Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Sixth Report


Collapse of Soviet Union and its consequences

13. The precipitate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 gave its constituent republics in the region no real alternative but to accept full and immediate independence from all Soviet political, social and economic structures. This was not necessarily a welcome development for all the new states. Soviet planning policy had, for example, left the cotton farms of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan entirely dependent upon cotton-processing plants now in Uzbekistan or Russia. The borders which were imposed upon the Soviet Republic of Turkestan during the 1920s and 1930s, in an attempt to separate ethnicities which at that stage had barely been defined, remain the borders of the five independent Central Asian states.[22] In the years which followed, whole populations and ethnic groupings were displaced, many as a matter of policy. Likewise, the borders imposed by the Soviet Union upon the peoples of the South Caucasus could not and did not reflect their complex ethnic distributions, and given the mixed ethnicities of many areas it was impossible to do so. Challenges to these borders underlie the ethnic conflicts which were repressed in Soviet times but which have since emerged. Other threats to stability came from the vacuum left by the removal of the region from Moscow's exclusive sphere of influence, and, to an extent, from Moscow's supervision and control.

14. The British Government has as key objectives of its policy in the region the support of the independence, security and territorial integrity of the countries in the region and the resolution of existing conflicts.[23] In succeeding sections we examine this area of policy. First we consider the activities of major external powers in the region. We then discuss the armed conflicts which have already arisen, and finally examine a number of potential threats to stability which come from the growth of ethnic tensions, political and religious extremism, weapons proliferation, drugs, poor management of natural resources, economic collapse and threats to civil society.

External powers influential in the region


15. Four regional powers—Russia, Iran, China and Turkey—have active interests in the fluid strategic politics of the region. Russia is the state which is the most heavily involved in the region by far. Under treaties of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) it supplies the majority of peace-keeping forces to police the conflicts in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia. Some states in the region see the CIS as an institution dominated by Russian interests and as a vehicle for Russian policy. Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Georgia have all recently signalled their intention to withdraw from the CIS collective security treaty when it comes up for renewal, and Uzbekistan has recently joined the alternative regional security alignment of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova to form a group now known as GUUAM. We also encountered coolness towards the CIS in Turkmenistan, where exit visas are now required for visits to other CIS states, partly in pursuit of its declared policy of "permanent neutrality." [24] Russian troops patrol Georgia's southern border under a bilateral agreement and there are Russian bases in Tajikistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan.[25] All states of the region are to a greater or lesser extent reliant upon the fragile Russian economy: the Russian economic collapse of 1998 had severe effects for all the economies of the region[26].

16. Russia tends to see the region as falling principally within its sphere of influence. It is a widely-held perception among our witnesses and those we spoke to in the region that elements of the political and military elite in Moscow are not reconciled to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the diminution of Russian influence over these former Soviet republics. Developments in the South Caucasus also have a significant impact on the separatist republics of the North Caucasus which lie within the Russian Federation.[27] Russia is alleged to be fomenting ethnic rivalries on both sides of conflicts in the South Caucasus in order to destabilise the region further.[28] As Dr Mary Kaldor of the Centre for Global Governance of the London School of Economics put it, quoting Margot Light, "Russia . . . has been both 'peace-maker and trouble maker.'"[29] Russia maintains an active military co-operation with Armenia, which includes substantial transfers of arms. In Central Asia, its significant peace-keeping presence in Tajikistan has caused concern to neighbouring Uzbekistan. Mr Anthony Hyman, Associate Editor of Central Asian Survey, told us that "the states and governments [of the region] are very sensitive to . . . a neo-colonialist attitude. They feel that Russia is patronising them or threatening them in some respects."[30] This was a view which had wide currency in a number of states, principally Georgia and Azerbaijan. Mr Robert Chenciner believed the real threat to regional stability was "further Russian ambitions to recreate the Soviet empire" and "to control the regional natural resources and to replace Chinese, Turkish, Fundamental Islamic and Persian influences."[31] Mr Sammut of LINKS alleged a tacit Western acceptance that Russia has a special interest in, and veto over, developments in the South Caucasus.[32]


17. Dr Herzig identified a complementarity between Russian and Iranian interests in the region. There is some co-ordination of policy between Russia and Iran: both favour a similar approach to the legal status of the Caspian Sea, and both are threatened by potential or actual conflict and its consequences, for example from the displacement of refugees.[33] They both feel some pressure from the West and seek to resist Western "penetration" of the region. Razmik Panossian of the London School of Economics identified a Russia/Iran/Armenia axis in tension with a USA/Turkey/Azerbaijan axis,[34] though this may be an oversimplification—we were aware from our visit of considerable support for Armenia from the USA. Iran is developing its commercial interests in Central Asia principally through the vehicle of the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO), which has its seat in Tehran. This includes the five Central Asian states together with Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. In the South Caucasus, Dr Mary Kaldor told us that Iran was concerned about the spread of conflict and the pressure of refugees. Iran is also said to be concerned about the potential for Azerbaijani nationalism among the large Azeri population in its north-western provinces where ethnic Azeris, numbering over 12 million, form some 25 per cent of Iran's population and easily outnumber Azerbaijan's total population of around 7.5 million.[35] Dr Kaldor told us that this factor increasingly led to perceptions in the region that Iran was close to Armenia, particularly as Iran has supported a banned Islamist party in Azerbaijan.[36]


