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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are clashing on their border. Kazakhstan is poised for a “color revolution”. Uzbekistan is welcoming Russians fleeing conscription while its neighbors are wondering how to cope with the sheer numbers of these new arrivals.
For years, Russia was the dominant power in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Now, however, President Vladimir Putin is too busy losing the war in Ukraine to exert influence in the region. “Of course, they are distracted by Ukraine,” said Kyrgyz President Sadyr Zhaparov in an interview with the New York Times. “(They are) taking care of so many problems of their own.”
Scores died and around 136,000 people were displaced when Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan started fighting last month despite a ceasefire designed to quell tensions over the “jigsaw-puzzle political and ethnic geography” along the two countries’ border, Reuters reported. The conflict especially disrupted education in the two countries and schools closed, noted Human Rights Watch.
Both countries are part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Russian-led military alliance.
In January, before the invasion of Ukraine, Russia sent troops to Kazakhstan to defend the administration of Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev during a civil uprising, as CBS News explained. Now, however, as a Newsweek op-ed argued, Tokayev is proving to be a squishy ally of Moscow. He’s refused to recognize the Russian-controlled separatist republics in eastern Ukraine, for example. Corruption and economic inequality, meanwhile, are setting the stage for more potential uprisings that Putin might not be able to help put down this time.
At the same time, thousands of Russians have been fleeing to Central Asia to avoid conscription in the Russian war machine, Radio Free Liberty reported. Uzbekistan has announced that it has no plans to deport them, Voice of America added. Uzbek officials even “reprimanded” a Russian dancer who performed in the capital, Tashkent, for supporting the invasion.
Meanwhile, Eurasianet described how Russia is seeking to recruit Central Asians for its military – against local wishes. At the same time, Central Asian countries are also feeling the bite of Western sanctions, which have been hindering these nations from realizing the benefits of trade with Russia, even as Russia uses these countries to subvert sanctions.
As a result, Central Asian leaders are reacting, showing their displeasure in assertive ways unusual in their relationships with Russia. For example, Putin recently was subjected to a tirade from the leader of Tajikistan: “We want respect. Nothing else. Respect,” said Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s president since 1994, complaining that Moscow’s attitude had not improved since the Soviet era, Reuters noted.
At the same time, at a recent summit in the region, the Kazakh president held no bilateral meetings with Putin, while Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov kept him waiting in front of cameras for more than five minutes.
These developments point to a “destabilization of post-Soviet space,” wrote Visegrad/Insight. The vacuum resulting from the instability has a clear consequence. Chinese power now looms larger in the region, according to the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank.
Writing in The Hill, experts in Central Asian politics warned that Chinese economic ties to the region, from infrastructure projects connected to the so-called Belt and Road Initiative to military sales, would likely make China the new hegemon here.
Even if Russia wins in Ukraine, it might lose much more elsewhere.