Central Asia: the Apple of Discord

Today, Russia is no longer able to compete with China and Turkey in the Central Asian region


Vadym Volokhov

The events in the Middle East and Afghanistan, which took place in 2019 and on which we have already written on “Borysfen Intel”’s website, make it possible to state that changes in Central Asian countries (hereinafter referred to as CA) can be expected in the medium term. And not necessarily positive ones. I mean the processes of Turkic integration that began several years ago.

To see for yourself, it is enough to read the materials of the international scientific-practical conference “Central Asia and Russia: Prospects of Mutually Beneficial Cooperation”, held in Moscow in October 2019 at the Russian University of Transport (MIIT). Representatives of Iran, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and some other countries participated in its work. This event has not been widely covered by the media in either Russia or the West. It is interesting that after its opening the work continued in two sections:

  • Increased Geopolitical Competition in the CA region;
  • Economic and Energy Cooperation of Central Asian and Eastern European Countries: Transport Corridors.
Conference “Central Asia and Russia: Prospects of Mutually Beneficial Cooperation” in Moscow

The first section of the agenda discussed China’s policy towards CA countries, Russia’s and the USA’s influence in the region, geopolitical rivalry in Afghanistan and new threats to regional security, the role of Iran and Russia’s presence in the CA region, rivalry and partnership there with Turkey and Russia. At the end of the section participants prepared a report themed: “Central Asia at the Crossroads of the Global, Geopolitical, Economic and Technological Competition”.

The second section discussed in detail the development of the Eurasian transport system, formats and prospects of Russia’s trade and economic cooperation with CA countries, definition of the benchmarks between the EAEU and the “Belt and Road” projects.


“The Belt and Road” is China’s 1 trillion US dollars initiative and can include more than 60 countries. Its goal is to harness China’s wealth and industrial know-how to bring countries and companies into China’s orbit, and thus to lead the process of globalization. The initiative was announced in September 2013 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping. At the same time, the USA and many of its major European and Asian allies have taken a prudent view of the project, not rushing to play to China’s strategic goals. Some, such as Australia, have categorically rejected Beijing’s offer to join the project. India, despite some of the infrastructure projects on its territory, is not happy about the Chinese trade routes to cross the disputed territory in Kashmir.

Within the framework of “The Silk Road Economic Belt” project, three trans-Eurasian economic corridors are planned to be created:

  • Northern: (China — CA — Russia — Europe);
  • Central: (China — Central and Western Asia — Gulf — Mediterranean);
  • Southern: (China — Southeast Asia — South Asia — Indian Ocean).

“The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road” project envisages creation of two maritime routes:

  • First: (China — the South China Sea — South Pacific);
  • Second: (China — the South China Sea — Indian Ocean — Europe).

Of course, of greater interest to us are not the calculations and plans for creation of transport corridors, but the geopolitical component of the project and possible consequences of the economic expansion of China and Turkey in the Central Asian region in general and in the countries of Central Asia that became independent after 1991 — in particular.

Chinese “The Belt and Road” Initiative

Some conclusions can be drawn from the speeches of Chinese experts: Zhang Ning, Director of the Regional Department of the Chinese Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Shi Ze, Director of the Chinese Center for International Energy Strategy. Both argued that China’s foreign policy orientation in the region does not imply “squeezing” Russia, Turkey and Iran from CA. However, information about the CA countries’ financial and economic dependence on the Celestial Empire speaks for itself.

Today, major players in and around the CA region are interested in the “big pie” that can be gained from investments and launches of transport corridors.

It is advisable to analyze the positions of players in the Central Asian field.


The Turkic world

The Turkic Council or Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (CCTS) is an international organization uniting the Turkic-speaking states: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan (Hungary and Turkmenistan are observers). It was created in October 2009 to bring together political views, exchange information, promote Turkic culture, expand economic ties, implement joint projects, find solutions to the problems of the Turkic world, etc. The official languages are Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkish, Uzbek and English. The Headquarters (General Secretariat) is in Istanbul (Turkey). The Parliamentary Assembly is in Baku (Azerbaijan) and the Turkic Academy is in Astana (Kazakhstan).

