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Ukraine War: China's Central Asia Outreach May Rock But Won't Break Russian Hold

Central Asia except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is militarily bound to Russia- the net regional security provider.

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The recent China–Central Asia summit that took place on 18-19 May in the Chinese Silk Road City of Xian called forth much hand-wringing in India. China was eroding Russia’s strategic space, and enlarging its footprint in the region is the common mournful refrain. And indeed, China is enlarging its already firm footprint there.

Not just the magnitude of the summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised around USD 3.6 billion in grants and financial assistance for the development of the region, as well as the acceleration of a number of big-ticket projects there. Additionally, Xi also held bilateral discussions with each of the five Central Asian leaders – President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan, President Sadyr Japarov of Kyrgyzstan, President Emamoli Rahmon of Tajikistan, President Serdar Berdimukamedov of Turkmenistan, and President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, concluding bilateral agreements with four of them. Trade volumes between China and the five Central Asian Republics amounted to USD 70 billion in 2022, with all balances in favour of China, save Turkmenistan.

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Why Is Russia In A Tight Spot?

And now with the re-election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, the Turkish footprint in Central Asia will also expand. Erdogan has already announced in his previous term his ambition to forge a Turkic brotherhood of nations with Turkey at the apex. Considering how Turkey, through trade routes and major gas pipelines, has been assisting Central Asian nations to skirt Russian pipelines to export their oil and gas in the wake of the sanctions on Russia, this cooperation is all the more set to increase.

With Turkey and China enjoying especially warm relations and possessing similarly ambitious connectivity plans with Central Asia forming the bridge between the two, Russia it seems, is being elbowed out from its strategic backyard.
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However, in this gloomy scenario, there is a silver lining – Russia still remains the boss in the region. True, Russia’s adventure in Ukraine, which is well in its second year has no end in sight, and the ensuing sanctions have put the country in a tight spot. It is leaving it less space to manoeuvre, and its satellite states are all flexing muscles from time to time.

Kazakhstan, the largest Central Asian country, has spoken out against the recognition of the breakaway regions of Ukraine, and Armenia – the most economically dependent on Russia, has threatened to leave the military bloc headed by Russia. Even the most impoverished former Soviet state Tajikistan had its leader admonish Putin last year, asking him to respect them.

The Victory Day parade on 9 May is a good barometer to go by. The leaders of all the Central Asian states, including President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan – the least dependent of all on Moscow – all lined up beside Putin for the parade. As did the recalcitrant Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan of Armenia. For all their maneuvering, they remain tied to Mother Russia for the foreseeable future through a web of economic, political, and military linkages.

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Effects of the West’s Sanctions; Migration 

Take, for instance, the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia. Countries like Kazakhstan, with a long border with Russia as well as those like Armenia with no direct border, have all stood to gain from the sanctions. Trade volumes for each of them have soared, pointing to the re-export of goods to Russia, which the latter is forbidden from acquiring under the sanctions regime, like microchips and telescope sights.

For example, according to Armenia’s National Statistical Committee, Armenia’s foreign trade in 2022 surged by 68.8% from the previous year to over USD 14.1 billion. In December 2022, foreign trade was up 69.9% compared to December 2021. Exports, compared to the same period in 2021, increased by 77.7%, to over USD 5.3 billion. Imports during the reporting period amounted to over USD 8.7 billion, recording an increase of 63.5% compared to January-December 2021. Similar data have been produced by countries like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The inclusion of these countries in the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union facilitates the smooth transfer of goods from third countries to Russia without any paperwork and the trade is booming.

More importantly, Russia remains the destination for millions of workers from Central Asian countries, sending back hefty remittances home. And if anything this migration has only increased in the wake of the Ukraine war.
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At least 3 million citizens of Tajikistan live and work in Russia, which is experiencing falling demographics and a shrinking workforce. With the Ukraine war, and Russia’s mobilisation announcement last year in September, many Russians migrated to Central Asia. At least 146,000 Russians are registered in Kazakhstan, according to Kazakh Interior Ministry figures released on 21 December 2022. Actual figures may be even higher. This has created a greater need for migrant workers in Russia, many of whom are also reported to have been recruited for the war.

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Russia’s Funds Aid Migrants and Economies

In September 2022 Russia amended its law to streamline access to citizenship for foreign nationals who serve in the military. Russian remittances account for 26 percent of Tajikistan's and 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan's GDP– two of the region’s most economically backward states.

Interestingly, Uzbekistan, which is neither a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) nor the Russia-led military bloc Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), still provides the largest community of migrant labourers from the region in Russia. According to Russia’s State Duma, 1.8 million Uzbeks work in Russia, with Uzbekistan's news outlet Kun.uz reporting that the number of Uzbek labour migrants in Russia was rising exponentially since 2022. With the economies hit by the pandemic first and then as the war in Ukraine began, these remittances are extremely significant. With no alternative labour market available, they also cement Russia’s centrality to these economies.

All of this ensures that even while rooting for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Central Asian countries either abstain or vote against anti-Russian resolutions in the United Nations.
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Finally, Central Asia, except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, is also militarily bound to Russia, the net security provider in the region, through their membership of the CSTO. While the CSTO offers them a collective defence architecture, it also makes sure to keep other states, like China and the US, militarily away from the region. Russia maintains military bases in at least three of the states: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Armenia.

It has helped forge a unified response to the threats emanating from Afghanistan, with Uzbekistan also participating in joint military exercises with Russia along the border with Afghanistan in 2021 as the Taliban seized Kabul. With a maze of subsidies and grants, Russia also remains the largest weapons provider in the region. Even a powerful state like Kazakhstan felt the need to call on the CSTO's help when it was wracked by large-scale domestic violence at the beginning of 2022.

Certainly, the war in Ukraine is extracting heavy costs but even a diminished Russian role does ensure that the destinies of Central Asia and Russia remain deeply intertwined with each other, and will continue to be so in the foreseeable future.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Vladimir Putin   Central Asia   Uzbekistan 

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