Central Asia Explores New Western Alliances

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Kazakhstan last week, he was greeted by his counterpart, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and accorded the full pomp befitting a strategic ally.

But there was a change in emphasis that was difficult to ignore.

For Putin, the November 9 visit to Astana was one of only three known foreign trips since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest in connection with alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.

For Kazakhstan and Central Asia as a whole, by contrast, high-level meetings with the leaders of powerful countries have become rather routine.

Of late, the diplomatic calendar has afforded next to no breathing space.

As the Russian and Kazakh presidents held talks, neighboring Uzbekistan was hosting a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) Summit, where high-profile visitors included Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, with Kazakh Prime Minister Alikhan Smailov standing in for his president.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella was also in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, on the same day for talks with Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoev and other top officials.

On November 3, Astana hosted the summit of the Council of Turkic States which, like the ECO, is a Russia and China-free organization.

Before that, Toqaev and Mirziyoev welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron to their respective homes in perhaps the noisiest diplomatic visit of the season.

And if October was something of a lull, September was plenty busy, with the region’s five national leaders holding talks with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York before all of them headed to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Some of these fixtures, of course, were a long time in the planning.

But it seems undeniable that nearly two years into Russia’s war in Ukraine, Central Asia is witnessing a level of diplomatic interest absent at least since the first years of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and perhaps even the first years the five countries gained independence, some 30 years ago.

And that poses the question of whether it will last longer than it has in the past.

Central Asia-focused researcher Davide Cancarini likened the sudden uptick in international contacts to a “bubble” — a metaphor used in finance when activity outweighs “fundamentals” that usually attract investment.

At the same time, Cancarini acknowledged that Central Asia “has great potential,” with both Mirziyoev and Toqaev’s preferences for diverse foreign policies serving as enabling factors.

So while some of the visits are heavy on “symbolism,” “every leader who comes to the region leaves having signed economic and political agreements of some significance,” Cancarini told RFE/RL.

A Region Of ‘Great Gain For All’?

Macron’s November 1-2 visit to the region excited a raft of foreign media headlines describing rising geopolitical competition in Central Asia, with references to a new “Great Game” and Paris stepping into the “backyard” of Russia and China.

This kind of framing is less popular inside the region — Kazakh Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko optimistically suggested “Great Gain for all” as an alternative during an appearance at the World Policy Conference in Abu Dhabi on November 5.

But Macron was clearly feeling competitive when he praised Kazakhstan for “refusing to be a vassal of any power” — an apparent reference to Astana’s neutrality over Ukraine in the face of obvious pressure from Moscow.

During his visit, Kazakh and French businesses signed agreements worth $1.4 billion on transport, engineering, health care, and agribusiness, not including another recent agreement for a nearly $2 billion wind farm that France’s Total Energies will build in southern Kazakhstan.

In Uzbekistan, too, Paris’s focus was on deepening and widening economic cooperation.

After Macron’s departure, Uzbek Minister of Mining and Geology Boris Islamov said that he expected incoming investments of more than $500 million from France’s state-run nuclear company Orano, providing that agreements could be reached to develop two new uranium deposits. The two sides also agreed on investments in a network of logistical centers to help boost agricultural exports.

Perhaps the defining visual of the trip was Macron and Mirziyoev’s warm, drawn-out embrace and handshake prior to a nighttime walk around the Silk Road city of Samarkand.

If images like that play well on Uzbek sections of Instagram, they are likely less popular in Moscow.

So it was unsurprising that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in an interview broadcast November 12 argued that the European Union was trying — but failing — to drive Moscow out of Central Asia, where he said Russia had been “historically present.”

The day before it emerged that Macron might soon be coming to a third Central Asian country, Kyrgyzstan, after the office of Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov said the French president had responded positively to his invitation.

Show Me The Money!

Macron’s visit raised the stakes for Putin’s own trip to Astana, which was agreed earlier this year around the time that the ICC issued its warrant for his arrest.

Kazakh political analyst Dosym Satpaev argued in a discussion on journalist Vadim Boreiko’s YouTube program Gipoborei that the trip was “more necessary [for Putin]” than for Toqaev, after what the analyst called “the circle dance” of international contacts between Central Asia and other powers.

And as the two met, there were signs of the tension that has bedeviled the countries’ relationship since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, warm welcome notwithstanding.

One of these was the sight of Russian officials scrambling for their headphones as Toqaev chose to say a few sentences in Kazakhstan’s state language, Kazakh, before returning to his fluent Russian — with the delegation from Moscow wondering why the Kazakh part was necessary and if they had just been trolled.

Another was the sound of Putin mangling Toqaev’s patronym during their joint appearance — a mistake that he has repeated so often that many are now questioning whether the error is, in fact, intentional.

But while Russia is vulnerable, it could be too early to say that Russian influence is shrinking as regards Kazakhstan, argued Satpaev, citing the “geometric growth” in the number of Russian and joint Kazakh-Russian companies registered in Kazakhstan in recent years, as well as recent instances of Kazakh oligarchs selling chunks of their businesses to Russian citizens.

Trade between Kazakhstan and Russia has, moreover, boomed “in the framework of gray imports,” said Satpaev, referring to schemes to evade sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries.

By the end of the visit, Putin’s visit saw no huge deals announced, but memorandums of understanding between the two countries’ energy ministries on Russian investment to build three thermal power stations in the Kazakh cities of Kokshetau, Oskemen, and Semey.

Kazakh Senate Chairman Maulen Ashimbaev on September 10 shot down questions from journalists about whether these deals might be a sweetener for Russia now that Moscow’s chances of building a future nuclear power plant in Kazakhstan seem somewhat diminished.

Ashimbaev reminded reporters that the construction of the power plant will be the subject of a popular referendum, and it was “in no way at all” connected to the agreements for the power stations.

But with authorities firmly in favor of the idea of nuclear power, the project looks likely to go ahead.

And that means another geopolitical balancing act for Kazakhstan, as Astana seeks to accommodate Moscow, whose state nuclear giant Rosatom had looked a shoo-in for the project before war and sanctions cast a shadow over its participation.

Russia’s weak foreign investment game has become apparent to smaller central Asian countries, too.

In an extraordinary rant during a regional meeting last year, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon begged Putin to invest more in his country and suggested Moscow had failed to show Tajikistan sufficient “respect” by sending only a deputy minister to a trade fair in Dushanbe.

Before setting off for the ECO summit in Tashkent, Rahmon was holding talks with Iranian President Raisi that saw the pair announce a historic visa-free travel agreement for their citizens as well as deals in trade, transportation, and culture.

Despite a love-hate relationship with Tehran, Tajik officials are now asking Iran to step in with crude oil exports to help power dormant refineries — a move that could infringe on Moscow’s longstanding interests in the local energy market.

These are all parts of a complicated picture wherein Moscow retains a “preeminent strategic position” in Central Asia but has also lost leverage there, according to Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Other states have witnessed Russia’s weakness as well as Central Asia’s geostrategic importance, and the heightened interest in the region allows these states a chance to actualize their long-dreamed-of multivector foreign policies,” she said.

But while predicting that the “brisk pace of diplomacy will continue” in the near future, this window might not be open forever, the expert argued.

“The interest of the rest of the world may wane over time,” Murtazashvili said.

Source : Oilprice