May 8-9, 1945, a historical turning point towards ending WWII has been celebrated as the Victory Day commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi forces. The choice of the anniversary has also been interpreted as a particular country’s pro-Western versus pro-USSR/Russian positioning.
Within this context, Central Asia, stands out as one of the most interesting regions not only with its historical background, but also due to current rivalries over the region among key global players and more recent intensified rivalry centered on the Chinese Bridge and Road Initiative gradually pushing the region and China closer to each other. Since the independence of the Central Asian Republics, an increasingly heated debate has been witnessed on the question of whether they should celebrate the Victory Day as a national commemoration of heroism and more importantly whether they should join the victory parade held in Russia. Aside from the political implications of such a choice, the symbolism of the St. George ribbon of the victory medal with the Tzarist era’s orange/gold and black colors (referring to fire and gunpowder) of it is reminiscent of the boundaries of Imperial Russia and suppression and the memories of Central Asian fighters who are seen by some portions of the societies in the region as sent for the Russian interests, further inflames this debate.
The debate over the Victory Day parade, especially after the war in Ukraine seems more heated than before, considering the threat perception is somehow higher in some Central Asian Republics, as in the example of Kazakhstan. With a Russian minority and the possibility that after the war regardless of its result, Russia can turn to the region for a deeper influence is being widely discussed. Kazakhstan’s cautious critical stance regarding the Russian move in Ukraine and the very war emerged as a fault line by itself within the country, too. However, one should not forget that the day is not only celebrated as a national holiday in many Central Asian Republics, but also recreational parks, monuments etc. are quite common in many cities in the region named after the day, over and over reproducing the memories of the “common past”.
With the “Russkiy Mir” doctrine and the Russian elite’s references to it is getting more and more frequent in the recent years, the celebrations posed a new challenge for the leaders considering both their domestic legitimacy and their country’s close proximity and relations with Russia. All the leaders’ attendance for the first time in years (last year, no leader was there and in 2021 only the Tajik president attended) was also a clear reflection of the Russian approach to this year’s parade as a friend and foe dichotomy amidst the Ukraine war atmosphere and highlighted the Central Asian Republics’ attitude in the face of such binary lenses.
Even though Putin’s spokesman Peskov, in late April announced that it would not be a big parade so they did not plan to invite leaders, over the next few weeks official invitations were sent or done directly by Putin over phone and the day turned into a clear friend and foe event. In spite of various levels of de-Russification efforts of the last thirty years and recent efforts to use Chinese leverage to balance Russian influence to some extent, various key factors from economic dependence to demography (i.e. Russian diaspora) and from military dependence to security concerns prevent the region from defying such a dichotomy.
Indeed, such a defiance is rationally far from cost effective. Mastered in living with two key powers for decades in proximity with another one trying to challenge them from thousands of miles away, the Central Asian elite proved themselves as chess masters and are well aware that this mastership could possibly be the key to their full sovereignty and future decades’ economic growth, or simply to realize their full potential.
The region has become more and more central to the global affairs, and the new great rivalry between not only China and the US, at a time of intensified efforts towards the realization of the BRI of which the key lifeline will pass through the region. But also, the region plays a key role in the silent but deep-rooted rivalry between Russia and China. The region, due to its geopolitical and geostrategic significance, its rich energy resources and relatively weak economies, has long been an area where China is trying to challenge the Russian influence to secure its access to energy resources as a leading energy demanding country and also to secure its surroundings. Additionally, the region is quite significant for the booming Chinese economy, it’s strategically important considering the Uyghur factor in China’s domestic and foreign resilience and narrative, and symbolically as a way of proving Sinophobic attitudes in various regions can be overcome with the Chinese leadership’s BRI and the discourse attached to it with an emphasis on mutually beneficial, harmonious and reciprocal network of relationships stretching beyond continents as a “benign hegemon” in the making, China, as the leading actor.
At a time of such complex dynamics and discussions came this year’s May 9 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. The event was quite disappointing in terms of the military vehicles and equipment shown, which was attributed to the Russian losses in Ukraine that might have either been vaporized or occupied a significant portion of the Russian military capability and the financial cost involved. Since the Russian forces are engaged in various theatres from the Middle East to Africa and to Ukraine, an overstretch of resources might also be thought as a reason.
