Asia, even more than it is now, as the region’s fate.