Power and Change in the New Great Game: An Interview with Alexander Cooley

Dr. Alexander Cooley is Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, as well as Deputy Director for Social Sciences Programming at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Professor Cooley has researched and written extensively on the impact of external actors on the Former Soviet Union, and is the author of Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest for Central Asia (Oxford, 2012), in addition to four other books. Professor Cooley is a renowned expert on Central Asia and the former Soviet Union, having testified before US Congress and other international bodies on the region, and appeared regularly in publications such as Foreign Affairs and The New York Times, among many others.

SD: Much was made of India’s “Connect Central Asia Policy,” as well as its bid to become a full-fledged member (it’s currently an observer member) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2013. Nonetheless, little mention has been made of India’s regional aspirations throughout the current year. To what do you attribute the toning down of pro-Central Asia rhetoric among chief Indian policymakers?

Cooley: The India question, to me, is one more of a false start. India, during the 2000s, found itself quite interested in Central Asia. It had been one of the leading donors in Afghanistan, but also saw Central Asia as a region where it could exert some soft power, some regional influence. India saw itself, as other countries have beforehand, as a player in the Central Asian arena. There were a couple of problems with that vision. First of all, it was premature in the sense that India really didn’t have the economic power to play the soft power game, especially when compared to China. It wasn’t even a matter of India getting outspent 2:1 or 3:1 as I note in the book. In 2011, Indian trade with the region was 2% or 3% what Chinese trade with the region was. By orders of magnitude India is not the economic player that it fancied itself. One very instructive example of this would be an agreement India entered into with Tajikistan over the refurbishing of an old Soviet air base. India financed a series of renovations to existing infrastructure, as well as paid for a new runway, one or more new hangars, and it is unclear what the Tajiks promised the Indians in return. It is most likely that they promised basing access, either on a rotational basis or on a semi-permanent basis in which they shared it with the Tajiks and the Russians. The Indian defense community was very proud of this agreement, and Indian officials in Tajikistan were quick to flaunt the agreement around while also labeling the agreement as a secret and thoroughly playing up the intrigue surrounding the agreement. In the end however, the Tajiks essentially told them “thank you for the money, but you’re not going to have access to the base.” The Indian government got burnt, which is also somewhat of a lesson of what happens in Central Asia. Promises are often made by external actors who then find out they’ve gotten played by the local populace even though they often think they’re the ones exerting the influence. In the Indian foreign policy vision, Central Asia is a space where India’s status as an emerging power could become realized; it just hasn’t happened yet. I’d qualify that by saying that India’s presence in Central Asia over the next 20-30 years is likely to grow, just not at the rate that Indian policymakers envisaged initially, and certainly not enough to constitute legitimate Chinese and Indian competition in Central Asia itself. That competition is non-existent. China is there, India is not on that same level.

SD: Would reaching a more egalitarian status in Central Asia vis-à-vis China or Russia even be of interest to Delhi?

Cooley: There really is not a perceivable national interest in increased presence in Central Asia beyond those related to prestige. The Tajikistan air base question was more about the prestige of operating a foreign air base than it was a strategic necessity. The one exception would be energy security. The Indian government continues to be very concerned about funding and fueling its development. Consequently, projects like TAPI that may well come to fruition within the next ten years will continue to be a priority. These projects notwithstanding, the Indian government does not have a compelling interest in partnering with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan or other Central Asian states apart from signaling that they are an emerging power with a sphere of influence and responsibility. This prestige dynamic of Indian foreign policy will be more readily satisfied by its work with other BRICS, and India’s continued assertiveness in global multilateral forms like the World Trade Organization, and so forth. It is unlikely that the region becomes any type of major priority for India unless something in Afghanistan happens that causes the region to descend into chaos. As long as Afghanistan is relatively calm, the Central Asian region will continue to generate interest, but will not be seen as vital.

SD: Certain states of Central Asia are currently party to a wide variety of regional agreements and organizations – the largest of which is the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Do you see this organization as establishing more influence for China or Russia? Will it someday compete or cannibalize interest in related agreements such as the CTSO or the Customs Union/EEU?

