Putin’s Central Asia Tour: What’s at Stake?


March 1, 2017 – Fort Russ – 

Rostislav Ishchenko, RIA Analytics – translated by J. Arnoldski –

Russian President Putin with Kazakh President Nazarbayev

The President of Russia is holding a tour of Central Asian states. On February 27th and 28th, Vladimir Putin visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. In the near future will be announced his visit to Turkmenistan, and it is not ruled out that this will be complemented by a trip to Uzbekistan. 

Judging by everything apparent, this time the meetings were not held in Tashkent and Ashgabat because of a full schedule. This is evidenced by the fact that the talks with Nursultan Nazarbayev were held in the Kazakhstan’s southern capital of Alma-Ata which in fact allowed Vladimir Putin to shorten his flight route and visit three countries in two days.

Central Asia is a constant priority region for Russia. Just last year, Putin visited Uzbekistan twice, Kazakhstan twice, and received the presidents of Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan in Moscow. Not to mention the multilateral meetings.

The news of the talks held during these visits is quite stingy, mostly limited to protocol reports, and no significant intergovernmental documents have been signed. The question may thus arise as to what exactly the aim of such intense meetings is if no tangible result has materialized.

This apparent contradiction can easily be explained by analyzing the official reports on the content of the talks and the questions raised during them. 

First of all, in all three cases, problems of economic and humanitarian cooperation were discussed – with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan as part of the Eurasian Economic Union, and with Tajikistan in the form of bilateral ties. It is safe to say that in Dushanbe the Eurasian Economic Union topic was also raised insofar as Tajikistan has long been eyeing this integration project, but not dared to make a final decision.

Secondly, in all of these cases issues of security were considered. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, there are Russian military bases. They play a decisive role in ensuring security and stability in the entire Central Asian region. Kazakhstan itself is an important factor in ensuring military-political stability in Central Asia.

In addition, in 2016, Astana’s influence spread far beyond the region. The talks in the Kazakh capital on settling the inter-Syrian conflict – the success of which (as the Russian President recognized) was due to the important role played by Nursultan Nazarbayev – brought Kazakhstan onto the list of major global players. Of course, Kazakhstan’s influence on processes in the Middle East cannot be compared with that of Russia or the US. But it is certainly more than the overwhelming majority of EU countries (except Germany, France, and the UK currently leaving the EU). 

Thus, we are dealing with two problems: regional security and economic integration processes in Eurasia.

The first problem is more or less clear. Despite the fact that the governments of these countries periodically try to use the presence of Russian bases on their territories in bargaining for economic preferences, everyone perfectly understands that their withdrawal would only mean suicide. 

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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are on the front lines directly facing the wave of aggressive Islamic fundamentalism emanating from Afghanistan and fairly seasoned drug trafficking. Their own strength and capacity is far from matching the scale of this threat. Without Russian military support, they risk being overwhelmed almost instantly.

Just how quickly Islamist aggression can destroy state structures is exemplified in the example of Syria, which was much more stable than the Central Asian states. Nevertheless, the country has been engulfed in civil war complicated by external Islamist aggression for five years. In the worst periods of this war, the territory controlled by Damascus shrunk to less than 20% of the state’s total area. This was reversed only with Russian help.

The threat of a fallen Tajik-Kyrgyz border has been sensibly assessed by Kazakhstan, whose armed forces are also insufficient for covering their long southern border, and by Moscow. Kazakhstan in turn shares a border with Russia’s south stretching thousands of kilometers.

In security matters, Russia and the Central Asia states are thus firmly inter-connected – the security of one is unachievable without the security of all. The proof of this is the membership of all four countries in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. The only problem for Russia and Kazakhstan in this case lies in transitioning the efforts of their partners from bilateral agreements into a multilateral format that facilitates coordination. 

The situation with economic cooperation is not so rosy. After the first successes in establishing the Eurasian Economic Union, the project’s participants were faced with a mismatch between reality and expectations. The cumulative effect of economic integration is still far from the expected. Intra-union trade, even if not falling in commodity terms (but falling in dollar terms), is not growing. Kyrgyzstan has declared that the Eurasian Economic Union is not solving its problems. Tajikistan has all the more doubts in the advisability of joining the union. Moreover, in many respects, its bilateral agreements with Russia give it more opportunities than it could from joining the EEU. 

Reports on the results of the negotiations indicate that Russia has made some concessions in economic and social issues that are sensitive to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In particular, the agreement on providing technical assistance to Kyrgyzstan within the framework of the EEU has been amended. 

A new cooperation agreement has been signed between Tajikistan’s Ministry of Health and Russia’s Federal Service for Supervision of Consumer Rights Protection and Human Welfare. Russia promised Tajikistan to consider the question of easing crossing the Russian border for the citizens of the republic who are employed on Russian territory. Most likely, this is an euphemism in fact applying to those citizens of Tajikistan who have gone to work in Russia and been restricted entry for two administrative offensives. Putin also promised Dushanbe to increase quotas for training Tajik students in Russian universities. 

As we can see, the concessions are minimal by Russian standards. Judging by everything, this was achieved thanks to coordinating positions with Kazakhstan. It is no coincidence that the Russian President met with Nursultan Nazarbayev before visiting Dushanbe and Bishkek. 

Of course, ideally one wants to do without such concessions, especially done on a bilateral basis, and instead decide all problems in multilateral formats. But the Eurasian Economic Union is Moscow’s principled integration project which cannot be allowed to fail. In the case of a negative turn of events, not only will Moscow’s influence in Central Asia fall, but so will its space for geopolitical maneuver narrow.

It should be noted that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are vitally interested in the military support that Russia cannot terminate without hurting its own interests. Economic integration only worries them insofar as such helps solve the problem of youth unemployment and, consequently, social tension in their societies. The economic mechanisms of the EEU are not a panacea on this matter, and mechanisms for simple labor migration to Russia are much more effective. Moscow can’t block such migration without undermining the social stability of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In turn, if these societies were to be gripped by unrest, then no military bases will help, and Russian soldiers can’t be used to suppress civil unrest in countries where they are based.

In fact, the main task today is making the Eurasian Economic Union sufficiently attractive and efficient to solve the problems for its member Kyrgyzstan and ever-attracted Tajikistan, after which it will be possible to think about the fully-fledged economic integration of all of Central Asia. This is a problem of fine tuning which is unsolvable on the expert level today.

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Hence why answers to fundamental questions and the solutions to current, urgent problems must be decided in direct communication between presidents. 

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