After the beginning of Russia’s Special Military Operation (SMO) in Ukraine, most media outlets, commentators, and analysts concentrated on the progression of the conflict and its potential outcomes. After the political reshuffle in China, the focus is slowly shifting to the Indo-Pacific region. However, some important events may happen in former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Their history, migration, and social issues are complex. There are still traces of cultural and social ties with Russia as well as their membership in the Russian lead Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Eurasian Customs Union (EACU), Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Analysts typically associated these international institutions with the Russian sphere of influence. Nonetheless, the region has excellent transit potential and has became a part of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This allowed analysts to assume that China uses gradual economic expansion to contest the area. It is undeniable that Russia and China have interests in Central Asia that may partially collide. Although they are not the only geopolitical players – G7 countries, primarily the U.K. and the U.S., kept the region in focus. With the escalating tensions between Russia and the West, the latter will intervene more actively. Other minor players, like Turkey and Iran, can also play their cards contesting the regional balance.
Post-Soviet Checks and Balances
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a brief moment of political vacuum when Central Asian elites showed signs of frustration, treating Russia as an “elder brother.” This vacuum, though, was quickly filled by the local and international political actors having differences from country to country. Most of the Central Asian countries attempted to establish semi-hereditary presidential republics. In Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, it may be considered a success, while others underwent political transformations: from minor (in Uzbekistan) to moderate (in Kazakhstan) and even turbulent (in Kyrgyzstan). In Turkmenistan, local elites under the leadership of Saparmurat Niyazov took the course of Turkmen isolation: non-alignment with any state or military organization, even the CIS, where Turkmenistan is only an associate member. Tajikistan maintained a moderate pro-Russian stance allowing Russians to maintain its 201st military base. The connections with Russia were not severed primarily because of concerns over the Tajik-Afghan border – North Afghanistan is heavily populated with ethnic Tajiks – Russian presence can ensure the country’s security on the southern border. During the peak of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan tried to play the U.S. card openly – they allowed the U.S. to establish their military presence in Manas (Kyrgyzstan) and Karshi-Khanabad (Uzbekistan). The move soured relations with Russia but did not cause an open crisis. Later, both bases were closed: Uzbekistan expelled the U.S. troops in 2005 after Andijan unrest, while Kyrgyzstan waited until the lease agreement expired in 2014. Kazakhstan, under the leadership of Nursultan Nazarbayev, an experienced politician with extensive communist and Soviet background, surprisingly succeeded in maintaining multivector relations with all prominent political actors: Russia, Europe, the U.S., and China. Among other Central Asian countries, it has the highest GDP and had stable economic growth in the middle 00s, though Uzbekistan has a higher population and is catching up with the GDP growth rate.
What is common between all former Soviet Central Asian republics is their geographical location and the complexity of mutual ethnic, economic and political relations. The countries are the gates to the southern corridor, through Iran or Pakistan to the Indian Ocean. Also, they are located within former Silk Road route which is the symbolic predecessor of the BRI. Trade routes’ security and reliability are the crucial elements of the region’s stability and prosperity but may be under threat because the countries still share mutual distrust and historical grievances based on the issues with ethnic minorities, water reserves, border conflicts and other grounds. These issues, if cleverly manipulated, may be easily transformed into tensions draining resources and political capital from the major neighbors.
Recent developments in Central Asian countries illustrate how complicated the upcoming years will be for them to maintain a delicate balance of interests between their major neighbors and the Western countries. For instance, leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan visited Moscow to celebrate May 9th, the Russian Victory Day parade. The visit is usually shown as a token of respect for mutual struggle during the Great Patriotic War (part of World War II) and a formal sign of loyalty to Moscow. However, it is just the tip of the iceberg.
Kazakhstan is in the most challenging position. At the beginning of 2022, it faced unprecedented challenges when a series of protests shook the country. It was not evident which political group would prevail, but after the intervention of CSTO, where Russia plays a dominant role, Kassym-Jomart Tokaev took the upper hand. Russian interference is dictated by the need to revitalize the CSTO’s role in the Post-Soviet region after its disputable neutrality during Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. The political bet on Tokaev resulted in ousting Nazarbayev’s clan through a series of serious criminal charges. CSTO’s backing and elimination of Nazarbayev’s “umbrella” signaled that Putin might back not only old political heavyweights but can also bet on the elite’s reshuffle. Such a bold intervention into the Kazakh political landscape using CSTO was considered a decisive Russian victory.