Cooley: Regional organizations and their membership should be disaggregated from what their actual capabilities are. That’s the key to understanding the SCO. There are a lot of public agreements, and the outward face of the organization is one of Sino-Russian cooperation supported by the Central Asian states. In private, however, the actual governance functions of the SCO, at least in terms of what their ambitions are, have been stalled, principally by Russia but also by Central Asian states. For instance, the Chinese would love for the SCO to be a multilateral vehicle through which a significant amount of Chinese economic activity takes place. This includes investment, infrastructure building, foreign aid and development programs, and around the organization’s inception there was talk of establishing a free trade zone. The Russians oppose this. The Russians view Central Asia as part of their sphere of influence, and naturally want to promote the Eurasian Union, whose members include Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, eventually Tajikistan, etc. The Russians have opposed every attempt to formalize economic governance functions in the SCO.  A couple of examples:

First, during the financial crisis, Beijing proposed that the SCO generate an anti-crisis fund of about $10 billion to fund infrastructure projects. The Russians opposed this, citing a technical provision of its legislature that restricted contributions to multilateral lending organizations. The Chinese countered that stipulation by offering a joint partnership with each side putting up $5 billion. The Russians again opposed this, but the Chinese went ahead and put forward $10 billion anyway a couple of years later and called it SCO. In that sense it can be confusing because although it’s called the SCO it’s really a series of chiefly Chinese projects across Central Asia.

Second, in the run up to the 2012 SCO summit in Beijing, it seemed like a SCO Regional Development Bank would finally be inaugurated. Just a few weeks before the summit, however, the Russians tabled the project, ostensibly because they needed more time to study the issue. Again, due to Russia’s desire not to sanction an official economic vehicle for governance in the region. China would like for the SCO to be more about facilitating regional public goods and economic governance, but the Russians oppose this because they view themselves as the guardians of these spheres. The Russians would instead like to use the SCO as a type of vehicle by which they can make anti-Western pronouncements and issue public statements on the war on Syria, missile defense and to further their own agenda that way. The idea of a Sino-Russian axis has emerged as a result, but in reality there are a lot of issues that divide Beijing and Moscow and that the SCO tapers over. You will not see these issues aired in public. It’s not that the SCO is a paper tiger, because it exercises an interesting form of legitimacy, presenting itself as a non-West regional organization, but at the end of the day there are some eternal issues that plague the organization. Distributional consequences are one of these issues, i.e. asymmetric benefits from economic gains. Both Russia and the Central Asian states are concerned about Chinese economic power. Control and decision making are another of these issues that the organization still has yet to resolve or fully define. An optimistic face is put on it, but the SCO hasn’t accomplished nearly as much as the Chinese would have liked to.

SD: In terms of their respective political and economic agendas, how do you predict the SCO could coexist with the SCO?

Cooley: The other function of the SCO is internal security. This was also an item pushed forward by Beijing. Early on the SCO adopted a security mission whose goals were to fight three main evils — terrorism, extremism and separatism – which also happened to be the three evils as formulated in Chinese security and foreign policy. That was the mission that was adopted. Currently a lot of cooperation between the SCO and EEU does take place in the areas of extraterritorial cooperation and common blacklist information sharing. There exists also a regional anti-terrorism structure in Tashkent known as RATS. There is also a regional anti-terrorism treaty that came together during 2009- SCO Convention on Counter-Terrorism- that contains numerous extraterritorial provisions. One of two main impediments during the 2000s to greater EU-SCO cooperation, from the EEU perspective, was that the normative mission of the “three evils,” especially with respect to separatism, wasn’t acceptable to Brussels officials because they do not view separatism as an evil, per se. To accept that would have been very difficult for them. The second of these impediments was that the EU disapproved of the fact that Ahmadinejad was given a platform during more than one SCO summit and communicated to Beijing that they could not expect any type of responsible engagement or productive engagement as long as a platform was being offered to someone like Ahmadinejad. Those were the two main EU concerns. When the Obama administration arrived in Washington it had ideas that the SCO could play a positive role in things like the Afghanistan agenda because it was a regional organization, and ostensibly represented a multilateralist view. But again the natural problem there is how engagement with the SCO can be possible when its two main members, China and Russia, have severely undefined policies with regards to Afghanistan. There at least was a fascination with the SCO, and even a type of alarmist view held by some Western commentators that resisting engagement with the SCO would lead them to being left behind. This view was likely the result of a misinterpretation of the SCO’s stated regional, not global, objectives.

