Staunton, July 22 – The Kremlin’s active pursuit of a deepening of integration between Russia and Belarus is alienating Central Asian elites who are accustomed to thinking about their relations with others first and foremost in terms of their ability to maintain national independence, Aleksandr Zapolskis says (regnum.ru/news/economy/2670257.html).
Many in Moscow fail to see this, the Regnum commentator says, and assume that the authoritarian leaders of Central Asia have nowhere to go but Moscow. However, even trade figures show that the region is increasingly reorienting itself to the West and China, a shift that reflects what many call their “multi-vector foreign policy.”
This shift reflects both developments within the region, including generational change and the diversification of trade, with more to the West and China and less to Russia, as well as efforts by the United States to expand its influence in the last portion of the former Soviet Union to have largely escaped that attention up to now, Zapolskis says.
Unfortunately, he suggests, Moscow’s pressure on Belarus is being read in Central Asia as a compelling reason to seek even closer ties with outside powers be they the United States, the EU or China; and he predicts that “in the next four or five years, one should expect a sharp outburst of Russophobia,” something the US can be counted on to exploit.
Washington’s message to Central Asians delivered by its embassies and NGOs is “the idea of the special nature of Central Asia as a completely independent and even self-sufficient region situated to the side form Russia, China and the Islamic world and one capable of seriously strengthening that side which it accepts as partners.
This message flatters the Central Asians by suggesting they are more important than they thought and avoids a direct attack on Russia as an enemy. That would backfire given how many Central Asians have lived and worked in Russia. But by pointing to what is happening between Moscow and Minsk, the US raises the specter of a new hegemon threatening Central Asia.
Russia isn’t doing much to counter this, Zapolskis suggests; indeed, many in Moscow do not even recognize it as a problem. But if that continues, Russia is going to continue to lose out in Central Asia and that region is going to become as anti-Moscow and perhaps even more unstable than the other parts of the former Soviet periphery.