Published on: 05/21/2022 – 11:52 Since the outbreak of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several Central Asian countries have distanced themselves from Moscow. A refusal to align which reveals the complex and ambivalent relations that these former Soviet Republics maintain with their historical ally. Should this be seen as the beginning of a loss of Russian influence in Central Asia? Since the outbreak of the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Kazakhstan and other countries in the region have regularly been noted for their subtle distancing from their powerful ally and neighbor. The Kazakh Ministry of Defense has thus canceled on May 9 a military parade to celebrate Victory Day against Nazism, a commemoration of crucial importance in the eyes of Vladimir Putin. At the beginning of March, in this authoritarian country where public gatherings are strictly supervised, pro-Ukraine demonstrations were authorized. In addition, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan sent several tens of tons of humanitarian aid to kyiv, mainly medical equipment. More importantly, these two countries, which have good relations with Ukraine, do not recognize the independence of the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.”Kazakhstan had already not recognized the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since then, relations with Russia have continued to deteriorate,” recalls Michaël Levystone, researcher at Ifri, specialist in Central Asia. “Currently, Kazakhstanis are very worried about what is happening in Ukraine.” On the wrong side of the “Iron Curtain” Due to their very strong security and economic relations with Moscow – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are significantly dependent on their imports of refined products from Russia – the Central Asian Republics are however careful not to go too far, contenting themselves with a position of strict neutrality within international institutions. None voted for UN General Assembly resolutions in March condemning the Russian invasion. Moreover, Kazakhstan refused to support Moscow’s exclusion from the United Nations Human Rights Council. “Of course, Russia wanted us to be more on its side. But Kazakhstan respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, explained at the end of March Timur Suleimenov, director of the presidential administration, in an interview with the European information site Euractiv, assuring that his country had no intention of being put in “the same basket ” than Russia and to allow Moscow to circumvent Western sanctions. Allied with Russia, Kazakhstan does not intend to find itself behind “a new ‘iron curtain'”, had also assured the German press its vice -Minister of Foreign Affairs, Roman Vassilenko, calling on Westerners to invest in the country.>> To see: “Central Asia, such a coveted region””For 30 years, Kazakhstan has built its foreign policy so as not to not get bogged down in an ex partnership exclusive with the Russians or with the Chinese. The war in Ukraine confirmed this logic. The country’s main economic partner is Europe, which is very unique in Central Asia”, notes Michaël Levystone. The fear of a “Ukrainian” scenario Among Vladimir Putin’s supporters, this lukewarmness of Kazakhstan, independent since 1991, arouses indignation and violent verbal attacks since the outbreak of the war: “Kazakh brothers, what is this ingratitude? Look carefully at Ukraine, think seriously”, in particular got carried away at the end of April, on his YouTube channel, Tigran Keossaïan, a Russian presenter pro-Kremlin, provoking the anger of Kazakh diplomacy. “For several years in Russia, there has been has a discourse that consists in saying that the Kazakh state never existed. Recently, a member of the Duma explained that Kazakhstan had to be denazified”, explains Michaël Levystone. Like Ukraine, a large Russian-speaking minority lives on Kazakh territory.>> To read also: “For the linguist Patrick Sériot, ‘Vladimir Putin does not care about the fate of Russian speakers in Ukraine'”Despite these tensions caused by the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow remains an essential partner for the countries of the region, particularly in terms of security. In January, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was forced to call in troops from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to quell unprecedented civil unrest caused by a sharp rise in LPG prices. “Today, in the event of a crisis in Central Asia, it is Russia that intervenes. In the short term, it remains the region’s great stabilizing power”, analyzes Michaël Levystone. In particular for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, which share the longest borders in Central Asia with Afghanistan, “a major threat to the security of these two countries, and of the region as a whole”.
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