This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
As of last week, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov was the lone Central Asian leader slated to attend Russia’s Victory Day military parade — a celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany that has become evermore contentious since Moscow’s 2014 military intervention in Ukraine morphed into a full-scale invasion last year.
There were even rumors that Japarov’s participation was in doubt after a drone set part of a Kremlin building ablaze and had Moscow claiming it was a Ukrainian plot to assassinate Russian leader Vladimir Putin — an accusation Kyiv was quick to deny.
But by the eve of the May 9 holiday, leaders from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan had also arrived in Moscow for the greatly scaled-down, tightly controlled military parade, making it five out of five for the region.
Their presence in the Russian capital alongside Putin, Belarusian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka, and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian has again highlighted Central Asia’s role as a crutch for Russia, whose international isolation has deepened markedly in the past 15 months.
In the event, all of them sat through a speech in which Putin condemned “Western globalist elites” for “sowing hatred, Russophobia, aggressive nationalism,” and destroying “family, traditional values,” refrains he has used often since he launched the full-scale war in Ukraine in February 2022.
Putin also expressed pride in the fighters of the “special military operation” — the Kremlin’s wording for the invasion — and stressed it was “very important” that the other leaders had joined him in Moscow, where they enjoyed an “informal breakfast” together.
Writing on Twitter, Dionis Cenusa of the Lithuanian-based Eastern Europe Studies Center argued that each of the Central Asian leaders have their own “transactional relationships” with the Kremlin, “which they care about more than reputational costs relative to the West that is trying to build separate platforms of strategic cooperation.”
But with the Kremlin enjoying some form of leverage over all of the region’s countries, what individual motivations might have moved each leader to ignore those costs and attend the highly politicized event?
Kazakhstan’s Tightrope Walk
Since the war began, Kazakhstan has issued Central Asia’s most pronounced positions in support of Ukrainian territorial integrity, while vowing not to undermine the sanctions against Moscow that it views as counterproductive.
Nevertheless, none of the statements made since the invasion began last year has amounted to direct criticism of Moscow, and Astana has shown relative restraint in the face of attacks from Russian pundits and politicians, some of whom have gone as far as threatening their southern neighbor with a Ukraine-style invasion.
Political analyst Dimash Alzhanov told RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service that President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev’s presence at the May 9 parade showed that “all the talk about Kazakhstan being independent and pursuing a balanced foreign policy breaks apart in reality.”
Central Asian countries, “having failed to create the basis of their economic and political independence, are not able to stand up to the Kremlin,” Alzhanov argued.
In recent weeks, Kazakhstan has hosted multiple Western officials for discussions about the observance of U.S., U.K., and EU sanctions against Russia, amid concerns that Moscow’s closest trading partners are being used to circumvent the sanctions regime.
But while Kazakhstan is the country of the region with arguably the greatest exposure to potential secondary sanctions, its exposure to Russia is greater still.
This was highlighted last year, during multiple stoppages at an oil pipeline that carries Kazakh crude through Russia and that terminates at the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk.
Astana relies on the pipeline for more than half of its exports, and the delays prompted concerns — though not voiced by Kazakh officials — that Moscow was leveraging the pipeline to force Kazakhstan to be more supportive.
Impoverished Rivals: Kyrgyzstan And Tajikistan
Central Asia’s two poorest countries are logically the region’s two most dependent on Russia.
Last year, in spite of the war in Ukraine, the number of remittances sent home by hundreds of thousands of Tajik and Kyrgyz citizens toiling in Russia actually rose, helping to prop up job-scarce, inflation-heavy economies.
But although migration is a card that Russia is happy to play in bilateral relations, it is the pair’s unresolved and increasingly explosive border conflict that may have made Moscow and May 9 a no-brainer for both Kyrgyzstan’s Japarov and Tajikistan’s Emomali Rahmon.
In 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic still a factor, Rahmon was the only foreign leader to attend the parade in Moscow, where Putin was hosting him for talks.
This went down badly with many Kyrgyz, who viewed it as a sign of Russia’s tacit support for Tajikistan just over a week after clashes had left dozens dead on both sides, signposting a new escalatory precedent in the standoff.
Not all of them believed Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who insisted Rahmon’s visit had been planned and scheduled before the three-day conflict broke out.
Last year, Putin was thrust into a role as mediator in the conflict at Kyrgyzstan’s request, and both countries will be mindful of the need to stay on Moscow’s good side, if only to avoid being on its bad side.
Moscow has plenty of space to play divide and rule if it wants to, moreover. Photos of a pre-parade informal breakfast for the eight national leaders suggested that Japarov had not attended, with the social media rumor mill suggesting he had not wanted to be at the same table as Rahmon.
Turkmenistan’s Russian Propaganda Trend
Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov’s attendance at the parade in Moscow will surprise nobody who has been following warming Turkmen-Russian relations in recent years.
With Ashgabat overwhelmingly reliant on sales of natural gas to China, the Russian energy giant Gazprom’s decision to reenter the Turkmen gas market and offset this dependence somewhat has been the perfect tonic for the deeply authoritarian regime there.
Western leverage over the isolated country, in contrast, is negligible.
RFE/RL correspondents reported last year that Turkmen security services have been actively propagating an anti-Western, anti-Kyiv line in talks with young people, blaming the Ukraine war on the “poisonous influence” of Western media.
This might have confused many young people in their audience, given that the local media space is almost completely dominated by Turkmen government propaganda, which hardly mentions Ukraine, other conflicts, or bad news in general.
Uzbekistan’s Ballot Box Fever
Uzbek leader Shavkat Mirziyoev traveled to Moscow immediately after calling a snap presidential election that will allow him to stay in office until 2040 and just a week after overseeing a referendum on constitutional changes viewed as tightening his grip over the country.
The Uzbek leader can be confident of not facing any real opponents in the July 9 vote, as Uzbekistan has no tradition of competitive elections.
But he will still be mindful to shore up Moscow’s backing for his rule, which has been rocked recently by bloody unrest in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, chronic energy shortages, and persistent inflation.
This March, Mirziyoev offered full-throated support for ally Moscow, pledging that Russia and Uzbekistan were and will be together “in the most difficult times.”
In October of last year, he awarded Putin with Uzbekistan’s highest Order of Friendship.
But the tightening ties between the two countries have not yet persuaded Uzbekistan to rejoin the six-member, Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which it quit in 2012, or to accede to the Eurasian Economic Union, where Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan all have membership along with Russia.
Nor have closer relations changed Tashkent’s behavior at the United Nations, where Uzbekistan and the other four Central Asian countries have so far abstained from or not voted on UN resolutions condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.