By S. Frederick Starr
October 30, 2022
The meetings by heads of state in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent earlier this summer showed clearly that America’s abrupt departure from Afghanistan last year and its long-term neglect of Central Asia did not mark the end of history. Quite the contrary.
SINCE THEIR independence from the USSR, the five Central Asian states that emerged from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991 have been the object of great power dreams. Russia, with steady persistence, has tried to lure them back into its sphere of influence, if not of direct control, through economic and security alliances. The United States and Europe have worked to develop them as market economies, and to implant civil society and democratic institutions there. Meanwhile, China assigned them key roles in its Belt and Road Initiative and loaned them billions to develop economic strengths that complement Beijing’s own. Applying Julius Caesar’s classic divide et impera maxim, all these major powers have offered rewards for cooperation and withheld them from the recalcitrant. As a result, the Central Asians risked becoming mere objects of great power maneuvers and not subjects in their own right.
This summer, the Central Asians themselves took two steps to overcome this fate. First, on July 21 the presidents of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, meeting at Issyk-Kul in the Kyrgyz Republic, signed a far-ranging agreement to coordinate their efforts by forging a web of institutional links. These cover areas as diverse as trade, economics, social policy, ecology, medical research, and security. Such a regional consultative structure is urgently needed. Until now, Central Asia has been the only major world region that does not have its own web of institutional ties, i.e., a structure for formulating common policies and organizations capable of implementing them. This left the region at the mercy of major powers and of neighboring states, all of which have proven adept at playing Central Asians off against each other.
Furthermore, on July 26 the same regional states, supported by senior officials from several dozen other countries worldwide, including the United States, Russia, India, the European Union, and China, convened in Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, for the purpose of expanding contacts with the new government in Kabul. Their immediate goals were to eliminate threats from extremist bands operating from Afghan territory and to identify changes in Taliban policies that would open the door to broader interaction between Afghanistan, its Central Asian neighbors, and the world. These meetings covered areas as diverse as information, finance, and women’s and minority rights. Their longer-term objective was to improve relations to the point that the Central Asians could open direct transport corridors through Afghanistan to Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, and Iran.
Whether these two ambitious initiatives will succeed is an open question. Their very existence, however, reflects the Central Asians’ determination to shape their own destiny and to emerge as a world region with linking institutions comparable to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Baltic Council, or other regional bodies worldwide.
WHY, THREE decades after gaining independence, have the Central Asian states suddenly focused on linking arms and collaborating? Three very different developments gave rise to this important movement. First, the unplanned and abrupt American withdrawal from Afghanistan left the Central Asian countries facing a chaotic and potentially dangerous neighbor to the south. Besides threatening a rise of instability across the region, the tumult in Afghanistan extinguished the hope of opening southward trade routes that would give the Central Asians direct access to the Indian subcontinent and the booming economies of Southeast Asia. The importance of that potential “door to the south” cannot be overestimated. Without it, all Central Asia would be left under Russia’s economic and political thumb and unable to constrain China’s economic incursions. Only with such a corridor to South Asia would these countries be able to affirm their own sovereignty and independence while at the same time establishing balanced and constructive relations with all the major political and economic powers.
Second, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine sent a shock wave across all Central Asia, not least because, like Ukraine, all the states in that region had only recently freed themselves from Russian rule and now feared that Moscow was trying to impose it anew. This was no mere paranoia on the part of the new sovereignties. Had Vladimir Putin not compared himself to Peter the Great, who expanded Russia’s territory by conquering neighbors? Had Dmitry Medvedev, head of Russia’s Security Council and former Russian president, not announced that the attack on Ukraine was but the first step towards reassembling all the lands that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union? Central Asians had already established contacts with the West, but those links did not suffice to enable them to counterbalance pressures from the north and east. The obvious next step was to create new economic and political links with South and Southeast Asia. But this requires reopening links of communication and trade that have lain dormant since the rise of the Soviet Union.
The third factor that gave rise to the new spirit of regional vitality on display at Issyk-Kul and Tashkent was the rise of Shavkat Mirziyoyev as president of Uzbekistan. His predecessor, Islam Karimov, had solidified Uzbekistan’s independence by walling the country off from its neighbors, including the other four Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Uzbekistan advanced, but at the price of the resentment of its regional neighbors and the hostility of the West, which condemned its heavy-handed treatment of its own population. Mirziyoyev, Karimov’s former prime minister, brought a sharp change of course after his election in 2016. In a series of dramatic moves, he instituted legal reforms, set about developing a market economy, and loosened many long-standing controls on the Uzbek populace. Most important, he declared peace with all Uzbekistan’s neighbors, opened cross-border contacts and trade, and began systematically reaching out to the other Central Asian states. By so doing, he launched the movement that bore fruit in Issyk-Kul and Tashkent.
What was actually accomplished in the region-wide protocol—formally known as the “Agreement on Friendship, Neighborliness, and Cooperation for Development of Central Asia in the 21st Century”—that the five presidents agreed upon in July? The document includes thirty-two sections that are designed to “consolidate their efforts” for mutual benefit. Of course, it commits signatories to respect existing borders, to not interfere in the internal affairs of other partner countries, and to resolve differences peacefully (sect. 2). But it goes far beyond this. Thus, section 5 calls for mutual support in the face of threats to the “independence, sovereignty, and territorial wholeness” of any member state. Backing up this call, the protocol (sect. 6) commits the signatories to abstain from joining any military bloc that might threaten any of the five states, and to forbid their territories to be used by any foreign state for activities directed against any of the other member states.
Nor were these mere words. Section 7 calls on the parties “to realize mutual action to develop collaboration in military and military-technical sphere on issues of mutual interest.” This parallels Article V of the Washington Treaty that governs the actions of NATO members, which states that an attack on any NATO member is to be considered an attack on them all. Section 7 also commits the signatories to coordinate their actions with respect to all other international and regional organizations to which they may belong. Among threats requiring such coordinated action are specified: terrorism, extremism, separatism, international criminal groups involved with narcotics and arms, and human trafficking. However, the same logic would extend to all other threats to the sovereignty of any member state. The goal, states the protocol, is to establish all of Central Asia as a “zone of peace.”
