When the Taliban swept into Kabul on August 15, many assumed that this would lead to a shakeup of the geopolitical order in neighboring Central Asia, with the countries there either seeking protection from the Russian Federation or moving to cooperate more closely with each other to counter the threat (see EDM, August 17). Initial moves could soon be observed in each of these directions: on the one hand, the five Central Asian republics increased consultations among themselves, and on the other hand, they and Moscow explored ways in which the Russian military would help to defend the region (Khan Tengri, CAA Network, September 9; Profil, September 20). But recognition is growing in all of the Central Asian capitals that Moscow will only do so much and that it is not physically ready to guard them against all the threats the Taliban represents (Stan Radar, August 30). And because each of the five “stans” are in quite different situations politically, militarily and domestically, they are taking more independent responses to the challenges they now face—a divergence away from Moscow that is clearly seen in the cases of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan has pursued a consistent policy of neutrality. Indeed, it has enshrined that principle in its constitution; and it has refused to take part in many joint enterprises lest it be pulled into alliances that would violate its commitment to that idea. Yet clear indications have emerged that the Taliban victory is leading Ashgabat to make a change, not in the direction of joining the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization, as Moscow had hoped, but rather toward a closer relationship with the Turkic world. According to senior officials in Ankara, next month, Turkmenistan will become a full member of the Turkic Council, and that body will be rebranded the “Organization of Turkic Language States.” Turkmenistan had refused to join the Council since its formation in 2009, heretofore remaining only an observer. But more recently, it has been holding high-level meetings with Turkish officials about Ashgabat’s full accession to the organization. And reportedly, the conversations have also revolved around the evolution of the Turkic Council into something more than it has been—even possibly starting resemble some kind of alliance (Radio Azatlyk, September 15).
If Turkmenistan in fact joins this Ankara-led grouping, it will change the balance of influence in the region further away from Moscow and represent a major step forward in Turkey’s hopes to solidify a Turkic world in the heart of Eurasia. Meanwhile, the name change of the organization, which is slated to happen at the same time, will have another consequence: it will signal that Turkey plans to focus on Turkic countries rather than Turkic nations—something that will reduce concerns in China, Russia and Iran that Ankara has any immediate plans to try to mobilize Turkic peoples in those three countries, all of which have sizeable Turkic minorities with complicated relationships with the central governments.
An ideological shift in Uzbekistan may have equally decisive consequences for the region and its relationship with outside powers. Tashkent has rehabilitated some of the leaders of the anti-Soviet and anti-Russian Basmachi. Russian commentators and their pro-Moscow Uzbek commentators have denounced this move as deeply anti-Russian. They argue that this move implicitly gives a green light to radical nationalists not only in Uzbekistan, the most populous Central Asian country, but throughout the region. As a result, all of Central Asia is allegedly going to become ever less willing to cooperate with Russia even if the region is threatened from the outside, as is the case with the return of the Taliban (Polit Navigator, September 17; Newizv.ru), September 12.
These writers cite the words of one Russian woman in Tashkent who says that already “conditions for us Russian speakers are getting worse.” Shop signs that used to be in Russian are now only in Uzbek, and, what is worse, officials send letters to local Russians only in Uzbek, a language the latter do not understand. The critical commentators suggest that Uzbekistan is now following the same path as Ukraine and complain that Moscow is not taking a hard line against it. Instead, some say, the Russian government has been making concessions to Uzbek and other Central Asian migrant workers by, for example, putting up signs in the Moscow Metro in Uzbek and Tajik. While that may not itself be unreasonable, these authors bemoan the fact that signs in the Russian language are being taken down in Tashkent and other Central Asian cities still home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians (Polit Navigator, September 17).
Nonetheless, the situation in Kazakhstan has sent the largest and most immediate shockwaves northward so far. Ethnic-Russian flight from northern Kazakhstan is accelerating. Kazakhstani officials insist that the primary cause is economics rather than any deterioration of inter-ethnic relations between Russians and Kazakhs. But radical Kazakh nationalists and their “language patrols” worry many—and support for them is growing (see EDM, September 9). Moreover, there is now an additional concern: the leader of the language patrol movement, which sought to force everyone in Kazakhstan to use Kazakh in public spaces, is a political émigré in Georgia; and he and his colleagues reportedly are being funded by the Ukrainian government (Svobodnaya Pressa, September 23).
The combination of these factors is transforming the situation into what may soon become a serious political crisis, with Moscow viewing everything going on as contributing to Kazakhstan’s transformation into a “second Ukraine” or “second Georgia.” Over the last six weeks, Moscow media has been filled with alarmist stories about Kazakh “language patrols” and their outspoken nationalist leader, Kuat Akhmetov. Now, such outlets believe they have three more reasons for alarm (Moskovsky Komsomolets, September 3). First, while Nur-Sultan has forced Akhmetov out, he has moved to Georgia, where he styles himself a political émigré and continues to try to inspire his people at home. Second, according to some reports, the Ukrainian authorities are funding his movement to cause trouble for Moscow and win Kazakhstan to Kyiv’s side. And third, the language patrols continue to function, supported by Akhmetov’s Telegram channel (which remains unblocked) and allegedly by numerous officials in the Kazakhstani government (Moskovsky Komsomolets, August 31).
Up to now, most discussions of Central Asia have treated the countries there as mostly objects of the policies of others. But these states are increasingly demonstrating that they are consequential regional actors in their own right.