The war in Ukraine has hit central Asia hard too – but they could be western allies

Central Asia is handing the west an incredible strategic opportunity, it would be myopic not to take it

Vladislav Inozemtsev
Wednesday 08 June 2022 13:53 BST
Kazakhstan can become a cru­cial player on the global wheat market
Kazakhstan can become a cru­cial player on the global wheat market (AP)

Russian aggression against Ukraine has fundamentally changed the international geopolitical landscape and economy – with post-Soviet states hit especially hard.

Unfortunately, the majority of these states are innocent bystanders. They have remained firmly neutral or even sympathetic to Kyiv. Tragically, however, the justifiable sanctions levied against Russia are not sparing them hardship.

The most obvious examples of this can be seen in central Asia where several post-Soviet states were Russia’s economic partners before the war. There are long historic and economic ties in play. The three: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – are members of the Collective Security Tre­aty Organization, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan also belong to the Eurasian Eco­nomic Union. Despite these close ties, none of their leaders were informed of Moscow’s plans to invade Ukraine. Subsequently, all of them either outright condemned Russian actions, or remained steadfastly neutral while trying to mediate an end to hostilities.

Despite their courageous actions, in the first days of the war central Asia’s economic woes were on par with that of Russia’s: Kazakhstan’s currency lost 19 per cent of its value to the dollar between February 20 and March 10, while Kyrgyz­stan’s currency lost 19.5 per cent. While no central Asian state introduced financial restrictions like those implemented in Russia, all were forced to tigh­ten capital controls and restrict cash from be­ing taken abro­ad. All this makes it very likely they will face significant economic hardship this year.

An obvious reason for the looming crisis lies with remittances. Remittances coming from Russia account for up to 23 per cent of GDP in Tajikistan, 21 per cent in Kyrgyzstan, and 11 per cent in Uzbekistan. Not only are remittances directly impacted by economic chaos in Russia, but Russian capital controls have further impeded the flow of remittances back to central Asia. Moreover, Russia’s shareof Tajikistan’s foreign trade turn­over accounts for 21.3 per cent, Kazakhstan’s 23.9 per cent, and Kyrgyzstan’s 31.6 per cent. Such economic dependency gives Russia incredible leverage in the region.

Kazakhstan is a good example of this tension.

The country pleasantly surprised the world by refusing to tow the Russian line, opting to maintain an independent foreign policy. It’s not easy:Russia has repeatedly mentioned that Northern Kazakh territories were ‘offered’ to Astana by the Soviet government for no justifiable reason, mirroring the rhetoric surrounding the transfer of Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. Russian businesses remain integral to the Kazakh economy. But it also fears cooperation with Russia may result in sanctions from western governments. Most of its oil goes to the EU countries and Switzerland.

All the central Asian governments havedeclared they will comply with western sanctions and will not act as venues for Russia to bypass sanctions.

Regional food security is another major issue. Kazakhstan exported 6 million tons of wheat in 2021 and it is the world’s 12th largest wheat exporter.On 15 March, Russia announced its temporary embargo on wheat, rye, barley, and maize exports. While this export moratorium is supposed to end by 30 June, Kazakhstan was forced to follow suit by introducing export quotas. Markets throughout central Asia responded with significant food price hikes. Tajikistan’s President Imomali Rah­­mon even suggested citizens should quickly collect two years’ worth of food reserves to avoid hunger!

Kazakhstan can become a cru­cial player on the global wheat market, acting to reduce the developing world’s dependency on Russian wheat, while stabilising overall prices in cooperation with western powers and consumer countries.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started at a critical time for central Asia’s modernization. Kazakhstan and Uzbekis­tan have already implemented many successful reforms on their paths towards economic and political liberalisation. It is therefore disturbing that sanctions targeted against a single wrong-doer are now causing humanitarian fallout and geopolitical blowback.

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Despite Moscow’s pressure, Kazakhstan and central Asia as a whole are persevering in its Russo-sceptic policies. It is imperative that the US department of treasury exclude the export of Kazakhstan’s crude oil thro­ugh Russia from the current sanctions against Moscow. The EU must make the same exemption from its forthcoming sixth sanction package targeting Russia’s energy supplies to EU nations.

Western powers must appre­ciate the efforts central Asian nations are making in standing against Rus­sia’s aggressive war in Ukraine and complying with already im­pos­ed sanctions.

The west requires a wise geopolitical strategy that avoids overt pressure against central Asia, which would only reinforce either Russian or Chinese influence. Instead, reasonable and mutually beneficial accommodations are needed. Central Asia is handing the west an incredible strategic opportunity. It would be myopic not to take it.

Vladislav Inozemtsev is Director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies (Moscow), Special Advisor to Middle East Media Research Institute (Washington, DC)

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