Russia and Central Asia: Missed Opportunities and New Prospects

By Alexei Vlasov

What is Russia's role in Central Asia? How do those in Central Asia perceive Moscow's policies? What is at the core of this relationship: labor migration, multimillion loans, or Russia’s security umbrella?


The article is an attempt to provide answers proceeding from the thesis that with the inheritance from the Soviet past dwindling, the region's approach to Russia is changing, including the defining motivation and aspirations that prevailed 10-12 years ago. To this end, building a positive image in the FSU should become Russia's paramount strategic goal.


However, a solution would require greater consistency, greater resource input, and, of some significant interest, the application of flexible, efficient “game-changing” tools from its soft power arsenal.


Images of Russia in Public Perception


The debate about Moscow's interests in this complex, fast changing region often leave out another important issue, i.e. how the Kremlin's policies, and modern Russia as a whole, are perceived, not by political elites, but by the general public in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan.


It is critical to establish whether the perception of Russia in Central Asia is broadly similar across the entire region or country-specific.


> Central Asia Map


For example, Kazakhstan, Russia's main strategic partner, is widely believed to regard the present and future of bilateral relations much more favorably than Uzbekistan, which has lately been demonstrating an obvious bias toward Washington. This view is at least simplified, since the problem is much deeper than the geopolitical choices of Central Asia’s elites.


Of course, there is the detached view, which forms a universal image of Russia irrespective of the country specifics. In fact, in most states in the region, both the elites and populations regard Moscow as a major resource supplier, primarily under economic assistance programs that range from loans to integration partnerships such as the Customs Union and Common Economic Space, which may bring additional bonuses and preferences, for example to Kyrgyzstan.


However, these mechanisms of attraction no longer seem sufficiently solid. With Beijing, Washington and Brussels offering similar aid, countries in the region have a choice. And in many cases, the conditions Russia offers are not more attractive than those of outside players. At the same time, hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan can now be much more independent in their policies, than they could in the 1990s.


The Russia as an employment destination, somewhere people can go to provide for their families, is much more common. According to the OECD International Migration Outlook 2012, Russia has twice more temporary labor migrants than the United States. Data from Moscow's Institute of Demography at the Higher School Economics shows that, during the past eight years, the largest inflows have been from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.


Ninety seven percent of the one million Tajik migrants are employed in Russia. ILO data cited by Deutsche Welle indicate that three-quarters of them are in the construction sector, over 100,000 in industry and agriculture, about 70,000 in trade and about the same number in housing and communal services. As the World Bank report of November 2012 indicates [4], Central Asian countries depend on migrant money transfers, chiefly Tajikistan, where migrant money transfers account for 47 percent of GDP. The reverse side of this coin is that, for Central Asians, living and working in Russia is quite risky, due to the diverse manifestations of nationalism present.


According to a 2011 survey by the Levada Center, 52 percent of Russian Federation citizens believe that, in recent years, the number of far-right Russians has grown (Table 1) and 44 percent are sure that the main cause is the "national minorities’ provocative behavior".



No doubt, negative information like this has an impact on migrants' sentiments, although frequently they have no choice. But moods change. In comparatively wealthier Kazakhstan, parents tend to educate their children in the West, and this is not only due to Russian universities’ lower international ratings but also because of growing nationalism. Astana's presidential scholarship program Bolashak shows that since this initiative was established, Russia educated 741 Kazakh students, whereas 3,031 went to Great Britain and 2,287 to the United States.



Certainly, people in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan view Russia more positively than people in other countries in the region. According to the Eurasian Integration Barometer, a survey of the Eurasian Development Bank, public approval of projects aiming to expand cooperation with Moscow (primarily within the Customs Union and Common Economic Space) stands at 80 percent in Kazakhstan, 76 percent in Tajikistan and 67 percent in Kyrgyzstan. Notably, in Uzbekistan, the approval level is also 67 percent, but Tashkent has taken a different track.


For people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, this Russian bias is purely pragmatic. Most of the Kyrgyz and Tajiks polled were educated in the Soviet period, so their current attitude originates both from nostalgia about a common past and a clear-cut understanding that overcoming socio-economic deadlock without more Russian backing seems unlikely.


