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Central Asia: Challenges Intensify, Geopolitics Doesn’t

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Once considered an island of democracy in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan – here its presidential office, the White House – hosted the last Central Asia summit in July 2022. (Source: Chatrina Schumacher, July 2022)

Russia’s predominant role in Central Asia is set to decline following its war in Ukraine. This creates both an urgency as well as an opportunity for the Central Asian states to diversify their external ties. Many potential partners seem keen to fill some of the void, but their actual engagement remains limited. The region’s relative stability has priority, which favors the ruling elites’ authoritarianism. Conversely, this may foster instability in the long run.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its consequences have exacerbated the need and willingness for the Central Asian republics (CARs) – namely Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – to pursue more proactive and autonomous foreign policies. Russia has been the security guarantor for the region, as illustrated by its affirmation to support Central Asian states in securing their southern borders to Afghanistan as well as the deployment of Russian troops through the Collective Security Treaty Organization after protests across Kazakhstan in January 2022. Russia’s focus on its war in Ukraine and its difficulty to assert itself there have Central Asians doubt whether Russia can still offer effective security guarantees. Given Russian interventionism and willingness to blatantly use force, some in Kazakhstan even fear they might be next.

Furthermore, the war in Ukraine and the subsequent unprecedented sanctions against Russia have led to serious negative economic repercussions for Central Asia: large depreciation of national currencies, heavy inflation, significant food insecurities due to temporary wheat export bans from Russia, and a strong decline of remittances from Russia. The latter will be especially hard for the poorer Central Asian republics, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, for whom remittances constitute up to a third of GDP.

Different geopolitical interests and one common denominator

To address these profound political and economic challenges, Central Asian states are keen to diversify their external relations. No equivalent partner is in sight to swiftly step in Russia’s shoes. Rather, many regional and great power states with their own geopolitical interests see an opportunity and are likely to step up their recent efforts to increase their influence in the region.

China has pushed its Belt and Road project for almost a decade and thereby expanded its economic influence in Central Asia. China-Central Asia trade has outweighed the level of Russia-Central Asia trade for years. And China is most likely to enhance its economic relations with Central Asia in the future. Nonetheless, Russia maintains a key economic role with its historically integrated economies. Namely, labor migration illustrates both the economic interconnectedness with Russia and the difficulty for China to completely replace Russia. Not only job opportunities but also linguistic, cultural, and historical factors make Russia attractive for Central Asian migrants.

On the other hand, fearing spillover effects and rising instability from Afghanistan, China has been expanding its security cooperation with Central Asia, both bilaterally as with the permanent presence of Chinese security forces in Tajikistan and multilaterally with increasing military training and joint exercises through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Having said that, China still has no interest in assuming a hegemonic position and implicit responsibility for the region as Russia had assumed it. As long as China’s geopolitical and national security interests are met, it has no reason to challenge Russia in a region where they share core priorities. This was most recently demonstrated by the SCO summit in September 2022.

Despite these limitations, some Western commentators foresee major Chinese inroads into Central Asia. As a response, Western powers may attempt to increase their influence in the region, something it has been struggling with since the end of the Soviet Union. With NATO’s retreat from Afghanistan in 2021, this has become more difficult. Geographically and culturally distant, the West maintains limited influence through its general economic and soft power. As Central Asia’s main external trade partner, the EU is a welcome partner in Central Asian diversification efforts. However, beyond the strong connection in trade, this has never translated into comparable policy impact of the EU in other areas. The EU is likely to remain a secondary player in the region, plus the war in Ukraine is further distracting Western attention away from Central Asia.

Other regional powers have also been expanding their relations with Central Asia. India has focused on expanding political relations through several high-level dialogues. Driven by strategic and security considerations as well, it could eventually result in competition with China. However, India has so far remained in a cautious wait-and-see position and held back from translating its high-level objectives into tangible cooperation projects. Iran and Turkey have also been investing in their relations with Central Asia in recent years. While currently mostly focusing on trade and energy relations, especially Turkey attempts to use its cultural and linguistic proximity as additional leverage among the Turkic-linguistic republics of Central Asia.

Another avenue to fill some of the void is enhanced regional cooperation among the CARs. This is illustrated by the Fourth Consultative Meeting of the Heads of States of Central Asia held in Kyrgyzstan in July. Strengthened regional cooperation could boost Central Asian agency. However, the recent armed escalation between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan exemplifies that regional cooperation is still very limited and tensions continue to exist between several CARs, for example over border demarcation or the use of water resources.

It is yet to be seen how exactly Central Asia’s rearrangement of these external partnerships is going to play out in the medium to long term. Russia is going to remain a key player in the region, especially in the short term. This is based both on the deep and multifaceted interdependencies between Russia and Central Asia but also, ultimately, limited interest and investment by other powers. Although many experts have long warned of a direct clash of geopolitical powers in Central Asia – namely between Russia and China –, it has not materialized so far and will not do so anytime soon, as long as external powers’ main interests are safeguarded. These are the safety of trade routes connecting Asia and Europe, access to natural resources, and preventing the spread of violent extremism emanating from Afghanistan. Hence, the goal of a stable Central Asia is where the interests of external partners converge.

Favoring stability equals favoring the repressive ruling elites

This has first and foremost implications for the CARs themselves. Stability being the priority of external powers, they are very unlikely to step up in support of domestic challenges such as protests. Russia has traditionally been left with this role and although it is unclear if Russia will be able and willing to continue assuming this role, it is unlikely going to be filled by other states.

In the short term, CARs need to tackle domestic challenges themselves. In that, regime preservation is generally a priority. In 2022, socio-economic grievances and dissatisfaction with the ruling elites sparked unrest resulting in deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. With or without Russian support, national governments countered all of them with repression. This falls in line with the general rise in authoritarianism in Central Asia. There are no indications for that to change with Russia’s declining role and Central Asia’s rearrangement of external partnerships. Rather, there is a convergence between Central Asian governments and external powers’ prioritization of stability and control. Aiming at stability means favoring the status quo, which equals ruling elites consolidating their power.

Change of geopolitics in the long run?

By moving further towards authoritarianism and rearranging external partnerships, Central Asian governments try to maintain relative stability despite intensifying domestic and external challenges. However, there may be a limit to the level or longevity of the stability they can achieve. Currently, ruling elites’ strategies seem to be working. But given the underlying structural dissatisfaction among populations, it doesn’t take much to spark protests. Indeed, both dimensions at the roots of the recent unrests have exacerbated: First, the negative economic repercussions of the Russian invasion into Ukraine have increased the socio-economic hardship. Second, the violent crackdown by government security forces against protesters has increased the rift between the rulers and the ruled.

At some point, the national governments might lack the resources and recipes to contain popular dissatisfaction. If this leads to uprisings or open elite infighting in one of the CARs, external partners might take up a more assertive role and step in for the sake of stability. At least until then, though, the larger geopolitical consequences of the war in Ukraine and Russia’s relatively declining role in Central Asia remain limited.

About the Author

Chatrina Schumacher was an intern in the Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security Team at the Center for Security Studies. She is pursuing a MA in International Affairs and Global Security at the Graduate Institute in Geneva.

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