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Post-Crimea: Central Asian Fear Putin’s Stick

Ambassador P. Stobdan was Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • August 04, 2014

    Notwithstanding Russia’s growing military strength, it faces fresh political challenges in Central Asia in the aftermath of Putin’s action in Ukraine. In fact, Central Asians seem confronted with a strange dilemma of how to deal with multiple challenges looming before them. Obviously, no Central Asian states would welcome the extremists trained in Afghanistan walking into their doors. Here, they are with the Russians. However, some have started to worry about the success of anti-government street-protests in Kiev and they may possibly come to play on their streets as well. This has happened twice in Kyrgyzstan before. Most of the leaders in Central Asia are aging and they would face inevitable replacement either through internally or externally induced pressures.

    However, the most critical issue evolving in Central Asia now is the fear of Putin wielding the same stick on them as he did on Ukraine. There is a growing sense that Putin, after what he did to Crimea, has prepared a fine blueprint for similar intervention in Central Asian states should it become a necessary case for protecting Russian interests in these countries. During my discussion in Dushanbe in May this year, the regional experts felt that supporting separatism and separatism could become a dangerous and unimaginable proposition for the entire region. However, for the time being the governments and public at-large in the region seemed indifferent and silent on Crimea. Nevertheless, deep inside they fear they could be next.

    The US military vacated Manas base on 3 June, but many Kyrgyz seem beginning to have second thought whether the decision to evict the US from Manas was a correct one. They fear that hosting of multiple bases was a better policy after seeing the recent fate of Ukraine. Kyrgyzstan’s situation also resembles Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russian live in Kyrgyzstan and they harbor pro-Russian sentiments. The Kyrgyz now fear possibility of Ukraine story repeating in their country, for Russia would take the slightest opportunity to intervene in Kyrgyzstan to protect the ethnic Russians. Already, Kyrgyzstan is complaining that the US is reducing its military cooperation after the eviction of the air base in June 2014.1

    In fact, all five Central Asian states have large ethnic Russian populations. Some 10.3 million ethnic Russians lived in Central Asia in the early 1990s. However, there has been a large-scale exodus of Russians from especially from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan due to assertion by Islamists. Today, the Russians are about 7 million in the region mainly in Kazakhstan. In fact, there has been pent-up anger among the ethnic Russians for gradual marginalization at every level of their social and economic life. Putin has not been happy about treatment of ethnic Russians in all Central Asian states including in Turkmenistan. Of course, hundreds of thousands left for settlement in Russia. There had been cases of Russian assertion especially in Kazakhstan where Russians still constitute over 23 per cent of the country’s population. The percentage has shrunk considerably from the past.

    Nevertheless, Kazakhstan is still identical to Ukraine. In northern and eastern Kazakhstan, ethnic Russians live in large number. The provinces like Pavlodar, Ust-Kamenogorsk, Kostanai are contagious to Russia in term of demography and culture. Ethnic distinction remains extremely slender along almost 7,000-kilometer Kazakh-Russian border. The pro-Russian nationalists in Uskemen have been murmuring about rejoining Russia or seeking to create autonomous republic. A senior Kazakh diplomat in New Delhi told this author that Russia poses threats to his country. That is why Nazarbayev has been resorting to varied diplomatic and economic tricks to safeguard Kazakhstan interests. Many believed that the underlying fear of Russian infringement had affected his decision to shift the country’s capital from Almaty to Astana. The Kazakhs have been encouraging transfer of ethnic Kazakhs to the north since 1990s. The government has encouraged some 3.5 million ethnic Kazakhs living outside the country also termed as Uralmans who inhabited in Afghanistan, China, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia to return to the land and resettle in northern Kazakhstan. In the wake of Crimea events, Astana is perhaps planning to shift 300,000 ethnic Kazakhs to Russian dominated north.

    Today, the Kazakhs worry the most and fear that they could be the next after Ukraine. The media reports suggest that ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan tend to be supportive of Putin’s actions in Ukraine. The Crimean case may have augmented the morale of Russians living all over Central Asia. Media reports suggest that pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine have been looking for experienced ethnic Russian fighters in Central Asia for potential recruitment in the Donetsk People’s Republic.

    Putin’s actions in Crimea could have also sent alarm bells throughout Central Asia. The scenario here is quite similar to those in Central Europe. Russian military presence in Central Asia is large enough and it will not be difficult for them to intervene in any ethnic crisis. Of course, such a situation remains only an academic question. For years, Putin has been trying to build a common economic space under Moscow’s orbit. Kazakhstan is a part of Customs Union (CU) and negotiation is going on to bring in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan eventually to join the CU. However, the issue here is more complex. Already, some Kazakh activists have started to launch an anti-Eurasian Forum with an aim to get out of the the CU.

    Even if Russia does not resort to replicating its Ukraine-style action over Central Asian states, Moscow’s behavior could potentially pave the way if not a pretext for other bigger states like Uzbekistan to annex parts of southern Kyrgyzstan that it claims to be part of Uzbekistan. The Osh city has large Uzbek population and there have been widespread irredentist movements and ethnic riots threatening Kyrgyz territorial integrity. Similarly, Kazakhstan has some historical claims over Uzbek and Kyrgyz territory. Some of the eastern parts of Uzbekistan like Samarkand and Bukhara are old Tajik populated areas. Afghanistan has more Tajik population than Tajikistan itself. Ironically, vast territory of Afghanistan (Pakhtunkhwa) is still under Pakistan’s control. Little wonder, why Afghanistan was one of the few to support Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

    The economic control apart, Russian control over Central Asian media is the key to Moscow’s hold over the region. In case of any intervention, resistance in Central Asia is likely to be scanty. For now, Russian interests are not threatened that would justify military intervention. However, if these states undergo a chaotic political transition in the next 5 to 10 years time and if the ethnic fault lines get open up, Russia will find enough pretexts to intervene especially to protect the rights and privileges of ethnic Russians living in the region.

    However, in the immediate term given the Afghan complexity and the political fragility in Central Asian states, Russia could do little but to cooperate with the US for the time being. The Americans are likely to stay put in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and it would be hard to think that the Afghans will play ball with the Russians.

    What does this scenario of Russian reassertion in Central Asia means for India? Traditionally, Russia’s benign or strong presence in Eurasia entailed good for India, for Russia was able to deal with the negative forces that are also inimical to Indian interests. Russia’s strategic retreat from Central Asia as also Afghanistan in the last decade has had an adverse impact. As a result and India’s own limitation to reach out to the region has allowed speedy forays of both the Chinese and the extremists in Central Asia. Indian foreign policy makers need to closely watch and reevaluate the process of Russian increasing grip over the region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

    • 1. Kyrgyzstan Complains That U.S. Decreasing Military Contacts,, July 22, 2014