“Because of fear of the Kremlin”: is it true that the leaders of Central Asian countries are afraid of Putin’s policies?

Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky in Kharkov on May 24, 2024 told reporters that the leaders of Central Asian countries are afraid of the Kremlin, which, in turn, influences their foreign policy decisions. These words caused wide resonance and discussion in international political circles. The question of whether Zelensky is correct in his assessment requires a careful analysis of the current geopolitical realities in the region.

Is there dependence on Russia?

The countries of Central Asia are historically and economically completely dependent on Russia. This dependence is expressed in several key aspects: energy dependence, economic cooperation, migration and labor resources, political, military cooperation, etc.

Let’s start with the fact that Russia is one of the largest trading partners of the Central Asian countries. Trade turnover with Moscow makes up a significant part of the foreign trade of countries such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The second point is that Central Asian states often depend on Russian gas and oil, as well as on the infrastructure to transport them to world markets. This makes them vulnerable to the Kremlin’s political and economic levers. In addition, millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, sending money to their families back home. These remittances make up a significant portion of the GDP of some countries in the region, such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia also maintains significant political influence in Central Asia through various mechanisms, for example, Russian military bases are located in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the countries of the region are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which strengthens military-political ties with Moscow. Russia is also actively involved in the work of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which includes Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This contributes to the integration of the region’s economies with the Russian economy. And therefore, according to the leader of the opposition movement “DVT” Murad Kurbanov, the Central Asian countries will never be able to oppose the policies put forward by Putin.

“In political terms, all votes in the UN and in all international organizations, these countries support the Russian Federation. From the very minimum – they vote neutrally on issues where they blame Russia. They will never vote against or support voting to the detriment of the Russian Federation,” said Murad Kurbanov.

Moreover, Moscow often provides political support to incumbent regimes in Central Asia, helping them maintain stability and control.
But cases when Central Asian countries find themselves under pressure from the Kremlin are not uncommon! For example, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan, and his successor Kassym-Jomart Tokayev have traditionally maintained close ties with Russia, despite their desire for a multidirectional foreign policy. In January 2022, when mass protests occurred in Kazakhstan, Russian troops, as part of the CSTO, were quickly sent to the country to support the local regime. According to Murad Kurbanov, due to these agreements, even Turkmenistan, which is not a member of the Unions, is controlled by Russia in military-political terms.

“Russia’s military advantage is also great and the Central Asian countries really count on Russian support. The Russian bases that exist in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are in order to stop external threats to the Central Asian regimes such as the Taliban, internal coups, and radical seizure of power. So that all this is controlled by Russia, they keep contingents,” said Murad Kurbanov and added, “and the fact that the “Berdimuhamedov regime” keeps the people in check only plays into Russia’s hands, because it is always easier to work with one person.”

The greatest dependence on Russia, according to the opposition leader of “DVT” Murad Kurbanov, is in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. These countries are 100% closely tied to the Russian Federation. The dependence of other Central Asian countries is 30-40% lower.

It is now known that Uzbekistan, while striving for an independent policy, also cannot completely ignore the influence of Russia. In 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev set a course for improving relations with Moscow, which led to increased economic cooperation.

Therefore, Zelensky’s statement about the “fear” of the leaders of the Central Asian countries of the Kremlin is justified, given the historical, economic and political dependence of these countries on Russia. But at the same time, the states of the region are trying to pursue a balanced foreign policy, strengthening ties with other global players such as China, Turkey and the United States. However, the Kremlin’s influence remains significant, and its pressure on the Central Asian republics continues to be an important factor in their foreign policy decisions.

But in the international arena in recent years, Russia has only lost its influence or experienced a significant decline in it. Because the Kremlin has undermined its credibility with the international community. One of the key reasons for the loss of influence was Russia’s aggressive foreign policy. The war in Ukraine, which began in 2014 and escalated in 2022, has drawn widespread international condemnation. Western countries imposed harsh sanctions against Russia, which led to the isolation of the country. As a result, the Russian Federation has lost a significant part of its diplomatic and economic influence in Europe and North America.

Economic sanctions imposed by the US, EU and other countries have significantly weakened the Russian economy. Restrictions on technology exports, financial transactions and asset freezes of Russian oligarchs have had a devastating impact on the country’s economic development. This led to a decrease in the standard of living of the population and an increase in social discontent within the country. Russia is also gradually losing its position in international organizations. For example, its membership in the Council of Europe was suspended, symbolizing the loss of confidence in the country as a partner in the field of human rights and democratic values. Russia’s influence in the UN is also slowly declining as its position on many international issues becomes increasingly isolated.

Well, now, instead of Russia, other countries such as China, India and Türkiye are gaining influence. They are actively strengthening their position in the world. China, in particular, is emerging as a major economic and political player in the world, providing an alternative for countries that previously depended on Russia.