Changes in the geo-political and geo-economic architecture over the last few years have been cataclysmic. Changes have been taking place globally in the past decades also, for instance, the 9/11 attacks; the 2007-08 international financial and economic crises; the shift of the centre of gravity of the global economy from the Trans-Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific, and many more. But the scale and pace of changes in the last three years starting with the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2020 followed by the Russian aggression of Ukraine, have been truly unprecedented. Hardly has any country remained unaffected by the economic, health and social impact of the pandemic. But before the world had even learnt to live with the debilitating effects of the pandemic, it was saddled with the deleterious impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Although the physical conflict is confined to a limited part of Central Europe, its geo-economic and geo-strategic tremors have been felt around the world. Beginning with the severe shortages of food, fuel and fertilisers worldwide, the conflict has resulted in back-breaking inflation particularly for the developing countries, huge unsustainable debt levels, again more pronounced for developing countries, regression on the Sustainable Development Goals, a further exacerbation of the climate change challenge, disruption of supply chains, and several more.
The Central Asian region comprising of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan has been largely peaceful and stable since the countries attained independence on the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. There have been a few aberrations like the civil war in Tajikistan in the early 1990s, the Andijan uprising in Uzbekistan in 2005, the Tulip Revolution in 2005 and violent protests in 2010 and 2020 in Kyrgyzstan, but overall, the Central Asian space has remained relatively peaceful and tranquil. Even the Arab Spring was not able to have much of an impact on Central Asia, notwithstanding its geographical and cultural proximity to the region.
This relative calm was broken in January, 2022 with carnage and arson in Kazakhstan when 233 people were killed and several hundreds injured. In Uzbekistan, violent protests broke out in early July, 2022 in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan against the proposed constitutional changes in which 18 people were killed and hundreds wounded. Violent clashes erupted between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in September, 2022 over a dispute on territory and a water body claimed by both the sides in which more than 100 people were killed.
Increased uncertainty also engulfed the region since the time the Taliban captured power in Afghanistan in August, 2021. Barring Tajikistan, all Central Asian countries, as well as Iran and several others are engaging with the Taliban regime in Kabul in economic, commercial and security areas, although none have accorded full diplomatic recognition to it. These countries have their diplomatic personnel functioning from Kabul. There have been reports of firing rockets and bullets by the Afghan based Islamic State of Khorasan Province into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in recent months. But thus far the situation has not spiralled out of control.
No part of the world has remained unaffected by the challenges thrown up by the pandemic and the Ukraine conflict. The Central Asian region is no exception. In addition to the challenges enumerated above, the Central Asian countries find themselves in an even more vulnerable situation because of their very close partnership and security relations with the Soviet Union, of which they were an integral part till 1991, and later, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, with Russia, and, on account of their robust and expanding economic and commercial partnership with China.
Russia in Central Asia
Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia has been viewed as the security provider of the Central Asia region. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a NATO like security bloc established in 1992 under the leadership of the Russian Federation with three Central Asian States viz Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as members, was expected to ensure security and stability of countries in the region. The CSTO did promptly swing into action to dispatch a few thousand troops to provide security to Kazakhstan when it was rocked by violent protests and demonstrations at the beginning of 2022. Their presence on the Kazakh soil was designed to lend support and provide assurance to the Kazakh forces. They did not have to fire a single bullet and left within ten days of their deployment. But the fact that the Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to the Russia-led CSTO to save his government is demonstrative of Russia’s authority and dominance, and the dependence of Central Asian states on Russia, for safeguarding their security.
In this backdrop, the Russia-Ukraine conflict which has been continuing for the last more than thirteen months has resulted in a significant decline in the prestige of Russia in the world and the region. It was initially thought that Russia would be able to effect a quick regime change in Kiev resulting in an early end to the war. This, to the surprise of many, did not happen.
Right from the beginning, Ukrainian President Zelensky maintained that he was fighting to win. No one believed him. They attributed his statements to misplaced bravado. But Zelensky and his forces as well as the Ukrainian people surprised all observers by staunchly withstanding the onslaught of the mighty Russian army. Russian President Putin declared that the Russian forces would be welcomed as liberators in Ukraine but the tenacity with which the Ukrainian soldiers and people continue to defend their country would have come as a harsh reality check for the over-confident Russian forces.
