As the war in Ukraine continues and Russia remains under heavy international sanctions, its political allies, economic partners, and geographic as well as cultural neighbors in Central Asia are being engaged in incredible levels of diplomatic activity. In recent months, the region has been visited by Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and a number of other high-ranking international officials, who have discussed their competing visions for the region’s energy, as well as diverse transportation and investment projects. The countries of Central Asia are using these new opportunities to rebalance their global relationships and secure their own interests. The flurry of international interest has opened up the prospect of a new future for these states—potentially with much less dependency on their former metropole, Russia.
Is Central Asia moving beyond Russia? How can Russkii Mir be viewed through the lens of decolonization? Has populism won in Kyrgyzstan? And finally, what is the outlook for Central Asia? We discuss these questions in an interview with Dr. Johan Engvall from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
An Interview with Johan Engvall
Johan Engvall, PhD, works at the Swedish Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS), based at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. He is also a non-resident senior fellow of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute. He holds a PhD in political science from the Department of Government at Uppsala University. His dissertation dealt with corruption and the state in Kyrgyzstan.
The war in Ukraine has shifted some patterns in Eurasia. We see a lot of worries in Central Asia, where the war represents a great challenge from various angles: security, economics, transportation, trade, labor migration, and of course geopolitics. These states’ relations with Russia are also changing, as you mention in your recent article “Central Asia Moves Beyond Russia.” How are they are changing and in what domains? Do you think this change is temporary or long-term?
The Central Asian states have to walk a fine line in trying to distance themselves from Russia’s actions. They are all under intense pressure from Moscow, and Russia-Central Asia relations run deep. Military, political, economic, and cultural links between the Central Asian countries and Russia developed over a long period and will not disappear overnight.
It is also evident that Central Asia is becoming more important for Russia, not least economically, as other trade routes have been closed off and redrawn. Since 2022, an increasingly politically isolated Vladimir Putin has been on something of a charm offensive in the region, holding numerous meetings with national leaders in an obvious attempt to tie the countries closer to Russia. For their part, national leaders are trying to take advantage of Russia’s political and economic isolation and the newfound international attention to the region.
Since February 24, 2022, Russia-Central Asia relations have not so much been ruptured as seen trends accelerate. The developments in this period have reinforced the gradual but steady weakening of Russia’s hard and soft power in the region. Preoccupied as it is in Ukraine, Russia’s role as the dominant security actor in Central Asia is being eroded. The CSTO has proven toothless when it comes to addressing security concerns—and not only between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but also between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, both members of the alliance. The Eurasian Economic Union is becoming less popular among member states and ever more unattractive to prospective members like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. So Russia is definitely losing some of its appeal in the region. Putin’s privileged position in Central Asia is now challenged by other leaders, chief among them the Chinese and Turkish leaders.
How has the war in Ukraine affected identity? We hear a lot of opinions and debates about colonialism and identity, and these debates long predate the war—arguably, they were among the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed. From that perspective, it was no surprise that President Tokayev recently chose to open a joint conference with Vladimir Putin in Kazakh. At the same time, however, Tokayev has promised to support the Russian language in Central Asia. How do the decolonization lens and Russkii Mir interact in Central Asia? Can they coexist?
To my mind, there are several mutually reinforcing processes at play that are contributing to the gradual removal of the colonial yoke in Central Asia. First, it has now been more than 30 years since these states became independent. After 70 years of uniformity under Soviet socialist rule, they are finally becoming themselves. They have embarked on their own paths, developing distinct national identities and protecting their sovereignties.
Second, if anything, Russia’s aggression and denial of Ukraine’s right to independent statehood have provided the impetus for a re-examination of colonial legacies in Central Asia as well. A critical look at the past is now reaching broader segments of the public in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, two countries that have never constituted their independent statehood on an anti-colonial basis. And in Uzbekistan, President Mirziyoyev has become increasingly assertive in addressing the injustices that Moscow inflicted on the country during the Soviet era.
Third, like a thread through these transformative processes runs a generational divide. Central Asia is undergoing rapid societal and demographic transformations with an impact on identity formation. More than 70 percent of the region’s population is under the age of 40. A large post-Soviet generation with no personal experience of the Soviet Union is now coming to the fore. This generation, formed by developments since independence, is changing the countries of the region both politically and culturally. For this generation, the attractiveness of Russia is less ideological and sentimental than it is related to Russia’s status as a source of employment and material opportunities.
No doubt, Russia is hyper-sensitive about these developments and is constantly taking steps to reverse them. Russian media are the Kremlin’s main tool for shaping public opinion in Central Asia: they are effective at hammering home messages on everything from Ukraine’s alleged status as a Nazi state to the evils of the West. In this civilizational confrontation, Russian propaganda depicts the Central Asian countries as brotherly nations of Russia, extensions of the “Russian world” that share Russian values and norms.