SD: China has quickly and adroitly positioned itself to become the most significant economic, if not political partner for a number of Central and South Asian nations. The renewed commitment to political and economic stability in Afghanistan, for instance, is unprecedented, as is the pledge to invest billions in road, rail and energy infrastructure in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Nonetheless, nations like Tajikistan take pride in a so-called “multivector” foreign policy that refrains from cozying up with one principal partner. Given this tendency in the more autocratic Central Asian states, do you believe that the relationship with China can transcend investment or trade, or is a more developed political partnership feasible?

Cooley: China is regarded now with mixed feelings. Nations in the region are seeing China as the region’s dominant economic power. China is clearly becoming the regional public goods provider, despite Russian efforts or proclamations. Russia is not building the trains, the roads or the dams. Quite frankly, the West isn’t assuming this type of role either. Not even the IFIs are acting on the quite the same scale. Only one country is providing infrastructure upgrades, and that is China. There remains a deep cultural suspicion of China, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan where there remain strong national sympathies towards Russia. Popular stories and conspiracy theories revolving around Chinese corruption and bribing of officials have circulated in these countries as well. As Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse note in their book, one reason that stories like this exist is that it provides a means by which Central Asian press can criticize their own elite indirectly, hinting that they were bought off by the Chinese. There is a discernible amount of concern over the overall end game with respect to Chinese influence in Central Asia. Symbolic issues like land acquisition have also become very important.

In terms of political and security cooperation, I would argue that China has obtained good political and security cooperation from countries in the region, especially as it relates to the question of the Uighurs. Uighur networks have been nearly eliminated, and activities undertaken by ethnic Uighur shuttle traders have been curtailed. Uighur civil society and special interest groups have by and large been banned or disbanded and a lot of possible terror suspects have been turned over to the Chinese. In that regard, there has been joint cooperation on the Chinese security agenda. The problem is, this is not the same agenda as that maintained by Russia. Russia has a very public agenda, and is very demonstrative, even theatrical. Russia seeks public acknowledgement as the region’s prime power and security guarantor, and China acts in the opposite manner, at least publicly. Behind the scenes, however, China has fostered ties to seal off Xinjiang from foreign influences. The question of whether or not a Russia vs. China security rivalry is not really a legitimate one. There is certainly more of an economic rivalry, and in security they want different things altogether. For the most part, these separate agendas have coexisted without issue.

The question of whether or not multivectorism can endure is a really good one. I would say that all Central Asian countries want multivectorism. In the 2000sa multivecotor type of situation existed. The issue now is that with the NATO withdrawal, the US departing, and relative disengagement by the EU, one of these vectors is being lost. Russia’s current financial situation makes it unable to deliver the type of financial and political commitment that it was previously able to guarantee. Whether we like it or not, China is going to be the economic force in the region. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both want multivectorism but it is unclear what the alternatives are; there aren’t viable alternatives to play off each other as there were in the 2000s. This is debatable, but I believe that it is less a question of multivectorism and more of a question of existing alternatives, beyond Russia and China. That is the situation in which the Central Asian states find themselves. They are not experiencing any type of “golden age” of multivectorism anymore. Some disagree, but if trade and dependency numbers are taken into consideration, it is apparent that Central Asian states are growing more economically attached to China and more politically attached to Russia.

SD: Russia, China and to an extent the United States have traditionally exerted much more influence than any other state in the region. Why is it that a nation like Kazakhstan has largely remained aloof from Central Asia-specific projects, despite its increased economic and political status?

