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POLITICS

Imaginary friends. Putin flew to Central Asia for support — without much success

Anna Stolz

The tightening of international isolation after the outbreak of a full-scale war in Ukraine has made the countries of Central Asia almost the only states that the Kremlin can still describe as partners. Putin's first and only trip abroad after the war was to this very region. At the same time, the practical outcome is unclear: it could have been an attempt to use Central Asian countries to circumvent sanctions and prevent gas transit to Europe, but the most concrete thing we know about the meeting in Dushanbe is the sabers and chess that Putin gave Berdymukhamedov, and the main outcome of the meeting in Ashgabat was a proposal to hold a joint carpet festival. Under the new conditions, Russia's influence in the region is becoming increasingly inferior to that of China, Turkey and the West.

ALL CARDS
  • Tajikistan: circumventing Western sanctions

  • Turkmenistan: not letting gas into Europe

  • Turkey and China are advancing

  • Kyrgyzstan: still no loyalty

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Tajikistan: circumventing Western sanctions

Observers have called the results of Putin's meeting in Dushanbe with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon “vague”. There were no statements, and no documents were signed. We know that the presidents discussed “sensitive” topics: a possibility of Russia’s use of Tajikistan to circumvent Western sanctions, the situation in Afghanistan, in particular Rahmon's reconciliation with the Taliban, and the transit of power in Tajikistan from father to son. It is also possible that after the G7 countries imposed an embargo on gold imports from Russia, Moscow will want to export it through Tajikistan.

However, Tamerlan Ibraimov, director of the Center for Political and Legal Studies, believes that Putin's visit was hardly related to any economic projects, or the intention to drag Tajikistan into the EAEU:

“Most likely, the emphasis was on the situation around Afghanistan. Currently, there is a struggle for influence. Including the influence on Rahmon. I believe that the latter has already received serious offers to ensure and maintain the security of the areas bordering Afghanistan from the head of the Central Command of the U.S. Armed Forces, General Michael Kurilla. Putin will try to outbid them. With what? Only with arms supplies. Tajikistan has already received a large shipment from the US to repel possible Taliban attacks. Russia will have to give something too. Besides, Tajikistan is the only country in Central Asia that has not recognized the Taliban’s rule. At the same time, Moscow has accredited a Taliban ambassador. A delegation from Afghanistan has visited the economic forum in St. Petersburg. Naturally, Dushanbe sees this as an unfriendly step.”

Tajikistan is the only Central Asian country that does not recognize the Taliban's rule

The expert reiterated that Putin and Rahmon have different allies and enemies in Afghanistan, and this could be a problem, primarily for Moscow. Tajikistan will hardly ever come to terms with the fact that its main strategic partner is cooperating with a regional enemy. For Rahmon, non-recognition of the Taliban is a matter of principle: when society is restive, it can only be consolidated by external threats.

Turkmenistan: not letting gas into Europe

After his meeting with Rahmon, Putin went to Ashgabat. In addition to attending the summit, according to the Kremlin press service, he talked with former Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and gave him two handmade sabers, a chess set, and a sculpture of a horseman for his 65th birthday. Putin met personally with his successor and son Serdar Berdymukhamedov after the summit.

Photo: Kremlin.ru
Photo: Kremlin.ru

Turkmenistan is a maximally closed country, but at the same time a very noticeable player both in Central Asia and in the Caspian region. The Kremlin understands this, and Moscow will try to regain its position as the largest importer of Turkmen gas, which it lost in 2019. After three years of disengagement and complete termination of gas contracts, “Gazprom” resumed the purchase of raw materials from Turkmenistan, but the volume of supplies decreased significantly. And now China, not Russia, buys Turkmen energy resources.

In addition, as a partner in the TAPI gas pipeline construction, Turkmenistan will sell its gas to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. But most importantly, Turkmenistan, together with Azerbaijan, is capable of exporting its gas to Europe. Surely, Ashgabat has considered such a possibility. And this cannot but worry Moscow, which does not need competitors in the European market, where it uses gas as a political weapon.

Turkmenistan, together with Azerbaijan, is capable of exporting its gas to Europe

Turkey and China are advancing

With the war in Ukraine dragging on, the Central Asian countries - Russia's partners in the SCO, CSTO and EAEU - find themselves caught in a zone of risk, while trying to preserve their maneuvering space.

Central Asia assumes that Russia will try to retain its position as a key player in the region. But war drains resources, and in the conditions of isolation, it will sooner or later lead to a financial-economic and military-political weakening of the country. It obvious who can fill the vacancy.

