Russia’s Friendships and its Discontents

Russia’s Friendships and its Discontents

In the divided and shifting diplomatic climate of recent years, Russia has needed to maintain its friendships in Central Asia as never before. But Moscow has had to strain its regional friendships to an onerous extent for the sake of larger global games it is playing. While none of its Central Asian partners is about to abandon Russia, not least because they cannot afford to do so just yet, more durable and satisfying partnerships require non-zero sum, more liberal relationships.

“It was like that during the czar and in the Soviet times, and it’s the same way now: We befriend someone, help them, liberate them, finance them — and in the end they leave us in the lurch. The vexing question is, what are we doing wrong?” So asked a March 2016 editorial in the Russian newspaper Argumenty I Fakty, published the week Cuban officials in Havana gave a very warm welcome to President Barack Obama.[1] Their generous reception, after a half-century-long diplomatic freeze with Washington, must have felt very awkward if not offensive to some in Moscow.

If Obama’s visit to Cuba ignited such feelings in the Kremlin, Russia’s ire has been even more intense as it watched the sudden rise in cooperation between the United States and several of its friends much closer to home — namely, the countries in its “region of privileged interests” in the post-Soviet space.[2] That is certainly what appeared to happen in recent years, as Russia’s position on the world stage underwent arguably the most serious changes since the Soviet breakup. The Argumenty I Fakty article was just one of numerous similar reactions among Russian experts and media commentators,[3] indicating that Russian friendship and its implications are due for a closer look.

Schmitt resurrected?

The concept of friendship is an old theme in politics, having been discussed as far back as ancient Greece. But more relevant to the current case is the controversial argument of Carl Schmitt, the twentieth-century German philosopher and jurist who actively supported the Nazi party. His argument was that “the concept of the political” — his term for the essence of politics — was ultimately defined by the distinction between the “enemy” and the “friend.”[4] Knowing your friends and your enemies, and treating each accordingly, was what defined the political, he wrote. He was of course mostly preoccupied with the enemy side of the dichotomy at the time.

In 2016, world politics has evolved (or rather, devolved) to a point where Schmitt’s dark, constricting argument cannot be called irrelevant or passé. Certainly, the theme and vocabulary of enmity are generally avoided, but the distinction seems to be present and very stark. Moreover, the common list of enemies is not limited to ISIS and its kind.

The dramatic deterioration of Russia’s relations with the West and the cooling of its ties with many other countries in the wake of the Ukraine crisis has made the friend-enemy mold of thinking very relevant.[5] As Russia became rapidly and thoroughly isolated in the international arena, its sensibilities on the question of friendship have been heightened.[6] However, besides the emotional aspect of the concept of friendship, there is the cruder and colder side of Russian foreign policy where friendship means business and business requires different approaches at different times.

Russia’s game

One interesting characterization of great power politics in Central Asia has been put forward by the American political scientist Eric McGlinchey, who suggested that Russia was playing Risk, while China played Monopoly and the United States played Solitaire.[7] Although Risk is a game of domination over the world as a whole, not just a separate region, and although there are many other nuances not captured by overly close analogies, McGlinchey’s observation remains very apt. When it comes to Russia’s disposition toward Central Asia, he wrote, “economics … is not Moscow’s endgame in the region.” Rather, that endgame is uncontested political domination.[8]

Beyond Central Asia, Russia’s broader objective is to achieve a global status that would guarantee it the recognition and respect as an equal by other major players, most importantly the United States.[9] Even though President Vladimir Putin had been pursuing this agenda since early on, it was the Euromaidan protest and its aftermath that brought the Kremlin’s game into broad daylight, revealing sharp fault lines on the world stage. The prospect of losing any control over Kiev, let alone its entire political foothold there, was too great a setback for Moscow to bear.

Geopolitically, Moscow has aimed since the mid-1990s to secure a Russia-friendly or Russian-dominated rim along the country’s half-perimeter on the west, from the Baltic states to Central Asia.[10] The former Soviet states along that line would ideally become a buffer zone that would keep Russia’s frontiers stable and Western entreaties at a safe distance. Bit by bit, that objective became impossible, as the Baltic states joined all major Western institutions, Georgia became staunchly resistant to Russian pressure, and Moldova remained perpetually on the fence, looking both ways. And now Ukraine — the most important country in that cohort for Russia — turned away.

These geopolitical developments have clearly not been what Russia wanted, producing the messy fight over Ukraine. The aftermath of the Russian role in Ukraine after the Euromaidan uprising, from Crimea to Donbass, has brought Russia to a recently unprecedented level of isolation, from which it has had to try and fight its way back to some circle of friendships. Given these extraordinary circumstances for the Kremlin, its friendship has turned very instrumental and often more difficult to wholeheartedly accept.

