Will Russia Preserve Stability In Central Asia In 2021?

The Caucasus and Central Asia

Russia faced unprecedented challenges in its near aboard in the second half of 2020. Although Central Asia has been relatively stable, the region entered a period of turbulences in October, following controversial parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan. How will the upcoming constitutional referendum and presidential election in the former Soviet republic, as well as the parliamentary vote in neighboring Kazakhstan, affect Russia’s positions in this part of the world?

Last year, almost all of Moscow’s allies have been heavily destabilized. Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko’s days in power seem to be numbered. Allegedly pro-Russian President of Moldova Igor Dodon lost the presidential election in December and was replaced by pro-Western politician Maia Sandu. Armenia lost the war it fought against Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Kyrgyzstan sunk into chaos on October 5 following the disputed parliamentary elections. Several opposition parties staged mass protests in the capital, Bishkek, claiming that the vote was rigged. Protesters managed to seize the parliament building and the president’s office. Several weeks after mass protests paralyzed the country, President Sooronbai Jeenbekov resigned. 

The situation in the Central Asian nation is still very turbulent, since the country lacks legitimate authority. However, a group led by Sadyr Japarov dominates Kyrgyzstan’s political life. Japarov is an ex-lawmaker, and in 2017 he has been sentenced to eleven and a half years in jail for hostage-taking. During the October 2020 mayhem, he has been set free from prison by demonstrators. He has significant financial capabilities, controls the majority of administrative resources in the country, and is seen as a clear frontrunner in the presidential vote scheduled for January 10. 

At the same time, Kyrgyz voters are being asked to decide, in the vaguest of terms, to cast a preference on whether they wish to live under a presidential or a parliamentary system. According to recent opinion polls, 80 percent of the voters said they wanted Kyrgyzstan to be a presidential republic. It is worth noting that the Central Asian nation was a presidential republic until 2010. However, during this time, Kyrgyzstanis overthrew two presidents – Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

The presidential form of government is very popular in the post-Soviet space. Moreover, in some countries one person has been in power for decades. For instance, Vladimir Putin has been ruling Russia, be it as a president or prime minister, for 20 years. Nursultan Nazarbayev ruled Kazakhstan for 29 years. The first president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, ruled the country for 25 years until. Emomali “Leader of the Nation” Rahmon has been leading Tajikistan for 26 years. President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 26 years as well. 

Even though Sadyr Japarov is expected to win the election, and Kyrgyzstan will likely transform into a presidential republic, it is very improbable that the 52 year old politician will be able to play a consolidating role in the country that has a history of “color revolutions”. Kyrgyzstan had its first regime change in 2005 after the parliamentary elections. Mass demonstrations resulted in the overthrow of then-President Askar Akayev. Another Kyrgyz leader, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was ousted during the so-called People’s April Revolution in April 2010. Since the country’s geopolitical course has not changed over the past 15 years, it is unlikely that the current political turmoil will bring any significant changes.

In the post-Soviet space of Central Asia one of the key geopolitical chess games is being played between Russia, Turkey, China, the United States, Great Britain, the European Union and the Middle Eastern powers. Preserving the status quo in Central Asia seems to be one of Russia’s top priorities in the region. For Moscow, one of the most important things is that Kyrgyzstan – Russia’s ally in the Eurasian Union, as well as in the Collective Security Treaty Organization – remains relatively stable. Sadyr Japarov has so far ensured this stability. 

On the other hand, Kazakhstan is the only Russian ally that did not face any political turbulences in 2020. The energy-rich nation will hold parliamentary vote also on January 10. The lower house (Mazhilis) elections will be held for the first time since the resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2019. Prior to that, in August 2020, elections were held to the upper house – the Senate. Nazarbayev left his post, but he remains the chairman of the Security Council and the leader of the ruling Nur Otan party. 

It is worth noting that none of the five parties competing in the upcoming Kazakh elections are new, and all are pro-government. In Kazakhstan, according to some analysts, it is almost impossible to create a new party. There are more restrictions than ever before. In other words, there is barely any political pluralism in the country. Thus, Nur-Otan is expected to once again win the majority of the 98 seats in the Mazhilis. The campaign, according to reports, is very passive. In Kyrgyzstan, on the contrary, the parliamentary election campaign was quite active, but for the Kremlin energy-rich Kazakhstan has a much greater importance than neighboring Kyrgyzstan.

“Well, of course, we cannot look at what’s going on in Kyrgyzstan without pity and alarm. Yet we don’t meddle,” Russian President Vladimir Putin recently said.

In other words, given that Moscow’s reaction to the political crisis in the post-Soviet space is relatively passive, there is speculation that the Kremlin is trying to find a way to get rid of some of its client states, particularly those that do not have any natural resources. When it comes to Kyrgyzstan, despite its historical orientation towards Russia and close economic ties between the two countries, the forces that will come to power in 2021 may try to radically reform the country’s foreign policy. It remains to be seen how successful their attempts will be, given that the Central Asian nation remains heavily dependent on Moscow.

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