Corrosive corruption, submissive courts, poverty lapping at the gates of presidential palaces: The parallels between the regimes of Central Asia’s autocrats and that of Ukraine’s fallen President Viktor Yanukovych are uncomfortably plain. Events in Ukraine pose two worries for the aging strongmen of Central Asia.
First, the success of the anti-government protests in Kyiv that toppled Yanukovych might serve as inspiration for revolutions in Central Asia. Second, the rulers realize, the response of President Vladimir Putin of Russia in seizing Crimea could be seen as a blueprint for future Russian invasions. All five of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia have their own populations of ethnic Russians, and these minorities long have felt more marginalized than have those who now enjoy Putin’s "protection" in Crimea.
Russia also has a big military presence in Central Asia. Kazakhstan is host to Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome and several military-training facilities. Kyrgyzstan has a Russian air base, and Tajikistan is home to some 7,000 Russian troops, Moscow’s largest land force outside the motherland.
In public, most of Central Asia’s rulers have said almost nothing about events in Ukraine. Theirs is a delicate balancing act. They wish neither to encourage secessionism at home nor to alienate Russia, with its immense economic leverage.
As Tajikistan-based political analyst Parviz Mullojanov says, for Russia to promote secessionism is dangerous for Central Asian countries – "They know they could be next."
Days after Russian troops occupied Crimea, Uzbekistan expressed anxiety about Ukraine’s "sovereignty and territorial integrity." Kazakhstan said that it was "deeply concerned" about "unpredictable consequences." Tajikistan called vaguely for an "objective assessment." Kyrgyzstan broke ranks on March 11, condemning "acts aimed at destabilizing" Ukraine. It did not mention Russia by name, however. Indeed, the media in these countries hardly cover the crisis at all.
Nonetheless, and to the authorities’ mounting alarm, Russia is drafting legislation extending eligibility for citizenship to Russian-speakers anywhere in the former Soviet Union. It would explicitly entitle them to extraterritorial protection.
Putin’s vision, reflected in the Crimean grab, is to build a rival to the European Union. His Eurasian Economic Union is intended to be a group of authoritarian former Soviet republics that reject Western liberalism.
Belarus and Kazakhstan already have signed on. Armenia and impoverished Kyrgyzstan, with a pro-Russian government established after a popular revolution in 2010, are negotiating entry. Tajikistan, which like Kyrgyzstan is heavily dependent on remittances earned in Russia, has expressed interest.
Without reasserting Russian influence in Ukraine, however, so important in economic and geopolitical terms, Putin never will be able to realize this grand ambition.
Oil-rich Kazakhstan exemplifies the region’s vulnerabilities. A founding member of the customs union, it has an economy that is tied closely to Russia’s. On March 5 Putin summoned President Nursultan Nazarbayev, along with the president of Belarus, and told them that the Ukraine crisis risked hurting their economic bloc.
Nazarbayev’s country has a large Russian population, concentrated along its 4,250-mile border with Russia. Russian nationalists sometimes mutter that these areas belong with Russia. If Putin were asked to rescue ethnic Russians, might he amputate a bit of Kazakhstan?
Nazarbayev is taking no chances. After his visit to the Kremlin, he ordered his army to be built up. He is walking a fine line, however, even an awkward one, saying on March 10 that he "understands" Putin’s need to meddle in Ukraine.
In the poorer parts of Central Asia, Putin has even more clout. He could destroy the economies of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by requiring visas for migrant workers, whose remittances contribute greatly to their home countries’ GNP, almost half in the case of Tajikistan. The interdependence of these economies was evident on the first business day after the appearance of Russian troops in Crimea: Not only did Russian markets and the ruble tumble, but also the Kyrgyz som plunged by 15 per cent before recovering a bit.
By contrast, Russia has less influence over gas-rich Turkmenistan. Russia long has been irked by the Turkmen government’s treatment of ethnic Russians there. Might they call for protection too? Perhaps, though it looks unlikely that Putin would suddenly resort to military intervention in Central Asia. Among other things, in most of the region he has enough influence without it.
The case of Crimea has shown that Putin does not need much of a pretext to justify intervention when it suits him. The leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are well into their 70s, but have not revealed any plans for their succession, if indeed they have any. If chaos were to follow their deaths, that might be when Putin would take the view that local Russian-speakers were in need of his protection.