Push, Pull

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A radio talk show host in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan recently posted a troubling note on Facebook. Noting how Kazakhs have strong feelings about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lyubov Panova warned that criticism of the war could be interpreted as an attack on ethnic Russians in the country.

“If you keep [yapping] so much, we’ll call Uncle Vova for help,” she wrote, alluding to Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to eurasianet.

Panova lost her job as a result. Local police have opened an investigation. The tragedy in Ukraine is one reason why authorities took her post so seriously. Another is that Putin sent Russian troops to Kazakhstan three months ago when President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev asked for help when protests over fuel price spikes expanded into larger displays of discontent, leading to clashes between protesters and police.

At the time, the deployment was viewed as a sign of the close strategic ties between Kazakhstan and Russia. Now that Russia has visited destruction upon Ukraine, however, Kazakhs are less inclined to be so open to their powerful neighbor to the north. Tokayev, for example, has paused controversial plans to create an e-government platform that would have given the Russian government access to Kazakh citizens’ personal information.

The push-pull relationship that has developed between Russia and Kazakhstan is similar to the other former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote, these countries are dependent on Russia economically and militarily. They don’t want to condemn the war in Ukraine, though Uzbekistan came very close to doing so, as Al Jazeera detailed. But, at the same time, they don’t want to endorse Putin’s vision to revive the Soviet Union, a plan that could compromise their sovereignty.

They’re involved whether or not they want to be, however. For example, remittances from Central Asian workers employed in wealthy cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg are vital to the regional economy. As GZERO noted, crippling Western sanctions are now expected to reduce remittances to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by as much as 30 percent.

That said, as Putin’s invasion hurts their countries, Central Asians are helping the invasion. In late January, Russian lawmakers changed their immigration laws to make it easier to emigrate to the country if prospective applicants sign contracts with the Russian military, the Diplomat reported. While the news outlet didn’t have statistics on how many Central Asians have signed such contracts, anecdotal evidence suggests that many have answered the call.

Perhaps China will supplant Russia as the hegemon in Central Asia if Putin’s actions become too unpredictable and costly, Time mused.

Still, it’s easy to wonder if the locals want any hegemons at all.

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