Ukraine War: Why Central Asian Countries want to Move Away from Russian Control

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The terrorist attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall in March 2024, which left 140 people dead, has sparked a crackdown on central Asian workers living in Russia, and put the relationship between the region and Russia under increasing strain.

The four suspected gunmen under arrest are all citizens of Tajikistan, a central Asian nation that was once part of the Soviet Union. Following the Crocus City attack, Russian police started rounding up and deporting workers who are originally from Tajikistan, as well as from Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

The attack, which Russia has blamed on Ukraine, also sparked massive police raids, document checks of migrants as well as harassment towards central Asian immigrants . There are an estimated 10 million labour migrants from central Asia living in Russia, according to the Russian interior ministry. Central Asian migrants have seen Russia’s recent labour shortages, the result of of conscription and the Ukraine war, as an opportunity to find work.

What might change?

Russia’s war in Ukraine has also been an opportunity for these republics to choose a more independent political path, while Vladimir Putin’s attention was elsewhere. A complete break with Russia is unlikely due to geographical proximity and intertwined economies. But there have been some signs that central Asian nations are interested in making their own political decisions without constantly checking with Russia.

One was the refusal of Kazakhstan’s president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, in June 2022 to recognise Russia’s annexation of the partially occupied Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk into the Russian Federation. Tokayev also said that Kazakhstan had no intention of helping Russia to circumvent western economic sanctions. The region also did not support Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. But central Asia republics were more reluctant to condemn the annexation of Crimea in 2014, taking a more neutral position. Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine the region has been looking for opportunities to build its relationships with other nations without upsetting Russia.

Leaders of central Asian republics have also shown their disapproval of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in more subtle ways. Most of them, except Turkmenistan, opened their borders to accept thousands of Russian citizens looking for refuge and to escape conscription. This did not go unnoticed in Moscow, where measures to reverse immigration were introduced.

Meanwhile, at home these regional leaders find fewer people who speak Russian and are interested in Russian culture. Polls indicate that many people in central Asia (49% in Kyrgyzstan, 43% in Kazakhstan) blame their current economic problems on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There have been anti-war protests in Kazakhstan and some entertainment venues are refusing to host Russian stars. Central Asian media outlets have been blocked in Russia for trying to cover the war in Ukraine objectively.

However, at the United Nations general assembly, these states either abstain from voting to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine or vote with Russia on resolutions, including one on violations of human rights in Crimea.

Historically, Moscow sees its role in the region as a security guarantor, and as a founding member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which aims to ensure peace and stability in the region. Russian paratroopers arrived in Kazakhstan after Tokayev had requested assistance from the CSTO with the protests that broke out in January 2022. The unprecedented unrest, known as Bloody January, started peacefully but quickly turned violent.

People took to the streets to protest a sharp increase in fuel pricesclashing with police and looting and attacking government property.

Despite the apparent need to restore order, the Kazakh public was disgruntled by such a blatant intervention in the country’s internal affairs. There was a general air of relief when Russian troops left.

Overall, central Asia is walking a fine line between pursuing more independence from Russia and not disturbing the regional balance of power.

One sign of change was a meeting in 2023 between regional presidents, including Sadyr Japarov of the Kyrgyz Republic and Tokayev, with US president Joe Biden in New York and with German chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin. It appears that while central Asian countries were not ready to talk about regional security, they were interested in discussing green energy, climate change, and stabilising Afghanistan.

What the west wants

The west will see this as an opportunity to build alliances and to offset Russian influence, given the area’s strategic importance and abundance of natural resources. By fostering these relationships, western countries can potentially secure energy supplies and promote stability in a region historically dominated by Russia. In return, central Asian republics might seek economic investment and technological development, and potentially support to strengthen their political independence.

As Russia prepares for a long war, there are likely to be further opportunities for central Asia to forge a new relationship with the west, but any shift is expected to be gradual.

Source: The Conversation