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Old Games, New Rules? Great Powers in the New Central Asia

Kathryn Stoner

Kathryn Stoner is a Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Deputy Director of the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

This is one of eight essays in the book review roundtable on Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia.



In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires squared off in Central Asia. Britain was fixated on protecting its colony in India, and worried about political decay and Russian assertiveness in the Islamic areas to the north, particularly Afghanistan and what are now, more or less, the five Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. For its part, Russia was primarily interested in keeping the peace and gradually expanding its empire among the restive khanates to the south, if not actually going all the way to India. In the end, a war never took place between these two great powers of the day, but an ongoing set of strategic games transpired as Russia and Britain tried to capture enhanced trade opportunities that ran through the Silk Road regions.

Although the players now are a significantly weakened Russia, the United States, and China, the competition between great powers in the nineteenth century parallels the Great Games being played in Central Asia today that are so well documented in Alexander Cooley’s new book Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia. One of the great strengths of Cooley’s book is to explain how the interests of contemporary great powers are often thwarted or manipulated by corrupt Central Asian leaders bent on self-preservation. Still, cooperation between Central Asian states and the United States, China, and Russia has been more the norm than the exception, even if the great powers have been unable to dictate outcomes to local authorities.

With the partial exception of Russia, the interests of contemporary players of the Great Game in Central Asia are rather different than those of their nineteenth-century predecessors. The United States has become involved in Central Asia as part of the war on terrorism and U.S. efforts to wipe out the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Russia, the natural successor state to the Soviet Union, has a traditional geostrategic interest in Central Asia and views the region as part of its natural sphere of interest and security. Russia is also concerned with the protection of significant ethnic Russian populations, particularly in Kazakhstan, and perhaps most centrally, control over the region’s lucrative gas and oil markets. China is a relative newcomer to political engagement in Central Asia. Like the United States, its interests are far narrower than Russia’s and are primarily a result of Beijing’s need to stabilize and prevent separation of the ethnically Uighur Xinjiang Province. To be sure, however, all three contemporary great powers are interested in Central Asia to further their own security, as were Britain and Russia in the nineteenth century.

Cooley’s study of the current Great Games played by local rules is comprehensive, well-researched, and accessible. Distinct from other recent scholarship on the region, the book’s focus is not domestic politics alone or the resource riches of some Central Asian governments but the interaction between domestic politics and international relations in a complex and increasingly important part of the world. For students of international relations, great-power interactions in Central Asia have “become a natural experiment for observing the dynamics of a multipolar world, including the decline of U.S. authority, the pushback against Western attempts to promote democratization and human rights, and the rise of China as an external donor and regional leader” (p. xiv). As a result, Cooley’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on post-communist countries, international relations, and Central Asian politics.

Despite its considerable strengths, there are a few areas where one might quibble with the book’s analysis. First, although Cooley starts out emphasizing that the regimes in Central Asia play their weak geopolitical hands strongly against great-power interests, he overlooks the fact that there is frequently an interactive effect between local and great-power interests. We learn a great deal in chapter 7, for example, about the double-dealing that went on between Russia and Kyrgyzstan in the threatened 2009 eviction of U.S. forces from the Manas airbase, a key staging and supply post for the U.S. military’s efforts in Afghanistan. But this sort of manipulation by Kyrgyzstan would not have happened had Russia not supported it. Thus, it is not accurate to portray the Kyrgyz as holding all the cards in this round since Russia clearly controlled the game board.

Second, and related, Cooley underemphasizes the fact that the United States, in particular, has extremely narrow interests in Central Asia limited to its involvement in Afghanistan. The United States has no other territorial, economic, or resource interests in the region. This puts it in a rather different position in dealing with Central Asian states and gives it very little regional leverage. The United States cannot, like Russia, threaten to send back a huge influx of migrants to Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan should they not bend to its will; it cannot credibly promise great trade inflows into the area as China can. It is not surprising, therefore, that the United States maintains its temporary military bases at the whim of the leaders of Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan (in coordination with their traditional partner and sometimes ruler Russia). Given this, we also should not find it surprising that the United States would have little leverage in promoting democracy or human rights in the region. That is, Russia and China have greater influence over Central Asian states as a natural function of geography in comparison to the United States. They live in the neighborhood. This is perhaps why the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation has worked better than any other regional international organization. Further, Russia can and has asserted itself in a rather unsavory way in Central Asian politics (as it has in Ukrainian and Georgian politics, for example). Moscow can manipulate gas and oil markets in the region, turn trade routes on or off, use soft and hard power, and upset the stability of any Central Asian state that it wants to. Russia is a regional hegemon that occasionally must negotiate with weaker powers, as Cooley notes. It is rarely, however, defeated by them on issues of great strategic importance.

