After Xi Jinping and Pope Francis very recently, it is Vladimir Putin’s turn to go to Kazakhstan. Arrived on October 13, the Russian president must attend this Friday the first edition of a summit bringing together Russia and the five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan) which became independent at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The format is very classic, reflecting the preeminent role played by Russia in recent decades in this landlocked and sparsely populated region. But the situation is unprecedented. Since February 24, the invasion of Ukraine has deeply strained relations between Moscow and its former imperial and then Soviet dependencies, which it has considered since the fall of the USSR as its backyard.
Last image of this estrangement: Tuesday, October 12, at the United Nations General Assembly, four of the five Central Asian states abstained rather than voting ” versus “ the draft resolution condemning the annexation of four Ukrainian regions by Russia. In accordance with its tradition of neutrality, Turkmenistan abstained. “It is a sign of blatant distrust in these countries, a real change of position”comments Olivier Ferrando, lecturer at the Catholic University of Lyon.
Search for guarantees
The estrangement is particularly marked on the part of Kazakhstan. Until then considered Moscow’s closest partner in the region, this country which shares nearly 7,000 kilometers of borders with Russia now sees its neighbor as a potential threat to its territorial integrity.
The concern is all the more acute as certain Russian nationalist fringes, including “hardliners” from the regime, such as former President Dmitry Medvedev, have not hesitated to question the legitimacy of the existence of the Kazakh state since the start of the invasion. The year 2022 has thus seen Astana multiply in order to obtain security guarantees from the main players in the region – first and foremost China, but also Turkey – who have both committed to defending the territorial integrity of the Kazakhstan.
The region is also deeply affected economically by the invasion of Ukraine. Western sanctions have forced these countries to distance themselves, for fear of being affected by secondary sanctions. Sanctions and partial mobilization have also disrupted money transfers sent “home” by Central Asian migrants working in Russia, who sometimes represent a considerable share of national income (25% of GDP in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). The countries of Central Asia are also worried about the fate of their nationals in Russia, who risk finding themselves caught, willingly or by force, in the nets of the mobilization.
Loss of credibility
Some observers have seen last month’s border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as a symptom of the declining influence of Russia, which until then has been seen as the region’s policeman. Three specialists joined by The cross are wary of this interpretation, seeing it rather as the result of border disputes that have their own logic.
Olivier Ferrando notes, however, that the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s inaction in the face of the fighting between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and between Azerbaijan and Armenia in September, have tarnished the image dear to Moscow of “guarantor of peace” in the region. “Central Asian states are well aware that Russia has lost all credibility in this function of conflict regulation. »
However, it would be excessive to think that the region would thus turn its back on Russia. “The level of trust and personal ties between Russian and Central Asian elites, all Russian-speaking, is too strong to disappear quickly”notes Temour Oumarov, specialist in relations between Central Asia and China. “This development is underway, but it will take longer than we think. »
Always an “indispensable partner”
“Russia remains an indispensable partner for the countries of Central Asia”abounds the analyst Davide Cancarini, who recalls that 80% of the oil exported by Kazakhstan passes through Russia. “Some structural factors will not change in the short term. But it is likely that Moscow no longer has the resources to play the leading role in the future. » A role that Beijing could then take on.
In this context, the States of Central Asia could find an interest in intensifying their bilateral exchanges and their regional cooperation. “I think Central Asia understands that it needs its own space for discussioncomments Temur Oumarov. Until recently, all platforms included Russia. But there are things that these countries have to say to each other without Moscow being there to listen to them. »