Russia weakening in Central Asia?

Eric McGlinchey is Associate Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.

Shairbek Dzhuraev is Co-founder and President of Crossroads Central Asia.

Central Asian leaders have notably not voiced support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. The chilly response to Moscow might at first appear surprising given Central Asia’s extensive ties with Russia. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan, like Belarus, are members of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance whose signatories pledge to protect one another against external attacks. But while Belarus’ Alyaksandr Lukashenka has been an enthusiastic proponent of Russia’s war, Central Asian leaders have not—not even Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who had enlisted Russian CSTO troops to help quell protests in January 2022. Central Asian countries’ refusal to endorse Moscow’s war is also at odds with the region’s economic dependence on Russia. For Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, labor remittances from Russia constitute between one-tenth and one-third of annual GDP.

Central Asian countries are not prisoners to their economic, military, and even historical ties to Russia. Multiple drivers—geography, embeddedness in global financial networks, fierce commitment to sovereignty, and generational change—disincline Central Asian states to support Russia’s war in Ukraine. More broadly, the invasion of Ukraine marks a critical juncture in Central Asia-Russia relations. While forms of dependencies will persist, Central Asia’s view of Russia will not be the same again. Just as Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, paradoxically, has strengthened NATO, so too has Russia’s war solidified Central Asian states’ individual and collective resolve to lessen dependence on the northern neighbor.

The Central Asian Response to Russia’s War in Ukraine

We should make clear that while Central Asian countries have not expressed support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, they have also avoided directly clashing with Moscow on the international stage. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan submitted abstention votes in response to the March 2, 2022, UN resolution calling on Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan altogether ignored the March 2 UN resolution. And four of the five Central Asian countries (Turkmenistan again was a no-show) voted against the April 7, 2022 resolution calling on Russia to be suspended from the UN Human Rights Council.

Central Asian states’ demurring on UN resolutions, however, should not be equated with support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Indeed, they have made their distaste for the war clear both to audiences at home and to President Vladimir Putin himself. The Kyrgyz government banned public displays of “Z,” the letter painted on Russian military vehicles in Ukraine, a symbol of support for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Then Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov emphasized that Uzbekistan “recognizes Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” and “We do not recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk republics.” Tokayev, sharing the stage with Putin at the June 2022 Saint Petersburg International Economic Forum, rejected the latter’s view that the former Soviet Union constitutes a “historical Russia” and, moreover, accentuated that Kazakhstan would not recognize the “quasi-state entities” of Luhansk and Donetsk.

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The commentary was published at PONARS Eurasia on 04 November 2022. 

Photo by Alexander Ryumin (TASS)

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