Monday, 06 November 2017 00:00

Why Central Asia Counts

 Read at Middle East Insights

 By S. Frederick Starr

Both Asia and the West have failed to come to grips with Central Asia, and both are now paying a price for this failure. True, it’s easy to ignore a region that until recently appeared only on the western fringes of maps of Asia, the eastern fringe of maps of Europe, or the southern fringe of maps of Russia. But as we start to view the Eurasian landmass as a single continent, Eureka! There is Central Asia, square in the centre!

This is how Central Asia was perceived for 3,000 years: as the only part of Eurasia that was in direct and intimate contact with all the great civilizational centres around its edges: India, China, Europe, and the Middle East. It was Central Asians who set up and ran the socalled Silk Roads connecting these economies. And thanks to the stimulation provided by that commercial contact, it was also Central Asians who led the world intellectually in fields as diverse as mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and astronomy a millennium ago. For five centuries prior to the Mongol invasion, Central Asians did more to create modern science than all those other centres combined.

Soviet rule did much to isolate Central Asia from the world. For seventy years all its roads (and railroads and air routes) led to Moscow, and for a like period all profits from its rich mines, manufactures, and agriculture flowed also to the imperial centre.

Now all this has changed. Six independent states—Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and, however fitfully, Afghanistan—enjoy sovereignty and selfgovernment, and maintain relations with scores of other countries worldwide. Thanks to new roads, railroads and airline routes, the products of this landlocked region, whether oil, gas, cotton, uranium, fruits and vegetables, or manufactured goods, flow to eager foreign buyers. International investors are pouring billions into the region in the expectation of future profits.

All of this has been noticed by the major world powers. China’s One Belt One Road project depends on the cooperation of Central Asian states. To assure it, China is fast becoming the region’s largest purchaser of energy and its largest external investor.

Russia, which ruled all of the region except Afghanistan for 127 years, still dreams of converting the area into what it calls a “zone of privileged interest” and promotes this goal through a chain of military bases there and through its “Eurasian Economic Union.” Meanwhile, Europe and the United States are still the largest external investors, thanks to their support for hydrocarbon development, while Japan, Korea and India all maintain important trade and diplomatic ties with the regional states.

How do the Central Asians manage this skein of competing claims on their resources and loyalty? The key to their diplomacy is the principle of balance. Thus, they use their ties with China to balance Russia and their links with the West to balance both Russia and China. Over the millennia, many of Central Asians’ closest foreign ties have been with India. These links are weak today, but are steadily being renewed, and are bound to grow as the so-called Southern Corridor between the Indian sub-continent and Europe is re-opened. As this happens, and as these links extend to all of Southeast Asia, the Central Asians will have a fourth element that they can bring to bear as they balance external forces affecting them.

To be effective, such balancing requires a high degree of cooperation and coordination among Central Asian countries themselves. During the first two decades of independence, there were few intra-regional ties, since each country was focused on consolidating its newly-won sovereignty. Now this is changing. Regular consultations are being held in many fields and intra-regional trade and contacts are fast expanding. Russia long opposed such intra-regional links, preferring instead regional organizations of which it is a part and which it can control. China, however, considers them normal, and does not seek to interfere; nor do the European Union and United States.

Provided that external powers do not interfere, the future of intra-regional cooperation among the six countries of Central Asia is bright. They themselves have studied the models represented by ASEAN and the Nordic Council. While not diminishing sovereignties, such cooperation will create a regional market in place of the current discrete national markets, and will enable regional governments to speak with a single voice on matters of common interest.

Will the countries of Southeast Asia grasp the actual and potential significance of Central Asia? The cost of not doing so could be high. For this is the only world region surrounded by nuclear powers (Russia, China, India, Pakistan). With nuclear states in Europe and America closely engaged there as well, the potential for bumping heads there is high. By fostering constructive relations within the region, Southeast Asian countries can reduce that possibility. Efforts to impose stability and security on Central Asia from the outside have not only failed but invariably led to isolation, instability and economic uncertainty. By contrast, a self-governing and prosperous Central Asia would be the best neighbour for superpowers and the best partner for more distant countries.

Beyond helping to avoid the geopolitical dangers that can arise from economic breakdown or external hegemony in Central Asia, ASEAN countries have political, economic, and cultural interests in successful developments there. Politically, the rise of prosperous and sovereign states in Central Asia is the best assurance that major powers will be content to coexist with them as good neighbours. In economics, the region offers natural resources and, increasingly, modern skills that are relevant to ASEAN countries. Culturally, Central Asia, while one of the historic centres of Islam and the site of its greatest intellectual flowering, is a region of secular states, secular laws, secular courts, and secular education. This arrangement assures the rights of believers of all faiths and equally, of non-believers.

As such, Central Asia offers a potential model for the Muslim world generally, and an alternative to the theocratic models of governance.

The key to Central Asia achieving its full potential lies in the kind of intra-regional cooperation and coordination developed by ASEAN countries and the Nordic Union. Such intra-regional ties are not against anyone. By fostering development and harmony, they serve the interests of all, both within the region and beyond.


S. Frederick Starr is founding Chairman of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.

Svante Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy
Read 7438 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 January 2018 20:50





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.