by Yasmin Masood
The political crisis in Ukraine, followed by Crimea’s 16th March public vote, quickly led to Crimea’s annexation by Russia on 18th March. An interstate tension between Russia and Ukraine, both former Soviet “brothers” did not leave any of the former USSR countries indifferent. Central Asia, which has a considerable proportion of ethnic Russians, felt the shaky balance between maintaining good relations with Kremlin and the urge to say something against an evident power play resulting in an annexation of a sovereign country’s territory.
So far, Central Asian governments have not openly criticized Russian actions in Ukraine but neither have they provided sufficient coverage of the events unfolding in the country. An apparent lack or a total absence of coverage of the recent events on state TV channels seem to indicate that this is a deliberate attempt to shield the public from the Euromaidan spill over. Governments, however, issued cautious external statements regarding the situation as none of the current Central Asian leaders feels entirely positive about an apparent “acquisition mood” Crimean Secession and Consequences for Central Asia of Russia, although to date this appetite appears limited to Crimea. The public in Central Asia also seems to have mixed views, Russians and non-Russians alike.
Kazakhstan issued a statement where a deep concern over the development of the current situation in Ukraine was expressed. As reported by Tengrinews, a representative from the Kazakh Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that “further escalation of the pressure might lead to unpredictable consequences, on a regional as well as on a global level”. Once again an open bashing of Russia did not occur despite the vulnerability of Kazakhstan due to a large presence of ethnic Russians in the north of the country. Reportedly, on 10th March President Nursultan Nazarbayev even puzzled many by telling Putin that he “understands” Moscow’s stance on Crimea. Simultaneously, he also called for a “peaceful regulation of the crisis in Ukraine on the basis of the preservation of Ukraine’s sovereignty within the norms of international law”. On 19th March, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry publically recognised the referendum as a declaration of the will of the Crimean population. Since then there has been a stony silence on the matter, however June’s recent declaration of a Eurasian Economic Union in which Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a treaty to counterbalance the EU will be seen a perhaps as a broader
initiative by Russia to draw its former Soviet neighbours into an ever tighter embrace, just as the crisis in Ukraine opens a wider rift between Moscow and the West.
To add to the anxiety, public opinion in Kazakhstan seems to be divided on events in Crimea. Some private channels in Kazakhstan have reflected the anti-Russian imperialism mood of those in the country. A small rally outside the Russian Embassy in Astana in March showed banners referencing Russian invasions in the South Caucasus: “Yesterday Abkhazia and Ossetia, today Crimea, tomorrow north Kazakhstan!” Simultaneously, ethnic Russians in Northern Kazakhstan are informed by the Russian news and mostly accept the Russian version of the events adding to their fear that a similar scenario of extremists allegedly cornering the local Russian population could repeat itself in Kazakhstan. On 4th March and 25th March the Uzbekistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for the respect of state sovereignty, a non-military resolution to the conflict, and the start of negotiations. The statements said that the situation in Crimea “creates real threats to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country” and “cannot but cause deep anxiety and concern in Uzbekistan”. It is known that Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov is not a fan of Putin nor his plans to re-create the old Soviet empire, however the statements issued by the government had to be careful. Though not pointing at anyone they sent a message of concern about the developments in Ukraine and Crimea’s referendum. It is worth mentioning that besides Russians, Uzbekistan incorporates the autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan, which could become something that will backfire if Uzbekistan recognizes Crimea’s referendum results or any other separatist movements. Hence, Uzbekistan’s abstention in the 27th March General Assembly to vote on the status of Crimea was not seen as surprise.
