Eighteen months since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Central Asian regimes and societies face diverse direct and indirect effects of the war and actively shape the changing regional order. This rapidly changing order demands a delicate balancing act from Central Asian governments while providing opportunities to pursue regime and state interests. The maneuvering of Central Asian governments between divergent interests of great powers in relation to the war produces a complex picture of seemingly contradictory government responses. On the one hand, they show resistance to Russian pressure, which is especially visible in their UN resolution votes and their pursuit of simultaneous talks with China and the West; on the other hand, they continue close, if not increased partnership with Russia within existing economic, cultural and diplomatic frameworks.
Following these structural dependencies, international commentators rushed to portray the positions of these states vis-à-vis the war as another reflection of their vassalage to Russia, and the increased attention of China and the collective West to the region as the Great Game 2.0. However, none of these commentaries do justice to what is happening on the ground. If the war seems to thus far have benefited the regimes, it is detrimental to Central Asian societies, as the changing order is accompanied by another tightening of the screws in the form of authoritarian consolidation, soaring prices and uncertainty for millions of labor migrants working in Russia. This memo zooms in on these regional and local developments to provide the context needed to understand the Central Asian government responses to the war.Changing regional security and trade order
Despite Russia’s intensified efforts to bring Central Asia closer to itself, the regional order is changing. For many in Central Asian government policy circles, the current war against Ukraine implicitly symbolizes the failure of Russia’s foreign policy toward its ‘near abroad.’ The Russia-led CSTO could not mitigate the recent armed conflicts between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and between Azerbaijan and Armenia, while Russia is also failing to defend itself, as the Prigozhin mutiny demonstrates. Russia’s neo-imperial divide-and-rule policy toward these regions has reached its limits, opening the space for other actors. The security paradigm is shifting, and it remains to be seen whether China is interested in getting more involved in security issues, since its investment projects require stability across the region and, as in the case of the most recent inter-state conflict in Central Asia, its leverage on both Kyrgyz and Tajik authorities is sufficient to play a mediating role. China’s move to create a new multilateral mechanism “C5+1,” showed off in Xi’an in May 2023 – in addition to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Beijing’s bilateral relationships – is a success, which contrasts with Russia’s failure to bring the region under the Eurasian Economic Union with Tajikistan’s systematic refusal
to join it.
Second, the invasion has pushed regional actors to find alternative trade routes bypassing Russia. Western partners first seek to promote
regional connectivity “so they’re [the Central Asian states] not dependent on any one country or any one source for trade and investment,” and second, to prevent Central Asia from becoming a buffer zone for Russian imports of goods under Western sanctions. These topics have been the reason for high-level official visits, multiplied since the war within the US ‘C5+1’ and EU ‘C5+1’ initiatives, and the recent EBRD-funded study on sustainable transportation
links between Europe and Central Asia. Meanwhile, for China it will be vital to speed up alternative routes to secure its exports to Europe. All these developments that were spurred or accelerated by the war bring renewed attention to the region and Central Asian leaders’ work to make the most out of their increased importance. Whereas before Central Asia was treated as Russia’s backyard, today regional leaders can hope to gain prominence in its own right, as the new contours of the regional security paradigm are yet to emerge.Pursuing national interests within the changing regional order
In past months, Russia, China and the collective West have intensified their ties with Central Asia. In an attempt to maintain its few friends left in the world, Russia has increasingly courted
Central Asian leaders, holding more than 50 meetings with them in an unusually high number of visits to the region. While most of these meetings and summits take place within the existing inter-parliamentary, inter-governmental, CSTO and EAEU frameworks, what has changed is rather the tone of Russia’s approach to the region. Sources in government circles say that their Russian counterparts have never been so respectful as now, a timely correction to the earlier complaint
of the Tajik President Rahmon that Russia “does not respect” Central Asian states. The same tone could be observed during the second high-level regional meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia and the president of the European Council on June 2 in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, where Charles Michel made a 20-minute speech on the importance of “hearing and listening to each other.”