The members of the Turkic Council are located on the historic Silk Road, which, as before, is now “uniting continents and cultures”. Following the 2015 Astana Summit, trade between countries has increased by 22 % to about 9 billion US dollars, with total trade amounting to about 16 billion US dollars. The gross national product of the member states is about 1 trillion US dollars, making them a significant economic power in the world.

The main tasks of the Council today are to simplify trading procedures, remove obstacles to the exchange of goods and services. The Turkic Council is also trying to implement the idea of creating a joint investment fund, which would become an important financial instrument in the development of small and medium-sized businesses.


The 7th Summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States

Since the establishment of the Turkic Council, Ankara has opted for an open course on Turkish integration in the region. The Turkish and especially the western energy business today holds firm positions in the Caspian oil and gas consortia of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Turkey’s direct and portfolio investments in the CA region alone amount to nearly 90 billion US dollars, of which 50 billion US dollars — in Turkmenistan. This fact is explained by Turkey’s seeing Turkmenistan as its main outpost for reaching the entire CA region.

The 7th Summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States took place in Baku in October 2019. President of Turkey R. Erdogan said at the opening ceremony that “the next summit will be held in 2020 in Turkey and we will be glad to see Turkmenistan there, and then all 6 countries of one Turkic people will be together! Hungary should also join the Council by 2021!”


In March 2019, at the conference organized by the Hungarian Turan Foundation, R. Erdogan called Hungary “Christian Turkish lands” and stressed that the Hungarian are “Kipchak Turks”. Hungary has become the only EU country to support Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, and Hungary’s Foreign Minister P. Szijjarto has long blocked the EU’s statement on Ankara’s actions.

Presidents of Hungary and Turkey V. Orban and R. Erdogan

Ankara’s actions in the CA region can also be seen as an effort to remove a competitor — the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEC). This assumption is supported by the fact that when Uzbekistan formally announced its desire to join the EAEU in 2020–2021, the EU and especially the United States immediately stated that it would have problems with joining WTO. It should be mentioned that the Turkic-speaking ex-Soviet countries’ joining the Turkic Council does not raise issues in either the EU or Washington. Another assumption can be made that the involvement of these countries in the US-EU-NATO system is part of the “pro-Turkish integration” plans in the CA region, which, in turn, would be in favor of Washington, who would not mind weakening China’s and Russia’s role there.


With Turkish assistance, about 1300 diverse economic objects were created in the region (30 % in Kazakhstan, 20 % in Azerbaijan and 20 % in Turkmenistan). In October 2019, the Turkish-Azerbaijani Ziraat Bank Azerbaijan and the Turkish Turk Eximbank signed memorandums of cooperation with the Small and Medium Business Development Agency of Azerbaijan. Participation Banks Association of Turkey (TKBB) has signed a memorandum of cooperation with the Hungarian Export Promotion Agency (HEPA). As part of the TransCaspian Fiber Optic project, Kazakhstani companies Transtelecom and KazTransCom, together with AzerTelecom from Azerbaijan, plan to lay about 400 km of fiber-optic cable line along the Caspian Sea with a capacity of 4–6 terabit per second by the end of 2021.

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA)

In 1994, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) was created within the Turkish Foreign Ministry, and a new position was created within the Turkish government of the Minister of State, responsible for relations with Turkic–speaking states of the former USSR. The aim of the new agency and government position was clearly formulated by the former responsible state president of TIKA Abdulhaluk Mehmet Çay: “The Turkish Republic is the heir to the Ottoman Empire and should form a union with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Even, if necessary, at the price of a sharp confrontation with Russia”.

Thus, despite the facade of friendly relations between Ankara and Moscow and joint ambitious projects, TIKA’s ideology continues to exist and has not been disproven by Turkey’s officials. Turkey is still a NATO member and, despite periodic “misunderstandings” with Washington, deterring Russia, China and Iran in the CA region is part of its plans.


