Central Asian Countries Tread Cautiously on Russia’s War in Ukraine

Despite strategic partnerships with the Kremlin, no Central Asian government has supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or recognized Luhansk and Donetsk as independent. Russian claims that regional leaders “understand” President Vladimir Putin’s decisions have been refuted or ignored.

U.S. media reports that Kazakhstan refused Moscow’s “request to send troops,” attributed to the U.S. National Security Council, also have not been confirmed by authorities in Nur-Sultan, the Kazakh capital. Kazakh and American pundits suspect the White House may have disclosed intelligence without providing details.

Central Asian governments have been evacuating their citizens from Ukraine.

During a February 28 virtual meeting with Central Asian foreign ministers, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine and reiterated Washington’s support for that nation’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. His Central Asian colleagues, however, did not publicly echo this line.

Experts tell VOA that authorities in the region are “walking the thinnest line ever.” The public has been more critical of Russia’s war than their leaders.

“The government is calculating possible risks,” said Kazakh scholar Daniyar Kosnazarov. “All of us will be affected.”

The Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) sent a short-duration military deployment to Kazakhstan in January when the government faced mass protests and violence.

“No one wants foreign troops. We had this experience, even for a small amount of time, so we can relate to Ukraine,” said Kosnazarov, who is based in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

He urged the Kazakh government to focus on its domestic agenda and implement political and economic reforms promised by President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

“This conflict will definitely affect the course and quality of reforms, but society will continue to demand increased living standards.”

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also are part of the CSTO. Uzbekistan, which has joined and withdrawn twice, has observer status.

The Kremlin has said the Kyrgyz and Uzbek leaders have told Russian President Vladimir Putin that they support his military action in Ukraine but press services in those nations have stressed only that they “exchanged views on the situation around Ukraine.”

Bishkek, Tashkent and Dushanbe have chosen to stay neutral, citing close ties to both Russia and Ukraine, calling for dialogue and upholding international norms. All five Central Asian countries, like Ukraine, were once part of the Soviet Union.

More than 3 million Uzbeks work in Russia. Tajikistan has more than 1.6 million, and Kyrgyzstan 620,000 citizens working in that country, according to official statistics. World Bank data shows that remittances from Russia constitute nearly one-third of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Tajikistan — more than 20% for Kyrgyzstan and more than 10% for Uzbekistan.

“As Russia’s economy sinks, ours will, too. Ruble devaluation will mean further devaluation of our currencies,” predicted Tajik intellectual Parviz Mullojanov.

Central Asian states want productive relations with the United States, European Union, and Russia, he said. “They don’t want to sever ties with the West at all but need to deal with Russia next door.”

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which also includes Armenia and Belarus.

Emil Umetaliev, former Kyrgyz economy minister, said the costs of war always fall on ordinary people.

“As an EEU member, our country will suffer. We are dependent on Russia’s diminishing economy. This will especially hurt small- and medium-size businesses.”

Countries in the region must survive as independent nations, argued Umetaliev. “Central Asian leaders should coordinate foreign policies, establishing a common strategy in line with international agreements, to prevent separatism and invasion.”

Marlene Laruelle, Central Asia program director at George Washington University in Washington, believes the region’s players are “very unhappy and afraid of what Russia is doing.”

“They may see Russia as the aggressor, but also feel that the West has pushed it too much, especially on NATO enlargement.”

These states do not have much room to maneuver, she added. “The Russian economic recession, driven by Western sanctions, will have a huge impact on investment and remittances.”

Maqsuda, 45, an Uzbek migrant in Samara, Russia, told VOA that workers like her are extremely nervous about their earnings losing value. “I send at least $400 a month to my family in Jizzakh. I may lose my job and even if I keep it, how am I to exchange and send money? ATMs here already don’t work.”

Laruelle thinks the war on Ukraine will damage Russia’s credibility. “Clearly the regime will now be seen as more repressive and authoritarian than ever.”

She views Central Asian opinion on Ukraine-Russia as polarized.

“Putler,” a play on “Hitler,” is a common pejorative for Putin on Uzbek and regional social media. Posts in both native languages and Russian condemn the war and support Ukraine.

Uzbekistan’s Parliamentary Deputy Speaker Alisher Kadirov, known for anti-Russian stands, applauds Ukraine for fighting, calling the Kremlin’s war wrong.

But he advocates a calm, pragmatic approach, and peace, hailing the position taken by the administration of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.

“As friends of both Ukraine and Russia, we hope these dark clouds will vanish soon,” Kadirov wrote on his Telegram channel.

Don’t be fooled by this social media outpour, said Uzbek blogger and editor Eldar Assanov, underlining that Central Asia still largely lives in a Russian-dominated information space.

Several Uzbek news outlets informed VOA that they’ve been unofficially ordered not to publish and air pro-Ukraine content.

“We’ve been warned to be balanced and neutral, which we always try to be, but in this case, the authorities don’t want us to put out any view deploring Russia and/or defending Ukraine,” said a manager of a well-established media outlet in Tashkent, speaking on condition of anonymity and not revealing the name of the organization.

Assanov is not surprised at such restrictions. “Many follow Russian websites and channels, don’t know Ukrainian arguments, and just support Russia.”

But the Russian media presence has decreased with improved content in native languages. And social media expose Central Asians to global debates and diverse opinion.

Still, Assanov said, Russian influence is very strong. “Uzbek media just copy Russian content.”

“No country wants what Ukraine is experiencing,” he said. “So, leaders may get softer with Russia, but not rush to join its projects and cultivate other powers to counter the Russian pressure, such as Turkey.”

Journalists and bloggers across Uzbekistan take credit for advancing Uzbek media but don’t see particularly higher levels of critical thinking. “I can’t say we’ve been that effective yet, perhaps with the next generation,” said Assanov. “For now, for many, Russia is great because it can invade.”

This story originated in VOA’s Uzbek Service. Davron Hotam in Kyrgyzstan and Ozod Mas’ul in Tajikistan contributed to this report.

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