During the Soviet Union’s time, Central Asia was considered in Russian’s sphere of influence. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, five new Central Asian republics gained their independence that are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. However, their independence seemed as an advantage, but they had also big disadvantages. Those states did not have enough experience about governing national resources and economic enterprises. Moreover, as a part of the Soviet legacy, the economies of those states were tied with each other and Russia. Thus, Russia still has economic power on Central Asia. However, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, other powerful neighbours such as China, India, Turkey and Iran reaffirmed their interest in Central Asia. Even the USA and the EU started to relation with them because of Central Asian natural resources. The neighbours wanted to create new political and economic relations with the New Central Asian states. The question is, which country will have more power in this region? This article will analyse the soft power tools of Russia and China in Central Asia and will compare these powers by examining their historical experiences in Central Asia, their economic and educational policies that applied it this region and also mentioned Turkey effects in the region.

SSSR created indivisible union state through their strategies. In Soviet Union time, Communist Russia applied economic dependency policy in Central Asia that they established new factories in every soviet republic but only in Russian central factories could produce final product, the other states factories only could produce intermediate goods. Through under Soviet republics became economically depended Russia. (Dorofeev, 2013) On the other hand, Russia, of course, has some clear advantages in getting its message through to people in Central Asia. The region was under Russian rule since roughly the last half of the 19th century, and despite being independent for nearly 25 years, many people in the countries of Central Asia still speak Russian and are familiar with Russian culture. Because of Soviet assimilation. More recently, several million Central Asian citizens have gone to Russia to find work and been exposed to the Russian language. Additionally, there are still several million ethnic Russians living in Central Asia, and since 1991 they have helped ensure that Russian television and radio are broadcast to the region. Dorofeev (2013) argued that Russia have long term plan in Central Asia, thus, they continued their soft power in Central Asia. However, Beshimov and Satke (2014) argued that Russia’s soft-power strategy is “short-term” and that the Kremlin really does not have a long-term plan.

As mentioned before, after collapse of Soviet Union, Russia wanted to continue their hegemony in Central Asia. Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has sought, through various economic treaties, to re-establish its control over the Central Asian republics. The first one, and most well-known, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) included 12 of the newly independent republics and was formed in late 1991. Russia then proposed the idea of an Economic Union in 1993 and after two years in January 1995, Russia signed a treaty on the formation of the Eurasian Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which were later joined by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. (Matveeva, 2013) When Putin came to power, he wanted to strengthen reintegration of the former Soviet space and the union was transformed into the Eurasian Economic Community (EEC), with the signing of a treaty by the five countries in October 2000. Eventually the idea of dropping customs barriers emerged and in 2007, Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty to establish the Customs Union. Since then the idea of the union has been developed and since 2013 there has been talks of establishing the Eurasian Economic Union, which could open its doors to countries beyond the borders of Central Asia. (Matveeva, 2013) The Kremlin’s economic offensive is aimed at reining in increasingly independent Central Asian leaders. Russia’s influence has been growing in Central Asia’s poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.  However, diminishing among its richest that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Its geopolitical project in Central Asia is facing increasing difficulties, as contenders from China and Turkey have emerged to challenge its power in the region.

On the other hand, Putin’s regional integration project will likely not prevent, but rather pave the way for Chinese comprehensive economic expansion. While Russia needs Central Asian states in the Customs Union for the purpose of maintaining its geopolitical presence, China pursues its economic benefits. Russia relies on its military might and traditional soft power in the region, whereas China applies its financial clout. (Shevies, 2006). So, while Beijing refrains from all out confrontation with Russia’s interests, Chinese policymakers certainly take advantage of the Kremlin’s missteps and limited capabilities. China takes note of the stagnating Russian economy that is gradually losing positions in the region. Russia and Central Asia overall trade turnover reached $27.3bn in 2011, when China’s commerce with Central Asia topped $46bn in 2012. Single-handedly, Beijing has become a main trade partner to all former Soviet states of Central Asia, except for Uzbekistan, where it is the second (Chandran, 2015). Much to Russia’s dismay, the Chinese “trade revolution” is still in motion. Beijing has strong interest in President Putin’s Eurasian economic integration initiative, since a free trade regime in Central Asia would lay better conditions for the flow of Chinese goods and investments. President Xi Jinping’s proposal to create the “Silk Road” economic belt with Eurasia aims to promote investment opportunities. Within the past year, China sealed $30bn investment package with Kazakhstan, $15bn deal with Uzbekistan and $3bn financial aid with Kyrgyzstan in various industries from oil and natural gas extraction to infrastructure projects throughout Central Asia. (Beshimov and Satke, 2014). As much as Russia is having a tough time to adapt to the fact that China scooped the energy-rich Central Asia, it has already happened. Chinese-built gas pipelines boosted Central Asia’s regional integration without downsizing sovereignty of any of the states. China’s oil and natural gas pipelines help Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to reroute their energy resources away from Russia, receding their dependency on Moscow. By 2020, China will be the largest consumer of natural gas and oil from the region of Central Asia. Likewise, a Chinese-funded oil refinery plant in Kyrgyzstan is going to break the Kremlin’s fuel supply monopoly. (Beshimov and Satke, 2014).

Today’s Turkey, one of the fastest growing economy and the sixteenth largest in the world, and the energy rich Central Asia are more ardently listening to each other. Turkey’s trade volume with the region was valued at $6.5bn by 2010, with total foreign direct investment (FDI) from Turkey exceeding $4.7bn. Turkish contractors’ projects were valued at $50bn, with nearly 2,000 Turkish companies operating on the ground.  Slowly Turkey’s soft power changes the cultural life in Central Asia. Through Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (CCTS) established in 2009 with well developing net of secondary schools, colleges and universities, Ankara has become one of the important players in the region where it previously had only a marginal influence. (Gürler, 2015) Despite the Kremlin’s gains in the last few years, Russia’s cultural influence is dramatically shrinking elsewhere in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has now cemented the legislation to replace Cyrillic script with Latin as the country’s official alphabet by 2025 just as Uzbekistan did 10 years ago. The sharp decline of the ethnic Russian population in Central Asian republics and influx of graduates from Turkish schools and universities have contributed to Moscow’s waning cultural influence over the years. (Frappi, 2015)

In conclusion, as its traditional points of influence in Central Asia decline, the Kremlin’s ambitions in the region are likely to depend on its economic activity there. At the same time, China will persist with its economic offensive to maximise its relative economic power in the region. The oil-rich Central Asian states are able to increasingly promote their own game plan by exploiting this Chinese-Russian rivalry and even bringing Turkey into the competition.

Rüstem Kamenov


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  • Frappi, Carlo. “Central Asia’s place in Turkey’s Foreign Policy.” ISPI analyses 225 (2013): 1-12.
  • Gurbanmyradova, Diana. THE SOURCES OF CHINA’S SOFT POWER IN CENTRAL ASIA: CULTURAL DIPLOMACY. Diss. Central European University, 2015.
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  • Nogayeva, Ainur. “Limitations of Chinese “Soft Power” in Its Population and Language Policies in Central Asia.” Geopolitics 20.3 (2015): 583-605.
  • Sheives, Kevin. “China turns West: Beijing’s contemporary strategy towards Central Asia.” Pacific Affairs 79.2 (2006): 205-224.
  • Satke, Ryskeldi and Beshimov, Baktybek.  “The struggle for Central Asia: Russia vs China: As Russia’s economy stagnates, rising China is challenging its influence over Central Asia.” Aljazeera News 12 March 2014

Rüstem Kamenov

IR (Researcher on Russia and Central Asia)


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