…According to the “March West” strategy, Beijing enters Eurasia in order to escape from encirclement in the East…

As the saying goes, plans are all very well, but it is difficult for Ankara to compete with Beijing. China’s total direct investment in the CA countries is already in excess of 60 billion US dollars, and their debt is about 30 billion US dollars. The main sphere of cooperation is the export of energy resources. Thus, in the short term, the construction of the 4th pipeline of the Turkmenistan — Uzbekistan — Kazakhstan — China gas pipeline with a capacity of about 20 billion cubic meters of gas per year is planned, which will increase the capacity of the whole system to 55 billion cubic meters.

For China, the Central Asian countries are quite important in view of the Uyghur separatist sentiment in the province of Xinjiang. According to the “March West” strategy, Beijing enters Eurasia in order to escape from encirclement in the East, where the United States and its allies have created quite tough conditions for China. Today, China’s powerful economy makes it possible to create leverage in the CA region.

In 2018, China became the main trading partner of Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Today, Russia is no longer able to compete with the People’s Republic of China, and given that the USA under President D. Trump is not (at least openly) interested in the CA, the region is free for Chinese expansion. At this, Beijing actively uses “debt diplomacy” because countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan owe their debts mainly to China. And because they are not able to repay their debt right now, they will have to agree to China’s partial control of their strategic assets.

China is stepping up its influence in Central Asia not only in the economy but also in the security sphere

China is stepping up its influence in the CA region not only in the economy but also in the security sphere. In 2016, Beijing signed the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM) Agreement to counter terrorism in the region with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. According to some reports, China has opened a secret military base in the Mountain Badakhshan (Tajikistan) to control the Wakhan corridor to the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China in order to block the Islamic State’s Uyghur militants, who are still based in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


As for Russia, it loses its influence everywhere and constantly. This also applies to its policy in the CA region. Following the signing of some agreements between Moscow and Ankara on Syria, some Russian politicians have begun to suggest a spread of Russian-Turkish cooperation on Central Asia. But, of course, these are just fantasies. Turkey will not give up its interests in favor of Russia, neither in Syria nor in Asia. Evidence of the fall of Russian influence may be the fact that more than 40 projects and various programs have been developed and are underway within the Turkic Council today, which should facilitate the mutual integration of these countries, but none of them envisages Russia’s participation, although it continues to see the region, in terms of national security, as its sphere of influence!

…Russia loses its influence everywhere and constantly. This also applies to its policy in Central Asia…

Russia is the leader of the regional Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), but China is not a member of it, pursuing its own policy. Within the framework of the tripartite dynamics of the development of relations between the great powers — the USA, China and Russia — the Russian initiative to create the Eurasian Economic Union is considered as Moscow’s attempt to reintegrate the former Soviet Republics and maintain its status as a superpower, as opposed to the USA and the PRC. But we understand that these attempts are illusory today. It is precisely for these reasons that Russia and China agreed in 2015 to bring together some of the initiatives to avoid problems in bilateral relations. But this did not resolve all the problems. Moscow is trying to put pressure on Beijing to implement its “Silk Road Economic Belt” initiatives through organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the EAEU, where it has chaired, and is now beginning to lose its influence.

In an effort to maintain its status, Moscow has proposed to create a “Greater Eurasian Partnership” based on a platform for multilateral cooperation between regional initiatives such as the SCO, CIS, EAEU, ASEAN and countries such as Iran, India, Japan and Turkey, South Korea, aiming to ease China’s pressure in the region.

Tensions in relations with the EU and NATO and the USA are forcing Russia to focus its efforts on the West, and meanwhile China is quite successfully making its ambitions true in Central Asia

Russian politicians fear, and not without reason, that China’s “Belt and Road” initiative will become the main land transport corridor between Asia and Europe, and then the Trans-Siberian Railway will become unneeded. Moscow is also trying to influence China and make it build a China-Europe railway line via Russia, not Central Asian countries, and at the same time to take the leverage on China. It is safe to assume that its efforts are vain. Tensions in relations with the EU and NATO and the USA are forcing Russia to focus its efforts on the West, and meanwhile China is quite successfully making its ambitions true in the CA region. Since 2015, Moscow has lost two strategic battles that cannot be replayed:

  • the first— the collapse of the EAEU project, which lost all meaning without Ukraine. The EAEU project still exists, but only in terms of preserving Russia’s political image.
  • the second— the lost “gas war” and delays with projects of gas pipelines to Europe bypassing Ukraine. Right now, Moscow is struggling to secure its share of the European gas market.

