The Central Asia Setting
The five Central Asian countries viz Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, been considered a sphere of Russian influence and a part of its so-called “near abroad.” This space became a part of the Russian and Soviet empires from the beginning of the 19th century. All the five countries developed and evolved their independent identities after they broke away from the Soviet Union and emerged as free nations in 1991. All of them however, keeping in view the compulsions of geography, history, economy and culture, maintained strong and vibrant relations with the Russian Federation. Russia looms large over the policy decisions of these countries in diverse ways. The Russian labor market is a vital source of employment for many Central Asian countries particularly Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan; Russia plays key roles in the energy, and energy export sectors of Central Asia; and Russia remains the guarantor of security in the region.
It is hence no surprise that these countries go out of their way to ensure friendly and cordial relations with Russia. They have however, to varying degrees, become increasingly conscious of their independence, individual identities and sovereignty over the last thirty years since their independence.
Kazakhstan, which is the largest country in territorial area and comprises about 60% of the region’s GDP, FDI, trade etc., and Uzbekistan, which has the largest population in the region and is the only country to share borders with all other Central Asian countries, follow a multi-vector foreign policy and maintains warm and friendly relations with all major powers including Russia, China, USA and Europe. Turkmenistan is a neutral country and got the international community’s recognition of its legal status of permanent neutrality in accordance with the United Nations General Assembly Resolution in 1995. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are far too dependent on Russia for their security, remittances and economy to say or do anything to upset or displease Russia.
All the above aspects have played out fully to determine the positions of the Central Asian nations during the current Russia-Ukraine conflict. This is particularly evident in the manner in which these countries voted in the different Resolutions that were taken up in the UN over the last many weeks. Two examples in this regard are illustrative.
The UN General Assembly (GA) Resolution titled ‘’Humanitarian consequences of the aggression against Ukraine” on 02 March 2022 (United Nations; 2nd March, 2022; ‘’General Assembly resolution demands end to Russian offensive in Ukraine’’) strongly reprimanded Russia for invading Ukraine and demanded that it “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders.” The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of the Resolution with 141 countries supporting, 5 opposing and 35 abstentions. Amongst the Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan abstained while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan did not vote.
In the UNGA Resolution to consider expulsion of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council on 7 April 2022, (United Nations; 7th April, 2022; ‘’UN General Assembly votes to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council’’) 93 countries voted in favour of the Resolution, 24 against it and 57 countries abstained. Just before this vote, Russia had issued a general warning that an abstention or absence during the vote would be taken to be an ‘’unfriendly act’’ and would have grave adverse implications for bilateral relations of that country with Russia and their cooperation in the United Nations. Keeping the above in view, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan voted against the Resolution and in favour of Russia, while Turkmenistan, as before, did not exercise its right to vote.
It would be evident from the above that under normal circumstances, these countries would endeavour to safeguard their independence and sovereignty but when push comes to shove, they would fall in line with Russia and would not do anything to annoy or rile Russia. In both the above votes, Turkmenistan did not exercise its franchise taking refuge behind its status of permanent neutrality recognised by the UN.
Kazakhstan enjoys the world’s longest land border with Russia of more than 7,000 kms. About 25% of the Kazakh population comprises of people of Russian origin. This number was considerably higher when the country became independent in 1991. Soon after Kazakhstan became free, rumours were rife that its Russian origin population, based in the north of the country along the Russia-Kazakhstan border, wanted to become a part of Russia as they felt they had little in common with the people and culture of Kazakhstan. It was to nip such chatter and tendencies in the bud, that the then President Nursultan Nazarbayev decided to shift the capital from the more salubrious climate of Almaty to the severe and freezing terrain of Astana (currently Nur-Sultan) in the north of the country, adjacent to the Russia-Kazakh border.
Kazakhstan could have been expected to be grateful to Russia for the support it provided under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) when unforeseen violence gripped the country on 2 January 2022 because of a steep hike in the price of LPG. About 12,000 people were arrested and 240 were killed. CSTO under Russia responded with great alacrity to send troops to restore peace, stability and order in Kazakhstan.
