Independence has brought a host of new problems to the states of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as exaggerating a number of former ones At the same time statehood has meant that the leaders of these former Soviet republics have new tools are at their disposal to try and address these issues, but international assistance and the instruments of statehood are often used unwisely, or not to their fullest possible extent.
This paper focuses on some of the challenges of consolidating statehood which lie before these states in the immediate future, how they are likely to be shaped by the peculariarities of the relationships of these states to Russia, and what strategic consequence this might have from the US.
In a sense there is a certain symmetry--these states fear Russia, but many are also prone to exaggerate the threat posed by Russia, confusing rhetoric for action. Some also seem unable to accept the selectivity of Russia's interest, and Moscow's capacity for selective disengagement. There is a certain advantage to exaggerating the Russian threat, as it helps stimulate a response by other foreign actors While this strategy has sometimes worked with real success, at least as far as garnering western credit, and various forms of technical assistance, there are real dangers in exaggerating the level of US interest or commitment to the Caspian region. We too are quite capable of selective disengagement, and may well be tempted by it should conditions in the region worsen
The biggest danger that any of these states face is not that of Islam, or of Russian imperialism, but of the need to transfer authority from the current political incumbents to new political figures and to a new generation. Few leaders are ready to leave power voluntarily and this complicates the challenges of political and economic reform Added to this are the challenges of national consolidation, which are still to be fully confronted everywhere, but especially in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. While Russia played a major role in the national struggles of the early 1990s in Azerbaijan and Armenia, in Georgia and in Tajikistan's civil war, today the greatest risks lie within the eight states of the region, and in their treatment of one another.
Regional initiatives have floundered in Central Asia, and not really been attempted in the Caucasus, given the unresolved status of Abkhazia and of the Nagorno Karabakh. In both regions such initiatives are unlikely to enjoy particular success in the next few years, and there is likely to be a further exacerbation of cross-border relations, particularly in Central Asia, where concern over Uzbekistan's intentions towards its neighbors is growing.
The history of the past fifty years more than amply testifies to the difficulties of creating new states out of former colonies or fragments of states. These challenges are dramatically intensified in the case of the former Soviet republics, in part because they were all part of a coherent (albeit sometimes irrational) whole, with highways and power-lines laid out with little attention to administrative boundaries, and ethnic enclaves dispersed across diverse territories. There is also the question of whether the Soviet Union was really an empire, or some sort of ideologically deformed multi-national state, a question which always occurs when the metropol expands through conquest and settlement of geographically contiguous territories.
The transition from communism has further compounded the problems of independence. Few leaders of newly independent states were ever granted the kind of economic power that was awarded to the leaders of the post-Soviet states, and few began with as little legitimacy as these post-Soviet leaders, none of whom had any kind of "revolutionary" presence and all of whom had served in the colonial or otherwise discredited previous regime. Yet it is impossible to exaggerate just how much these men have to lose, presiding as they did over the division of state assets, and all assets belonged to the state. Even the poorest of the post-Soviet states has enough natural and man-made assets to support the creation of impressive fortunes by the political few, and the riches among these states are producing some of the wealthiest people in the world. Similarly the prospects of social and political instability are also more pronounced. Decolonization has always provided enormous economic opportunities for the new political winners, but the totality of the economic transformation is something quite new, and in the post-soviet states the losers---be they the masses or among the political elite--- have little or no economic assets to fall back on, because private property was virtually non-existent under the Soviet system.
Unlike the decolonization efforts after World War II, time seems to move more swiftly today, speeded in part by the technological revolution which has occurred in the past half-century, so that "seditious" ideas travel not just by phone and cassette but oftentimes also by the internet. This means that these states have less time to solve their problems than might earlier have been the case, and all these states also are found in unstable neighborhoods. Those of Central Asia are at risk of being plagued by Afghanistan's problems, while the three Caucasian states are directly affected by the situation in Chechnya, not to mention by their own preexisting ethnic conflicts.
