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Explaining Great Power Status in Central Asia: Unfamilarity and Discontent

By Eric McGlinchey and Marlene Laruelle

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Great powers see Central Asia as a region where they can test strategies for building a post-Cold War international order. Of the great powers, Russia and China are the most influential in the region. Washington’s soft power, despite the continued United States presence in neighboring Afghanistan, trails far behind that of Russia and China. Our research explores variations great in power status. More specifically, we seek to uncover the drivers of Central Asian public perceptions toward Russia, China, and the United States.

Gallup surveyed four Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—in its annual World Polls from 2006 to 2018. Russia enjoys the highest approval among Central Asians, with 80 percent of Central Asians on average expressing approval of the Russian government. China trails Russia, with Central Asian approval of Beijing at 46 percent. Central Asians are most tepid toward the U.S. leadership, with an average of only 30 percent of Central Asians expressing approval of Washington. Focus groups we have recently conducted in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan offer preliminary explanations for variations in Central Asian approval of the great powers.

Russia
Seen from Kazakhstan, Russia is perceived as a more developed country, with a better economy, technology, science, military, and space conquest programs, as well as more advanced culture, sport, and welfare. Pensions and maternal capital are among the welfare services that raise the most admiration from Central Asians. About three-quarters of focus groups participants declare that they see Russia as a partner, ally, and brother nation with whom relations were excellent. Some mentioned that Russia acted like a leader or older brother, but this was never a very sharp critique and several participants even showed understanding. As one explained, “Yes, they have their imperial wishes…that said, it’s understandable and there is no threat in that” (Kazakh-speaking FG, Astana).

Military partnership with Russia was particularly appreciated, but not economic dependency, a topic on which participants were divided between those who saw dependency as positive and those who felt that it limited Kazakhstan’s prosperity. No participant saw the Russian minority as a fifth column. Respondents were also overwhelmingly in agreement with the Russian position on the annexation of Crimea. At the level of international politics, no one defended the United States or the West in the current wave of tensions with Russia. All supported Moscow, evoking Russia’s right to defend its great power status and often expressing admiration for the way in which the country and its leader have been able to recover and stand up. Vladimir Putin was celebrated as a wise leader for Russia by a huge majority.

Yet, this overwhelming positive appreciation was much more nuanced once the discussion moves to more domestic issues. Perception of the 19th century colonization, of the Soviet nationalities policies displayed more diverging statements, with participants divided almost equally between those criticizing the loss of national language, religion, and traditions during Soviet times, and those more positive on the Soviet experience in terms of modernization. This confirms that while Central Asians support Russia’s international posture, they nevertheless maintain a critical distance from their big neighbor.

China
Despite Beijing’s growing economic presence in Central Asia—China is Central Asia’s most important economic partner—the Chinese government’s reception among the Central Asian public has been decidedly mixed. Central Asians fear Chinese investments come with strings attached, that there will be an erosion of state sovereignty as the region’s governments become more dependent on Beijing. Participants in our May 2019 Kyrgyzstan focus groups were so concerned they feared “China might appropriate Kyrgyz land and resources to compensate for unpaid debts.” Although this sentiment may seem alarmist, a review of empirics suggests this concern is perhaps not unfounded. Despite protests against Beijing’s incarceration of Muslim minorities—including ethnic Kyrgyz and Kazakhs—in northwest China, Central Asian governments have failed to criticize China’s “re-education” camps in Xinjiang. Central Asian governments have agreed to hand control of natural resources over to China should debts to Beijing not be repaid. And a stipulation for many Chinese infrastructure projects in the region is that they prioritize the employment of Chinese rather than Central Asian workers.   

Perhaps the greatest reason for why Central Asians are cool toward Beijing, however, is lack of knowledge about the great power to the east. One third of Central Asians in Gallup’s polls either refused to answer or responded do not know when asked about their approval of the Chinese leadership. In contrast, 16 percent of Central Asians refused to answer or responded do not know when asked about their approval of the Russian leadership. This pattern was similarly reflected in our Kazakh and Kyrgyz focus groups; participants were intimately familiar with political, cultural, and economic developments in Russia while their knowledge of China was far less extensive.