However, it is not only the older and middle-age generations, but also the young people who pin their hopes on Russia. Nowadays, labor migration to large Russian cities seems about the only chance to raise one's social status, despite comparatively low pay in the Russian housing or services sectors. Jobs for young peole are virtually nonexistent at home. Average pay in Kyrgyzstan is about $ 140 per month, whereas in Russia an unskilled job can bring in $ 300-400 per month, and a skilled one up to $ 1,000 per month. The same applies to Tajiks.


Russia in the Regional Information Space


The perception of Russia within Kazakhstan is largely favorable, especially since Moscow is Astana's key partner in large-scale integration programs, i.e. the Customs Union and Common Economic Space. To a certain extent, official media foster positive attitudes focusing on "strategic partnership with Moscow." Bilateral relations’ allied status is highlighted by the TV channels Khabar and Kazakhstan, news agency Kazinform, newspapers Kazkhstanskaya Pravda, Liter, etc. The Russian language has been made official. Russian media are still quite influential both in television (Chanel One, Channel One-Eurasia, Russia Channel, TNT, etc.) and in the press (Izvestia-Kazakhstan, Novaya Gazeta-Kazakhstan, etc.), especially in border areas.


The two countries still share civilizational values, not only due to their common Soviet heritage. Among other things, the old socio-cultural kinship remains, although the lines of cultural communication have noticeably thinned compared to 1990, especially in education.


At the same time, certain intellectuals, young people and opposition activists perceive Russia as a potential threat, both politically and economically, within the integration process and in the cultural field.


Kazakh national patriots insist that moving towards a Eurasian Economic Union will inevitably bring about the loss of national sovereignty (national traditions, language, etc.), a revival of the Soviet Union, and, finally, Kazakhstan’s inclusion in a Russian neo-empire. As a result, opposition media are rife with critical and often utterly negative entries on modern Russia.


Besides, Eurasia-wide integration with Russia has not yet become a public project. Eighty percent of Kazakhs favoring integration largely favor deeper cooperation with Russia, whereas their attitude to the Economic Union is positively indifferent because the fruits of integration are not yet palpable, and could be restricted to macroeconomics. That said, such factors as shared values, cultural collaboration, and the search for new grounds for harmonization and final goals of this Russian-Kazakh amalgamation take on particular significance. Regrettably, the picture of future Eurasian integration remains indistinct.


Generational differences in how partnership with Russia is perceived in Kazakhstan, and to a lesser degree in Kyrgyzstan, are likely to be purely pragmatic.


As seen from the Eurasian Barometer survey, only 41 and 32 percent of young Kyrgyz and Kazakhs, respectively, are eager to study in the post-Soviet space, chiefly in Russia. Competition in the education sector is toughening, while Russian universities in many cases fail to mobilize their assets as they compete with Turkish, Chinese and Western institutions.


The Role of Diaspora Structures


Russian diasporas play a limited role in the formation of Russia's image, as they lack structure and internal unity. Besides, interest in Russia was considerably weakened by the outflow of Russians in the 1990s. Central Asia’s migration losses vis-à-vis Russia for the period of 1991-1999 stand at 2.6 million, three-quarters were Slavs, of which two-thirds were Russians. In 1989-1999, the Russian community in Kazakhstan fell from 6.1 to 4.5 million (by 26 percent), in Uzbekistan – from 1.6 to 1.2 million (by 27 percent), in Kyrgyzstan – from 917,000 to 603,000 (by 34 percent), and in Tajikistan, that had undergone a civil war, from 388,500 to 68,200 (5.7-fold). Turkmenistan, an authoritarian state, cannot offer any reliable demographic statistics, presents a special case. According to official data, the Russian population there fell from 334,000 to 299,000 by 1995, and to 100,000-120,000 by early 2001 (2.5-3.0-fold). During the same period, the share of Russians in Kazakhstan fell from 34.7 percent to 30 percent, in Kyrgyzstan from 21.5 percent to 12.5 percent, in Uzbekistan from 8.3 percent to 5.0 percent, in Tajikistan from 7.6 percent to 1.1 percent, and in Turkmenistan from 9.5 percent to 2.0 percent.