At a time when Wagner forces allegedly suffered significant losses in various theatres and its commander attacked the Moscow elite due to the insufficient support provided to the group in the immediate aftermath of the Bakhmut operation, Russian military capability is further questioned. Still, on the other hand, with all the key NATO powers’ military support, considering the current state of affairs, resurrecting the debate about Ukraine’s accession to NATO would be a more costly debate after COVID-19 and the Russo-Ukraine War reminded almost all the NATO allies, especially with more advanced economies, about their key weaknesses regarding energy and logistics.
Still, as a result of a delicate calculation, all 5 countries attended this year’s parade, coinciding with the post-Ukraine war visits of Putin to those states in 2022, which can either be interpreted as Russian isolation pushed it towards the region or Russia wanted to reinforce its expansionism after Ukraine and sent a clear diplomatic message to all the countries in the region. This common gesture can also be seen as a way of precaution before the Central Asia-EU summit in Almaty ten days after the parade which coincided with a much higher level of summit between China and Central Asian leaders who joined Xi Jinping in China in a quite high-level ceremony where historical references to Tang Dynasty was also criticized by some as a way of intimidating the Central Asian leaders.
For instance in Kazakhstan, the debate emphasized several key topics including not only the participation of the President Tokayev but also a broader discussion about the country’s celebration of the day and the St. George ribbon itself. In Central Asia and primarily in Kazakhstan, a Russian potential move post-Ukraine War towards the region not only to either compensate for the loss of prestige or to reinforce its possible success in that front and to avoid the Chinese rise of influence in the region also raised criticisms in such an environment. The colors of the ribbon is also interpreted as a symbol of aggression and Russian expansionism and have nothing to do with the WWII historically since the Russian Empire was long gone when the war occurred.
Even though the Order of Saint George the “Dragon Slayer” who lived in 11th -12th century, was associated with red and white, the Imperial Russian colors of orange and black was used once as the medal formed by Catherine the Great as the highest level of military medal in the 18th Century. With its full name the Military Order of the Holy Great Martyr and Victorious George was introduced in 1769 and only 23 people had it in the Imperial Russia. The medal itself was abolished in 1917 as a sign of imperialism and seen as such for several decades and mainly used by Russian nationalists indeed. However, during the war, the approach changed with a move to get a a further push from historical and spiritual symbols for mobilization and the medal with the Imperial Russia’s colors were re-introduced, this time with a “slight difference”, not with a cross but with a communist star and the name “Order of Glory”.
Until the last few days before the parade, the participation of Tokayev was a question and many see his participation as a humiliation for its own country and proud historical background whereas some also saw it as a strategic and possibly unwilling participation to not further alienate Russia in the face of a post-Ukraine move. It was also quite noteworthy that even though he attended to the event he continued the recent tradition of not wearing the ribbon and the medal following the footsteps of late Nazarbayev era. Since the ribbon refers to the Tzarist era when one of the most powerful waves of the Russian colonization of Central Asia, happened. The ribbon’s color selection is also in circulation with the Russian military move recently with the Z symbols colored in those same colors. In the ex-Soviet space, the ribbon is also used to highlight pro-Russian stance as in the case of Maidan incidents in 2014 after which the then PM Poroshenko banned the use of the St. George Ribbon.
There seems to be more than one symbolism; one is about the desire to increase Russian influence in the region once again and the other is an implicit reference to the Russian military power in doing so as an implicit threat and show of strength. As a result of this, Kazak leadership changed the colors to its own flag’s colors in domestic celebrations. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan followed the case and changed the ribbon’s colors to their flag’s colors and Turkmenistan to white.
The Belarusian president, who is argued to have a quite bad health condition was, unsurprisingly at the parade proudly with the medal and the ribbon. Therefore, it seems that even though participation is not a question to be argued about yet due to the Russian influence politically, its role in the regional countries’ economy reaching far beyond remittances and spilling over to all sectors, and demographic power sociologically, still challenging the past and a slow and silent effort to balance the Russian influence with the Chinese ambitions seem to be one of the way forwards in the region without overseeing the existential significance of a delicate chess game.
This is more the case especially for Kazakhstan as one of the key actors in the region for the realization of the BRI and seemingly the epicenter of the Russian-Chinese rivalry in the region where just two months before the US Secretary of State Blinken made a regional visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan (which is th US’ no.1 trading partner in the region with a modest $3 billion in 2022. The US had formed an Economic Resilience Initiative for Central Asia in 2022 with $25 million and Blinken announced that the amount will be doubled during the visit, an amount that is far below the Chinese and Russian economic presence on the ground. Still, it was also noteworthy that the Kazakh decision to seize TsENKI’s property, a subsidiary of Roscosmos, responsible for launch pads and ground support equipment in the same month, which might or might not be a mere coincidence.