18. Dr Herzig discussed with us the specific role in the region of Turkey. Turkey is undoubtedly the power in the region closest to the West: it is a full member of NATO, a member of the Council of Europe, and an applicant for membership of the EU, although its recent relationships with the EU and the Council of Europe have been strained. Istanbul is the seat of the Black Sea Economic Co-operation, a regional organisation which includes Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Albania and Greece. Turkey has strong cultural and historical connections with the region, and in particular with the states of Central Asia which share Turkic languages (Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan): there appears to be a groundswell of opinion within Turkey to maximise these connections.[37] In Turkmenistan, we even understand that there are five or six Government ministers who are Turkish citizens with substantial business interests in textile and construction projects in the country. Turkey also has particularly strong connections with Azerbaijan, again on the basis of culture and language, while its relations with Armenia are blighted by memories of massacres of Armenians in 1915-16 for which the Turkish Government does not accept responsibility.[38] The border between Turkey and Armenia is closed. Turkey's developing political system and market economy is based upon Western norms: in the early 1990s it was seen as a potential model for the development of the region, although the impetus behind this move has now diminished. Turkey is active in promoting the development of an oil pipeline from Baku to Tbilisi and down to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean, and has resisted proposals to ship more oil via the Bosphorus which it claims is too crowded and polluted.


19. China's interests in the region are potentially great but apparently little manifest at present. The Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR), which borders Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, is booming economically, following heavy investment.[39] However, it is a region far from the centre of the Chinese state, where elements in the local population are pressing for greater autonomy, which Beijing is unwilling to grant. Its trade with its Central Asian neighbours is healthy and improving. We heard on our visits that Chinese relations with both Kazakhstan and the Kyrgyz Republic are sound. China and Kazakhstan have settled a number of outstanding border and riparian disputes hanging over from the Soviet era, although there are still disputes over the allocation of natural resources. The border between China and the Kyrgyz Republic also remains relatively open. However, we understand that there are increasing fears in Beijing that separatist tendencies, blamed upon the indigenous Turkic Moslem Uighur population of the XUAR, are being fomented by cross-border contacts.


20. The most influential single external power active in the region is the United States. The US has definite policy interests in this part of the world, motivated by the existence of substantial energy resources as much as by geopolitical concerns. There are two special US envoys who cover the region, Ambassadors Richard Morningstar and Stephen Sestanovich, both of whom make regular visits. There is a heavy US diplomatic presence, as Table 1 illustrates. US policy towards Iran is designed to neutralise any Iranian influence in the region. To this end the US has been an active opponent of any proposal to construct oil or gas pipelines across Iranian territory. The Iran-Libya Sanctions Act places considerable restrictions upon US firms seeking to do business involving Iran.[40] A Bill recently passed by the US Senate, and now before the House of Representatives, seeks to bolster the policy of the Administration towards the political and economic development of the region.[41]


US Diplomatic Presence in South Caucasus and Central Asia
Number of US diplomats

Source: FCO, Evidence p. 219.

21. Some Central Asian republics are seeking to develop their own foreign policy doctrines to safeguard their positions. In Ashgabat we heard of the principle of permanent neutrality adopted by the Government of Turkmenistan and confirmed by the Turkmen Medjlis. This was the subject of a resolution of the UN General Assembly in December 1995, which recognised and supported Turkmenistan's permanent neutrality and called upon Member States to respect it.[42] The President of the Kyrgyz Republic has attempted to develop further a foreign policy doctrine based on partnership of all countries associated with the ancient trading routes of the Silk Road.[43] There have been attempts to hold regular meetings of the three Heads of State of the South Caucasus, although the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, which we discuss below, has made co-operation difficult. As we have mentioned above[44] Uzbekistan has recently joined the alternative security grouping of CIS nations comprising Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine and Azerbaijan to form an alignment known as GUUAM.

22. At present the four regional powers appear to have established an uneasy balance of power, and no one country has a dominant influence. It is clearly not in the United Kingdom's interests that the independent states of the region should fall into the sphere of influence of one regional power. Nor should the United States be allowed to gain a predominant influence over regional policy.

22   cf. Appendix 7, Evidence p. 127. Back

23   See above, paragraph 6. Back

24   For this policy see below, paragraph 21. Back

25   See map at the front of this Report. Back

26   See below, paragraph 76. Back

27   Appendix 12, Evidence p. 160. Back

28   Appendix 15, Evidence p. 168. Back

29   Appendix 28, Evidence p. 191. Back

30   Q19. Back

31   Appendix 15, Evidence p. 168. Back

32   Evidence p. 25. Back

33   Q5. Back

34   Evidence p. 167. Back

35   Appendix 28, Evidence p. 191. Back

36   Appendix 28, Evidence p. 192. Back

37   Q16. Back

38   Appendix 17, Evidence pp. 170-172. Back

39   This has been in industrial development, and exploitation of oil and gas deposits and mineral resources. Back

40   QQ134, 137. See paragraphs 98-101. Back

41   Bill S. 579 of 106th Congress, The Silk Road Strategy Act: reported upon by the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in May 1999 (S. Rep. 45). Back

42   UN General Assembly, Resolution 50/80, 12 December 1995. Back

43   Diplomacy of the Silk Road: a foreign policy doctrine, Mr Askar Akayev, President of the Kyrgyz Republic. Back

44   See above, paragraph 15. Back

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