Horsemen take part in a Kok-boru (Buzkashi) competition in Bishkek. (Courtesy Reuters)
In the last decade, the world has started taking more notice of Central Asia. For the United States and its allies, the region is a valuable supply hub for the Afghanistan war effort. For Russia, it is an arena in which to exert political influence. For China, it is a source of energy and a critical partner for stabilizing and developing the restive Xinjiang province in the Middle Kingdom's west. Some commentators have referred to Washington, Moscow, and Beijing's renewed activity in the region as a modern iteration of the Great Game. But unlike the British and Russian empires in their era of competition and conquest, the Central Asian governments are working to use renewed external involvement to their sovereign advantage, fending off disruptive demands and reinforcing their political control at home. Accordingly, the Central Asian case today is not a throwback to the past but a guide to what is to come: the rise of new players and the decline of Western influence in a multipolar world.
The first lesson to take from China, Russia, and the United States' involvement in Central Asia is that it has strengthened the hand of rulers, who have been able to play the suitors off one another to extract economic benefits and political support where possible. Most dramatically, in 2009, President Kurmanbek Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, host to the Manas Transit Center, initiated a bidding war between the United States and Russia by threatening to close the base. He extracted hundreds of millions of dollars from both sides, in the form of a Russian assistance package and a renewed lease at a higher rent with the United States. Since 2008, the United States also has paid transit fees, about $500 million annually, to the Uzbek and other Central Asian governments to ship equipment bound for Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network.
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