‘I was naive about Russia’: Central Asians on the Ukraine war
Central Asian states keep close ties with Moscow, but younger citizens of former Soviet nations are questioning traditional alliances.
Kyiv, Ukraine – Serik Talipzhanov does not like Russia any more.
The 32-year-old bank cashier lives in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s former capital and the financial hub of ex-Soviet Central Asia.
The city is still largely Russian-speaking, and Talipzhanov, who can name several generations of his ethnic Kazakh forefathers, considers Russian his mother tongue.
But his opinion about Kazakhstan’s former imperial master and beacon of soft power underwent an ideological U-turn in the past year, mostly due to the widely documented atrocities Russian servicemen committed in Ukraine.
“I was very naive about Russia,” he told Al Jazeera by phone. “I always thought that even if politically things were getting worse up there, their culture made up for it.”
But he and like-minded Kazakhs are still in the minority.
Opinion polls about what Central Asians think about Russia are rare.
The latest one was conducted in September by the Central Asian Barometer, a regional research group, only in Kazakhstan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.
Only 28 percent of Kazakhs blamed Russia for starting the war, while 19 percent thought Ukraine was responsible, and one in 10 respondents said both nations shared the responsibility, the poll said.
An overwhelming 87 percent of Kazakhs still had a “very” or “somewhat” favourable attitude towards Russia, and only 8 percent were negative about it.
Similarly, 88 percent of respondents supported developing closer economic ties with Russia, while a meagre 6 percent opposed it.
“The attitude to Russia is still largely positive,” said Temur Umarov, an analyst with Carnegie Politika, a Berlin-based think tank.
But younger Kazakhs are the biggest sceptics, he said.
“The younger those polled are, the worse is their attitude towards Russia” because they have access to independent and diverse online media, he told Al Jazeera.
Another sobering factor is regular threats from Russian political figures to annex northern Kazakh regions that have a sizeable ethnic Russian minority.
And that is where Beijing, whose economic clout in Kazakhstan has already surpassed that of Moscow, stepped in.
In September, during a visit to Astana, the Kazakh capital, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged to protect Kazakhstan’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue to resolutely support Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, firmly support your ongoing reforms to ensure stability and development, and categorically oppose the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country,” Xi was quoted as saying.
According to a Central Asian analyst, China’s support has meant Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev could distance himself a little from Moscow.
“But one shouldn’t underestimate Russia’s remaining clout in the Central Asian region,” Alisher Ilkhamov, head of Central Asia Due Diligence, a London-based group, told Al Jazeera.
However, since Moscow has been busy in Ukraine militarily and diplomatically, other powers have been vying for dominance in Central Asia, a mostly Muslim region of more than 60 million people.
“A geopolitical vacuum emerged, China – and Turkey to a certain degree – rushed to fill it,” Ilkhamov said.
China has invested tens of billions in the region, especially after launching the Road and Belt initiative to revive the Great Silk Road that crisscrossed the region centuries ago.
In September, Chinese leader Xi also travelled to Uzbekistan to attend a security summit – and signed deals with Tashkent worth some $16bn – while Moscow’s accords with Central Asia’s most populous nation amounted only to $4.6bn.
Moscow is trying to catch up, but Western sanctions and pressure force Russian companies to narrow down their investment niche in the region.
“If there are Russian investments in Central Asian nations in the future, they will be concentrated in very narrow spheres, mostly energy,” analyst Umarov said.
Energy projects are likely to attract most of the Russian investments because of the growing population in the region that once boasted the USSR’s highest birth rates – and its slow transition to natural gas from coal, he said.
The four remaining Central Asian stans still appear pro-Moscow.
They do not share a border with Russia, and millions of Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik labour migrants flock northward in search of jobs, while their remittances keep their homelands’ economies afloat.
Only Turkmenistan, a reclusive country whose residents need a hard-to-obtain permission to visit Russia, remains isolated amid squabbles about Turkmen natural gas exports via Russia.
And, most importantly, Central Asian governments still allow the broadcasts of Kremlin-run television networks, while their domestic media outlets cannot offer an ideological alternative.
“I can’t fathom how people can be brainwashed,” a resident of Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.
Her mother watches Russian news reports and television shows, and passionately supports the war.
“I ran out of patience, it’s useless to argue with my mum. And since I don’t have another mum, we are silent about the war,” the resident said.
Falling out of love with Russia
Talibzhanov, the Kazakh bank cashier, never liked Russian President Vladimir Putin and his policies, or Moscow’s influence on Kazakhstan’s politics and economy.
But he enjoyed Russian rock and classical music and has hundreds of books in Russian on his mobile phone, including sci-fi novels by US authors such as Arthur Clarke and Ray Bradbury.
He still downloads Western movies and television series with Russian voiceovers, and feels nostalgic about his visits to Moscow, where some of his childhood friends made careers and started families.
But in April, he started reading news reports about the killing of civilians in Bucha, a suburb outside the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, that was occupied for several weeks.
He could not believe them at first, but photos and videos of dead bodies lying on the streets and the evidence collected from survivors and Ukrainian officials convinced him Putin was a “monster”.
“He either ordered all those war crimes to happen or is too weak to stop them from happening,” Talipzhanov said.
His wife Zhanna agreed.
“We grew up believing in the big Russian brother,” the 29-year-old nursery teacher told Al Jazeera.
“These days, I can’t even imagine what would happen to Kazakh women if Russia invaded us,” she said.
However, their change of heart does not mean they vilify each and every Russian.
In December, they hosted Serik’s former classmate, an ethnic Russian who moved to the southwestern Russian city of Orenburg in 2015.
The friend obtained a Russian passport, but fled fearing the “partial mobilisation” Putin announced last year to replenish the manpower lost in Ukraine.
“He found a job and a place to stay here, but the dating scene is not that good so far,” Talipzhanov said. “He should stop telling young ladies that he lived in Russia.”