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Was Zelenskiy Right About Central Asian Leaders 'Fearing' The Kremlin?

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the airport in Tashkent on May 25.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev (left) greets Russian President Vladimir Putin at the airport in Tashkent on May 25.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- "I'm not criticizing anyone," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told reporters in Kharkiv on May 24.

Zelenskiy may not have been trying to offend his Central Asian colleagues last week when he suggested that their international positioning remained pro-Russian "out of fear of the Kremlin."

But he was perhaps probing for some kind of response -- including to his public invitation for them to attend a June summit in Switzerland demanding that Russia end its aggression against Kyiv and conclude a peace agreement in accordance with the UN charter.

So far, that request has been met by stony silence.

Does that nonreaction seem to prove Zelenskiy's point?

"It is mostly pragmatism," argued Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center.

"But of course, that pragmatism includes some fear, because [the Central Asian states] are aware that there may be backlash for taking actions that anger Russia," he said.

At the same time, Umarov says, the overall picture is more complicated and contradictory than Zelenskiy suggested.

Since the beginning of the Ukraine war, Central Asian diplomacy has seen a boom in diversity, while some leaders and other top officials from the region have on occasion said and done things that appear to stray from Moscow's line.

"Yet they also understand that ties with Russia matter and that Russia is important for the security of their regimes," Umarov said.

"The evidence for that is the high number of contacts between top Russian and Central Asian officials since the invasion began, as well as President Vladimir Putin's visits to the region -- most recently Uzbekistan."

Russian Energy Leverage Growing In Uzbekistan...

Putin's trip to Uzbekistan was indeed an important one for both countries.

The state visit was officially billed for May 26-27, but stretched well into May 28 after the two presidents "spoke until three in the morning" and continued their talks the next day, according to Mirziyoev's press secretary, Sherzod Azadov.

The main headline of the visit was the long-awaited confirmation that Russian atomic energy giant Rosatom will build a small nuclear power plant in Uzbekistan -- a long-planned but somewhat downsized project Mirziyoev described as "vital."

The agreement for the 350-megawatt plant comes despite the progress of a bill in the U.S. Congress that would seek to impose sanctions on Rosatom -- one of the few major Russian state companies that have not already been targeted by the United States and Kyiv's other Western allies.

But it also highlights Russia's growing energy leverage over the region's most populous country, which is simultaneously ramping up imports of Russian gas, with Putin pledging that Gazprom will increase deliveries to the country fourfold, reaching 11 billion cubic meters next year.

Data points like these show "just how deep a hole Uzbekistan is in," according to Central Asia-focused journalist Peter Leonard, whose review of the visit carried the apt title "Uzbekistan's energy needs lock it into Russian orbit."

"But the hard reality is that [Mirziyoev] has little choice," Leonard wrote in his newsletter, Havli.

Leonard added that Mirziyoev was the only Central Asian president not to meet British Foreign Secretary David Cameron during his blitz through the region at the end of last month.

The Uzbek president had taken a short holiday just before Cameron's weeklong regional trip -- a tour received with typical vitriol in pro-Kremlin sections of Russia's media.

But he did make time to meet with Hungary's top diplomat, Peter Szijjarto, in Tashkent on May 7.

And, of course, Mirziyoev was in Moscow with his other four Central Asian counterparts and Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka on May 9, when Putin and Russia staged their annual military parade commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II.

And Kazakhstan, Too?

Uzbekistan makes an interesting case study in the debate over Central Asia's Kremlin "fear," after the mystery-filled aftermath of former Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov's comments on Ukraine in parliament in 2022.

Komilov reportedly first stepped down on health grounds before being moved to a still-important role as deputy secretary of the Security Council after he spoke in parliament strongly in favor of the "independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity" of Ukraine.

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov (file photo)
Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov (file photo)

Ruling out any recognition of Russian-controlled entities in Ukraine's Donetsk and Luhansk regions and calling for an end to the violence, it was one of the strongest statements on the war by a Central Asian official and deeply uncharacteristic for Uzbekistan.

Observers wondered if his de facto dismissal was a step to appease Moscow. Or was Uzbekistan sending a message to the West while easing a respected but aging regime insider toward retirement?

"Central Asian states may fear Russia, but they fear the idea of [Western economic] sanctions, too," Umarov noted. "Their strategy so far has been to do 'just enough' to try and avoid those."

Kazakhstan has gone even further in statements on the war, including from President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, but never as far as outright criticism of the 2022 invasion.

Zelenskiy's comments in war-torn Kharkiv last week -- in which he also said Central Asian leaders lacked "a little bit of balance" -- will have been particularly irksome to Kazakh diplomats, since Astana has on several occasions put itself forward as a host for talks on ending the war.

But Kazakhstan, too, is looking vulnerable to Russia's energy heft.

Not only does the country rely on Russia as a transit country for more than three-quarters of its oil exports -- a route that has suffered several stoppages since the Ukraine invasion -- its own power deficits are looking critical.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev talk at the 2022 St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev talk at the 2022 St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2022.

Like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has been weighing a potential nuclear power plant, with Rosatom openly eager to build it even as officials express a preference for a consortium made up of companies from different countries.

The question of nuclear power -- contentious due to the legacy of Soviet-era nuclear tests in the country -- will be put to a popular referendum before any decision is made, Toqaev has promised.

In the meantime, Kazakh officials are talking up the idea of allowing Russia to send gas to China via Kazakhstan while keeping some for growing domestic needs.

Deputy Energy Minister Alibek Zhamauov said the northeastern region of Kazakhstan alone required about 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year.

China Considerations

If Russia can still extend leverage over the region's two strongest countries, then the picture is much clearer for others, says Dosym Satpaev, a political scientist based in Kazakhstan's largest city, Almaty.

"If for Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan it is the energy deficits, for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan it is the dependence on remittances sent by migrant workers in Russia, while in Turkmenistan, it is Russian purchases," Satpaev said. "Russia has various levers over all of them."

Then there is the question of a common authoritarian political identity, Satpaev adds.

"Not only do they consider themselves more like Putin than Zelenskiy, they probably consider themselves more like Xi Jinping. So Zelenskiy is right in many respects."

A final factor that is often overlooked when it comes to the region's so-called Kremlin fear is China's own outsize role in the region, Satpaev argues.

Some commentators expressed surprise back in 2008 when the Central Asian countries failed to recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia, two Russian-backed territories that declared independence from Georgia.

But their stance mirrored that of China, which reportedly blocked Russian diplomatic attempts at the time to legitimize the breakaway regions in various multilateral organizations, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where four of the five Central Asian states had membership.

Ditto, their collective nonrecognition of territories in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has declared its own.

Yet China has so far mostly poured cold water on Kyiv's attempts to engage it over the war as Beijing and Moscow have grown closer.

Earlier this week, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning stressed that Beijing was supportive of "an international peace conference that is recognized by both the Russian and Ukrainian sides" -- in an apparent response to Zelenskiy's pitch for Beijing to attend the June 15-16 summit in Switzerland.

And given Russia will not be at the table for those talks, Chinese nonparticipation would appear to offer even less room for any Central Asian leaders to attend.

"The fact that China has become closer to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine somewhat deepens the pressure on Central Asian states to become part of a broader anti-Western front," Satpaev told RFE/RL.

"And Ukraine is now strongly connected with the West."

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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