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David Cameron Heads to Central Asia to Reinforce Western Influence

  • Cameron visited six Central Asian countries in a five-day tour, emphasizing the UK's commitment to the region.
  • The trip focused on strengthening economic ties, countering Russian influence, and promoting regional stability.
  • Cameron's visit was met with mixed reactions, with some countries welcoming the engagement and others viewing it with skepticism.
David Cameron

The pictures didn't necessarily say a thousand words, but they might have gotten at least that many laughs.

One showed British Foreign Secretary David Cameron bursting birdlike through the entrance of a traditional Turkmen yurt at a museum in Ashgabat.

Another, shared by the British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, featured Cameron gazing thoughtfully down a concrete irrigation channel in Kyrgyzstan.

And from Uzbekistan, there was a snap of Cameron marveling over a giant pot of "plov," the nation's favorite dish.

"David Cameron is having an absolute blast in a tour of Central Asia this week," observed AFP reporter Jake Cordell on X, the website formerly known as Twitter.

But with Cameron now back from a five-day tour taking in six countries -- the five former Soviet Central Asian countries and Mongolia -- was it anything more serious than that?

The answer might depend on which country you ask.

‘A Geopolitical Imperative'

Cameron's visit to the region came several months after the publication of a report by the U.K. parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee titled Countries At Crossroads: U.K. Engagement In Central Asia.

The report decried the low level of outreach by London with the region and called deepening ties "a geopolitical imperative," recommending visits to the region at the level of the foreign secretary and prime minister -- an office that Cameron occupied from 2010-16.

A key focus of the document was the echoes of Russia's war in Ukraine and the region's status as an avenue for Moscow to evade sanctions imposed by the United Kingdom.

But to use the stick -- the assumed threat of secondary sanctions -- there have to be carrots as well.

And in several of the countries in the region British carrots must look a little on the small side.

On April 24, Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns registered satisfaction with Cameron's visit and noted a 50 million pound ($62 million) commitment in assistance from Britain that "may help the U.K. increase its soft power and influence in the region."

"Situated along the fault line between Russia and China, protecting the independence and sovereignty of Central Asian countries is paramount," she wrote in a commentary on the parliament's website.

In Cameron's video from the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, the U.K. foreign secretary used the term "sandwiched" to refer to Central Asia's position between Russia and China, also noting that Iran was "just 40 kilometers over those mountains."

"I'm the first [U.K.] foreign secretary -- indeed the first cabinet minister -- ever to come to this country. I was the first foreign secretary to go to Tajikistan, to Kyrgyzstan, and the first to go to Uzbekistan since 1997," he said in the April 24 video, acknowledging that "maybe we should have done more in the past" in "these countries."

Yet Turkmenistan is perhaps the illustration of why "these countries" are hardly equal in terms of interest to the United Kingdom.

It is one of the most authoritarian in the world and almost exclusively reliant for survival on purchases of its natural gas by China and Russia.

As of the last quarter of 2023, bilateral trade between Turkmenistan and Britain stood at a mere 66 million pounds ($82.5 million) according to the U.K.'s Department For Business and Trade, less than any of the other six countries Cameron visited this week except Tajikistan.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, Luca Anceschi, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, noted that one carrot the U.K. has for a region where unemployment is a huge problem is the expansion of quotas for seasonal migrants looking to work in British agriculture.

"But in the case of Turkmenistan this is not relevant because the country's authorities strictly limit the ability of citizens to leave the country," said Anceschi, who argued that the Turkmen visit was more likely to be viewed as a "photo opportunity" for the ruling Berdymukhammedov family.

In the end, there was only evidence of Cameron meeting with President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, not Turkmenistan's official "national leader" and de facto top decision maker, Serdar's father, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Cameron was also unable to meet in person with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, who was on a holiday.

'The Kazakhs Still Don't Understand What The West Is'

Cameron was on more familiar territory in Kazakhstan, where annual bilateral trade standing at more than $3 billion dwarfs the combined figure for the other five countries on his tour.

Cameron was the first British prime minister to visit Kazakhstan, Central Asia's most affluent, in 2013.

