Rashid Ghani Abdullo: Central Asia and Russia – political allies or partners?
The growing animosity between the Russian Federation and Turkey after November 24, 2015, when a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian SU-24 in the skies over Syria, cannot leave the Central Asian states unworried. However, this reaction was not quite the same as the reaction that was expected by Russia. Tajik analyst Rashid Ghani Abdullo discusses the reasons why this is happening in his article written exclusively for CABAR.asia (Dushanbe, Tajikistan).
The Russian authorities responded predictably in a tough and multifaceted manner. The pilots of the downed bomber managed to eject, but only the navigator landed safely. The commander-pilot was shot in the air, according to one version – by the militants of the Syrian armed opposition, according to the other version – by a member of the Turkish nationalist organization “Grey Wolves”, who, for some reason, was in the territory of Syria. During the operation to rescue the pilots of the downed bomber, the Russians once again suffered a loss – one of the sea-soldiers taking part in the operation died.
The reaction of the Central Asian countries – Russia’s allies in the CSTO – was more restrained. On November 25, 2015, RIA Novosti spread the message of the head of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev in Twitter. In his message, the Speaker of the Senate called the attack on a Russian plane unjustified and qualified it as a serious incident with extremely serious consequences for bilateral relations1.
On the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan made a statement on that incident, in which it expressed condolences over the death of Russian millitary. Expressing “grave concern at the deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations, which have been built during many years”, Kazakh Foreign Ministry appealed to Russian and Turkish parties “to demonstrate restraint in responding to this tragic incident and to use all possible measures and channels of communication to de-escalate the situation”2.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Tajikistan in a statement on November 26, 2015, emphasized that Tajikistan treated the incident with the downed Russian military aircraft, which was to participate in anti-terrorist operations, with regret and expressed its condolences to the families of the dead military. It also added that the ongoing Russian antiterrorist campaign played an important role in the fight against terrorism at the international level. The statement expressed hope that the incident with the downed aircraft of the Russian Federation would be objectively assessed, contributing to de-escalation of the situation and normalization of the aggravated Russian-Turkish relations3.
On November 30, President Nursultan Nazarbayev delivered a message to the people of Kazakhstan, in which he said: “No matter how difficult it is, I believe, we need to work together to create a commission, quickly complete it (the investigation), identify those responsible, punish and admit mistakes and to restore relations. I am turning to our friends in Russia and Turkey with this appeal”4.
Bishkek reaction was expressed in a statement by the deputy head of the Presidential Administration of the Kyrgyz Republic Sapar Isakov, who is in charge of foreign policy issues. The statement says that Kyrgyzstan has learned about the downed Russian bomber with concern and believes that in this situation, the best option for both parties is to refrain from extremes, to show restraint and to conduct a detailed and comprehensive investigation of all the circumstances of the incident in a short time. He also stressed that the Turkish government should not have taken violent and categorical actions5.
The death of Russian military and the destruction of the Su-24 bomber and helicopter with rescuers caused sharp reaction among the Russian public. This reaction was especially rough in various talk shows on the leading Russian TV channels, social media and in the press. A lot of what was said during the emotional debate and discussion was quite controversial.
In particular, there were accusations against Russia’s allies, former Soviet states, that their reaction to the Russian position on the issue was far from what was expected in Russia.
In their view, it was inappropriate taking into account the gravity of what had happened. Some discussion participants seriously offered the Russian authorities to take effective steps, for example in Tajikistan, to ensure the security of Russia, for example, the formation of the Russian military presence in the Tajik Badakhshan and return to Russian border guards of control of the border with Afghanistan.
For the sake of truth, it must be emphasized that such statements and suggestions were made by persons not directly associated with the official Russian structures.
But … Tajikistan and other Central Asian states are acting on the basis of their usual postulates – when it comes to politically important sensitive issues, there cannot be any independent initiatives on state television.
Accordingly, the mere fact that these proposals have been voiced on the leading Russian state television channels could not fail to give rise to the assumption that it is not just a private position of some person. It is clear that the existing very significant differences in the Russian and Central Asian perception of what is said and pronounced on state television is fraught with potentially negative consequences for relations between the countries of Central Asia and Russia, the consequences that may bring grist to the mill of other stakeholders.
Why Russia expected a different reaction?