Ukraine’s unanticipated successes around the end of last year of taking over large swathes of land in the north and south of the country earlier annexed by Russia, as well as strategically situated towns like Lyman took Russia as well as the world by surprise. The wisdom at the start of the war was that Ukraine cannot win because Russia cannot lose. The significant reverses suffered by Russia around the end of last year forced the global strategic community to re-examine their assumptions.
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has completely transformed the relative equation between Russia and China in Central Asia. This had started becoming evident even in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. The ensuing sanctions by the West resulted in pushing Russia increasingly into the embrace of China with Russia emerging as a subordinate partner to China. The last few months have thrown up many instances which would emphatically suggest that the Central Asian nations are getting increasingly uneasy and uncomfortable with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The influence of Russia in Central Asia which it characterises as its ‘’near abroad’’ appears to be declining. Several instances to substantiate the above can be cited. Some of these are:
- Both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan which are the largest countries of Central Asia in land area and population respectively, pursue ‘’multi-vector foreign policies.’’ Leaders of both the countries have stated unequivocally that they will not recognise the independent status of Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics.
- At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, 2022, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan responding to a question in the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that Kazakhstan does not acknowledge the independence of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. He said that if the right of nations to self-determination was recognised, there would be more than 500-600 countries instead of the current 193 members of the UN. For this reason, he said that Kazakhstan inter alia does not recognise the independence of Kosovo, or [the breakaway Georgian regions of] South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And, also quasi-state territories like Luhansk and Donetsk. Kazakh Foreign Ministry stated on 26th September, 2022 that it will not recognise the referenda conducted by Russia in the four provinces of Ukraine through which Russia annexed these territories of Ukraine. It voiced its support for the territorial integrity of States.
- During the same visit to St Petersburg, Tokayev, in response to a question from the state-run Rossia-24 television station, about the gratitude that Kazakhstan ought to feel for the support rendered by Russia/CSTO to it in its hour of need in January, 2022, stated: “In Russia some people distort this whole situation asserting that Russia supposedly saved Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan should now eternally serve and bow down at the feet of Russia. I believe that these are totally unjustified arguments that are far from reality”.
- The then Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan Abdulaziz Kamilov stated in the Uzbek Senate on 17th March, 2022: “Uzbekistan historically has traditional all-round ties with both Ukraine and Russia…Uzbekistan recognizes the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We do not recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics”.
- Senior Kazakh leaders have stated on several occasions that Kazakhstan will not violate the Western sanctions imposed on Russia as it did not wish to be subjected to secondary sanctions of the western nations.
- Timur Suleimenov, the first deputy chief of staff to president Tokayaev said during his visit to Brussels in March, 2022: “We have not recognised and do not recognise either the situation with Crimea or the situation with Donbass, because the UN does not recognise them. We will only respect decisions made at the level of the United Nations”.
- Kazakhstan’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Roman Vassilenko, in a meeting with the EU in March, 2022, emphasised the importance of minimising or preventing the negative effects of EU’s sanctions against Russia on trade and economic relations between Kazakhstan and EU. He added: “European companies are leaving Russia either due to sanctions or due to pressure from the public, from shareholders and ethical reasons. They want to be somewhere in the neighbourhood, and we would like to be that neighbour.’’ He said in an interview that Kazakhstan did not want to become a collateral victim of politically motivated economic warfare and if ‘’there is a new iron curtain, we do not want to be behind it.”
- Both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have expressed keen interest to welcome multinational companies which want to leave Russia as a result of the sanctions imposed by Western nations on Russia. According to reports, several companies have relocated to these countries although not in numbers that were originally anticipated.
- Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have expressly barred their nationals residing in Russia to join the war effort against Ukraine. It appears that at the beginning of the conflict, but particularly after the announcement of mobilisation of 300,000 troops by Russia in September, 2022, Russia offered attractive salaries and also expedited processes to obtain citizenship of the country by migrant workers from Central Asia after having served at the front for one year.