The many other chapters of the protocol commit members to develop structures for cooperation in legislative and judicial matters, transport, logistics (sect. 14), and all activities affecting trade and investment. The document then goes on to commit members to joint action with respect to the reconstitution of the depleted Aral Sea (sect. 19). Topping off this ambitious agenda is the call for closer links among the academic institutions of member states (sect. 20, 21), structured exchanges of teachers and specialists, the sharing of fundamental and applied research (sect. 24) in diverse fields, including medicine and technology, and the development of common information systems (sect. 23). Tourism also claims a place in the document (sect. 27), which calls for region-wide tours supported by common visas.
One may object that the five presidents papered over important differences between the languages, histories, and cultures of the signatory states. Anticipating such criticism, they went out of their way to affirm that Central Asia constitutes “a single historical and cultural space” (sect. 25), in which diverse peoples have fruitfully interacted and collaborated for millennia. Their agenda called for studying and making known these neglected commonalities. Moreover, the presidents acknowledged that within the borders of each country are linguistic, cultural, and religious minorities. On this delicate issue, they all agreed to support such minorities within their borders and enable them to thrive without compulsion from the national governments (sect. 26).
Three of the presidents signed the protocol at the Issyk-Kul meeting, while the other two—Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Serdar Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan—gave assurances that they would sign at the next meeting of the group. The former evidently wanted first to resolve the conflict on the Tajik border with Kyrgyzstan, while the latter, in office for only three months, wanted first to consult with his colleagues in Ashgabat. Both assured their colleagues of their support for the project.
S. Frederick Starr is founding chairman of the Kennan Institute and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
By S. Frederick Starr
July 22, 2022
Even if Vladimir Putin wins in Ukraine, he loses. Anything defined as victory will cost the lives of thousands more of Russia’s young men at a time when the population is shrinking. Simply to hold Luhansk, Donetsk, and other conquered territories against guerilla fighters will require further expenditures of manpower and equipment, both of which are in short supply. Real pacification would call for investments which Russia can’t afford, and the Russian public would oppose. Nor will Putin be excused for having disgraced the Russian military.
Win or lose, Putin and his weakened and his discredited system will not long survive. No one knows what will come next, but it is clear what should follow. Russia needs its own Charles de Gaulle, the French general-turned-president who got France out of its disastrous war in Algeria.
Back in 1958 when de Gaulle came out of retirement to become president, France faced an armed uprising by ethnic Algerians seeking independence. France had sent 600,000 soldiers there, who were supported by a million pieds noir, French who had settled there. The strife led to a terrible loss of lives, a revolt in the French army, and a fracturing of society that is still evident today. Far from conceding to such domestic forces, de Gaulle went himself to Algeria, ordered French troops there to cease backing the rebellious Committee of Public Safety, and then declared a ceasefire and granted independence to the Algerians, to be confirmed by a later vote, which took place on 1 July 1962. In its aftermath, 900,000 pieds noir abandoned Algeria.
De Gaulle succeeded because he envisioned a better future France without Algeria than with it and convinced a majority of French citizens that he was right. The best past forward for Putin’s successor is to do the same in Russia.
To be sure, Russia is not France and Ukraine is not Algeria. Ukraine had been ruled by Moscow down to 1991 but is now a sovereign state and a member of the United Nations. Algeria in 1958, by contrast, remained an integral part of the French state. Separation was even harder for Algeria than for Ukraine, which gained independence thanks to the collapse of the USSR. Most important, de Gaulle came to power just as colonialism was everywhere waning, while Putin came to power with the intent purpose of reviving it. De Gaulle took positive action with respect to France’s colonies while Putin used armed force to recapture two provinces of the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine’s Crimea.
Other aspects of de Gaulle’s approach are directly relevant to Russia. De Gaulle pulled out of Algeria not because he thought France was no longer a major power but because he was a nationalist who did not want to lose the rest of France’s empire. Similarly, a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine may be the only way Moscow can continue to hold onto the Kuril Islands, the Russian far East, and even Siberia. For the same reason Russia’s great nationalist writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, writing as early as the 1960s, wanted Soviet Russia to “show good sense” and give up its non-Russian republics, including Ukraine. “Those lands that do not want to stay” should be allowed to leave. Why, he asked, should Russians “continue to pay for the mistakes of [their] fathers”?
In spite of such sound advice, Putin seems likely to barge ahead, and his immediate successor may well choose the same course. However, it is already clear that this will further harden Western opposition to Moscow’s imperial program, lead to the deaths of further thousands of young Russians at a time when Russia’s population is already diminishing, vitiate the Russian economy, and exacerbate tensions within Russian society. Admit it or not, Russia is at an impasse. Like France in 1958, it faces a fundamental choice between policies of the past and viable strategies for the future.
Putin’s Russian supporters may fear retribution when he leaves or is removed. Faced with the same problem de Gaulle issued a general amnesty, which covered the entire French army. Other Russians have convinced themselves that a “de Gaulle gambit” in Ukraine would rob Russia of its glorious past and diminish its role in the future. This is nonsense. Following the withdrawal from Algeria, de Gaulle launched his “politics of grandeur,” which featured staunch opposition to the United States and his two vetoes of Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, later the EU. To be sure, Russia will have no choice but to abandon hope of reconquering any of the former Soviet republics that are now sovereign states, and it may have to renounce claims on some territories that are now within its borders. But this will still leave Russia with a vast territory and a large and talented population that can refocus its attention on the future rather than remain fixated on the bygone past.
