Putin In Uzbekistan On Third Foreign Trip Of His New Term: Disregard For Kazakhstan Continues – OpEd


Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his third foreign trip since his re-election in March, arrived in ex-Soviet Uzbekistan on Sunday and met with his counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev. He had already visited China and Belarus since securing re-election. Kazakhstan is seen by many as one of the most important partners of Russia, along with China and Belarus. But it seems that those in the Kremlin see things differently.   

With a sober approach, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of Kazakhstan for Russia within the CIS. And it would seem that Moscow should give the Central Asian nation its due for being one of its two most reliable allies, along with Belarus, especially in the situation the Russian Federation finds itself in now. At first sight, it appears to be so. In reality, something different happens. And this has been repeated for decades.

Despite the fact that most reputable politicians and political experts in Russia recognize Astana as Moscow’s most consistent ally, the attitude of the media and, accordingly, public opinion of this country towards Kazakhstan as a whole remains the same as it was back in Soviet times. Arrogance and disdain are traits that predominate in them. 

This is how it was in Boris Yeltsin’s time, and, unfortunately, it remains so in Vladimir Putin’s time that has been going on for 25 years. And it seems there is nothing one can do about it. In conditions when things between the Russian Federation and the OECD countries have hit a rough patch, it seems that the loyalty of the leadership of Kazakhstan to the policy of maintaining the best neighborly relations with Russia seems all the more worthy of respect and recognition, but those in Moscow appear to be used to taking this line of conduct by Astana for granted and do not see it as something worthy of special appreciation.  

Times are changing, but the existing format of relations between Russia and Kazakhstan apparently hasn’t changed. After all, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a lot has happened that might have served as an impetus for the deterioration of relations between them. But during all this time, as far as is known, not a single tough, confrontational public statement was made by official representatives of Kazakhstan towards Russia and its leadership. Even with the fraternal Slavic republics, the Kremlin’s relations never were and are so rosy. Minsk, as the experience of the post-Soviet period shows, can easily afford to criticize certain aspects of the Russian leadership’s policy towards Belarus. Other CIS capitals and Moscow also occasionally exchange mutual accusations.

Thus, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, addressing Vladimir Putin directly, said that Tajikistan and other countries in the vast Central Asian region had been treated like outsiders. He made the comments on October 14, 2022, at a summit of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Putin appeared quite uncomfortable while hearing the Tajik President speaking. “We have always respected the interests of our main strategic partner”, Emomali Rahmon said, referring to Russia. “We want respect, too”. At one point, Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev asked him to stop, but the Tajik President refused, saying, “We came to talk”. That’s not so unusual for the Tajik President. It is even though Tajikistan has remained [and remains] heavily dependent on Russia since gaining independence. 

Whereas Astana, unlike other CIS capitals, has not afforded a single public criticism of the Kremlin to this day. That is, its policy towards Moscow is based on an unwritten rule, which can be formulated as follows: do not allow itself to be drawn into a public dispute with the Russian leadership and government. And it has remained valid for over thirty years. 

Throughout those decades, there have always been individual publications and authors in Russia who paid tribute to the restraint and consistency of the policy of the leadership of Kazakhstan in relations with Moscow. But these have been solitary cases. At the same time, there have been many other cases that may be regarded as, say, types of tactlessness that could have caused a conflict.

Let us take a look at some specific examples of that in the Russian media’s display. Vladimir Zhirinovky, Russian politician and leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) from 1991 to 2022, once recalled the idea of calling Kazakhs ‘zveri’  (‘animals’, ‘beasts’), just as, according to him, Kazakhstani Russians did in the Soviet period. Evgeny Fyodorov, a State Duma deputy, called the titular ethnic group of Kazakhstan, the Kazakhs, ‘nitshebrody’ (‘vagrants and beggars’, ‘trash’, ‘homeless people who beg for alms’).

In a word, there is still no shortage of authors and public figures in Russia who indulge their arrogance in relation to Kazakhstan in every possible way.  Why is there such a persistent tendency in Russia to speak in a derogatory tone about Kazakhstan and its leaders, its indigenous population? After all, such an attitude is demonstrated there concerning, say, not all countries of Central Asia. For example, the case is different when it comes to Uzbekistan which doesn’t so much care about Moscow’s attitude towards Tashkent. It is noticed that Russian political experts on Central Asia, when conflict situations arise between Tashkent and Moscow, look for an excuse not so much for the leadership of their own country, but for the Uzbek regime. And such a line of conduct is not typical of merely them. And it is naive to believe that it has nothing to do with the position of official Moscow.

Indeed, Putin has always said that the Kremlin regards Kazakhstan as Russia’s closest ally. Here we cannot help but note that the Russian leadership’s actions in relation to Kazakhstan often differ from their words.

Let us pay attention to the order in which Russian President Vladimir Putin – at the onset of his first tenure – paid official visits to capitals within the CIS. After all, nothing is done for nothing in diplomacy. In March 2000, Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia. A month later, in the first half of April, he went on an official visit to Ukraine. It had been impossible to do this even earlier. A nationwide referendum had then been held there on the issue of confidence in the Verkhovna Rada, or the parliament of Ukraine. On April 16, 2000, the first official visit of President Vladimir Putin to Minsk took place. That order of the first foreign trips of the then-newly elected head of Russia does not raise any questions. Ukraine and Belarus have always been the countries closest to Moscow. 

The first official visit of the second president of the Russian Federation to Transcaucasia was a trip to Yerevan. And this order may also be easily explained. Since the fall of the USSR, Armenia has been the country closest to Russia in Transcaucasia. Of the three republics there, it then was and still is the only one that was and is part of the CST (Collective Security Treaty) Organization.But in May 2000,  when the time came for the head of State to go on his first official visit to Central Asia, those in the Kremlin explicitly considered that Tashkent was more important for Moscow than Astana. Moreover, for Moscow, Ashgabat also turned out to be a priority over Astana, as after Uzbekistan, Vladimir Putin went to Turkmenistan.

In Moscow, the hierarchy of importance of the countries in the Central Asian region had most probably been built according to the model adopted at the beginning of the 20th century in the Tsarist Russia and then in Soviet Russia. According to it, unconditional preference over the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz was given first to the Uzbeks and Turkmens, and then to the Tajiks. This is a historical tradition, that goes back to the racial hierarchal system that in fact, existed in the Russian Empire, as well as in the Soviet Union. It seemingly continues into the present.

According to its requirements, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan were the first to receive the status of union republics in Central Asia. It was in 1925. At that time, there were almost 10 times fewer Turkmen in the USSR than Kazakhs. Tajikistan also became a union republic ahead of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 1929. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were given this status after another 7 years, in 1936. In about the same order, Vladimir Putin made his official visits to the Central Asian region at the beginning of the 21st century. In 2000, the Uzbeks and Turkmen were honored by his official visits following the same temporal order in which they had been given the status of union republics in 1925.

Here is what should also be noted. Vladimir Putin’s first official visits to Tashkent and Ashgabat in 2000 were targeted visits that were not combined with any other events. And he came to Astana for the first time almost six months later, in October 2000. His visit then was combined with participation in another meeting of the heads of the States Parties to the Treaty on the Customs Union in Astana. Vladimir Putin made his first targeted official visit to Kazakhstan only in January 2004, just two months before the next presidential election in Russia. He first visited Bishkek a little earlier, on the way home from Southeast Asia in December 2003.

What we see now, more than twenty years later, is history repeating itself. Russian President Vladimir Putin went right above Kazakhstan to Tashkent. Disregard for Astana continues.

Akhas Tazhutov

Akhas Tazhutov is a political analyst from Kazakhstan.

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