Central Asian countries are feeling nervous both at the arguments advanced by Russia to launch its offensive against Ukraine as also the impunity with which President Putin was able to carry out the attack. Some of them, particularly Kazakhstan, are worried that they could be next. Kazakhstan has the world’s longest land border of more than 7,000 kms with Russia and also has a 18% population of Russian origin and ethnicity. Kazakhstan in particular, but the other Central Asian nations to a lesser extent, are fearful of Russia’s thinking.
Recently there was a tweet by former Russian President and PM Dmitry Medvedev that Kazakhstan is an “Artificial State”. This tweet was however quickly taken down and it was clarified that Medvedev’s account had been hacked. Putin had himself made a similar assertion some years ago. Several right-wing politicians in Russia have made threatening noises after Tokayev’s statement in St Petersburg in June, 2022 warning Kazakhstan that it should watch its steps as it could be the next after Ukraine. Tokayev had quite clearly made his displeasure and objection evident during that visit.
The unimpressive performance by the Russian army in Ukraine over the last thirteen months has forced the Central Asian countries to re-think that if Russia has been found wanting so woefully in Ukraine, how would it be able to provide security to them.
China in Central Asia
China has been rapidly expanding its footprint in Central Asia over the last many years, not only in the trade and economic fields but also in political, military and security affairs. This has been evident in the myriad oil and gas pipelines from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan in Central Asia to China over the last two decades as well as the establishment of a military/police post in recent years in Tajikistan. The Belt and Road Initiative launched initially as the One Belt One Road Project in 2013 in Kazakhstan has provided a further impetus to the rapidly expanding China-Central Asia partnership.
The diminishing stature of Russia in the Region has animated China to quickly enhance its influence in the region. This was visible in the recent announcement of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway link which had been lying dormant for the last many years because of Russia’s objections. Also, several far-reaching agreements to further expand economic and commercial partnerships were signed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September, 2022.
While welcoming the flow of investment from China to their countries, the Central Asian nations, particularly the people, if not the ruling classes and elite, are apprehensive about the unduly growing influence of China in their countries. In the middle of the growing anxieties as well as vacuum created by distraction of Russia from the region, China has been rapidly expanding its foot print in Central Asia. It launched the first China + Central Asia (C+C5) foreign ministers’ meeting in July, 2020 and is taking it forward very pro-actively. Snatching a leaf out of India’s book, China hosted its first Summit with leaders of Central Asia on 25th January, 2022, just days before the India-Central Asia Summit. President Xi Jinping has invited the leaders of Central Asia to visit China in May, 2023 for an in-person Summit. From all accounts, China wishes to make the Summit partnership as the most significant vehicle to take the relationship to newer heights.
Other Countries Also Interested
Several countries in the region and beyond are also sensing this opportunity and are keen to strengthen their partnership with these countries. Turkiye has been working on Central Asian countries for the last many years. It shares historical, cultural, linguistic, religious and civilisational ties with all of them, except with Tajikistan. The last few years have witnessed frequent meetings between the leadership of Central Asia with the President of Turkey. President Erdogan was present in person for the first time at any SCO Summit in Samarkand. Erdogan also travelled to Astana, Kazakhstan for the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in October, 2022.
Iran has also been advancing its partnership with Central Asia. It became the newest member of SCO at the Samarkand Summit in 2022. Iranian President Raisi also attended the CICA Summit in Astana in October, 2022. The US organised a C5+1 meeting with the foreign ministers of all Central Asian states in the margins of the UNGA in New York in 2022. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in late February, 2023. This was one of the rare visits by a US Secretary of State to Central Asia. Prior to this, the then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in February, 2020. On both these occasions, meetings of C5+1 between foreign ministers of Central Asian states and USA were held in Kazakhstan.
President Charles Michel of the European Union visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in October, 2022. He met the leaders of all the five Central Asian states in Kazakhstan during his visit. Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy visited Uzbekistan in November, 2022 and participated in two important meetings in Samarkand: the EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting and the EU-Central Asia Connectivity conference.
