How are Kazakhstan's relations with Russia?


Andreas Heinemann-Grüder

To person

PD Dr. Andreas Heinemann-Grüder is head of the Academy for Conflict Transformation in the ForumZFD and private lecturer at the University of Bonn. His research interests include: peace and conflict studies, the political system of Russia, comparative federalism, political regimes in Central Asia.

Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan - the five Central Asian countries have different interests when it comes to their relationship with Russia. While the resource-rich states emphasize their independence from Russia, the poorer states are exposed to Russian pressure as they depend on energy supplies and remittances from their guest workers in Russia. But security policy also plays an important role.

From left to right: Sooronbai Dscheenbekow (Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan), Nursultan Nazarbayev (President of Kazakhstan until 2019), Emomalij Rahmon (President of Tajikistan), Shawkat Mirziyoyew (President of Uzbekistan) and Akca Nurberdijewa (President of the National Assembly of Turkmenistan, not on the picture) will discuss during the consultative meetings of the Central Asian heads of government on March 15, 2018 in Astana, Kazakhstan. (& copy Presidency of Kyrgyzstan, picture alliance / AA)

One of the stereotypes about Central Asia is that it is a haven of geopolitical competition between Russia, the US, China and the European Union (EU) and acts as a drug trafficking hub and breeding ground for Islamists. Russia and the Central Asian states share the Soviet legacy, security cooperation, the authoritarian type of regime and the fear of "colored revolutions". Central Asia includes countries with huge hydrocarbon reserves (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan). In addition, Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan, is rich in coal, iron, copper, mercury, antimony, gold and uranium - natural resources that make the region attractive to China, Russia, the EU, the USA and Turkey.

While the resource-rich states such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan emphasize their independence from Russia, the poorer states Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are facing Russian pressure because they depend on energy supplies and remittances from their guest workers in Russia. Since the recruitment of fighters for the “Islamic State” (IS) in Central Asia, but especially after the break-up of IS in Syria, Russia fears that the Islamist terrorist organization will expand its presence in Afghanistan and influence Central Asia from there.

Against the background of the Russian annexation of Crimea, statements by President Putin in 2014 that Kazakhstan never had its own statehood sparked fears that Kazakhstan could be the next candidate for a Russian "home-to-Reich" policy after Ukraine Percent of Kazakhstan's citizens are ethnic Russians. When it comes to protection against ethnic Russians, President Putin refers to the vague concept of the "Russian world". In return, Kazakhstan's President Nazarbayev threatened to leave the Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asia as a "Great Game"?

With the economic expansion of China, the Central Asian states are gaining in importance as transit countries for global flows of goods to Europe. Central Asia is the preferred transit area for smuggling opium and heroin from Afghanistan to Europe, China and Russia. Russia and China are again competitors in Central Asia, especially since China has developed the vision of a new "Silk Road" to build ports, roads, railways, logistics centers and trading centers, i.e. to create trade corridors between Asia, Africa and Europe.

In the 18th century, Russia conquered large parts of the Kazakh steppe, and in the second half of the 19th century it adopted Central Asia, which was generally called Turkestan because, with the exception of the Tajiks, most of the people spoke a Turkic language. Great Britain tried to limit Russian expansion into Central Asia, but in fact only in Afghanistan. The rivalry has also been referred to as the "Great Game". For the poor Central Asian states, the great power competition in Central Asia offers an opportunity to strengthen their own negotiating position. In Central Asia, great power competition exists primarily between China and Russia. The Russian-Chinese relations in Central Asia are characterized by cooperation and competition, e.g. for the control of pipelines. The idea of ​​a "Great Game" or imperial ambitions of Russia in Central Asia is of course exaggerated.

Russian security and military policy in Central Asia

In contrast to the willingness to intervene in the European countries of the former Soviet Union, Russia is reluctant to intervene militarily directly in conflicts in Central Asia; this applied to the Tajik civil war (1992-1997), the tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005), the Uzbek unrest in Andijan (2005) and the anti-Uzbek pogroms in the Kyrgyz part of the Ferghana Valley (2010). In the Tajik civil war, the forces loyal to the government received support from soldiers of the 201st Division of the Russian Army, which was stationed in Tajikistan. Russian soldiers also took part in skirmishes against the Islamist "United Tajik Opposition" at the time, but Russia was not an intervention power. The civil war ended in June 1997 with a peace treaty in Moscow. Since then, the Russian government has provided Tajikistan with military support, primarily in training the military, with equipment and by organizing joint maneuvers. The vision that the IS could spread to Central Asia from Afghanistan has prompted Russia to intensify military cooperation with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in recent times.

Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement with Russia in 2003 that provides for a Russian base in the city of Kant near the capital Bishkek. Russian fighter jets of the type Su-25 and helicopters Mi-8 as well as a total of 400 soldiers are stationed on the base. Under the Treaty of Collective Security ("Tashkent Treaty"), Russian troops are among the collective rapid reaction forces. The Russian military presence in Kyrgyzstan has repeatedly been a topic of discussion in Kyrgyzstan politics, and threats to close the base have enabled Kyrgyzstan to increase Russian lease fees. In 2017, both sides agreed to extend the stationing rights for a further 15 years. The USA also used Manas Airport near Bishkek for transport flights to Afghanistan. However, Kyrgyzstan terminated the contract in 2009. For Kyrgyzstan, Russian pressure to close the American base was a means for years to get higher lease fees from the US as well.

The Shanghai Organization for Cooperation between Russia, China and the Central Asian States (excluding Turkmenistan) has been characterized repeatedly as "anti-NATO". Its main purpose, of course, is the fight against terrorism, the defense against Islamism, mutual protection against "colored revolutions" and increasingly economic cooperation. In the long term, Russia is interested in building a comprehensive air defense and missile defense system in the Euro-Asian region, including early warning systems and integrated space surveillance. The Sary-Shagan Center in Kazakhstan and the Okno Observatory in Tajikistan have so far been part of the joint air defense in Central Asia. As part of the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement, the delivery of modern Russian S-400 missiles to partners such as Kazakhstan is being debated. During a major maneuver in 2017, the participating armies of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia tested the various components of a joint air defense. Russian military policy is guided by two goals: deterring external (Western) powers in the Euro-Asian region and the ability to beat irregular violent actors like ISIS as in Syria.

Economic relationships

In the 1990s, trade between Russia and Central Asia shrank ten-fold compared to the late Soviet era. Relations recovered from 2003, mainly due to gas exports from Central Asia to Russia, which resold this gas to Europe. Russia is still an important trading partner for the Central Asian states, but its share is shrinking compared to China: in Kazakhstan the ratio is 13 percent (China) to 20 percent (Russia), in Kyrgyzstan 29 percent (China) to 18 percent ( Russia), in Tajikistan 23 percent (China) to 26 percent (Russia), in Turkmenistan 44 percent (China) to 7 percent (Russia) and in Uzbekistan 21 percent (China) to 16 percent (Russia - all figures for 2018, the The rest is spread across the rest of the world). The importance of trade with Central Asia is far less from a Russian perspective. Since the mid-2000s, the share of imports from Central Asia to Russia has mostly fluctuated between less than 4 and a maximum of 10 percent, while the share of Russian exports to Central Asia fluctuated around 4 percent. While Russia's imports from Central Asia fell, Chinese energy imports from Central Asia, particularly Turkmenistan, grew. China invested billions of US dollars in transportation infrastructure in Central Asia.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there has been considerable labor migration from Central Asian countries to Russia; in addition to cheap labor, highly qualified labor in particular has migrated to Russia. But there is also labor migration within Central Asia, especially to the rich oil state of Kazakhstan. In 2017, Kyrgyzstan received US $ 2.2 billion in remittances from Russia, Tajikistan received US $ 2.5 billion in remittances from Russia in 2017 - more than all of its trade with China. 20 percent of the working population of Uzbekistan worked temporarily in Russia. In 2013, remittances from migrant workers are said to have made up 32 percent of the gross national product in Kyrgyzstan and 49 percent in Tajikistan. The migrant workers are often only employed temporarily and illegally. The legal protection of migrant workers, social infrastructure, health care and labor status in Russia are consistently weak. There have been repeated pogroms in Russian cities against migrant workers from Central Asia.


  • Irina Sinitsina: Economic Cooperation between Russia and Central Asian Countries: Trends and Outlook, University of Central Asia, Working Paper No. 5, Bishkek 2012.
  • Anna Matveeva: Russia's Changing Security Role in Central Asia, in: European Security, vol. 22, no.4, 2013, pp. 478-499.
  • Andreas Heinemann-Grüder; Heidi Reisinger: Great Power Counter-balance? Russia's Pivot to China: discerning Reality from Rhetoric, in: Alexander Moens; Brooke A. Smith-Windsor (eds.): NATO and Asia-Pacific, Rome: NATO Defense College, 2016. (To the article)
  • Stratfor: Central Asia's Economic Evolution from Russia to China, Stratfor Annual Forecast 2018. (To the article)