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Central Asian Leaders Meet Amid Russia's 'Declining Role' In Region

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left), Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (center), and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov arrive for talks at a Central Asia summit in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, on July 20.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left), Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (center), and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov arrive for talks at a Central Asia summit in Cholpon-Ata, Kyrgyzstan, on July 20.

The presidents of the five Central Asian countries are in Kyrgyzstan to discuss political and economic cooperation after violent unrest in three countries in the region and a change in attitudes toward Russian influence in the former Soviet countries.

The July 20-21 summit in the resort town of Cholpon-Ata, is officially called the Fourth Consultative Meeting of the Heads of States of Central Asia. It is taking place just weeks after several dozen people were killed in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan after security forces brutally clamped down on anti-government protests in their respective autonomous regions, Gorno-Badakhshan and Karakalpakstan.

In January, more than 200 people were killed in unrest in Kazakhstan, prompting Nur-Sultan to invite Russian-led security forces to swoop in and help restore order.

But Russia -- the main strategic and trade partner in the region -- has since been weakened by the war in Ukraine and the crippling sanctions imposed by the West because of the conflict.

RFE/RL Kazakh Service freelance correspondent Yelnur Alimova spoke with Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, the founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh, about Russia's future role in Central Asia.

RFE/RL: During the summit, the Central Asian presidents are expected to sign a Friendship, Neighborliness, and Cooperation for the Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century agreement. Will this step lead to regional integration in Central Asia?

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili: It’s a very important time for Central Asia right now given what's going on in the environment. I think the leaders of the region understand that they are better able to preserve their sovereignty and their independence when they work together.

We are using the term integration; I think the better term to use is regional cooperation. I think it's still premature to talk about any kind of integration. As we know, many of the countries still have very serious disputes with one another. If we look at Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, for example, in their border disputes, there are many issues that are unresolved in that area.

So, I think integration is premature, but we are seeing greater steps towards regional cooperation and that may include the creation of a body at the regional level that can facilitate that kind of cooperation without the reliance on external third parties.

RFE/RL: What other obstacles do you see on the way to regional integration?

Brick Murtazashvili: These are all countries that are still trying to figure out their own internal sovereignty while trying to work with one another. And of course, there is the external factor and the role that parties like Russia, the United States, and even China have played in balancing these states off against one another.

I think a lot of countries are saying: "Well, if Russia is having this much trouble in Ukraine, how is it going to be able to protect Central Asia...?

I think, what the countries of Central Asia now are beginning to realize is that they have greater power when they work together, especially vis-a-vis Russia or China or the United States. But the United States is no longer an important player in the region after August of last year when [it] withdrew [from Afghanistan]. So that is a very important factor in the region.

But in terms of what this will produce, I think it's very important, even if nothing concrete comes out of this. I think it's very important that this mechanism exists for conflict prevention, mediation, having the leaders of the five states be in a room together where they can talk about issues. I think it's really important that Turkmenistan is there since this country is going to join such an agreement for the first time.

RFE/RL: Some experts believe that Russia’s influence in Central Asia is waning as it’s being increasingly weakened -- financially and militarily -- because of the war in Ukraine and the crippling sanctions imposed by the West. Do you agree with this viewpoint?

Brick Murtazashvili: Yes, I do agree that Russia's influence is declining in the region, but not for the reason most analysts think. I think what the war in Ukraine illustrated from a moral perspective was that it is very difficult to cooperate with Russia if you're Kazakhstan and you're looking at what Russia did in Ukraine and you're looking at Russia's justification for it. As we know, Putin's justification for the invasion of Ukraine could just as easily apply to Kazakhstan as it could to Ukraine. So, this leaves countries feeling very vulnerable.

Another issue is that Russia's military performance has been very weak. And a lot of people anticipated that Russia would have a really quick victory in Ukraine. And that hasn't happened.

Many countries in Central Asia were looking to Russia as a security guarantor able to provide security, within the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization). Look at the thousands of Russian troops that were in Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan. This was seen as a way to protect the region from incursions from militants.

I think a lot of countries are saying: "Well, if Russia is having this much trouble in Ukraine, how is it going to be able to protect Central Asia that is so far away?" So, I think many countries are actually asking [much more pragmatic questions]: "Is Russia necessary? Can Russia deliver on the things that it had promised?" I am not sure that that's the case.

In addition to that, you have the economic issues -- Russia's economic decline. Russia is a very important economic player in so many countries in the region. But I think this gives countries an opportunity to diversify their sources of economic growth.

If we thought the COVID [pandemic] would be the opportunity to do this -- with so many countries dependent on remittances from Russia -- I think this is another opportunity for Central Asian states to revisit that because it really highlights the vulnerability. Both COVID and the sanctions illustrate the vulnerability of relying on Russia.

RFE/RL: Will this situation open the door for other players, such as China and the United States?

Brick Murtazashvili: Sure, it would open the door to other players. It would certainly open the door to China. It does open the door to the United States and Europe. But let's remember, the United States has just left the region.