Putin has long since passed the point at which he could do an about-face and pull a de Gaulle gambit in Ukraine. He is a small man, literally as well as figuratively, standing at 5’7” tall, as compared to de Gaulle’s 6’4.” He directs his plaudits not to de Gaulle but to Russia’s expansionist Tsar Peter the Great, who was 6’8.” Putin’s recent actions have further diminished his stature in the eyes of many thoughtful Russians, including many in the army and government.
There is already much speculation as to what or who might follow Putin. French hard-liners point to the fact that long after de Gaulle granted Algeria autonomy and even after Algerians voted overwhelmingly for it, some four-hundred French pieds noir were massacred in the Algerian city of Oran. Frustrated Russian troops have already committed genocide in Ukraine. Could Ukrainian anger also reach such a pitch?
Many alternatives to Putin can already be detected in Russia. These include military hard-liners who resent Putin’s failure to declare all-out war against Ukraine and want him to do so today, military reformers who want to pull back and rebuild their depleted forces and equipment, and many civic forces, including the new class of business leaders, followers of the jailed Alexei Navalny, and other individuals and groups.
Whoever emerges from the inevitable turmoil in Russia, he, she, or they will have to address the open wound that Putin’s Ukraine gambit has opened in the Russian polity itself. Far the best solution, for Russia and the world, would be for his successor to follow Charles de Gaulle’s model in Algeria and convince Russians themselves that their country will have a far better future without Ukraine than is possible with it.
S. Frederick Starr is founding chairman of the Kennan Institute and chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
By Svante Cornell and Albert Barro
June 3, 2022
The proposed constitutional changes, following five months after the greatest unrest in the country’s modern history, accelerate the efforts by the country’s president to push for controlled political reforms. The EU, while focusing on Ukraine, should continue to engage with strategically important Central Asia.
In January this year, protests over energy price hikes spread in Kazakhstan and turned violent in the country’s largest city of Almaty. This crisis displayed the growing restlessness of the Kazakh population, but also the in-fighting among the country’s elites.
It seems clear that the violence was triggered by elites that resisted President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s political reforms to safeguard their privileges.
However, President Tokayev emerged from the crisis with greater authority over the country’s governing institutions. The price to pay was calling on peacekeepers from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation.
But while many believed this would leave Tokayev indebted to Russia, events since January have proven otherwise. President Tokayev has refused to endorse Russia’s war in Ukraine. At home, far from halting his reform efforts, he doubled down: On 6 March he presented a fast-tracked package of political reforms to the nation and promptly submitted it to a constitutional referendum scheduled for 5 June.
The constitutional amendments, approved on Sunday, are closely consistent with the reform initiatives promised by Tokayev in his 16 March address to the nation.
Key themes from his address that are reflected in the amendments include revisions to the president’s powers, reformatting of the representative branch of government, improvements to the electoral system, and strengthening of human rights institutions.
Recognising that much of January’s unrest arose in protest against the government’s “super-presidential” structure, Tokayev’s reforms aim to reduce the power of the presidency. The president will no longer be permitted to be connected to a political party during his tenure, and his close relatives will be forbidden from serving as senior public servants or as heads of public sector institutions. Furthermore, the president forfeits the right to cancel actions by regional mayors.
Reducing presidential power is matched with the strengthening of parliament. Presidential appointments will now require Senate approval, and the Supreme Audit Chamber, which will oversee the national budget, is to report biannually to the lower house of parliament.
Furthermore, while in the past, the upper house adopted laws, this is now shifted to the more representative lower house, reducing the senate’s role in approving laws passed in the lower chamber.
This shift is magnified by introducing a mixed electoral system for the lower house, with 30% elected in single-member districts and 70% by party lists. Steps are also being taken to lower the obstacles to forming new political parties.
The amendments address several human rights issues too. A key amendment is the establishment of a Constitutional Court to which citizens, along with the Prosecutor General and Human Rights Commissioner, can appeal directly to challenge violations of constitutional rights. The Prosecutor General and Human Rights Commissioner also receive greater independence from other state bodies or officials.
Some initiatives that President Tokayev promised in his March address to the nation are not included in the amendments. A key area is the clarification of the rights and responsibilities of the media.
One of the most pernicious criticisms of Kazakhstan’s record concerns the rights of journalists, who are often persecuted under defamation laws. Tokayev promised a draft law on the media, which will be met with great anticipation.
The changes to Kazakhstan’s political system will not turn the country into a parliamentary democracy anytime soon. They remain within the fundamental paradigm that has been President Tokayev’s intention since his election in 2019: top-led gradual change to the existing system to make government more effective and provide greater openness without losing control.
Still, compared to Tokayev’s earlier reform packages, these reforms represent a shift: earlier reforms sought mainly to make the state deliver better services to the people and shore up its legitimacy that way.
They only aimed to build participatory and competitive politics very slowly at the local level. By contrast, the current reform package indicates that President Tokayev now sees a gradual liberalisation of the political system at all levels as necessary for the system to maintain its legitimacy.
While the EU and US are preoccupied with the Ukraine war, they should pay attention to events in Central Asia. Following the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the region has largely disappeared from the sights of Western policymakers.
This is a mistake, as the region will be crucial to the long-term containment of both Russia and China. Supporting reform processes in Kazakhstan and its neighbour Uzbekistan, particularly the difficult implementation of reforms that are now on the books, would go a long way to helping stability and progress in the region.
A longer analysis of Kazakhstan’s reforms can be found here.
Svante E. Cornell is Director, and Albert Barro a Project Associate, with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with the American Foreign Policy Council and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.
By Erica Marat and Johan Engvall
May 12, 2022
For many of Russia’s neighbors, the war in Ukraine has accelerated the process of breaking out of Moscow’s orbit and abandoning loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. While governments from Moldova and Georgia to Kazakhstan are distancing themselves from Putin’s offensive in Ukraine, the war is also prompting a deeper reexamination of the meaning of the past in former Soviet territories. The idea of “brotherly nations” promoted by the Soviets is now overshadowed by the notion that Soviet Russia may have never pursued true equality with its neighbors—not now, nor a century ago when the Soviet empire was established through mass violence.
Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia is becoming just another neighbor in the eyes of Kazakhs, Georgians, Moldovans, and others.
Several governments have shown greater independence from Moscow than expected. Last month, Kazakhstan declared it wouldn’t hold a military parade to celebrate the Soviet interpretation of its World War II victory. Earlier, Kazakhstan reportedly also refused Russia’s request to supply troops in Ukraine. Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan expanded cooperation in rerouting energy supplies to Europe bypassing Russia. As explained by the Kazakh deputy foreign minister, “If there is a new Iron Curtain, we do not want to be behind it.”
The more a country is politically free and allows space for the critical reappraisal of its past, the less its public is likely to support Russia’s regional dominance.
Long-serving Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov spoke out in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea. Perhaps due to political pressure from Russia, he was later removed from his position and appointed to another post. Kyrgyzstan’s foreign minister was sacked as well—likely because of insufficient public support of Russia’s war.
In Moldova, which depends on Russian energy supplies and hosts hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees, President Maia Sandu said her government is following Russia’s actions in Transnistria with “caution and vigilance.” A few days after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Moldova applied for European Union membership, along with Georgia and Ukraine. Both Moldova and Georgia face Russian occupation of parts of their territories (Transnistria as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia, respectively), which they don’t recognize as legitimate.
Acts of everyday resistance to Russia’s war in Ukraine in Central Asia and the South Caucasus vary from small businesses posting “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine!) next to their products and civil society groups collecting humanitarian aid for Ukraine to members of the public wearing yellow and blue: the colors of the Ukrainian flag. The Russian war symbols Z and V are rare or banned by the state.
Seeing the Soviet regime as a colonialist government both unites nations around a joint history of trauma and builds resistance to Russian attempts to subjugate them. Russian modern imperial ambitions in Ukraine or Georgia look offensive in these countries. The more a country is politically free and allows space for the critical reappraisal of its past, the less its public is likely to support Russia’s regional dominance.
In Kazakhstan, a critical look at its history of mass starvation that killed millions of people have now spilled from academic discussions into the public. In Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, historians and activists now openly blame the Soviet regime for purging national elites. In Ukraine, a sharp turn against alignment with Russia in 2014 came as Moscow annexed Crimea and the occupied Donbas.
Reexamining the Soviet past is taking place despite the fact that most international scholarship still sees the Soviet empire as a modernizing power of a backward people, especially in Central Asia. The seeming equality among nations of the empire and its anti-capitalist stance earned a large following among the anticolonial left in both the West and especially in formerly colonized countries throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The war in Ukraine is revealing the human costs of the empire’s expansion today even in the face of grassroots resistance. Like Putin’s increasing control of Russia today, the Soviet system was totalitarian, controlling the everyday lives of its people and superimposing Russian culture on all ethnic groups.Distancing themselves from a romanticized view of their Soviet pasts, these societies are now generating pressure for political change at home—challenging the type of post-Soviet authoritarian leadership model that has been common across the region and has its roots in totalitarian rule. In the past several years, protesters in Armenia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Ukraine demanded reforms to post-Soviet state institutions, such as police and intelligence services that are designed to serve the political elite and not citizens.
Anti-regime collective mobilization is a sign of a more politically engaged society that expects participation in decision-making and free elections. Ukraine’s resistance to Russian occupation is the ultimate example of how domestic pro-democracy mobilization rejects authoritarian rule.
In the face of this tide of new expectations, incumbent autocratic leaders are increasingly in peril. For example, in Russia’s closest ally, Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko only managed to survive a prolonged popular uprising in the fall of 2020 once he received support from Putin. Lukashenko was able to suppress the protests, but the collective grievances of Belarus’s society have not been solved. In the early days of the invasion, Belarusian railway workers sabotaged Russia’s supply of equipment to Ukraine. The brave act damaged Russian logistics, preventing the Kremlin from moving troops and materiel forward.
Kazakhstan’s political setup is similar to Russia’s—a president sits at the top of a pyramid of power, doling out posts and assets to allies in return for loyalty and a cut of the spoils. But following Kazakhstan’s nationwide uprising in January, the country faces the test of transforming into a more representative political system. Despite decades of authoritarianism, citizens mobilized in historic protests to demand better economic opportunities and the end of the president’s unlimited political power. Many in Kazakhstan’s uprising were young people of the same age as the independent state itself. They now see themselves as agents of change, willing to risk more than their parents could stomach.
Moscow’s ability to influence national decision-making processes in former Soviet territories appears to be waning. Despite Moscow’s objections, Russian only remains a state language in Belarus, although it retains the status of an official language in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Azerbaijan switched from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet in the early 1990s while Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are at different stages of the same transition.
Only four countries have joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and the intergovernmental military alliance the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has six members, Russia included. Both of these Russian-led organizations are likely to become ever more unpopular among political incumbents and the public. Even after the CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan in January, which helped President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev secure his hold on power, the Kazakh government has shown greater opposition to Moscow’s war than expected.
Russian political influence is also declining because Russian culture is losing its dominant position and has to compete with other worldviews for the hearts and minds of younger generations. These more diverse generations are formed by domestic as well as foreign influences, whether from Turkey, the Persian Gulf, or Europe. Traditional and nationalist-oriented values tend to resonate in more rural areas while liberal ideas and values are usually concentrated in urban centers. Large pro-Ukraine protests were held in Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Moldova. Even in countries like Kyrgyzstan, where the government banned antiwar protests, a few brave activists still filled the streets.
Rather than be pawns that are moved around on the Kremlin’s chessboard, Russia’s neighbors are increasingly turning into active players in the international arena.
Separation from Russia does not necessarily mean these countries will seek a closer alignment with the West. Political incumbents in Central Asia and the South Caucasus may be more inclined to seek closer ties with China and Turkey. Countries that depend on Russia’s political and military support—notably Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—may still show careful support of close ties with Moscow. But even there, political leaders shied away from publicly siding with Putin’s rhetoric of “denazification” in Ukraine. The unpredictable consequences of Russia’s war might leave these states no other choice but to diversify their diplomatic relations.
