As anticipated, the specter of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hung heavy over the visit this week of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Speaking to reporters in Tashkent on March 1, Blinken acknowledged that the war had created immense difficulties for Central Asia, but he made the case that this predicament underscored the sense of the U.S. agenda to promote resilience-enhancing cohesion within the region.
“We’re … very well aware of the consequences that the Russian aggression against Ukraine has had for people in Central Asia,” he said. “The immediate consequences have been, in one way or another, a rise in energy and in food prices, and then, more generally, inflation.”
Washington has been consistent over the years in beating the drum about how it believes the region can mitigate its vulnerability to such external shocks.
“The bottom line is this: A more connected, a more cooperative Central Asia will be better able to determine its own future and deliver for its people’s needs,” Blinken said. “A big part of the work that we’re doing here is to help the region diversify trade relationships, to build new partnerships and relationships with other countries, including with the United States, so they’re not dependent on any one country or any one source for trade and investment.”
How this is to be done was top of the agenda at the C5+1 summit of the chief diplomatic representatives of Central Asia and the United States held in Astana on February 28.
Ahead of Blinken’s visit, the State Department issued a fact sheet highlighting how Washington had provided $25 million over the fiscal year 2022 to help Central Asia diversify trade routes and expand investment.
“Working with Congress, the United States intends to add $20 million in [fiscal year] 2023 funding to expand programming under [the Economic Resilience Initiative in Central Asia],” the fact sheet read. “The United States is also planning to provide $5 million to support regional connectivity through economic and energy programs, for a total of $50 million in regional programs.”
The size of these pledges was mocked by Marat Shibutov, a Kazakh commentator with pronouncedly pro-Russian sympathies.
“The proposed sad figure of $25 million is ridiculous given that the turnover of trade [between Russia and Central Asia] is in the tens of billions of dollars,” he told Russian outlet Vzglyad. “To say that countries have distanced themselves from one another or grown closer is only possible after you have concluded some political steps or signed some document. But no documents were signed at the end of Blinken’s visit. So, there is nothing to talk about.”
In the short-term, there are knottier political matters with which to grapple, and those appeared to have dominated much of the conversation in Blinken’s one-on-ones with Central Asian colleagues.
The Western-driven sanctions regime, and the pivoting Russia’s partners are having to do to remain in compliance, is a particular concern. Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister was explicit about the headaches this is causing his country.
“Kazakhstan has historical ties with both Russia and Ukraine. Our economies have been interconnected for a long time and it is for this reason that this situation is very difficult for us and for our economy,” Mukhtar Tleuberdi told reporters on February 28. “Kazakhstan is a member of the Eurasian Union [trading bloc], we do not have any customs borders between Kazakhstan, Russia and other members of this union … At the same time, we are trying to avoid any attempt by Russian or other foreign companies to evade sanctions.”
Blinken conveyed the idea that Washington is prepared to provide some wiggle room on this point, but indicated that compliance will need to come sooner or later.
“Licenses have been granted for companies or entities in countries that are engaged with sanctioned Russian companies so that they have time to wind down those activities and cut their ties with Russia,” Blinken said, speaking alongside Tleuberdi. “It’s not like flipping a light switch. We understand that sometimes you need time to do it in a way that doesn’t harm your business.”
As it happens, the war in Ukraine has served as a boon to Central Asia-Russia trade. Moscow has exploited its ties with the region to use it as a channel through which to bring in goods no longer arriving from the West and its allies.
As RFE/RL’s Kazakh service found late last year, citing research by the Astana-based Economic Research Institute, the volume of trade between Russia and Kazakhstan in January-August 2022 hit $15.9 billion, which is 4.2 percent more than over the same timeframe in 2021. The volume of Kazakhstan’s exports expanded by 8.6 percent. Common household tech has been in especially high demand. The export of television sets, monitors and projectors from Kazakhstan to Russia increased 312-fold, for example. Phones and computers have likewise been in massive demand.
There is nothing in the sanctions regime that prevents any of this, though, and that is not likely to change.
Central Asian governments are eager to be seen as cracking down on potential violations.
On February 28, just as Blinken was poised to fly to Tashkent, the Central Bank of Uzbekistan issued a warning to three local private banks for their failure to properly manage risks associated with sanctions and export bans.
Russia’s official reaction to the sight of Blinken in Central Asia has generally been sanguine.
President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, was reluctant to be drawn on the whole subject, limiting himself only to stating that Russia has deeply developed relations of its own with the region. Unlike Washington, however, Moscow prefers dialogue that is either bilateral or pursued within its own multilateral initiatives.
“We have our own bilateral relations with the Central Asian countries. We have our own formats of interaction. With a number of them, we are united by integration processes within the Eurasian Economic Union, which is what we are focusing on, what we are interested in and what we consider our top foreign policy priority,” Peskov said.
Among the five Central Asian nations, only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members of the Eurasian Economic Union. Uzbekistan has so far resisted repeated Russian overtures to join the club.