Central Asian leadership nervous over Ukraine

Recent events in Ukraine have made the aging crop of Central Asian dictators and presidents uneasy for a number of reasons. Ukraine’s anti-government protests flared up suddenly and toppled a notable strongman among strongmen, Viktor Yanukovych. And the Russian government’s invasion of Crimea may have set a dangerous precedent for future interventions in its former Soviet sphere of influence. Even certain Russian politicians like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, announced on February 23 that Central Asian states should be brought back under the Russian Federation’s control. The Duma has even introduced new legislation that would extend eligibility for Russian citizenship to the Russian minorities living in the former Soviet republics, potentially granting them even more extraterritorial protection and setting up perhaps a pretense for more Russian control.

Uzbekistan’s foreign ministry released a statement last week expressing concern over Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Kazakhstan has fluctuated in its response, with a press release last week citing “deep concerns” over “unpredictable consequences.” However, yesterday President Nursultan Nazarbayev reported that he publically “understands the motivations for Russia’s actions” in Crimea. Even Tajikistan released its own concerns, but did not mention Russia.

The only reaction that stood out was Kyrgyzstan’s, with President Almazbek Atambaev offering his sympathies to victims’ families killed in Kiev, and stating more emphatically that he understood Ukraine’s struggle “on the road to true democracy and people-power.” This comes at an odd time for Kyrgyzstan’s political elite, who are lobbying hard to join Russia’s Customs Union, which currently includes Kazakhstan and Belarus. Armenia has also pledged to join.

Currently the leadership of Central Asia depends on the Russians for military and economic assistance. March 5 saw a quick summit in Moscow between the three leaders of the Customs Union, presumably in a show of solidarity in the face of the near-universal international opprobrium heaped on Russia after its invasion of Crimea. Statements from Putin on the situation in Ukraine emphasize the economic impact of an unstable Ukraine on the economy of the Customs Union, which is almost entirely contingent upon energy exports. Russia has plans for a Eurasian Union, which has been outlined as functionally similar to the European Union. Some have derided the idea as “Soviet Union lite” as one of the goals of the project is to create “a broad economic and political union.” Central Asian leaders are not quite as enthusiastic about this idea as well, with even staunch Russian allies like Kazakh President Nazarbayev raising concerns.

The leadership may be tepid about these concerns over sovereignty, but portions of the populace in the former Soviet Republics are adamantly opposed. Activists in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan actively oppose entry into the EAU, claiming it is merely a return to the old Soviet model. But with many different countries now turning their attention to markets in Central Asia (China in particular), Central Asian potentially have more options to cultivate beneficial relationships.

News Briefs:

  • The Tajik Interior Ministry (MVD) is ramping up efforts to fight cybercrime within Tajikistan. The decision mirrors statements made by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon that singled out extremist propaganda as a major source of concern for officials in Dushanbe. Amnesty International, however, reports that extremism has been utilized as pretext to torture suspected extremists and detain them indefinitely. Skeptics warn that similar motives could be utilized to institute stiff norms on internet usage and lead to closer monitoring of civilians with no connection to extremist groups.
  • The Alan and Shurtan gas fields in Uzbekistan’s Kashkadarya province are nearing completion, with full operation expected by the end of 2014. The $364m Alan field is set to be complimented by a booster compression station valued at $178.34, infrastructure that will allow for quicker and more efficient delivery of Uzbek gas. The financing of the two projects was provided by the Uzbek government’s own Uzbekneftegaz and have been in development since the 1970s. The incorporation of the latest fields to Uzbek’s already prominent gas infrastructure will bolster its status as the third highest producer of gas among CIS states and contribute to the 15% increase in production expected in 2014.
  • The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry made waves yesterday by stating that disgraced former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych is not the legitimate president of Ukraine. The statement disputes claims made yesterday by Yanukkovych stating that he was still the legitimate president of Ukraine, and may represent a Kyrgyz effort to show that they are not ready to commit to any one nation, despite thecybercrime within Tajikistan. The decision mirrors statements made by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon that singled out extremist propaganda as a major source of concern for officials in Dushanbe. Amnesty International, however, reports that extremism has been utilized as pretext to torture suspected extremists and detain them indefinitely. Skeptics warn that similar motives could be utilized to institute stiff norms on internet usage and lead to closer monitoring of civilians with no connection to extremist groups.
  • The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry made waves yesterday by stating that disgraced former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych is not the legitimate president of Ukraine. The statement disputes claims made yesterday by Yanukkovych stating that he was still the legitimate president of Ukraine, and may represent a Kyrgyz effort to show that they are not ready to commit to any one nation, despite the fact that Bishkek has engaged in increased economic trade with Moscow. In a profile released yesterday, Al Jazeera highlights the ongoing competition between Russia and China for market share in Central Asian economies, including that of Kyrgyzstan.
  •  Kazakhstan has spearheaded a movement to ban smokeless tobacco within the Russia-headed Customs Union. The effort, which has garnered the support of the often recalcitrant Eurasian Economic Commission, proposes that smokeless tobacco products be banned due to the high incidence of “throat, tongue and nasal cancer” associated with them. Nasvai, a commonly used smokeless tobacco product in Kazakhstan, is among those targeted by the initiative.

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