ZOiS Spotlight 8/2018

Central Asia and Russia’s presidential election

by Ann-Sophie Gast 07/03/2018
Russia is no longer an undisputed hegemon in Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev in conversation with Russian President Putin. Pressestelle des russischen Präsidenten

In less than two weeks, a presidential election takes place in Russia. The outcome is fairly clear: Vladimir Putin will almost certainly be re-elected for a fourth term as president. However, in Central Asia, neither the media nor the scientific community seems to care much. This is partly because the election is perceived as a foregone conclusion, partly because of censorship. But it also reflects Russia’s slowly decreasing importance for the region.

Poor coverage

Media outlets in the five Central Asian republics—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—pay hardly any attention to the upcoming Russian election. Not only is there little coverage in the media, but there is also scarce intellectual analysis of Putin’s campaign, his opponents, the election outcome, and the consequences for Central Asia. In fact, the US presidential contest in 2016 received much more attention than this year’s Russian election.

The main reason for the widespread lack of interest in the Russian vote is the near certainty of the outcome, which is characteristic of presidential elections in this part of the world (although the result of the 2017 Kyrgyz presidential election was by no means predictable). Another reason is political censorship: just as Central Asia’s ruling elites do not like outside interference in their elections, so they refrain from meddling in Russia’s domestic affairs.

Yet there is a third reason, which has to do with low levels of political analysis in Central Asia. On the one hand, there is no tradition of analytical coverage of elections: media monitoring by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) during the Kyrgyz presidential election revealed sixty-eight hours of paid political advertising, compared with only nineteen hours of informative campaign coverage. On the other hand, analysts carefully refrain from taking sides in favour of any of the candidates, to avoid trouble.

Russia’s loss of hegemony

Although Russia is still a key player in Central Asia, its importance is gradually declining as other powerful actors penetrate the region. At the same time, the Central Asian regimes are becoming more skilful at developing and profiting from various partnerships. China is undeniably Russia’s largest competitor. Several years ago, Beijing replaced Moscow as the main trading partner and investor in Central Asia. However, the geostrategic location of the region as well as its resource wealth attract other regional and global actors, such as Turkey, Iran, India, the EU, and the US, which compete for access and influence.

In addition, the Russian populations in all five countries have been steadily decreasing. In Kazakhstan, Russians still make up 23.7 per cent of the overall population, but in the other four republics, the share of Russians lies between 4 per cent (Turkmenistan) and 6 per cent (Kyrgyzstan).

 Moreover, in all five countries, governments are making efforts to strengthen national culture and language at the expense of Soviet heritage and the Russian language. Despite the region’s common past and cultural, economic, and political ties, Russia is no longer an undisputed hegemon in Central Asia. The Central Asian states do not depend solely on Russia anymore and have managed to diversify their foreign affairs.

No change for Central Asia?

At first glance, not much will change for the five Central Asian countries after the Russian election on 18 March. However, it is important to remember that a lot has changed already during Putin’s last presidential term. Russia was hit by a severe economic crisis that spilled over to the Central Asian economies. Regime changes took place in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. China replaced Russia as the most important economic actor in Central Asia and launched its massive infrastructure project Belt and Road, which challenges Russia’s regional hegemony even more. And finally, Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus created the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), the first working economic integration project in Eurasia.

Moreover, as Russia’s Western neighbourhood has become ever more fragmented, not least since the Ukraine conflict that began in 2014, the five ‘stans’ have started to figure more prominently in Russia’s foreign policy interests. During recent years, Putin has noticeably intensified bilateral exchange with all five states. At the same time, the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was a shock to the Central Asian regimes. Especially Kazakhstan, with its large Russian minority in the north of the country close to the Russian border, was not amused. Comments by the leader of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, about grouping the Central Asian republics together as subjects of Russia did not make things easier.

Looking beyond Putin

Nonetheless, with Putin the Central Asian regimes have a stable and more-or-less predictable partner, who supports their stability and persistence. Given that the Russian constitution prevents Putin from winning yet another presidential term, what is more interesting than the upcoming election is who will follow him in 2024 and how the race to succeed him will unfold in the coming six years.

Putin’s succession is not just about replacing a single person; it is about rebuilding the state. Autocratic elites are usually interested first and foremost in their survival and therefore shift loyalties to the candidate who is most likely to ensure that survival in economic and political terms. The five Central Asian presidents will follow closely what happens in Russia’s highest circles in the years to come. However, unlike Russia, they do not have the power to propel their desired candidate to power.

Ann-Sophie Gast is a research fellow at ZOiS. She is part of the editorial board of Zentralasien-Analysen.