Russian public’s dissatisfaction with the lack of support from Russia’s CSTO allies is largely based on the following premises.
Socio-economic stability in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is directly dependent on the opportunity of migrants to live and work in Russia and send money home. Military and political stability in these countries is dependent on the adequate support from Russia. All three Central Asian CSTO member states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – can resist possible threats and challenges from the outside, only relying on the military cooperation with Russia.
The dependence, not full but to a very significant extent, of social and economic stability in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the migrant workers living and working in Russia is the objective reality that is hard to challenge. Once again, I will refer to the well-known figures on this reality for Tajikistan. As of July 1, 2015, just over one million citizens of the Republic of Tajikistan were in the Russian Federation6. The number of migrant workers can be up to 10-12% of the total population7. I will repeat once again that money remittances of labor migrants determine the welfare of several people who can constitute half, or even a substantially larger portion of the population. In 2014, labor migrants transferred 3.83 billion dollars from Russia to Tajikistan, and it is only through legal money transfer systems. This sum, according to the calculations of the World Bank, constitute 42.7% of GDP8
Since the days of the civil war, it has become commonplace in Tajikistan and outside the country to assert as a matter of course that the military-political stability in the country depends on the appropriate support from Russia. Another assertion of it is the reminder by Vladislav Kolesnikov, made in connection with the incident with the Russian Su-24 and the reaction to it of the countries of Central Asia, that President Vladimir Putin made a telephone call to President Emomali Rakhmon immediately after the mutiny of Tajik military, headed by Deputy Defense Minister Abduhalim Nazarzoda, discussed with him what had happened and officially offered military aid9.
In the face of challenges arising due to the increased military activity of the warring parties in Afghanistan and, to an even greater extent, the presence of ISIS in this country, the Central Asian countries are really eager to get military support from Russia, and not from any other power. This is fully evidenced by the results of the summit of the CIS countries, which was held in the Kazakh Burabai on October 16, 2015.
At the summit, Vladimir Putin shared with the participants his assessment of the plans of ISIS. “Terrorists of all stripes are gaining more and more influence and do not hide plans for further expansion. One of their goals is to break into the Central Asian region”, said Putin at the summit. Then he proposed a plan of action in these circumstances: “… to respond to such a scenario in a coherent manner”. He also informed the participants of the summit that immigrants from the CIS countries constituted five to seven thousand people in the ranks of ISIS10. Prior to this, there were cited figures which were almost half less.
It is clear that the leadership of the Central Asian countries cannot stay indifferent to the possible consequences of the scenario mentioned by Vladimir Putin, first of all, to the possible mass return to their homes of militants who participated in the war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, where they fought with government troops on an equal footing.
Government forces in Syria and Iraq are armed not worse, and sometimes better than the armed forces of the CIS, of course, except for the armed forces of Russia. They have much more war experience at the moment than, for example, the armed forces of the countries of Central Asia. Nevertheless, in spite of this experience, the numerical superiority and better equipment and weapons, they were not able to overcome the standoff.
Military structures in Central Asia today have no real combat experience, comparable to the combat experience of government forces in Syria, for example (a certain exception is Tajikistan), and they are aware of the possible consequences and results of the confrontation with the return home from Syria and Iraq of ISIS militants and of opposition fighters who joined them in Afghanistan. Especially if this targeted return will be organized by serious outside forces. They perfectly understand that hardly any other power, but Russia will burden itself with providing them an effective military aid, taking into account the reality that exists in the world today, even if it comes to clashes only with those from Central Asia in the ranks of the ISIS and other armed opponents who are on the other side of the border with Afghanistan.
Everyone has their own interest
For all that, there could not be any other response of the countries of the region to the incident with the Russian bomber. Objectively, it could not be different.
NATO, as an organization, and each of its members have expressed unequivocal support for the actions of Turkey, even if this support, to a large extent, was of a formal nature. And they have expressed this support, guided by the idea of political and military confrontation with Russia, which is uniting all of them, and by the tough coalition discipline. As follows from the actual practice of the NATO countries, they consider Russia, like the Soviet Union, as a source of existential threat.
In the Soviet era, NATO and its member countries were exactly the same source of existential threats for the former socialist countries, allies of the USSR in the Warsaw bloc. Accordingly, the bloc discipline against NATO was for them a matter of course.
