In the days leading up to the military parade in Moscow, held annually on May 9 to celebrate the Soviet Union’s victory in WWII, the most burning question was: “Who will join Putin on May 9 in Moscow?” For more than a month, the answer to this question was Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov, whose plan to visit Russia from May 7 to 9 was announced on March 31, 2023. Until the evening of May 8, Japarov was going to be the only foreign president to attend the parade.
The presidents of the remaining four Central Asian countries, Kazakhstan’s Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Tajikistan’s Emamoli Rahmon, Turkmenistan’s Serdar Berdymukhamedov, and Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev announced their participation less than a day before the parade. Their participation was the ultimate test of Central Asian leaders’ political loyalty to the Kremlin. The fact that they laid off announcing their visits until the very end shows that they were not easy decisions.
The war in Ukraine has undoubtedly reshaped Russia’s foreign policy. Its invasion of Ukraine has turned Russia into a pariah state, forcing its allies to reconsider their political ties. Supporting Russia spells political and economic trouble in the form of sanctions. Russia’s allies in Central Asia are in a delicate position. They have to maintain neutrality whilst being pressured by Russia, who is leveraging the region’s political, security, and economic reliance.
Last minute announcements and work visits
Out of seven heads of foreign states who attended the parade, five were from Central Asia. The other two were Belarussian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Armenia’s prime minister Nikol Pashinyan.
Only Japarov announced his participation in the parade in advance, which was part of his three-day work visit. He arrived in Moscow on May 7 and opened a memorial to Kyrgyz soldiers who died during the WWII in the city of Rzhev. On the same day he met with the Chairman of the State Duma (Russian parliament) Vyacheslav Volodin to discuss interparliamentary cooperation between the two countries.
On May 8, Japarov met with Putin, who said: “It is a significant event that you [Japarov] are with us at this time.” Putin accepted Japarov’s invitation to visit Kyrgyzstan later in the year. On May 9, in addition to the parade, Japarov also met with Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin to discuss investment, trade, and economic cooperation between Russia and Kyrgyzstan. The absence of any tangible outcomes from all these meetings hint at their ceremonial character and their role in masking the fact that the main purpose of his visit was so that Putin could show the world that he is not isolated.
The other four Central Asian leaders announced their participation either in the late afternoon on May 8 or early morning on May 9. Tokayev’s trip consisted of visiting the Rzhev Memorial to honor the memory of Kazakh soldiers who died in WWII, as well as the mass grave in the village of Trubino, where his uncle Kasym Boltaev is buried.
Mirziyoyev’s participation in the parade was masked under the general work visit on May 8 and 9. On the first day, Mirzioyoyev met with Putin, and the two sides discussed “further strengthening Uzbek–Russian relations of a comprehensive strategic partnership and alliance.” The meeting did not produce any results besides statements expressing interest in deepening bilateral relations.
Rahmon’s press service previously announced plans for his participation in the flower laying ceremony at the Victory Park in Tajikistan’s capital Dushanbe on May 9. What may have changed his mind was the phone call with Putin on May 5, during which Putin personally invited him to participate in the parade.
Berdymukhamedov’s participation was confirmed only in the morning of May 9. He, too, received a phone call from Putin on May 7 with the personal invitation to attend the parade.
There are no doubts that these presidents received written invitations. The personal phone calls from Putin hint at the reluctance of Central Asian leaders to be associated with Russia when the whole world was watching.
Between hammer and anvil
Central Asia’s political, economic, and security dependence on Russia has tied the region’s political autonomy to it. The Russian Tsarist Empire gained control over Central Asia by the nineteenth century. The region was called Turkestan back then, and Tashkent was named the capital in 1864. Tsarist rule was followed by the Soviet Union, during which the regional elites heavily depended on and looked up to the Kremlin for resources and legitimacy. More than a century of subjugation left an indelible mark on the region in the form of strong political, social, and economic ties.
First and foremost, Russia has been the main security guarantor for Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are all members of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russia’s analogue of NATO. In the most recent development, Russia used CSTO to bail Tokayev out during the largest and deadliest protests in Kazakhstan’s history in January 2022. It was the first and only time when CSTO member states came to another member’s aid, despite the protests not constituting a foreign invasion.
Here is a YouTube video of Russian soldiers who arrived in Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO forces and guarded strategic objects there during the January protests in 2022.
Russia operates the Kant military air base in Kyrgyzstan, near the capital Bishkek. In Tajikistan, Russia operates 201st military base, the largest base outside its borders. On paper, these bases provide a shield for any possible incursions by terrorist groups based in neighboring Afghanistan. In reality, they send a signal that the region is under exclusive Russian influence. Its military presence is currently being contested by China, which is building two military bases in Tajikistan.
Second, Central Asia’s economic dependence on Russia is acute. For all countries, except Turkmenistan, Russia is the largest trading partner. The war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia have led to significant increases in trade turnover between Russia and Central Asian countries. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to Russia, Belarus, and Armenia, are members of the Eurasian Economic Union, aimed to stimulate the free flow of goods and services in post-Soviet space.
Here is a YouTube video explaining what the Eurasian Economic Union is and how it works.
Finally, Russia is a primary destination country for large quantities of labour migrants from Central Asia. In 2022, 83 percent of 3.35 million migrants there were from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The remittances sent back home by these migrants make up around 31 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s and 27 percent of Tajikistan GDPs. More than 2 million Uzbekistani migrants are in Russia.
Central Asian presidents were mocked and ridiculed for their participation in the parade on May 9. Many Central Asian residents felt embarrassed and called on their presidents not to travel to Moscow. The EU is breathing down Central Asian presidents’ necks, warning them not to aid Russia in the war and threatening to introduce sanctions. They have been walking a diplomatic tightrope since the start of the war in Ukraine. Whether they made these decisions as a concession for the sake of national interests or personal preferences, their visits did not go unnoticed and will come back to haunt them.