Devoted to the international aspects of Central Asia’s political and economic life, this ambitious popularisation work is divided into two parts: (1) the issues of each major protagonist (respectively Russia, China, the USA, the European Union and Japan, Turkey and Iran); (2) the local and international issues of economic development (agriculture, hydrocarbons, mining industries, electricity production, transport infrastructures). Insisting in their introduction on the very mobile situation created by the multiplication of protagonists, the authors also cast light on the fact that Central Asia is fundamental to none of the great powers.
Russia’s return to Central Asia in the 2000s is recounted through its contribution to the appearance of new regionalised international structures (with a subchapter on the Shanghai Cooperation Association), though at the same time Moscow’s lack of miracle solution to destabilisation risks, and its overall absence of imagination at to Central Asia’s future are also presented as serious factors for limitation of its influence. As to Russia’s relationship with China, it is introduced as essentially pragmatic and functional: While leaving to Moscow the charge of difficult and costly security matters, the PRC has preferred to concentrate on economic development, while stabilising its own sensitive zones like Xinjiang and Tibet. At the same time, the development differential between the two countries is also seen as a vector of endemic tensions. China’s support of Central Asian regimes has increased the antagonism between the region and the ‘West’, whence the choice of dictatorial Uzbekistan as a strategic partner by the USA has also ruined its image as a defender of human rights. As to the concentration on NGOs of U.S. assistance to the promotion of a civil society, it has compromised the possibility of a reform of Central Asian states. “The revalorisation of Central Asian state structure as the redistribution place of national wealth should be at the core of U.S. assistance programmes (72).” As well as for China, U.S. trade with Central Asia is essentially a trade with Kazakhstan and, on the purely commercial plan, Washington’s strike force remains limited. A secondary object of U.S. interests, Central Asia is nothing but a pawn in the hyperpower’s geopolitics, even if one of the White House’s present objectives is to reconstruct their relationship with the overall region. The European Union’s economic relations with Central Asia are characterised by the supremacy of the energy sector, and by the growing significance of nuclear technology through promotion of European excellence in this field. The lack of enthusiasm of Brussels for the region is underlined by the authors, who stress this contradiction with the EU’s political ‘blackmail’ in human rights matters ― and with the numerous oppositions between EU member’s respective national interests. Japan also shows difficulties to transform its status as the first donor of assistance into a genuine political weight. The authors optimistically suggest that Brussels and Tokyo can combine their respective ambitions in the region without increasing tensions with protagonists present since the early 1990s, like Turkey and Iran (Pakistan and India have been excluded from the scope of the book). They also show candid when they assert that Iran does not seek any more to influence the geopolitical orientations of Central Asian states: On the contrary Tehran’s manipulation of its own Sunni minority for export of Persian-language Islam towards Central Asia, in the religious field, Iran’s participation in the SCOo in the political field suggest the adoption of an aggressive stance of the Ahmadinezhad administration. Still, Iran’s commercial exchanges with Central Asia remain extremely limited, as well as the level of its diplomatic links with each Central Asian country, in spite of the possibilities offered by the Iranian territory for opening up of the region towards the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Dealing with the economies of Central Asia sector by sector, the authors remind, as for agriculture, the lasting place of cotton as a hard currency resource, even if its production has constantly declined. Malnutrition remains concentrated in cotton producing areas, where the lasting situation of food insecurity has brought about cereal importations, especially from Kazakhstan. Several months before the tragic events of Osh and Jalalabad in summer 2010, the authors were diagnosing that in a country like Kyrgyzstan, the central issue consists of avoiding the aggravation of social tensions linked with the lack of cultivable lands and with the lasting poverty of mountain regions. A key element of stability in Central Asia, the agricultural sector is confronted with lack of modernisation in countries like Kyrgyzstan itself, but also Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The same can be observed in hydrocarbon producing countries, where extraction industries have often to rely on run-down equipments, and are short of qualified personnel. The way Central Asia is enclosed and the saturation of existing transport infrastructure also poses serious exportation problems, making necessary the construction of new pipe-lines and the exploration of new technologies of compression or liquefaction of gas. From the social and political viewpoint, if Central Asia has yet avoided the spiral of violence linked with the wrong distribution of the hydrocarbon’s heaven-sent, it will have to face a risk of ‘Dutch disease’ after the sensitive increase of Kazakh and Turkmen production in the 2010s. After hydrocarbons, uranium is announced as a major element of the positioning of Central Asia on the world energy market. Kazakhstan’s civil nuclear programme confirms Astana’s ambitions on the international scene, with Iran as a potentially important client. At the same time, given the lack of preparation of its political leaders, Central Asia could also be transformed into a zone of uncontrolled traffic of radioactive products. In the sector of electricity, the author has noticed the existence of an original international cooperation, through task sharing, between Russian, Chinese and Iranian companies. On the national level, they also insist, again, on the lack of initiative by central powers and on their direct participation in the predation of their respective country’s natural resources.
Built up on a wide selection of secondary sources, this substantial overview of Central Asia confronted with multiple issues of globalisation offers a subtle analysis of many issues of the rapid transformation of the region since the end of the Soviet period. The author’s have shown particularly sensitive to change in short periods of time, and to the identification of a wide combination of historical factors. From this viewpoint, their work can be considered too an interesting and innovative contribution to a global history of the region during the decisive past two decades. Their sometimes iconoclastic analysis also provides productive perspectives for global policy making in the region, and will no doubt offer inspiration to decision making readers ― at least to those for whom Central Asia does not constitute a second-rank object.