You might have heard about Central Asia: that it is locked between Russia, China, and Iran; that these five “-stans” are home to around 74 million people of various ethnic backgrounds, maybe you’ve heard of its magnificent natural beauty too. The question is, then, what is it about Central Asia that makes it of such great geopolitical interest to powers like Russia, the United States and China? There is actually a lot.

For Russia, Central Asia sits in its main sphere of influence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, four Central Asian states have retained political, economic, and cultural ties with Moscow (Gusev, 2019): it is not at all uncommon for a law passed in Moscow to be copy-pasted in Central Asia shortly thereafter. Russia’s interest in Central Asia is tripartite. First, to strengthen security cooperation, Russia has military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; second, to build on economic power in the region, Russia coaxed Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into the single-market-based Eurasian Economic Union; finally, there rests an idea of an integrated union of post-Soviet states.

However, it is China that has the most economic authority in the region as of late. Its relations with Central Asia have always been love-hate. Despite general distrust and numerous anti-Chinese protests in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan (Pantucci, 2019), China’s large investments, especially under the Belt and Road initiative, have backed Beijing’s position in all five states (Standish, 2019). Even the news surrounding the Uighur detention camps has not swayed regional leaders away from China.

The US is the third major player in Central Asia. It actively uses soft power to promote regional security, stronger civil society and respect for human rights. However, in recent years the relations have flickered. For instance, in 2014, Bishkek closed a US military base that had functioned since 2001. January 2020, Donald Trump banned issuing immigration visas to citizens of Kyrgyzstan (Putz, 2020). Just a month later, the US announced that it has updated its Central Asia strategy and hoped for further strategic cooperation (US Department of State, 2020).

The European Union is not that well rooted in the region, but recent bilateral agreements (European Parliament, n.d.) have increased its role. As for the United Nations: Kazakhstan, the region’s richest country, was the first Central Asian state to hold a seat at the The United Nations Security Council for a year. While the efficiency of its tenure is under question (Sanchez, 2019), it has reinforced the fact that the region is getting more involved in global politics.

Now, what defines Central Asia as a region? Comparing it with the Nordic region makes it easier to answer. Just as the Nordic region, Central Asia consists of five historically and culturally linked countries. However, it is not that coherent: unlike the Nordic region, Central Asia lacks strong political cooperation, as issues like strikes on the Kyrgyz-Tajik borders still emerge; a well-developed transport systems between the states does not exist either. While Sweden, for example, is facing an influx of immigration, Central Asian states are struggling with the opposite. Moreover, Nordic countries have more or less defined identity, which is not quite true of Central Asia. After centuries of tribal life and decades under the Soviet regimen, Central Asians have had difficulty figuring out who they are. The most coherent kind of identity that they developed represents an interesting mix of Turkic culture and Soviet legacy. Even the dominant religion, Sunni Islam, is not that typical Islam found elsewhere: it is diluted with national customs.

But why is Central Asia important? Firstly, it is the location: called a “bridge between Europe and Asia”, the region lies between powers such as Russia, China, Iran, India, and Eastern Europe. Secondly, it is the resources: Kazakhstan on its own has one of the world’s largest reserves of oil, gas, coal, chrome, zinc, and uranium (CIA, n.d.). Thirdly, Central Asia is a relatively young region, its civil societies having great dynamics. Given that in a span of several decades it took so many different forms – from distinct tribal communities to socialist republics to the democracies and autocracies of today – it is truly not known how closed or open it may become in the near future. These five states – a slowly-opening Uzbekistan, relatively liberal Kyrgyzstan, closed Turkmenistan, rich and authoritarian Kazakhstan, and dictatorial Tajikistan – all make up a fusion of interesting and complex political systems and societies.

Written by: Zhibek Abylbekova, American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Animated by: Alia Tarasov, Tarasov Animation Studio, Osh, Kyrgyzstan

List of literature used:

CIA. (n.d.). The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency. Retrieved from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/fields/287.html

European Parliament. (n.d.). Fact sheets on the European union: Central Asia. Retrieved from http://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/178/central-asia

Gusev, L. (2019). The Importance of Central Asia for Russia’s Foreign Policy. Italian Institute for International Political Studies. Retrieved from https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/importance-central-asia-russias-foreign-policy-24071

Pantucci, R. (2019). China’s Complicated Relationship with Central Asia. IPI Global Observatory. Retrieved from https://theglobalobservatory.org/2019/11/chinas-complicated-relationship-central-asia/

Putz, C. (2020). US Suspends Issuing Immigration Visas to Kyrgyz Citizens, Others. The Diplomat. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2020/02/us-suspends-issuing-immigration-visas-to-kyrgyz-citizens-others/

Sanchez, W. A. (2019). Analyzing Kazakhstan’s First Tenure at the UN Security Council. The Diplomat. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/analyzing-kazakhstans-first-tenure-at-the-un-security-council/

Standish, R. (2019). China’s Central Asian Plans are Unnerving Moscow. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/12/23/china-russia-central-asia-competition/

US Department of State. (2020). United States Strategy for Central Asia 2019-2025: Advancing Sovereignty and Economic Prosperity (Overview). Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/united-states-strategy-for-central-asia-2019-2025-advancing-sovereignty-and-economic-prosperity/