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Russia's 'Sham' Referendums In Ukraine Met With Silence From Central Asia

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev attend the 2022 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev attend the 2022 St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- When Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at a ceremony to annex four partially Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine last week, he styled himself as the head of an anti-colonial movement defying Western hegemony.

But in the countries of Central Asia that Russia once counted as part of its empire, the holding of what Western governments have termed "sham" referendums on joining Russia in Ukraine's Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhya regions has been met either with silence or a proclamation supporting a country's territorial integrity.

For Putin, there is a simple reason for this state of affairs -- fear of the sweeping Western-led sanctions that have plunged Russia and its citizens into isolation in the aftermath of Russia's unprovoked invasion.

But Central Asian caution toward the Kremlin's extraterritorial projects goes back to 2008, when Moscow's allies in the region failed to recognize Abkhazia or South Ossetia, two Russian-backed territories that declared independence from Georgia.

Experts meanwhile argue that the full-scale invasion of Ukraine that Russia launched in February has stirred fresh fears in the region about what Moscow is capable of as well as growing social and economic consequences -- most recently linked to Russia's large-scale military call-ups -- for local societies.

Territorial Integrity Integral

In Putin's September 30 speech on the illegal annexations, he railed against Western governments that he accused of putting "everyone in [their] crosshairs, including our closest neighbors, the CIS countries," with threats of sanctions.

One neighbor that may feel it is in Moscow's crosshairs is Kazakhstan, the only Central Asian country sharing a border with Russia, which has been on the end of a stream of verbal attacks from Russian politicians and commentators over its repeated claims to neutrality in the war.

So far Astana is alone in Central Asia in directly addressing the plebiscites that were staged hastily from September 23-27 in the four Ukrainian regions amid an ongoing Kyiv counteroffensive that has thrown Russian forces into disarray.

Speaking on September 26, Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov said Kazakhstan's position on the referendums "proceeds from the principles of territorial integrity of states, their sovereign equivalence, and peaceful coexistence."

Uzbekistan, the region's most populous country, did not refer to the referendums in a Foreign Ministry statement on Ukraine last week, mentioning instead "the recent increase in requests from citizens seeking to clarify certain issues regarding the situation around Ukraine."

None of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or neutral Turkmenistan has commented on Russia's latest annexation bid.

A senior government official in Kyrgyzstan told RFE/RL off the record that his country "would not recognize any attempt to present what took place in occupied parts of Ukraine as a legitimate plebiscite," calling territorial integrity "the cornerstone of the [United Nations Charter] and international law."

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand on September 15.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) meets with his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand on September 15.

The last time the Kremlin's regional partners were asked to make a decision on recognition was in March 2014, when Moscow held a widely criticized referendum in the Ukrainian region of Crimea, which Russian forces had seized the month before.

In all cases, they chose not to recognize the annexation, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan both paid lip service to the vote's outcome, with Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry calling the plebiscite "a free expression of the will of the population of the autonomous republic," adding that it "understands the decision of the Russian Federation in the current conditions."

As recently as 2019, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev called annexation "too heavy of a word to apply to Crimea," triggering a rebuke from Ukraine.

But since then, the mood in Astana has changed, after February's invasion showed "how far Russian ruling elites' imperial sentiments can go," Assel Bitabarova, a lecturer on international relations at M. Narikbayev KAZGUU university in the Kazakh capital, told RFE/RL.

In the months that followed, pro-establishment politicians and public figures in Russia bombarded Kazakhstan and its leadership with threats, with one accusing the Toqaev administration of "ingratitude" after Russian-led troops helped it survive a bloody and unprecedented political crisis in January.

Others have called for "protection" for the large ethnic Russian population concentrated in northern Kazakhstan, with Bitabarova singling out a Moscow city councilor's suggestion to include Kazakhstan in "the zone of denazification and demilitarization" -- terms Moscow has used to justify its Ukraine invasion -- as particularly vicious.

These messages highlighted "striking similarities between the Kazakh and Ukrainian contexts," the analyst said.

Uzbekistan's statement in support of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity was also not its first since the crisis started.

In March, then-Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Komilov made a call in parliament for an immediate cessation of violence in Ukraine while ruling out Tashkent recognizing self-declared republics in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk or Luhansk.

Komilov later disappeared from public view, an absence the ministry attributed to "chronic illness," before being replaced as foreign minister and taking a new post as deputy secretary of the presidential Security Council in April.

Anvar Nazirov, a Tashkent-based political commentator and outspoken supporter of Kyiv, described Uzbekistan's Ukraine positioning as "stronger than in 2014 but more cautious than Kazakhstan's."

Kazakhs rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty in March.
Kazakhs rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty in March.

Back in March, when Nazirov was part of a group showing solidarity at Ukraine's embassy in Tashkent, Uzbek police pressured them to stop, mentioning the Russian Embassy's disapproval, he told RFE/RL.

Yet Uzbekistan is unlikely to offer significant backing for Russia anytime soon, both because of the country's growing investment and credit ties in the West and Asia as well as the disastrous turn the war has taken for Russia since the start of last month.

"After the recent strategic breakthrough in Ukraine's favor, Uzbekistan needs to keep in mind a possible Russian defeat and even a post-Putin Russia," Nazirov told RFE/RL.

China's Push, Russia A 'Domestic Issue' In Central Asia

Crimea was not Central Asia's first Russian-related recognition conundrum. That came in 2008 after Moscow recognized two breakaway entities in Georgia that it backed in a military conflict with Tbilisi that year.

Russian expectations were that its closest partners would follow its lead.

Then-President Dmitry Medvedev traveled to Tajikistan for a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- an organization featuring four Central Asian countries, Russia, and China -- in order to secure the group's backing for Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence.

But the SCO "bluntly refused, and it was China which led that charge," said Raffaello Pantucci, an expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI) think tank.

Although Beijing and Moscow have grown closer since, famously declaring a "no-limits" friendship prior to Moscow launching its invasion, Central Asian countries can still feel confident that "China will always draw the line at recognizing breakaway republics," Pantucci said.

The diplomatic shade that China can provide the region's states from Russia's glare was in focus last month, when Chinese President Xi Jinping made Kazakhstan his first foreign visit since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Stopping off en route to the latest SCO summit in Uzbekistan, Xi told Toqaev that China would support Kazakhstan "in the defense of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity" as well as "categorically oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country," according to a readout from Toqaev's administration.

Recent weeks have brought fresh economic and social fallout from the Ukraine war for Central Asia, as tens of thousands of military-age Russian men fled their homeland overnight to avoid call-ups and the prospect of serving in Ukraine.

Since Putin ordered the partial mobilization on September 21, 200,000 Russians have crossed into Kazakhstan alone, according to Kazakh authorities, with 147,000 leaving during the same period.

Major cities in three other Central Asian countries -- Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan -- have seen smaller influxes, but large enough to fuel local complaints of spiking prices for rent and travel.

The mixed reactions to the exodus -- from hospitality to protests -- epitomizes how "Russia is a domestic issue" in Central Asia, according to Luca Anceschi of the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom. While global geopolitics and local attitudes toward Russia have become "more and more polarized" since 2014, "the context of the reaction for Central Asian governments to Russia's behavior is pretty much the same," Anceschi told RFE/RL.

"It is about them filtering whatever they do internationally through their own domestic considerations and their need to stay in power. In this sense, they are quite skilled actors," he said.

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    Chris Rickleton

    Chris Rickleton is a journalist living in Almaty. Before joining RFE/RL he was Central Asia bureau chief for Agence France-Presse, where his reports were regularly republished by major outlets such as MSN, Euronews, Yahoo News, and The Guardian. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. 

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