On June 7, 2018, Central Asia Program hosted the book launch for Central Asia in the Era of Sovereignty: The Return of Tamerlane?

The event featured some of the book’s contributors: Dr. Therese Sabonis-Helf (Georgetown University), Dr. Dan Burghart (National Intelligence University), Dr. Marlene Laruelle (The George Washington University), Dr. Roger Kangas (National Defense University), Dr. Laura Adams (USAID), Sophia Srinivasan (Standard & Poor’s), Gawdat Bahgat (National Defense University), and Mr. Robert Timm (Naval War College).

This book is the sequel to In the Tracks of Tamerlane: Central Asia’s Path to the 21st Century, edited by Daniel L. Burghart and Theresa Sabonis-Helf and published by National Defense University in 2004. For Dan Burghart, the current project began with the realization that, “‘Tamerlane’ was good, but a lot has changed. We probably need to update it.” Rather than looking at individual countries, the editors decided to work thematically, asking authors to contribute chapters on the most important topics, then put it together in a way that would allow for comparison between the five countries.

‘Tamerlane’ was good, but a lot has changed. We probably need to update it


Central Asia in the Era of Sovereignty: The Return of Tamerlane? covers a wide range of topics. The first section traces two main currents—political development in the region and states’ responses to transboundary challenges—in addressing social issues as diverse as HIV/AIDS, social media, the rebirth of Islam, outmigration, and problematic borders. The second part, which looks at economics and security, provides analyses of new infrastructure, informal economies (from bazaars to criminal networks), energy development, the role of enclaves in the Ferghana Valley, and the development of Central Asian states’ military structures. This section illuminates the interactions between economic developments and security, and the forces that could undermine both. The final part, comprised of five case studies, offers a “deeper dive” into a specific factor significant in the development of each Central Asian state. These are Kazakhstan’s foreign policy identity, Kyrgyzstan’s domestic politics, Tajikistan’s pursuit of hydropower, foreign direct investment in Turkmenistan, and the perception of everyday corruption in Uzbekistan.

Sophia Srinivasan, Standard & Poor’s, wrote the chapter on foreign direct investment in Turkmenistan’s oil and gas sector. She noted that if, as experts predict, natural gas comprises one-third of the world’s energy supply by 2030, Central Asia will play a key role in providing that gas. Turkmenistan, which has the sixth-largest natural gas reserves in the world, is central to this vision.

And then a new Leviathan—China—emerged

After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was excitement about the potential to exploit the country’s reserves—excitement that was quickly squelched by the authoritarian Niyazov regime. Since a new leader, Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov, took over in 2007, there has been some hope that the sector would become more open. Yet the past decade has actually seen Turkmenistan’s oil and gas sector increasingly become the domain of China.

Srinivasan explains: “We’ve seen BP, Chevron, a lot of supermajors, big international oil companies, try to make their way in, but they haven’t been able to. But some small companies, smaller than BP, like Eni in Italy, [have been] able to gain a small foothold there. Then we’ve seen the China National Petroleum Corporation really, really make it there.”

Since 2016, when Turkmenistan stopped exporting gas to Russia due to a pricing dispute, China has been effectively its only customer—a reality this chapter explores. Srinivasan discusses why China has done so well, why the supermajors have not, and why some smaller companies have been able to stake a claim. The chapter also explores the broader context: the history of oil and gas in the country, how it has been developed, and the factors that have facilitated and impeded foreign investment.

Rob Timm, Naval War College, thinks that back in 2014, with the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, there was a lot of dynamism in Central Asia at the strategic and political/military level. With declining U.S. interest in the region, Moscow’s assertiveness grew: 2015 saw Russia’s first overseas deployment in Syria. China, too, became more active, not only in the spheres of economy and infrastructure, but also in the security realm. The rise of ISIS, the movement of significant numbers of Central Asians to Syria to fight under the black flag, and ongoing succession anxiety added to this dynamism. Yet the significant rethink about security that might have been expected to accompany even one of these changes did not, Timm argues, materialize:

“What you see is an awful lot of continuity. You see security forces that are still very much focused on internal threats, first and foremost. You see an international security space that Russia continues to dominate through the CSTO. You see each of the individual Central Asian states accommodating themselves to…Russia’s dominance of the security space in their own unique ways based upon their bilateral relationship, based upon the peculiarities of their geography.”

In an environment of mutual suspicion, what regional collaboration exists is carried out through international organizations dominated by foreign partners—NATO, the SCO, and the CSTO among them—and each Central Asian state takes its own steps to diversify its basket of risks.

Therese Sabonis-HelfGeorgetown University, took the opportunity to examine changes in the political economy of Central Asia. For her, the main narrative thread is how Central Asian economies are fundamentally changing due to Chinese activity. For decades, the Central Asian states suffered enormously from being landlocked; trade was almost impossible without competent neighbors whom they could trust. Although these states had commodities that were highly valued on the world market, only Russia seemed to know how to export them. And then a new Leviathan—China—emerged. China has not only invested in the Central Asian states, but has also increased the volume of trade traversing Central Asia, changes that have affected how the Central Asian states think about both their neighbors and the potential of trade. They are beginning to see the importance of transit and the value of being involved in transit activities. They are also increasingly involved in electricity, a venture that is both commodity and service and requires a much higher level of interstate coordination.

