Central Asia slips out of Russia’s orbit as war in Ukraine rages

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BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan — Russia is losing influence over former Soviet nations in Central Asia as the war in Ukraine increasingly strains Moscow’s political, military and economic clout, analysts told the Moscow Times.

“There are growing frictions between the Kremlin, its proxies, and local Central Asian elites,” said Paul Stronski, an expert on Russia’s relations with Central Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Not only are Central Asian officials concerned about the precedent set by Moscow’s attack on a former Soviet country, but they are also using Russia’s waning influence to reorient their economies, experts say.

Russia’s diminished role was highlighted at last week’s meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Uzbekistan, where President Vladimir Putin was apparently reprimand by Indian and Chinese leaders and kept waiting by heads of state including Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov.

But a new assertiveness against Moscow has been on display for months, according to Stronski.

In one of the most striking cases, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev rejected Russia is calling for recognition of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine in June when it takes the stage with Putin at the St Petersburg Economic Forum.

And last month, Tokayev’s Uzbek counterpart, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, pointed out denounced Soviet repressions.

“Local elites in Central Asia are troubled by the Ukrainian precedent,” Stronski said.

Perhaps more importantly, Moscow was conspicuously absent from a flare-up in violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan earlier this month that left more than 100 dead and involved tanks, aircraft and artillery.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and Vladimir Putin at the SCO summit.
TASS / kremlin.ru

Experts like Stronski attribute Russia’s lack of interest to reduced capability as Moscow devotes all of its resources to Ukraine.

The changing dynamics of relations between Central Asia and Russia were revealed during Putin’s treatment at the SCO summit in Samarkand last week.

Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan personally greeted Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the airport, while sender his second in command to welcome Putin soon after.

Kremlin observers amazed to Putin – known for leaving high profile guests wait for hours — to have to wait for Japarov. And they drew attention to the The seating arrangement at an informal reception that placed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the head of the table and relegated Putin to the side.

Finally, Putin publicly showed deference to Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, acknowledging their concerns about Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.

“What we saw in Samarkand was Putin’s nullification and self-destruction,” said Igor Yakovenko, a former Russian lawmaker. Told the US-funded media RFE/RL. “Putin arrived after losing [in Ukraine]and losers are hated.

Russia, China and Turkey are vying for influence in Central Asia, said Alexei Venediktov, the former editor of the closed radio station Ekho Moskvy.

“But the problem lies in the fact that the three of them are in different situations: China is having economic problems, Turkey is building itself up as a regional power, Russia is bogged down in Ukraine.”

However, some experts caution against exaggerating Russia’s waning influence in a region where it has historically wielded significant political power thanks to its size, proximity and close contact with local elites.

In particular, Russia deployment peacekeeping troops in Kazakhstan in January after the unrest recalled Moscow’s influence.

Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Uzbekistan.  TASS / kremlin.ru

Vladimir Putin at a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Uzbekistan.
TASS / kremlin.ru

“Central Asian authoritarian regimes understand very clearly that only Russia has some influence on domestic politics,” said Temur Umarov, Central Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“It gives leverage to Russia,” he told the Moscow Times.

Still, trade figures in 2022 back up claims that Moscow is slowly loosening its grip on Central Asia.

The largest economy in the EU, Germany, boosted trade with Kazakhstan 80% in the first half of 2022 and 111% with Uzbekistan, according to Bloomberg.

“Kazakhstan is gradually starting to move away from Russia,” Venediktov said.

Uzbekistan, the second largest economy in Central Asia, sign $15 billion in trade and investment deals with China at the SCO.

At the same time, the region has largely observed Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its attack on Ukraine.

“Objectively, no one will close themselves to Russia because its well-being depends on effective economic cooperation,” said Stanislav Pritchin, a Central Asia expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“But they will try to create an external image that they are not helping to evade sanctions,” he added.

Banks in Kazakhstan, and to a lesser extent in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, have largely filled a loophole that allowed Russians to obtain Visa and Mastercard after international payment companies left Russia.

And Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Uzbek banks this week suspended the Russian payment system Mir, which Moscow presents as an alternative to Visa and Mastercard.

In addition, the main Russian lender Sberbank sold its Kazakh branch earlier this month and there were reports of Kazakhstan to possess trucks full of sanctioned European goods bound for Russia.

Both politically and economically, a period of Russian weakness provided an opportunity for Central Asian states to look ahead.

“The conflict in Ukraine has given new life to the region’s efforts to balance their foreign policies,” said expert Stronski.

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