By Sophie des Beauvais
On Monday, April 13, 2015, the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program hosted Emil Joroev, an associate professor of international and comparative politics at the American University of Central Asia, for a discussion about the Central Asian response to the crisis in Ukraine.
The lecture, Joroev noted, was not to determine whether Russia or the West was to blame for the crisis. Joroev took an informal and analytical approach to the subject, examining how Central Asian countries responded to the crisis and what the impacts of those responses were. In his analysis, Joroev indicated the five Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—all had different reactions to events in Ukraine last year, depending on their current relations with the Kremlin.
In recent years, these five republics have grown in importance to Russia—a country they are becoming increasingly dependent on for a variety of political and financial reasons. To a certain extent, Central Asia countries also fear that a situation not unlike the Ukrainian crisis could happen in their own territories. Moreover, the region is at the center of ongoing geopolitical shifts, including the emergence of the Eurasian Union, a Russian-led initiative for the economic integration of Central Asian countries. Moscow’s attempt to create a “European Union of the East" merely masks the Kremlin’s will to expand its control over the region.
According to Joroev, Uzbekistan’s policies were the most independent of Russia’s position among the five republics. Conversely, Tajikistan was the largely silent because the country is also the most removed from Ukrainian politics. Throughout the revolution, the Tajik government, led by President Islam Karimov, said practically nothing about the crisis and maintained its commitment to mother Russia.
Similarly, Turkmenistan took care not to criticize any side, though it was generally more aligned with Russia’s position. And while Kyrgyzstan tried to stay as silent as possible on the issue, it was particularly concerned by the Euromaidan revolution. In fact, it was the only Central Asian country that congratulated Ukraine nearly immediately after the revolution began. Kyrgyzstan President Almazbek Atambayev went as far as recognizing the interim government and denying former President Viktor Yanukovych any legitimacy, in direct opposition to the Kremlin.
In contrast, Kazakhstan, home to the largest Russian minority in Central Asia, was the most active on the Ukraine question as President Nursultan Nazarbayev repeatedly offered to hold talks to resolve the conflict in East Ukraine. Interestingly, Kazakhstan recognized that a Crimean referendum occurred without commenting on its legitimacy—a statement that, despite the best of diplomatic intentions, was nearly devoid of meaning.
Joroev added that even though sanctions against the Kremlin were not often discussed in the region, penalties against Moscow had a strong impact in all five republics, since most international trade through Central Asia is brokered by Russia.
Long since independent of the Soviet empire, the five Central Asian states could have deviated from the Russian party line. However, if they had veered too far from Russian policy, there may have been significant consequences. Subsequently, Uzbekistan’s detachment from the Kremlin’s position is probably due to the fact it is the least dependent on Russia of the five Central Asian states.
Moreover, there was very little benefit for the Central Asian republics in meddling in Ukraine, as Kiev is not a trade or political partner for any of them. Even before the war, the strong Russian influence over Ukraine made it difficult for Central Asian governments to develop a tight-knit relationship with the one-time Soviet satellite. Worse yet, the Ukrainian economy was hardly strong enough to procure any independent interest.
Thus, the most that Central Asian countries could make of the Ukraine question was a reason to slightly distance themselves from the Kremlin, with desires for better relations with nations beyond Moscow’s orbit. By doing so, they hoped to open new opportunities with other countries, and the way each has reacted to the crisis gives indication about the extent of a new international relationship they are willing to build. China, for example, is developing very strong relations with Central Asia, even though the Chinese opinion on Ukraine was somewhat ambiguous.
However, the rest of the world—especially the West—hasn’t been very welcoming toward Central Asia. This is probably because of the the region’s historical proximity to the Russian sphere that gives the five republics the reputation of being disadvantaged subordinates under the implicit domain of a larger, more threatening world player.
While there is a lacking uniformity concerning Central Asia’s position on the Ukraine crisis, each party in the region is essentially in the same predicament with the same preferred goals: attempt to define their own policies without disturbing the looming nation to the north. The disparities in policy among the five republics and their relations with Russia give great insight into why they do not share one voice on the subject.
Sophie des Beauvais is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]