Russia sees new opportunities in Central Asia
Ties with Kazakhstan are stronger after President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Astana, while Uzbekistan now has a pro-Russian acting president
The latest developments in Central Asia appear to open new opportunities for Moscow. Russia has also floated plans for a “Greater Eurasia” grouping that would keep Central Asia within its sphere of influence.
This week, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin traveled to Kazakhstan in an apparent bid to strengthen bilateral ties and demonstrate Moscow’s continued commitment to Central Asian affairs. During a meeting with Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev on October 4, their 8th of 2016, Putin hailed a “strategic partnership and alliance” between Russia and Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev promised to remain Russia’s “reliable partner.”
Both leaders also attended a business forum about bilateral economic cooperation, where they voiced expectations of free trade agreements with China, South Korea and Singapore.
The anticipated economic cooperation revolves around the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a customs union launched in 2015 that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Russia. In September, Nazarbayev stated that the EEU post-Soviet bloc would stimulate economic growth.
Kazakstan, once Central Asia’s most dynamic economy, was adversely affected by the decline in international commodity prices. The country’s trade with Russia was also expected to go down to about US$12 billion this year from nearly US$16 billion in 2015 and US$23 billion in 2011.
Russia’s closest ally, Kazakhstan has been keen to counter perceived attempts to isolate Moscow internationally. In August, Putin thanked Nazarbayev for mediating the Moscow-Ankara reconciliation. Now the latter is understood to be keen on a similar role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Interestingly, Kazakhstan has refrained from siding with Russia on all matters. In September, in an apparent affront to Moscow, Kazakhstan revised its school textbooks, deleting references to “Russian Crimea”.
At the same time, relations between Russia and Turkmenistan remain uneasy. In January, Gazprom, the Russian gas conglomerate, announced its decision to discontinue imports of Turkmen gas, indicating at the same time that it would increase imports from Uzbekistan.
Even before that decision, Turkmenistan’s gas exports to Russia had been undergoing a steep decline. Gazprom’s purchases of gas from Turkmenistan went down to 4 billion cubic meters (BCM) in 2015, from 40 BCM in 2008, and around 10 BCM/year from 2009-2014.
Moscow’s move to halt imports of Turkmen gas came in the immediate aftermath of Ashgabat’s latest overtures toward Russia. In December 2015, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov floated cooperation with Russia and Kazakhstan to build the Russia-oriented Pricaspiysky pipeline.
But this was followed by an apparent rift between Moscow and Ashgabat that came as a departure from Russian and Turkmen pledges to develop a “strategic” relationship. And despite Ashgabat’s efforts to mend ties, Moscow seemingly remains reluctant to revive the gas partnership.
Moscow’s decision to discontinue imports of Turkmen gas was thought to be aimed at undermining Turkmenistan’s self-assumed position as Central Asia’s major gas pipeline player. With the latter keen to diversify its export options away from China, Russia may well be confident of reviving the relationship on its own terms.
Elsewhere, the death this year of Islam Karimov, an authoritarian leader who had ruled Central Asia’s most populous nation, Uzbekistan, since the Soviet era, appeared to open new opportunities for Russia. Karimov’s largely isolationist policies included refusal to join the EEU and, in 2012, withdrawal from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
In contrast, Uzbekistan’s acting president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, is seen as potentially pro-Russian, primarily due to his family links to the pro-Kremlin tycoon Alisher Usmanov, a native of Uzbekistan. That said, the country is not expected to make any radical moves toward Russia such as joining the EEU and the CSTO.
In recent years, Russia has insisted that downstream nations such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan would not be adversely affected by planned hydropower projects in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. That did not becalm Uzbekistan’s authorities.
With Russia slow to implement the projects, however, Kyrgyzstan’s President Almazbek Atambayev decided to annul agreements with the region’s leading power to build the Verkhne-Narynsky cascade of hydropower plants and the Kambaratin-1 hydropower project. Combined Russian investments in these major plants could have exceeded US$2 billion.
Ultimately, it seems Russia was trying to balance its various ties with Central Asian nations. The end of its hydropower projects in Kyrgyzstan was in fact most likely engineered as a gesture toward Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
In August 2015, Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU, but its entry has not solved any of its economic issues. Tajikistan remains outside and has become increasingly dependent on Chinese financial inflows as the Russian influence has declined.
Tajikistan has also been a security concern for Russia. In September 2015, 26 were killed during a brief mutiny involving Tajikistan’s former deputy defense minister Abdukhalim Nazarzoda.
Moscow hinted at a possible intervention, with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warning of what he described as new “Syria-style” military conflicts that would require Russian action in the post-Soviet Central Asian states.
Russia’s response can be expected to take shape within the framework of the CSTO, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Tajikistan and whose Rapid Reaction Collective Force (KSOR) currently includes some 22,000 personnel. Last May, KSOR conducted unprecedented exercises in Tajikistan.
In June, the Kremlin outlined an ambitious vision of a new integrated grouping of nations, with the EEU part of a “Greater Eurasia.” This partnership could also include China, India, Pakistan and Iran, as well as former Soviet states and other interested parties, Putin said.
He clearly expects a “Greater Eurasia” to become a major global power, one that keeps Central Asia within Moscow’s sphere of influence. There is little reason to believe it will materialize any time soon, however.