Central Asia: Misconceptions and ‘The New Great Game’

leemarkham

National oil and gas company, Kazakhstan. Wikimedia.

National oil and gas company, Kazakhstan. Wikimedia

The original ‘Great Game’ refers to the 19th century power struggle between British and Prussian empires over Central Asia. At the time, when the Prussian empire occupied positions in the Eurasian heartland, H. J. Mackinder described the region as “the pivot region of the world’s politics”. However, after the majority of Central Asia was integrated in to the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution of 1917, the region has largely been absent from the political world stage, until now. There has been much discourse on whether Central Asia has once again become the Great Game, with the likes of  Russia, China and the U.S vying for a slice of the region. However, whilst these states have recognised the importance of Central Asia, it is still a widely misunderstood area with many misconceptions.

In the eyes of the Western world, much of Central Asia is still characterised as an under-developed area with an uneducated populous, popularised by film and television shows such as ‘Borat’ or the BBC’s ‘The Ambassadors’. The common portrayal of culture and the population in these forms of media is often very poor. In the film Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s character talks of his ‘glorious’ Kazakhstan, with regular references to incest, sexism and generally having an ignorant outlook. However, the main plot point is that whilst ‘Borat’ tours the United States, his views and persona are largely accepted by Americans to be that of a Kazakh man. Furthermore, in ‘The Ambassadors’, the people of Central Asia are often depicted as heavy militarised or ignorant men and sexualised women who are part of a culture that is totally alien to our own. In contrary to the stereotypes previously mentioned, the Central Asian region and it’s people are growing in stature and the region is now blossoming, largely in part to its wealth of natural resources and geographical importance.

There are not many states that are forced to become independent. Yet, this is precisely what happened to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Thrown into the unknown after the Minsk declaration, these five Central Asian republics were presented with many extraordinary challenges. One of these challenges was the fact that they were very interdependent on each other and their former ruler Russia for commerce; southern Kazakhstan still received its electricity form Kyrgyzstan, northern Kazakhstan serviced Siberia’s energy grid and Turkmenistan processed Serbian oil in it’s refineries. Other issues ranged from coping with decentralisation to establishing new borders in an extremely multi-ethnic region, all of which caused a multitude of economic and political issues. Yet as the years progressed, the five Central Asian states started to progress in the right direction. By expanding their trading partners, with support of the IMF and the World Bank, the five states economies strengthened, albeit at varying rates. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan benefitted greatly from the booming oil prices in the late 1990’s, whilst Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan economies fluctuated into the early 2000’s. The region still offers enormous potential, something that is recognised by the U.S, Russia and China.

‘The New Great Game’ is a much debated terming of current events in the region. The original ‘Great Game’ was very much about territory, expanding empires and big, long-term gains. Currently, Russian, Chinese and American involvement in Central Asia is driven by a plethora of smaller, less expansive motives. One reason the U.S is so present in the region, specifically Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, is that it was strategically integral as a means of support for their war in Afghanistan. As the war begun to wind down, the U.S started to implement its ‘New Silk Route ’, which leads onto the next reason of interest, natural resources. Kazakhstan, with the biggest deposits of natural resources of the five states, is home to three percent of the world’s oil, four percent of the world’s coal and fifteen percent of its uranium. It also ranks in the top ten for suppliers of copper, iron ore, gold and manganese. Further to this, Turkmenistan is home to nearly five percent of the world’s natural gas. Baring in mind that Central Asia is one of the most sparsely populated regions on the planet and it becomes clear that the potential for exportation and outside investment is immense. However, the transport infrastructure in Central Asia is poor and mainly directed at Russia, because of this the U.S and China has heavily invested in new infrastructure to benefit their interests. Russia, China and the U.S are not the only states to invest in the region. In December 2011 Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan signed an agreement on the creation of a gas pipeline at a cost of eight billion dollars.

KazTransOil_Pavlodar_headquater_building

Pavlodar KazTransOil headquarters, Pavlodar, Kazakhstan. Wikimedia

However, the Central Asian republics are certainly not naive when it comes to negotiations and have very quickly learnt to play external powers off against each other for personal gains. Although the majority of their oil and gas is exported to Russia, the Central Asian countries can continually negotiate or re-negotiate contracts to allow further investment from other states. Furthermore, both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have invoked their weaknesses and used the threat posed by Islamic militant movements in order to secure external military and economic assistance.

This, in my opinion, is where the ‘New Great Game’ differs from the original ‘Great Game. It is not the bi-polar British Prussian competition it was before, in a continually globalised world the ‘New Great Game’ is far more complex than its predecessor. Central Asian states are yielding large personal gains as a result of external interest, arguably benefiting the most. Although Russia, China and the U.S are the most powerful states invested in the region, many other external states are beginning to lick their lips at the prospect of investment. However, the potential for future investment in Central Asia remains unclear. Deteriorating relations between the U.S and Russia are further complicating and already complex relationship. In addition, its unstable neighbours are causing a great deal of consternation. Nevertheless, it remains a desirable region for Russia, China and the U.S as they continue to reinforce the concept of the ‘New Great Game’.

 

Sources

Cooley. A, ‘Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia’, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, Chapter 1.

Olcott, M. Central Asia’s Catapult to Independence. Council on Foreign Relations. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/kazakhstan/1992-06-01/central-asias-catapult-independence.

McKeigue, J. The Scramble for Natural Resources in Central Asia. MoneyMorning. http://www.moneymorning.com.au/20120119/the-scramble-for-natural-resources-in-central-asia.html.

 

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