How to Counter Great Power Politics? Perspectives from Central Asia
The Russian war on Ukraine has strongly affected Central Asian states in their struggle for autonomy. How do Central Asian societies navigate geopolitical changes and generational shifts while countering Russia’s imperial claims?
By Asel Doolotkeldieva, Nonresidential Fellow, George Washington University
Western attempts to weaken Russia’s military capacity and reduce its international standing have resulted in renewed attention focusing on Central Asia. The last time the region received similar interest was after 9/11, due to Central Asia’s proximity to Afghanistan. Suffering from geopolitical marginalization, caused both by lingering Cold War-era perspectives on the region and Russia’s neo-imperial politics, the Central Asian states continue to seek to assert their agency and reject the stereotype of being little more than “Russia’s backyard”. The invasion of Ukraine and the threats on the sovereignty of these states call into question the longstanding Western images of the region that associate it with terrorism, religious extremism, or a place of competition between “great powers”.
Central Asia and the impossible geopolitical choice
The invasion of Ukraine has affected Central Asian societies and governments in multiple ways: a major disruption of established trade routes and supply chains, the need to bypass Russia, and Western sanctions have created new challenges for businesses. Local people have protested against high inflation (up to 30 % for some foods) and skyrocketing prices for housing caused by the massive migration of Russians fleeing Russia. Perhaps, the most critical shift has occurred with regards to the regional security paradigm, where Russia used to play the role of a buffer between China and the Central Asian states. However, not only has the Russian-led military CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organization) failed to address armed conflicts in the region,  but it has become clear that Russia cannot even prevent mutiny at home. Facing an impossible geopolitical choice, Central Asian governments nevertheless continue to maintain close partnerships with Russia while simultaneously cooperating with China and the West. Observing this strategy of neutrality, some international commentators have expressed disappointment at Central Asia’s seeming inability to distance itself from both its Soviet past and contemporary Russian politics.
Why ties with Russia are not easily cut
This normative expectation is, however, short-sighted in several regards: First, it ignores the real challenges the region faces – it is landlocked, remote from any access to the seas, and suffering ongoing issues of energy and food security – that cannot be remedied quickly. Second, it fails to appreciate the historical links between Russian and Central Asian authoritarianisms. Putin is co-producing domestic regimes through military intervention,  KGB networks, pressures on labor migrants, and the real possibility of staging coups against incumbent regimes. To expect these leaders to radically distance themselves from Russia is to neglect the logic of regime survival that links them to Putin. Third, cutting off Russia entirely does not help to create an alternative future for the region. The volume of trade between Russia and Kazakhstan in January-August 2022 alone was $ 15.9 billion,  and trade turnover between China and Central Asia reached $ 38.6 billion in 2020. Now, compare these numbers with the US investment of $ 25 million for the entire region for 2022, designed as a strategy to help “the region diversify trade relationships […] so they’re not dependent on any one country.” 
Complex history of Russian colonialism
So, how have Central Asian societies responded to the invasion of Ukraine and Russian politics in the region more generally? If attitudes towards Russia were very positive previously, 8 how have these perceptions changed today? Are there any attempts to counter Russia’s imperial claims? Given the complex and traumatic history of Russian colonialism, it is not surprising that Central Asian societies are divided into those who view Russian imperialism for what it is and those who support Russia’s self-victimization against the “evil West”. For the latter, nostalgia for the Soviet Union helps to create strong bonds with Russia. Aligning with Putin means being part of a bigger geopolitical project than what individual independent states can achieve. Victims of both the painful transition of the 90s and of Russian propaganda, the elder generation continues to show loyalty to Russia across the post-Soviet space.
Young Central Asians: challenging imperialism
However, for young Central Asians, Russian imperialism seems to pose a threat to national sovereignty and the freedom to conduct politics independently.
This generation has rallied against Russian-led regional military and economic organizations and provided humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. Younger Central Asians also seek to better understand the consequences of colonialism and Soviet repression, demanding recognition of the massive famine and suppression of the anti-colonial revolt in 1916. Young people also seek to use decolonizing language to restore the dignity of their societies and to empower local language and culture away from the hegemony of the Russian language. The generational shift currently at work may therefore set the stage for a shift also in consciousness and more emancipated images of oneself throughout the region.
About Asel Doolotkeldieva
Asel Doolotkeldieva is a Nonresidential Fellow at George Washington University, based in Central Asia. She earned her PhD from the University of Exeter (UK) in Politics and previously engaged as a Senior Lecturer at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Visiting Fellow at Zentrum für Osteuropa- und internationale Studien (ZOiS), The Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin, and College Mondial (FMSH), Paris. Her academic interests include late Soviet resistance, protests and revolts, regime transition and democratization, political economy of resource extraction. She recently convened and guest-edited a Special Issue “The Politics of Popular Revolts in Kyrgyzstan”, Central Asian Affairs.
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