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Central Asia and the Ukraine Crisis

Dr Jason Wahlang is a Research Analyst in the Europe and Eurasia Centre at MP-IDSA, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 27, 2022

    Russia enjoys significant economic, political and societal influence in Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.1 The region is highly dependent on Russia for its export routes, security assistance and labour markets.2 These factors have ensured that Central Asian states, known for their multi-vector foreign policies, have had to walk a tightrope regarding their stand on Russia’s ongoing ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

    Central Asian countries have also been cautious in their stance on Russia’s past military activities in Crimea.  All of these countries abstained in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolutions on the issue.3 Kyrgyzstan was notable in taking a contradictory stand vis-à-vis Moscow with regard to recognising Viktor Yanukovych as the president of Ukraine.4 Kazakhstan was also the most active among these nations and even offered to host negotiations to resolve the issue.5 It further abstained in the UNGA on resolutions introduced by Ukraine demanding non-recognition of the changes in status of Crimea.6

    In the current crisis, these states have taken a neutral stance. They have neither condemned Russia’s special military operation nor endorsed it.7 They also choose to abstain or not vote in all the UNGA resolutions.8 There was, however, one exception. On 8 April 2022, when the UNGA decided to vote out Russia from the Human Rights Council, four Central Asian states voted in support of Russia, apart from Turkmenistan.9

    On 1 March 2022, Kazakh President Qasym-Jomart Tokayev, like his predecessor Nursultan Nazarbayev offered to act as a mediator to bring about peace in the region.10 Kazakhstan has also been vocal about its stand not to recognise the two breakaway regions of Ukraine—Luhansk and Donetsk.11 These policy measures are again reminiscent of its stance during the Crimean Crisis of 2014. While Kazakhstan has maintained a neutral stance diplomatically, its population has shown discontent towards Russian policies in the Ukraine crisis. Reports flag that the Kazakhs have a sense of fear that they could be the next post-Soviet state that could be in Russia’s radar.12 This fear stems from the presence of a Russian minority population in North Kazakhstan which borders Russia. Both Crimea and Donbas also have Russian minority population in their midst.

    Russia’s involvement in the conflict has led to it being one of the most sanctioned nations in the world. These sanctions against the Russian economy will have direct implications for Central Asian states. Their economies are highly dependent on Russia for remittances, as well as for the strength of their currencies. Like most economies across the international arena, they have experienced the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, any impact on one of its major economic providers could have supplementary impact on their economies in the near future. According to the World Bank, due to the Russia–Ukraine crisis, Central Asian economy is forecasted to shrink by 4.1 per cent this year, compared to 3 per cent before the crisis.13 The currencies of states like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan dropped in value post the fall of the ruble, in the early period of the crisis.14

    Investment projects funded by Russian banks under sanctions will have to be cancelled.15 Since Russia is heavily sanctioned, Russia’s flagship economic organisation, the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), of which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are a part of, could lose its relevance as the viable economic partner in the region in the long run.16

    Several million Central Asian migrant labourers work in Russia, mainly from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.17 Due to the damage to the Russian economy, the income of the Central Asian labourers would be impacted, which would mean lesser chances of sending home remittances and reverse migration in search of livelihood. The money sent back home by the workers is crucial for the economies, and makes up 31, 27, and 12 per cent of their GDP, respectively.18 The World Bank estimates that the value of remittances from Russia would drop in Uzbekistan by 21 per cent, in Tajikistan by 22 per cent and by 33 per cent in Kyrgyzstan.19

    The ongoing crisis in Ukraine could affect the region’s food security. On 10 March 2022, Russia temporarily banned the export of white sugar and grain crops to the EAEU countries.20 This could have an impact on Kazakhstan. Last year, Kazakhstan increased its grain purchases by 77 per cent, importing 2.3 million tonnes of grain, third only to Turkey and Egypt.21 Post the ban on export on Russian grains, Kazakh authorities have decided to ban wheat exports.22 This step is being planned to protect the domestic production and supply and to ensure that there is no shortage. Any shortage could lead to new protests and further fuel animosity towards the government that has already seen disapproval from the public just three months ago, on account of rising gas prices.

    There could also be a trickledown effect towards other Central Asian states, particularly fellow EAEU country, Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan imports 90 per cent of its wheat from Russia and Kazakhstan.23 Therefore, any ban in both countries would impact the domestic supply for Kyrgyzstan. This could lead to Kyrgyzstan scrambling to find new countries for importing grains, at higher costs.

    Security is another area of concern with the Russians pre-occupied in Ukraine. Central Asia is highly dependent on Russia for its security and this was evident in January when the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) troops were needed in Kazakhstan to quell protests that erupted due to high gas prices. In order to subdue the protests, the Kazakh government requested CSTO intervention. The coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan has created an unsettling feeling for Central Asian states, particularly Tajikistan. With Russia pre-occupied in Ukraine, the fear of the revival of terror groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir, or Islamic Jihadi Union could make Central Asia look for other options for security. Tajikistan, a member of CSTO, is highly dependent on Russia’s 201st Division in Tajikistan for its security. The presence of the Russian troops emboldens Tajikistan to stand up to the Taliban.24 Therefore, with Russia focused on Ukraine, Tajikistan in the immediate term could look towards other powers like China for assistance.

    While the Russia–Ukraine conflict has affected the international arena in more ways than one, regionally, the impact has been quite significant on Central Asian countries, presenting them with economic and security challenges, over and above the challenges of dealing with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the coming to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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