Notwithstanding the above consideration, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, in an article in ‘’The National Interest’’ on 4th April, 2022, (The National Interest; 4th April, 2022; Turbulence Across Eurasia Will Not Slow Kazakhstan’s Progress; Kassym-Jomart Tokayev) wrote: ‘’As states that share the longest border in the world, Kazakhstan and Russia enjoy special relations of mutual cooperation. Meanwhile we also have deep traditions of friendly relations with Ukraine. We respect its territorial integrity—as the overwhelming majority of the world does.We hope for a swift and just resolution of the conflict in accordance with UN Charter.‘’
This comment by Kazakhstan’s President is indicative of an independent, autonomous stand that is far removed from that of Russia on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Kazakh Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tileuberdi said (The Conversation; 11th April, 2022; ‘’Ukraine conflict: Kazakhstan’s difficult balancing act between need for Russian support and popular opposition to the war’’; Bhavna Dave) that Kazakhstan does not recognise districts in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk controlled by Russia-backed separatists as independent. He added that ‘’it is important that our territory (Kazakhstan) is not used to evade sanctions.”
Timur Suleimenov, the first deputy chief of staff to President Tokayaev said during his visit to Brussels (Ukrinform; 1st April, 2022; ‘’Kazakhstan won’t be tool to circumvent sanctions against Russia, top Kazakh official says’’) that Kazakhstan is keen to expand cooperation with the EU and the West despite the Western sanctions on Russia. Suleimenov said that Kazakhstan will continue to invest in Russia and attract investment from Russia, because “there is no way for our economy to do it differently. However, he added ‘’Kazakhstan will not be a tool for circumventing US and EU sanctions against Russia. We will comply with the sanctions. Although we are part of the Economic Union with Russia, Belarus and other countries, we are also part of the international community. Therefore, the last thing we want is for Kazakhstan to be subject to secondary sanctions by the US and the EU…Kazakhstan respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine. 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, 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.”
In addition to performing a diplomatic tightrope walk, Kazakh authorities are also keen to balance opposing local passions surrounding the war. The exchanges on social media have been vicious. An anti-war gathering in Almaty on March 6 was attended by around 2-3000 people who sang Ukrainian songs and hurled invective at Putin. (Eurasianet; 4th April, 2022; ‘’Kazakhstan seeks to thread diplomatic needle over Russia’s Ukraine war’’; Chris Rickleton) These are big numbers by Kazakh standards, where permission for rallies is granted on an arbitrary basis, despite official claims to the contrary.
In March, Kazakhstan denied a request from Moscow to provide troops for the offensive in Ukraine. (Euractiv; 2nd March, 2022, Georgi Gotev; ‘’Kazakhstan takes distance from Russia’s Ukraine war.’’) The import of several of the above comments/actions was however sought to be attenuated by the telephone call from President Putin to Tokayev on 2nd April. (Kazinform; 3rd April, 2022; ‘’President Tokayev had telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin’’) According to a readout by Kazakhstan on this conversation, the two men expressed “a common understanding on the exceptional importance of reaching agreements on a neutral, non-bloc, non-nuclear status of Ukraine.” These are among the demands made by Moscow in the ongoing talks to bring closure to the war in Ukraine.
It would appear that Putin has realised the limits up to which he can pressurise Kazakhstan and some other Central Asian states to support his position. As the Western sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine start to bite, more than 300 U.S. companies are pulling out of Russia to relocate their regional headquarters. Kazakhstan could be the ideal choice, both from the economic and geo-strategic perspective (The Hill; 30th March, 2022; ‘’Washington’s potential hidden ace in rift with Russia: Kazakhstan’’; Sasha Toperich and Debra Cagan). Kazakh oil production fell in March amid export problems from the Black Sea Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) terminal. (Nasdaq; 4th April, 2022; ‘’Kazakhstan oil output down in March, Chevron leads the fall -sources Reuters). This fall was because of lower intake in the CPC system owing to storm damage to loading facilities at its terminal near Russian port of Novorossiysk.
Kazakhstan reduced its oil output forecast for 2022 and dramatically trimmed its projection for economic growth in fresh evidence of the damage being wrought by the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine. The country now expects to pump 85.7 million tons of crude in 2022, which is 1.8 million tons less than had been projected earlier. (Eurasianet; 5th April, 2022; Almaz Kumenov; ‘’Kazakhstan sees economy slowed down by Russia’s war.’’) The government downgraded its economic growth forecast for this year from 3.9% to 2.1%. Kazakhstan will utilise its National Fund for a further 1.63 trillion tenge (USD 3.5 billion) this year to finance additional spending. Kazakhstan was looking forward to a sustained period of buoyancy following the 2.6% contraction in GDP experienced in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic growth bounced back to 4% in 2021 – a rate the authorities would not be able to maintain in the current year.
