Putin's swift visit to Central Asia was another attempt to keep Russia's actively declining influence in the region


Good, bad, evil

Out of the five Central Asian countries, Vladimir Putin chose to visit only Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Formally, the voyage was associated with the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and these countries. So far, only these states are considered as regional allies by the Kremlin. 

Russia loses Central AsiaRelations between Russia and Turkmenistan are tense, and with Uzbekistan - at the stage of mutual "probing". In addition, the entire trio is part of the CSTO, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are also members of the Eurasian Economic Union. It is not a secret that the CSTO and the EEU are viewed by Russia as two main instruments for preserving political and economic influence within the post-Soviet space, which, nevertheless, is being reduced for various reasons.

There is another point that unites Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. All three states are on the verge of transition of power and Moscow couldn’t be less interested. This, incidentally, was well seen after the death of the first president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, when many Russian experts chorused that Russia had a wonderful opportunity to get a new pro-Russian Uzbek leader who will not only return Uzbekistan to the CSTO, but even make it a new member of the EEU.

The majority made a serious bet on the new president of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev, not understanding the Oriental diplomacy, which does not allow the leader to entice himself into a geopolitical corral where the "elder brother" standing with a whip. This misconception once disintegrated an equally actively promoted theory about the struggle of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for leadership in Central Asia. As it turned out, these arguments were also far from reality for one simple reason. Mythical leadership was not going to be recognized either in Bishkek, in Dushanbe, or in Ashgabat. A leader without satellites is like a naked king.


Ski diplomacy

According to the official information, one of the main aims of Putin's visit to Almaty was to discuss international issues, including the Syrian settlement. The conversation between the two presidents took place rather openly, not in ties, but in ski suits - in Shymbulak. Apart from the international topics, the Kremlin is probably interested in redistribution of power between the branches of government and the question of succession in Kazakhstan.

Putin also hinted that Russia relies on the support of Kazakhstan as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. This proves that Kazakhstan has received a high status not only for the flexible foreign policy which suits for the majority of geopolitical players. Kazakhstan`s candidacy was actively supported by Russia and China, expecting Kazakhstan will pay back for this “kindness". 

To be adopted in Security Council, a resolution should be supported not only by the five permanent members, but also at least four out of ten non-permanent members. Therefore, Russia, China and the United States are sensitive to the list of non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, trying to support those states that they can rely on in case of a vote.


Loyalty price

Russian president’s visit to Tajikistan took place not at the best phase of bilateral relations of two countries: aviation conflicts, the rapid reduction of Russian investments amid increased economic and political activity of China in Tajikistan, Dushanbe's bid for a multi-vector foreign policy and reluctance to enter the Eurasian Economic Union. To cover somehow these cracks, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon is about to be awarded with the Order of Alexander Nevsky for his personal contribution to strengthening the strategic partnership.

Most probably at the time of visit, the Russian president could also get to know the possible successor of Emomali Rahmon, his son Rustam, who recently became mayor of Dushanbe.

However, despite the "fracture line", there are two issues still binding Tajikistan to Russia. First is labor migrants. Although, according to the International Organization for Migration, money transfers from Russia to Tajikistan are declining: from $ 3.8 billion in 2014 to $1.28 billion in 2015. Secondly, Russia still remains a guarantor of Tajikistan's security against external threats: the 201st Russian military base is still deployed on the territory of the republic. Another question is whether the Russian military will become the same guarantors of security for Emomali Rahmon and his family from internal threats if the political elite of Tajikistan suddenly becomes less loyal to the Kremlin.

Meanwhile, Russia will continue to support stability in this country, since any internal destabilization in the country can open the door for radicals from Afghanistan.

As for the military base, back in October 2012 Tajikistan and Russia signed an agreement on extending its stay until 2042. Concurrently, the Russian president stated that the term of stay of labor migrants from Tajikistan will be increased to three years in Russia. Moreover, duties were eliminated for the supply of oil products to Tajikistan, and military assistance was promised in replace of rent for the stay of 201st base. 