It is a mistake, though, to lump all eight of these "Asian" states together. In fact, the three Caucasian states are in Europe, although in many ways they are culturally akin to the states of the Levant, with their mosaic of Christian and Muslim peoples and the sense that they have one foot in both "east" and "west." The Central Asian states are firmly in Asia, and in some way or another each is part of a broader Islamic world. It is my firm belief that this need not preclude these states from developing democratic political systems, but the region's leaders hide behind their "Asianess" and the dangers associated the increase presence of Islam.
The three Caucasian states have gone much further in their experimentations with pluralism than have those of Central Asia. By many measures Georgia may be the most democratic of the three, but Georgia is likely to be a place of growing instability. Moreover, there has been a tendency to blame Russia for most, or even all, of Georgia's problem. To be sure the Russians, both the Russian government and representatives of powerful interest groups from the old Soviet military industrial complex have worked to destabilize the situation in Georgia. The Russians see Georgia as an area of particular strategic importance, and seem to be personally offended by the popularity that Eduard Shevernadze enjoys in the west.
The Russians certainly helped shape the Abkhaz-Georgian war of 1992, and without their assistance its scope and length would have been much reduced. But the Russians did not create Georgia's instability, they merely exacerbated it, and when President Shevernadze departs the political stage the inherent weakness of the Georgian state will become apparent. In reality Georgia is more like a loose confederation, than a federation, a form of government status which many of Georgia's minority nationalities are aspiring to attain.
The status of Abkhazia is still ill defined, Tbilisi's control over Ossetia is incomplete, and the Adjars in concert with the western Georgians may once again attempt to gain control of the state. The latter are still smarting over the defeat of Zvia Gamsakhurdiya in 1992, and his death in 1993. The beginnings of civil society in Georgia are real, but they are largely restricted to the capital city of Tbilisi and its environs, and even here corruption and the absence of public order are prevalent. It is not clear that the young reformers will be able to maintain Georgia's façade of democracy or even that they will be able to come to power. The very effort at transferring authority could plunge Georgia into civil war, or force it to become a client or quasi-client of Russia.
Of all the leaders of these two regions, only Robert Kocharian in Armenia has any real claim to being post-Soviet, and even he began his political career in Karabakh on the ashes of the Soviet system. Armenia is also the only one of the eight states in the region to have already undergone a more or less democratic political succession, although intra-elite competition turned violent in October 1999, when the country's parliament came under fire, and its speaker (former Communist Party first secretary Karen Demirchyan) and Prime Minister Vazken Sarkisian were both among the prominent politicians killed. But with the exception of its conflict with Azerbaijan, Armenia has down very well at managing "foreign threats" and it has managed to use the presence of diaspora populations in both Russia and the US to its advantage.
Certainly, in the early years of independence Armenia was Russia's clear favorite in the region (and the only one of the three Caucasian states to voluntarily join the CIS) and this helped contribute first to Armenia's effective victory in the Nagorno Karabakh dispute and to the stalemating of peace negotiations. As I am writing this prior to the beginning of the Key West negotiations I will not dwell on the prospects for peace in my written text, but will return to it in my oral presentation.
It is a conflict that is well understood in both the US and in Russia. I question, though, whether Russia needs the continuation of this conflict to exercise leverage in Azerbaijan. The struggle over succession seems to afford them ample opportunity. Russian interests and US interests need not clash here. Both are likely to accept the transfer of power from Heydar to Ilham Aliyev, and the transfer of power could be smooth. Heydar Aliyev cannot help but be influenced by developments in neighboring Armenia and Georgia, and he seems to recognize the risks of totally stifling opposition, preferring instead to disable them rather than to destroy them as stakeholders. Achieving some sort of agreement with Armenia will be critical to achieving a successful transition, as pressure for a positive resolution of this conflict with Azerbaijani society is growing.