Rather than be pawns that are moved around on the Kremlin’s chessboard, Russia’s neighbors are increasingly turning into active players in the international arena—and have not hesitated to play external powers against one another to extract maximum benefits. They prefer to maintain ties with many regional powers; Russia is becoming just another neighbor, along with the EU, China, Turkey, and Iran.
In that way, Central Asian countries are becoming more like other countries in Asia and Africa—searching for multilateralism rather than solely attaching themselves to one actor: Russia. The ability of these states to resist Moscow’s pressure to support the invasion of Ukraine would not have been possible without their long-standing efforts to preserve their sovereignty and identity themselves by diversifying their diplomatic alliances.
To understand the effectiveness of Russian power in the former Soviet space, it is no longer sufficient just to know the Kremlin’s intent. Former Soviet colonies are on the verge of breaking away from the last remaining legacies of Soviet rule. The war in Ukraine points at the need to consider countries formerly occupied by the Soviet regime as entities with their own complex domestic processes despite Russia’s efforts to direct and dominate them.
Many citizens of former Soviet states in Central Asia and the South Caucasus now see Russia as a belligerent neighbor engaging in genocidal violence rather than as an historic ally. Time is thus not on the side of Putin’s imperialistic and nationalist crusade to reassert Russia’s exclusive control over its neighboring countries—because Moscow’s neighborhood is no longer a collection of its former colonial subjects.
By Mamuka Tsereteli, Ph.D. and Anthony B. Kim
April 25, 2022
America’s partnership with Uzbekistan has become more relevant than ever. This former Soviet state is an ally against Russia, has an emerging market-based economy, and possesses significantly undervalued natural assets.
Capital Tashkent’s relationship with Washington entered what has been called “a new era of strategic partnership” during President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s historic first visit to the White House in 2018.
More recently, during his March 9 meeting with Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov, Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored, “We appreciate the strategic partnership between Uzbekistan and the United States, the work that’s being done through that; very much welcome the strong humanitarian support that you’ve been providing to the Afghans on one hand and now Ukrainians on the other.”
In his recent speech to Uzbeki lawmakers, Komilov said that Uzbekistan does not recognize the pro-Russia separatist-controlled districts in Ukraine’s Donbas region and called for a “peaceful solution” to end Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, the U.S.-Uzbekistan relationship has gained greater strategic importance with the passage of time. The United States was among the first countries to recognize Uzbekistan’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1992 and has maintained growing bilateral relations in the 30 years since.
Uzbekistan is strategically located and the most populous country of Central Asia. Though it still has a long way to go, the country has been transitioning from a command-and-control economy to a market-based economy, propelled by a wide range of reforms, particularly since 2017.
According to The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom, the Uzbekistani economy has grown notably over the past five years. Economic freedom has also advanced during the same period. With large increases in scores for investment freedom and financial freedom, Uzbekistan has recorded a 3.4-point overall gain in economic freedom since 2017 and is in the middle ranks of the “Mostly Unfree” countries.
Also notable is that the country, which is the eighth-largest producer and the 11th-largest exporter of cotton in the world, has eradicated systemic forced labor and systemic child labor, according to new findings by the United Nations’ International Labour Organization. That progress has resulted in the end of the international boycott of Uzbek cotton.
Going forward, emerging economic challenges further complicated by an elevated level of uncertainty will require significantly accelerated reform efforts for Uzbekistan to fully realize its economic potential.
The country is making progress in reforming its governance and public services, however, taking steps that are having an impact on the lives of ordinary citizens and making it easier for businesses to operate there.
It is also strategically better positioned than other countries of Central Asia to meet evolving new challenges: It does not share borders with Russia nor is it a member of either the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union or the Collective Security Treaty Organization, which means it is significantly less dependent on Russia than many other former Soviet states.
But mitigating these emerging risk factors will require a new, even more dynamic economic strategy.
First and foremost, the government needs to further strengthen macro-economic stability and ensure structural reforms by supporting the private sector and reducing the role of the state in the economy. That includes boosting the privatization of state assets in all sectors.
Privatization, as well as tax and regulatory reforms, should be focused on attracting more foreign direct investments from a wide range of countries. Companies with solid investment plans, management, and technological know-how should be given priority. Uzbekistan has significantly undervalued assets, and with the proper packaging and government incentives, it should attract sizable foreign investment.
While the future success of Uzbekistan will rest in large part on the shoulders of Uzbeks themselves, America’s continuing strategic support remains essential for forwarding the reforms Uzbekistan has been charting.
Fundamentally, America’s economic engagement with Uzbekistan will be best exercised through constructive private-sector engagement that can be the catalyst for a sustainable and comprehensive economic transformation for the nation.
As this year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Uzbekistan, it is in America’s interest to push forward this opportunity to enhance practical bilateral trade and investment with this vital partner in Central Asia.
March 23, 2022
Sometimes sanctions hurt the West as well as the targeted regime, but that cannot be a reason to hesitate.
Short of direct military involvement, oil sanctions represent the single most important policy instrument available to the West to sway Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political calculus. They are a tool that needs to be wielded resolutely.
Last year, Russia's total exports reached $489.8bn. Of that, energy (in the form of crude oil, pipeline natural gas, and liquified natural gas) accounted for roughly half, nearly $241bn, with the lion’s share generated by the sale of oil. Last year's average price of oil was $68 per barrel, and with the price of oil soaring (benchmark Brent crude was about $115 a barrel on March 22), it is providing the Kremlin far greater funds to fuel its aggression in Ukraine.
To be sure, the sanctions invoked so far on the Russian financial system, oligarchs, and certain industries will cause serious harm to the economy in the long run. They will also have an immediate effect on the wealth of oligarchs and the living standards of ordinary citizens. However, they will not deliver a fatal blow to the Putin regime as long as oil revenues flow into Russia. That’s because these funds oil Putin’s machine; they keep his security apparatus operating, and allow him to provide at least basic services to Russian citizens, thereby keeping their level of discontent low.
