It is clear that the region of the former Soviet states of Central Asia has a high strategic value both for the United States and for China, the European Union, Turkey, and many other leading nations. There are a number of reasons for this.
Central Asia is located in the geographical center of the Eurasian continent and events there affect the interests of the USA’s main global competitors, and also of many other major regional powers.
In seeking to put pressure on the ‘problem points’ of the region, Washington is actively trying not only to influence the situation in the Central Asian States, but also to influence its main competitors, in particular Russia, China and Iran.
That is why the main goal of US policy in the region has been, and will continue to be for a long time, to weaken Russia, China and its other regional rivals, and to dominate the countries sharing a border with Russia without getting involved in any direct conflict.
In order to disguise its ‘presence’ in Central Asia, Washington is even ready, for a while, to turn a blind eye to all the political defects of the ‘totalitarian’ regimes that are predominant in the region.
It is worth noting that this year U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not even take part in the presentation of the traditional report on the global human rights situation prepared by his Department in order not to further ‘irritate’ politicians from the countries in this region.
This document usually sharply criticizes all the Central Asian countries, above all Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This disregard by the White House for the human rights situation in these countries indicates that the US has more important strategic priorities in the region than the fate of its ‘democratic values’.
The vast majority of Americans have very little awareness of the region, and what awareness they do have comes mainly from stereotypes perpetuated by the Western press and cinema.
The US media tend to generalize about the region in a rather ironic way and only take serious notice of the countries in the region when there is a terrorist attack with a ‘Central Asian jihadist’ connection, as, for example, happened with Sayfullo Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, who took part in a terrorist attack in New York on October 31. Hollywood continues to make more and more mediocre movies, such as the comedy “Borat” (2006) which was denied a distribution license in Kazakhstan, and in which the mockery of Central Asian people verges on a direct insult.
However, despite all this, the US political establishment’s interest in the region has not declined. Tajikistan, in particular, is still of continuous ‘interest’ to Washington, which is understandable: this country has the longest border with Afghanistan, and the White House sees the fact that this country hosts Russia’s 201st military base as an insurmountable obstacle to the establishment of its strategic control in the region.
That is why it is very hard for Dushanbe to refuse the kind of insistent and sometimes ‘attractive’ offers of friendship from Washington, such as those which have recently drawn Tajikistan into military and technical cooperation with the U.S, including the holding of joint military maneuvers.
As is well-known, such high-profile joint military exercises were recently held in order, according to a representative of the U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe, to “increase the coordination between Tajik and U.S. special forces. “.
From a geo-economic perspective, Turkmenistan is far from the least important Central Asian country for the USA, in terms of both its potential for transit purposes and its considerable hydrocarbon reserves. That is why, for many years, numerous American multinational corporations have tried to obtain control over the country’s economy.
This is confirmed in the “Energy and safety” Report issued by the US Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, in which there is a clear requirement for Turkmenistan to change its domestic legislation and to provide multinational corporations with direct access to Turkmen reserves.
However, the American interest in Turkmenistan is not limited to the economic sphere and facilitating US corporations’ access to Turkmen resources.
This interest is also evident in the US’s desire to establish control over the country’s transit potential, and to weaken the influence of Russia, Iran and China on developments in Central Asia, and on matters relating to the settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan. Thus, one of Washington’s priorities is to turn Ashgabat into an intermediary in the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban in order to prevent potential US rivals from strengthening their position in Afghanistan.
Since 2002 an agreement between Ashgabat and Washington has been allowing US military transport aircraft to use Turkmen airspace and Ashgabat international civil airport for the purpose of re-fueling jets which, it claims, are transporting humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
Then the US State Department wanted to use the “Ak-depe” military aerodrome, 15 km west of Ashgabat, but Turkmenistan refused this request, citing the country’s neutrality.
Uzbekistan has also tried flirting with the United States. However, they put an end to this flirtation after 2005, when the US tried to provoke a color revolution in the country.
Kyrgyzstan also tried to become friends with the USA, and even allowed an American base on its territory. This ‘friendship’ was also short-lived, however. The Kyrghyz political elite drew its own conclusions from the USA’s unsuccessful involvement in color revolutions, including the ‘tulip revolution’ in Kyrgyzstan.
The leaders of Central Asian countries do not want to be just an anti-Russian battering ram in hands of the USA, and are well aware that America is a distant country that provides no guarantee that they will stay in power. In fact, the political elites of these countries have a limited range of options: either they can follow a pro-American policy, or they can turn to Russia, or they can move towards Islamization.
That is why the USA does not have the basis for any real success in this region.
Nevertheless, the USA will continue to try to stir up the situation in Kyrgyzstan, to acquire agents with influence in Kazakhstan, to put pressure on Rahmon’s regime in Tajikistan, and to demand an end to cooperation with Russia.
Therefore in the years to come the activity of the USA in Central Asia will be mostly focused on the local elite and on trying to get a group of pro-American officials into the upper echelons of these countries’ governments.
This is particularly the case in Kazakhstan where the political elite is, more or less, divided into three factions: pro-Russian, pro-Chinese and pro-Western. However, although the USA will use all possible means to strengthen the pro-Western faction, until the moment when the fight to take over from the current president of Kazakhstan begins, Russian and Chinese influence in this country will remain dominant for a long time.
Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.