Azerbaijan seems likely to develop increasingly closer ties to Turkey. Russia is also likely to show greater flexibility on the construction of the Baku Ceyhan pipeline, at least as far as the shipment of Azerbaijani oil is concerned. Russia seems to recognize that it will have difficulty diverting increasing quantities of oil northward, and the Dagestan pipeline by-pass has proved expensive and undependable, and although the Russians are going to try and keep that full, they are likely to choose the easier course of partial Russian ownership of SOCAR (the Azerbaijani state oil company) or of a somewhat increased Russian share in some of Azerbaijan's larger deposits. Either of these can occur by Russian companies buying shares of Azerbaijani concerns as such become available.
Russia's position vis a vis Kazakh oil flowing into the planned Baku Ceyhan pipeline is quite different. The Russians are eager to profit from the development of Kazakhstan's giant Kashagan field, and want most of it to transit through Russia, although some are willing to see part of it transit through Iran. Kazakhstan's leadership has been evasive with regards to committing oil to the Baku-Ceyhan route, and relations between the Kazakh oil and gas industry and its Russian counterparts have been steadily improving in recent years.
In general, Kazakhstan has been quite successful in managing its relationship with Russia in recent years, turning it from one of full subordination to an unequal partnership. Fears of direct Russian intervention in Kazakhstan's internal politics are diminishing, in part because of Kazakhstan's increasing importance in the international community, but also because the country's Russian population is continuing to diminish. More Russians, both numerically and percentage-wise have left Kazakhstan than in any other post-Soviet state. Kazakhs are also returning to Kazakhstan, some from Mongolia and China, a few from Russia, and now increasingly large numbers from Uzbekistan. Kazakhs are also leaving the countryside in large numbers, because of the destruction of the collective farm and state farm systems, but there is little in the city to occupy them. There is a similar pattern throughout the region, and unemployed young men pose a potential threat to civil order everywhere.
Kazakhstan's economic potential is unequalled in the region, because of the diversity of the country's resources, natural, industrial and agricultural. Despite this Kazakhstan's ruling elite must manage to hang on in the face of growing popular dissatisfaction of the pauperization of the countryside and Kazakhstan's former industrial centers.
With time the risk of intra-ethnic tension is becoming greater than that of inter-ethnic tension. Nazarbayev has been strengthening the role of his family, and to a lesser extent that of his clan, and as a result is disturbing the informal balance of power between the Kazakh's three hordes as well as that of the country's many regions. Nazarbayev's policies have done more harm to Kazakh traditional society than those of any Soviet leader since Stalin.
A successful dynastic succession in Azerbaijan would further embolden Nazarbayev. But unlike the case of Ilham Aliyev, the Russians would have little interest in serving as a guarantor for a transfer of power within the Nazarbayev clan. They will better serve their interests by allowing the intra-elite struggle to develop, and extract economic concessions for their role.
The Nazarbayev family might also pretend to be guarantors of a dynastic succession in Kyrgyzstan by the Akayev family with whom they are united in marriage.Kyrgyzstan is more unstable than Kazakhstan, and is being pushed from both Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south. The country has so few resources that no outside power is really interested in coming to its aid. Its one "weapon" is the control of the headwaters of the Syr Darya, and its ability to cut off downstream users. However the Kyrgyz really effectively lack this capacity, as the Uzbek army could easily invade, and the Soviet-era system of regional water-management is eroding with each passing year.
The Uzbeks have already flexed their muscle, as they have been single-mindedly pursuing their national interests in delineating their national borders, and in physically incorporating territory whose ownership is in question. In the short term, Uzbek anarchy may be a much greater risk than Uzbek aggression.