China, of course, claims to be a major player in the Central Asian region, as does Turkey, says Kazakh political scientist Daniyar Ashimbayev, but the elites of the countries will be against it: “If we are talking about deepening economic cooperation with China, then everyone is for it. But strengthening military-political relations is a no. It is too risky. Everybody knows that if China enters with one foot, it will enter with both feet, and it will be very difficult to drive it out. The same is true with Turkey. Under President Suleyman Demirel it was a secular country with strong economic ties. The model being built by Recep Erdogan is not particularly appealing to the five Central Asian republics because Turkey promotes the idea of a military-political alliance with Ankara in the lead. Erdogan promotes pan-Islamist, pan-Turkic discourses. They can contribute to the region’s destabilization. Bishkek, Nur-Sultan, Tashkent, Dushanbe and Ashgabat are certainly interested in cooperating with both Beijing and Ankara, but within reason.”

“Any strengthening of the influence of either Beijing or Ankara over Central Asia will be resisted”

According to Ashimbayev, despite attempts by the U.S. and European Union countries to finally weaken Russia by pushing it out of Central Asia, Moscow maintains its outpost in the region and still acts as a guarantor of security:

“In the event of an escalation of the situation in Afghanistan, the protection of our region's southern borders is impossible without Russia's help. Stability and normal economic development in Central Asia requires a multi-vector approach, but the Russian factor will remain predominant. There are no other options. Neither the elites nor the population are interested in strengthening American influence. No one wants to become cannon fodder for resolving Washington's foreign trade issues in the region - everyone sees what that can lead to, given the examples of Afghanistan and Syria.”

In support of his words, he cites the position taken by the presidents of the region’s states, none of which has publicly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

According to Daniyar Ashimbayev, the statement of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev about non-recognition of the “quasi-states of LNR and DNR” made at the economic forum in St. Petersburg cannot be considered as a demarche or an attempt to disassociate from Moscow. Moreover, Kazakhstan is not renouncing its allied obligations to Russia. However, President Tokayev said that the interaction with Moscow will be built within the framework of the sanctions regime. That is, Kazakhstan has so far managed to balance between Russia and the West.

Uzbekistan has made a harsher statement. Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov (who was dismissed at the end of April), speaking at a meeting of the Senate of the Oliy Majlis shortly after the war began, said that Uzbekistan recognizes the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine without recognizing the so-called “DPR” and “LPR”. But despite this, the U.S. State Department imposed restrictions on the Uzbek company Promcomplektlogistic for violating the sanctions regime against Russian companies. The firm, along with companies from other countries, was blacklisted on suspicion of “supporting Russia's military-industrial complex.”

Kyrgyzstan: still no loyalty

In Kyrgyzstan, the Kremlin never had much sympathy for Sadyr Japarov, who came to power on the wave of October 2020 unrest. Now it is even more hostile. At the same time, of all the Central Asian countries, Kyrgyzstan is probably the most dependent on Russia. Moscow has forgiven Bishkek multibillion-dollar debts and annually allocated large sums to support the state budget. Up to one million Kyrgyzstanis work in Russia.

Politicians in Bishkek tirelessly repeat about historical ties of friendship and brotherly love linking Russia and Kyrgyzstan. But when it became necessary to prove this love and respect not in words, but in deeds, the Kyrgyz authorities behaved contrary to what was expected from them. First they banned the exhibition of the movies “Solntsepek” and “Militia Girl”, then they banned the use of the letters Z and V, did not hold the Victory Day parade on May 9, and did not publicly demonstrate that they agreed with the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Obviously, Moscow was counting on something else.

The articles in Kommersant and Moskovsky Komsomolets can be viewed as evidence that the Russian authorities are dissatisfied with official Bishkek. The authors of the articles accused high-ranking Kyrgyz officials - deputy prime minister and chairman of GKNB (State Committee for National Security) Kamchybek Tashiyev, deputy prime minister Edil Baisalov; former Minister of Foreign Affairs Ruslan Kazakbaev and current Foreign Minister Zheenbek Kulubaev of curtseying to the West. Kremlin pool journalist Andrey Kolesnikov, in a report on the first Eurasian forum in Bishkek at the end of May, took a pejorative tone and made offensive remarks about President Japarov.

The reason for the change of tone was the activization of the White House and the visits to Kyrgyzstan of Uzra Zeya, the US Deputy Secretary of State, and Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Some even say that Sadyr Japarov has displeased Moscow so much that pro-Russian politicians in Bishkek want to arrange another coup.

It is no coincidence that Russia has chosen Kyrgyzstan as a target. Russia does not expect 100% loyalty from the other Central Asian countries.

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