It seems that the increasing voices against the Central Asian presidents’ participation, also as a part of identity construction and constructing it against the historical background of the “Russian oppression” will keep challenging the regional influence of Russia and regime legitimacy domestically whereas vice versa will also threaten both domestic and foreign policies and very existential stability of the region’s states, too.
In Kazakhstan, the day is being celebrated along with naming recreational parks and social centers and it is celebrated with special events, concerts at shopping malls and city squares and with national holiday where veterans are saluted as “batırs” in Kazakh or war heroes of not only the Kazakh nation but of the, and primarily, the Soviet Union or кеңес одағы in Kazakh. The day is not only a way of reinforcing national unity with symbolic sights but also to highlight the fact that the victory was not achieved by only Russians and thus as a source of pride, statehood, and national presence not only domestically but against Russia, too.
Several outliers are also present here where the war is not referred to as the Great Patriotic War as in the other countries of the region but as WWII and does not celebrate it with a military parade (instead doing so in the anniversaries of the formation of the Uzbek Armed Forces), renaming the day as the Day of Rememberance and Honor. Turkmenistan does not celebrate the day as a national holiday and Victory Day was only celebrated in 2020 after the independence. With the strengthening relations between China and Turkmenistan on energy and Gazprom’s forced return to the country might be interpreted as one of the dimensions of such a policy line. Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand switched its military parade to a requirem gathering.
In fact, still for many Kazakhs the fire of anger is alive due to the victory day in Berlin when a Kazakh national placed the USSR flag but the picture was refabricated with a Russian soldier doing it. And it is also important to note that in the last five years, there was no military parade on the day in Kazakhstan highlighting a deliberate move which also reflects the Kazakh debates against the commemoration of the day since the day is also instrumentalized by Russia to underline the existence of the Russkiy Mir as the orange and black or gold and black colours and increasingly the letter Z as threatening symbols by remembering the past and underline the desire to resurrect it. It was also seen as a way of showing the Kazakh position on the war with Ukraine which the country also sent humanitarian aid to Moscow’s annoyance.
This came amidst debates about Kazakh arms exports to the UK for the equipment to be sold to Ukraine by the company Technoexport. Russian TV host Tigran Keosayan in May condemned the Kazakh people as being ungrateful not only due to the WW2 memories but more importantly due to the CSTO’s deployment of troops during the Yanvar incidents, which, itself is seen as an aggression by itself by many Kazakhs. This statement by him costed him a persona non grata status. Even though Ruslan Jaksylyqov stated that the parade will cost around 8 million euros which is seen as a waste for now at a time military preparedness and training is a priority, it seems far from coincidental. Subsequently both in domestic politics, the anti-9 May faction might keep strengthening over the years with China stepping in as a way of balancing against Russia and in case of a failure in Ukraine, Ukraine supporters in the West might spill over their support to the region, too. Kazakhstan, with its more educated opposition.
Overall, it is valid to argue that in Central Asia, where long formed ties with Russia are still the number one priority for the region, the Chinese involvement in the game will keep the Central Asian Republics’ effort to balance Russia alive with delicate steps, nation and state-building processes gradually will turn into critical stances towards the “common” memories, and any room for maneuverability will be kept seeing as a way of revising the regional and global posture of the countries. The key axis on the ground will definitely be the Russo-Sino axis where short-term cooperation will fail to overcome mid-to long term inevitable rivalry. Even though for the time the rivalry is unspoken due to the window of opportunity based on logistics and energy vis-à-vis NATO, it is more vocal than ever in deeds in a region where the Western moves are modest at best and capabilities are highly unquestionable whereas Russian influence is deep-rooted and cost effective for many and Chinese activism provides many prospects from economic prosperity to a chance to balance Russia and from higher levels of global engagement to a new and booming market for the region’s economies and its hunger for remittances. A new set of dynamics in the region, too ambitious to be realized in the short term and too unrealistic to not operationalize in the mid to long term seems to be in the making, already took an irreversible path.
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Göktuğ Sönmez has a bachelor’s degree in International from Bilkent University, a master’s degree in International Relations from London School of Economic (LSE), and a PhD in Politics and International Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His research areas are International Relations Theory, Turkish Foreign Policy, Political Violence, Eurasian Politics, and Bridge and Road Initiative. Over the years, he has conducted various study visits, projects, and been published and presented in various international outlets. He is teaching now at the IR Department at the Akhmat Yassawi University in Turkestan, Kazakhstan.