Russia’s Central Asian Friends 

The five Central Asian states have taken five different foreign policy paths. Despite their many differences, however, they all have generally shared one principal trait: friendship with Russia. From Uzbekistan’s cool friendship to Turkmenistan’s limited-scope friendship, to Kazakhstan’s comprehensive friendship, to Kyrgyzstan’s emotional friendship, and Tajikistan’s dependent friendship[11], there have been five variants of the relationship, but each is a friendship nonetheless. There are many reasons for the five countries to maintain these positive relations, from geopolitical inevitability to kindred spirit between regimes, to economic and security linkages, and so on.

The crisis in Ukraine, the subsequent Russian role, and the many sparks thereof that shot toward Central Asia have ushered in a new chapter for the region: a time when Russian friendship has become burdensome. To be sure, all five countries have generally sided with Russia on all matters related to Ukraine, albeit at times in veiled language.[12] They have called on the West to eliminate the anti-Russian sanctions, accepted the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum, and have been mostly silent on the issue of Eastern Ukraine, beyond calling for peace and political settlement.

But some of the sparks have stung. Economically, the Central Asian countries suffered by association from both the West’s sanctions and Russia’s counter-sanctions. The Russian retaliatory embargo on Western products, for instance, has hurt Central Asian businesses by blocking overland shipments of European goods to the region via Russian territory. Politically, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not popular with the masses in Central Asia, stirring fears that Russia could make similar claims on their own countries—in Kazakhstan in particular. Moscow’s promise to support its “compatriots” in the near abroad, in reaction to alleged suppression of Russians in Ukraine, further added unease. The Central Asian countries, too, are home to many ethnic Russians who have regularly been the center of language-related and other debates.

The difficulties over Ukraine were exacerbated by Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, with worries that members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) might be asked to play some kind of role as well.[13] A particularly tense moment came after Turkey downed a Russian military jet in December 2015, when the Central Asian countries felt torn between two of their closest partners.

Today, after more than two years of these difficulties and facing the growing pressure of the economic crisis, Russia’s Central Asian friends are in a place where critical reflection on their friendships tends to come naturally.

An especially clear illustration of this dilemma is Kyrgyzstan, the country that has had the greatest economic dependence on Russia and the closest political alliance with it over recent years. Having first embraced this deep partnership to the detriment of its other relationships —very much at Russia’s urging — and then gradually recognized some downsides of these ties, Kyrgyzstan is an example of emerging disenchantment with the big friend in the north.

The case of Kyrgyzstan

Bishkek-Moscow relations have gone slightly downhill since the late 2015, although they are still far from cold. Kyrgyzstan has followed the most loyally pro-Russian line since 2010 (when Almazbek Atambayev, as prime minister and then as president, replaced Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who had played Moscow and Washington off one another for financial benefit.) Against many odds, Kyrgyzstan chose to join the Russia-led customs union that eventually became the Eurasian Economic Union. It also closed the U.S. military base at Manas airport — something that Russia had demanded with maniacal persistence. And it concluded a series of big economic deals with Russia, including agreements to construct a multi-billion-dollar cascade of hydropower stations and to sell its natural gas infrastructure to Gazprom.

On the subject of Ukraine, Bishkek’s initial enthusiasm for fellow revolutionaries quickly gave way to rhetoric that was closely allied with Moscow’s, when it chose to speak at all. In the Russian-Turkish dispute, although Atambayev initially tried to tread a neutral line (due to his deep personal fondness for Turkey), he eventually spoke out with a nod toward Russia, to widespread displeasure among Turkish media.[14] And with regard to the United States, his government has taken a distinctly critical and undiplomatic anti-Washington stance.[15]

Most recently, however, Kyrgyzstan’s friendship with Russia has yielded poor rewards. In January 2016, after Atambayev had to admit that Russia lacked the commitment to implement the hydropower project, Kyrgyzstan unilaterally revoked the agreement — and picked up a disputed tab for about $37 million that had already been sunk into the stalled project.[16] This rift was just what Kyrgyzstan’s rival Uzbekistan ever wanted, it seemed. When then Uzbek President Karimov visited Moscow that April with much pomp and circumstance, Bishkek perceived it as yet another sign that Moscow had played it all along.

