Ukraine War Scores Indirect Hits on Central Asia

Ukraine War Scores Indirect Hits on Central Asia
Palace of Khudáyár Khán, Kokand, Uzbekistan, Photo by Farhodjon Chinberdiev on Unsplash

Pointing subtly to the four men working on laptops on the other side of the café, our guide said softly, “Those are the Russians.” In cafés, restaurants and hotel lobbies throughout Central Asia, we saw similar scenes: young to middle-aged Russian men working on spreadsheets and databases, earbuds in place, sometimes speaking quietly into microphones. In other places, especially in Uzbekistan, large groups of Russian tourists pour off buses into tourist sites and restaurants.

The recent surge in Russians moving to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan is the direct result of the Russian war against Ukraine, one of several collateral impacts of that war on Central Asia. 

Many Russians flee for obvious political reasons, going to the Central Asian countries where Russian is still widely spoken. Some of the young Russians are men avoiding the military draft, for instance. Others are political dissidents escaping the security crackdowns back home. 

But others among the Russians travelling to Central Asia are there because of international sanctions.  Those sanctions now prevent the upper middle class of Russians who can afford foreign travel from going to Europe, North America and Japan; now, such people travel to Central Asia and Turkey instead. And no small number of Russian business people who can work from anywhere with a good internet connection have decamped to Central Asia. There, they can bring in their Rubles, open a local bank account that is not affected by international sanctions, and continue operations from a new city and country. 

The influx of Russians into Central Asia has met with mixed reactions from the locals there. Tour operators welcome a new source of tourists after the bleak years of the COVID-19 pandemic. Landlords, hotel keepers and restaurant owners are also happy for the increased revenue that the migrants bring. Shops selling luxury goods do a brisk trade, to the delight of their owners and employees. Some of those luxury goods get exported to Russia, no doubt.

This increased revenue is, however, a double-edged sword. The large influx of well-off Russians has pushed up rents in major cities and some smaller centres, squeezing locals out of the market or into lower-grade accommodation. The same is happening to non-Russian international students. The Kyrgyz capital city of Bishkek, for example, used to be known as a safe and cheap place for foreigners to learn the Russian language. But the city is now unaffordable to many would-be international students. As in other parts of the world where the housing market gets skewed in favour of the rich and the tourists, the locals are resentful.

The recent influx of Russian migrants and tourists has also stirred up unpleasant memories of Russia’s colonial history in Central Asia. So many Central Asian citizens speak Russian precisely because of a century of cultural and linguistic assimilation programs under both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, some ethnic Russians returned to Russia, and very few came to visit Central Asia. Looking at a busload of newly arrived Russian tourists in 2023, one Uzbek said sardonically, “When they could go to Europe, they forgot about us and went there. Now they can’t go there and so they love to come here.” 

So many Central Asian citizens speak Russian precisely because of a century of cultural and linguistic assimilation programs under both Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union.

While reliable opinion polls are rare in Central Asia due to the nature of the political regimes there, public opinion in the Central Asian states appears to be largely sympathetic to Ukraine. These countries’ own history of colonial rule under Moscow no doubt plays a part in that. 

That colonial history continues to condition the economic situation of the Central Asian republics. Over the decades, millions of Central Asian citizens migrated to Russia for work and have been sending remittances back to their home countries. Tajikistan is particularly reliant on such remittances (around 50% of GDP), as are Kyrgyzstan (around 28%) and Uzbekistan (around 20%). Deteriorating economic conditions in Russia have pushed thousands of migrants to return home, where they face high levels of unemployment and a strained housing market. 

Central Asian leaders have been eager not to get too closely aligned with either side in the Ukraine war. These leaders have to deal with Russia as a major regional power while coping with anti-Russian sentiment at home and a rising China to their east. This situation gives rise to some interesting policy choices. For instance, none of the Central Asian republics’ presidents attended the 9th May 2022 Victory Parade in Moscow, barely two months after Russia invaded Ukraine. (The parade celebrates the Soviet victory in World War 2.) But all of the Central Asian presidents showed up for the same parade a year later. A few months later, the normally pro-Moscow Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, issued a “stunning rebuke” to Putin in person and in front of regional leaders and journalists, without apparently getting punished for it. 

Borodyanka, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine, Photo by Mikhail Volkov on Unsplash

The war affects domestic policy as well: The Uzbek government, for example, has passed a law promising five years in prison for any Uzbek citizen who serves in a foreign army, even as many young Uzbek migrants return home out of fear of being drafted into the Russian army.

All wars have unintended consequences and unintended victims, and Russia’s war in Ukraine is no exception to this rule. The fallout from the Ukraine war for Central Asia has affected everything from housing markets to public opinion, tourism, the balance of payments and high diplomacy. While the war is unlikely to spell the end of Russian hegemony in Central Asia in the short run, it appears to have had an important psychological impact there. Since historical memory is an important and often underestimated factor in history, an important milestone may have been passed in Central Asia.

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