Assessing Russian Soft Power in Central Asia

Russian soft power in Central Asia is based on the common Soviet past and Russian language as lingua franca. Experts agree that it is mostly a given, rather than a result of an ongoing hearts and minds strategy. Despite its strength, however, Russian soft power is not an absolute. Interestingly enough, while pro-Russian media succeed in generating an anti-Western stance, respective governments’ separate actions and occasional popular discourse indicate at existing concerns over possible Russian ambitions in Central Asia.

“In anti-Westernism we trust”

Russian media have a large presence in the region. Internet and TV inevitably play their role in influencing the Central Asian’s attitude towards the West. Echoing Russian media channels, it is not uncommon to hear people in Central Asia refer to Europe as “Gayropa” in an evident sneer at LGBT demonstrations on the streets of London, Paris and Berlin. Western democracy is often portrayed as an equivalent of growing unorthodox sexual minority rights allegedly occurring at the cost of traditional family values.

Another example is the take on the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. Ukrainian maidan is pictured solely as a West-sponsored initiative in attempt to encroach Russia. It is not surprising to hear people in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan or Uzbekistan talk about the Russian role in Ukraine as nothing but protection of Russian ethnic minority against the neo-fascist government of Kiev. Moscow’s skepticism towards Ukrainian latest political elections reflected in Central Asian social networks too. In the absence of own democratic elections, Uzbeks and Kazakhs did not abstain from ridiculing the fact a comedian became the new president of Ukraine. Calling Ukrainian politics “a circus”, Central Asians seem to share the unspoken belief of Kremlin about democracy being an unwanted mess.

The West is usually shown as a cheeky Uncle Sam trying to plot against Russia and new emerging centers of powers. Average Uzbek, Tajik or Kazakh will tell you that Russia is counter-balancing the West and in fact did help to finish off Islamic State in Syria. Common knowledge sees Russia of the Putin era as a country which rose from its knees and is now respected and feared as opposed to being humiliated during the Yeltsin era.

The game of alphabets

While Russia-influenced anti-Western sentiments and the perils of democracy are somewhat accepted, the rhetoric changes when it comes to the matter of identity. Following their independence, Central Asian states engaged in respective nation-building with each seeking to prove own uniqueness and pre-existence as a nation throughout the centuries. All history books tried to highlight the negatives of the Soviet period (as opposed to the positives) and tried to picture respective national leaders as independence fighters whilst the opposite was true.

In a distance move from Russia both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan decided to switch into Latin alphabet. Uzbekistan was the first one to pursue such a move in the 90s while Kazakhstan offered the alphabet change in 2017. Uzbekistan’s reform is somewhat more advanced albeit still not fully switched. As for the Kazakhs, the first newspaper in Kazakh Latin alphabet was published last November and in April this year, new coins in Latin alphabet were issued. The reform is expected to complete in 2025.

Another example of caution towards Russia is the status of the Russian language. The Russian diaspora and other minorities in Central Asia still use it as lingua franca. This recently prompted a group of Uzbek activists to call for giving it an official status of inter-ethnic communication language. Published on Vesti. Uz website the letter sparked heated social media debates. The idea of recognition of Russian on an official level had a polarizing effect on the society with the opponents stating Russian language is under no threat and there is no need to make it official.

Some expressions were quite nationalist signaling there was a vivid association of the Russian language with Russian politics1. A few who were fluent in both Russian and Uzbek noted that both should be respected but advised caution against Kremlin’s political ambitions. Ukraine was quoted as an example where Russia interfered into domestic affairs of another country quoting the protection of Russians.

Victory celebration or war glorification?

Despite the strength of Russian language media, Central Asia seems wary of Russian potential ambitions as demonstrated by the attitude towards the day of victory in World War II. The 9th of May is a public holiday in most of the post-Soviet countries. However, in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, World War II and the annual parade cause mixed feelings. In case of Uzbekistan, the actual holiday was also renamed from the Victory Day to “Memory Day”.

The same applies to Russian initiative of Immortal Regiment procession which sees people carrying flowers and portraits of loved ones. Russian officials attending the ceremony wear the ribbon of St. George, a centuries-old Russian military symbol. Both Uzbek and Kazakh leaders, however, saw their officials opt for ribbons colored in respective flag colors in a polite signal to underline their independence and parting with the Soviet past.

It is important to add that opinions differ. People supporting Russia underline the importance of a joint victory and applaud the celebration and the military parade taking place in the Red Square in Moscow. They believe it’s their duty to commemorate the role USSR played in winning over Nazi Germany and explain it to their children. In doing so, some active parents followed some Russians who dress young children in World War II soldiers or nurses uniform. Others disagree and claim the pompous parades and Immortal Regiment became a bogus celebration and a symbol of Russian militarism at it worst or a commercialization of war at its best. The opposing sides in both Russia and in Central Asia refer to each other as either “liberast”, a disparaging term used for the liberals, while the other side refers to people supporting Kremlin’s any action as “vata” i.e cotton.

The Game is not over…

Russia’s relations with Central Asia generate interest in the light of new regional dynamics which could re-brand this landlocked post-Soviet region. The change is driven jointly by twofold processes: Uzbekistan’s improved relations with its neighbors and the region’s possible reboot in China-led Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

Russia certainly will continue to deploy its soft power and impact opinions in the region but a lot will depend on the national sentiments in the countries. These in turn can be influenced by social and economic conditions. Until very recently, neither Kazakhstan nor Uzbekistan seemed to be comfortable with being viewed through the prism of Russian interests only, opting for a multi-vector politics instead. However, nothing is constant. With the change in power, some experts talk about Uzbekistan government potentially getting closer to Russia via possible inclusion in the Eurasian Customs Union and deepening defense collaboration. However, it is yet unknown as nationalist sentiments coupled with controversies of the Russian politics would probably prompt the elites in Tashkent and Astana (now Nur-Sultan) to be cautious and apply breaks when necessary. One should also not forget other trends within respective societies including their nation-building and identity-seeking quests.