Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a family photo before a meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Contact Group on Afghanistan, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Sputnik via AFP

Daniel Williams’ book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East,  published in 2016, contributed much to our understanding of the plight of an ancient religious confession under extreme duress. It remains relevant now:

“Across the Middle East today, Christian communities find themselves the victims of widening repression to a point where, in the region that was its birthplace, Christianity’s very existence is under threat.… The ideological source of such threats is no secret. They originate in ultra-conservative Salafi and Wahhabi movements within Islam, for whom Christians are, at best, dispensable.” 

It took some courage to say this, which is why I felt at the time that Williams was a writer to watch. That is why his recent article in Asia Times, “Central Asia on the fence about Russia’s war,” comes as something of a disappointment.  

Williams says, “The myths and realities of 30 years of Central Asian independence from the Soviet Union suddenly stand on shaky ground. Each government – all of them authoritarian – use glorified local identities and histories to distinguish their nations from eras of Russian domination.” 

The suggestion seems to be that the Central Asian states and their cultures are artificial constructions that must be considered failed or in some way unattractive because of the lingering evidence of their Soviet/czarist provenance. But no nation can be blamed for having the cultural legacy it has.

While Williams may wish to enlist these countries in an anti-Russian crusade – to be followed at the appropriate time, no doubt, by an anti-Chinese crusade – Central Asians don’t have quite the appetite for the Great Game that some Western commentators do.

After all, it is the Central Asians who will take it in the neck if and when things get out of hand (as the Ukrainians are now doing). Be that as it may. One of the best traits of Central Asians is their conviction that dialogue, mutual respect, and peace are essential to life and civilization. 

As for the suggestion that Central Asian culture is somehow flimsy and artificial, it has been forged over centuries and reflects ideas and customs inherited from China, India, the Ottoman Empire, Persia, Russia, and the Soviet Union. This diversity should be seen as real and a source of strength. 

Central Asia is a multicultural society where religious freedom flourishes despite claims to the contrary by the ideological fussbudgets among us, and certainly to a greater degree than one normally encounters in the Middle East.

Uzbekistan’s cultural roots go back 2,500 years. During Islam’s Golden Age (from the 8th to the 14th century), Uzbeks were world leaders in science, especially medicine, astronomy, and optics, as well as in philosophy and art. Medieval scholars used medical treatises from Central Asia to enhance European science. Williams may wish to consult Fred Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane.

Sovereign nations

Each of the five countries in Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – is a sovereign nation with an independent foreign policy.

In some ways, their first 30 years of independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union was less traumatic for them than the first 30 years of American independence from Great Britain was for the US. No foreign power has invaded any Central Asian state and torched its presidential palace, whereas Britain burned down the White House 25 years after America’s Constitutional Convention. 

The Central Asian countries do not see themselves as pawns in someone else’s “Great Game,” and reject any attempt to treat them as such. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have chosen their respective paths of socio-political development, and, like India, have no desire to buy into whatever web Russia, China or Europe may be spinning at any given time. 

Williams says, “Some [Central Asian countries] depend on Russia for trade and transit routes for fossil fuel exports.”

Indeed they do, but then, as Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar recently said to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, “If you look at the major buyers of oil and gas from Russia [today], I think you’ll find most of them are in Europe. But I am pretty sure if we wait two or three months and actually look at who are the big buyers of Russian gas and oil, I suspect the list won’t be very different from what [it is today].” 

Realpolitik has the strangest way of trumping ideology. (See my article in Asia Times “For India’s top diplomat, the Emperor has no clothes.”)

Likewise, Williams says that “Uzbekistan, which imports oil from Russia, has gingerly expressed criticism of Russia.” In fact, Uzbekistan has criticized Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in no uncertain terms while noting that the European Union continues to import Russian oil and gas despite its (justifiable) opposition to the war. 

Subservient or pursuing national interests?

Williams states, no doubt correctly, that “appearing subservient to a new czar is not a good look for the heirs of Genghis Kahn, Attila the Hun and Tamerlane.” But then is forging a security alliance with Moscow or Ankara ipso facto subservience to those capitals? Is London subservient to Washington for maintaining a security pact with it? Williams should really give Central Asia more credit. 

Except for Turkmenistan, which is strictly neutral, Central Asian countries since independence have pursued “multi-vector” foreign policies, mostly anchored in principled realpolitik. This basic orientation makes sense in view of the number of predators at loose in their neighborhood. 

For Williams to say that the Central Asian countries are “playing it safe” is clearly meant as criticism. But there is a method to their madness. It’s called diplomacy, or statecraft, which may no longer be in vogue in the West, but continues to have its adherents in the East. In any case, just because Central Asia does not blindly toe the “Atlanticism” line does not mean it is dancing to someone else’s tune. 

Commenting on the Russo-Ukrainian war, Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi recently had this to say: “Kazakhstan is interested in Ukraine remaining a stable, independent, and territorially integral state.… This is a consistent and principled position of our country, based on the basic principles of the United Nations Charter, including the principle of territorial integrity of states.

“Proceeding from this, Kazakhstan in its international practice has never recognized the self-determined state entities as the subjects of international law (on the example of Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, or Taiwan). Therefore, the issue of recognition of the sovereignty of Donetsk and Lugansk is not on our country’s agenda.” 

Not much subservience there. 

Ditto the recent statement of Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov: “Uzbekistan is committed to finding a peaceful solution to the [Russo-Ukrainian War] and resolving the conflict through diplomatic means.… Based on national interests, Uzbekistan will continue mutually beneficial cooperation with both countries.… We do not recognize Donetsk and Lugansk as independent republics.” 

Back to the future

Williams asks, “Is Russia a trustworthy neutral partner or will it return to its 19th-century role of protector of a Christian client state?” 

This could be a reference to Russian “peacekeeping forces” in Armenia, an ancient Christian nation that, as the US Congress has asserted, experienced attempted genocide in the recent past (H.Res.296 – Affirming the United States Record on the Armenian Genocide).

Without passing judgment on the effectiveness or appropriateness of Russian “peacekeepers” along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border, it seems Williams rejects the idea that Armenia has the right to seek international aid to deter attack. Does he have a nit to pick with Turkey assisting Azerbaijan? 

Williams says that “all Central Asian countries share at least some vulnerabilities that make it dicey to criticize Russia, much less sign on to Western economic sanctions,” and he is no doubt correct. But would it not be just as dicey (indeed almost unthinkable) for Europeans to criticize American sanctions against anyone

Such are the wages of the emerging bi- and multipolar world order: Countries will have to choose while doing their utmost to retain their sovereign freedom of action. Central Asia has a leg up because, unlike others, it never ceased practicing traditional statecraft.

Javier M. Piedra

Javier M Piedra is a financial consultant, specialist in international development and former deputy assistant administrator for South and Central Asia at USAID.