So long as Russia and China remain the region’s dominant political and economic powers, the Central Asian heartland will remain a US and EU target for threats, bribes, and color revolutions.
Samarkand, Uzbekistan – The historical Heartland – or Central Eurasia – already is, and will continue to be, the prime battlefield in the New Great Game, fought between the United States and the China-Russia strategic partnership.
The original Great Game pitted the British and Russian empires in the late 19th century, and in fact, never got away: it just metastasized into the US-UK entente versus the USSR, and, subsequently, the US-EU versus Russia.
According to the Mackinder-designed geopolitical game conceptualized by imperial Britain back in 1904, The Heartland is the proverbial “pivot of History,” and its re-energized 21st century historical role is as relevant as in centuries ago: a key driver of emerging multipolarity.
So it’s no wonder all major powers are at work in the Heartland/Central Eurasia: China, Russia, US, EU, India, Iran, Turkiye, and to a lesser extent, Japan. Four out of five Central Asian “stans” are full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. And some, like Kazakhstan, may soon become members of BRICS+.
The key direct geopolitical clash for influence across the Heartland pits the US against Russia and China on myriad political, economic, and financial fronts.
The imperial modus operandi privileges – what else – threats and ultimatums. Only four months ago, US emissaries from the State Department, Treasury, and Office of Foreign Affairs Control (OFAC) toured the Heartland bearing a whole package of “gifts,” as in blatant or thinly disguised threats. The key message: if you “help” or even trade with Russia in any way, you will be slapped with secondary sanctions.
Informal conversations with businesses in Uzbekistan’s Samarkand and Bukhara and contacts in Kazakhstan reveal a pattern: Everyone seems to be aware that the Americans will go no holds barred to hold the Heartland/Central Asia at gunpoint.
Kings of the Ancient Silk Roads
There’s hardly a more relevant place across the Heartland to observe the current power play than Samarkand, the fabled “Rome of the East.” Here we are in the heart of ancient Sogdiana – the historical trade crossroads between China, India, Parthia, and Persia, an immensely important node of East-West cultural trends, Zoroastrianism, and pre/post-Islamic vectors.
From the 4th century to the 8th century, it was the Sogdians who monopolized the caravan trade between East Asia, Central Asia, and West Asia, transporting silk, cotton, gold, silver, copper, weaponry, aromas, furs, carpets, clothes, ceramics, glass, porcelain, ornaments, semi-precious stones, mirrors. Wily Sogdian merchants used protection from nomadic dynasties to solidify trade between China and Byzantium.
The meritocratic Chinese elite, which reasons in terms of very long historical cycles, is very much aware of all of the above: that’s a key driver behind the New Silk Roads concept, officially known as BRI (Belt and Road Initiative), as announced nearly 10 years ago by President Xi Jinping in Astana, Kazakhstan. Beijing plans to reconnect with its Western neighbors as the necessary pathway towards increased pan-Eurasian trade and connectivity.
Beijing and Moscow have complementary focuses when it comes to relations with the Heartland – always under the principle of strategic cooperation. Both have been engaged in regional security and economic cooperation with Central Asia since 1998. Established in 2001, the SCO is an actual product of the Russia-China common strategy as well as a platform for non-stop dialogue with the Heartland.
How different Central Asian “stans” react to it is a multi-level issue. Tajikistan, for instance, economically fragile and heavily dependent on the Russian market as a provider of cheap labor, officially keeps an “open door” policy to every sort of cooperation, including with the west.
Kazakhstan and the US have established a Strategic Partnership Council (their last meeting was late last year). Uzbekistan and the US have a “strategic partnership dialogue,” set up in late 2021. American business presence is very much visible in Tashkent, via an imposing trade center, not to mention Coke and Pepsi in every Uzbek village corner shop.
The EU tries to keep up, especially in Kazakhstan, where over 30 percent of foreign trade ($39 billion) and investments ($12.5 billion) come from Europe. Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev – extremely popular for opening up the country five years ago – nabbed $9 billion in trade deals when he visited Germany three months ago.