Cooley: Kazakhstan did debut a foreign aid and development program in 2014, and they do consider themselves on a different socioeconomic and political status than the rest of Central Asia. The Ukraine crisis has occasioned an entirely new set of concerns for Astana. These concerns have taken precedence and are what Kazakh policymakers are occupying themselves with currently. In general terms it is true that Kazakh foreign policy has been developed to enable Kazakhstan’s rise as a global, not regional, player. It is for this reason that such an emphasis has been placed on global sporting events, the Olympics, namely, as well as on chairmanship of organizations like the OSCE. Kazakhstan also recently called for a temporary spot on the UN Security Council. Kazakhstan has made an effort increase its global identity and distance itself from the perception that it is just another Central Asian state. Ukraine complicates this goal of Kazakh policy.

SD: The Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan was a prominent example of a local government essentially forcing two great powers, Russia and the United States, to compete for influence. With Kyrgyzstan having just joined the Eurasian Economic Union officially, have they now officially thrown in with Russia or will they continue to try to play off of its other potential rivals like China?

Cooley: Kyrgyzstan is running out of options. Bishkek is running out of hands to play. In some ways they are throwing themselves at the Russians now, and this is a significant problem. Russia has signed a number of agreements with Kyrgyzstan over the last few years. These agreements have turned Kyrgyzstan into what I’ve defined in some of my writings as a Russian client state. This term has drawn negative reactions from a number of people, which has been surprising, as I don’t think the facts are in dispute. Russia’s opposition to Manas, extension of leases governing the presence of Russian military installations, consistent pressure on the Kyrgyz government towards debt refinancing, demands for Kyrgyz accession to the Eurasian Economic Union, all of these demands were placed on the Kyrgyz. It is not clear how Kyrgyzstan can leverage this. Adding to this, Russia holds considerable leverage over Kyrgyzstan in the form of Kyrgyz migrant workers. Russia views this question as a lever of influence over both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as it is an issue that can be politicized, and is politicized. Moreover, Russian soft power is exercised through the media in both countries and was instrumental in weakening the Bakiyev regime. It is unclear what Kyrgyzstan’s alternatives are given the amount of levers that Russian can press against Kyrgyzstan, and the Kyrgyz populace’s general Sinophobia. Kyrgyzstan is going through a very tough time right now. I think the fractured nature of Kyrgyz politics, described by some as democratization, others as political experimentation, etc., also plays into Russian hands. Because it is fractured, it has been easier to target certain Kyrgyz factions, agencies and lawmakers. There is no doubt that Kyrgyzstan is running out of external partners. With the US leaving the country, the Kyrgyz would like multivector options, but it is unclear where these options will come from.

SD: Uzbekistan recently announced the resumption of gas supplies to Kyrgyzstan’s south. This has been heralded in part as a victory for Russian relations vis-à-vis both nations, due to Russian President Putin’s alleged role in negotiating the resumption. How do you view this development?

Cooley: It was certainly a positive step. It was a positive step for Russia-Kyrgyzstan relations as well as for relations between Uzbekistan and Russia. The last thing that Kyrgyzstan needed was for fallout between Uzbekistan and Russia, which seems to have been mended for now. This would have created greater dependence of Kyrgyzstan on Russia. This is certainly beneficial for the Kyrgyz. Regional fragmentation and/or the formation of blocs has, at least for now, been avoided. The mending of Russia-Uzbek relations also speaks more to Uzbekistan’s decision to retain close ties with Russia. A recent debt-relief agreement paving the way for new weapons sales seems to have been a significant part of the deal, as well as Russian investment commitments. Moscow is pleased that it has been able to demonstrate that it can “clash heads” in order to hammer out solutions. In that sense it is also touted as a victory for Russian foreign policy goals of establishing itself as a regional hegemon. Geographically, Kyrgyzstan’s options are limited; it relies on Russian patronage, and is at the mercy of Uzbekistan for gas provision in southern Kyrgyzstan.

SD: That Kyrgyzstan is becoming closer to Russia and Uzbekistan has been lamented by many as a disappointing sign, due largely to previous assessments of Kyrgyzstan as the “most democratic” of the Central Asian states.