Nevertheless, contradictory signals started appearing right after the beginning of the SMO. For instance, multiple Russian messenger channels intensified accusations that Kazakh elites turn a blind eye to the country’s Russophobia – something they usually did to Ukraine and the Baltic States only. These accusations find their audience after years of the Russian minority’s political segregation in Kazakhstan and the announcement of switching from the Cyrillic alphabet to Latin. Even political optimists noticed that Kazakh authorities, being among close Russian allies, openly refuse to show any signs of support to Russian ambitions in Ukraine, leaning towards formal neutrality but always looking back at the E.U. and U.S. sanction policies. In Russian mainstream media and messenger channels, these actions are considered treachery. When it was needed, Tokaev asked Russia for help to save his political future but did not provide any sufficient compensation afterwards. Visits to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in 2022 and Moscow in 2023 are seen as symbolic acts, while the neutral votes in the UN show an objective stance. The public is puzzled by how the U.S. allies unanimously act on the political stage while Russian allies avoid any visible support at all costs. However, the Russian political elite does not consider it a problem. For Kazakhstan, it is vital to balance between Russia, China, and the G7 countries, primarily due to its extended borders with Russia, economic entanglement of different political actors, and heavy dependency on foreign capital in its energy sector, which it tries to overcome. Open support or distancing from Russia is equally dangerous for the country’s political and economic stability. That is why it should not sound surprising when contradictory news emerges like establishing thorough goods monitoring following E.U. sanctions, appointing a prominent London City figure as an advisor, the Russian consolidation of its uranium possessions, or else.
The situation is no better with the rest of Central Asian republics. They try to stay neutral, maintaining good relations with each side. Some, like Uzbekistan, are leaning towards China, allowing significant investments, leasing land and even adopting promising policies. Some, like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are leaning towards Russia to mediate diplomatic, military, energy, and financial issues. Even Turkmenistan cannot stay as isolated as before, and after peaceful power transition to Serdar Berdymukhamedov gradually shows more signs of activity. Although with the growing tensions between China and the U.S. with its Asian allies and between Russia and the U.S. and European countries, maintaining the status quo will be more complex than before. The region can become a boiling point if external pressure resonates with the internal religious or ethnic-based turmoil, especially around local minorities. In this case, Central Asia, instead of becoming safe transit from East to West, from North to South, will turn into a patchwork quilt once again, leaving little alternative trade routes for Russia and China.
When the Russian Empire conquered Central Asian states and tribes, it was welcomed by the international community. World powers, primarily European empires, thought Russia brought Western thought to the region, pacified it, and solved the humanitarian situation. After the collapse of the USSR and the turmoil of the ‘90s, some monarchists, and occasionally Stalinists, tend to criticize Russian leadership for withdrawing from Central Asia and even giving up on the Russian ethnic population in the region. For Russia, the following decade will become a challenge of addressing Central Asian republics using cultural, language, and migration cards while proposing some economic benefits to keep the countries in its orbit and integration projects.
For China, economic and transit potential will be the priority. It is highly possible Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping discussed their views on the future configuration of the multipolar world, including the division of interests in Central Asian region. Interestingly enough, after May 9th celebration in Moscow, the Central Asian leaders headed to China for the C+C5 summit. There, they may be given additional confirmation of what they found in Moscow.
However, there are also interests of the G7 countries. The U.S. and the U.K. will most probably try to ensure the safety of their energy possessions and supply lines. With the acceleration of the geopolitical tensions, they will also try to push nationalist and “anti-Russian colonial” sentiments to nurture a new generation of politicians who will oppose former Moscow and check its grasp over the region. Alternatively, religious sentiments can become a foundation for the turmoil – all Central Asian republics tried to check the growing influence of the clergy in their countries. The delicate balance may also be easily disrupted by the interests of Iran due to the historical and language relations, especially in Tajikistan. Simultaneously, Turkey, alongside neo-Ottoman appeals, tries to strengthen ties with Central Asian republics as part of its “Greater Turan” ambitions. Thus, the decades of easily maintained stability in the region may be over.