Caught in the Middle: Central Asia’s reaction to the war in Ukraine7 min read

 In Central Asia, Editorial, Politics, War in Ukraine
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month has put the leaders of the five Central Asian countries in an uncomfortable position. With more sanctions imposed on Russia by the West, the economic and social stability of the region has come under severe threat. What does this mean for the continued relationship between Putin and the five Central Asian presidents?

On 24 February, the world watched in horror as Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine by bombing cities across the country. Since then, Central Asia has struggled in its response to the conflict as most countries in the region have strong political and economic ties to both countries. The majority have decided to stay neutral, however this position has grown increasingly difficult as mounting sanctions on Russia are starting to cripple their economies. This economic strain has been coupled with several protests in support of Ukraine and the threat of domestic social unrest. As the war continues, it is likely that Central Asia will start to distance itself further from Russia in order to escape the economic isolation that Russia is currently experiencing. 

An alliance of unforeseen consequences 

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have borne the brunt of the economic fallout of Russia’s actions in Ukraine as they are both members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), along with Armenia, Belarus, and Russia. This organization was established to encourage trade between member states, much like the European Union’s economic dimension. On 25 February, an emergency meeting was held in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan to discuss the potential economic implications of the invasion. During this meeting, the president of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, spoke at length about the negative consequences of Western sanctions, which were also recognized by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. However, it is unlikely that all officials present were prepared for the scale of the sanctions that are in place today. 

A few days after the meeting in Nur-Sultan, the value of Central Asian currency began to plummet. On 28 February, the exchange rate for the Kazakh tenge went up to 467 to the dollar from 430 just the week before, and on 19 March the rate was 508 tenge to the dollar. Similar trends are being seen in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This situation led to many banks preventing people from withdrawing or exchanging money for several days, in the hope that rates would begin to level out. Kazakhstan attempted to counter devaluation by adding hundreds of millions of dollars from its reserves to the domestic market, but as rates today show, this did little to mitigate the situation.

Many Central Asians working abroad are also experiencing economic strain.  An estimated 7.8 million migrant workers from Central Asia work in Russia and send remittances to their families. As the ruble begins to crash, so does the value of these remittances. This will have an immeasurable effect on Tajikistan, where remittances account for a third of the GDP, and in Kyrgyzstan where they account for 28 percent

The depreciation of currency coupled with the economic strain caused by the COVID pandemic is an extreme threat to the stability of Central Asian economies and consumers. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan are currently in the process of drafting anti-crisis plans to soften the blow to their economies, but this is coming far too late for the millions that are already suffering financially. After the recent protests in Kazakhstan sparked by the price of liquified natural gas, it is not a reach to say that this situation could potentially erupt into similar forms of social unrest. 

A precarious balancing act

Given the economic hardship that has ensued in Central Asia, it is not surprising that many Central Asian leaders have been hesitant to support the war in Ukraine, despite their strong ties to Russia. Among the most tight-lipped have been Tajikistan, which have stated that it is neutral on the issue since the fighting began and refuse to release information on discussions that have been held with Russia. Turkmenistan has made no comment on the issue, but that is not out of character for Central Asia’s so-called “hermit kingdom.” Struggling to remain neutral between Russia, which is one of the region’s largest trading partners, and their own domestic concerns over sovereignty, Uzbekistan’s foreign minister Abdulaziz Kamilov on 17 March recognized the “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. He also did not recognize the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have also spoken out on the issue, however, they have taken different approaches to the conflict. 

At the EAEU meeting on 25 February, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Cabinet, Akylbek Japarov, suggested that the West was trying to divide EAEU members and stated that “we were with Russia for 200 years, and we are ready to be together with Russia for another 300 years. We will make no longer-term forecasts, but we were together and will remain together.” Despite this early support for Russia, Kyrgyz officials have backtracked and started to take a more neutral approach towards the war in Ukraine. The day after Japarov made those comments the president’s press secretary Erbol Sultanbayev, clarified that Kyrgyzstan wants a peaceful resolution to the conflict. 

More evidence of this backtracking came after a recent crackdown on independent journalists. On 4 March, Taalai Duishenbiyev, the head of Next TV, a Kyrgyz TV station founded by an opposition politician was arrested over a post on Telegram. The post in question was two sentences suggesting Kyrgyzstan offered military support to Russia and a blurry picture of the former head of Kazakhstan’s security services. This event reflects Kyrgyzstan’s desire to appease Russia while also saving face on the international stage. Ukraine, however, seems to not buy into Kyrgyzstan’s claim of neutrality as Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has recalled the Ukrainian ambassador to Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan has found itself in a much more complex situation than Kyrgyzstan as it tries to simultaneously maintain close ties with Western powers and Russia. Over the course of most of the conflict, Kazakhstan has taken a similar approach to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. However, now President Tokayev seems to take on the role of mediator, as in tweet on 3 March he stated that he “spoke with President Vladimir Putin about trade and economic development. On the situation in Ukraine, I stressed the urgent need to reach an agreement at the negotiations table,” and commented that he expressed a similar sentiment to President Zelensky. Kazakh officials also allowed protestors to gather to demonstrate against the war in Ukraine on 6 March. Despite being sequestered to a quiet area, 3,000 came to show their support. 

Despite this Kazakhstan has tried to make small gestures to relay its desire to maintain a strong relationship with Russia. For example, recently Kazakhstan added four Russian higher learning institutions to its list of partners for the prestigious Bolashaq scholarships, which allow Kazakh students to earn degrees at foreign institutions, primarily in the UK and US. The Russian institutions selected do not meet the standards usually used by the program. However, this seems to be the largest extent to which Kazakhstan can appease Russian officials without souring relations with the West. 

Falling from the tight-wire 

The invasion of Ukraine and subsequent sanctions have also had deleterious effects on Central Asian trade with Russia. Many European nations, such as Belgium and Germany, have been refusing to accept goods that even just passed through Russia. This has had the largest impact on Kazakhstan, which has the closest economic ties to Europe. Kazakhstan has been forced to look for other trading partners as they can no longer use Russian ports to ship goods to these countries. Kazakhstan has already begun negotiations with China and Latvia to circumvent these barriers. Trade issues are likely to mount as Russia has been removed from the SWIFT system, making the transferral of foreign funds much harder in the region. On 18 March the prime minister’s office in Kazakhstan announced that Russian rubles would be used to pay customs fees in bilateral trade as sanctions on Russia have made it impossible to use other foreign currencies. Economist, Kasymkhan Kapparov, has predicted the current situation will likely force Kazakhstan to turn more towards China and Turkey. 

Even though the war in Ukraine began less than a month ago, the implications of the conflict are likely to be felt for decades to come. The current situation in Central Asia is testament to this. As Russia continues to devastate both cities across Ukraine and the economies of their neighbors, it will be increasingly untenable for Central Asian countries to maintain the same level of connection they had with Russia before the war began. Many experts are already referring to Central Asian economic policy as a balancing act between Russia and the West, but right now it looks more like walking a tight-rope. 

Featured image: Central Asian leaders / Amanda Sonesson
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