Despite the presence of Russian media in Uzbekistan, the overall public opinion in Uzbekistan seems divided. Despite a considerable majority accepting the Russian version of the events, many anti-Kremlin social media users say that Central Asia could be the next in Putin’s grand strategy of “collecting the lands” under the pretext of liberating the ethnic-Russian population. At the same time, as social media and private conversations seem to indicate, the Russian minority representatives largely believe that it was in fact Ukrainian extremists who have usurped power and discriminated against the Russians. Following the recent Ukraine election in May Uzbekistan’s President, Islam Karimov, was quick to praise the outcome of the Ukrainian presidential election as promoting peace and calming “waves of fear” in other former Soviet states.
Kyrgyzstan was the first country to quickly react to the events in Kiev despite its economic dependence on Russia and the presence of a Russian air base in the country. President Almazbek Atambaev expressed his condolences to the families of victims in Kiev, and said he understood the challenges that Ukraine would need to overcome on the way to true democracy. In Kyrgyzstan, where civil initiatives seem to enjoy a greater degree of freedom than in other parts of Central Asia, activists also held a protest in front of parliament against Russia’s military intervention in Crimea. They demanded that the Kyrgyz authorities urge Russia to stop threatening Ukraine’s sovereignty. Simultaneously, the television and print media were mirroring Russia’s version about Ukrainian events where Ukrainian “fascists” were violating the rights of Russian minority. However, Kyrgyzstan’s position is not a strong one and Russia knows this having gone on the offensive by insisting that Kyrgyzstan signs the Eurasian Economic Union. If it refuses, Moscow will certainly pile on the pressure by calling in its billions of dollars of critical loans to Kyrgyzstan or throwing out the one million Kyrgyz working in Russia.
Tajikistan was perhaps unnerved not only due to a potential of a social uprising due to events in the Ukraine, but also by the statement of Putin who claimed on 4th March that pro-Russian troops in Crimea were protecting Russian military facilities. Like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan hosts Russian military resources, and it is Russian 7000-numbered 201st Motorized Rifle Division. Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rakhmon, like his other Central Asian “colleagues” has been in power for a long time and naturally can also feel the tension. Neither the President nor the government bodies expressed their real views on the Ukraine crisis and Russian “objective assessment” of the situation.
Turkmenistan is possibly the Central Asian country where ethnic Russians are experiencing the worst situation with their rights. According to reports, ethnic Russians have faced widespread discrimination since independence in 1991. Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan’s government or state institutions. Yet the Kremlin never took any initiatives to liberate or protect ethnic Russian while gas-rich Turkmenistan allowed Russian gas companies to freely operate in the country. This status quo has not changed much since the patronage of the previous President, Saparmurat Niyazov, until he was succeeded by the current President, Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov.
Russians could resort to intervention if Putin sees it fit, therefore the danger of Central Asia being next is not hypothetical. The USA has expressed its concern over the perceived expansionist plans of Russia in public and a senior U.S. official travelled to Central Asia in the months after Crimean secession seeking to emphasize U.S. support for the independence of post-Soviet states.
All Central Asian states are aware that a Russian base in Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan could one day allow the country to perform a similar military operation as in Crimea. Should any pro-Western forces arise, or the current government become less responsive to the Kremlin’s interests and demands, Russia could use the ethnic Russian card as an excuse to invade and annex territories claiming that the minority was discriminated against. One could suggest that Russian minorities in Central Asia may potentially experience better treatment or perhaps avoid further deterioration of their rights especially if the governments of the region see it fit to deprive Russia of a possible excuse to interfere. That said, as practice shows, it will most probably will not be the views of the Russians themselves that will motivate the Kremlin to do so.
Crimea allows us to conclude that similar regime changes are not in the interest of the Central Asian countries and this will lead to further strengthening of control over the public and elements suspected in revolutionary ideas. It is recommended that the ruling elites learn the lessons of Ukraine and control the situation not by coercive methods only, but also apply a constructive approach where the evils of corruption, poverty and social inequality can be minimised and public unrest can be prevented. They must understand that correct tactics will have lasting geopolitical consequences for the whole Central Asia and beyond. Russia’s response to any who fall out of line with its own intentions remains to be seen.