Problem statement It has to be noted, that in comparison to other major players such as the European Union or the United States, Russia came late to the soft power games in the post-Soviet region, but this did not stop Russia from attempt to expand its soft power and use it successfully in order to bring countries closer. Russia defines the Central Asian region as falling within its traditional area of influence, however, despite of efforts at stating and defining a strategic agenda toward the area through soft means - as for these states, they, perhaps, have their own particular approaches toward Russia: more engagement, in the case of Kazakhstan; dependency, such as Tajikistan; balancing, for Uzbekistan; bandwagoning in the case of Kyrgyzstan; and selective engagement in the case of Turkmenistan (Frier, 2009).
Thus, using the theory of neoclassical realism in explaining the Russian perception and application of soft power (Ripsman et all, 2009), this work is aimed to uncover what a significant factor influences to the success and limits of Russian soft power on external alignment strategy of states in the Central Asian region. Thus, the main research question of this paper: What the major factor influences on Russian success and limits of soft power in Central Asia in terms of affecting on their external orientations? This question then falls into two sub-questions:
How is the concept of soft power re-conceptualized through neoclassical realism theory?
How and why does Russia utilize soft power over the contested region?
By doing reconceptualization of Russian soft power using neoclassical realism approach, this research work aims to provide more proper understanding of how soft power concept was transformed to customize the Russian setting and to contribute to a general discussion on how hard states adopt and adjust soft power. Thus, the significance of our research can be explained by, that studying Russia as a particular case of a country with an alternative approach to soft power will contribute to an overall understanding of what ‘soft’ means in various contexts and extend academic knowledge on the soft power concept. Moreover, the significance also increases when it comes to practical application of the mentioned theoretical approach.
It is important to note that this work departs from traditional understanding of soft power, alignment theories as well as omnibalancing theories in four distinct ways.
First, it demonstrates that the boundaries between soft power and hard power is imperceptibly blurred and that soft power is often projected in active ways. There is no universal means of projecting soft power, and that is why states are free to utilize appropriate tools in order to get the desired results from another states.
Second, instead of focusing on traditional soft power studies, which are mainly concentrated on people’s perception, their attitude toward state, conversely, this work is aimed to analyze the foreign policy of states themselves: why do CA states act in certain ways, why do they integrate or disintegrate with a Russia, why do one state show more balancing strategy, while another states - bandwagoning policy. Therefore, the scope of the research is wider.
Third, it shows that CA leaders are the main actors and focus on their specific motivations. The traditional alliance theory assumes that the state is a unified actor, and they act in a rational way based on national interests rather than personal interests. It is misleading to think that CA leaders are mainly motivated by the national interest or the most favorable motives for the country, because during the transition period, they tend to prioritize their personal interests and often seek to ensure their political positions at all costs. To this end, most of the CA countries have established powerful administrative departments to legitimize and institutionalize the power of their leaders. In short, many theoretical assumptions put forward by realists provide particularly poor guidance in the post-Soviet era, which requires a more “leader-centric” analysis.
Fourth, Steven David's omnibalancing theory focuses specifically on leaders and their internal threats to their personal survival. From David’s point of view, the most effective unified determinant is the rational calculation of leaders, that is, which external powers are most likely to keep them in power. However, the Central Asian practice shows that the whole picture does not appear in that way only, since there are profound exceptions in the case of Turkmenistan, where leader decided to implement neutrality policy in foreign policy, in spite of the “danger of survival”, in the case of Kazakhstan is also seems hard to imagine that leader’s primary motivation in alignment strategy with Moscow can be only explained through the threat from losing power of Nazarbayev or Tokayev. Apparently, there has to be more than one reason that entails leaders to act in certain ways in International arena, than the theory of Omnibalancing suggests.