Sensing that Russia has been weakened by its war in Ukraine, some of its closest allies in Central Asia are displaying a newly assertive streak.
The region’s five former Soviet republics are increasingly standing up to Moscow, aware of their new-found leverage as Russia looks to their markets and trade routes in a bid to circumvent Western sanctions.
The new dynamic was strikingly illustrated when Russian President Vladimir Putin ran into a seven-minute tirade from the leader of Tajikistan, one of the region’s smallest and poorest countries, at a summit in Kazakhstan last week.
“We want respect. Nothing else. Respect,” said Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan’s president since 1994, complaining that Moscow’s attitude had not improved since the Soviet era.
Putin listened uncomfortably. A video of the embittered speech surfaced at the weekend and was not part of the official coverage of the October 14 summit, during which he urged his southern neighbours to build new logistics chains after Western sanctions over Ukraine disrupted much of Russia’s trade.
Data shows Central Asian nations, including Tajikistan, have already sharply increased foreign trade turnover, likely by re-exporting goods to Russia which it could not buy directly because of sanctions and the exodus of foreign businesses.
But governments in the region do not seem to be willing to go beyond that, at least unless Russia comes to them with serious investments. Rahmon made it clear he was disappointed with Moscow sending only a deputy minister to an investment conference in Dushanbe last month.
Privately, Tajik officials say Rahmon felt offended because Russia has for decades treated Tajikistan as its back yard and is only turning to Dushanbe after becoming isolated.
“Central Asian nations, noting Russia’s growing interest in the region and the emergence of a certain dependence on it, have taken advantage of the situation to air their grievances and establish more equal relations in which Russia would at least partly give up its ‘older brother’ role,” said Kazakh political analyst Rustam Burnashev.
With Putin facing deepening problems in Ukraine, his ability to enforce Moscow’s traditional role as a policeman in other post-Soviet conflicts is being tested as never before.
During his trip, he held a separate three-way meeting with Rahmon and Kyrgyzstan’s President Sadyr Japarov to discuss a border dispute which almost led to all-out war between their two countries in September.
The meeting, which began with Rahmon and Japarov refusing to shake hands, produced no breakthrough, although Putin promised them to find Soviet maps which may clarify where the border was meant to be.
The conflict prompted Japarov to skip an informal meeting of ex-Soviet leaders in Moscow on Putin’s birthday, October 7. Kyrgyzstan also put off planned military drills of the Russia-led CSTO military bloc on its territory and refused to participate in a similar exercise in Tajikistan.
Observers noted that the host of the summit, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, had no bilateral meeting with Putin while the latter was in Astana, despite meeting Turkish, Qatari, Azeri and other leaders one on one.
Tokayev also complained of personal attacks on national leaders that “poison the atmosphere of cooperation” in the post-Soviet space, a likely reference to frequent criticism of the Kazakh leadership in the Russian media. Kazakh state television showed a selection of street interviews in which respondents said the war in Ukraine cast doubt on whether any post-Soviet unity still existed.
Its report also highlighted what it called provocative behaviour by Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, widely regarded as Putin’s proxy, who interrupted one of Tokayev’s speeches. It showed Tokayev replying with a condescending smile.
Still, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the biggest countries in Central Asia, are careful not to antagonise Moscow because they still see Russia as a regional policeman whose help they may need in a crisis, said Alisher Ilkhamov, a Central Asia consultant based in Britain.
In the long term, however, he said China’s influence as a regional “older brother” was set to rise at the expense of Russia’s if the war continued to go badly for Putin.
“For the moment, we see Russia is ceding to China this role as major patron for the Central Asian states. The vacuum will not be unfilled – it will be filled step-by-step by China.”