Harry Riley-Gould's Blog

The Good Heart but Bad Looks of Russian IDA in Central Asia

August 27, 2014

Let us consider Central Asia. There are currently three primary concerns in the region as of 2014: drug trafficking, Islamist terrorism, and poverty. The three problems are, of course, inextricable -- the first funds the second, and the third inspires the former two. The prominence of these factors fluctuates on a state by state basis, generally due to the various levels of efficiency and strength of the ruling administrations. It is worth noting, however, that the presence of these three primary obstacles to development can themselves have a destabilising effect on administrative legitimacy.


Let us now consider Russia. If one were to identify the most pressing current threats to Russian security, the list would be remarkably similar. Drug trafficking -- through Central Asia -- and Islamist terrorism -- from Central Asia -- pose the greatest threat to Russian national security in 2014. Central Asia is therefore a key focus of Russia’s foreign policy, with the region and the Russian Federation sharing borders and transnational threats alike. It follows, then, that Russian security is not merely dependent on the stability of Central Asia but inseparable from it: Russian stability and security, and Central Asian stability and security, are the same question.


One would think, therefore, that the shared and mutually reinforcing interests of these various states would vindicate Russia’s continued presence in the region, even before exploring the shared cultural and historical legacy of the Soviet Union. This is, however, not the case.


Russia has an image problem. In its role as a non-traditional, or ‘re-emerging’, donor of development assistance, the Russian government is struggling to maintain both domestic support and foreign recognition of its IDA. This comes despite sustained and significant attempts to promote the focus and magnitude of its operations, particularly in Central Asia, since the 2007 publication of the Concept of Russia’s Participation in International Development Assistance.1 The Concept made clear that the administering of Russian IDA must promote Russia’s strategic interests, including the security of its borders; a lack of sustained effort to communicate the legitimate humanitarian functions of Russian IDA, however, has promoted a reading of Russian development programs as a soft power extension of military strategy.


This nervous appraisal of Russian IDA is prevalent in academic and institutional analysis. An Oxfam discussion paper from July 2013 for example, asserts that Russian IDA is driven primarily by ‘realpolitik’ and ‘power assertion’, in contrast to the South-South co-operation supposedly embodied in other BRICS ODA structures.2 Similarly a EUCAM paper declares that Russian compliance with international assistance norms is posited as undergone ‘mainly for promoting [Russia’s] soft power prestige’.3 Several others focus heavily on the security aspects of Russia’s IDA over its significant humanitarian efforts.4 Repeatedly, Russian development assistance is depicted as a trade for continued military stationing in Central Asia, rather than a comprehensive package in which security goes hand in hand with humanitarian concerns.


In Western media outlets too, nervousness over a perceived feigned humanitarianism frequently dominates discussion. Headlines and subheaders are revealing: the Guardian features an article proclaiming ‘re-emerging donor reveals desire to maintain influence’; similarly Reuters tells us that Russia ‘aims to increase clout with soft power campaign’.5 Even more overtly, in an article titled ‘An (Iron) Fistful of Help’, The Economist asks whether ‘Western democracies [should] be worried’ by Russian development assistance.6 Though these articles may examine the humanitarian aspects of Russian IDA the focus frequently emphasises matters of prestige in the context of a worrying national reassertion.


This is not to say that prestige concerns play no role in the Russian IDA framework. On the contrary, the role of IDA in the projection of so-called ‘soft power’ is well known.7 But this does not somehow invalidate the humanitarian initiatives or shared security threats which determine Russia’s relationship with its Central Asian neighbours. If Russia is to combat drug trafficking and terrorism, which it must, then partnership and dialogue with the Central Asian nations is key: IDA policies, such as migration access, infrastructural investment and humanitarian projects, play an important role in fostering such relations. Furthermore, multilateral development programs in the area of good governance can help stamp out the corruption that allows Afghan heroin to pass unhindered through state borders. IDA to Central Asia is both crucial to Russia and unique, as the economic, humanitarian and security questions are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.


Unfortunately the lack of effective articulation of Russia’s IDA mission in Central Asia has also led to a worrying lack of support at home. A 2010 study revealed that most Russians believe that the priority of Russian IDA should be in international disaster relief, rather than sustained efforts to develop its neighbours. Furthermore, two thirds believed that Russia should not develop other countries before focusing on domestic problems -- a figure compounded by the fact that 80% believe that more than half of the Russian population is poor. Eighty two percent opposed an increase in Russia’s IDA to the former Soviet Union. This is not to say that support for development assistance in Central Asia is nonexistent -- half wish to see aid to the FSU remain at contemporary levels.8 The concern, however, is that the urgency of Central Asian development to Russian immediate security interests is completely unacknowledged, implying a transient popular commitment to Central Asian IDA. The combination of worsening economic prospects and growing intolerance of Central Asian migrants in Russia has the potential to destabilise Russia’s IDA commitment.9 The prospects for Afghanistan following NATO withdrawal this year are incredibly poor, and the prospects of a new Iraq-style situation emerging on the Central Asian border is a potential that the region cannot afford to ignore.10 In this case, Russian support for the region will have to be stepped up enormously; for this to occur, the Russian public must come to recognise the importance of Central Asian stability to their own well-being.


The lack of effective articulation of Russia’s IDA mission in Central Asia, as well as the importance of the programme itself, is therefore a much more pressing issue than just a question of Russia’s international perception. Attempts to improve Russia’s IDA strategy are ongoing: the Concept was updated as recently as April 2014, with President Putin signing the executive order On Approving the Concept of State Policy of the Russian Federation in the Field of Assisting International Development.11 This new Concept attempts to streamline Russian IDA, providing a systematic approach to Russia’s participation in international development frameworks and reaffirming Russia’s regional priorities in Central Asia and the CIS territories more generally. This is indubitably a positive step but the context which necessitates it speaks volumes about the Russian strategy thus far. As the West focuses on the results of its disastrous recent foreign policy elsewhere, it seems likely that Russia’s role in the security of Central Asia will play a defining role. In the eventuality of this outcome, Russia’s military, humanitarian, and economic assistance to the region will be vital, as will the government’s ability to articulate this importance to its people. The newly updated Concept is a step in the right direction, but it is not there yet. Meanwhile, with NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan imminent, time is ticking.





2 Anna Brezhneva and Daria Ukhova, ‘Russia as a Humanitarian Aid Donor’, Oxfam Discussion Paper, 15th July 2013.


3 Sébastien Peyrouse, Jos Boonstra and Marlène Laruelle, ‘Security and Development Approaches to Central Asia: The EU compared to China and Russia, EUCAM, Working Paper 11, May 2012.


4 Craig Oliphant, ‘FPC Briefing: Assessing Russia’s Role in Central Asia’, Foreign Policy Centre, October 2013; James Nixey, ‘The Long Goodbye: Waning Russian Influence in the South Caucuses and Central Asia,’ Chatham House Briefing Paper, June 2012.


6 www.economist.com/node/13799239 [accessed 25/08/2014].


7 /upload/WP_Central_Asia_10_eng.pdf [accessed 6/08/2014].


11 http://eng.kremlin.ru/acts/7060 [accessed 25/08/2014]



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