Since the inception of the Chinese BRI a decade ago, the EU, by comparison, invested around $120 billion across the Heartland: not too shabby (40 percent of total foreign investment), but still below Chinese commitments.
What is Turkiye really up to?
The imperial focus in the Heartland is predictably Kazakhstan, because of its vast oil and gas resources. US-Kazakh trade represents 86 percent of all American trade with Central Asia, which was an unimpressive $3.8 billion last year. Compare that figure with only 7 percent of US trade with Uzbekistan.
It’s fair to argue that most of these four Central Asian “stans” in the SCO practice “multifaceted diplomacy,” trying not to attract unwanted imperial ire. Kazakhstan, for its part, goes for “balanced diplomacy”: that’s part of its Concept of Foreign Policy 2014-2020.
In a sense, Astana’s new motto expresses some continuity with the previous one, “multi-vector diplomacy,” established during the nearly three-decade rein of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Kazakhstan, under President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, is a member of the SCO, the Eurasia Economic Union (EAEU), and BRI, but at the same time, must be on 24/7 alert to imperial machinations. After all, it was Moscow and prompt intervention by the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that saved Tokayev from a color revolution attempt in early 2022.
The Chinese, for their part, invest in a collective approach, solidified, for instance, in high-profile meetings such as the China-Central Asia 5+1 Summit, held only 3 months ago.
Then there’s the extremely curious case of the Organization of Turkic States (OTS), formerly Turkic Council, which unites Turkiye, Azerbaijan, and three Central Asian “stans,” Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
This OTS’ overarching aim is to “promote comprehensive cooperation among Turkic-speaking states.” Not much in practice is visible across the Heartland, apart from the odd billboard promoting Turkish products. A visit to the secretariat in Istanbul in the spring of 2022 did not exactly yield solid answers, apart from vague references to “projects on economy, culture, education, transport,” and, more significantly, customs.
Last November, in Samarkand, the OTS signed an agreement “on the establishment of a simplified customs corridor.” It’s too early to tell whether this would be able to foment a sort of mini-Turkiye Silk Road across the Heartland.
Still, it’s enlightening to keep an eye on what they may come up with next. Their charter privileges “developing common positions on foreign policy issues,” “coordinating actions to combat international terrorism, separatism, extremism, and cross-border crimes,” and creating “favorable conditions for trade and investment.”
Turkmenistan – the idiosyncratic Central Asian “stan” which vehemently insists on its absolute geopolitical neutrality – happens to be an OTS observer state. Also as eye-catching is a Center of Nomadic Civilizations based in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
Solving the Russian-Heartland riddle
Western sanctions against Russia have ended up profiting quite a few Heartland players. Because Central Asia’s economies are closely linked to Russia, exports skyrocketed – as much, by the way, as imports from Europe.
Quite a few EU companies resettled in the Heartland after leaving Russia – with the corresponding process of selected Central Asian tycoons buying Russian assets. In parallel, because of the Russian troop mobilization drive, arguably tens of thousands of relatively wealthy Russians moved to the Heartland, while an extra lot of Central Asian workers found new jobs, especially in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Last year, for instance, remittances to Uzbekistan shot up to a hefty $16.9 billion: 85 percent of this (about $14.5 billion) came from workers in Russia. According to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, economies across the Heartland will grow by a healthy 5.2 percent in 2023 and 5.4 percent in 2024.
That economic boost is plainly visible in Samarkand: The city is a giant construction – and restoration – site today. Impeccably new, wide boulevards are springing up everywhere, complete with lush green landscaping, flowers, fountains, and wide sidewalks, all sparkling clean. No vagrants, no homeless, no crackheads. Visitors from decaying western metropolises are absolutely stunned.
In Tashkent, the Uzbek government is building a vast, stunning Center of Islamic Civilization, heavily focused on pan-Eurasia business.
There’s no question the key geopolitical vector all across the Heartland is the relationship with Russia. Russian remains the lingua franca in every sphere of life.
Let’s start with Kazakhstan, which shares an enormous 7,500 km-long border with Russia (yet there are no border disputes). Back in the USSR, the five Central Asian “stans” were, in fact, denominated “Central Asia and Kazakhstan,” because a large part of Kazakhstan lies in the south of West Siberia, and close to Europe. Kazakhstan sees itself as quintessentially Eurasian – it is no wonder that since the Nazarbayev years, Astana privileges Eurasia integration.