Today, the countries of Central Asia and Russia, in a given composition, are cooperating with each other in a variety of post-Soviet alliances – in the CIS, EEU, CSTO.
However, in building its relations with the outside world, they are guided by the principle of multi-vector. Moreover, the consistent implementation of this principle, implying in particular the development of relations with NATO and its member countries and the Western world, is considered by them as one of the prerequisites for maintaining and strengthening its independence. This circumstance eliminates any tough bloc discipline, even for the countries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, in cases like the incident with the Russian Su-24.
According to understanding of the Central Asian – members of the CSTO, this organization is aimed at neutralizing hostile actions aimed directly against them. Should this occur, God forbid, bloc discipline may take place. Judging by the lack of clear and harsh response to the Turkish military action against the Russian Su-24 (in fact, two Russian bombers) on the part of the Central Asian members of the CSTO, this event, in their view, does not meet the terms of a clear manifestation of bloc discipline.
It is worth mentioning that the Central Asian states and Turkey have built broad, multifaceted and mutually beneficial relationships during almost quarter of a century since the collapse of the Soviet Union. If we talk about Tajikistan, the importance of maintaining peaceful relations with Turkey for it is determined by the fact that the latter enjoys great influence in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and in the Asian Development Bank (ADB). In fact, Tajikistan enjoys the most favored status in these two international financial institutions. For almost two decades, both institutions have actively contributed to the realization of economic and other projects in the country.
The reaction of the Central Asian countries to the incident with the Russian plane and the subsequent deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey clearly show that none of the capitals of the region wishes to mar its relations with Ankara.
So, partners or allies?
As for military cooperation with Russia, both bilaterally and in the framework of the CSTO, again, judging by the manifested reaction, the countries of Central Asia, members of the CSTO, believe that the parties have concluded a mutually beneficial military political deal in this regard.
Yes, the Central Asian CSTO members believe that they can fully rely on the support from Russia in case of real military threats to them from outside. At the same time, they believe that Russia will not remain without benefice.
So, relying on its massive military presence (the air base in Kant – Kyrgyzstan, and the 201st military base in Tajikistan, with its aviation component in the village of Aini, to the west of Dushanbe, military and space object “Window” in Nurek, to the east of Tajik capital), in the part of the region, which is located on the border with China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as on the favorable attitude to this presence, both of the authorities and society, Russia has the opportunity to address two major challenges: first, to ensure its national security at the far south and south-east borders; second, to have the potential opportunity of projecting its military and political power in a strategically important direction for its national interests.
In other words, both parties – the Central Asian participants of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Russia – are interested in the Russian military presence in the region. So, their military and political relations are more pragmatic, limited by quite specific practical interests and bear more the character of relations between partners rather between allies. In order to transform them into the relations between allies, there must be a common and comprehensive ideological component. It’s not there, at the moment. And that means that we should not expect from the Central Asian and other members of the CSTO any automatic and unambiguous support for Russia in situations similar to the one with the downed Russian Su-24. Just like there was not any support during the course of the five-day war in the Caucasus in 2008 and in the ongoing political, economic and ideological-informational confrontation with the West, which started with the beginning of the Euromaidan in Kiev.
As you can see, the official Russian structures, in contrast to the Russian public emotionally speaking out in the media, are well aware of this reality. Evidence of this is a positive assessment by Russia of Tajikistan’s position, which was voiced in the comments of the Ambassador of the Russian Federation in the Republic of Tajikistan I.S. Lyakin-Frolov on November 30. In particular, it says, “… the position of the Republic of Tajikistan, expressed in a statement by the Tajik Foreign Ministry on November 26, which expresses the support by the leadership and the people of Tajikistan of the Russian struggle against international terrorism in Syria, did not remain unnoticed by Moscow”. The comments also expressed gratitude “… for the condolences to the bereaved families”11.
The Caucasian war in 2008 and the current events in Ukraine and Syria have clearly shown that building truly allied relations between Central Asian countries and Russia is a much longer and more complex process than the establishment of partnership relations. In addition, the approaches used to establish partner relations, apparently, are not very suitable for building of allied relations. Therefore, the countries should work to ensure that there are no grounds for complaints about the lack of allied spirit.
Rashid Ghani Abdullo, a political scientist
The views of the author do not necessarily represent the views of CABAR.asia