Based on this realization, the Biden administration on March 8 announced that it was banning the import of Russian oil, natural gas, and coal. So far, however, Europe has not followed suit.
Critics on the continent have opposed energy sanctions on the grounds that they would do serious economic damage given the reliance of many countries on Russian fuels. Indeed, Europe’s dependency on Russian energy has been a topic of perennial concern in recent years – but little concrete action. Germany is the largest importer, by product value, of Russian oil within the European Union. In 2021, the total EU energy import value from Russia stood at some $150bn, of which $104bn was for oil products. Germany was the largest importer at an estimated $23.6bn worth of crude oil, gasoline, and diesel.
As a result, European nations would undoubtedly feel the pinch if they went ahead with energy sanctions against Russia. As German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz said on March 7, Russian energy imports had to continue for now because oil and gas “cannot be secured in any other way.”
It is true that sanctions would hit Europe hard — EU states rely on Russia for 40% of energy supplies. Any such discomfort, however, needs to be balanced against new global realities — and the likely long-term economic and geopolitical costs if the current war in Ukraine continues.
Here, it’s necessary to clarify the nature of the energy business, and oil in particular. Oil is a global commodity, which means that there is a global oil market where prices are determined by supply and demand. In this regard, oil is different from natural gas, which is more a regional commodity and is characterized by price fluctuations in different markets.
As a result, a blanket Western ban on Russian oil won’t serve to take Russian oil off the streets — the Kremlin will simply sell to other consumers (like China.). But a joint U.S.-European ban would significantly constrict the potential buyers, while market forces will do the rest — with alternate clients negotiating cut-rate prices, knowing that the Kremlin has precious few options. The result will be a drastic slump in Russian oil income.
Such a move will admittedly not be cost-free for Europe. In the short term, the continent is likely to experience price hikes and commodity shortages. But equilibrium will be restored in time – and in a manner that disadvantages Russia.
Most of all, European leaders need to understand that the long-term costs of inaction are liable to be measured in both economic pain and humanitarian suffering, as oil revenue continues to fuel Putin’s war machine. Officials in Brussels have the ability to alter this equation, if they have the political will to do so.
Mamuka Tsereteli is Senior Fellow for Eurasia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.
By Svante E. Cornell
March 9, 2022
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has led to widespread condemnation and an unparalleled outpouring of support for Ukraine. At the same time, a motley crew, including some academics and former U.S. officials, has essentially blamed the war on the West, and in particular NATO enlargement. The argument is basically that Russia would not have become so aggressive if Western powers had been more accommodating. This line of thinking, however, is simply incorrect.
That’s because Russia rediscovered its imperial vocation before NATO enlargement, and the war in Ukraine is, in fact, about Putin’s great power ambitions.
Russian leaders have emphatically argued that NATO countries, led by the United States, violated assurances made to Moscow at the end of the Cold War that the alliance would not expand to the east. This claim, however, has been debunked as a myth. Even the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, has denied that the issue of NATO enlargement was even discussed at the time. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself did not have much to say about NATO enlargement until his infamous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference.
NATO's enlargement began in the mid-1990s, at a time when the alliance was embarking on a strategic shift, focusing on out-of-area operations instead territorial defense. NATO urged new member states to focus on specific cutting-edge expertise, and programs for partner countries like Georgia were mostly about training for peacekeeping operations in places like Afghanistan. NATO's shift is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that the alliance lacked a workable plan to defend the Baltic states when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. It is really only after that war, and in particular after Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, that NATO returned to its original focus on collective defense.
The real reason for the deteriorating security situation in Europe — and most blatantly the Russian invasion of Ukraine — can be found in changes that have taken place within Russia itself, and most directly the increasingly imperialist worldview of the Russian leadership.
This change began as early as 1994 and accelerated after Putin came to power. The war in the Russian breakaway republic of Chechnya from 1994 to 1996 was in many ways the starting point. Russia’s defeat there showed how far the country had fallen, leading many former Soviet republics to part ways with Russia. Moscow responded by systematically undermining neighboring states like Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan through the incitement of ethnic conflicts on their territories — a classic divide-and-rule tactic.
It is largely forgotten today that Putin built his political career on regaining control of Chechnya, something he did by starting a bloody war on the basis of a lie. It is generally well established today that the explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow in the summer of 1999 that Putin blamed on Chechen rebels were in fact carried out by the Russian security service under Putin's own leadership — the purpose being to create popular support for Putin's war, and by extension his leadership.
Putin's view of the world, in turn, is closely linked to his own hold on power — and that explains Russia's increasingly aggressive actions.
The “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003-4 had the potential to show that democratic change could happen in former Soviet countries, something that would undermine Putin’s pursuit of authoritarian rule (what he called a "vertical of power"). Democratic rule in neighboring countries therefore had to fail.
Ukraine, in particular, was central to Putin. If a kindred Slavic and Orthodox country like Ukraine developed into a functioning democracy, this could pull the rug out from under Putin's project. If Ukraine showed that something better was possible, why should Russians be content with living under an authoritarian and corrupt regime?
For a time, Moscow tried other tactics. Pro-Russian politician Viktor Yanukovych managed to get elected as president of Ukraine in 2010, but his misrule led to the popular uprising of 2013. That event, in turn, showed that the Ukrainian people saw Europe, rather than Russia, as their future. Putin responded by annexing Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine. At home, Putin's rhetoric became increasingly nationalistic, and now focused on concepts such as the "Russian world" in order to foment a divide between Russia and an allegedly decadent West.
For this to succeed, however, Putin needs to bring Belarus and Ukraine into the "Russian world," by force if necessary. This, rather than NATO enlargement, is what the war in Ukraine is about.