Cooley: This is true, but pro-democracy NGOs and media aren’t the ones investing heavily into these places via soft power.  Take media as just one example. In Tajikistan Sputnik launches, takes the decision to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into media, and hires all local Western-trained journalists working for the more independent media outlets.  Or the media airways are saturated with anti-LGBT campaigns and accusations of myserious foreign influence encroaching on Kyrgyz values. This is just an example of the rise of emerging power and governance forms in the absence of Western-oriented substance. A country like Kyrgyzstan is particularly vulnerable to these alternate forms of governance, and in some ways they welcome them. The Kyrgyz do not view Russia with the same negative aura as it is viewed in some other countries. Unless the West wants to back its words with actions it will not be able to hold significant sway in any of these countries. Russia is developing and implementing parallel forms of soft power institutions and agencies, and is using these mechanisms to, in a sense, play the Western game. This is something the West is unable to do because it is financially checked out of the region.

SD: Turkmenistan’s demand for natural gas, and thus its economic health, is highly contingent on new Chinese pipelines (of which three have been built) – will they seek to diversify their customer base, and how will China respond to these initiatives? Is China looking to create a vassal state dependent on its energy markets? Alternatively, does cooperation on pipeline construction imply that Central Asian states are no longer as adversarial to one another as more recent history would demonstrate?

Cooley: It is unclear how much of the Turkmen strategic decision to diversify its energy clientele was dependent on China. The move to break with Russia was certainly driven in part by Russia’s lack of willingness to compromise over price, and the destruction of the Dauletabad-Daryalyk  pipeline, though it is doubtful that Turkmenistan truly anticipated how much of a Chinese client it would become. They are the second most dependent country on China. If Kyrgyzstan is a Russian client state, Turkmenistan is certainly a Chinese client. Although they are not touted as such, it is easy to discern by examining what percentage of Turkmen resources are committed to China.

In the future, the majority of Turkmen exports are in fact destined for China. Turkmenistan must identify a new way to diversify. One way they could do this is by shipping to Iran, though even the limited 10 billion cubic meter export has been complicated recently by political disharmony. The only two other options are either through the Trans-Caspian pipeline or TAPI. TAPI is a problematic project that has strong Western backing, political if not economical. Western firms have maintained a complicated relationship with the consortium, and more than one US firm has withdrawn from the project. The Trans-Caspian project is in fact a very interesting proposition, as both Russia and China would oppose it. While the Chinese do not discuss it openly, they certainly do not want Turkmenistan to possess the leverage to demand renegotiations on natural gas export pricing.

The Chinese have no incentives for allowing either the TAPI or the Trans-Caspian pipeline to come to fruition as they are currently defined. It is likely because of this that CNPC recently expressed an interest in the TAPI project; they wish to have the ability to shape the agreement, perhaps even connecting their own pipeline network to it. China is in a terrific place with Turkmenistan. They have established production and import deals with the government in Ashgabat that account for nearly half of China’s export needs. This will expand in the future if the price continues to be low. This considered, any type of pipeline network that gives the Turkmen leverage will be a source of concern for Beijing. It is not certain, but it is likely that the Chinese government and CNPC will do everything they can to prevent the Trans-Caspian pipeline, and if not prevent TAPI then become involved and attempt to shape it. The Turkmen do not have many options. They would love Western options as well, though that avenue is simply too fraught; it’s too perilous and the economics of it do not make sense. Additionally, Western firms will seek a significant stake in Turkmen projects in order to justify the risk of the investment. The Turkmen government is known for refusing to grant these stakes to non-Turkmen companies. China does not have an active interest in allowing for Turkmenistan to diversify.

SD: Water issues are an important, if understated, issue in Central Asia. The Syr Darya River has been dammed in two locations – at Toktogul in Kyrgyzstan and Farkhad in Uzbekistan. The effect of damming these rivers will have serious long term consequences in terms of the disappearance of the Aral Sea, and the movement/deterioration or desertification of arable land in the region. How seriously will these issues tip balance of power between local state governments?

