Russia as a Regional Hegemon: Dr. Eugene Huskey on Linkages and Leverages in Central Asia

By Nancy Pellegrino

On Tuesday, February 24th, the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies welcomed its second guest lecturer of the semester, Dr. Eugene Huskey, a professor emeritus from Stetson University and expert on Kyrgyzstan. His talk focused on how Russian relations in Central Asia contribute to the Spring Colloquia’s theme of “Russia in the World”.

What makes up Central Asia? The five countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are fixed between Russia, China, and the Middle East and are rich in minerals, water, and other natural resources. These predominantly Muslim countries operate under different forms of government, ranging from the staunchly authoritarian Turkmenistan to the unstable democracy in Kyrgyzstan. However, not too long ago, these countries welcomed the modernization, healthcare, and political stability that their admittance into the USSR provided them. Their history from Soviet times provides context for the multilateral relations in the region now.

Central Asia is of great geopolitical strategic value to Russia. Its location acts as a buffer zone between Russia and the Middle East. Its amount of migrant workers and students in Russia and the presence of Russian populations in capital cities makes the region a “sphere of privileged interest”. Russia involvement in Central Asian economics, political events and organizations, and military has created the system of linkages and leverages. Huskey defined linkages as “the stable connections binding people and institutions of one country to another”, and leverages as the “use of advantages and vulnerabilities” to exploit smaller powers at the will of the other’s leader. This system is so formidable, Huskey argued, that Russia will likely remain the region’s “indispensable guarantor” in the foreseeable future.

Strengthening cultural and linguistic ties has been a big source of Russian soft power in Central Asia. Despite the recent revival of titular languages (languages native to the people the countries are named after), Russian is still the lingua franca of the region and among elites. Huskey shared that Russian language schools often tend to offer better instruction and there has been increased efforts by Russia in this area and in providing scholarships for migrant students. Though Russian and Chinese presence leaves little room for American influence, there is a small American university in Kyrgyzstan. Russia also acts as a gatekeeper for world culture to Central Asia since most of their media about the world is filtered through a Russian state-media broadcast. Separate from this exposure, Russia uses their military and financial support to forcefully encourage their Central Asian partners to align their regional and international interests with Russia. Though Russia is the major power in most inter-governmental organizations that Central Asian countries prescribe to, like the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Agreement, there have still been questions about China’s future role in the region.

To end his lecture, Huskey addressed these questions about the threat of Chinese investment and interests in Central Asia to Russia’s sphere of influence. He first argued that Chinese linkages in the region are predominantly impersonal and economic. While China has expanded Confucius institutions for Chinese language and culture, they have not been received like Russian efforts. China’s foreign policy towards Central Asia does not involve rhetoric similar to creating the “Russian World” or appealing to their “compatriots abroad”, and therefore, will not be as effective. In conclusion, the international community should anticipate a continuation of Russian-Central Asian partnership in the years to come.

Nancy Pellegrino is a second year student majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Diplomcy and Global Politics.

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