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Central Asian countries now have two big worries about Russia

Moscow has seen little support this week from these countries.

To the east of the conflict in Ukraine, none of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia has jumped to support Moscow’s decision to invade. Although far from the fighting, these countries have a lot to lose economically — and may have concerns that Russia could seek to undermine their sovereignty.

Unlike Ukraine, which was able to reorient its economy away from Russia, these countries remain deeply interdependent with Moscow. This means Western sanctions, and a sinking ruble, will have devastating effects on the people of Central Asia.

Russia has found little support from Central Asia

Despite close economic ties with Russia, not a single Central Asian country has endorsed President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. Uzbekistan is “neutral,” a government spokesman said, and its president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, urged a peaceful resolution of the conflict according to international law. There has been radio silence from the leaders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

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Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry quickly said it would not recognize Luhansk and Donetsk after Russia declared them to be independent republics, and this week reportedly refused Russia’s request to send troops to Ukraine. This rejection of Moscow’s request was surprising, coming just a month after the government invited Russian troops, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), to shore up the rule of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev after violent protests swept the country.

In Kyrgyzstan, however, President Sadyr Japarov commented that the invasion may have been necessary “to protect the peaceful population of the territories of Donbas.” That prompted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to recall Ukraine’s ambassador to Kyrgyzstan to protest the country’s statement “justifying the aggression against Ukraine.”

Central Asian countries worry they might be next

This lack of solidarity may be surprising, given the high level of economic interdependence with Russia. But Central Asian leaders have been wary about resurgent Russian expansionism.

In his speech last week, Putin called Ukrainian statehood a fiction. Putin in 2014 said similar things about Kazakhstan, claiming that “Kazakhs never had any statehood” while lauding then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev for “creating a state in a territory that never had a state before.” He concluded by encouraging the Kazakh people to “remain in the greater Russian world.”

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused fears of conquest to resurface. In Uzbekistan, bloggers close to the government circulated a 1995 video of then-President Islam Karimov warning of a “danger ahead” for his country. Karimov claimed that different forces “want to restore Greater Russian on the borders constituting the former U.S.S.R. … This means a complete transfer of Soviet authority to Russia.”

Putin is surprisingly popular in Central Asia, however, and this personal popularity may temper sovereignty concerns. In Tajikistan, he had higher approval ratings than in Russia.

But nationalism within the region is on the rise. In Uzbekistan, for example, linguistic nationalism drove a rare public pushback against a parliamentary proposal to join the Eurasian Economic Union, the Russian-led trading bloc that seeks to be an alternative to the European Union.

Economic integration leaves Central Asia vulnerable

As the United States and Europe continue to add sanctions against Russia, Central Asian countries face reminders of how dependent their economies and societies are on Moscow. When Western sanctions hit Russia in 2014, Central Asian governments grappled with the fallout. In a single day known as “Black Tuesday,” Kazakhstan’s currency — the tenge — lost 20 percent of its value. Inflation and unemployment followed.

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A primary reason for Central Asia’s dependence on Russia is remittances from migrant labor. According to the Russian government, there were 4.5 million workers from Uzbekistan, 2.4 million from Tajikistan and 920,000 from Kyrgyzstan working in Russia in 2021. Remittances from work abroad, mostly from Russia, account for 30 percent of Tajikistan’s gross domestic product and 28 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s.

Financial stability within Central Asia is also closely linked to Russia. On Monday, as the Russian ruble plummeted, so too did Central Asian currencies. Trading of the Kazakh tenge was halted Monday after it fell almost 20 percent compared with levels one week earlier. This was after the Kazakhstan National Bank poured in $98.1 million to preserve the currency. Uzbekistan’s currency fell more than 9 percent that day, and Kyrgyzstan saw a similar slide.

This economic hit comes at crucial time for Kazakhstan, which is trying to recover investor confidence after political unrest shook the country in January, leaving more than 150 people dead. The government is now seeking to reboot the economy. It will be hard-pressed to find foreign investors, given its close alliance with Russia.

Trade is another area where Central Asia remains dependent upon Russia. In Uzbekistan, for example, Russia has overtaken China as the leading trading partner. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are also heavily dependent on trade to Russia as they are full members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

To be sure, Central Asian countries understand the risks of dependence on Russia. They experienced a huge blow from 2014 sanctions. When the global economy came to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic, migrant laborers in Russia headed home. In response, leaders looked to diversify from dependence on migration and remittances. But as economies in the region bounced back, labor migrants headed right back to Russia.

Last week, Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev said, “As the world becomes more dangerous by the hour … we must work to strengthen our economy, our defense, and with confidence raise the power of our motherland.” This was a hint, no doubt, about the need to bolster his country’s economic strength and independence from foreign powers.

But calls for diversification won’t shield Central Asia from the effects of Western sanctions on Russia. Governments in the region will face enormous pressure from inflation and unemployment — and social unrest may follow. Russia’s military adventures in Ukraine are likely to have destabilizing consequences in this region for years to come.

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Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili (@jmurtazashvili) is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and director of the Center for Governance and Markets. Her research focuses on political economy and security in Central Eurasia. She is currently the president of the Central Eurasian Studies Society.