04.10.23 Analytics

5 Plus 1, Minus Russia: The countries of Central Asia are seeking to forge a collective identity on the 'Grand Chessboard’

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the five post-Soviet Central Asian countries have been actively crafting a new framework for their foreign policy positioning and international agency. This endeavour aims to emancipate them from the ‘umbrella’ of international structures historically influenced by Russia while also preventing excessive regional dominance by China. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan have collectively organised a series of high-level diplomatic meetings within the '5+1' format with key global and regional players, including India, Russia, China, Turkey, the European Union, Germany, and the United States. Although the union of these five countries is not yet a fully-fledged alliance, and their ties with Russia remain robust, these efforts offer insights into the emerging alliances and configurations within the post-Soviet space in an era when its Russia-centric focus is definitively waning.

The reintegration of the post-Soviet space has long been one of Russia's foreign policy priorities, seen as a crucial element in the restoration of its role as a great power. Russia's inability to draw Ukraine back into its sphere of influence has served as one of the driving forces behind the conflict with Ukraine's leadership and the current war. However, the unsuccessful war itself now appears to be a catalyst for the ultimate disintegration of Russia's sphere of influence. While Russia's abandonment of Armenia may be attributed to the shifting personal preferences of Putin and a greater interest in maintaining a partnership with Erdogan, the situation in Central Asia presents a vivid example of the restructuring of the 'post-Soviet space' that has been triggered and exacerbated by Russian aggression in Ukraine.

The Small Pentarchy of Eurasian Chess 

Over the past year and a half, the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan have engaged in an unprecedented diplomatic rally within the framework of '5+1'. Starting with a meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in January 2022, even before the war began, they subsequently met with China's President Xi Jinping in May following the full-scale invasion, and with a European Union delegation in June. Later, they held a '5+1' meeting with Vladimir Putin and, immediately after, with Turkey's President Erdogan (Tajikistan did not participate in the latter). Finally, in September 2023, they conducted their first '5+1' meeting with US President Joe Biden, followed by a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

The logic behind this foreign policy rally was reflected in a treaty draft discussed by all five Central Asian presidents in June 2022, initiated by Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The document expresses their desire for more intensive cooperation and a multi-vector approach in their relations with external partners. In recent times, the countries of the region have significantly increased their agency as a collective player in international affairs, as noted by Gavin Helf, a Central Asia specialist, in his report for The United States Institute of Peace. All these meetings, whether with Modi, Putin, Scholz, or Biden, concluded with the signing of joint statements, which at their core were fundamentally similar, focusing on trade corridors, climate issues, infrastructure investments, and more.

Both the treaty draft and the foreign policy rally itself position Central Asian countries as independent actors on the world stage, no longer under the 'umbrella' of any external superpower, primarily Russia. This consensus on multi-vector diplomacy has emerged despite historical contradictions or even conflicts, such as the recent border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan or the traditional tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

However, the need for such a turn towards a unified Central Asian identity has arisen, not only due to Russia's loss of influence in the region, but also because Russia is no longer perceived as a counterbalance to China, whose inevitable growth in Central Asia these leaders also seek to curb. Expanding on this logic, defence analyst Hunter Stoll notes that major neighbouring states like China and Russia cannot guarantee genuine security in the region. Both countries struggle to ensure security along their borders with Afghanistan and, according to popular public beliefs, may be linked to separatist mobilisation in Gorno-Badakhshan (Tajikistan) or Karakalpakstan (Uzbekistan). Moreover, the foreign policies of both Russia and China are perceived as overly expansionist.

This situation, in turn, opens the door for Western leaders to strengthen their influence in a region, which is endowed with significant oil and gas reserves. However, their transit routes pass through Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, all of which Russia is actively seeking to strengthen its relations with. In this sense, the efforts towards Central Asia's emancipation and Russia's abandonment of Armenia are part of the same story.

Particularities of Emancipation 

The most significant development for Russia is the rapid cooling of relations with Kazakhstan, which has been the driving force behind the Central Asian foreign policy consortium, owing in part to its international connections and reputation. In essence, Armenia and Kazakhstan have remained Russia's most reliable allies throughout the thirty-year post-Soviet period. The shift in their positions signals the definitive decline of post-Soviet structures such as the CIS and CSTO. In both organisations, there are simply no longer any 'binding elements' - countries interested in preserving these institutions as tools of Russian leadership.

Despite the fact that, for the past year and a half, Kazakhstan (part of the EAEU customs zone) has successfully and profitably played the role of a transit country for deliveries to Russia, including via parallel and grey imports, Kazakh President Tokayev has made it clear that Kazakhstan will not sacrifice its 'multi-vector' approach for this economic advantage.

It is also interesting to note that Kazakhstan's foreign policy emancipation is accompanied by a sharp decline in Russia's influence in its domestic political life. This is reflected, in particular, in the rapid decrease in the popularity of Russia among the country's population. The process began in the late 2010s but has gained momentum in recent years. For example, in 2017, 92% of Kazakh citizens stated that they had a positive or extremely positive attitude towards Russia, according to data from the Central Asia Barometer (CAB). However, by the autumn of 2021, just before the war, only 65% expressed such sentiments. Moreover, by the autumn of 2022, only 48% of respondents said they had positive feelings toward Russia, which is less than half and nearly half as much as in 2017. However, the latest spring 2023 poll shows a slight rebound, with 58% reporting a positive attitude towards Russia. It is possible that this shift is influenced by the economic boost that Kazakhstan has gained from trade with Russia, despite sanctions.

Attitudes towards Russia among Kazakh citizens, % of those surveyed

However, these fluctuations likely reflect more fundamental factors. Despite their efforts to position themselves as independent collective actors in international politics, individually the Central Asian countries are not yet ready to lose Russia as their closest partner, partly for both economic reasons and also because of security concerns. Moreover, public opinion in some of these countries, especially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, still remains influenced by Russia's 'soft power,' including Russian state television.

As a result, as Re:Russia has previously noted, in Kyrgyzstan, blame for the war is more often placed on Ukraine or the West rather than on Russia. According to a survey conducted in May 2023 by Demoscop and PaperLab, 21% of Kazakhs support Ukraine, nearly 13% support Russia, while the majority of respondents remain neutral. However, support for Russia increases to 23% among respondents aged 60+. Research from Demoscop-PaperLab and the Central Asia Barometer (CAB) demonstrates that high levels of support and sympathy for Russia among the older generation are linked to their consumption of information from Russian-language sources, primarily television. CAB data shows that those who regularly consume Russian media content tend to view Russia favourably almost twice as often as those who do not consume such content.

Close trade ties and the interpenetration of Russian and Kazakh businesses, on the one hand, and the persistence of channels shaping pro-Russian public opinion in Kazakhstan, on the other, will lead the Kazakh authorities to maintain a balanced and cautious course in their emancipation from Russia. Russia, in turn, may use its levers of influence to pressure President Tokayev into greater loyalty. However, this is unlikely to change the long-term trajectory of Kazakh and Central Asian foreign policy, which reflects a desire to establish a new post-post-Soviet identity and alliance structure.