The events in Ukraine are being perceived in different ways throughout the former Soviet Union. Central Asia is no exception: their implications can be hardly underestimated by local leaders and populations alike. The former in particular have to carefully balance multiple, conflicting interests when reacting to the unfolding of events.
Factors driving Central Asian responses
Migration and other economic factors
To understand Central Asian reactions to events in Kyiv and Crimea, one has to remember that most of the “-stans” are in a way or another still dependent on Russia, despite the recent rise of China as a trading partner. This is especially true for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and to a lesser extent Uzbekistan, whose economies largely depend on the flow of remittances from immigrants in Russia (in the case of Tajikistan, they account for 50% of the GDP). Millions of young, unemployed, frustrated Central Asians move to Russia to work, helping not just their countries’ economies but, more crucially for foreign policy, the survival of their countries’ regimes: migrants belong to the most dissatisfied strata of the population and would probably take to the streets if they were to return home jobless. This forces Central Asian leaders to make sure they do not upset Russia leading it to close its borders to Central Asian migrants.
Central Asia does not depend on Russia just for migration: regional economies are so tied with the former Czarist and later Soviet “centre” that if Russia were to be seriously hit by Western sanctions, Central Asia would immediately feel the impact. Recently, the decline of the ruble has instantly reverberated on the value of the Kazakh tenge and the Kyrgyz sum, which lost 20 and 10% of their value respectively. An economic downturn in Russia would cause thousands of Central Asian migrants to lose their jobs and return to almost certain poverty at home (this already happened in 2009 and may in fact have been one of the reasons behind the 2010 riots that ousted Kyrgyz president Bakiyev). Russian investments in Central Asia would dry out, causing loss of jobs in the region. Also, economic problems would probably lead Russia to revise the favourable tariffs on oil products it applies to some Central Asian countries, with serious economic consequences.
Presence of Russian minorities and Russian military bases
Almost all Central Asian countries have significant, regionally concentrated, Russian-speaking minorities: 23.7% in Kazakhstan (mostly in the north and in Almaty), 12.5% in Kyrgyzstan (primarily in northern urban areas), 5.5% in Uzbekistan and 4% in Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, only 1% of the population is Russian. Given the rationale behind the Crimean intervention, these figures cause concern among observers, especially when Russian presence is coupled with Russian bases, another key factor in Moscow’s takeover of Crimea: Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan both host Russian military bases, while Kazakhstan hosts the Baikonur spaceport. Russia would have less leverage in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan where no bases are present. Consequently, while economy would force the Central Asian states closer to Moscow, we could expect the precedent set by Crimea to be a worrying episode for countries that host large Russian minorities (and in fact, immediately after the Crimean takeover, Kazakhstan increased its military preparedness).
The situation may be more nuanced, though: even if Russian-speakers are arguably much more politically marginalized and culturally repressed in authoritarian Central Asia than they are in Ukraine or in the Baltics (as the higher rate of out-migration of Russians from Central Asia also shows), Russia has never criticized its Central Asian partners as much as it does with, say, Latvia, Estonia or Ukraine. Turkmenistan has distinguished itself for aggressively anti-Russian cultural policies, and even friendlier countries such as Kazakhstan are promoting a nationalization that is upsetting some Russians, but Moscow has never taken steps to counter this, showing a tendency to use minority issues only when politically convenient. Therefore, although some Russians in Central Asia are confident that Russia would help them in case of need, this may not necessarily be the case. Central Asian leaders know that as long as they don’t take openly anti-Russian stances they have little to fear for the presence of Russian minorities. Besides, as Central Asian Russians themselves know very well, there is no “fascist danger” in Central Asian societies that Russia can use to justify an intervention.