The United States
Of the three great powers, Central Asians were least likely to express approval for the United States. Our focus groups offer clues behind Washington’s chilly reception in the region. Focus group participants had few personal connections to America and little access to media that presents the United States in an objective light. Respondents were thus inclined toward echoing the negative coverage of Washington found in the local press and toward believing conspiracy theories about the U.S. that proliferate in the regional social media. Not all perceptions of the US, though, were negative. Yes, when asked what they associate with America, many focus group participants suggested the U.S. was a “perverted” country that brings only bad things to the world. Others, however, admired what they anticipated was likely a better quality of life and comfort in the US than in Central Asia and America’s superior system of education, scientific development, and technology. While participants’ positive sentiments toward the U.S. centered around standards of living, education, and technology, few participants expressed an admiration for America’s government, democracy, and freedom. Indeed, some participants denied U.S. democracy, seeing it as fake and illusory. Other aspects of U.S. soft power, such as movies and musical cultural productions, which one would imagine to be a vector of U.S. soft power, either do not appear in participants’ narratives or are perceived negatively, as promoting a decadent culture.

Questions about Washington’s role in world politics sparked the most negative answers: “Everything bad comes to us from America” and “America wants to subvert the rest of the world.” Some focus group participants, citing Washington’s role in Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan, feared U.S. foreign policy was aimed at the destruction of the Muslim world. Some participants, moreover, believed that the U.S. funds jihadists and terrorists. They also feared the U.S. poses a threat to Central Asian societies. America’s purportedly permissive approach to gender and sexual minority issues and its championing of LGBTQ rights abroad, particularly under the Obama administration, was perceived as an affront to Central Asian culture.

Despite this negativity, there are hints of light in how Central Asians perceive the U.S. While some dismissed United States investments as an effort to strip the region of its natural resources, the majority of Kazakh and Kyrgyz focus group participants described United States-Central Asian relations as good and expressed a desire for a greater U.S. economic presence and more technological exchanges. One participant from the Aktau (Western Kazakhstan) focus group summarized well the broad conclusion that emerges from these discussions: “We need to communicate more [with the U.S.] so economic relations improve, so we bring each other good things economically. But if they come with programs such as LGBT, we have to reject them.”

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With China and the United States, the single greatest driver behind negative perceptions may simply be a lack of knowledge. One third of respondents in the 2006-2018 surveys declined to respond to Gallup’s query about attitudes toward the U.S. government. Conspiracy theories about China—that unmarried Chinese men are increasingly seeking brides in Central Asia or that Beijing is seeking to annex Central Asian territory—and about the U.S.—that Washington is funding terrorists to delegitimate Islam or gay communities to destroy nations’ demography – thrive in information scarce environments. Yes, Central Asians may watch American movies and listen to American music, but Washington has made only a modest effort toward identifying and championing interests Americans and Central Asians hold in common. These interests are many—environmental protection, education, health, tourism, and, most of all, sustainable economic development. That so many Central Asians consistently decline to reveal their views toward the U.S. government is at once concerning and encouraging. It suggests that U.S. outreach and global messaging has been anemic and has been so for a long time. This absence of engagement, we anticipate, may be the wellspring of many of the negative sentiments participants expressed in our focus groups. At the same time, Washington’s engagement needs not remain limited. More robust engagement around shared interests like education and economic development holds the potential to reverse Washington’s decades-long slide in influence in Central Asia.

 

Associated Reading
Laruelle, Marlene, and Dylan Royce. 2019. Kazakhstani Public Opinion of the United States and Russia: Testing Variables of (Un)Favourability. Central Asian Survey 38(2): 197–216.
McGlinchey, Eric. 2018. The Changing Landscape of Uncivil Society in Kyrgyzstan. The Foreign Policy Centre. July 18.

Biography
Eric McGlinchey is Associate Professor of Politics at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. He is the author of Chaos, Violence, Dynasty: Politics and Islam in Central Asia.

Marlene Laruelle is Research Professor of International Affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs; Director of the Central Asia Program; and Associate Director of the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. Her books include: Russian Nationalism: Imaginaries, Doctrines and Political Battlefields; Understanding Russia: The Challenges of Transformation; Russia’s Arctic Strategies and the Future of the Far North; Globalizing Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Challenges of Economic Development; and The “Chinese Question” in Central Asia: Domestic Order, Social Changes and the Chinese Factor.

Associated Minerva Project
Russian, Chinese, Militant, and Ideologically Extremist Messaging Effects on United States Favorability Perceptions in Central Asia

Supporting Service Agency
Army Research Office

 

Nota Bene
Content appearing from Minerva-funded researchers—be it the sharing of their scientific findings or the Owl in the Olive Tree blogs posts—does not constitute Department of Defense policy or endorsement by the Department of Defense.