Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev bewildered Vladimir Putin and his entourage when, during a November 9 briefing in the Kazakh capital, he addressed the visiting Russian president in his native tongue.
While Tokayev spoke in Kazakh for less than 30 seconds, the gesture made a point: Kazakhstan is not Russia. Moscow is a strategic ally and neighbor with a shared past, but Kazakhstan is a sovereign nation.
“It takes courage,” Azamat Junisbai, professor at Pitzer College, remarked in a posting on X. “That President Tokayev made a point of delivering even a small part of his message in Qazaq is meaningful and appreciated by those who know the context.”
Junisbai’s posting, using the native rather than the more familiar Russian spelling for the language, itself reflected the former Soviet republic’s determination to establish its own identity apart from Moscow.
Changes in perception slow in coming
Tokayev and other Central Asian leaders, especially Uzbekistan’s Shavkat Mirziyoyev, have been traveling the world, signing major investment deals and hosting international summits at home, promoting their development agendas and visions for the region.
Yet many in the West have been slow to acknowledge the trend, including major news publications such as Reuters, Deutsche Welle, The Wall Street Journal and Time, all of which have recently referred to Central Asia as “Russia’s backyard.”
Bloomberg, for example, covered the French president’s visit to Central Asia this month with an attention-grabbing “Macron Lands in Putin’s Backyard Seeking New Friends and Uranium.”
Central Asian and some Western researchers take offense at the phrase, which they increasingly see as evidence of a colonial and condescending way of understanding a region that has its own history, culture and trajectory.
“Bloomberg reducing Kazakhstan/Central Asia to ‘Putin’s backyard’ is just a new level of ignorant, insulting, and unethical journalism,” wrote Akbota Karibayeva, a doctoral student from Kazakhstan at George Washington University, on X.
Asel Doolotkeldieva with the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, also reacted on X: “Bloomberg didn’t even bother to write the country’s name. Kazakhstan is just a ‘backyard.’ So tell me, how this Western imperial discourse is different from the Russian imperial discourse on Central Asia? How better you are?”
Eric Rudenshiold said in a recent Washington roundtable, “Central Asia is not a flyover zone. It is a destination.” The former National Security Council director for Central Asia under the Biden and Trump administrations is now a senior fellow at the Caspian Policy Center in Washington.
Central Asia wants “strong commitment”
Speaking remotely from Tashkent on the same panel discussion, Uzbek scholar Akram Umarov argued that countries seeking to boost relations with Central Asia need to appreciate that emerging identity.
“Central Asia is focused on its own development,” he said. “It wants a strong commitment and longstanding interest from its partners, including the United States.”
Part of that identity is forged by Central Asia’s location in a “tough neighborhood” — landlocked and surrounded by Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan — while standing at the crossroads between eastern and western Asia.
“We cannot change our geography, which always matters. You deal with what you have, so we need to be pragmatic,” Umarov said.
His Kazakh colleague Iskander Akylbayev added that Central Asia is more than simply an area connecting larger, more powerful states, but one that aims to transform itself into a commercial hub.
Kazakhstan, one of the world’s top 12 oil producers, “does not just want an energy-oriented cooperation. It wants to become a knowledge-based economy,” Akylbayev said, stressing the importance of regional connectivity, which could lure more investment to Central Asia and boost its image.
But the reality is more complicated, according to Uzbek and Kazakh officials, who acknowledge that the region’s leaders are deeply affected by a fear of Russian aggression and a lingering distrust of the U.S. and the EU. Central Asian governments find themselves hedging, seeking an elusive balance.
Speaking on background with VOA about Central Asia’s predicament, a Biden administration official echoed this concern: “How do you move your goods and push for your interests when you are surrounded by Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan?”
Openings for the U.S.
Rudenshiold sees the five Central Asian states “working together and breaking free from their former isolation to connect to a more global future — a process that has created significant new openings for the United States.”
China, the Gulf states and the EU are promising to invest billions that Central Asians hope will free them from “Russia’s stranglehold.” America’s pledge pales by comparison, Rudenshiold noted in his recent article for the Caspian Policy Center.
Kazakhstan is eager to develop a “Middle Corridor” through which East Asian goods can be transported to the West via its territory, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus. Double-landlocked Uzbekistan is desperate to access seaports. Turkmenistan wants a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to facilitate the sale of its main resource.
“Washington is missing out on a critical opportunity to assist the region,” Rudenshiold said. “U.S. diplomats and development experts are sending the right messages to Central Asian capitals, but they don’t have sufficient resources to follow up.”
But how to convince the U.S. Congress that the region is worth investing in? It seems to some like a mission impossible, especially when many lawmakers — at least partly informed by reports describing the region as a backyard — still view Central Asian republics as vassals of Russia and China.
U.S. lawmakers could start by scrapping the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, Rudenshiold suggested. The law, adopted nearly 50 years ago originally to restrict trade with the Soviet Union, still blocks some countries from achieving most-favored nation trading status with the United States.
While the U.S. cannot replace Central Asia’s neighbors as trade partners, it can enable Central Asians “to do business on their own terms, not dictated by Moscow and Beijing,” Rudenshiold said.
Rights advocates counter that repealing Jackson-Vanik and awarding more trade benefits would be unwarranted before the region shows more progress on establishing the rule of law. They note that several Central Asian states still pursue authoritarian practices, jail journalists, restrict nongovernmental organizations and religious freedom, and maintain harsh anti-LGBTQ legislation.
According to Edward Lemon, president of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, “the most significant change in foreign relations in Central Asia over the past decade has been rising regionalism.”
“Visa regimes have been relaxed, borders reopened, trade surged and intraregional migration has increased,” Lemon told VOA.
However, he says, Central Asian leaders still do not act as a cohesive group. “Doing so would certainly increase their bargaining power.”
Lemon added that while striving to overcome the label of “Russia’s backyard,” “all have maintained strong ties with Moscow, which have not substantially changed since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”