Ukraine war: Is Central Asia loosening ties with Russia?

On March 17, as Moscow’s war on Ukraine intensified, Uzbekistan made a statement few observers anticipated.

Speaking at the Senate’s plenary session, Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov said, “Firstly, the military actions and violence must be stopped right away. The Republic of Uzbekistan recognises Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.

“We do not recognise the Luhansk and Donetsk republics.”

While far from an all-out condemnation, it marked a significant shift; Central Asian nations are among Russia’s traditional allies and rarely speak out against the Kremlin’s actions.

And since Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power as president in 2016, the relationship between the two countries has significantly improved to the extent that last year, Russia surpassed China as Uzbekistan’s main trading partner.

In addition, Mirziyoyev has been connected with Uzbek-born Russian businessman Alisher Usmanov, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Before the war, Uzbekistan was one step closer to joining the Eurasian Economic Union and Mirziyoyev even participated in a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation,” Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Al Jazeera. “[But] I think that now Uzbekistan will try to distance itself from Moscow.

“I think that Usmanov is thinking about his own future. His business was mostly possible to prosper in the previous Russia, now everything has changed because of the sanctions. He probably looks for an opportunity to change his main location, and turn from a Russian oligarch with Uzbek roots into an Uzbek oligarch.”

Thanks to years of isolationist policies, Uzbekistan managed to build more independent economic and political systems, compared with others in Central Asia.
But perhaps no other country in the region can afford to distance themselves in a similar manner.

Surrounded by Russia, China, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea, the Central Asia region – which includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – is susceptible to volatility in terms of geopolitical and security changes.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these countries have remained in the Russian orbit and while many tried to pursue multi-vector foreign policies, their dependence on Moscow has remained strong.

But the war could be a game-changer and change regional dynamics.

“The way Central Asia thinks about Russia has changed. While before, Russia was seen as a source of stability, it now seems that its presence in a very sensitive security dimension has become a weakness for the regional stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Umarov said.

“I think that Central Asian governments will seek to minimise the influence of Russia, which will be difficult to do, but they have no choice since it has become an unpredictable power.”

The five states’ economies are heavily linked to Russia.

According to data from 2021, approximately 2.5 million foreign labour migrants from Central Asian countries worked in Russia, although the real number is likely to be higher.

Most provide manual labour and their remittances have been crucial for the economies of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and, to a lesser extent, Uzbekistan.

The new Western sanctions aimed to bring the Russian economy to its knees, but their effect will soon be felt also in Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are two of the world’s most migrant-dependent countries, with remittances contributing to 31.3 and 26.7 percent to the countries’ GDP, respectively.

According to World Bank, Kyrgyzstan’s remittances will fall by 33 percent and Tajikistan’s by 22 percent as Russia’s economy declines amid sanctions.

Uzbekistan’s remittances, which constitute approximately 11 percent of the GDP, are to fall by 21 percent.

Faced with the prospect of severe economic crises at home, Central Asian states have found themselves with few options. None has openly criticised Russia’s actions, ostensibly fearing repercussions.

Kazakhstan, the region’s richest country, was rocked by the most dramatic social unrest since its independence at the start of this year and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called in Russian troops to help stabilise the situation – meaning he may now feel indebted.

Observers said the move marked a new era in Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, one of even greater dependence on Russia.

“When it comes to Kazakhstan, there’s been the usual call for diplomacy. Kazakhstan abstained from the vote at the UN on the Ukrainian issue but we haven’t seen open support for Russia’s position,” said professor Edward Lemon at Texas, A&M University, whose research focuses on the transnational dimensions of authoritarianism.

“Going forward we can see more concerted pressure on Kazakhstan to take a stronger stance. Only yesterday, the news came that Kazakhstan can no longer export its oil through the Caspian pipeline consortium, which is part of Russia’s original plan to cut off oil supplies to the West.”

However, he added that Kazakhstan allowed an anti-war demonstration to happen, with about 3,000 people attending – a notable move considering protests have to be approved by authorities before going ahead.

In the longer term, Lemon said Moscow’s actions might push Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan away from the Russian orbit towards other regional players.

For Kyrgyzstan, it might be harder to weaken Moscow’s influence.

“Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister stated during a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Countries that Kyrgyzstan stands for a peaceful solution to all issues and that it firmly adheres to all UN norms and to the principle of territorial integrity, in particular,” Emil Dzhuraev, a Kyrgyz political scientist, told Al Jazeera.

“In Kyrgyzstan, there are serious concerns about the likely consequences of open criticism of Russia, both in terms of security and politics. However, regardless of whether there is such criticism or not, the effect of economic downturn in Russia are already being felt here. There is growing inflation and we may expect shortages of basic products in the coming months.”

Meanwhile, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have opted for neutrality, and have not made any official statements about the war in Ukraine.

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