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Domestic Challenges, International Opportunities: Understanding Security Cooperation in Central Asia

Erica Marat

Erica Marat is an expert on Central Asia and has published widely on the region. Her most recent book is The Military and the State in Central Asia: From Red Army to Independence (2009).

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.



The Central Asian countries are often defined as passive observers of the U.S., Russian, and Chinese rivalry, a conflict of interests that resembles the Great Game between Great Britain and tsarist Russia roughly a century ago. The comparison is often drawn for lack of a better empirical understanding of how Central Asia’s five post-Soviet countries function on the international scene, while the United States’ interest in the region significantly increased in the post–September 11 era, much to the dismay of neighboring Russia and China.

Alexander Cooley’s Great Games, Local Rules: The New Great Power Contest in Central Asia dispels the myth that these “big three” are locked into constant competition. While competition among the United States, Russia, and China exists, there are also instances of collaboration on joint goals, mimicking of one another’s policies, and opportunities to free ride, owing to various security arrangements led by one or another of the three.

Yet it is the Central Asian political elites who seem to benefit the most from the increased interest of global powers. The political elites in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have developed “local rules” for playing the big three against each other for the benefit of domestic audiences, primarily to prevail over political rivals and strengthen their own hold on power. The most blatant example of leveraging the Kremlin’s displeasure with the U.S. military to benefit the mercantile interests of the political elites comes from Kyrgyzstan’s former president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev. In 2009, Bakiyev secured both a $2 billion loan from Russia and a significant increase in U.S. payments to use an airbase in Bishkek by first announcing that he would expel the U.S. military from the base and then four months later changing his mind. Uzbekistan president Islam Karimov has also been skillful in keeping both Russia and the United States nervous about his engagement in regional initiatives, such as the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) or providing access to the U.S.-NATO Northern Distribution Network for Afghanistan.

Just as Cooley uncovers the patrimonial logic of the Central Asian leaders’ foreign policy, he also shows how each of the big three powers at one time or another developed patron-client relations with the Central Asian states. Seeking to advance their own interests in the region, Moscow, Washington, and Beijing often ignored reports of human rights abuses and were ready to engage with corrupt leaders if needed. By explaining the logic of the big three’s policy decisions in Central Asia since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Great Games, Local Rules is as much a book about transnational and domestic corruption as it is about international relations.

The book also demonstrates how regional actors—India, South Korea, Turkey, and Japan—were effectively squeezed out of Central Asia by the overwhelming presence of the big three. Those countries, although sharing economic and political interests in the region, were unable to build trade relations and political alliances with the Central Asian countries because these niches were quickly filled by regional organizations led by Russia, China, and the United States.

Great Games, Local Rules offers a rich analytical and empirical basis for further research in both international relations and Central Asian studies. The book poses three interrelated questions about how local rules developed in response to the global powers’ competition in Central Asia. First, are local rules in Central Asia the sign of a new norm in which small countries play great powers against each other instead of looking for win-win solutions? Are they emerging as a result of declining Western influence? Beyond Central Asia, does the collaboration among several global powers and small states follow a similar logic? Cooley explains the emergence of local rules as the product of a post-Western world in which the United States must compete with regional powers.

Second, how uniform are the local rules of Central Asia? The ousting of Bakiyev in 2010 demonstrated that erratic foreign policy breeds corruption and angers opposition groups. By contrast, Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s balanced foreign policy has led to years of fruitful relations with Washington, Moscow, and Beijing and contributed to strong domestic support for his regime. Did Bakiyev overplay his advantages? And is Nazarbayev-like behavior the epitome of effective local rules in the region?

Finally, can the Central Asian states in fact be treated as a coherent region? Great Games, Local Rules approaches the five states as constituting a region, while acknowledging that they in no way function as a single economic bloc. The differences among these countries’ economic and political development continue to grow wider over time. Because the five states lack economic integration and have been implementing restrictive border regimes, Cooley asks whether Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan should be considered in the same fashion as, for instance, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova—countries that share geographical proximity but are substantially different from one another in terms of post-Soviet political and economic development.

Cooley tackles this issue by outlining several perspectives that regard Central Asia as a region. The United States, Russia, and China lump the Central Asian states together because of the political and security interests they pursue there. Furthermore, the Central Asian states themselves often pretend for regional audiences to function as political allies, even though economic integration has not taken place. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, regional integration is taking place from the bottom up, courtesy of shuttle traders who bypass strict border regimes in search of profit. These shuttle traders transit goods from China through Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. These informal trade routes might one day shape the parameters of regional trade agreements.

By posing these questions, Great Games, Local Rules is an important stepping-stone toward building a theory of international relations based on Central Asia that differs from classical Western approaches. The book’s empirical richness should appeal to a wide range of readers looking to understand how Russia, China, and the United States formulate their policies toward Central Asia as well as how those policies are received in the region.