India in Central Asia
The rapidly changing dynamics of Central Asia’s regional and global political, strategic and economic architecture provides a bright opportunity for India to diversify and deepen its partnership with these countries. The Central Asian countries constitute a part of India’s extended neighbourhood. India has millennia old historical and civilisational relations with these countries. India has not been able to leverage its age-old connections with this region because of the absence of geographic contiguity and lack of connectivity with these countries. India has significantly accelerated its engagement with the region over the last nine years starting with the historic visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to all the five countries in July, 2015. Recent months and years have witnessed a significant uptick in the intensity of bilateral ties.
Prime Minister Modi organised a Central Asia+India Summit in a virtual format on 27th January, 2022. It was agreed that such Summits would be organised every two years. PM Modi visited Samarkand, Uzbekistan in September, 2022 and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in June, 2019 for the SCO Summits. India and Central launched the India-Central Asia Dialogue at the level of foreign ministers in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in 2019. The last such Dialogue chaired by Dr S Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister took place in New Delhi in December, 2021. National Security Advisor (NSA) Shri Ajit Doval organised a meeting of regional National Security Advisors to discuss the situation in Afghanistan in November last year. This was attended amongst others by NSAs of all the Central Asian countries. Indian ministers and senior officials from different departments and agencies of the government have inter alia met their counterparts from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (who are members of the SCO) frequently in SCO meetings in capitals of countries who have chaired the SCO Summits.
India could not organise the last India + Central Asia Foreign Ministers Meeting in 2022 because of a packed schedule last year. To maintain the momentum, it would be imperative to organise this interaction in either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan during the current year. Similarly, in other areas like business, culture, Think Tanks etc., engagement with Central Asia needs to be stepped up.
There is considerable identity of views and position on most regional and global issues between India and Central Asia. Some of these include peace and stability in Afghanistan; Connectivity (INSTC and Chabahar-all Central Asian countries are land-locked countries, with Uzbekistan being doubly land-locked); counter-terrorism; climate change; trade and investment etc. India can share its expertise in the areas of IT, Startups, pharmaceuticals and much more with the Central Asian countries. There is empathy, warmth and trust between the people of India and Central Asia. There is no fear or threat perceived from India as is the case with some other neighbours in the Region.
It would be useful for India to collaborate with other like-minded countries like USA, Japan, Europe and others to strengthen and deepen engagement with Central Asia. This would be to mutual benefit and advantage.
India has been working pro-actively to significantly augment its ties with Central Asia in recent years. It needs to identify further avenues and opportunities in areas spanning political, security, strategic and business to academic, culture, tourism, sports and people-to-people connect. India-Central Asia ties are poised on the threshold of enhanced political, security, economic and cultural partnerships.
In the midst of growing geo-political uncertainties and turbulence, Central Asia is looking for partners other than Russia and China to engage with. India eminently fits the bill as there is no threat perception that Central Asia feels from enhanced partnership with it. India will however need to significantly augment its collaboration with the region in all areas viz. political, official, security, business, scientific, technological, health, education, cultural, Think Tanks and others, both at the bilateral as well as at the regional level. Although all countries should be given due attention, but Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan merit special focus, Uzbekistan because it has emerged as the most proactive among the Central Asian states in its desire to increase partnership with India, and Kazakhstan because it is the largest country in geographical area, endowed with significant mineral resources, and is the largest economy of the region.
India is the current Chair of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. India has been actively organizing several events under the aegis of the SCO which have inter alia been participated by appropriate representatives of the four Central Asian countries who are members of the SCO. Some of these interactions include meetings of National Security Advisors, of Chief Justices of Supreme Courts, of Culture Ministers and others. Meetings of Defence Ministers and Foreign Ministers will take place in India in end-April and May, 2023 respectively. The SCO Summit will be held in Goa in July, 2023.
India needs to take full advantage of all interactions to steadily push its partnership with all the Central Asian countries.
Author Brief Bio: Ashok Sajjanhar was the Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, and has worked in diplomatic positions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok. He has worked as the head of National Foundation for Communal Harmony, Government of India. He is currently the President of Institute of Global Studies in New Delhi and Executive Council Member, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.