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Has Russia’s grip on Central Asia loosened following the war in Ukraine?

Maya Ivanova | Blog Post | 18 August, 2022

Photo: Protesters face off in Bishkek. (Danil Usmanov, Eurasianet)

Russia enjoys historical, linguistic and economic ties with Central Asia. However, following the onset of the war in Ukraine, those ties have been put to the test, and each Central Asian country has taken a different position, which further highlights how fragmented the region is in the diplomatic arena and the different degrees of dependency each country has on Russia. This article explores some aspects of Central Asia’s response to the war in Ukraine regarding geopolitics, economy and security.

Are traditional geopolitical dynamics shifting?

Before the war, Russia was seen as a source of stability for Central Asia. For instance, when in January 2022, Kazakhstan was shaken by the most substantial social unrest since its independence, and it closed its borders; President Tokayev relied on the Collective Security Treaty Organization to send in troops, mainly from Russia, to restore stability. However, after 24 February, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan reiterated their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, allowed some anti-war protests, permitted civil society groups to collect humanitarian assistance for Ukraine, and clamped down on local displays of the “Z” sign. In contrast, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan opted for neutrality and have not made official statements about the war in Ukraine. Moreover, after the war onset, Putin made his first foreign visit to those two countries.

However, after the invasion started, the image of Russia changed from a source of stability to a weakness to regional stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity. No Central Asian country has openly criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine out of fear of repercussions, but none has openly supported it either, with all Central Asian countries voting to abstain or not voting at all at the UN level. Therefore, it remains to be seen if Central Asia would be able to move away from Russia’s economic and security orbit.

Economic consequences

As part of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), scrutiny of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan would better represent the impact of the sanctions on Russia. Statistics show that both countries are experiencing “unique” difficulties due to close cooperation with the countries of the EEU- prices for food products have increased by an average of 15.4%, for goods and services – by 12%, non-food – by 10.9%, and paid services increased by 8.3%. Moreover, Central Asian countries are still economically dependent on Russia in labour migration and remittances. Data from 2021 shows that approximately 2.5 million foreign labour migrants from Central Asia worked in Russia. In particular, remittances are crucial to the economy of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In the first quarter of 2021, migrant remittances from Russia accounted for 83% of the total in Kyrgyzstan and 58% in Tajikistan. To put that into perspective- in 2020, overall remittances to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan accounted for 31% and 27% of their GDP respectively, comparable to or even larger than the countries’ exports of goods and services. If the migrant workers from Russia are to return home, this will spike unemployment rates suddenly as these economies are hardly equipped to tackle an influx of workers. In stark contrast to that, Turkmenistan remains effectively isolated economically. Ashgabat has also repeatedly chased Russian businesses out of the country, and the government does not publish any reliable data, nor does any independent organization.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan also have a migrant workforce in Russia, but their economies are less dependent on remittances (11.6% and 0.2% of GDP, respectively). However, it is essential to highlight that Uzbekistan may not be as economically dependent on remittances as Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, but it has more economic migrants in Russia than all the other Central Asian states put together. This means that the strengthening of the Uzbek sum and US dollar against the Russian ruble means that millions of Uzbek migrant workers earning rubles in Russia have taken a 50% wage cut in sum and US dollar terms because of the war. Nur-Sultan announced a new anti-crisis plan, including a “tenge deposit protection program”, but the tenge has already lost some 20% against the dollar since the war began. According to economic experts’ projections, remittance flows to Central Asia will have a two-fold impact. First, weakening economic activity in Russia would decrease employment opportunities and migrants’ income. The second impact channel would be a weakening of the ruble against the US dollar, which would effectively decrease the purchasing power of remittances sent back to their home countries in Central Asia.

Overall, it is clear that the war has taken its toll economically on all Central Asian countries apart from Turkmenistan, which remains isolated. A likely response to that impact could be Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan taking the lead in regional cooperation efforts due to their level of economic development in the region, and the low influence remittances have on their GDP. However, the lack of a shared vision, drive for further regional economic integration. To a large extent, a certain level of mistrust between countries in the region is likely to reinforce the current regional status quo, where all countries heavily rely on remittances, tourist revenue and imports from Russia.

Spillover regional security issues

Despite the ongoing war in Ukraine, Russia remains an attractive destination for work migrants from Central Asia. However, recently there has been an increase in the exploitation and financial fraud, which has resulted in rumours and fears of migrants being forcibly sent to the fighting front and an increase in the deportations from the country. Already from the onset of the war, Russia has started calling on young Central Asians who also have Russian citizenship to present themselves in front of their respective military commissariats under threats of getting their citizenship revoked. Moreover, in Perm (Russia), the leader of the “Central Asian community of Uzbeks from Perm” publicly urged Central Asians to create a battalion named “Amir Temur” to join the fight against Ukrainians, giving as reasons, among others, the fact that although they are from Central Asia, they live and work in Russia and their kids go to Russian kindergartens, schools, universities. Uzbekistan’s official response to that was to condemn it and underline that mercenary work and activities like training, financing or recruitment for it are all punishable by law. Nonetheless, statistics show that the number of migrants who want to serve in the Russian army has been increasing every year, and since the start of 2022, their number has increased approximately by 10-15%. Migrants who serve in the army get salaries and bonuses that can exceed the basic pay and have contracts spanning from one month to five years, but after completion of service, all obtain Russian citizenship. Overall, although no reliable statistics are showing how many people from Central Asia have joined the fight in Ukraine on the Russian side, it is clear that Russia has taken steps to provide appealing incentives to them.

Another security aspect worth taking note of is energy independence. On 6 July, a court in Novorossiisk ordered the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) to suspend operations for 30 days, citing concern about oil spill management. The CPC pipeline is the route for nearly all land- locked Kazakh oil exports and the timing for the court decision raises concerns as it comes just two days after Kazakh President Tokayev told European Council President Charles Michel that Nur-Sultan was “ready to use its hydrocarbon potential for the sake of stabilization of the global and European markets.” The potential closure of the CPC pipeline would shut in more than 1% of the global oil supply, exacerbating what is already the most severe energy crunch since the Arab oil embargo in the 1970s. Therefore, the recent suspension raises concern about whether it was not meant as a “warning” from Russia, with further suspensions to follow if Kazakhstan attempts to help stabilise the market supply and price of oil.

Concluding remarks

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, Central Asian countries are left to adapt and adjust along the way while dealing with economic and security risks and uncertainty. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are most likely the two Central Asian countries that would attempt to further gain independence economically by developing transport and connectivity projects with the South Caucasus and South Asia, thereby challenging Russia’s geopolitical interests in what it considers its sphere of dominance. Hence, the war is also a test for Central Asian unity and the extent to which Central Asia is willing to challenge Russia and test the Kremlin’s limits to their freedom of manoeuvre in the international arena.

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