Today, we have a special guest blogger contributing to the Strategist’s digital pages. Kathleen O’Rourke is an Academic Research Intern at the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. She is a rising Fourth Year at the University of Virginia finishing her B.A. in Russian and East European Studies.
Russia and China are using one of the oldest tricks in the book to build up their political capital in Central Asia – gifts. Lots of them. An extraordinary amount of money is flowing from the two powers into neighboring Central Asia’s infrastructure. Of the more than $47.2 million in humanitarian aid Tajikistan received from the international community from January-June 2013, Russia provided 9.7% and China provided 2.9% as the second and fourth largest donors, respectively. Russia will begin arms shipments to Kyrgyzstan this year worth $1 billion. China will singlehandedly import 25 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year from Turkmenistan. Russia will soon invest over $60 million in Uzbek oil production.
The list goes on. Most intriguingly, Russia recently reached an agreement with Kyrgyzstan in which Kyrgyzstan will sell its bankrupt natural gas company Kyrgyzgaz to Russia’s Gazprom for a staggering total of $1 (yes, $1), in exchange for Gazprom’s pledge to invest a mere 20 billion rubles (more than $619,000,000) in developing Kyrgyzstan’s natural gas infrastructure over the course of five years. Good deal.
But besides its readily apparent intent to create “client states” in Central Asia (most notably Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) by bringing the former Soviet republics back into the fold of its political and economic influence, Russia could have another interest in mind that resonates closely with current trends in Russian public opinion.
Russia’s ostensibly generous aid in bolstering the Central Asian states’ internal development may reflect a conscious effort to prevent an increased rate of Central Asian immigration into a more economically prosperous Russia. RIA Novosti reported that the government-run All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM, published a poll on 22 July in which most participants (35%) identified “migration from abroad” as the most viable security threat to the nation. Though significantly lower than the 58% who responded likewise when the poll was conducted in 2005, a high percentage of Russians continue to believe that ethnic minorities hold more potential to harm the Russian state than energy resource depletion or even terrorist attacks. It seems that Russians will remain inhospitable to a heightened Central Asian ethnic presence, at least for the foreseeable future. And the best way for the Russian government to ensure that the Central Asians remain where they already are is for their regional economic environment to improve.
That being said, Russia is not the only world power literally invested in keeping Central Asia stable – China has also broadened its scope of influence over the states, three of which border China’s troubled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. China has continuously upped its economic assistance to Central Asia over recent years (primarily in the energy sector), and publicly promotes its strong bilateral relationships with the region’s states. Most notably, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently proclaimed that Chinese investment ventures in Kyrgyzstan would forever be free of “additional conditions” that would theoretically require Kyrgyzstan to provide comparable payments or services in return.
But in politics, nothing is free, and gifts never fail to generate a sense of indebtedness. Russia and China clearly possess long-term interests in presently courting the Central Asian states and providing these seemingly unconditional financial favors. So the question is not if, but how, Russia and China will decide to cash in on them.
Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.