And his message will have been especially welcome for Astana, which has strained to balance ties with Western countries and an increasingly jealous Moscow amid the geopolitical fallout over Ukraine.

Speaking at an event with Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Nurtleu (he also met with President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev), Cameron stressed that London wasn't asking Central Asian countries to disavow either China or Russia.

"We're here because we believe you should be able to make a choice to partner with us in a way that is good for both [countries' security and prosperity]," Cameron said.

Moscow is unlikely to view things that way.

As with the visit by French leader Emmanuel Macron to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan last year, Cameron's arrival in the region was met with a wave of skepticism from Russian media outlets and Telegram channels.

In one opinion piece, published by the pro-Kremlin EurAsia Daily website, author Alan Pukhaev complained that "the Kazakhs still don't understand what the West is."

"As we have already written, the interest of the Anglo-Saxons in Central Asia, in recent times, is not accidental," he wrote, using a term Russian diplomats use with increasing frequency, mostly to describe Britain and the United States. "The world is on the verge of a big war in which the West needs a lot of natural resources."

To be sure, Brussels, Washington, and London haven't hidden their interest in this facet of cooperation.

Press releases from recent diplomatic engagements with the region invariably refer to Critical Raw Materials (CRMs) -- minerals that are vital for electric vehicles and the transition to green energy in general, but overwhelmingly dominated by China in terms of both extraction and related production.

But while ties in this sphere are growing, especially in Kazakhstan, the success of Western governments in persuading leading private companies to invest in the region will still depend on perceptions of Central Asia's investment attractiveness.

And even Central Asia's premier destination for foreign direct investment can look like a tall task in that regard.

Bloomberg reported earlier this month that Astana's international arbitration claims against major foreign oil companies developing the country's super-giant but oft-troubled Kashagan oil field now exceeded $150 billion.

The consortium developing Kashagan includes Shell, a British multinational that Nurtleu namechecked for its contributions to the national economy in his press appearance with Cameron.


Central Asia's Diplomatic Run Continues

While the Ukraine war has thrown up plenty of challenges for Central Asia, it has also led to a diversity of diplomatic interest in the region unseen since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

In September 2023, the region's heads of state met with U.S. President Joe Biden in an unprecedented six-way meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.

Weeks later, there was a visit for the region's leaders to Berlin for talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and, while Macron's November visit prioritized the region's two largest economies, the countries with the smallest ones have also been active.

On April 22, just days after meeting with Cameron, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon flew to Italy, whose WeBuild construction company is the main contractor for the Roghun mega-dam, which is projected to be the tallest in the world.

Human Rights organizations have wondered aloud whether conversations about rights and democracy take a back seat during these periods of intensified interaction with the West.

On April 23, just before authoritarian ruler Rahmon's visit to Rome, at least eight European-based Tajik opposition activists were detained and held overnight.

"In my opinion, these arrests can be seen as a victory of autocracy and a failure of democracy," Mahmudjon Faizrahmonov, a member of the opposition National Alliance of Tajikistan, told RFE/RL.

The Group 24 opposition group announced on April 25 that its activists were freed and had left Italy, dropping plans to hold anti-government protests.

Cameron, meanwhile, suggested his talks with Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov had touched on the dramatic downturn in political freedom in what has historically been the freest of the former Soviet Central Asian countries.

The pair spoke about "the importance of voluntary bodies, charities, nongovernmental organizations, [and] civil society organizations," Cameron said in an interview with RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on April 22, obliquely referring to the country's recent passing of a Russian-style law increasing restrictions on NGOs.

Cameron also noted in interviews with the British press in Bishkek that the United Kingdom was working with Kyrgyz authorities to ensure that items "building Russia's war machine" were not being reexported to Russia, while stressing that London was not opposed t0 a "natural" trading relationship between Bishkek and Moscow.

As for carrots, Cameron talked up "economic opportunities that benefit us both, from Bridgend to Bishkek" in an April 23 post on X that provided the context for the images of Britain's top diplomat ogling water infrastructure.

According to the British Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, a company called Concrete Canvas, based near the Welsh town of Bridgend, is helping to repair those aging channels, which are viewed as a major source of wasted water throughout a water-strapped region.


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