The response by Uzbekistan, as in the case of Kazakhstan, has been a carefully guarded policy of neutrality. This was laid out in March 2022 by the then-Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov in remarks to the Uzbek Senate. He said that while Tashkent wanted to maintain good relations with both Moscow and Kyiv, it opposed the war. Kamilov said that Uzbekistan does not recognise the pro-Russian separatist-controlled districts in Ukraine’s Donbas, known as the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” He called for a “peaceful solution” to resolve the conflict “by diplomatic means” and that violence must be stopped right away. He said that Uzbekistan recognised Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Kamilov echoed Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s position that Uzbekistan will not join any military bloc or deploy its forces abroad. Mirziyoyev’s administration maintains that Tashkent’s “stand on the war is firm” and that neutrality is its mantra.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has driven an exodus of IT specialists to former regions of the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan wants to capitalise on this opportunity to speed up plans to modernise its economy best known for its vast production of cotton. It took only one day after Russia’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine for Uzbekistan to launch a one-stop government relocation programme for IT specialists and companies. Offering visas, housing and child care support to individuals, and registration assistance and tax exemptions to companies, the programme has already attracted several thousand foreign IT specialists. The Russian Association of Electronic Communications, a lobby group, said on March 22 that 50,000 to 70,000 specialists had left Russia and up to 100,000 more may follow.
Some Uzbek policymakers have stated on condition of anonymity that it is their fear of Russia that makes them adopt the position that they do. They are afraid that they will be left alone to fend for themselves if Russia were to take any hostile action against them. That fear has led the government to maintain a tight rein on public reporting about the war. State media do not attempt independent coverage but simply repeat official positions. Private outlets in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, appear to have faced strict official scrutiny when they attempted to analyse the conflict objectively or question the war. In Uzbekistan, it was reported that several reporters, editors and bloggers were called in by the State Security Service because of their coverage of Ukraine. Government officials say such measures are necessary to combat misinformation and disinformation but deny that independent media are being silenced.
Uzbekistan ceased export of Chevrolet vehicles to Russia since 9 March 2022. It makes vehicles under GM’s Chevrolet brand. These cars contain semiconductors and microchips manufactured in South Korea, which has joined Western sanctions to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Remittance from Russia to Central Asia
One of the most significant factors that some Central Asian countries have to contend with is their reliance on remittances from several million of their nationals working in Russia. Remittances sent by labor migrants have an overwhelming significance for families in these countries that are supported by these funds. These accounted for 11.6% of Uzbekistan’s gross domestic product in 2020. The figures for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were even higher, at 31% and 27% respectively. Due to the damage to the Russian economy as a result of the western sanctions, the income of the Central Asian labourers has been severely impacted. This would mean lesser chances of sending home remittances and greater possibility of reverse migration in search of livelihood. The World Bank estimates that the value of remittances from Russia would drop in the case of Uzbekistan by 21%, in Tajikistan by 22%, and by 33% in Kyrgyzstan.
According to latest estimates, remittances to Kyrgyzstan are the most dependent on Russia. Last year (January-September 2021), the share of remittances from Russia constituted 83% of all remittances to Kyrgyzstan. The same statistics for Tajikistan and Uzbekistan indicate less dependence on Russia: 58% of all remittances to Tajikistan and 55% of all remittances to Uzbekistan came from Russia. In absolute dollar amounts, remittances from Russia to Uzbekistan are the highest compared to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, given the greater number of Uzbeks travelling abroad for work, a product of the country’s vastly larger population. In 2020, Uzbekistan migrants remitted USD 7 billion, Kyrgyz migrants USD 2.4 billion, and Tajik migrants USD 2.2 billion.
Migrants who lost jobs in Russia and whose earnings have been devalued have started returning to Central Asia. Tashkent reported 133,000 returned migrants from Russia in the first quarter of the year. Dushanbe reported 60,337 returned migrants from Russia in the same period, which was 2.6 times more compared to the same period in 2021. Polls conducted among Central Asian migrants a month after Russia’s invasion to Ukraine indicated that around 40% of migrants from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were ready to return home after losing jobs or income. That share is probably similar for Tajik migrants as well.