Under such circumstances, Turkey has begun struggle for its status as a gas hub in the South. Perhaps in order to secure of its gas interests, Ankara will seek to establish a naval base in the Turkish Cyprus (the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, TRNC) in the city of Trikomo (the Turkish name — Yeni Iskele).

Incidentally, on February 12 this year, Turkish President R. Erdogan again and for good reason accused Russia and Syrian government troops of killing peaceful Syrians within the Idlib zone. Taking into consideration the actions of the Russian aviation in the area of Idlib, R. Erdogan categorically stated that Turkey would destroy all aircrafts in the area. We should be honest and understand that Ankara is concerned not so much with the deaths of Syrians as with one or two million refugees who can flee from the war zone towards the Turkish border. That’s the real threat!


Germany is also trying to hold a place in the Central Asian region. On October 23 last year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany, together with the German-Kazakh association, organized a conference about the EU’s new strategy for Central Asia. By the way, the total investment of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in more than 750 private sector projects in the region has reached 14 billion US dollars today.


Iran also does not stay away from the aforementioned regional processes, and would not mind biting off its slice of cake. First of all, Tehran will try to keep Central Asian countries from further rapprochement with the United States. Iranian experts estimate that the size of Iranian investments in the region’s economy is far inferior to that of China or Turkey, but keeps growing.

In this connection suffice it to recall the project of construction of Iran — China oil and gas pipeline on the territory of the CA countries. It really is not implemented yet, but the project does exist and they can return to it under favorable conditions.

In April 2019, Tashkent joined the China — Kazakhstan — Turkmenistan — Iran transport corridor, greatly contributing to the growth of container shipping in the region. Moreover, Iran, as a member of the North — South transport corridor, will connect Caspian countries with Central Asian states, which in turn will greatly speed up and facilitate trade between countries such as India, Iran, Europe and all countries in the region.


All of the above-mentioned processes taking place in the Central Asian region testify to the rather complicated relations between Beijing, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran. China is clearly winning today. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW), as of August 2019, nearly half of China’s and Turkey’s total investment in the CA countries are “hidden”. And really, there is something to hide there. For example, Kyrgyzstan owes China up to 30 % of its gross domestic product (GDP), Turkmenistan — almost 30 %, Tajikistan — 15 %, Kazakhstan — just over 10 %. The debt of these countries to Turkey is 20, 25, 10 and about 15 % — respectively.

With regard to geopolitical solitaire in the region, it can be predicted that in the medium to long term, the situation may develop according to the following scenario:

  1. …The United States will continue to seek to remove Iran from the political arena in the region, but at this, its ultimate goal is Russia…

    The United States will continue to seek to remove Iran from the political arena in the region, but at this, its ultimate goal is Russia. With the weakening of Iran as one of Moscow’s major partners in the region, Washington will be more free to influence the situation in the entire Middle East as well as in Central Asia and South Caucasus, since Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia will lose Iranian support.

  2. Later, in the conditions of “weak Iran”, the issue of Nagornyi Karabakh will come to the sidelines and the likelihood of its military settlement with Turkey’s participation on the side of Azerbaijan will increase.
  3. Successful resolving the Karabakh problem will ultimately negate Russia’s role in the Middle East, Central Asia and Caucasus region and will allow the United States once again to overcome misunderstanding with Ankara and to some extent control the situation in these regions.
  4. …The growing role and strengthening influence of China in Central Asia may renew its contradictions with Russia and exacerbate them…

    The growing role and strengthening influence of China in Central Asia may renew its contradictions with Russia and exacerbate them.

We may also expect that in the medium term, China’s economic and geopolitical interests will force it into direct military-political intervention in the CA region.

One last thing. In 2018–2019, the media of the CA region repeatedly raised the issue of the creation of a “Joint Turkic Army” (“Eurasian Military Forces”) with the participation of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. It is something like an Asian NATO with a basic support in the form of a Turkish gendarmerie.

Thus, not only is the Middle East region going through difficult times today, but Central Asia and South Caucasus are also on the verge of major changes.


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