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Russia “is a Delicate Matter”? The View from Central Asia of Putin’s Commitment to the Region

Russia “is a Delicate Matter”? The View from Central Asia of Putin’s Commitment to the Region

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This policy brief examines relations between Central Asian governments and Moscow.
This policy brief examines relations between Central Asian governments and Moscow.

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Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on May 21, 2012
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Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program
May 2012
1744 R Street NWWashington, DC 200091 202 745 3950F 1 202 265 1662E ino@gmus.org
The Central Asianruling circles continue to view
Moscow as a agship that signalsgeneral evolutions in the post-Soviet space, even if they do notavow it publicly. After the ArabSpring, which deeply markedthe Central Asian political elites,the message from Russia waswell interpreted: regimes canbe challenged from the insideby leaderless movementsindependent of oppositionpolitical parties. Even if the Putinpolitical regime stays aoat inthe coming decade and thedemocratization of Russia doesnot come onto the agenda,Moscow is at risk of becoming anuncertain actor for the CentralAsian ruling circles as much dueto its economic as to its strategiccommitments in the region.
Russia “is a Delicate Matter”? The View from Central Asia of Putin’sCommitment to the Region
by Marlène Laruelle
Contrary to the expression the“East is a delicate matter,” the viewrom Central Asia is that Russianpolicy appears uncertain, complex,and subtle.Russian President VladimirPutin’s 2007 announcement thathe would respect the letter o theConstitution and not run or athird successive mandate took theCentral Asian elites by surprise.Tis decision was tantamount topolitical suicide or the CentralAsian heads o state, who considerthemselves “presidents or lie” andseek to pass on their power to thoseclosest to them. Putin’s wager wasthus ollowed closely throughoutthe region, and especially inAk-Orda, the Kazakh presidentialpalace, where a special commis-sion has been studying the succes-sion issue in Russia. Tere was noquestion that President NursultanNazarbayev would ollow themodel o his neighbor. VladimirPutin’s ocial return to the head o the Russian state on May 7, 2012 isthus viewed reassuringly by CentralAsian leaders insoar as it reinorcestheir belie in the personicationo state power. All the same, or thecurrent regimes there is still no lack o disquieting signals emanatingrom Russia.Te Central Asian ruling circles,even the staunchest anti-Russian,notably urkmenistan and Uzbeki-stan, continue to view Moscow as aagship that signals general evolu-tions in the post-Soviet space — aact they do not publicly avow. Tey thus correctly perceived the signi-cance o political demonstrationsin December 2011: the suddenemergence o an opposition move-ment based on a demand or goodgovernance. Aer the Arab Spring,which deeply marked the CentralAsian political elites, the messagerom Russia was well interpreted:regimes can be challenged romthe inside by leaderless movementsindependent o opposition politicalparties.At the same time, Kazakhstanrecently aced its rst socio-economic demonstrations in thesmall town o Zhanaozen on theMangystau Peninsula. Here too,the symbol bore signicance:the questioning o Nazarbayev’sregime did not occur via demo-cratic opposition, nor did it takethe orm o an Islamic revolution,and was ultimately not omented by Russian or Uzbek national minori-ties — sometimes seen as “hcolumns” — but by ethnic Kazakhsin areas supposedly under Astana’s
Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program
control. Suddenly the western part o the country,where the national oil wealth is concentrated andincome inequality is signicant, became the symbol o the country’s evils. Tis presents a stark contrast romthe traditional vilication o the Uzbek south or theRussian north.Tese two political shocks came on top o a series o actors that have weakened Central Asian govern-ments. Notable examples o this are: the 2008economic crisis, the increasing number o allegedly Islamist incursions into the ajik Rasht Valley in 2009and 2010, the transition o power in Kyrgyzstan andsubsequent interethnic riots in Osh in 2010, the ArabSpring o 2011 and the reappraisal o the Central Asiansituation they implied, and o course the prepara-tions or the post-2014 situation in Aghanistan. Inthis context, the role o Russia in the region has beenquestioned.Contrary to popular belie in Western countries, theCentral Asian regimes are not worried that Russia willexert renewed power over the region. Nobody believesin the likelihood o alling back into the exclusiveclutches o Moscow, which is deemed ar too weak or such an eventuality. Instead, the threat is seen tocome rom the risk o more chaotic, more uncertain,and more inecient Russian policy, such that the gapbetween the projection o power and real capability iseven greater today.Even the Uzbek and urkmen regimes — both radi-cally anti-Russian — have every interest in Russianpolicy having clearly identied its main stakes anddrivers, such as maintaining its presence on theurkmen gas market and growing