In its 19th-century heyday, the tsarist empire bestrode central Asia in seven-league boots. In Soviet times, Russia’s footprint on the vast region became even heavier. Now, largely because of Vladimir Putin’s misfiring war of conquest in Ukraine, the countries of central Asia are emerging from Russia’s shadow and asserting their independence in ways not seen since the collapse of communism in 1991.
All five states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — are acting with caution. Russia’s military, political, economic and cultural influence remains strong in the region. It is unrealistic to expect a radical strategic realignment of the central Asian states towards China or the US, let alone the EU or Turkey.
Nor should the careful distance which central Asian leaders are establishing between themselves and Putin be mistaken for internal liberalisation. Unfettered political competition is conspicuous by its absence in a region ruled by conservative strongmen. Regime fears of social unrest are well-founded, as shown by violent protests this year in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Presiding over predominantly Muslim societies, the region’s autocrats worry about the possible spread of militant Islam from Afghanistan after the withdrawal in 2021 of US forces and the Taliban’s takeover.
The craving for democracy and integration into western alliances visible in former Soviet republics such as Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine is therefore not replicated in central Asia. All the same, Putin’s invasion means that in the leaders’ eyes, Russia no longer looks like a reliable guarantor of order in the region — and at worst it may turn into a threat.
On one hand, they are concerned that the Russian attack on Ukraine in February, followed seven months later by Putin’s proclaimed annexation of four Ukrainian regions, may portend aggressive intentions towards them. This is especially true for Kazakhstan. The largest central Asian state in terms of territory, its 19mn people include almost 3mn ethnic Russians concentrated largely in northern regions adjoining Russia.
When he announced Ukraine’s dismemberment, Putin spoke ominously of the supposed determination of millions of Russian-speakers living beyond Russia’s borders “to return to their true historical homeland”. Eight years earlier, Putin cast doubt on the legitimacy of Kazakh statehood and suggested it was in the interests of Kazakhs “to remain in the greater Russian world”. This theme is dear to the hearts of Russian ultra-nationalists, such as the activist who two years ago hung a banner on the Kazakh embassy in Moscow that proclaimed: “Northern Kazakhstan is Russian land.”
On the other hand, Russia’s difficulties with its war against a Ukraine strongly supported by the west makes it appear less capable of upholding stability in central Asia. The transformation has been swift. A month before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin asserted the Kremlin’s authority by sending troops into Kazakhstan under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, a Russian-led military bloc. The action came at the request of Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Kazakhstan’s president, who was seeking to quell unrest in which over 200 were killed.
In the light of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Tokayev appears unlikely to repeat any such invitation. But when clashes erupted in September between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, neither Moscow nor the CSTO was willing or able to calm the trouble. In frustration the Kyrgyz leadership cancelled CSTO military exercises due to take place in October.
Emomali Rahmon, the Tajik president, was no happier. At a Russian-central Asian summit, he launched into a long verbal attack on Putin for treating the region’s countries as if they were still “part of the former Soviet Union”. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan this month declined to take up Moscow’s proposal to form a “natural gas union” with Russia and Kazakhstan.
Central Asian leaders are at pains not to antagonise Moscow too much. Far from publicly condemning the invasion of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained in March from a UN vote on the topic, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan stayed away altogether. The aim of all five states is to avoid being sucked into blocs and to preserve independence and stability.
As the tsarist takeover of central Asia proceeded by leaps and bounds in the 1860s, Prince Alexander Gorchakov, Russia’s foreign minister, observed in a minute circulated to other European powers that “the greatest difficulty consists in knowing how to stop”. These days, Russia’s greatest problem may be how to maintain the regional influence it has enjoyed for well over a century.