While Russia and the U.S. are still the two great powers with the most at stake in Central Asia, nations such as Iran and India are also beginning to play an important role.
Will India scramble for Central Asia? Pictured: India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, center, at the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. Photo: AP
"Globalization” as a buzzword has a variety of manifestations. Most obviously, the term can be reduced to refer to the spread of capitalism and the division of labor on a global scale. Another implication of globalization, though, is the increasing interaction among a variety of players on a scale never previously known.
“Globalizing Central Asia,” by Marlene Laruelle and Sebastien Peyrouse, takes this second definition of globalization as a starting point for considering how Central Asia continues to change in response to the ambitions of new players in the region.
During the Cold War era, the imperial space of each superpower—the USSR and the U.S.–– was effectively insulated from the other. However, the end of the Cold War led to the collapse of these imperial spheres of influence. Even the U.S., which appears to be in the process of losing its influence on a global scale, can no longer insulate other powers from what Washington regards as its sphere of influence.
As a result, many areas of the world have become places where several powers engage simultaneously and for a variety of reasons. In addition to greater and regional powers, smaller and weaker nations also engage in complicated and fluid relationships with each other.
This is the case with Central Asia. Until the collapse of the USSR, Central Asia was a part of this empire. Indeed, before becoming part of the USSR, the states of Central Asia (or, to be precise, the people of this area, since most of the nations of the area had no well-defined statehood before quite recently) were part of the empire of the tsars. After the break-up of the USSR, several independent states had emerged in Central Asia and the region outside the Central Asia perimeter.
While studying Central Asia, one could easily be seduced and tempted to follow the old paradigm. Indeed, one might add that the analysis of events in present-day Central Asia could be compared to the analysis of the Great Game of the nineteenth century when tsarist Russia and the British Empire vied for domination and supremacy in the area.
Still, this is not the case now, as the authors of the book demonstrate clearly. It is not just competition between Russia and the United States (which replaces the UK as the major Western power whose footsteps can be seen in Central Asia), but also competition among a variety of other players whose role cannot be ignored.
Some of these states plainly did not exist in the nineteenth century. This, for example, is the case with India, which, as the authors of the book note, is engaged in the scramble for Central Asia. Other countries, such as Iran, now play different roles in global polities.
Indeed, in the early nineteenth century, both the British and Russian empires vied for influence in Iran, which was Persia at that time. Today, Iran, as the book demonstrates, plays its own game in Central Asia, especially in Tadjikistan, which shares with Iran/Persia linguistic, cultural and ethnic ties.
There is another aspect of present-day Central Asia, which makes it quite different from the Central Asia of the era of the Great Game. It is the importance of the Central Asian states themselves, which are engaging in complicated relationships with each other.
This was not the case in the past despite their Central Asian claims. Today, the elite of the Central Asian states have invented their statehood and extended it for hundreds or even thousands of years. They also present these states as mighty and prosperous; in most cases, this is nothing but fiction.
The statehood of many did not exist as viable institutions before the Russian conquest. Even those Central Asian nations that had statehood usually were divided among smaller states that coalesced into one political entity only after being incorporated into the Russian empire. In some cases, their statehood emerged only during the Soviet era where it had actually been “constructed” by Moscow.
Now, many of these states have finally “shaped up” and are engaged in convoluted relationships not just with major powers outside Central Asia, but also among themselves. One might say that some of them speak to the great powers as equals. This is, for example, the case with Kazakhstan, which increasingly speaks as an equal with its previous patron – Russia.
While the first part of the book deals with the relationship between the great powers and the Central Asia states, the second part deals with thematic subjects, i.e. with Central Asia’s natural resources, industries, high tech capabilities, etc. Surprisingly, however, some important subjects were not covered at all. Missing are the military capabilities of the Central Asian states and the geopolitical-military aspect of their relationships with each other and the big powers.
This is a quite important aspect of the story, especially due to the competition for the resources of the Caspian Sea and other unresolved problems. Jihadism, and Islamic extremism in general, also basically was left out.
Still, “Globalizing Central Asia” is full of important information, providing a good overview of the complicated relationships of the various Central Asian states with global players in the area, as well as information about the economics, natural resources, high tech capabilities and other essential aspects of life in this increasingly important part of the world.