(By Marlene Laruelle and Sean Roberts) The ongoing crisis in Ukraine highlights just how contested and potentially unstable our geopolitical landscape is becoming, but how one interprets the crisis depends on the vantage point from where one is watching it. There are few places outside Ukraine and Moscow where the crisis is likely causing more angst than in the halls of power in central Asia. For the leaders of the central Asian states, events in Ukraine must be provoking multiple and somewhat contradictory anxieties.
On the one hand, the success of the Euromaidan protests in driving Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych from power obviously raises concerns amongst central Asia’s ruling elite regarding the sustainability of their hold on power. When they first saw a popular protest movement lead to the removal of Eduard Shevardnadze in 2004’s Georgian Rose Revolution, popular protest movements quickly spread across Eurasia and fueled similar regime changes in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps fearing a similar “viral” effect of Yanukovych’s ouster regionally, the regimes have sought to control information on the situation. Tajikistan’s government blocked its citizens’ access to Radio Liberty as the Euromaidan protests spun out of control in late February. Elsewhere, with perhaps the exception of Kyrgyzstan, state influence on local media has helped to publicly downplay events in Ukraine, leaving locals to consume the Russian media’s spin on events.
While such control of information insulated most central Asian states (with the notable exception of Kyrgyzstan) from anti-regime protests a decade ago, regional leaders must also see in the Euromaidan movement some new and troubling dimensions of dissent that are particularly relevant to central Asia. Although past “Color Revolutions” in Eurasia have had nationalist connotations, the overthrow of Yanukovych is the first time a regime change in the region has involved the active participation of an organized right-wing nationalist opposition. For the central Asian states, which have long positioned themselves as “anti-nationalist,” this raises new concerns about the power of their own nationalist-inspired opponents. This is especially true for Kazakhstan, where the specter of Kazakh nationalism is growing and is explicitly anti-regime, especially among the youth (see the group Kazakh Orda).
Furthermore, beyond the anxiety of losing power in a “Eurasian Spring,” central Asian leaders must be worried about their own legacies, given the public humiliations of Yanukovych that have followed his ouster. Driven from power, the former Ukrainian president’s dirty laundry has been literally aired internationally. Images of his palatial estate, complete with its own zoo and golf course, have gone viral on the Internet, cementing the former leader’s legacy as a corrupt and self-indulging autocrat. Without a doubt, for the various leaders in central Asia, and especially for the aging presidents of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, these images should provoke sleepless nights worrying about what excesses from their lives might come to light once they are gone.
On the other hand, central Asian leaders also must be watching recent events in Crimea with an eye toward the potential actions of Russia in its “near abroad.” Although none of the central Asian states could be characterized as solidly anti-Russian, they all have reasons to exert their independence from Russia. In this context, one must assume that recent events have transformed the “Ukrainian question” into the “Crimean question” for the central Asian leaders.
They probably have drawn several conclusions:
1) The “frozen” conflicts inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union can become hot again at any moment, especially if Moscow seeks to make it happen under the pretext of protecting minorities or Russian-speaking populations. This raises questions about the future of formerly contested terrain in central Asia, such as the Uzbek enclaves in Kyrgyzstan, the mostly Russian populated north of Kazakhstan, or the towns of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan.
2) Russia is willing to intervene in the former Soviet space under the pretext of stabilizing a “failing regime” if its interests are directly served (which was not the case in the conflict in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010), and the region’s other large neighbor, China, is willing to at least tacitly support such actions. This gives Dushanbe and Bishkek, as well as Astana and maybe even Tashkent, some food for thought. This is especially disconcerting for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which are already facing uncertain processes of presidential succession that could become messy.
For Kazakhstan, the most powerful and stable state in central Asia, events in Crimea also must be provoking more specific anxieties.
1) Although Russian nationalists have long claimed that northern Kazakhstan should rightfully belong to Russia, the Russian authorities have never validated these claims. However, since the crisis in Crimea began, some of Russia’s most prominent nationalist figures have publicly threatened Kazakhstan with a fate akin to that of Ukraine. While Astana understands that these figures do not speak for the Kremlin, the change of mood is notable….and noted.
2) More importantly, the international and regional status of Kazakhstan has been fundamentally altered by the Russian intervention in Crimea. Astana has invested a lot in developing a very cooperative “brand” on the international scene through its proclaimed “multi-vector” foreign policy and does not want to have to pay any consequences in the name of its partnership with Moscow. If sanctions are imposed on Russia, they will directly impact Kazakhstan in the framework of the Customs Union.
3) Whether Ukraine becomes a failing state where the center has no control over all of its territory, or it moves decisively toward the West, Kazakhstan will find itself carrying the partnership with Russia alone (Belarus is relatively marginal in the overall picture) and thus at risk of being the primary focus of Moscow’s attention as a “second loyal” partner whose defection cannot be tolerated.
Although the above thoughts remain speculative, one must assume that there are multiple anxieties that are keeping central Asian leaders awake at night as they watch the crisis in Ukraine unfold. If nothing else, they must be questioning their assumptions about the general stability of their region and their ability to balance engagement with great powers. While they are likely to be tempted to take Moscow’s lead on condemning the overthrow of Yanukovych and blaming it on the “West,” they are unlikely happy with Moscow’s response in Crimea and may even be secretly hoping that other global powers succeed in preventing Russia from destabilizing Ukraine’s new government.
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