Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (C), and Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko take part in a meeting of the Eurasian Economic Union in Astana, May 29, 2014.
Mikhail Klimentyev (RIA Novosti, Kremlin) / Reuters

Even with Russia’s recent intervention and bombing campaign in Syria and its annexation of Crimea in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014, the country’s largest external military presence, at least officially, is still in Tajikistan. Russia has 5,900 troops stationed there and aims to raise that number to 9,000 by 2020. Next door, at its air base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, Russia is renewing its fleet of fighter jets and attack helicopters.

Russia claims that its buildup in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan comes out of concern for the growth of Islamist terrorism along Central Asia’s southern border with Afghanistan. But there is more to it than that. The moves are part of Russia’s goal to assert its influence over the entire region. In line with that effort was the proposal, a month after the Taliban seized Kunduz in September 2015, to create a shared Commonwealth of Independent States border force to respond to such threats along the Central Asian border with Afghanistan.

At the same time Russia has been expanding its security borders, it has been closing its physical ones, mostly to migrants from the very countries in which it has built a military presence. Since January 2015, Russia has introduced more stringent visa regulations for migrants, including admission tests and higher fees. Immigration authorities have deported thousands of migrants and added hundreds of thousands of names to the country’s reentry ban list, which prevents those named from returning for three, five, or ten years for infractions such as overstaying a visa. Besides being a human rights issue, the closing of the borders is an economic problem for the Central Asian countries. Tajikistan is, by share of GDP, the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Kyrgyzstan is the second. Uzbekistan is in the top ten. Restricting migration to Russia is, in many ways, the same as cutting foreign assistance, except perhaps more damaging.

The pressure, Russia hopes, will compel the Central Asian states to join its Eurasian Economic Union, which was founded in 2014 by Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia and came into effect on January 1, 2015—the same time that new visa regulations went into force. The EEU allows for the free flow of goods and capital—and people—across member states. The citizens of any member state are also allowed to work in any country in the union without a work permit. Russia views the EEU as a way to reintegrate the former Soviet states and find new trading partners in the face of EU and U.S. sanctions. To sweeten the deal, Russia offered Armenia, which joined in January 2015, cheap gas and gave Kyrgyzstan, which officially joined in August, a $1 billion aid package.

Military groups from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan took part in joint military exercises on Wednesday in Belarus, September 25, 2013.
Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters

Part of Russia’s continued influence over Central Asia is rooted in its historic dominance over the region throughout the tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods. The relationship between Russia and its former satellites is still not quite balanced. That is why, in 2006, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was legitimately worried when he told then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that Russian President Vladimir Putin had bluntly told him to “protect Russian interests or we will find someone who can.” At the time, the pressure to bow to Putin’s demands was real. A Russian smear campaign likely helped oust Kurmanbek Bakiyev, Kyrgyzstan’s former president, in 2010. Since then, however, Putin’s leverage across the region has begun to diminish.   

Russian power is capped, in part, by its poor demographics. The country has a very low life expectancy and fertility rate. Between 2002 and 2010, the population dropped by 2.3 million people to just under 143 million. Efforts to replenish the population, such as Putin’s huge and well-publicized billion-dollar initiatives in 2012 to boost pregnancy rates and the recent absorption of a few million ethnic Russian Ukrainian refugees, have helped the situation: the population rose by more than one million over the past five years. But the increase has now flattened, and projections suggest that by 2050, Russia’s population may still decrease by 20 percent or more. Russia is thus ironically reliant on its migrants. That is why it cannot expel all migrants, nor can it make conditions so unbearable—through either deportations or new immigration restrictions—that migrants are driven away.

Russia is also obviously hindered by its weakened economy. Not only does the cumulative weight of sanctions and depressed oil prices give Russia less economic heft to throw around (and raise questions about statements surrounding elevated military aid to its Central Asian neighbors), it also makes Russia less desirable as a destination for migrants. The ruble has collapsed, falling nearly 100 percent against the dollar in the past year, and migrant earnings have fallen correspondingly. Remittances to Tajikistan declined 32 percent in the first half of 2015 compared with the previous year.

It is no wonder, then, that Central Asian governments are looking to more stable partners—in particular China. Although China refuses to involve itself militarily in the region and its economy has suffered recently as well, it has taken on new responsibilities in Central Asia. Back in 2013, Beijing unveiled its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project, which attempts to link Central Asian economies with its own. In 2014, China overtook Russia to become Central Asia’s leading trade partner, with trade totaling over $40 billion. Of course, Chinese investment and soft loans come with caveats. In return, Central Asia offers China a market for its goods and access to natural resources. New pipelines that run through Central Asia could supply up to half of China’s gas needs in the coming years.

The heads of states from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, July 10, 2015. First row, (L to R) Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon, Kyrgyzstan's President Almazbek Atambayev, Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov.
RIA Novosti / Reuters

Given their lessened dependency on Russia, the Central Asian states themselves have demonstrated a greater willingness to reject Russian demands. In 2012, Uzbekistan withdrew from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. It took with it Russian access to the air base in Karshi-Khanabad. Only Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have joined the EEU to date, despite heavy Russian pressure across the region. Kyrgyzstan joined only after a long-drawn-out process. For Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—both of which have sizable fossil fuel reserves—Russia’s offerings are less tempting. Tajikistan has so far managed to impart an ambivalent position toward the EEU; it has not yet joined but has kept the door open to future membership.

On the whole, Central Asian citizens still retain an enduring regard for Russia and for Putin. Many remain dependent on dwindling remittances from family members in Russia: in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, especially, the combination of a weak Russian economy, new immigration regulations, and a scarcity of alternative job opportunities has left many in dire straits. But integration is another story, and those countries that have joined the EEU have done so reluctantly. Russian efforts to draw Central Asia closer through a mix of military assistance and punitive measures against migrants have not guaranteed Russia’s ascendance in the region. With the Russian economy set to continue its slump in 2016, the Kremlin’s offers of tighter ties are an increasingly hard sell.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • EDWARD LEMON is a doctoral candidate at the University of Exeter. He specializes in migration and security in Russia and Central Asia.
  • JOE SCHOTTENFELD is an Associate Research Scholar at Yale Law School. He was previously a Visiting Fellow at the University of Central Asia and a 2015 recipient of a National Geographic Young Explorers grant.
  • More By Edward Lemon
  • More By Joe Schottenfeld