Putin’s Bishkek Visit Signals Moscow’s Increasing Interest in Central Asia
The region’s role on the world stage is rising as the US and the EU also look at strengthening ties.The region’s role on the world stage is rising as the US and the EU also look at strengthening ties.
Vladimir Putin’s visit to Kyrgyzstan on October 12 marked the Russian president’s first trip abroad since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant against him in March 2023. It also signalled Central Asia’s increasing importance for Russia amid the isolation triggered by its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
“In 2022 Putin visited all five countries of Central Asia for the first time in years and contacted his counterparts in the region by phone and video conference calls more often,” Temur Umarov, a fellow of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre in Berlin, told IWPR. As the range of Moscow’s international partners has shrunk, he continued, the Kremlin has begun to value its relations with the region more.
Putin attended the summit of heads of states of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), an intergovernmental organisation made up of former Soviet republics. Armenia is part of the bloc but did not attend; instead, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held a phone conversation with Kyrgyz president Sadyr Japarov, in yet another sign of the rift between Yerevan and Moscow over the war with Azerbaijan.
As part of his visit, Putin attended a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of Russia’s airbase near the town of Kant, about 20 kilometres east of Bishkek, a facility allows Moscow to project influence in the region.
Putin has rarely travelled abroad since sending Russian troops into Ukraine in February 2022 and is not known to have left Russia since The Hague-based ICC issued a warrant accusing him of overseeing the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.
The measure means that the Kremlin chief can be arrested if he travels to one of the 123 countries which have ratified the Rome Statute. Bishkek is not a signatory, nor is Beijing where Putin will travel next to meet President Xi Jinping.
Political analyst Musurkul Kabylbekov argued that this trip had served as a a good opportunity to promote Putin’s image.
“It is the recognition that he is not restricted to travel abroad and he can visit some countries that are still under Russian influence,” he told IWPR. “In other words, he showed that he still controls the situation in the post-Soviet Asian space and can freely visit and interact with his CIS colleagues.”
However, others argued that that the visit to Kygyzstan had actually highlighted Putin’s isolation.
“How should the international community evaluate Putin’s visit to Kyrgyzstan?” political expert Seitek Kachkynbai told IWPR. “They would say, ‘Poor man, this is the only place you can visit’. Russia is now in the situation of Iran, or even worse. It is being removed not only from the political arena, but from sport, culture, literature.”
ECONOMIC VULNERABILITY DICTATES NEUTRALITY
In March 2022, Japarov said that Kyrgyzstan is “a small country, with no influence, we cannot stop the war,” to explain Bishkek’s neutral position with regard to the war in Ukraine.
Most of the population understands the authorities’ cautiousness, aware of the economy’s profound dependence on Russia.
Russia is the second-largest investor after China and a crucial supplier of energy and food. Over a million Kyrgyz citizens live and work in Russia and their remittances account for up to three billion US dollars per year, about a third of the national gross domestic product.
Given the national interests and current realities, Kyrgyzstan - and the region at large - has no choice but to remain neutral.
“The EU, the US, China and Japan accept our position,” political analyst Seitek Kachkynbai told IWPR. “They all continue to maintain relations with us [because] they understand that they cannot lose the region amid pressure on Russia, so they pursue a cautious policy and offer alternative ways meant to reduce [our] dependence on Russia.”
He added that the region’s position could also be considered as a compromise.
“The neutrality is delicately hiding the ‘I am against Russia, I support Ukraine’ attitude. Everyone knows it. Where is the war? In Ukraine, not in Russia. If Kyrgyzstan was on Moscow’s side, it would state that openly,” Kachkynbai concluded.
IS RUSSIA YIELDING ITS POSITION?
Central Asia’s rising profile on the world stage was reflected in events and high level meetings held since February 2022, signalling regional leaders’ interest to pursue potential new opportunities.
In May 2023, the first China-Central Asia summit took place in China’s northern city of Xi’an, and in June, Kyrgyzstan hosted the President of the European Council Charles Michel for the second Central Asia – EU summit.
In September all Central Asia’s leaders met US President Joe Biden in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, for the C5+1 format. This was established in 2015 to deepen cooperation between the five countries of the region and the US, but the meeting in New York was the first-ever held at the presidential level.
“Our presidents visited the US and China together because unfortunately we cannot pursue our own sovereign policies,” political analyst Bakyt Baketaev told IWPR. “[They] pursue flexible policies between the west and the east not to put their countries at risk.”
Moscow has tried to minimise the damage caused by international sanctions with parallel imports, particularly with Central Asian countries, which have raised the issue of secondary sanctions.
While in Bishkek, Putin highlighted double-digit growth in bilateral trade, which some analysts suspect is linked to Moscow’s attempt to bypass sanctions by boosting parallel imports.
“The export of automotive parts and accessories from Germany to Kyrgyzstan has increased, indicating that trade relations between Germany and Russia continue via us [via Kryzgyz exports to Russia],” Kachkynbai told IWPR. “If we import tools for war, we can face sanctions. The West understands that we are an isolated country with small economy, dependent on Russia, so they won’t take stricter sanctions measures. Sanctions could be targeted against particular companies, which we have witnessed recently.”
In early October, Kyrgyzstan’s central bank urged local institutions to increase controls to improve compliance with sanctions against Moscow. In July, the US imposed sanctions on four Kyrgyz companies for re-exporting electronic components and other technology to Russia.
In this scenario, experts maintain that Kyrgyzstan must be pragmatic in its multi-vector foreign policy.
“Kyrgyzstan does not work against itself in front of the global community,” Kabylbekov said. “In this regard, our policy must be selfish and pragmatic; we should pursue our goals. We cannot break or deteriorate our relations with anyone in favour of some major geopolitical players. We do not break the status-quo and we are loyal to our international obligations and treaties.”
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.