BISHKEK - Thursday, May 31, 2012 -
Russia’s new president Vladimir Putin has made it clear he plans to focus on building relations with the former Soviet republics and on working for greater regional integration.
The Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR) asked Azhdar Kurtov, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, to set out what Putin’s regional policy might look like, and what that might mean for Central Asia.
Azhdar Kurtov: If we call a spade a spade, the key element in this policy is reintegration. Putin has never disguised his regret that the Soviet Union collapsed. He’s said the Soviet Union and Russia are all but synonyms.
Of course Russia finds it hard to assert itself as powerfully [as the Soviet Union] vis-à-vis with the West and China. But it does have a real opportunity to bolster its position in its immediate environment. The chosen instrument for doing that is clearly the proposed Eurasian Economic Union. By the time this union is formed in 2015, all the basic agreements defining how it operates need to be in place. It isn’t about which new states will join it. Its success or failure will depend on how substantive the union is.
IWPR: Does this policy of reintegration confirm the suspicions of many analysts, especially in the West, that Russia’s relations with Central Asia have cooled somewhat in recent times?
Kurtov: I don't agree that relations between Russia and the Central Asian states have cooled. That’s just propaganda. What do western analysts mean by a cooling in relations? Do they mean that Russia is moving more towards market relationships? In the 1990s, relations were such that trade with Central Asia was to the detriment of Russian national interests. We supplied goods to Central Asia at prices half the going rate on the world market, or else they were paid for out of Russian loans which remain unpaid to this day.
I well remember what happened in 1998, when Uzbekistan’s parliament stated that the country would not acknowledge that loans it had taken out constituted sovereign debt. Those loans were worth about half a billion U.S. dollars. And the matter has yet to be resolved.
So it’s true, we have abandoned this policy, which was derived from the Soviet-era fantasy of universal brotherhood. And nor is this departure confined to Russia’s relationships within the Commonwealth of Independent States [CIS]. When Putin delivered his final report to parliament in the role of prime minister, someone asked him what Russia had lost as a result of the "Arab revolutions"? Putin quite rightly answered, "We haven't lost anything – we we can only talk about lost opportunities."
In point of fact, it wasn’t Russia that initiated some of the aspects of what the experts a cooling in relations. Was it Russia that prompted Uzbekistan's withdrawal from the Collective Security Treaty Organization? [CSTO] No, it wasn’t.
When the new states of Central Asia gained independence, they started to make it a reality by establishing relations with other countries elsewhere in the world. The converse side of that was that their relations with Russia declined. It was a natural process. But then again, how has it turned out? Have the Central Asian states become wealthier as a result? In fact, no – at least three of them – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – are worse off than they were.
I believe this fact is at the root of some of their criticism of Russia. These countries’ governments have not delivered fantastic results that they can lay before their populations. They haven’t got the economic statistics to demonstrate why it was right to leave the Soviet Union. So they come up with ways of making digs at Russia.
IWPR: What have Russia and Turkmenistan – or Russia and Uzbekistan – got to offer each other?
Kurtov: Turkmenistan isn't a great example. It claims neutrality. Turkmenistan is a neutral state that doesn’t wish to build complex relations with other countries, either in the CIS or outside it. It prefers to remain isolated, for political rather than economic reasons.
As for Uzbekistan, one needs to put outward, meaningless gestures to one side…. Despite everything, the policy is to attract Russian and indeed any kind of foreign investment in the Uzbek economy.
Interview conducted by Yulia Goryaynova, NBCentralAsia editor in Bishkek.
(This article was originally published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net).