On top of these bad news, results of Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) have so far not been encouraging. For many Kyrgyz businesses, the union became a straightjacket that imposed seemingly insurmountable regulations for exporting goods, while opening the door to cheaper competing products from the other member states. The Russian-Kyrgyz Development Fund, an instrument Russia sponsored to promote Kyrgyz business competitiveness as an incentive for EAEU membership, has produced predominantly negative news as well. They included its slow start, the choice to store its assets (about half a billion dollars) in Russian banks, the fact that its board was domination by Russian representatives, and the lack of transparency in its work.

A new low was reached in spring 2016, with allegations that some Russian generals had been supporting a Kyrgyz opposition group that called for Atambayev’s immediate resignation. Adding insult to injury, in the several weeks that the story remained in the news, Moscow made no statement rejecting the reports. This made the Kyrgyz government and public wonder whether the Kremlin had indeed stood behind the brazen opposition group that had popped up so suddenly.[17]

The overall result is that Kyrgyzstan, arguably Russia’s most loyal supporter in recent years, has begun to feel cheated,[18] and that its leaders increasingly suspect Moscow of unfair play that disrespect their interests. Frustration over various aspects of its relationship with Russia — articulated by the most outspoken government and president in the region — is a sentiment that echoed in other Central Asian capitals, even if they have been more muted about it.

Implications of a troubled friendship

It is therefore hardly surprising that the Central Asian states would begin to reevaluate the friendship in which Moscow treats them as a means to bigger global ends, has no qualms about playing them off one another, and abuses their commitments in pursuit of its own national interests. Indeed, these friendships are currently undergoing critical reassessments and double takes. Kazakhstan has given repeated indications of not being fully comfortable. Uzbekistan has steadily kept its traditional distance. Tajikistan’s relations with Russia, like those of Kyrgyzstan, appear to be on a downward trajectory. Turkmenistan, too, has gone through a period of distancing itself from Russia and seeking out alternative partnerships. The Central Asian countries may not be about to match Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states in their antagonism any time soon, but their wish for more distance and independence is apparent. 

To be sure, the range of their alternatives is rather limited, and the options that do exist vary from country to country. The five states are reluctant to embrace cooperation with Beijing, even though they have welcomed China on its march of billions-dollar investments. The United States and western institutions have not engaged with the region deeply enough to pose a challenge to Russia, although the Obama-era C5+1 initiative (the five Central Asian states plus Washington) has drawn some interest. Turkey offers an important alternative vector for the region, but its potential has been weakened first by its standoff with Russia and then by Turkish domestic political turmoil, revealing that this direction, too, is risky at best. Moreover, the relations among the five Central Asian countries themselves have either stagnated or deteriorated — a development that has underpinned Russia’s involvement in the region.[19]

These and other weak options are options nonetheless. In the longer run, they could become more attractive. The question is whether the Central Asian countries pursue them in concert with or despite Russia. As the two stronger countries in the region, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in particular might soon develop wider networks of cooperative ties. Russia would be wise to help them in that process rather than try to stop them.    

When it comes to Russia’s own long-term interests, the evolving situation in Central Asia might force it to reorient toward more open, respectful, and inclusive partnerships, avoiding the jealousy that leaves no room for other friends. As the five Central Asian states develop, build their economies, and expand foreign trade, they will establish stronger and more diverse international ties. Russia can gain or lose as a result, but its current zero-sum and exclusive claim over its Central Asian friends will almost certainly leave it worse off. The current approach will ultimately make the costs of Russia’s friendship too heavy on the receiving end, pushing its Central Asian partners toward alternative options. Coincidentally, this would make Russia’s road to a genuine recognition as a major global power all the more difficult.

In other words, Russia’s view of the world may be much too Schmittean for its Central Asian friends caught in a seemingly inevitable Russia-dependent geopolitical situation. Allowing its friends to nurture other relationships and avoiding the “if you’re with me, you can’t be with them” mode of thinking would serve its own goals well. There is no question that Russia’s acceptance of genuinely multi-vector foreign policies in Central Asia will lead to the kind of non-zero-sum partnerships that are lasting, satisfactory, and ultimately beneficial to its own broader interests.

     

           

Editor’s note: Emil Dzhuraev, Ph.D., teaches Central Asian Politics and other political science courses at the American University of Central Asia and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. His areas of research interest are constitutionalism and democratization, state-building, geopolitics, regional security and foreign policy in Central Asia.

              

                      

Notes

[1] “И при царе, и во времена СССР, и сейчас получается одинаково: мы с кем-то подружимся, помогаем, освобождаем, финансируем - и в итоге нас посылают по известному адресу. Любопытно разобраться: что же мы делаем неправильно?” See Yegor Karetnikov, “Darned Friends: Why Russia Never Gets Lucky with Its Allies,” Argumenty I Fakty, March 23, 2016, https://goo.gl/s9RbuV.

