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Where is Central Asia? A strategic grey-zone lost to the world

Central Asia - a dark spot on western media's radar?Astana by night.  Picture: Julian Macedo, Flickr
Central Asia – a dark spot on western media’s radar? Astana by night. Picture: Julian Macedo, Flickr

Central Asia has been the source of strategy and conflict for thousands of years. The region has been a backdrop for some of the most important trade routes in the world, most notably the Silk Road. It has been coveted by both regional and international powers, among them the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great (who founded cities, lost battles and married a Persian bride in the region), and set the scene for The Great Game between England and Russia in the early 1900s. Yet, many today have a hard time naming its countries. Why is this region so forgotten by the western world and the media?

In the early 20th century a historian introduced The Heartland Theory, naming Central Asia a “Pivot of History”, and predicting that the power in control of Central Asia would ultimately be the power of the world. As of yet, that has not happened. Today, the vast area stretching between Russia and Afghanistan is a region unknown to many. References to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan in the media are few and far between. An exception perhaps being exciting tidbits and news like the relatively recent revolution in Kyrgyzystan in 2010, a corruption scandal involving one of Sweden’s largest companies, and the Uzbek president’s daughter, a self-made popstar, accusing her relatives of witchcraft.

The golden statue in Turkmenistan. Picture: Martijn.Munneke, Flickr
The golden statue in Turkmenistan. Picture: Martijn.Munneke, Flickr

This lack of attention in the media is surprising for a number of reasons; the region is for one thing home to some remarkable sights – for example the world’s largest flag, a giant rotating golden statue and some of the world’s highest mountain ranges. Furthermore it is home to 90 million people and is rich in natural resources in the form of oil, natural gas and coal (including the largest oilfield outside the middle east), as well as being in close proximity to superpowers like China and Russia, and US military operations in Asia and the Middle East.

 In fact Central Asia continues to be a strategic hotspot – sandwiched between Russia and China, it is also relatively close to the regional powers of Iran and Pakistan, and has gained renewed strategic importance in the aftermath of 9/11 and the “War on Terror”. Although Russia is still a major player in the post-soviet central Asian republics, the United States exerts considerable influence. This is not only through military interests in Afghanistan, but also in the form of substantial military aid to other republics, with Hilary Clinton going so far as to propose a “new silk road” initiative of international economic connections in the region.

However, America’s aspirations for cooperation with the Central Asian republics have note gone uncontested. In 2013 Russia offered Kyrgyzstan over 1 billion US dollars in military aid and a massive debt-writeoff, in exchange for evicting the Americans from Manas, a major transport hub for soldiers heading to and from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, China’s president Xi Jinping has proposed his own “Silk Road economic belt”, with Chinese products, banks and infrastructure companies forming a notable presence.

map over Central Asia.
Central Asia.

In September of 2014 it was Tajikistan’s turn to host the Shanghai Cooperation Summit – a huge political event with the presidents of China, Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, and the leaders of the rest of the Central Asian Republics turning up to discuss security, national intelligence services and economic cooperation. A summit of that scale, between such heavy weights in international politics, is not an everyday occurrence. Surely serving as the backdrop for bilateral talks between China and Russia about the situation in Ukraine would raise at least a few eyebrows in interest in Tajikistan, if not Central Asia’s, direction?

 Yet, when the time came for the Shanghai Cooperation Summit, the world’s media was suspiciously quiet. In spite of decorations, presidential speeches, handshakes between Putin and Xi Jinping, a brand new international airport, and the unveiling of the world’s largest teahouse to celebrate the occasion, neither Dushanbe nor Tajikistan became the darling of Western media. On the opening day of the summit one of Sweden’s largest newspapers dedicated its front page to circus elephants, with the rest of the newspaper not mentioning the summit at all. A scan of other, more international news sources revealed a similar trend; apart from a few casual references in passing, the summit and its participants were conspicuously absent.

Why then has western media unilaterally decided that this region is not worthy of our attention? Maybe it is because the names of the countries are difficult to spell and pronounce? Perhaps because it is easier to write the region off as simply being under Russian influence? But shrugging off the Central Asian republics as a generic territory under Russian control is over-simplistic. Central Asia is not unimportant in international politics. There are powerful regional dynamics at play that are changing and shaping nations – the game is on. Ultimately, the question is not why or when we should be looking at Central Asia, but rather, why haven’t we done it sooner?

Isabel Roberth

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