On the sleeper train from Tashkent to Nukus, a drunk Uzbek army officer wants to know where we’re from. “England” is met with a noncommittal shrug. On hearing “Scotland,” though, his face lights up. “Scotlandia!” he slurs, miming bagpipes. “Braveheart!” In a mix of fluid Russian, broken English, and animated mime, he expresses a sentiment we hear again and again, all across the country: Scotland is to the United Kingdom as Uzbekistan is to Russia—only in Uzbekistan’s case, independence was won. Then, with no apparent sense of irony, the officer takes out his phone and shows us his background of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He gives a thumbs-up. “Putin, I love.”
This is all the more jarring given that we’re on our way to Karakalpakstan, one of Uzbekistan’s bleakest regions. Here, stranded husks of rusting fishing boats and a smattering of seashells are a lasting testament to Soviet mismanagement that redirected the area water supply to the overstretched cotton industry. The Nukus city museum of art banned under communism abounds with paintings of fishermen on the once vast Aral Sea, but the real sea has shrunk to nothing.
Despite such legacies of Russian rule, many Uzbeks—indeed, many Central Asians—share the officer’s enthusiasm for the country that once colonized them. But then, at this stage, where else would they turn for friends?
After two decades and a trillion dollars spent on war, the United States is finally out of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s neighbors have been watching intensely as an era of U.S. involvement in Central Asia closed, one that promised much but never quite delivered.
The United States won’t be missed that much. The end of communism was supposed to usher in a new era of freedom, democracy, and prosperity, but it was a resounding failure in Russia’s backyard. Central Asians might not be mad at the United States, but they’re certainly disappointed.
Over the past two decades, the war next door incentivized some U.S. aid and investment, mostly in the form of training troops and leasing military bases in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. With troops gone, the United States seems increasingly unlikely to pay the region much thought—unless China is involved. A growing Washington consensus that Beijing is the main opponent of the next decade or more has also drawn attention to China’s heavy investments in Central Asia.
But for the Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the old occupier, Russia, and, increasingly, China are often more tempting prospects. For the elites in these countries, Moscow and Beijing are inherently more attractive options than Washington. Unlike Western liberal democracies, China rarely expresses interest in human rights or fair governance and certainly never demands to see evidence of this as a precursor to investment. For Beijing, the important thing is not the mode of government but consistency: So long as a partner country is politically stable enough for China to keep building and mining, and willing to back Beijing on the international stage, it’s happy.
As Mathieu Boulègue of Chatham House put it, any discussion of human rights or democracy is a red line that Russia and China have no interest in crossing, while liberal democracies’ insistence on doing so means their partnerships can only ever be “second tier and not a deeper, comprehensive relationship.”
The initial U.S. interest in Central Asia, however, had much less to do with human rights and more with natural resources. In the years following independence from the Soviet Union, Central Asian states looked forward to a lucrative new Great Game in the region. According to estimates by the U.S. Energy Information Administration as of 2003, the Caspian Basin contained between 17 billion and 33 billion barrels of proven oil reserves and around 232 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, attracting much initial interest from overseas. This enthusiasm gradually trickled away, though, as prospective investors realized that getting to these energy sources would be much harder than first anticipated.
“Projections in the mid-’90s exceeded what was actually available,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The shallow waters of the Caspian Sea meant excavation was extremely complex, exacerbated by geopolitical barriers in Russia and Iran, which blocked construction of pipelines needed to move reserves out of landlocked states and into the global marketplace. Most of the available reserves remained in the hands of local oligarchs, who were able to take advantage of existing pipeline infrastructure.
“You have this language of economic reform but nothing to show for it,” said Edward Schatz, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of a recent book on anti-American sentiment in Central Asia.
After 9/11, the situation shifted. Initially, there was an outpouring of solidarity with the United States throughout Central Asia, including support for the invasion of Afghanistan—after all, many of these countries had their own issues with Islamist militancy and were happy to have the United States intervene on their side. But according to Schatz, the declaration of war against Iraq provoked bafflement. By the time anti-Iran rhetoric had begun heating up, many people had become deeply suspicious that the United States might be driven by anti-Islamic sentiment or even Soviet-style radical atheism—especially in Tajikistan, which gets much of its media from Iran and shares closer linguistic and cultural ties.
And while oligarchs benefited, the post-Soviet years proved deeply disappointing to ordinary citizens throughout Central Asia.
In the 25 years following the fall of the Soviet Union, household income fell by 27 percent in Uzbekistan and more than halved in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. While the economies of oil-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have ballooned, there is little evidence that any of this wealth trickles down to the general population. Life expectancy there, as in the rest of Central Asia, has worsened since the 1990s, as the provision of state-funded health care and other social safety nets evaporated. Access to education, transport, and basic infrastructure also declined.
Bruce Pannier, a Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who has been reporting from the region for almost 30 years, echoes this view. While “there wasn’t much of everything” under Soviet rule, he said, there was generally enough to survive—and in rural areas in particular these resources were far better managed. Pannier describes how the Soviet system demanded that local administration chiefs ensure farmers’ fields were ploughed, their tractors had gasoline, and machinery deliveries to their farms arrived in time for harvest. When this centralized government collapsed, individual farmers were left to sort out the logistics on their own, hindered by local corruption that pushed them into debt just to cover the bribes necessary to stay afloat.