Nov 17, 2022 - World

Russia's shrinking sphere of influence

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) and the leaders of his CSTO allies at the Kremlin in May. From left: Armenia's Nikol Pashinyan; Belarus' Alexsandr Lukashenko (back row); Putin, Kazakhstan's Kassym-Jomart Tokayev; Kyrgyzstan's Sadyr Japarov (back right) and Tajikistan's Emomali Rahmon. Photo: Getty Images.

One of Russia's most prominent TV hosts fumed this week at what he saw as an act of defiance from allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia's answer to NATO.

Driving the news: While Belarus voted against a UN resolution calling on Russia to pay Ukraine war reparations, Russia's other four treaty allies — Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan — all abstained.

  • "NATO countries have all lined up, looking at [President] Biden with adoring eyes," TV host Vladimir Solovyov lamented. "What do we have?"

The big picture: Central Asian countries have cautiously distanced themselves from Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine.

  • At recent regional summits, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon demanded more "respect," and Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov kept Vladimir Putin waiting before a meeting, Nikkei Asia reports.
  • But nowhere is the shift more notable than in Kazakhstan, which shares the second-longest land border with Russia and has retained close links with Moscow since the collapse of the USSR.

Meanwhile: Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who is expected to win a new seven-year term in elections this weekend, has repeatedly refused to back Russia's invasion.

  • In June, he went so far as to declare — while sharing a stage with Putin — that Kazakhstan respected "territorial integrity" and would not follow Russia in recognizing the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
  • Kazakhstan canceled a parade in May marking the Soviet victory over the Nazis, officially for budget reasons. Astana also banned military symbols like the "Z" displayed by backers of the invasion.

The other side: Another Russian TV host, Tigran Keosayan, fumed after those moves that if Kazakhstan thought it could "get away" with such "ingratitude," it should "look at what is happening in Ukraine."

  • Former President Dmitry Medvedev's account on Russia's VK social network posted and then deleted a claim that the “artificial state” of Kazakhstan was committing a “genocide” against its Russian minority. Medvedev later claimed to have been hacked. Other senior politicians have made similar statements.
  • In June, a Russian court ordered the pipeline through which 80% of Kazakhstan's oil exports flow to the Black Sea to halt operations due to the risk of spills — though many speculated the true reason was to remind Kazakhstan of its reliance on Russia.
  • The order reportedly upset China, which has invested heavily in Kazakhstan and benefits from a stable oil market. It was soon reversed.

State of play: Kazakhstan is working to diversify its export routes and has hosted the presidents of China, Turkey and the European Council all in the past two months — a sign that the world's 10th largest oil exporter has options.

  • "In order to continue to attract foreign direct investment, it is crucial that Kazakhstan not be lumped together with Russia," Annette Bohr, a Eurasia analyst at Chatham House, said at a recent panel discussion.
  • The Ukraine invasion also sparked fears in the general public that Kazakhstan could be next, added Bhavna Dave, a Central Asia expert at the University of London. Just this week, a concert in Almaty by Russian singer Polina Gagarina was canceled after online protests over her support for the war.

A senior Kazakh official told Reuters that if Tokayev wins easily on Sunday, he could further distance himself from Moscow.

  • That's a remarkable turn of events less than a year after Russia sent troops to help Tokayev put down a violent uprising.
  • Yes, but: Kazakhstan and other countries in Central Asia are still heavily reliant on Russia. Around 40% of the food and clothing sold in Kazakhstan comes from Russia, and the Kremlin can still hold Kazakhstan's energy exports hostage, notes the Carnegie Endowment's Temur Umarov.

Zoom out: The UN vote that infuriated Solovyov also underscored that Russia has partners far beyond the post-Soviet space. China voted with Russia, as did Iran and North Korea, which are reportedly providing weapons for Russia's war effort.

  • Among the other yes votes were five African countries, including two — Central African Republic and Mali — that are hosting Russian mercenaries.
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