Central Asia is geographically distant from Europe and is officially outside of the European Union's Eastern Partnership program, which seeks to build closer economic and political ties between the European Union and the former Soviet states of Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. These nations are within the periphery of the European Union, whereas the five states of Central Asia are far out of this sphere. This distinction is important. It was former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich's November 2013 decision to reject the EU association and free trade agreement — the cornerstone of the Eastern Partnership program — that led to the uprising in Kiev, Yanukovich's ouster and the conflict between Ukrainian security forces and Russian-backed separatists in the east.
Central Asia's geographic and cultural distance from Europe has partly insulated it from the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other countries in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. Central Asian governments also tend to be centralized and authoritarian, preventing the European Union from making political inroads.
Despite this, Central Asia is feeling the effects of the crisis in Ukraine. Russia's historically strong regional position has enabled it to increase its own integration efforts with some Central Asian nations, countering moves by some former Soviet states to join NATO and the European Union. Meanwhile, Russia has started to feel the negative effects of Western sanctions, complicating its economic ties to Asia.
The five Central Asian states do not have uniform political systems or resource endowments. This means that the standoff between Russia and the West has played out differently in each country, producing a set of nuanced regional shifts that become evident only by examining each nation individually.
Geographically, Kazakhstan is the largest state in Central Asia. It is also the region's largest economy and the country most economically integrated with Russia because of its membership in the Russia-led Customs Union. As a result, Kazakhstan has been hit particularly hard by the faltering Russian economy, compounding its domestic economic troubles. Because the Kazakh tenge is pegged to the Russian ruble, the tenge devalued nearly 20 percent earlier this year.
This has not hindered Kazakhstan's plans to bring its economy closer to Russia's, however, and the country is set to join Russia's expanded Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. Russia has used this union to further economic integration between member states and as an alternative to Western blocs, including the European Union and NATO. Kazakhstan has been a willing participant in this effort, and its longtime president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been a loyal ally to Russia since the country separated from the Soviet Union. Concerned about the military confrontation in eastern Ukraine, Kazakhstan has strengthened its security and military ties to Russia through the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization security bloc as well.
But Kazakhstan is not exclusively bound to Russia, and its status as a major oil and natural gas producer has solidified its ties with the West and China. In recent years, Kazakhstan has strengthened its non-Russian relationships, increasing its commercial and investment connections to limit its dependence on Moscow. This push has had mixed results. But now, as the end of Nazarbayev's term looms, Russia could find it difficult to maintain its position in Kazakhstan. In the immediate future, however, the Ukraine crisis will only strengthen Kazakhstan's position in the Russian sphere.
Like its northern neighbor Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is also closely linked to the Russian economy and has been hurt by the standoff between Moscow and the West. Remittances from Russia make up nearly 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan's gross domestic product, presenting difficulties because migrants across Central Asia are suffering the effects of Russia's stagnating economy.
But this has not deterred Kyrgyzstan from working toward closer integration with Russia. Kyrgyzstan has announced plans to join the Customs Union and will likely become a member in 2015. Bishkek's interest in the bloc is motivated by Kyrgyzstan's weak economy, which remains highly dependent on Russian subsidies and financial assistance. Moscow recently announced that it will give the country $500 million in economic assistance, which will be essential to offset the negative consequences Kyrgyzstan's accession to the Custom Union will have on its role as a trans-shipment point for cheap Chinese imports to the bloc.
As it moves closer to Russia, Kyrgyzstan has also worked to limit Western influence in the country by closing the United States' Manas air base earlier this year and by expanding its role in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Kyrgyzstan also continues to rely on Russia as an energy provider and as an arbiter in competition with its neighbors over precious water resources. Therefore, Kyrgyzstan's ties to Russia will only grow amid Moscow's standoff with the West.
Much like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan is also heavily dependent on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. These contributions account for more than 40 percent of the country's GDP. This dependence, however, has not deterred Tajikistan from furthering its ties with Russia. Tajikistan's government has expressed interest in joining the Customs Union, though it has said it will wait to make a formal bid so that it can study the effects of Kyrgyzstan's accession.
The ruling regime in Tajikistan, like that in Ukraine, has had difficulties maintaining sovereignty over its restive east. To preserve the nation's territorial integrity, President Emomali Rakhmon has sought Russian assistance, and there are already 7,000 Russian troops stationed in Tajikistan. Tajikistan's proximity to Afghanistan has also deepened security concerns, which will likely mean a greater Russian presence in the future.
Unlike the clearly pro-Russian states of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (and to a lesser extent Tajikistan), Uzbekistan has maintained a more independent foreign policy in the region. Uzbekistan's large population and its self-sufficiency in energy and agriculture have facilitated this autonomy. Thus, Uzbekistan views Russia's integration projects with skepticism, and Tashkent has chosen not to join the Customs Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization. In the past, Uzbekistan has hosted Western military forces in the Karshi-Khanabad air base, which served as a transit facility for NATO operations in Afghanistan. In 2005, however, Uzbekistan's government closed the base after the West criticized Uzbek President Islam Karimov for a security crackdown in the eastern city of Andijan. Uzbekistan has since largely isolated itself from both Russia and the West, although the country does participate in NATO's Northern Distribution Network logistical route into Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is likely to maintain this isolation. Karimov's long presidency will soon be coming to an end, and this will likely heighten the competition between Russia and the West for influence in the country.
Turkmenistan has mirrored Uzbekistan's strategy of foreign policy isolation, preferring to avoid political and security alliances with Russia and the West. Turkmenistan's profile, however, has risen in recent years because it is an increasingly important producer and exporter of natural gas. This has made Turkmenistan interesting for Europeans trying to diversify away from Russian energy. The European Union, as a result, has continuously pushed for Turkmenistan to link up with Azerbaijan into the Southern Corridor energy route. This is something that Ashgabat has considered for more than 20 years, but because of intense opposition from Moscow, the government has so far acted cautiously in pursuing the plan. Despite the economic benefits such a project would afford Turkmenistan, Ashgabat is more concerned about Russia's potential security threat, especially in light of the current crisis, and will likely avoid implementing such a controversial project in the foreseeable future.