.
R

ussian influence in Central Asia is still relatively strong, although there are indications suggesting that the Kremlin could soon face numerous challenges in the region. Anti-Russian sentiment in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are not yet part of the political mainstream, but there are fears that, in the foreseeable future, Moscow’s allies could eventually turn into another Ukraine.

Ever since the violent protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2013 and 2014 resulted in the overthrow of the allegedly pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin has effectively lost control over the Eastern European country. The Western-backed Ukraine has been gradually imposing both de-communization and de-Russification in the former Soviet republic. It all started with demolition of Vladimir Lenin monuments in the first days of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. As a result of the war in the energy-rich Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian Army and the Russian-backed forces, Kyiv has banned several Russian social networks. The conflict, as well as Moscow’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation have led to a large resentment towards Russia among the Ukrainian population. 

In 2019, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a controversial language law. According to the document, the only state and official language in the country is Ukrainian, which was interpreted by many as an attack on the rights of millions of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. In July 2021, The Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine passed the bill on indigenous peoples, which drew criticism from Moscow given that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine—around 17 percent of the population, according to the 2001 census—will not be considered indigenous people. There is, however, very little the Kremlin can do regarding the status of the Russian language and the ethnic Russians in the Eastern European nation. Ukraine is now firmly in the Western geopolitical orbit, and Russia’s zone of influence ends around Donetsk and Lugansk in the East, and on the border between Crimea and Ukraine in the South. 

In Central Asia, on the other hand, Russia’s positions are still solid. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—both members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization—Russian is still the official language. However, according to reports, there is a growing number of incidents caused by the everyday use of the Russian language in both nations. For instance, the so-called language patrols began in Kazakhstan in August, demanding to be served by people speaking Kazakh language instead of Russian. Russia’s state-owned RT channel recently reported about a doctor living in Kazakhstan who was allegedly forced to publicly apologize for speaking Russian. Administration of the President of Kazakhstan called the actions of "language patrols" unacceptable, and in an attempt to reduce tensions the country’s Commissioner for Human Rights appealed to the General Prosecutor's Office concerning the language incidents. 

At the same time, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz man hit a Russian woman in a games park, allegedly for speaking Russian. While the Kremlin remains mostly silent and rather impotent regarding Ukrainian official policy on the Russian language, in Central Asia Moscow seems to have a different approach. Russian media and politicians have quickly orchestrated a campaign calling the incidents in Central Asia “Russophobic” and demanding from the Kremlin to reduce the number of Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia. 

“Russians have for centuries, often at their own detriment, developed their periphery, built cities and enterprises, and brought enlightenment to Central Asia. Even today, hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz families live off earnings in Russia. Our patience is running out”, said Russian systemic opposition figure Vladimir Zhirinovsky who staged a protest in front of the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow on August 10. 

Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, said that all former Soviet republics are still very dependent on Russia, and pointed out that none of them are self-sufficient, “either in security or economic terms”. In addition, Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia Department of the CIS Institute, stressed that it is good that the Russian media have started paying attention to “Russophobia” in Kyrgyzstan.

“A country that is absolutely dependent on Moscow must somehow make sure that its citizens, if not respect than just have a normal and calm attitude towards Russia”, Grozin emphasized

Even though all those incidents are more or less minor, and are unlikely sponsored by the highest authorities in Central Asian nations, the Kremlin seems to be determined to prevent any potential “Ukrainian scenarios” in the Russian zone of influence. That is why Russia strongly opposes the U.S. plans to deploy its troops in the region following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russian policymakers are quite aware that their alliance with Central Asian nations is very fragile, and that other local and global actors—namely Turkey, the U.S. and China—are expected to attempt to increase their influence in the region. The geopolitical battle for Central Asia has just begun.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Russia’s Struggle for Central Asia: Language as a Political Instrument

Photo via AdobeStock.

September 9, 2021

Russia's influence in Central Asia could be slipping even as China, Turkey, and the U.S. are seeking to expand their influence regionally. One key indicator of Russia's challenge is a backlash against the dominance of the Russian language in Central Asian countries, writes Nikola Mikovic.

