Anette Bohr
Associate Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme
Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev walk before a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council 29 April 2014, Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo/GettyRussia's President Vladimir Putin, Belarus's President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev walk before a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Council 29 April 2014, Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Dmitry Azarov/Kommersant Photo/Getty Images.

How is Central Asia reacting to the unfolding of events in Ukraine? While not openly discussed in the local media, the question on the minds of many there is: could a similar turn of events take place in our part of the world?

This is hardly surprising. After all, as one cynical commentator for the Moscow-based website Centrasia wrote, ‘Yanukovych is a tragicomic figure, utterly identical to all of the current Central Asian presidents simultaneously.’ And when Moscow manufactures a pretext to send troops into a former Soviet republic by saying that an ethnic Russian population there is ‘at risk’, one can be sure that Central Asian leaders are sitting up and taking notice.

Kyrgyzstan, having already ousted two leaders in revolutions in the space of only five years, views the Ukrainian chaos with relative equanimity. Certain reports emanating from that small state could even be said to reflect a slight smugness, as though the Kyrgyz experience of having ‘been there and done that’ might possibly provide useful lessons for their Ukrainian counterparts.

For most of Central Asia’s authoritarian presidents, however, the swell of popular dissatisfaction that causes citizens to occupy central squares –  and leaders to turn into criminal despots on the run – gives rise to a real fear. Whereas the leaders of Kyrgyzstan might view protest and subsequent regime change as a matter of course, Tajikistan’s Emomalii Rahmon, Uzbekistan’s Islom Karimov and Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev have been in power for more than 20 years. Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took over as president in a seamless handover of power as recently as 2007, but his policies have proven scarcely less dictatorial than those of his predecessor, the renowned megalomaniac Saparmurat Niyazov.

The Ukrainian crisis has put Central Asia’s authoritarian leaders in a double bind: while they are concerned about Moscow’s military show of power in Crimea, they are also keen to downplay popular revolts that end in the ouster of a corrupt and iron-fisted leader of an independent  state within Russia’s orbit.

Karimov, in particular, has always had a particular aversion to Russian heavy-handedness in any post-Soviet state, even twice suspending Uzbekistan’s membership in Moscow’s flagship security organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Ever vigilant about potential infringements of sovereignty, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that Russia’s deployments in Crimea ‘cannot but cause deep anxiety and concern in Uzbekistan’. And, given recent events surrounding Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea, leaders in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan cannot fail to have noticed the risks involved in hosting military facilities belonging to Moscow on their territories: Russia’s largest land base outside its borders — the 201st Motorized Rifle Division — is located in Tajikistan, while it maintains the Kant Air Base some twenty miles south of the Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek.

Although President Nazarbaev far outclasses his other Central Asian counterparts on the popularity front, enjoying a good deal of genuine support inside and outside the country, Kazakhstan, in theory, has the greatest reason to regard events in Ukraine with concern. Not only does it have a 6,846km-border with Russia, but its ethnic Russian population, located primarily in the country’s northern regions, is the second largest after Ukraine’s. (It comprises nearly 25 per cent of Kazakhstan’s total population, according to the 2009 census.) This latter circumstance appears particularly salient in light of Moscow’s rationale for using troop deployments in Crimea.

Media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis has varied from state to state in Central Asia. In more highly controlled Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, official media attention has been minimal to non-existent. On 7 March, during a press conference held in conjunction with the visiting Turkish foreign minister, Turkmenistan’s foreign minister refused to comment on the situation in Ukraine altogether.

Reaction in economically developed Kazakhstan has been more diverse. While some private media outlets have expressed pro-Russian sentiment, the authorities were quick to put down a small demonstration that took place outside the Russian embassy in Astana, at which protesters carried a banner warning: ‘Yesterday, Abkhazia and Ossetia; today, Crimea; tomorrow, North Kazakhstan!’ Activists in Kyrgyzstan have demanded that the authorities urge Russia to desist from threatening the sovereignty of Ukraine.

Given the existence of the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Common Market, any politically motivated Russian-Ukrainian trade wars have direct knock-on effects for Kazakhstan, as was evidenced last August when Russia’s Federal Consumer Protection Service formally requested Kazakh authorities to issue a ban on chocolates and other sweets produced by a Kyiv-based confectioner.

One unintended consequence of Vladimir Putin’s approach to the unrest in Ukraine has been to give Russo-sceptics in Central Asia an additional  argument when objecting to Moscow-led initiatives for closer regional integration. The occupation in Crimea has already provided fodder to the significant opposition in Kazakhstan to forming a Eurasian Economic Union alongside Russia and Belarus. On 4 March, Kazakhstan’s anti-union lobby announced plans to hold a forum in Almaty for the purpose of preventing the country from becoming ‘an appendage of a new empire’. Despite such voices of protest, however, on the same day the first deputy prime minister announced that integration processes with Russia and Belarus were proceeding apace.

Whatever twists and turns are yet to come as the Russian-Ukrainian stand-off plays itself out, in Central Asia, corrupt, ‘Yanukovych-like’ leaders and citizens alike are sure to continue to pay rapt attention to developments in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine.

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