The Kremlin has done little to dispel the perception that the republics of Central Asia still depend on Russia for their viability as states. This is, in fact, how some casual observers and even policymakers still view the region. However, in the quarter-century since the Soviet collapse, Russian influence in Central Asia has deteriorated. The republics have matured politically and drifted out of the Kremlin’s orbit. Russia remains invested in the region, but clearly cannot expect to enjoy Soviet-like dominance. How, then, can we characterize Russian power in her southern “near abroad?”
Alexy Malashenko’s The Fight for Influence: Russia in Central Asia (2013) offers a concise and well-presented answer. Malashenko’s central argument is that Russian influence in the region has markedly declined, and that Russian policymakers suffer from a Soviet-era “older brother” mindset. In contrast to the Caucasus and Baltic regions, Central Asia is “the last remaining part of an ecumenical sphere where the Kremlin still enjoys the feeling of being a political leader.” For Russia to build a future in the region, Malashenko argues, the Kremlin must discard that mindset and learn to regard their former “little brothers” as fully sovereign, independent nation-states.
Russia’s record so far has not been encouraging. Malashenko describes the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), and similar organizations as “shaky and ineffective” attempts at duplicating the Soviet order in Central Asia. Of these, the CSTO, whose focus is regional security and military cooperation, has probably been the most worthwhile. Central Asian leaders still value Russia as a military ally, mostly to defend against an Islamist insurrection.
In Malashenko’s framework, such a conflict, however unlikely, would allow Russia to briefly re-assume the role of protector of Central Asia. In his introduction, he makes clear that the Kremlin does not desire political stability in Central Asia as an end unto itself. Rather, in a strategy not unlike that which guided early Soviet “mapmaking,” V. Putin’s Kremlin has sought to preserve influence by presenting Russia as an arbiter of frequent regional conflicts. This strategy is emblematic of the unreconstructed Soviet paradigm that Malashenko blames for Russian failures in the region.
Apart from policymakers and scholars, many readers of The Fight for Influence will be seeking insight into Russia’s stance towards political Islam. Malashenko devotes an entire chapter to the topic. The default strategy for both Russian and Central Asian leaders has been to leverage Islam as an institution to reinforce the state, while pre-empting the threat of “unsupervised” Islamization. This strategy has met mixed results. In Tajikistan, Malashenko notes, religious institutions quickly outgrew their state-sanctioned supervision, and the nation now faces the rapid retreat of secular norms.
His discussion of Muslim migration into Russia is particularly enlightening. Migration from Central Asia has created a situation “strikingly similar to Muslim immigration to Europe.” Like Muslim populations in Western Europe, these migrants have failed to fully assimilate into Russian society. In light of the recent attacks in Paris, we can reasonably assume the radicalization of Muslim migrants will leap to the top tier of the Kremlin’s internal security concerns.
This migration is, in fact, the latest chapter in the slow but persistent advance of Islam in Eurasia. In discussing that advance, Malashenko somewhat inaccurately refers the “re-Islamization” of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. While Islamism is ascendant in those regions, most Kazakh and Kyrgyz tribes had only a loose, affiliation with Islam until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even after nominally professing Islam, they have remained “behind” the rest of the Central Asian in their religiosity. This religious heritage stands in stark contrast to that of the Uzbek people, who have a well-documented place in the history of the Islamic faith.
It’s easy to overstate the influence of religious faith in Central Asia to the neglect of equally important factors. To this end, Malashenko gives us a brisk overview of the cultures and recent history the republics, and offers his assessment of the challenges they face. Kazakhstan is the most stable and promising, while post-civil war Tajikistan is generously described as “fragile.” Uzbekistan is the geopolitical wildcard with frequently shifting allegiances, and Turkmenistan is still struggling to overcome an infamously authoritarian legacy, while Kyrgyzstan, “the exception,” looks to the future with both challenges and resources largely unparalleled in the region.
It is notable that The Fight for Influence lacks a substantive discussion of the Uyghur people. Malashenko does mention the Uyghur once, but only as an aside. They warrant a more involved discussion. The Uyghur people are Muslim, have Turkic ancestry, and speak a language closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz. Most significantly for the subject of this book, it’s unlikely that the Uyghur independence movement in northwestern China (“Uygharstan”) doesn’t inform Chinese strategy in Central Asia.
Nevertheless, considering the scope and complexity of the topic, The Fight for Influence is masterful scholarship. It reflects the perspective of a man who has spent his life working to understand Russia’s place in the world. It is intuitively organized and well sourced, and Malashenko’s conclusions are concise and unambiguous. The book would be especially helpful for diplomatic or military officials aiming to better understand Russian ambitions and challenges in Central Asia. Despite those challenges, the nation can still secure her interests in the region. Russia has the option of securing those interests or continuing to pursue a foreign policy guided more by nostalgia than pragmatism. Given the recent pace of global conflict, it’s unlikely we’ll have to wait long for a decision.
Alexey Malashenko, The Fight for Influence: Russia in Central Asia. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013.