News | War / Peace - Eastern Europe - Central Asia Shifting Loyalties in the Post-Soviet Space

The war in Ukraine is pushing Central Asian countries to rethink old relationships

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Vladimir Putin addreses Central Asian leaders at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, January 2022. CC BY 4.0, Photo: Wikimedia Commons/President of the Russian Federation

Given the close economic, security, and cultural ties between Russia and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is sending shockwaves through the region. With the West’s sanctions against Russia taking a heavy toll, the war is also presenting the countries of Central Asia with diplomatic challenges with respect to Russia.

Leonie Schiffauer is a senior advisor for East, South, and Central Asia at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.

This article first appeared in maldekstra #16. Translated by Joel Scott for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Because of this, the governments of Central Asia are going to great lengths to maintain a neutral position, but the difficulty of negotiating this balancing act is becoming increasingly evident. It is not at all unlikely that the war will lead to lasting shifts in both economic relations and foreign policy alliances among the states of Central Asia — even if they manage to avoid taking a clear position for or against the war.

More Inflation, Less Migration

Russia is one of the main investors in the region and the most important trade partner. Through their membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan maintain particularly close economic ties with Russia. Last year, total trade between Russia and Kazakhstan alone amounted to 25.6 billion US dollars. In Kazakhstan, more than a third of all imports came from Russia, while in Kyrgyzstan it was just under a third. Due to these close economic relations, the financial stability of the countries of Central Asia is directly dependent upon the health of Russia’s economy.

As such, the sanctions also have direct consequences for Central Asia. Following the drop in the value of the rouble in March, the currencies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all suffered considerable losses, although they have since stabilized along with the rouble. A sharp rise in inflation could also be discerned.

Due to their membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been hit particularly hard on this note. Food prices rose an average of 15.4 percent, while goods and services went up by 12 percent. On top of the inflation, the countries of Central Asia are also being hit by supply-chain issues.

The effects of the West’s sanctions have been particularly tough for labour migration, which is a significant economic factor in the region. In 2021, more than 7.8 million people from Central Asia were registered in Russia as migrant workers, more than 4.5 million of whom were from Uzbekistan, 2.4 million from Tajikistan, and 900,000 from Kyrgyzstan. According to figures from the World Bank, money transferred from abroad (primarily from Russia) made up more than a quarter of GDP in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the past year. Often, entire families are financially reliant on support from their relatives working in Russia.

The West’s sanctions are hitting Central Asian countries in a particularly vulnerable area, with the International Organization for Migration predicting a stark drop in remittances. The crash of the rouble meant that transfers from Russia were worth much less, which led to significant difficulties to cover basic needs — especially in the poorest parts of Central Asia.

Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many migrant workers have also lost their jobs or face the prospect of not being able to secure other forms of employment, as the labour markets in their homes countries typically offer them little by the way of alternatives. In Kazakhstan in particular, the economic situation could become even more precarious, given that the country’s oil exports — which make up 14 percent of GDP and 57 percent of exports — are primarily moved through Russia. The CPC pipeline, through which a large portion of the exports are transported, runs from the west of Kazakhstan through to the south of Russia to the Black Sea terminal in Novorossiysk. Due to its proximity to the war zone, these energy exports are being hampered by logistical risks in the Black Sea and compounded by rising insurance costs.

Then there is the fact that Russia is increasingly causing trouble for Kazakhstan when it comes to getting its oil to the West. In July, Russia blocked the export of Kazakh oil for an extended period for what is now the third time — in all likelihood for political reasons, and in an effort to show Kazakhstan who’s boss. Although the EU has a significant interest in sourcing oil from the region in the future, questions remain as to how quickly the infrastructure of alternative transport routes can be expanded.

Popular Protests and Geopolitical Poker

At the institutional level, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are working together with other post-Soviet states to establish a Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance. It was not long ago at all — in January of this year — that Kazakh president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev enlisted the help of CSTO troops to shore up his government during unrest in the country. This raised a whole host of questions about the region’s security dependency on Russia and a potential expansion of Russian influence in the region. Now, however, the war is putting relations between Russia and the states of Central Asia to the test in multiple respects.

The voting record of the countries of Central Asia in the UN votes in March and April illustrates how delicate their diplomatic situation is with respect to Russia, and the lengths they have gone to in order to maintain a neutral position. None of the countries voted to condemn the Russian invasion, and on 7 April, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan voted against expelling Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. In this context, it is interesting to note that Russia initially warned that it would view both an abstention and a non-vote as an “unfriendly gesture”.

Shortly before these votes were held, Russia had scrapped the simplified visa processes previously enjoyed by countries it had recently categorized as “unfriendly”. For the countries of Central Asia, whose economies are heavily reliant on these simplified processes due to the role of labour migration in their economies, anything but a vote against the proposal could have led to major difficulties.

On the other hand, none of the Central Asian countries have recognized Donetsk or Luhansk as independent states, with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan even making explicit statements to the effect. Another notable fact is that the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan have allowed various anti-war protests to take place, and aid shipments to be sent to Ukraine.

In Kazakhstan, the humanitarian aid is being openly organized by the government, while in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, it has been mobilized primarily by civil society organizations. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have not taken an official stance on the war, so it is probably no coincidence that Putin’s first international trip after Russia’s invasion took him to these countries.

On a symbolic level as well, a number of Central Asian states have expressed subtle criticism of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. For example, Kazakh authorities have imposed fines for the display of material featuring the “Z” symbolrepresenting support for Russia. In Kyrgyzstan, by contrast, pro-Ukrainian demonstrations organized by civil society were suppressed by security forces. Even in Uzbekistan, Ukrainian flags have been displayed at central sites in Tashkent and Samarkand, which would be impossible in this authoritarian country without some form of government approval.

Between Kazakhstan and Russia in particular, the diplomatic mood seems to be growing ever more tense. In June, President Tokayev underscored his country’s non-recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk while sitting on a stage with Putin at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum — another diplomatic slap in the face for Moscow. It is likely that this was partly in response to repeated statements from the Russian side that have questioned the legitimacy of the Kazakh state. At this very Economic Forum, Putin publicly stated that the former Soviet Union had been a part of “historical Russia”, and that other countries might suffer the same fate as Ukraine if they openly opposed Moscow. With its shared border with Russia, Kazakhstan might have felt this statement was directed squarely at them.

The war in Ukraine could lead to shifts in political loyalties in the post-Soviet sphere, with at least some parts of Central Asia attempting to reduce their dependency on Russia and to strengthen relations with China and the West, as well as with countries like Turkey and Iran. It is already clear that the countries in the region do not always act in sync when it comes to relations with Russia, but that — as has been the case with the post-Soviet development of the countries of Central Asia more broadly — there are a number of divergent interests, possibilities, and paths of action.