Since the lingering role of the Russian language undergirds Russia’s influence in the region, every attempt to downgrade Russian is taken as an act of hostility. In the same way, any attempt to uncover national traumas and critically review aspects of Soviet colonial rule is feverishly rejected by Moscow. Russia uses various tools to advance its cultural influence, especially targeting Central Asia’s youth. In this context, Rossotrudnichestvo is the main organization financing modern Russian schools and other institutions to ensure that Russian culture retains its presence.
Accordingly, we see an increasingly uneasy mixture of liberation and reclaiming the past, on the one hand, and continued subjugation and a sense of an unbreakable historical bond, on the other hand. A step in one direction tends to be followed by a corrective step in the other direction. Taking a long-term view, however, there is little doubt that Russia’s influence over domestic processes in Central Asia is waning. Moreover, this process is hardly reversible; instead, Moscow is forced to rely ever more on invoking fear.
We in Central Asia generally do not like talk about the Great Game, but it inevitably recurs, especially in the current context, where Central Asia again appears important as an energy resource and a crossing space. On that point, we saw European leaders visit Central Asia more frequently this year. What is your view of Central Asia’s geopolitical importance and the room for maneuver of its foreign policy? Do you think the Central Asian states have done a good job, over the past three decades, of leveraging their foreign policy to cement their independence?
The Central Asian states all understand the risks of leaving the fate of their economies, their national security, and their sovereignty in the hands of an unreliable and revisionist Russia. We have already seen the Central Asian states push to create—or resurrect—various initiatives in the spheres of trade and transportation, as well as intensify their search for alternative security partnerships. The Caspian Sea is becoming increasingly important as the region’s window to the West, and European leaders have probably never been as welcomed in the region as they have during the past year.
All countries in the region continue to strengthen their economic ties to China, and Russia’s growing dependence on China is likely to have consequences for Central Asia too. Meanwhile, Turkey is expanding its geopolitical role not only in the South Caucasus, but also in Central Asia. Ankara’s economic and cultural ties to the region are now complemented by a stronger security partnership, as the Organization of Turkic States is transforming into more of a security organization. Investments are sought from many different sources, including the Gulf countries. Finally, to build security and stability from within, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are pushing to further strengthen regional collaboration.
So we see a flurry of activities pointing in the direction of balancing their external relations. Building on their longstanding multi-vector foreign policies, the Central Asian states are trying to take advantage of the geopolitical void resulting from Russia’s weakness by doubling down on their efforts to build alternative diplomatic alliances that would serve their own interests. In this sense, multivectorism has turned out to be a very useful policy idea, as it has laid the foundation for the Central Asian states to carve out some room for agency in a very difficult geopolitical situation. This would not have been possible if they were Russian satellites, as they are often erroneously depicted in Western media.
Religion is another marker of identity—and, as you wrote in an article on Kyrgyzstan, it has increased in importance in the region. In that article, you posed the interesting question of what will happen as a new generation comes to power, specifically whether they will maintain the separation between politics and religion. Do you have any possible answers to this question?
Central Asia is an outlier in the Muslim world, going against the tide of mixing religion and politics. The steady religious revival since independence, however, poses a challenge for the Central Asian states’ secular systems of government. As societies become more religious, the role of Islam—as a factor in political legitimization and a resource for mobilizing and attracting voters—is increasing. Symptomatically, in Kyrgyzstan, mosques are no longer built by foreign sponsors, but by local businessmen involved in politics. There is also a trend toward deeper ties between politicians and clerics, with politicians using clerical support to strengthen their local electoral bases. In this light, secular statehood cannot be taken for granted.
The future of secularism in Central Asia will likely depend on several factors. One of these is the developments of religious ideas in the rest of the Muslim world. But from a regional perspective, it will depend on the policies that governments pursue in the coming years. Moving forward, it will be critical for the countries to build stronger ties between state and society. Corrupt governments perceived as unjust and as failing to respond to public expectations would likely increase the risk of religious movements being able to tap into people’s frustration and call for an entirely different type of social and political order.
It is also questionable whether the restrictive and repressive approach to maintaining secularism on which the Central Asian states predominantly rely will be sustainable in the long run. It is necessary to break away from the Soviet legacy of relying on controlling society through the security services. Here, some differences are emerging between the states of the region. Whereas Uzbekistan is embracing a more positive approach, focusing on promoting traditional and tolerant Islam in society, Tajikistan retains a strictly defensive approach where the relationship between the state and religion continues to center on restrictive and repressive measures.
