Although the summit held in Moscow between the Russian presidents, Vladimir Putin, and Chinese, Xi Jinping, failed to create a full-fledged Sino-Russian alliance, both countries remain the biggest threats to the Western world. Russia, as a reckless anti-Western trailblazer; and China, as the architect of an emerging non-Western, anti-liberal global architecture.
The understandable Western attention to the outer flanks of Russia and China – that is, the Ukraine and Taiwan – has created a gap in knowledge and analysis about post-Soviet Central Asia.
For many years there was some rationality behind this approach. Most of the local actors pursued an autarkic economic policy, like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, were disjointed internally, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, or had an intentionally balanced policy, like Kazakhstan with its “multi-vector foreign policy,” advocated by the former kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev since the early nineties. This was based on maintaining political ties with Russia through Eurasian integration, while strengthening regional economic ties with China and attracting Western investment, especially in the oil and gas sectors. It is rightly so that President Xi announced his initiative “One Belt, One Route” in Kazakhstan at a meeting held in 2013 in Astana.
While culturally Central Asia strove to promote human contacts and cultural ties with ethnically close Turkey through the Organization of Turkish States, Central Asia continued to look to the West for modernization. Western Management Practices, Investments, and Western Liberal Ideals. The “Nazarbayev doctrine” it was so successful that it worked even after the political patriarch left his presidential post in 2019, and especially after the Russian military intervention during the events of the “bloody january” from 2022, as Western players accounted for 75% of incoming FDI, while Russia and China added just 12% last year.
As times changed, so did the geopolitical situation in the core of Eurasia. On the one hand, the two largest Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, began their march toward Western-inspired modernization by relaxing state control over the national economy (in the case of Uzbekistan) and through timid liberalization. political (as in the case of Kazakhstan, where the basic laws were amended and the new Parliament, formed for the first time in history by members of six competing parties, has just started its first session). To facilitate this, both countries are more eager than ever to attract Western support.
On the other hand, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Western sanctions and restrictions that followed made cooperation between Kazakhstan and Western powers more complicated. Russia has openly threatened Kazakhstan’s economic livelihood through Russia’s attempts to disrupt oil shipments through the crucial Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), reminding everyone in the region of its economic dependence on Moscow.
To ensure access to crucial natural resources and support the slow and challenging transformation of Eurasian countries towards more participatory and transparent rule-based markets and governments, Western actors must deepen ties with major Central Asian nations. These ties have already secured some of Kazakhstan’s most notable investment projects, such as the Tengiz oil field which, after ongoing expansion, is expected to deliver close to one million barrels of oil per day by 2027 and act as a vital check on rising oil prices.
Facilitating alternative transportation corridors capable of bypassing Russia via Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Caspian Sea is the easiest way for Western actors to support former partners, lessen Russia’s leverage, and extract economic gain.
Unfortunately, Central Asia is relegated to the fringes of the great global powers because they are considered the backyard of Russia and China, regardless of what the locals think. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has also contributed to declining attention to the region.
Neglecting emerging trends in Central Asian politics would be a serious mistake for both Europe and the United States. The new Kazakh leadership under the presidency of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has demonstrated its willingness to push a liberalization and modernization agenda common to many East Asian countries, which will ultimately lead to their incorporation into the world economy and their entry into the community of democracies. However, this strategy is impossible without Western help in the form of political support and regular trade.
Western powers should not only continue their cooperation with nations like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as they have been doing during Nazarbayev’s long presidency, but establish much closer political ties with Astana and Tashkent.
Local independent nations are building their new identities by rejecting their Russian imperial heritage and remaining cautious about Chinese aspirations, especially as the Belt and Road Initiative begins to show its cracks. The West must rethink Central Asia’s position in an evolving global confrontation between liberalism and autocracy and amplify its role in counterbalancing both Russia and China.
Vladislav Inozemtsev is the director of the Center for Post-industrial Studies in Moscow