Central Asia’s -stan countries used to be Moscow’s exclusive dominion for more than one century, but the Soviet Union’s collapse, the geographical and geopolitical resizing experienced by Russia and the rise of new want-to-be big players in the continent have re-shaped drastically the panorama, making it more multi-polar and highly competitive.
Russia’s Increasing Competition
Russia continues to play a leading role in the region’s internal dynamics but it no longer has a monopoly over geopolitical power in the region and, indeed, is obliged to face increasing competition from China, Turkey and the United States. All of these nations are also likely to undermine the Kremlin’s Eurasian dream of building a cohesive and prosperous post-Soviet space centered on the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).
The Trump administration has been escalating the confrontation with Russia to Cold War levels and seems determined to end what that the Obama administration started, by putting into practice some suggestions provided by the now-deceased American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski during the 1990s.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s historic trip to Central Asia, which includes Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine, has the potential to lay the foundations for a further resizing of Moscow’s backyard but there’s another major player targeted by Washington’s regional agenda: Beijing.
The Great Game 2.0
Pompeo arrived in Nur-Sultan on Sunday with a very intensive schedule: meetings with the current president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and with his predecessor and self-styled father of the nation Nursultan Nazarbayev. Pompeo’s trip also included visits to the families of Kazakhs who have allegedly gone missing in Xinjang’s detention camps and working meetings with the country’s diplomats.
Pompeo didn’t hide the purpose of his trip: the US wants to reduce Russia and China’s influence in the region and become the new power broker for the area. To do so, Washington is offering significant investments from its multinational corporations and concrete support to help Kazakhstan. It is willing to play the Uighur card as hard as possible. Pompeo is also aware of the fact that growing Turkish engagement in the region is leading to a pan-Turkic and pan-Islamic revival and stressed the importance of the identity factor by mentioning the Uighur question several times.
Pompeo Speaks Up On Behalf Of Persecuted Uighur Muslims
Pompeo urged the Kazakh President to join the Trump presidency’s campaign against the persecution of Muslims, religious minorities, and Uighurs in China, but significant space was also given to present tempting offers to Kazakhstan. Indeed, the US would like to help Kazakhstan transform into the region’s main player and then turn it against Russia and China in the expectation that the other surrounding countries will follow suit.
Pompeo’s Uzbekistan Visit Focused On The EEU
After visiting Kazakhstan, Pompeo travelled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital city, where he attended a meeting with the foreign ministers of all the five -stan countries and met the country’s President. While the talks in Kazakhstan were monopolized by the plight of the Uighurs, in Uzbekistan the pressures were focused on the EEU.
Uzbekistan hasn’t yet decided whether or not to access the Moscow-backed entity and is playing for time by alternating phases of openings and closures. Pompeo announced $1 million to strengthen the cross-border trade between Tashkent and Kabul, with potentially millions more to come in the form of investments from large American companies.
What Comes Next?
The Trump administration is expected to unveil the US strategy for Central Asia very soon, and Pompeo’s trip in the region can be read as a fact-checking mission necessary to feel out the situation on the ground and understand if some points of the forthcoming document need to be changed. The trip was also an opportunity to speak directly with diplomats and presidents and assess the public opinion’s reaction to sensitive topics such as the persecution of Muslims in China.
Washington has launched its proposals: now the -stans have to decide whether to let the country interfere in their affairs and they must decide if they are willing to be the next battleground in the global confrontation between the West and the East. Two events will help predict the direction the -stans will likely take: Kazakhstan’s position on the Uighurs and Uzbekistan’s decision on the EEU.
Nur-Sultan and Tashkent are the most influential, resource-rich, developed and independent actors among the -stan countries, accordingly their moves are likely to be followed by their smaller brothers. Whatever outcome Pompeo achieves, his trip proves one thing: the US has officially put in its bid to become the main power-broker in Central Asia and the Great Game 2.0 has fully begun.