DECRYPTION. The year 2022 marks a turning point in the relationship between Central Asian countries and Russia. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Moscow has lost its appeal in Central Asia. The heads of state keep meetings with Putin to a minimum. Can Russia already be said to be at a distance from its nearest neighbors?
When the CIS countries met for the last time on December 26, one might have thought that Vladimir Putin’s motto for the meeting would be The Lord of the Rings. He presented a white ring and a gold ring to the Presidents of Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. It read “Happy New Year 2023” and “Russia”.
Who doesn’t think of Tolkien’s Middle-earth saga, in which Sauron gave the people nine rings to make them submissive? But before the Kremlin takes its neighbors as slaves, it wants to be assured of their support. Since the beginning of the war he has needed this all the more urgently so that he does not soon find himself completely isolated internationally.
Novastan is the only German-language news magazine about Central Asia. We work on an association basis and thanks to your participation. We are independent and want to remain so, we need you for that! With every donation, no matter how small, you help us to continue to convey a realistic picture of Central Asia.
Putin personally visited every Central Asian republic at least once in 2022, whether for bilateral meetings or a summit. That is more often than in the last ten years. This circumstance speaks volumes about his efforts to re-establish relations with his neighboring states. These countries, which do not directly support the Ukraine war, could almost make one believe that they have broken away from the Russian sphere of influence.
Central Asia – Russia’s re-exporter
“Central Asia could only support the UN in the short term,” claimed scientist Temur Umarov in his December 2022 article. Failure to comply with sanctions imposed by the West initially benefited Russia more than expected. By increasing trade with Russia, the republics enabled their neighbor to circumvent Western sanctions. A re-export of sanctioned goods was recorded, explains Radio Azattyk, Radio Free Europe’s Kyrgyz service. Most of the affected goods reach Russia from Europe or China via Central Asia.
In this way, since 2022, Kazakhstan has become a major exporter in the electronics market for Russia. This can be taken from the data of the Institute for Economic Research Astana.
Uzbekistan, meanwhile, recorded a 45.4 percent increase in exports compared to the previous year, especially cell phones, televisions and microprocessors. Kyrgyzstan’s trade volume with Russia was $1.4 billion (EUR 1.3 billion) between January and August 2021, and surpassed $2 billion (EUR 1.8 billion) in the same period in 2022. These are primarily telescopes, perfumes and toothpicks.
The Russian influence is not waning
But beyond the economy, the authoritarian characteristics of the Russian regime are also spilling over into Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, otherwise known for its tireless civil society, is making headlines with the suppression of civil freedom movements. These include passing a law on fake news and one on NGOs. Both bear strong similarities to their Russian counterparts (see Foreign Agents Law)
Turkmenistan’s state institutions, schools and businesses openly profess their pro-Russian stance and anti-Western propaganda, according to a report by the Turkmen service Radio Free Europe.
The soft power holds up
Despite all this, the distance between the Kremlin and its neighbors is growing. Certain tacit understandings remain unchanged, such as when Qasym-Jomart Toqaev’s first trip abroad after his re-election was to Russia. Nevertheless, Central Asian civil society is in a state of upheaval.
The Ukraine war is not insignificant here. “After Russia’s invasion, increasing numbers of Central Asian researchers began to study the famines in Soviet-era Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan,” explains the Central Asian Bureau for Analytical Reporting (CABAR). The resurgence of the national languages, which are increasingly replacing Russian, also testifies to the waning cultural influence of Russia in this region.
Citizens organized anti-war demonstrations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. At the same time, humanitarian aid for the Ukrainians is getting closer and closer. In Kazakhstan, the Russian actions are so publicly denounced that concerts by Russian singers who openly support the war have already been cancelled, according to the Central Asia Barometer.
It is impossible to completely break free from an economic dependency in the course of a year. For example, 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s gas is exported through Russia with the Caspian Pipeline Consortium. In the past year, the country has often struggled with technical problems caused by maintenance work on the Russian side, reports the Reuters press agency.
Fancy Central Asia in your mailbox? Subscribe to our free weekly newsletter with one click.
The number of Central Asian migrants in Russia also remains high, growing by a third since 2021, according to Russian news agency Finexpertiza. According to the World Bank, remittances by Tajiks and Kyrgyz people from Russia to their country of origin increased by 34 and 33 GDP points in 2021, respectively.
According to Temur Umarov, the antidote from a geopolitical point of view for the Central Asian states could be a policy that directs their goals in different directions. This tendency can already be observed in the area of exports to Europe, Turkey and China. Central Asia is particularly promoting the development of trade routes here and is thus moving further and further away from Russia.