gas cooperationbetween ashkent and Moscow. Te Kremlin’s desireto have a right to oversee the post-2014 strategic devel-opment o Uzbekistan urther complicates the issue. Inact, Central Asian regimes have been able to managethe pressures placed on them by external actors withrelative ease and to play these actors of against eachother. Over the last two decades, they have built theiroreign policy autonomy on this balancing game. It is,by contrast, much more dicult or them to ensuretheir own security i they are unaware o which stakesRussia sees as crucial in the region, where Moscow’slimits are, and o whether or not they have to buildnew networks and lobbying strategies within theKremlin.For all o the Central Asian regimes, regardless o theirstrategic positioning towards Moscow, the “risk” o Russia’s democratization, whether rom the top downor the bottom up, would have an immediate impact ontheir own political security. It would imply a multipli-cation o sites or decision-making in Moscow, a weak-ening o the role o the security services, and morecontradictory policies due to the diversity o actors —in short, disturbing actors or their own stability.Ashgabat would eel obliged to orient itsel moredirectly toward China, which is already in the processo becoming its main ally, thus reinorcing the discretebut marked Chinese ooting in the country. ashkentwould view it as implying a greater political risk or its
The threat is seen to come fromthe risk of more chaotic, moreuncertain, and more inefcientRussian policy, such that the gapbetween the projection of powerand real capability is even greatertoday.For all of the Central Asianregimes, the “risk” of Russia’sdemocratization would have anindirect immediate impact on theirown regime security.
Foreign Policy and Civil Society Program
preparation or President Islam Karimov’s succession,likely to be more challenging than the peaceul onethat took place in urkmenistan between SaparmuratNiyazov and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in2006. For the three other countries, which are mark-edly more dependent upon Moscow, a democratiza-tion o Russia would have an even more signicantimpact on the legitimacy o the current presidents, andin particular o Nursultan Nazarbayev and EmomaliRakhmon o ajikistan. Kyrgyzstan, in accordancewith its own dynamics, would probably see the parlia-mentary nature o its regime enhanced, even thoughthe political orces calling or a “power vertical” basedon the Russian model are still numerous.Even i the Putin political regime stays aoat in thecoming decade and the democratization o Russia doesnot impede his rule, Moscow is at risk o becoming anuncertain actor or the Central Asian ruling circles.Tis potential uncertainty is due as much to itseconomic inuence as its strategic commitments in theregion.Economically, the low level o trust held in the Krem-lin’s efective capabilities and management poten-tial is a key element o prevailing skepticism aboutRussian-led integration logic. Gazprom, or example,has resisted meeting the commitment it made withurkmenistan and Uzbekistan concerning pipelinerenovation, driving them to seek alternative partnersin Asia and in the Gul. Te projects or the CommonEconomic Space with Kazakhstan, and potentially alsoKyrgyzstan and ajikistan, are yet to become a reality.No credible supranational mechanisms have emergedor proven their efectiveness o yet, and it is still toosoon to know whether the Customs Union can actually become an ecient tool and have an impact on CentralAsian economies.On the strategic level, Russia’s commitments toCentral Asia also raise doubts, which were galva-nized by its reusal to intervene during the events o Osh, Kyrgyzstan, in June 2010. Russia’s hesitation waslegitimate, since the auspices o the Collective Secu-rity reaty Organization (CSO) do not make provi-sion or it to intervene in case o domestic conict.However, the Central Asian governments now ques-tion Moscow’s logistical capability and political willto make a concrete commitment to the region. Russiacontinues to train the majority o Central Asian mili-tary personnel, and notably Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, andajiks. It sells military material at domestic prices tothese regimes, ofers joint air deense and satellite-based communication systems, and has revived localmilitary-industrial complexes. However, is it ready togo into action should the need arise? Te CSO RapidCollective Intervention Force has never had to ace any real heat on the ground and it can be legitimately askedwhether it has the capability to intervene. Te likeli-hood o Russian border guards regaining control o theajik-Aghan border is not going to prevent drug tra-cking rom corrupting all the post-Soviet law enorce-ment agencies. Will the Russian intelligence servicesbe prepared to intervene at the sides o their CentralAsian counterparts in case o terrorist actions, civilwar, or popular uprising? Tere is room or doubt.
Economically, the low level of trustheld in the Kremlin’s effectivecapabilities and managementpotential is a key element of prevailing skepticism aboutRussian-led integration logic.The Central Asian governmentsnow question Moscow’s logisticalcapability and political will to makea concrete commitment to theregion.

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