In Tajikistan, attitudes toward Russia are mostly favorable, although there are also fears and phobias related to Moscow's regional policies and the fate of numerous migrants in Russia.


As for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, assessing a holistic perception of Russia seems much more complicated. After the breakup of the USSR, Ashkhabad's policies have been permeated with an isolationism that has inevitably resulted in divergences both at state and public levels. The overwhelming majority of Turkmen have never visited Russia, while information on Russia in Turkmenistan is superficial.


Ashkhabad's rigid control of the media also plays a key role here. Most Turkmen have no idea about events outside the country, including Russia. Communications along the cultural, socio-cultural and educational tracks are either nonexistent or minimal. Uzbekistan is the region's second largest country. In 2000, the Russian community there amounted to 1.2 million, people although this figure is unreliable. According to some estimates, the Eastern Slav population is maximum 500,000 against 1.8 million in 1989, i.e. almost four times less. Many Russians in Uzbekistan are professionals in the technical and cultural sectors of the economy. But rigid government control restricts their contact with Russia. Differences in how these countries’ common past and future prospects are viewed are becoming more distinct. At the same time, the Russian Orthodox Church, in particular the Tashkent and Uzbekistan Eparchies are clearly underused for building a positive image of Russia in Uzbekistan.


Country's Image and Soft Power


To a great extent, obstacles to Russia’s influence in Central Asia arise from the Kremlin's lengthy negligence of soft power mechanisms. The region (except for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) hosts several thousand representative offices of foreign funds and NGOs (USAID, Soros and Konrad Adenauer foundations, etc.), who deliver grant-based educational programs, effectively ousting Russian educators.


Westerners also open institutions like the American University of Central Asia. The network of Turkish schools and colleges is proving very popular in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The stronger presence of Western and Turkish education in the region runs in parallel to the reduced competitiveness of Russia's higher educational institutions, since operation between the various departments at Moscow State University in Astana and Dushanbe is complicated by narrow specialization and scarce financing.


Many experts question the efficiency of Russia’s major specialized organizations, i.e. the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Cultural Cooperation (Rossotrudnichestvo) and the Russian World Foundation, which are versatile and large-scale bureaucracies, often lacking mobility and capacity to engage the countries' periphery and young people, society's most dynamic component. In contrast to these bulky structures, small but numerous Western NGOs flood the Tajik and Kyrgyz provinces with tangible projects in computer training, legal support, etc., with a clear focus on young people.


Some experts pin their hopes on the recent changes in Rossotrudnichestvo’s top management and its expected budget growth, which could boost Russia's image in the CIS and Central Asia in particular.


In contrast to the 1990s, Moscow's policies in the region have certainly become more targeted as relates economy and security. However, the aspects of Russia that Central Asian societies view as attractive are diminishing. The foundation of their common Soviet past is falling apart, while the new focal points for those born after 1991 have yet to be found. In fact, the mission's success should determine the strength of Russia's positions in Central Asia in 15-20 years.


Focusing on Young People


Efforts to improve Russia's image in Central Asia should concentrate on cultural issues with a spotlight on the younger generations. The Turkish practice of establishing colleges and universities that use comparatively higher pay to attract the best local educators seems to be quite promising. A bilingual educational program in Russian and local languages should, on the one hand, remove the language barrier (which prevents some young people from entering Turkish universities, despite their high education level) and boost complex research, while on the other hand, Russian-language courses would stimulate Russian studies.


Student exchanges should be also encouraged, to help young Central Asians visit Russia, establish contacts, and possibly benefit from a social lift. There are also benefits in bilateral and multilateral (within a Central Asian framework) summer and winter schools, camps, courses for young journalists, political scientists, etc., which, as practice shows, will in all likelihood prove popular with Tajik and Kyrgyz young people.


The post-Soviet space’s clear position as Russia's foreign policy priority instills hope that change will not be limited to the economy and security, but will rather affect the totality of socio-cultural communications, in the long run building a favorable image of Russia not only in Central Asia but across the former Soviet Union.



Alexei Vlasov, PhD in History, Deputy Dean of the History Faculty, Moscow State University, RIAC expert







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