Last year, at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Tokayev told Russian President Vladimir Putin, in person, that Astana would not recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Kazakh diplomats keep stressing they can’t afford to have the country as a gateway to bypass Western sanctions – although, in the shadows, that’s what happens in many cases.
Kyrgyzstan, for its part, canceled the CSTO “Strong Brotherhood-2022” joint military exercises scheduled for October last year – it is worth mentioning that the problem in this case was not Russia, but a border issue with Tajikistan.
Putin has proposed to establish a Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan gas union. As it stands, nothing has happened, and may not happen.
All these must be considered as minor setbacks. Last year, Putin visited all five Central Asian “stans” for the first time in quite a while. Mirroring China, they held a 5+1 summit also for the first time. Russian diplomats and businessmen ply Heartland roads full-time. And let’s not forget that the presidents of all five Central Asian “stans” were themselves present in the Red Square parade in Moscow on Victory Day last May.
Russian diplomacy knows everything there is to know about the major imperial obsession to extract the Central Asian “stans” from Russian influence.
That goes way beyond the official US Central Asia Strategy 2019-2025 – and it has reached hysteria status after the US humiliation in Afghanistan and the impending NATO humiliation in Ukraine.
On the crucial energy front, very few remember today that the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline, then reduced to TAP (India pulled out), was a priority of the American (italics mine) New Silk Road, concocted at the State Department and sold by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011.
Nothing practical happened with that pie in the sky. What the Americans did manage to do, recently, was to scotch the development of a competitor, the Iran-Pakistan (IP) pipeline, by forcing Islamabad to cancel it, in the wake of the whole lawfare scandal designed to eliminate former Premier Imran Khan from Pakistan’s political life.
Still, the TAPI-IP Pipelineistan saga is far from over. With Afghanistan free from US occupation, Russia’s Gazprom, as well as Chinese firms, are very much interested in participating in the construction of TAPI: The pipeline would be a strategic BRI node, linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the crossroads between Central and South Asia.
The ‘alien’ collective west
As much as Russia is – and will continue to be – a known currency all across the Heartland, the Chinese model is unsurpassed as a sustainable development example capable of inspiring an array of indigenous Central Asian solutions.
In contrast, what does the Empire have to offer? In a nutshell: Divide and Rule, via its localized terror minions such as ISIS-Khorasan, instrumentalized to foment political destabilization in the weakest Central Asian nodes, from the Ferghana valley to the Afghan-Tajik border, for instance.
The multiple challenges facing the Heartland have been discussed in detail in meetings such as the Valdai Central Asian Conference.
Valdai Club expert Rustam Khaydarov may have coined the most concise appraisal of West-Heartland relations:
“The collective West is alien to us both in terms of culture and worldview. There is not a single phenomenon or event, or element of modern culture, which could serve as the basis for a relationship and rapprochement between the US and European Union on the one hand and Central Asia on the other. Americans and Europeans have no idea about the culture and mentality or traditions of the peoples of Central Asia, so they could not and will not be able to interact with us. Central Asia does not view economic prosperity in conjunction with the liberal democracy of the West, which is essentially an alien concept to the countries of the region.”
Considering this scenario, and in the context of a New Great Game that is becoming increasingly incandescent by the day, it’s no wonder that some Heartland diplomatic circles are very much interested in a closer integration of Central Asia into BRICS+. That’s something bound to be discussed at the BRICS summit in South Africa next week.
The strategic formula reads like Russia + Central Asia + South Asia + Africa + Latin America – yet another instance of “Global Globe” (to quote Lukashenko) integration. It may all start with Kazakhstan becoming the first Heartland nation accepted as a member of BRICS+.
After that, all the world is a stage for the re-energized Return of the Heartland in transportation, logistics, energy, trade, manufacturing, investment, infotech, culture, and – last but not least, in the spirit of the Silk Roads, old and new – “people to people’s exchanges”.