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“Black swans” in the United States’ strategy in Central Asia: interview

A delegation of the U.S. Department of State suddenly landed in Central Asia a few days ago. Even imminent changes in own country are not able to reduce the Americans’ activity in this region. In an interview to EADaily, Director of the Almaty-based Risk Assessment Group Dosym Satpayev has shared his views on this visit and some other questions concerning the U.S. policy in Central Asia.

What do you think about this visit, especially as it was paid by the resigning administration?

Barack Obama’s Administration has become increasingly active in Central Asia of late even though Obama is already a “lame duck.” Last year, John Kerry visited the region and formed the C5+1 group. This year that group met for the first time. Now we have witnessed a visit by Thomas Shannon. Even though this is a resigning administration, the Democrats have high hopes of Hillary Clinton. So, this is just continuity of policy. Let’s not forget that Clinton has a big influence on Obama’s decisions. I think the Democrats will stay in power and will continue Obama’s policy on Central Asia. The death of Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan has enhanced their interest in that country and in Kazakhstan.

Do you mean that Kazakhstan may also face change of regime?

The recent reports of U.S. analysts show that the Americans are very much interested in Kazakhstan. And their key concern is whether that country will continue its multi-vector foreign policy after Nazarbayev. The Kazaks have so far been the Americans’ closest partners in Central Asia even despite their involvement in the Russia-sponsored Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization projects. The White House would like this partnership to be continued and will be active to this end. So, we can expect more such visits.

The key concern of the Americans in our region is security in view of the Afghani factor. And the Europeans share this stance. One more concern for the Americans is the rising activity of China. The Americans have a big presence in Kazakhstan’s oil and gas sector. So, Kazakhstan will be their key partner no matter who will be in the White House – the Republicans or the Democrats – as both parties have strong oil and gas lobbies.

Will Uzbekistan be able to continue its policy of “equal distance from global centers”?

For Kazakhstan, changes would be preferable. In the past, the Kazakhs made lots of attempts to bring the Central Asian nations together for discussing common problems, like water, energy and security. But each time they faced Uzbekistan’s resistance and Islam Karimov’s tough attacks on Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Now that the Uzbeks have a new leader, they expect them to become more amicable towards their neighbors. But recently acting Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev said that he would continue Karimov’s foreign policy and that his priority would be Uzbekistan’s national interests.

So, I don’t think that Uzbekistan will join new regional alliances. For some time, it will act as it did under Karimov. Some changes are possible but here much will depend on external factors. China and Russia are both seeking to make Uzbekistan their ally. The Russians have quite serious levers here: more than one million of Uzbek guest workers in Russia and serious lobbyists, like Alisher Usmanov.

China’s goal is to push the Uzbeks from the United States. A month ago, I was in Chicago and heard speeches by some Chinese experts. First of all, they expressed support for the peaceful transition of power in Uzbekistan as they realize that any conflicts in that country will cause instability in the whole region and will shatter their security in Xinjiang. They made it clear that China would resist any western attempts to organize revolutions or coups in Central Asia.

So, China and Russia both wish to force the West out of the region. In his turn, Mirziyoyev wants to gain a good reputation in the world. So, he may well follow the Kazakh example: he will adopt a multi-vector policy, will push his country’s interests and will try to avoid serious conflicts with his neighbors.

Some experts say that a regional bloc would be the best option for the Central Asian nations.

Why not? Russia, China and the United States will not be able to solve our problems. This is why I am saying that here we have lots of different scenarios. This is like Nassim Taleb’s “black swan” theory: it is hard to predict anything, especially when there are so many factors involved. The best scenario for Uzbekistan is to become closer to its neighbors. Today, we are facing lots of common problems and unless we solve them today, they may bury us tomorrow.

And what about Tajikistan and Turkmenistan? The Americans are not interested in them for the moment, are they?

I think they are. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov is actively cooperating with the Americans and is actively consulting with them on how to protect his border with Afghanistan. On the other hand, he has a gas conflict with the Russians. So, closer contacts with the United States may serve as a kind of a bargaining chip in his talks with Russia and China.

The C5+1 meetings involve all the five Central Asian nations and are enough for the Americans to be aware of the positions of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and to be interested in gaining control over those states. There they have much smaller economic presence than in Kazakhstan. But they hope to gain it in future.

Once Kyrgyzstan was the most “pro-American” country of the region but then there was a break-up…

That country is experiencing one more period of political turbulence. But, on the other hand, the Kyrgyz are showing certain disappointment with the Russians and their low investment activity in their country. So, this may be a chance for the Americans to gain a foothold in Kyrgyzstan. Next year, the Kyrgyz are to elect a new president and they in Washington are already testing the ground to see who will be Amlazbek Atambayev’s successor and what they may offer him.

Do they have a certain candidate in view?

In Kyrgyzstan, things are changing very quickly. The parliamentary opposition has split up, the government has de facto resigned, the people are debating on whether they need a referendum. So, Kyrgyzstan is that very “black swan” I was talking about: you can’t predict what will happen there next month. With Turkmenistan, everything is clear: Turkmenistan is a “white swan.” But in Kyrgyzstan, everything is vague. I think Atambayev has several candidacies on his mind and will nominate according to the situation.

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