11.11.22 Review

Russia Is Losing Its Political and Military Influence in Central Asia, But Still Holds Sway Over Television

By starting a war in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has jeopardized, among other things, his relations with his closest partners in Central Asia as well as the fate of international organizations and alliances in the post-Soviet space, to the creation and strengthening of which he had previously put a lot of effort. The political elites of post-Soviet countries are now keen to distance themselves from Russia, and Russian influence in their public opinion persists mainly due to television and spreads mostly to the Russian-speaking population of older age. At the same time, Central Asian businesses are balancing between compliance with Western sanctions and the new opportunities they offer.

Even a month before the start of the war, the entry of The Collective Security Treaty Organization troops, the backbone of which was Russian units, into Kazakhstan was perceived as a manifestation of a sharp increase in Russian political influence in the post-Soviet space. But after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the failure of the Russian blitzkrieg, the situation began to change rapidly. 

On the one hand, the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia took a sympathetic and neutral stance toward Russia in the UN voting: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan voted against the March resolution calling for a withdrawal of troops from Ukraine, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan skipped the session; Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan voted against the April resolution on Russia's suspension from the Human Rights Council (while Turkmenistan skipped the session again). However, during the summer and autumn, At the same time, president Tokayev of Kazakhstan and President Rahmon of Tajikistan publicly outlined problems in the relations with Moscow. The first one declared that it is impossible to support the occupation of Ukrainian territories, and the second urged Vladimir Putin not to treat Central Asian countries from imperial and colonial positions. In Uzbekistan, the prosecutor's office has warned citizens against participating in the military operations of other states in response to Russian authorities' attempts to recruit guest workers for military operations.

Political elites and public opinion in these countries are generally much more critical of Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, though far from unanimous. A few days after the UN vote in March, a government-sanctioned rally against the Russian invasion was held in Almaty, attracting 3,000 to 5,000 people. According to a Kyiv School of Economics poll conducted in Kazakhstan in April 2022, 47% of respondents preferred to call Russia's actions in Ukraine a war rather than a "special operation," and only 20% of those surveyed declared their support for the Russian invasion. At the same time, 70% of those who identified themselves as Kazakhs did not support Russia's actions and only 11% supported it, while among those who identified themselves as Russians 42% supported the war. 

The Uzbek media has also noted that despite the lack of public demonstrations, citizens actively and anxiously were discussing military aggression in the context of potential threats to the Central Asian region. "I suppose tomorrow they will go to northern Kazakhstan to create the Petropavlovsk People's Republic?" — an Uzbek user wrote," Caravanserai, an English-language Uzbek media, quoted the social media. 

Russia continues to retain significant influence in public opinion in Central Asian countries at the mass level, where a high proportion of Russian language speakers and high consumption of Russian-language state media persist. Television remains the main weapon of Putin's regime, even more effective than the army. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, according to the Central Asia Barometer for September 2022, 36% of respondents blame Ukraine itself for the current situation in the country, 20% blame EU countries and only 14% blame Russia.

The war in Ukraine has also affected the support of international organizations and agreements that unite these countries with Russia. According to a polling experiment, political scientists Pauline Jones and Regina Smith show that Kazakhstan's membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization is supported by 55% of Kazakh citizens, which they consider to be quite a low level. Moreover, university education and residence in capitals reduce this support even further: among people with higher education, only 38% support this membership. Along with this, there is a difference based on ethnicity: those who identified themselves as Kazakhs are more skeptical about the Collective Security Treaty Organization (42% expressed their support) than those who identified themselves as Russians in the survey (64%). 

Experts conclude that Russia's actual political and military influence in the region has weakened. The protracted war in Ukraine has forced Russia to withdraw troops from its garrisons in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This was followed by major border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, leading to dozens of deaths and thousands of internally displaced persons, and Russia was almost unable to respond militarily.

The nature of Russia's economic influence is also changing. This is not only about the labor migrant proportion, but also about the fact that the states of the region ensure imports of goods and services that are under sanctions against Russia. According to political scientists Eric McGlinchey and Shairbek Dzhuraev, the Central Asian states are balancing between compliance with Western sanctions and the opportunities that the weakening of Russia by sanctions offers to their businesses. For example, this applies to importing semiconductors into Russia or addressing Russian financial and currency sanctions problems. Post-Soviet Central Asia has also become a space for "gray" grain import schemes from Russia. Therefore, while economic interaction for the countries of the region remains extremely important, the roles in this interaction have shifted dramatically. 

Pauline Jones and Regina Smith point out that this opens up additional opportunities for increasing American influence in the region, otherwise the vacant potential for political and military presence will be taken over by China and Turkey.