What was Putin doing in Central Asia?
The Russian President's visit to the former Soviet Central Asian republics focused on combatting the terrorist threat from neighboring Afghanistan, forging cooperation within the Eurasian Economic Union and getting to know possible presidential candidates in Kyrgyzstan.
On Feb. 26-28, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Despite the trip’s planned nature, there was an almost total absence of official statements. Nevertheless, experts were able to learn several important aspects.
The Russian leader’s first stop was Kazakhstan, the most prosperous of all Central Asian countries and the strongest supporter of Eurasian integration, known as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Kazakhstan is also Russia's strategic foreign policy partner; Astana hosts the Syrian peace talks.
Putin's friendly relations with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev helped combine political discussions with downhill skiing. Experts believe that Moscow considers Kazakhstan "responsible" for the Central Asian direction of the EAEU, and the presidents just had to compare notes before Putin's visit to more problematic countries: Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Tajikistan is a candidate for EAEU membership, however, the republic's integration talks have been going on for several years and current problems require a quick solution. Several agreements were signed in Dushanbe during Putin's visit. Although the most significant was the Agreement on Cooperation in the Field of the Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy, which deals with the restoration of two nuclear research reactors, Moscow was more interested in agreements on the development of Russian schools in Tajikistan, in particular, the construction of 20 new scientific learning centers.
"Tajikistan will finance the schools, but the material infrastructure will be provided through Russian state investments," said First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.
Not only will Tajik migrant workers in the future go to Russia better educated and more knowledgeable of the Russian language, but elements of Russia's soft power will be promoted. The Kremlin is worried that it’s losing the post-Soviet landscape in the cultural sense, especially in those countries where "the Russian ideological project" has strong competitors in the form of Euro-Atlanticism, or Islamism.
Besides cultural help, Moscow is also ready to give economic assistance to Tajikistan, not only to prevent the further degradation of the Tajik state but also to prevent Tajikistan from falling into China's economic orbit. In 2015, China's direct investments in Tajikistan were 81.2 percent of the foreign total, and it appears that this share will only increase.
Putin promised to create favorable conditions for Tajik fruit and vegetables on the Russian market, as well as "to pardon" some of the illegal Tajik migrant workers. Money transfers from Tajik migrants constitute up to $2 billion annually, which is a third of Tajikistan's GDP.
The leaders also discussed the issue of Tajikistan’s security, especially in its southern regions. "In neighboring Afghanistan are very complex issues, which we are very concerned about," said Putin.
The last stop on Putin's journey was Kyrgyzstan. Formally, the visit in Bishkek ended with a joint presidential declaration on their nations’ common future and the signing of two intergovernmental documents: one about the fight against infectious diseases; and another helping Kyrgyzstan in the EAEU membership process.
In fact, however, the Russian president flew to the Kyrgyz capital to solve two important issues. The first involved talks on the consequences of Kyrgyzstan's EAEU membership, which took effect in August 2015. Kyrgyzstan's economy has already felt the benefits, but some powerful interests in the republic are dissatisfied with EAEU membership. And this concerns not only the fact that they lost significant resources due to the reduction of contraband trade with China. Some experts believe this mood is linked to officials' basic desire to avoid responsibility for the stolen money.
"Kyrgyzstan's government didn’t use the two-year EAEU holiday to solve its juridical problems; for example, it didn’t launch a network of certified agricultural laboratories that could help Kyrgyz produce enter the Eurasian market. Russia and Eurasian structures provided the money for this process but it’s still not complete," said Nikita Mendkovich, head of the Eurasian Analytic Club.
Now, Bishkek is trying to obtain more money from Moscow and it seems Putin has agreed to provide it. "With the help of brotherly Russia we will solve the remaining problems of full-fledged EAEU membership by the end of the year and by that time the small obstacles and barriers will be removed," said Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev.
The second issue was power transference. At the end of the year Kyrgyzstan will have presidential elections, and "current president Almazbek Atambaev not only will not participate but has already said that the elections may result in the change of the entire government; meaning that his entourage may resign along with him," said Mendkovich.
Russia must also deal with the fact that Western foundations are more active in Kyrgyzstan in order to present a single pro-Western candidate. Kyrgyzstan would be important not only for wrecking Eurasian integration, but also for possibly applying pressure on its eastern neighbor, China, which Trump intends to do.
Therefore, it’s important for the Kremlin that the presidentual elections take place peacefully and as expected. Hence, people in Bishkek are convinced that Putin came not only to receive an Arabian horse from the Kyrgyz president, but also to review the presidential candidates.