Russia is endeavoring to cement its relationships with what it calls its strategic partners in Central Asia. But the Kremlin’s plans for a Greater Eurasia grouping have apparently been slow to win hearts and minds in Central Asian countries.
In late February, President Vladimir Putin visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in an apparent effort to strengthen Russian ties with each and to show that the Russian commitment to Central Asia persists.
While seeking to strengthen its relations with its Central Asian allies, the Kremlin has made it known that its military ties with the region may be reviewed. Putin and President Almazbek Atambayev of Kyrgyzstan held talks on February 28. Afterwards, Putin told journalists that Russia was prepared to withdraw from its airbase near the Kyrgyz city of Kant, where the Russians station warplanes and helicopters at the request of the Kyrgyz government. The purpose is protection of the Kyrgyzstan border from possible infiltration of militants from Afghanistan.
Russia flies Su-25 combat planes and Mi-8 helicopters from the Kant airbase, which is manned by some 400 Russian military personnel. Russia and Kyrgyzstan agreed in 2003 to let the Russians use the base for 15 years. Putin then announced plans to reinforce the base in 2006. Three years later, Kyrgyzstan agreed to let the Russians use the base for another 49 years. Last year, Atambayev indicated that the intention is to close the base when permission for Russia to use it expires.
Putin told a joint press conference with Atambayev that if Kyrgyzstan said it no longer needed Russian forces at the base, they would be withdrawn immediately. Atambayev said he and Putin had not discussed expansion of the Kant airbase. However, Atambayev said they did discuss a Kyrgyz acquisition of more Russian weapons.
Before going to Kyrgyzstan, Putin visited Kazakhstan. No disagreements were apparent in talks between Putin and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev held on February 27. Putin hailed Kazakhstan as a “key partner” of Russia in Central Asia. Nazarbayev said Russia remained Kazakhstan’s “top economic and political partner.”
Kazakhstan is the closest ally Russia has. The Kazakhs have sought to counter any efforts to make Russia an international pariah. In August, Putin thanked Nazarbayev for mediating in the reconciliation of Russia and Turkey, and Nazarbayev responded by saying Russia should not be isolated internationally.
Putin also visited Tajikistan. Ties between Russia and Tajikistan have become looser in recent years, with Tajikistan somewhat reluctant to join Russian-led economic groupings. Russian influence in Dushanbe has declined and Tajikistan increasingly depends on Chinese money.
In talks with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on February 28, Putin reiterated pledges to strengthen bilateral ties. Representatives of the two countries signed agreements to cooperate in the fields of nuclear power, labor and the environment – agreements of unknown importance to the relationship.
During their talks, Putin and Rahmon were joined over the phone by Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Putin said lack of time on his Central Asian tour prevented him visiting Turkmenistan but that he would pay a visit at some indefinite date in the future.
Relations between Russia and Turkmenistan have been uneasy since January last year, when Russian gas monopolist Gazprom announced it would stop importing gas from Turkmenistan and sought to import more from Uzbekistan. The differences between Moscow and Ashgabat belie pledges they had made previously to develop their strategic relationship.
Putin’s Central Asian itinerary omitted Uzbekistan. The death last year of Islam Karimov, the authoritarian leader of Uzbekistan since it was part of the Soviet Union, seemed to be an opportunity for better Uzbek-Russian relations. Karimov’s largely isolationist policies kept his country out of Russian-led economic and security groupings. The new president of Uzbekistan, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appears less antagonistic to Russia, but Tashkent has been slow to make overtures to Moscow.
In Central Asia, Putin repeatedly described Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as strategic partners. But he refrained from speaking in public of Greater Eurasia. The Kremlin outlined last year a vision of a Greater Eurasia grouping to draw together the economic and political unions Europe and Asia already have. Putin said last June that this Greater Eurasian grouping could include China, India, Pakistan, Iran and the countries that once comprised the Soviet Union.
Russia envisions Greater Eurasia as global power. It would also serve the purpose of keeping Central Asia well within the Russian sphere of influence. The idea has had a lukewarm reception among Russia’s Central Asian allies.