The five post-Soviet Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan find themselves in a region very much defined by the immediate presence of two great powers: Russia and China. Caught in highly asymmetric relationships, these five states all operate within various ‘small state’ conditions. On the one hand, the region as a whole is less democratic and less liberal than at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Part of the reason may lie in the authoritarian nature of the Russian and Chinese regimes, setting relatively clear limits to how far more reform-oriented national elites may go. On the other hand, the five states seem to have secured for themselves an action space large enough for them to occasionally go against the policies of their more powerful neighbours. This is seen, for instance, in the opt-outs of Russian-led integration projects. When used skilfully, the immediate presence of two great powers seems to offer certain opportunities as smaller states may take advantage of policy differences between them.