Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
Russian President Vladimir Putin wrapped up a two-day visit to Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in late February, a rare Central Asian trip of late.
Since Uzbekistan withdrew from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) in 2012, it has had estranged relations with Moscow. Turkmenistan has been keeping a distance from Russia given its neutral foreign policy after it gained independence in 1991. In contrast, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have been closely following the Kremlin in their foreign policies.
Russia sees safeguarding the security and stability of its peripheries, including the Central Asian region, as its first and foremost priority on the national security agenda. Amid the unfolding confrontation between the US and Russia, Central Asia has become increasingly prominent as a heartland. That's why Russian leaders attach unprecedented importance to this region.
Since the eruption of the Ukraine crisis, Moscow has speeded up the regional integration process by advancing the development of the Eurasian Economic Union, the future Eurasian Union.
It has a multitude of concerns about the political and security issues across Central Asia. For starters, the leadership alternation in Central Asian nations has led to regional instability. In 2016, former Uzbek president Islam Karimov died after 27 years in power, initiating a change in leadership in Central Asia. Karimov, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon all assumed office in the 1990s. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the designated successor of former president Saparmurat Niyazov, has been in power for over a decade.
The only exception is Kyrgyzstan. Its former president Askar Akayev, who had ruled the country for 15 years, fell from power after the Tulip Revolution in 2005. Since then, the country has ushered in a regular election cycle.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the authoritarian regime under strongman politicians has helped to stabilize the political landscape in Central Asia and avoid both the mess that occurred in the privatization-era Russia and the deadlock caused by fierce power struggles in Ukraine. Therefore, it is fair to say that Central Asian nations have benefitted from the authoritarian regime.
Once personal charisma is no longer useful in maintaining social stability, chaos will break out. After Karimov passed away, the Russian elite launched a heated discussion over whether Central Asian countries will remain stable in the future.
Since the outburst of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, Washington has sought to exert influence upon Central Asia while Moscow was on a hectic schedule to establish an anti-terror alliance. It was from then on that Central Asia has become a frontline in the US-Russian strategic contention. The White House put a lot of energy to support Uzbekistan in breaking away from the CSTO and the New Silk Road Initiative was first rolled out by then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton back in 2011.
US President Donald Trump has given out a message of mollifying US-Russian ties, which, however, remains full of uncertainties like the world's geopolitical structure. It is currently unknown what Trump has in store for his Central Asia policy.
Russia is also worried about the permeation of the Islamic State (IS) in Central Asia. It is afraid that the Caucasus and Central Asia will become one of the centers for IS terrorist activities as a majority of extremists from these two regions are fighting for IS. Hence, Moscow's concern about a backflow of these terrorists is fully grounded.
Moreover, Central Asia is also a breeding ground for extremism, as many of its young people account for more than 60 percent of the population that follow the fundamentalist ideology due to an excessively high unemployment rate. They are likely to take Central Asia as a spring board and extend their impact into the Russian territory.
For Russia, a multi-national and multi-religious secular nation, it is pertinent to maintain its political influence in Central Asian nations and keep their regimes secular as well. Therefore, launching cooperation in combating terrorism for common security was high on the agenda of Putin's meeting with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
2017 is a critical year for Putin. The tough politician needs a stable external surrounding to deal with domestic affairs including challenges from the oppositions, as the presidential election is slated for next January.
The author is a PhD candidate at the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University. firstname.lastname@example.org Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion