Central Asia, Russian role in

Central Asia, Russian role in
   The region of Central Asia is generally defined as the geopolitical space between Russia, Europe, China, and the Indian subcontinent. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the term generally refers to the five republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan; Afghanistan is sometimes included as well. The region is alternatively called Middle Asia or Inner Eurasia, though these terms tend to be more inclusive and may include parts of Iran and China, as well as Mongolia.
   Russia began to expand into the region more than 300 years ago, the result of treaties signed with the Kazakhs, who sought protection from marauding bands of Mongolic Dzungars. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Romanovs expanded southward, conquering the old Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand. Fearful of Russian encroachment in South Asia, Great Britain expanded its presence in the region, triggering the century-long contest between the two empires known as the “Great Game” or “Tournament of Shadows.” During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks were able to subdue nationalist movements in Central Asia, though a decade-long Islamist insurgency known as the Basmachi Rebellion prevented Moscow from exerting complete sovereignty over the region.
   During the Soviet period, Central Asia remained relatively unknown to the outside world, and transborder contacts with neighboring China and Afghanistan were significantly curtailed. Moscow subsidized the development of industry, agriculture, and education throughout the region, resulting in precipitous increases in the standard of living combined with the destruction of traditional culture and economic systems. Militarization of the region increased dramatically with the Soviet-Afghan War, particularly in Uzbekistan, which served as the staging ground for military activity against the United States–backed mujahideen.
   With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the union republics of Central Asia reluctantly embraced independence. Long dependent on subsidies from Moscow, the comparatively poor states remained economically tied to the new Russian Federation. However, over the next few years, exploitation of hydrocarbons and the development of new relations with Iran, the United States, and European nations fomented an increased self-sufficiency among the five republics. However, control of transshipment routes, the presence of millions of ethnic Russians in the republics, and the Tajik Civil War allowed Russia to continue to exert a substantial influence over the region. To this day, Russian border control units continue to patrol Tajikistan’s frontier with Afghanistan, interdicting narcotics and other contraband.
   Boris Yeltsin and the five postindependence presidents found common cause in their opposition to Islamist movements, allowing for sustained political cooperation on a number of fronts including the establishment of the Shanghai Five (later the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or SCO). All the republics joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, though Uzbekistan, under Islam Karimov, generally resented what it saw as Russian neo-imperialism in the region, and went as far as to temporarily join the anti-Russian GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development. Turkmenistan, which has a stated policy of neutrality, opted out of all security-related organizations, including the SCO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization.
   The ascent of Vladimir Putin significantly changed the relationship between Russia and the Central Asian republics. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Putin gave a green light to a U.S. military presence in the region, resulting in the establishment of bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. However, as the result of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Putin’s attitude toward the Americans soured, and after Washington’s condemnation of events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in 2005, the SCO moved that the United States set a timetable for removing all its troops from the region. The American base in Uzbekistan was closed within a matter of months, and, shortly after Barack Obama assumed the presidency, Kyrgyzstan demanded that the United States close its facilities at Manas, though a subsequent plan allowed Washington to maintain a lessened presence at the site. As a result, Russia has reassumed its position as the sole great power in the region.
   See also Foreign relations; Near abroad.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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