Sabonis-Helf looked at new political economies through the prism of the Rogun dam project in Tajikistan, a hydropower initiative central to the development of Tajikistan’s aluminum industry. She indicated that the project could be explained in three distinct ways by three different narratives. The first narrative thread sees the dam as a vanity project for the leader, Rahmon. The second sees it as the continuation of the Soviet legacy. The third, meanwhile, asks, “Do they really need this?” With the exception of electricity, Tajikistan currently produces none of the components of aluminum. As Dushanbe looks to a future in which it produces more electricity and aluminum, therefore, the question is, “Can we mine some of it here?” But for the present, they are in the bizarre position of possessing the most important commodity necessary to produce aluminum—cheap electricity—and thus aggressively importing everything else they need to export their principal commodity.

Gawdat Bahgat, National Defense University, analyzed social media role in Central Asia, exploring the different ways that it has affected politics in each of the five countries at different times. Bahgat focused on the actors—the producers and consumers of social media—and how they are affected.

Laura Adams, USAID Democracy Fellow at the Institute of International Education, found that Uzbekistan is, in some ways, a fairly high-capacity state—despite having governance systems that would not be recognized as good governance by Western democracies. In cooperation with Rustamjon Urinboyev, a sociologist at Lund University’s Sociology of Law faculty, and his advisor, Måns Svensson, she applied a theoretical framework based on Stephen Krasner’s model of “Good Enough” governance, looking at the ways that everyday life negotiations take place in a framework of informal governance. Adams focused on particular cases of what would normally be termed corruption to try and understand how these processes are negotiated and to what extent the requirements of a transaction can be successfully anticipated. It will be interesting to see how these informal practices come to mesh with the reforms that the government is currently trying to introduce, perhaps merging into a more formal and fair system of governance.

Roger KangasNational Defense University, looked at law and institutions in the region. The region’s bent is toward very traditional forms of law, but processes and issues of responsibility alike have been influenced by the Soviet system. In the post-Soviet period, or the post-post-Soviet period, where a number of outsiders have tried to impact the law, the discussion is increasingly about how these groups attempt to shape the perception of law in Central Asia. According to Kangas, this has produced divergent results in each of the countries under study.

“Looking at the five different countries, we really see five different models. We see different approaches to how this develops,” he says. “It’s an amalgam of Western discourse but justifications based on frameworks that come from Russia, from China, from others states that justify state control, that justify limited individual rights.”

Marlene Laruelle, George Washington University, explored the tensions and overlap between promoting Central Asia integration and promoting Eurasian integration in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh authorities have always claimed to favor both, but Eurasian integration has become a practical reality while Central Asian integration has remained on paper. This contradiction has suddenly become real to Astana: after decades of Kazakhstan seeing “Eurasia” as a way of describing its multi-vector policy, Russia’s recent actions—from its spearheading of the Eurasian Economic Union project to the Ukrainian crisis—have given the term a Russian color, turning it into a symbol of Russia’s domination of the post-Soviet region.

A rebalancing is occurring in which Eurasian integration suddenly seems to offer less prosperity than Central Asian integration

Of course, circumstances continue to evolve. With new Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev espousing a new level of openness, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are now pursuing regional integration, at the same time as Eurasian integration is slowing. A rebalancing is occurring in which Eurasian integration suddenly seems to offer less prosperity than Central Asian integration.

In her chapter, Laruelle also looks at Kazakhstan’s ambivalent attraction toward a Kazakh-specific path. The country simultaneously claims to be the leading “stan” and does not like the idea of being a “stan”—hence Nazarbayev’s proposal that the country’s name be changed to Qazaq Eli, “the country of the Qazaqs.” Mongolia, he says, provides a model of how to be a separate country without being part of a region. Yet such a move has the potential to create many other issues: shifting Kazakhstan away from its Turkic heritage and toward a more steppic world would push it closer to Siberia—and therefore to Russia. Kazakhstan therefore finds itself facing a difficult dilemma.

Dan Burghart, National Intelligence University, concluded the event by discussing his chapter, entitled “Great Game Changers: The Changing Nature of Central Asian Energy.” He tried to identify potential game changers that could, on short notice, disrupt energy in Central Asia. The first is the state of the world economy: if the world economy is down, energy requirements are down, which will affect all these countries. If, on the other hand, as we are seeing right now, the world economy is performing better than expected, that will increase demand for energy.

Economics is far from the only factor. The next is technology, especially shale energy, which has introduced technological uncertainty into energy markets. Russia and Saudi Arabia may have agreed to suppress production, which raises prices, but if prices go too high, the United States will turn on all the technology in which it has invested, flooding the market with shale and pushing prices down again. There is also the Ukraine factor, which has produced political uncertainty with an economic impact, such as sanctions against Russia, which have had a trickle-down effect on Central Asia. These factors will probably drive energy demand in Central Asia.

At the same time, as Burghart noted, “We see most of the world becoming more centered on their individuals and with a decline in globalization, Central Asia seems to have discovered the benefits of cooperation. But it seems, even though we’re talking about the Central Asian states in the era of sovereignty, to a surprising degree, they’ve been willing not to give up their sovereignty but to bend a little bit in order to achieve the benefits of cooperation within the region. That could be something interesting to watch in the near future.”

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