R

ussian influence in Central Asia is still relatively strong, although there are indications suggesting that the Kremlin could soon face numerous challenges in the region. Anti-Russian sentiment in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are not yet part of the political mainstream, but there are fears that, in the foreseeable future, Moscow’s allies could eventually turn into another Ukraine.

Ever since the violent protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square in 2013 and 2014 resulted in the overthrow of the allegedly pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin has effectively lost control over the Eastern European country. The Western-backed Ukraine has been gradually imposing both de-communization and de-Russification in the former Soviet republic. It all started with demolition of Vladimir Lenin monuments in the first days of post-Yanukovych Ukraine. As a result of the war in the energy-rich Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian Army and the Russian-backed forces, Kyiv has banned several Russian social networks. The conflict, as well as Moscow’s incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation have led to a large resentment towards Russia among the Ukrainian population. 

In 2019, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a controversial language law. According to the document, the only state and official language in the country is Ukrainian, which was interpreted by many as an attack on the rights of millions of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. In July 2021, The Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine passed the bill on indigenous peoples, which drew criticism from Moscow given that ethnic Russians living in Ukraine—around 17 percent of the population, according to the 2001 census—will not be considered indigenous people. There is, however, very little the Kremlin can do regarding the status of the Russian language and the ethnic Russians in the Eastern European nation. Ukraine is now firmly in the Western geopolitical orbit, and Russia’s zone of influence ends around Donetsk and Lugansk in the East, and on the border between Crimea and Ukraine in the South. 

In Central Asia, on the other hand, Russia’s positions are still solid. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan—both members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization—Russian is still the official language. However, according to reports, there is a growing number of incidents caused by the everyday use of the Russian language in both nations. For instance, the so-called language patrols began in Kazakhstan in August, demanding to be served by people speaking Kazakh language instead of Russian. Russia’s state-owned RT channel recently reported about a doctor living in Kazakhstan who was allegedly forced to publicly apologize for speaking Russian. Administration of the President of Kazakhstan called the actions of "language patrols" unacceptable, and in an attempt to reduce tensions the country’s Commissioner for Human Rights appealed to the General Prosecutor's Office concerning the language incidents. 

At the same time, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, a Kyrgyz man hit a Russian woman in a games park, allegedly for speaking Russian. While the Kremlin remains mostly silent and rather impotent regarding Ukrainian official policy on the Russian language, in Central Asia Moscow seems to have a different approach. Russian media and politicians have quickly orchestrated a campaign calling the incidents in Central Asia “Russophobic” and demanding from the Kremlin to reduce the number of Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia. 

“Russians have for centuries, often at their own detriment, developed their periphery, built cities and enterprises, and brought enlightenment to Central Asia. Even today, hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz families live off earnings in Russia. Our patience is running out”, said Russian systemic opposition figure Vladimir Zhirinovsky who staged a protest in front of the Kyrgyz Embassy in Moscow on August 10. 

Konstantin Zatulin, the first deputy chairman of the Duma Committee for CIS Affairs, said that all former Soviet republics are still very dependent on Russia, and pointed out that none of them are self-sufficient, “either in security or economic terms”. In addition, Andrei Grozin, the head of the Central Asia Department of the CIS Institute, stressed that it is good that the Russian media have started paying attention to “Russophobia” in Kyrgyzstan.

“A country that is absolutely dependent on Moscow must somehow make sure that its citizens, if not respect than just have a normal and calm attitude towards Russia”, Grozin emphasized

Even though all those incidents are more or less minor, and are unlikely sponsored by the highest authorities in Central Asian nations, the Kremlin seems to be determined to prevent any potential “Ukrainian scenarios” in the Russian zone of influence. That is why Russia strongly opposes the U.S. plans to deploy its troops in the region following the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russian policymakers are quite aware that their alliance with Central Asian nations is very fragile, and that other local and global actors—namely Turkey, the U.S. and China—are expected to attempt to increase their influence in the region. The geopolitical battle for Central Asia has just begun.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.