Svante Cornell is director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Svante E. Cornell
The recent crisis in Kazakhstan took many by surprise. Long considered the most prosperous and stable in Central Asia, it now suddenly appears fragile and weak. To draw lessons from the crisis, for the country’s future course and for the long-suffering American policy in Central Asia, we need to understand what really happened in Kazakhstan. While the exact circumstances of the tragic events in the country may never be clear, we now know enough to draw some key conclusions. First, the key reason for this crisis is to be found in Kazakhstan’s incomplete succession of power. Second, while Russia will definitely exact a price for its intervention, Kazakhstan’s independence has not come to an end. Third, Kazakhstan will likely recover from this crisis, but it will need American and European support to proceed with much-needed reforms.
To someone who has studied Central Asian politics for over two decades, the speed and confidence with which many analysts claimed to understand exactly what had happened was somewhat distressing. In reality, the behind-the-scenes power balances in Kazakhstan are some of the most opaque in the region.
Still, it is now clear that two separate processes took place in Kazakhstan. The first was fairly straightforward: a sharp price hike for automobile fuel led to public protests in western Kazakhstan, which rapidly spread to the country’s largest city, Almaty. Given the frequency of public protests in Kazakhstan lately, this was unsurprising. But the second was more puzzling: on the evening of January 4, bands of armed thugs suddenly took over the Almaty protests, and engaged in violent attacks on authorities and government buildings. Eyewitnesses on the ground report that security forces appeared to melt away in the face of these thugs, with widespread destruction and looting as a result.
Sensing that the situation was spiraling out of control, and perhaps unable to trust his own security forces, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev on January 5 appealed to the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization for s “temporary” intervention. Within hours, a “peacekeeping” operation was dispatched to Kazakhstan. Appealing for outside help is a major loss of face for any government, and to legitimize this step beyond assuring it would be of short duration, Kazakh government officials blamed a nebulous international terrorist conspiracy for masterminding the violence. This has rightfully been met with skepticism. Meanwhile, western rights advocates have emphasized the government’s repression of peaceful protests. This is not a particularly helpful definition of the events either: it hardly explains the violence against authorities in Almaty, and why the government seemed so close to losing control over the situation. In fact, the real background is to be found in Kazakhstan’s informal politics.
Nazarbayev’s Political Economy
Like most post-Soviet states, Kazakhstan’s informal politics are based on a close fusion of political and economic power. This was the result of the Soviet Union’s collapse, which left the politically connected with tremendous advantages in securing economic assets and taking the reins of a budding capitalist economy. Meanwhile, the absence of strong political institutions meant that political leaders required an economic base, in effect to control institutions that provided patronage and ensured the loyalty of their followers.
As a result, the power of post-Soviet politicians has been more a function of their control over patronage than the position printed on their business card. To survive in power, therefore, the leader of a country needed to have a larger patronage structure than anyone else. Because blood is thicker than water, family members of high officials were key to managing these assets. Sadly, however, some suddenly enriched family members did not handle their newfound wealth with grace. Managing wayward children and relatives became a constant headache for post-Soviet leaders. And beyond the family are other, largely invisible grandees who remains largely out of the public view but wield real influence.
Thus it was in Kazakhstan as well, where the children and relatives of President Nazarbayev ended up in the news for all the wrong reasons. Still, Kazakhstan’s hydrocarbon-fueled economy until recently produced enough wealth for the wider population to see improved living standards, while Nazarbayev’s diplomatic astuteness in balancing Russia, China and the West led him to become a respected international figure.
But in recent years, financial shocks hit the country hard, and Kazakhstan’s budding middle class saw its newfound standard of living jeopardized: GDP per capita dropped from over $13,000 in 2013 to about $9,000 today. As a result, the population grew restive, and frustration with the opulence of the uber-rich and politically connected mounted. Furthermore, a divide opened between an upwardly mobile and well-educated urban strata (the Kazakhs most Westerners interact with) and a much larger lumpen segment, for lack of a better term, which is much more impatient and nationalist. Against this background, the post-Soviet model of governance described above was no longer sustainable.
In response, the aging Nazarbayev resolved to engineer a controlled transition of power. He first gave parliament a greater role, then unexpectedly resigned in 2019. He designated the respected diplomat Kassym-Jomart Tokayev his successor but retained significant powers as the country’s “First President.” This move was designed to safeguard the family’s interests, while allowing a new leader to implement much-needed political and economic reforms.
Knowns and Unknowns in an Incomplete Succession
While Nazarbayev had outlined lofty visions for Kazakhstan as one of the world’s most developed states by mid-century, international indices showed clearly that the country was progressing slowly in terms of rule of law and control over corruption, and barely at all in terms of public voice and accountability. Tokayev therefore embarked on a single-minded pursuit of political as well as economic reforms. But in so doing, he challenged the position of entrenched interest groups that controlled much of Kazakhstan’s economic life, and wielded considerable informal power in key state institutions.
Many of these were members of the Nazarbayev family, and networks associated with them, including the invisible grandees mentioned above. Some among these forces sought to actively slow-walk Tokayev’s reforms: on more than one occasion, the President’s initiatives were watered down in parliament, while others appeared to face hurdles in implementation. This led the President himself to repeatedly decry the pace at which his reforms were proceeding. In retrospect, the key flaw in Nazarbayev’s transition plan seems to have been engineering a transition of formal political power, but not a parallel transition in control of economic assets.
Exactly how the tensions between the President and his opponents boiled over is not clear. But it is beyond doubt that they exploded during the New Year’s unrest. In a country like Kazakhstan, it is unthinkable that organized groups of armed thugs could mount a direct challenge to the state without being noticed and checked by security services. But as anyone familiar with post-Soviet ties between politics, business and crime can tell, it is more than likely that these thugs were used by some powerful political force that masterminded this action. Some suggest President Tokayev moved first, using the public protests as an opportunity to clean house. More likely, his opponents sought to use the unrest to weaken or even unseat him, forcing a counterpunch.