Cooley: Water issues in Uzbekistan are taken very seriously. Rhetoric surrounding the project is not just posturing. The Uzbeks view the issue as a fundamental national security threat. They are certainly concerned about their own autonomy and control of resources could be placed in jeopardy and even used against them as a weapon. The potential for conflict is quite high if Tajikistan unrepentantly proceeds to construct the Rogun dam. It is however, unlikely, as even if the Rogun dam is constructed it will take an extraordinary amount of time to complete and then to fill up. In Uzbekistan, the main question is social control; it is one of water deployment in an inefficient manner in order to fund cotton cultivation which is itself based on patrimonial relations and the exploitation of labor to pick the cotton. If there is a modernization within Uzbek society, for instance a change in land tenure right, or automation of cotton picking, etc., then Rogun ceases to be the national security threat that it currently is. Also factoring into the issue is a sense of persistent international pressure placed on the Uzbeks to cooperate on regional water management. The Uzbeks are tired of helping to solve regional water issues. Instinctively, every international organization or external power seeks the same thing, which is to establish a lasting cooperation agreement, or architecture for maintaining existing water relations. The Uzbeks view water security as a national issue, and counter attempts to make water security a regional issue with their own proposal to improve water management on a national level through the upgrade of water management technology, etc. Tashkent is making an effort to divert international initiatives away from regional management side and steer them towards domestic projects. This perspective stands in opposition to the lion’s share of regional development projects that the West has spearheaded in Central Asia. It is a complicated issue within Uzbekistan, and one that is taken with the utmost seriousness. The issue is, again, mined with social questions surrounding property rights and security concerns, and touches on a number of hot button issues. With that said, I’m deeply skeptical that Rogun will ultimately be constructed to the scale that is publicly ambitioned by Tajik officials.

SD: It’s been roughly 23 years since most of the current crop of dictators came into power in Central Asia and most of them are getting older. Who, if anybody, is being groomed as successor in countries like Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Kazakhstan – and how will this transition disrupt the objectives of great powers like China or Russia? What time frame do you think these successions will play out?

Cooley: Succession is another issue that is discussed ad nauseam and that has not happened yet. It will, of course, happen, as it is a simple matter of biology (laughter), and it is a significant concern. In reality, it is less a question of who will succeed, and more one of what the successor will have to do in order to solidify his authority in terms of state-building during the first post-independence transition in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. There are two existing models that these nations could follow. First, in Turkmenistan there was a seamless, behind the scenes transition. In this model a new figure is inserted into existing power structures, with little modifications in foreign or domestic policy. The second model is Kyrgyzstan, where two changes of government were effected via popular uprising and protests. The government there was typified as being brittle and collapsed, while the security services, also fragile, were unable to defend the country. The Ukraine crisis complicates questions of succession in a couple of ways. One of these is the question of, “If you’re a Central Asian dictator, what do you fear the most?” Is it, a perceived Western-supported uprising on the street such as Maidan, or do you fear that Russia might come in and amputate a portion of your territory? It is likely that these concerns have been amplified in Tajikistan, and that the Tajik government now views the 201st Russian base, home of 5,000 Russian soldiers, a lot differently than it did as recently as a year ago, in terms of what Russia’s capabilities are from within that base. Succession will play out differently in each of the countries; in Uzbekistan security services will be a key factor. They are already very powerful, and will likely act to guarantee that someone who will allow them to maintain their existing networks and operations. Nationalism will also factor heavily into questions of succession. Whoever takes up the mantle of power in all three of these countries will have to play the card of nationalism, which could lead to instability. Debates will take place regarding orientation in foreign policy, i.e. Russian factions vs. other factions. It is doubtful that there will be openly Chinese factions, but certainly Russia vs. the rest types of divisions. National interest will also be a contributor to future debates on foreign policy. In Uzbekistan, one of the dangers is that whoever succeeds Islam Karimov could easily make a play for one or more of the currently contested enclaves in the Fergana Valley. These types of move would likely be taken as part of a new “no nonsense,” pro-Uzbek era following Karimov. In this respect it would be similar to the surge in Kyrgyz nationalism and the subsequent outbreak of violence in Osh following the removal of Bakiyev from power.  The essential ingredients in the transition are nationalism, debates about the orientation of foreign policy and how external media, especially Russian-language media, covers the transitions. Again, it is less a question of individuals, and more of a question of how these institutions are configured to move forward. There is a potential for volatility in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan.


One thought on “Power and Change in the New Great Game: An Interview with Alexander Cooley

  1. Pingback: Central Asia at a Crossroads: Introduction and Overview | Foreign Intrigue

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