The leaders of Central Asia's five republics as well as Armenia's prime minister arrived in Moscow to stand alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin during the annual May 9 Victory Day parade, despite strong US pressure to downgrade and even break ties with Russia where possible.
The five leaders from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, as well as Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko, were due to attend the emotionally charged event, one of the most important dates on Russia’s political calendar, to celebrate the Soviet WWII victory over Nazi Germany, a conflict referred to by Russians as the Great Patriotic War.
Putin links the victory over Adolf Hitler's Nazis with his war in Ukraine, which he claims is being run by a Nazi regime.
The Central Asian and Armenian leaders' decisions to attend the ceremony will raise eyebrows in Washington. It has been cranking up the pressure on the Central Asian states to at least substantially weaken ties with Russia. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Central Asia in March to meet with the region's foreign ministers, with both Western and Russian diplomats travelling the world to drum up support amid the fallout of the Ukraine conflict.
Blinken has been putting pressure on the 'Stans to enforce the Western sanctions regime imposed on the Kremlin. He received some promises, but little concrete action. Kazakhstan introduced some extra inspections on transit goods to “ensure they complied with the sanctions regime”. Blinken promised to provide “alternatives to Russian investment and routes for exporting goods,” but given their landlocked geographies and Russia’s proximity, there are few alternatives to trading with Russia for the 'Stans.
Trade between the various Central Asian states and Russia continues to boom thanks to the war, bringing them badly needed economic windfalls. Blinken delivered a “prod rather than a shove” in the right direction, as the White House acknowledged that the Central Asian states have little choice but to maintain good relations with Russia as their economies remain joined at the hip. Nevertheless, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been spooked by US threats of secondary sanctions and are trying to sail a difficult passage between maintaining good relations with Russia and not falling foul of Western sanctions.
The region has become a major transit route for banned goods entering Russia. Trade between the 'Stans and Russia has in fact exploded in the last year, with Moscow seeking conduits for sanctioned goods.
The leaders' attendance at the victory parade goes down as a major PR coup for Putin. He can use it to highlight Russia’s continued influence in its backyard. While all the leaders of the Central Asian and South Caucasus countries have moved to put some extra distance between themselves and the Kremlin, the attendance at the parade, always seen as very important to Putin as a mainstay of his nationalist message, underscores the realities of the ex-Soviet country's dependence.
The unbroken relations highlight the importance of Eurasia in Russia’s new foreign policy concept, released last month. It singles out Eurasia as a key region for development. Eurasia is also a major plank for China’s foreign policy as it attempts to build better land links between Asia and Europe. Both China and Russia are pushing for the deeper integration of the Eurasian countries as part of efforts to build a BRICS bloc of non-aligned emerging markets that are independent of Western influence or control.
All five Central Asian countries declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but their economies remain tightly interwoven with Russia’s.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was set to visit a memorial in Rzhev, a city west of Moscow in Russia's Tver region. It was the site of heavy fighting during WWII. Many fighters from Central Asia are buried there.
Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov unveiled a memorial in Rzhev on May 8, saying it would "serve as a symbol of our eternal memory to all the heroes who fought for our future". Japarov arrived in Russia on May 7 for bilateral talks with Putin and other officials. He was the only one of the five Central Asian leaders to announce his participation in the May 9 parade days ahead of his arrival. The others made the announcement they were going to Moscow on “a working visit” the day before.
The parade used to attract the attendance of a substantial number of international dignitaries, but since 2014 participation has dwindled to a few members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
In 2021, only Tajik President Emomali Rahmon attended the Victory Day parade, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, no foreign leaders attended the Great Patriotic War celebrations in Moscow following the start fo Russia's unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February.
Notably, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, traditionally leads the May 9 Victory Day celebration in his country, which was ravaged during World War II, but this year he is in Moscow.
Putin was expected to hold talks with the visiting leaders before and after the May 9 celebration. Japarov's office said the Kyrgyz leader was set to have a meeting with Putin on May 8 to discuss "current issues on the bilateral and multilateral agenda, as well as the future of further development of mutually beneficial co-operation."
Kyrgyzstan is part of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military alliance in Eurasia that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. The country is also a member of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a trading bloc dominated by Russia that also includes Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have Russian military bases.
Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution took place in 2005 amid street protests driven by demands for political reforms. The uprising made it a beacon for fledgling democracy in a region more routinely stocked with post-communist authoritarians. Putin dismissed the pro-democracy events there and in other former Soviet republics, including in Georgia and Ukraine, as "colour revolutions" fomented by Western meddling.
Japarov was a surprise no-show at a gathering last year of the Russia-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in St Petersburg on Putin's 70th birthday. Kyrgyzstan then abruptly cancelled CSTO training drills, which hawkish Russian lawmaker Konstantin Zatulin suggested was a reflection of Bishkek indulging in a "game" and wishing "not to fall under any spread of Western sanctions." However, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had just fought another of their periodic border conflicts and at the time of the St Petersburg celebration, Japarov was trying to put pressure on Putin to see things his way, rather than back Tajik President Emomali Rahmon who, coincidentally, was celebrating his 70th birthday at the same time as Russia's leader.
Pashinyan’s attendance at Moscow's Victory Day event goes down as a mild surprise. This is a leader who led the pro-democracy protests that ousted his country's former kleptocratic government. He is seen as a liberal reformer. However, like with the Central Asian counties, Armenia’s economy is heavily dependent on Moscow, such as in terms of unreplaceable gas supplies. Russia also guarantees its security in the region, a big consideration at a time when Armenia's conflict with Azerbaijan threatens to erupt into armed clashes once more. It is not hard to see why Pashinyan has gone out of his way to develop close ties with Putin since taking office.