President Tokayev’s response to the crisis is telling: he removed Nazarbayev from his lifetime post as Chairman of the National Security Council, removed and detained leaders of the national security service, and in the aftermath of the crisis forced the removal of key Nazarbayev family members from senior positions in government agencies and state corporations. Tokayev’s January 11 address to parliament did not mention his predecessor by name, but he was clear enough: he announced the closure of monopolistic companies everyone knew were connected to the Nazarbayev family, and called on the many people who had gotten rich “thanks to his predecessor” to give back to the country in a new public fund he is creating. We should expect important assets to change hands in coming weeks.
Still, it would be premature to call this a direct, personal conflict between the only two Presidents that Kazakhstan has known since independence. One important unknown is the degree to which the 81-year-old Nazarbayev was in control over the vast conglomerate that his family had become. The Nazarbayev family was far from a united entity, and different wings of the family were known to have fought over economic assets in the past. Thus, Nazarbayev and his family are not one and the same; parts of his family may be involved in a conflict with President Tokayev, but that does not mean the entire family or Nazarbayev himself is.
President Tokayev has been careful, until now, not to directly challenge the position or legacy of Nazarbayev as the Elbasy, the nominal “leader of the nation.” Doing so would perhaps crumble too much of the edifice his own power rests upon, and Tokayev appears to genuinely appreciate Nazarbayev’s service to the nation. Still, a decisive shift has taken place in Kazakhstan. The most likely scenario is that Nazarbayev will continue to be respected as the country’s elder statesman, while his extended family will gradually lose their positions of influence as well as many of their assets.
The Russia Factor
The CSTO intervention in Kazakhstan is a major coup for President Putin, who has touted the CSTO as a Eurasian counterpart to NATO, and sought to portray it as an organization that could help regional leaders withstand both domestic and outside threats to their power. But in the past few years, neither Moscow nor the CSTO were able to rescue leaders in Armenia or Kyrgyzstan that were targeted by public protests. The lightning-speed deployment will now be an example to leaders who may previously have been skeptical about Russia’s commitment to their security.
Beyond that, there has been a tendency to view the CSTO intervention in the light of Russia’s threat against Ukraine. But the situations are not comparable. There is no question that the Russian intervention will have consequences for Kazakhstan’s foreign policy and for regional security, but it does not spell the end of Kazakhstan’s independence.
President Tokayev has reported that the CSTO operation is winding down and that the foreign forces are in the process of leaving the country. From Kazakhstan’s perspective, they have accomplished their chief objective: they have ended, for now, the acute phase of elite in-fighting in Kazakhstan, and shown with all due clarity that Moscow supports President Tokayev against his detractors.
Given the past experience of Russian operations in the former Soviet Union, one could be forgiven for being skeptical that once invited, Russian forces would leave Kazakhstan. But there are at least three reasons to think that might actually happen. First, China has made it clear it wants to see no foreign forces in Kazakhstan, and Moscow is very sensitive to Beijing’s wishes. Second, Moscow has found itself in the unprecedented predicament of taking the side of a President that is identified with a reformist agenda. And if Tokayev wants to consolidate his power, he can do so only if he appears in charge and his reforms are implemented. If Tokayev is perceived as a Russian stooge, he could rapidly lose his standing in Kazakh society, resulting in further unrest and instability, something that is not in Russia’s interest. Finally, it should be recalled that Tokayev is the architect of Kazakhstan’s balanced “multi-vector” foreign policy, which seeks to build strong relations with all world powers, not just Russia.
It may thus be in both Tokayev’s and Putin’s interest for Russian forces to pull back, with Tokayev owing Putin a debt of gratitude. The alternative – installing a Putinist regime in Kazakhstan that quells public disenchantment with force – is simply not feasible, and not something Tokayev could or would do. The widespread public frustration and anger remains, and will not go away. Tokayev will be forced to tread carefully to avoid new upheavals.
American and European Policies
Three major events in the past year or so have shown the decline in American, as well as European, influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. The U.S. was essentially a bystander during the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late 2020. The chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan epitomized the American disengagement, and the U.S. did not feature in any notable way during the crisis in Kazakhstan. This slide is unfortunate, not least given the fact that every other power from Turkey in the west to Japan in the east appears to be intensifying its relations with this emerging world region. U.S. inaction in the region makes it that much harder for regional states to have a balanced foreign policy. Particularly following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, it is now high time for the U.S. to revamp its approach to Central Asia, starting with a reappraisal of relations with Kazakhstan.
If the U.S. is concerned about Russian influence, the solution is not to distance itself from Kazakhstan but rather to redouble engagement with the country and President Tokayev. Tokayev continues to represent the best hope for a serious reform process that will make Kazakhstan both more stable and more responsive to the needs and views of its citizens. Simply because of the nature of Russia’s own political system, there is little Russia can or would do to support the reform process that Tokayev has launched. In fact, the only outside actors that could play a constructive role are the U.S. and Europe. Tokayev knows this and will want to re-engage with Western powers. But given his new predicament, this will be much easier if the initiative comes from Washington.
Kazakhstan must also be seen in its regional context. In the last few years, Central Asian states have engaged in an unprecedented effort to develop regional cooperation, to ensure they can manage regional problems on their own. The CSTO intervention is in this context a setback, because it gives the illusion that only outside powers can provide security in the region. It is therefore in the American interest to support efforts at regional cooperation that will, in the longer run, enable Central Asians to withstand both Russian and Chinese aspirations for hegemony.
Washington has an instrument for dialogue that is regional in nature. A first step should be to convene a meeting of the C5+1 mechanism including America and the five regional states to signal that America continues to care about developments in the region, and is ready to step up efforts to support reform initiatives and regionalism in Central Asia. Building on that, the Administration could deploy an inter-agency process to fine-tune the Central Asia strategy that was adopted two years ago. While much remains to be done, these steps would kickstart a reboot of American policy toward Central Asia.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, and a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.