Then there is the issue of broader societal transformations. For example, in Kyrgyz society, three main attitudes can be identified in the religious sphere (even if this is admittedly an oversimplification). First, there is the predominantly secular political, economic, and intellectual elite in Bishkek. This group is gradually losing its position as society becomes less secular. Second, there is a large group of nationalist-minded citizens who increasingly embrace moderate Hanafi Islam as part of that identity. Third, there are Islamic currents—generally influenced by foreign Islamic ideas—that try to convert existing Muslims to more conservative versions of Islam. The outcome will depend in part on which one of these “groups” will constitute the key pillar of future decisionmakers.
You mostly specialize in Kyrgyzstan and its domestic politics—in particular its parliamentary model, which you describe as a struggle or interplay between “bandits and bureaucrats.” The presidency of Sadyr Japarov has been surprisingly stable, despite elevating its base to the detriment of the (smaller) liberal segment of society. What are your views on the current politics of Kyrgyzstan? Has populism won and is there any way to reverse some of the democratic losses?
Unfortunately, democracy and effective governance are not synonyms. A country can be democratic but have terrible governance—and vice versa. Kyrgyzstan’s decade-long parliamentary experiment failed to live up to expectations. It proved ineffective, fragmenting political power and weakening the country’s governance. More political competition translated into more competition over corruption. The parliament, which should have been the main political body, became paralyzed by competing economic interests. Among ordinary citizens, it was seen more as a club for shady business executives than as a responsible institution concerned with the country’s development. Paradoxically, therefore, this system further alienated citizens from the political elite.
I believe it is against this background that Sadyr Japarov’s meteoric rise to power needs to be understood. There was a demand for a new kind of political leadership, and Japarov portrayed himself as something new, an alternative to the discredited political class that had dominated the country in recent decades. His populist platform appeals especially to traditional and nationalist-oriented segments of the population, particularly among youth and the rural population. As scholar Aksana Ismailbekova has shown, Japarov established himself as an authentic representative of the people, someone who stood in contrast to the corrupt former leaders.
It is clear that political changes under the current leadership have set the country on a more authoritarian path. However, returning to the earlier distinction between type of political system and governmental effectiveness, some would definitely argue that while Kyrgyzstan’s democracy rating has plummeted, decision-making processes have improved in the sense that government bodies are working more effectively, which is obviously something ordinary citizens appreciate when it comes to accessing public goods and services.
That said, Kyrgyzstan’s civil society is under a worrying amount of pressure. But Kyrgyzstan’s civil society, including Western-financed NGOs as well as more indigenous forms of voluntary collective mobilization, has proven to be remarkably resilient despite recurring oppression from the state in recent decades. In fact, in times of crisis, Kyrgyz society has often compensated for an incapacitated state. Spontaneous collective action has a long track record of resolving social problems and providing goods and services. Citizens, not least youth groups, have voluntarily organized to uphold law and order amid recurring political upheavals, dragged the country out of the Covid-19 pandemic, and effectively provided humanitarian support to people affected by the violence along the border with Tajikistan.
There is also a new form of democratic activism emerging among the youth. This new form of activism differs from Western-financed civil society organizations, for it is organized through social media, using art and other forms of resistance. Thus, civil society is not standing still; engagement is simply taking other forms than the nongovernmental organizations associated with an older generation. For Western partners, there therefore seems to be room to devise new ways of interacting with and supporting Kyrgyzstan’s younger generation.
In conclusion, what is your outlook on Central Asia in light of the war in Ukraine? Will any of the impacts of the war—Russian relocation, the decline in Central Asian labor migration, or any other societal change that is occurring right now—have a longer-term impact?
The only thing we can be sure about is that there will be unanticipated changes. For example, when the war broke out and Western sanctions were imposed on the Russian economy, the immediate projection was that many Central Asian labor migrants would have to return home, carrying the risks of increased unemployment, a decline in remittances, and the overall destabilization of society. But despite growing challenges, Central Asian laborers continue to arrive in Russia. In fact, because of the war, Russia’s own supply of labor is shrinking dramatically, which might even reinforce the need for labor migrants to fill the shortages.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine represents a watershed moment, an event likely to produce a new geopolitical landscape. Even though regional political rearrangements are visible in the form of new and renewed initiatives, the full implications of these developments are yet to be seen. Ultimately, much depends on the outcome of the war. If Russia loses in Ukraine, this could cause a seismic shift in Central Asia as well. But the region’s leaders are hedging their bets. Indeed, many in the region cannot imagine that Russia will lose; they therefore need to be as well prepared for a Russian victory as possible. Regardless, there is no returning back to business as usual. Thus, to quote the Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, the challenge for them is to anticipate “where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
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