Another area where Central Asian countries are affected by Russia’s economic troubles is trade. For Uzbekistan (using 2020 data) Russia is the second largest export partner, accounting for 12.5% of exports and 21% of imports. Inevitably, Russia’s economic difficulties will push Uzbekistan to seek other markets to sell and buy, but these adjustments will take time. For Tajikistan, Russia is not a big export market but it is Tajikistan’s second largest import partner. For Kyrgyzstan, 21.8% of imports come from Russia.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine can adversely impact on the region’s food security. On 10 March 2022, Russia temporarily banned the export of white sugar and grain crops to the Eurasian Economic Union countries. This spelt gloom for Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Post the ban on export on Russian grains, Kazakh authorities decided to ban wheat exports. This step was designed to protect the domestic production and supply and to ensure that there was no shortage and no protests.
Kazakhstan’s decision to ban wheat exports was bad news for its Central Asian neighbours, which get about 90% of their wheat imports from Kazakhstan. One of the world’s major wheat growers, Kazakhstan also imports relatively inexpensive wheat from Russia to use domestically and to resell its own more expensive wheat to other countries. The Kazakh Agriculture Ministry decided to limit wheat and flour exports to 1 million tons and 300,000 tons, respectively, for three months starting April 15. Russia said it was suspending wheat, rye, barley, and maize exports until June 30 to “protect the domestic food market in the face of external constraints.” Tajikistan annually buys nearly 1 million tons of wheat from Kazakhstan, which accounts for up to 94 percent of Dushanbe’s grain imports. Kyrgyzstan gets about 40% of its imported wheat from Kazakhstan. Bishkek’s main grain supplier is Russia.
IMF has stated that rising prices for food, energy and other goods could trigger social unrest, particularly in vulnerable developing countries. Reduced supplies of oil, gas and metals produced by Russia, and wheat and corn – produced by both Russia and Ukraine – have driven up prices sharply inter alia in Central Asia and were particularly hurting lower-income households. Russia’s political and economic isolation is a chance for other interested players and stake-holders to enhance their forays in Central Asia. Among others, USA, Europe, China, Turkey, India, Iran etc. have a high possibility of increasing their presence and influence in the region.
Options for India
With every passing day, the Central Asian countries are feeling increasingly disillusioned and disenchanted with Russia’s actions and continuation of the war. In many countries of Central Asia, there is also growing unhappiness amongst the common people with policies of China in the political, economic and social sphere. Central Asia is looking for new reliable, trustworthy and supportive partners in political, strategic, economic, connectivity, counter-terrorism etc. spheres. India eminently fits the bill. It will be mutually beneficial to significantly enhance our engagement with Central Asian nations by embarking on a regular series of visits at political, official, media, business etc. level to all these countries, particularly to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
It needs to be remembered that in the ongoing controversy regarding Nupur Sharma, not one of the Central Asian countries have made any comment against India. This statesmanlike behaviour of Central Asia needs to be recognised and applauded and all efforts made to further expand and strengthen our partnership with them. The next Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will take place in Samarkand, Uzbekistan on 15-16 September, 2022. It will be eminently useful if PM Modi could attend this Summit. He has attended all the earlier SCO Summits, the last being in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan in 2019, before the pandemic started. PM Modi enjoys a close rapport with the Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This visit will further cement the strong bonds of partnership with Uzbekistan as well as with other Central Asian countries.
The next Summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), a Grouping launched by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the UNGA in 1992, will be held in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana) in Oct, 2022. It will be eminently desirable for bilateral ties with Kazakhstan as well as with the Region if PM Modi or some senior Indian leader were to participate actively in the forthcoming Summit. 2022 represents the 30th anniversary of the establishment of CICA. PM Atal Behari Vajpayee had attended the first CICA Summit in Almaty in 2002.
The last India-Central Asia Dialogue was organised by EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar in December 2021 in New Delhi. It would send out the correct message about India’s continued interest in and engagement with the region if the next Summit could be hold during 2022 in either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. Uzbekistan is ruled out because the first meeting was held in Samarkand in 2019. This initiative will go a long way in advancing India’s interests in this part of our extended neighbourhood.
Author Brief Bio: Amb Ashok Sajjanhar has worked for the Indian Foreign Service for over three decades. He 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.