With the war in Ukraine, Central Asian countries are moving away from Moscow

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Since the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Central Asian countries have distanced themselves from Moscow. Rejection of an alliance that exposes the complex and conflicting relationships that the former Soviet republics maintain with their historical ally.

Should this be seen as the beginning of the loss of Russian influence in Central Asia? Since the outbreak of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, it has been regularly observed that Kazakhstan and other countries in the region are moving away from their powerful ally and neighbour.

The Kazakh Defense Ministry has canceled a military parade on May 9 to celebrate Anti-Nazi Victory Day, a remembrance of crucial importance to Vladimir Putin. In early March, in this authoritarian country where public gatherings are strictly regulated, pro-Ukrainian demonstrations were allowed.

In addition, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan sent several tens of tons of humanitarian aid to Kyiv, especially medical equipment. And most importantly, these two countries, which have good relations with Ukraine, do not recognize the independence of the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Kazakhstan did not actually recognize the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, relations with Russia have continued to deteriorate,” recalls Michael Leviston, a researcher at Ifri, who specializes in Central Asia. At the moment, the people of Kazakhstan are very concerned about what is happening in Ukraine. “

On the wrong side of the “Iron Curtain”

Given their strong security and economic ties with Moscow—Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan depend in particular on their imports of refined products from Russia—the Central Asian republics are however careful not to exaggerate and be satisfied with their strict neutrality within international institutions. None of them voted in favor of United Nations General Assembly resolutions in March condemning the Russian invasion. Moreover, Kazakhstan refused to support Moscow’s exclusion from the UN Human Rights Council.

“Of course, Russia wanted us to be more on its side. But Kazakhstan respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” explained at the end of March Timur Selimnov, director of the presidential administration, in an interview with the European information site Euractiv, stressing that his country does not intend to put it in the “same basket” Russia and allow Moscow to circumvent Western sanctions.

Allié de la Russie, le Kazakhstan n’entend pas se retrouver pour autant derrière “un nouveau ‘rideau de fer'”, avait égallement assuré à la presse allemande son vice-ministre des Affaires étrangères, Roman Vassilenko, appelant aux les investir Occidental Country.

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“For 30 years, Kazakhstan has built its foreign policy in such a way that it does not confine itself to an exclusive partnership with the Russians or the Chinese. The war in Ukraine has confirmed this logic. The main economic partner of the country is Europe, which is very unique in Central Asia ”, notes Michael Leviston.

Fear of the “Ukrainian” scenario

Among Vladimir Putin’s supporters, this apathy in Kazakhstan, independent since 1991, has sparked indignation and violent verbal attacks since the outbreak of the war. “Kazakh brothers, look carefully at Ukraine, think seriously,” said Tigran Kyosan, a pro-Kremlin Russian presenter, on his YouTube channel at the end of April, infuriating the Kazakh diplomat.

“For several years in Russia there has been a discourse of saying that the Kazakh state did not exist at all. Recently, a deputy in the State Duma explained that it was necessary to discredit Kazakhstan,” explains Mikhail Leviston. Like Ukraine, a significant minority of Russian-speaking people live on the territory of Kazakhstan.

>> Read also: “For linguist Patrick Siriot, Vladimir Putin mocks the fate of Russian speakers in Ukraine”

Despite these tensions arising from the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow remains an essential partner for the countries of the region, particularly in terms of security. In January, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was forced to call in forces from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to quell the unprecedented civil unrest caused by the sharp rise in LPG prices.

“Today, in the event of a crisis in Central Asia, Russia intervenes. In the short term, it remains the major force for stabilizing the region”, analyzes Mikhail Liveston. Especially for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which share the longest border in Central Asia with Afghanistan, “a major threat to the security of these two countries, and the region as a whole.”

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