Third, a more significant shortcoming is the book’s tendency to overlook the extent to which Central Asian states diverge from one another and the effect that this might have on their relationships with Russia, China, and the United States. While it is fair to say, as Cooley does, using Freedom House metrics, that Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are “not free,” their regimes are not all the same either. Uzbekistan has a much harsher form of autocracy than does Kazakhstan, for example. Tajikistan and Kazakhstan differ significantly in terms of human development and state capacity. Kyrgyzstan has some experience with more liberalized forms of government than the other four Central Asian states, and it is the only one of the five states to have joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). Turkmenistan is, of course, a semi-Stalinist and largely isolated enigma.

The divergence in types of autocracies in Central Asia could reasonably affect their interactions with the three great powers operating in the region. Does the fact that Russia and China are both autocracies change the nature and quality of interactions with the autocratic, patrimonial regimes in Central Asia, for example? We should expect that it would. China is not concerned about liberalization in Uzbekistan (as was the United States in the first part of the 2000s) and is far more interested in Kyrgyzstan’s stability than its potential for democracy. Beijing also does not tie aid or trade to progress on human rights, as Washington has attempted to do. Similarly, the Russian state shares many of the same pathologies as the elite-dominated, highly personalized, and under-institutionalized regimes of Central Asia, but it has less in common with more liberalized states such as Kyrgyzstan. Should we, therefore, expect it to have a more cooperative relationship with some Central Asian states than with others?

Fourth, and related to the point above, great-power interests are not, of course, the same in each of the five Central Asian states. China, Russia, and the United States may have more or less leverage in one country than in another as a result. Russia, for example, has significant trade flows with Kazakhstan. The two countries also share a huge border, and ethnic Russians amount to 33%–50% of the population of Kazakhstan. The president of Kazakhstan speaks Russian. Both states’ economies are heavily dependent on oil and gas. In contrast, Russia has a somewhat different set of interests in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow is not, for example, particularly supportive of any “color” revolution there, given its potential to spread to Russia itself. Cooley does not tell us what effect these differences might have on strategic interactions between each of the great powers and respective Central Asian states.

Fifth, and finally, Cooley argues that the Great Game in Central Asia over the past decade demonstrates the decline in U.S. power abroad. Of the three powers operating there, China is the strongest, followed closely by Russia, with the United States lagging far behind. I disagree, however, that this is a good test of U.S. power in comparison to the effort in Iraq or Afghanistan where regime change and state-building became the agendas. That is, it may be true that U.S. power is declining, but Central Asia is not a critical case where we might accurately evaluate U.S. power relative to China or Russia. After all, the United States has the least to gain (and has made the smallest effort) of all three great powers to influence politics in Central Asia. Its interests in the region are confined (as Cooley himself notes) very narrowly to the security of its temporary bases in Kyrgyzstan (and formerly in Uzbekistan). It is not attempting regime change in any of these countries, although it continues to support liberalization in Kyrgyzstan as it did in the 1990s. The amount of money that Cooley documents was spent on human rights and democracy promotion in Uzbekistan, for example, was pocket change to the U.S. government; it was not a serious effort to democratize the region. Similarly, the United States has made few attempts to trade with or create sustainable multilateral institutions in the region, as neighboring China and Russia have done. Before the war in Afghanistan, the United States had little involvement in Central Asia. After the drawdown of troops in 2014, that will undoubtedly again be the case, even with a lingering military presence.

Despite these five critiques, Alexander Cooley has written an excellent book. It should be required reading for anyone interested in better understanding one of the most fascinating and complex areas of the world.