Explaining official positions on Ukraine
Official Central Asian responses to the Ukrainian events are shaped by the above-mentioned factors as well as perceptions and internal priorities. The result is a set of often contradictory stances. The latest occasion to express their point of view came during the UN voting on Ukraine’s territorial integrity: despite alleged Russian threats, none of the Central Asian countries supported Russia, preferring to abstain instead, which is hardly surprising as they do not want to give their approval to a scenario that might one day materialize to their own detriment. Central Asian leaders are aware of the fact that Putin has an ambitious “reintegration” plan that requires much more than just Crimea to help him secure his place in Russian history: therefore, although a risk of Russian takeover of Central Asian regions is currently unlikely, they are all keen on underlining their concern for territorial integrity.
At the same time, there have been contradictory expressions of support for Russia’s actions coming from Central Asian republic, which is not surprising either, considering their economic dependence. Kazakhstan, which is due to become a member of the Russia-led Eurasian Union and whose Ministry of Foreign Affairs had initially expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, later adjusted its position indicating that it recognizes the Crimean referendum and understands Russia’s actions, much to Ukraine’s concern. However, it did not support Russia during the voting at the UN. This position can be interpreted in different ways. Given the presence of a “potential Crimea” in Northern Kazakhstan, it would be normal to expect Kazakhstan to strongly support Ukraine, so Kazakhstan’s failure to do so may be seen as a sign of support for Russia. At the same time, though, Kazakhstan is one of Russia’s closest allies and its unwillingness to fully support Moscow can be seen as an anti-Kremlin stance, potentially indicating future reticence to further integration projects. Most likely, though, Kazakhstan’s position is just the inevitable result of the country’s “multi-vector” foreign policy, which aims to maintain good relations with China, Russia and the West at the same time.
Kyrgyzstan also took contradictory stances, on the one hand recognizing the Crimean referendum, but at the same time blaming Yanukovich for causing the current situation and effectively refusing to recognize him as legitimate president, a crucial element in Russia’s justification of the Crimean takeover. According to the Kyrgyz MFA, Yanukovich “lost the confidence of his people, presidential power and escaped from the country." Kyrgyzstan’s stance is hardly surprising: on the one hand it needs to keep Russia happy, but at the same time it cannot support an ousted president, for the current Kyrgyz élite is itself the result of a revolutionary takeover back in 2010.
Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have also tried to take a neutral stance, either refraining from making any declaration at all (Turkmenistan) or releasing vague statements about the need to reach an objective assessment (Tajikistan). Uzbekistan on the other hand took a rather anti-Russian stance, declaring that the events “create the real threats to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country cannot but arouse a deep alarm and concern in Uzbekistan.” Given Tashkent’s recent pro-Western shift in foreign policy and its constant effort to balance the interests of world powers against one another, the Uzbek statement is also scarcely surprising.
Conclusions: a complex set of priorities
Central Asian leaders definitely have reasons to worry following the Ukrainian events. They know that there is a remote chance that Maidan becomes an example for their own population and have ensured that state media coverage of the protests was as limited (and negative) as possible. Moreover, they know that as they prepare their own regimes for succession (most of Central Asian leaders have been in power for over 20 years and some are over 70 years old), there is a risk that their countries’ relationship with Russia will be re-discussed to their disadvantage or that Moscow may want to promote irredentist trends among Russian speakers especially in Northern Kazakhstan. Besides, they cannot fail to see the implications of the Crimean referendum, which besides raising questions about their own countries’ territorial integrity, sets a precedent not just for regions with a Russian presence but for any minority-inhabited region. They are also aware of the risks of excessive dependence on Russia and are likely to start looking for alternatives, at the same time slowing down the pace of political, economic and military integration with Russia. They have, however, limited manoeuvring space on this because of their economic dependence and, more importantly, the need to keep using the Russian job market as a safety valve for social unrest, a crucial aspect at least for Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. As a result, their position on the Ukrainian events can only be neutral (if not contradictory) and is likely to change depending on the kind of incentives (or threats) that Russia will present them with.
Fabio Belafatti, Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies (Vilnius University, Oriental Studies Centre) and lecturer of Central Asian Politics