The most important thing is it opens the door for Central Asia. It opens the door to Central Asians to take control of their own foreign policies, to assert greater control.

Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (file photo)
Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (file photo)

It's a really important time for the region right now. We're seeing really creative foreign policy ideas emerge from the region. We're looking at Central Asian states increasingly look south towards South Asia, for example, looking for new trade routes. We're looking at India to some extent, but we're looking at Iran and Turkey having renewed relations with Central Asia and really trying to push.

This is very positive for Central Asia not to be necessarily reliant on one large external power, but to be able to draw on many and to rely on them for their own interests so that they can cultivate their interests in working with these different players and balance them out against one another.

RFE/RL: Do you think Central Asian countries are distancing themselves from Russia because of its war in Ukraine, as some analysts suggest?

Brick Murtazashvili: It's hard in the short term for them to take complete distance from Russia just because of the deep economic ties. But [I'd like to watch] some large-scale Russian investments, for example, that are in Central Asia -- I'm not sure what their status will be in the future.

I'm thinking of Uzbekistan, in particular, which had closed itself off to the entire world for many years. And when [President Shavkat] Mirziyoev came to power, [Uzbekistan] opened itself economically and opened itself to Russian investment. One investment that comes to mind was Rosatom's. They were going to build a huge nuclear power plant outside of Tashkent. I'm wondering, what is the status of this project now when Russia is in such a difficult economic situation; what is the status of things like the Eurasian Economic Union.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the Eurasian Economic Union weaken significantly in the months and years to come. I would also probably say the same thing about the CSTO, at least Central Asian participation in the CSTO.

RFE/RL: Some experts argue that relations between Russia and Kazakhstan have deteriorated in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Do you see any tension between Moscow and Nur-Sultan?

Brick Murtazashvili: Yes, I think this is really important and it's not just Kazakhstan. [Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart] Toqaev came out very strongly and said they wouldn't recognize [Ukraine’s separatist-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions as independent]. And Abdulaziz Komilov, Uzbekistan's foreign minister [at the time], said the same thing.

So, we're seeing both countries really distance themselves from Russia. I think Kazakhstan is doing this much more aggressively than Uzbekistan, but I think Kazakhstan has to do this because its shares this huge border [with Russia]. I think, given what President [Vladimir] Putin has said about Kazakhstan being sort of an artificial state, Kazakhstan's leaders have very little choice but to distance themselves from this. They fear that their own territorial integrity may be at risk. I wouldn't be surprised to see more of this in the future and I wouldn't be surprised to see Kazakhstan really taking the lead on some of the questions of regional integration.

RFE/RL: Are there any risks involved for Central Asian countries in taking a distance from Russia?

Brick Murtazashvili: Sure, there are the financial risks, the security risks, the risks that Russia will somehow destabilize the region. Of course you want to have good relations with your neighbors. There's the issue of labor migrants. So, this is going to be very significant.

But…now Central Asian states realize how vulnerable Russia is. I think for many years they looked at it as this huge partner, sort of the older brother in this relationship going back to the Soviet period.

But now I think we're seeing something very different. We're seeing that Russia is actually quite dependent upon Central Asia for its labor migrants. Of course, Central Asia is dependent on Russia. But Russia, given the sanctions, given the labor shortages that it has, really needs the Central Asian states and needs the labor that it produces to sustain its economy because its own population growth is abysmal.

RFE/RL: Kazakhstan has lost partial or complete access to the Caspian Pipeline Consortium pipeline three times since the beginning of the year. Was it a deliberate act by Russia to warn Kazakhstan, or a coincidence?

Brick Murtazashvili: I don't think this is a coincidence. I'm sure that authorities in Kazakhstan anticipate that this kind of thing will continue in the months and years to come.

So, this will mean that countries in Central Asia will only be more aggressively looking to other transit routes, other pipeline routes, other things that take them away from Russia. I think the future of the region is really diversification.

This was intentional on the part of Russia given the souring of relations between Kazakhstan and Russia.

RFE/RL: Kyrgyzstan was once considered an island of democracy in Central Asia, but it’s no longer the case. In Uzbekistan, proposed constitutional reforms will allow Mirziyoev to potentially remain in power for many more years. In Turkmenistan, the political power was transferred from father to son. The same is expected in Tajikistan, too. Do you see a “decline of democracy” in Central Asia?

Brick Murtazashvili: Democracy never took off in Central Asia, so I'm hard pressed to see its decline. I think we have to look at Kyrgyzstan as a country that did experience an episode of democracy.

But I think like many other countries that have experienced backsliding, that the democracy that was in place was never on very firm ground. The previous constitutions in Kyrgyzstan were wrought with problems. They bred instability. And I think as a consequence of this there wasn't enough thought to setting up systems that actually generate public goods, provision and services for people. Rather than focusing on democracy in elections.

We do obviously see some reversals in the region, but I think it's a mistake to say that democracy was ever firmly entrenched in the region. So, that's why it's hard to see that there are reversals in places like Turkmenistan or Tajikistan, even in in Kazakhstan we're seeing some changes.

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