[2] See Alexander Cooley, Great Games, Local Rules, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

[3] See, for example, “Russia in Search of Enemies,” Rosbalt, January 2, 2016, https://goo.gl/jILiyV; “Russian people consider U.S., Ukraine, and Turkey main enemies—and Belorussia, Kazakhstan, and China main friends,” Vedomosti, June 2, 2016, https://goo.gl/N7tffW; “Unwilling friends: Does Russia has allies in Europe?” Argumenty I Fakty, July 16, 2016, https://goo.gl/JyToxP; “Central Asia and Russia: political allies or partners?” Asia-Plus, January 19, 2016, https://goo.gl/uRjMmS; “Once more on soft power: Russia allocates millions to economic and humanitarian aid in Central Asia,” Rossiyskaya Gazeta, June 13, 2016, https://goo.gl/mGlnAf.

[4] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

[5] This is not to claim that friend-vs.-enemy language has been used in Russian official policy, of course; such language is quite prominent in informal settings and in the media, as noted above.

[6] A popular poll that has been conducted in Russia by the well-respected Levada Center asks which states Russians consider to be their country’s friends and enemies. For the latest results (and comparisons with previous polls), see “Allies and ‘enemies’ of Russia, European integration,” June 2, 2016, https://goo.gl/RSZGJk.

[7] Eric McGlinchey, “Central Asia’s Autocrats: Geopolitically Stuck, Politically Free,” PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 380, August 2015.

[8] Ibid, p. 3.

[9] A comprehensive discussion of Russian foreign policy interests would require a separate and much larger effort. Here, in arguing that Russia is interested in status recognition as a world power, it is understood that many different and more specific interests—such as trade opportunities, security and strategic interests, political autonomy, and many others—would be among the gains when Russia receives the recognition it has sought.

[10] Russia’s first post-Soviet foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, much criticized as being naïve for his orientation toward the West, began to stress the geopolitical significance of the post-Soviet space late in his term, but it was mostly after him—and most clearly with the arrival of Putin—that this space became central to Russian foreign policy. See Bohuslav Litera, “The Kozyrev Doctrine—A Russian Variation of the Monroe Doctrine,” Perspectives, No 4 (Winter, 1994/1995); Mohiaddin Mesbahi, “Russian Foreign Policy and Security in Central Asia and the Caucasus,” Central Asian Survey, Vol. 12, No. 2 (1993).

[11] These five characterizations are only to indicate the variety, not meant as serious conceptualizations.

[12] See Emil Dzhuraev, “Central Asian Stances on the Ukraine Crisis: Treading a Fine Line?” Connections: The Quarterly Journal, Vol. 14, No. 4 (2015).

[13] See, for example, “CSTO to send troops to Syria?” [“ОДКБ направит войска в Сирию?”], Azattyk.kg, December 22 2015, https://goo.gl/r3QlW7. While CSTO troop involvement in Russia’s operation in Syria never became a serious possibility, the question was raised frequently by Russian and Central Asian media and commentators. Russia’s operation in Syria itself was not immediately supported by the Central Asian leaders. See “Central Asian Countries on the Russian operation in Syria” [“Страны Центральной Азии об операции России в Сирии”], Maksim Lihachev, Russian Institute of Strategic Studies, November 13, 2015, https://goo.gl/3QOIOc.

[14] At a December 2015 press conference, Atambayev suggested that Turkey should apologize and the two sides should get back to business. In the subsequent year, precisely that scenario seems to have played out. The Kyrgyz government has further tested Turkey’s friendship more recently, following the failed coup and the sparks of anti-Gulen persecution there.

[15] Since the original time of this writing, Kyrgyz-Turkish relations have seen further complications in aftermath of the failed coup in Ankara in the summer of 2016, and the Kyrgyz-US relations have seen a slow and modest improvement of tone over time.

[16] “Kyrgyzstan: Russia pushing to get dam money back”, Eurasianet.org, August 17, 2016, https://goo.gl/nqVuYL

[17] “Atambayev called members of ‘People’s Parliament’ crapocrats,” [Атамбаев назвал «дерьмократами» членов «Народного Парламента»], Kloop, May 14, 2016, https://goo.gl/P3xRXP.

[18] President Atambayev expressed these sentiments, for example, in a press conference in August 2016, where he reiterated that Russia had the means but not the commitment to fulfill its promise to build the hydroelectric stations. See a compilation of his remarks during the press conference on the CA-Portal website, August 1, 2016, https://goo.gl/Foaa7L.

[19] With President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s coming to leadership of Uzbekistan, the possibility of positive intra-Central Asian developments has become a theme of talks for the first time in many years.