Even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it was clear that the Central Asian states were beginning to distance themselves from Russia’s proprietorial attitude toward the region. And the war against Ukraine, which does not enjoy much sympathy in these countries, has accelerated and intensified that process (see EDM, November 9, 2022). And based on regional reactions to Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted mutiny on June 23 and 24, it seems safe to say that this event has given this distancing from Moscow an even stronger impetus.
In Kazakhstan, for example, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, during a phone call with President Vladimir Putin on June 24, described the incident as being purely Russia’s “internal affair” (Akorda.kz, June 24). In other words, despite Putin’s dispatching of troops to Kazakhstan when it faced an analogous uprising in January 2022, Astana wanted no part in this particular affair and was unwilling to send forces to support Putin. After the mutiny ended, Tokayev declared that he “fully supported” Putin’s actions and convoked an extraordinary session of Kazakhstan’s Security Council to register his concern (Astana Times, June 25).
Yet, even with these gestures, a truer example of Tokayev’s real preoccupations took place a couple days earlier when he presided over the change in the name of the town Derzhavinsk (after the Russian poet Gavril Derzhavin) to Kenesary, the leader of the biggest Kazakh rebellion against the Russian empire in 1837–1847, yet another example of the steady “Kazakhification” of the country. Earlier this year, several other villages in the Karaganda region were also renamed with Kazakh names (Radio Azattyq, June 21).
Tokayev likewise decided to restore three “abandoned” and sparsely populated districts in northeast Kazakhstan along the border with Russia and China to counter the possibility of enhanced Russian or Chinese influence through these underdeveloped provinces (Kaztag.kz, June 17). Only on June 25—that is, once Prigozhin had stood down—did Tokayev finally convoke the Security Council meeting where he proclaimed Russia a strategic partner and insisted that he had “fully supported” Putin and welcomed the agreement that brought an end to the crisis (Astana Times, June 25).
Additionally, similar sharp reactions took place in Uzbekistan. Here too, Putin called President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on June 24 and received the same reaction, namely that this affair was Russia’s “internal business” and Tashkent would not intervene (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 27). It is likely that Putin sought military support from Uzbekistan as well only to be rebuffed, with Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Defense subsequently denying rumors that Tashkent was planning to send troops to Russia. Defense officials also reiterated that Uzbekistan’s policies are founded on the principle of non-interference in foreign countries (Kun.uz, June 26).
Worse yet, commentators in Uzbekistan took this opportunity to mock Putin and his system of government, something only conceivable if the regime had looked the other way or intimated its support. Political analyst E. G. Kamoliddin Rabbinov posted on Facebook on June 25 that Russia’s political system “looks like one in some unstable third world countries—a very weak and collapsing regime.” He also disregarded claims that this had all been some sort of orchestrated plot, noting that no world power would play a game revealing that not only is it ineffective but also “shamefully weak” (Facebook.com/rabbimov.kamoliddin, June 25). His remarks were by no means isolated as other commentators depicted Russia as increasingly unpredictable and unstable, implicitly questioning its reliability as an “ally” (Facebook.com/dosyms, June 25).
Such manifestations of independent decision-making by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan reveal the growing autonomy of both countries, if not all of Central Asia. Although Putin bailed out Kazakhstan in 2022, Russia is clearly presented as an increasingly unstable and implicitly growing threat to the region as a whole. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Russian officials are now complaining about supposed Western machinations to undermine Russia’s position in Central Asia and aggravate the local situation (24.kg, June 24). These sentiments reflect the abiding sense of danger that the Kremlin possesses regarding foreign powers’ efforts to undermine its proprietorial attitude toward Central Asia (Fiia.fi, November 16, 2021).
Beyond the specter of growing threats to its perceived sphere of influence in Central Asia, Moscow is likely also rankled by Kazakhstan’s opposition to the war and its refusal to support Putin, even after the Kremlin supported Astana last year. Kazakhstan’s “ingratitude” in this context brings to mind Habsburg Austria’s “astonishing ingratitude” to Russia after Tsar Nicholas I saved the empire by crushing a revolt in Hungary in 1849. By the same token, the mocking tone, or what earlier writers might have called lèse-majesté, depicts a wider regional attitude that, after 30 years of independence, the Central Asian states do not need or necessarily welcome Russia’s “tutelage.” With every passing week, it becomes clearer that a war undertaken to restore the Russian empire will, in fact, undermine any prospect of its restoration.