However, from the perspective of investment activity, Russia looks less attractive than China. In 2016, China's direct financial injections accounted for 60 percent of total foreign investment attracted by Tajikistan. According to the leadership of Tajikistan, trade turnover with China should grow to $3 billion by 2020. For comparison, Russia's share in total investments to Tajikistan last year was only about 8 percent, although this figure was almost 30 percent in 2010.

Recently Gazprom International, a Gazprom subsidiary, announced the possible completion of its operations in two oil and gas fields in the country.

In 2016, the representative office of the Russian company Rusal stopped working in Tajikistan, which promised to complete the Rogun Dam, but never realized this project, also because of Uzbekistan’s opposition. 

Perhaps declining Russian investment activity also explains the reluctance of the Tajik leadership to accelerate the country's entry into the Eurasian Economic Union.

It was expected that Tajikistan would apply for membership in the EEU until the end of 2016. But the government had decided not to hurry up and set up a special working group to study the experience of participation of Kyrgyzstan and Armenia in the Eurasian Economic Union. It is hardly to say that this experience looks attractive.


The Lame Duck

This is how the Americans call their presidents, who are going to leave the White House soon. Apparently, it is of interest to Vladimir Putin to understand whether the head of Kyrgyzstan Almazbek Atambaev is the same "lame duck" that could drag from the political stage after the presidential elections in November. Or he will want to remain an active player in Kyrgyz politics. Moreover, the proposed amendments to the Constitution can open Atambaev's door to power, if not directly, then indirectly, given that he will try to push his people to the post of the new president or prime minister. However, Moscow is concerned only with the degree of loyalty of the future president of Kyrgyzstan to Russia. Moreover, the Kremlin could alert some of Atambayev's statements, which showed a decline of loyalty. Particularly, in December 2016, he said that although Russia would remain a strategic partner of Kyrgyzstan, but in the military terms, the republic should rely on its own forces. Moreover, he hinted that he does not exclude the closure of the Russian military base in Kyrgyzstan after the lease expires.

Although the air base in Kant formally represents the collective rapid reaction forces of the CSTO. Possibly, by making such statements, Bishkek simply decided to start another bargaining with Moscow, which also includes increasing financial support. Moreover, according to official figures, the largest share of Kyrgyzstan's mutual trade with the EAPC member countries in 2016 fell to Russia (about 55 percent) and Kazakhstan (43 percent).

In the investment sphere, the situation is much worse. Last year, the conflict between the Kyrgyz authorities and the Russian company RusHydro has continued, which threatened the Kyrgyz government to international arbitration for the construction of a hydroelectric power plant. We are talking about the recovery of $ 35-36 million due to the termination of the construction project of the Upper Naryn cascade of HPPs by the Kyrgyz side.

In the beginning of 2016, Atambaev signed a law on the denunciation of agreements with Russia on the joint construction of the Upper Naryn cascade of HPPs and Kambar Ata-1 HPP. The government of Kyrgyzstan then stated that the current situation in the Russian economy casts doubt on the implementation of agreements on the financing of projects. But, as in the case of Tajikistan, against a decline in the economic activity of Russian investors, the leadership of Kyrgyzstan relies on expanding economic partnership with China. In May 2016, during an official visit to Kyrgyzstan, Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested to look at the possibility of transferring 40 or more productions from China to Kyrgyzstan.

Moreover, a significant part of the funds for paying off the external debt of Kyrgyzstan goes to the state Export-Import Bank of China, which provided Bishkek with loans that worth more than $ 1 billion.

China, relying on the principle of "soft power", through its economic activity, leaves behind Russia, which has not yet realized that in the East, loyalty can not be retained only at the expense of military force: it must also be bought.

If to rephrase Al Capone, then "Colt can achieve a lot, but with money and Colt - much more."