The leaders of all the states of the region are interested in advancing a myth about secularism, and its natural place in their respective societies. In fact, in every country tradition is interwoven with a Soviet version of secularism, with the former predominating in the countryside. In both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Islam has always been a potent element in this blend, and the current Islamic revival in the Ferghana valley has its roots in the early 1970s. In fact, the kind of religious tension that is currently prevalent in Uzbekistan, a triangular struggle between modernists (secularists), classical or conservative religious elements and supporters of a fundamentalist revival has been present in the area for the past hundred years. Its form, though, has been constantly changing.
President Islam Karimov is determined to guarantee that secular forces are victorious, but although Karimov's security apparatus has become a polished and well-functioning terror machine, it is far from clear that it is capable of keeping the lid on the country's social pressure-cooker. Uzbekistan's refusal to engage in fundamental macro-economic reform has increased the discretionary economic power of the state, and a privileged few have been enriched by their ability to trade on the difference in price between the official and black market rates of the country's currency. But Uzbekistan had a large entrepreneurial class that was created out of the "gray" economy of the Soviet period, and many of these people have been thwarted over the past decade, unable to realize their capital.
The greatest risk the Uzbeks face is not that of the armed Islamic opposition, which has taken asylum in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The Uzbek military is more than capable of dealing with such threats. They may not be capable, though, of dealing with an internal opposition that could develop if the thwarted secular elite (especially those in the Ferghana Valley) makes common cause with the Islamic activists. The former are getting tired of waiting for economic opportunities to materialize, and they have few other potential allies. If Karimov begins to fail physically, then the situation in Uzbekistan could deteriorate quickly.
While a civil war in Uzbekistan is not precluded it is also far from pre-ordained, and it is a mistake to assume that Uzbekistan will repeat the pattern of political disintegration that was characteristic of Tajikistan in the early 1990s. In both countries there are strong regional rivalries, but Uzbekistan does not have the same kind of power vacuum that was present in Tajikistan at the end of Soviet rule.
In both countries though, there must be some accommodation with Islamic forces if social and political order is to be maintained. The Tajiks have learned this the hard way, and those in charge in Tashkent may have to as well. Both states also have to deal with their shared identities, as both Tajiks and Uzbeks claim to be the historic rulers of Uzbekistan's principal cities. But although there is some inter-ethnic tension, Uzbek and Tajik minorities in both countries are beginning to assimilate with the dominant nationality.
The continuing political instability in Tajikistan contributes to the destabilization of both Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and this could take the form of growing inter-ethnic tension in any of the three states. The international drug trade (largely based on opium from Afghanistan) helps fuel the growing criminalization of society in all three countries, and this process is likely to continue unabated until civil order is introduced in Afghanistan.
Turkmenistan also is a potentially highly unstable country, although events in Afghanistan are only of indirect impact. Uzbek-Turkmen relations are potentially quite tendentious, as Turkmenistan's water comes from Uzbekistan. The Turkmen are currently fencing themselves in, but this may only serve to exacerbate tensions. Turkmenistan also remains subject to pressure from Russia, because of the transport of its gas, and Moscow is likely to be the guarantor of any effort at political succession.
These eight states are all likely to be unstable for the foreseeable future. This is especially true of the states of Central Asia, whose leaders have been unwilling to engage in economic and political power sharing. The one country that showed some sign of developing a pluralistic system, Kyrgyzstan, has become increasingly more autocratic in the past two years. There is little that the US can do to address these local insufficiencies. Money spent on developing civil society in the region is likely to have little impact, although there is some hope that these countries will develop partially transparent economies, making possible foreign investment in strategic sectors. But the US has little long-term security interest in the region. Caspian basin oil and gas will contribute to our energy independence only if we are not required to guarantee the security of its transit. It is one thing to try and advance the cause of US investment in these potentially profitable oil and gas deposits, it is quite another to pretend that land-locked countries are somehow of analogous interest of those of the Persian Gulf.
Paper presented April 10, 2001 for the Spring 2001 meetings of the Schlesinger Working Group on Strategic Surprises, an initiative of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy of Georgetown University.