Home / Articles / Filling the Geopolitical Void in Central Asia
A new era in foreign policy is starting for the five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—in which the role of former colonial master Russia is significantly diminished as Moscow concentrates its attention and resources on the debacle it created when it started a war on Ukraine.
China also has considerable influence in Central Asia, but China has not indicated it is willing to fill the vacuums Russia is leaving in Central Asia’s security, finances, or trade.
The Central Asian states of necessity are seeking new partners, but it is possible that as the Central Asian states develop new foreign partnerships, they will create new divisions regionally, and the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is possibly an example of what is come for Central Asia.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan:The Poorest Countries in Central Asia
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are probably the most dependent on Russia of all the Central Asian states. Some 1.1 million migrant laborers from Kyrgyzstan and 1.6 million from Tajikistan worked abroad in 2021, most in Russia. According to the World Bank, remittances sent to Kyrgyzstan in 2021 accounted for 33 percent of GDP and in Tajikistan 34 percent. Russia has military bases in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which has been very important for Tajikistan which shares an approximately 840-mile border with Afghanistan, and Russia is the main weapons supplier to both Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are also members of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, which also includes Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Belarus.
Tensions have been high along the Kyrgyz-Tajik border for many years. Roughly one-third of their 600-mile border remains unmarked and disputes over land and water rights in these areas of the frontier that are not demarcated have fueled local disputes that eventually escalated into clashes between the militaries of the two countries in late April 2021 that left at least 54 people dead and in mid-September 2022 that left at least 134 people dead.
Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization have called for a peaceful settlement to the conflict but done little else to achieve any sort of reduction in tensions between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In October 2021, some six months after the first Kyrgyz-Tajik war, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (GKNB) Kamchybek Tashiyev announced the first Turkish military drones had arrived in Kyrgyzstan. Tashiyev also mentioned Kyrgyzstan had purchased 40 armored vehicles from the United Arab Emirates.
During the April 2021 war, Tajik troops crossed the border into Kyrgyzstan in several areas. Most of casualties and damage to buildings were on the Kyrgyz side.
During the war of September 14–17, 2022, Tajik troops again crossed into Kyrgyz territory and temporarily occupied several Kyrgyz villages. Kyrgyzstan used its Turkish-made drones, the first time that military drones had been used in combat in Central Asia. One drone strike reportedly hit a mosque in the Tajik village of Ovchi-Kalacha, killing at least ten people.
Iranian Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of Iran’s armed forces, visited Tajikistan on May 16 and together with Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Mirzo, opened a factory in the Tajik capital Dushanbe that will produce Iranian Ababil-2 military drones. There are no reports that Tajikistan used any military drones in the September fighting, but in October there was a report Tajikistan would purchase Iranian-made drones.
On November 2, Kyrgyz security chief Tashiyev posted a photo on his Facebook page of him holding a model of a Turkish-made drone and the words “Now ‘Aksungur’ is ours too.” Turkey’s Anadolu agency news service wrote in October 2021 when the Turkish Navy was just receiving the Aksungur drone that it “has a payload capacity of 750 kilograms and 50-hour flight time.”
Since the September war, both sides have accused the other of bringing additional troops and weapons to the border area. The two governments are not on speaking terms, and it seems the two countries are headed toward another armed conflict. Should that happen, it is likely military drones will play a large role.
A Wider Division
Some people in Kyrgyzstan believe Russia is quietly siding with Tajikistan. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was in Moscow shortly after the first Kyrgyz-Tajik war, though Rahmon’s visit was timed with the May 9 Victory Day commemoration of the end of World War II. Rahmon was also the only Commonwealth of Independent States leader at the ceremony in Moscow, but images of him with Russian President Vladimir Putin were interpreted by many in Kyrgyzstan as Russia supporting Tajikistan.
These suspicions deepened when Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded Rahmon the “Order of Merit for the Fatherland” for Rahmon’s contributions to ensuring regional stability.
China, which also has huge influence in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has avoided commenting on the Kyrgyz-Tajik hostilities.
But after the September war, the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) released a statement that expressed “support to the efforts of the Kyrgyz Republic, founding member of the OTS,” in finding a peaceful solution to the border situation.
The OTS members are Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Turkmenistan was scheduled to become a member of the OTS at the November 11 summit of the organization in Samarkand but chose for reasons that were unclear to remain as an observer country in the OTS. The OTS has existed in various forms, and with various Turkic members, for more than 25 years and to date has been little more than a forum for discussions on cooperation in cultural projects. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been pushing in recent years for the organization to play a greater economic and security role in regional politics, and efforts towards this goal have increased noticeably since Russia launched its attacks on Ukraine.
The Kazakh and Uzbek governments have not made any statements on their own of support for Kyrgyzstan, but the OTS expression of support is significant when considering Tajikistan eventually turned to Iran for help with drones. Tajiks and Iranians share Persia roots and cultural and linguistic affinities, though Tajiks are Sunni Muslims, and most Iranians are Shiites.
Iran’s Play in Tajikistan
Since the Soviet Union disintegrated in late 1991 and the five Central Asian states became independent, Iran has focused more of its attention on Tajikistan than on the other Central Asian states. There was an eventually failed attempt by Iran, with the support of Tajikistan, to create a television network for Persian-speaking in the region, with people in Afghanistan who speak Dari, which is close to Farsi and Tajik, also being targeted by the proposed pan-Persian television channel. Iran has built the strategic tunnel through the Anzob Pass that divides Dushanbe from northern Tajikistan, and Iran helped build the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan.
But Iran’s activity in Tajikistan attracted the attention of a rival Gulf nation. Saudi Arabia has recently been waging a battle with Iran for influence in Tajikistan, and Saudi money has helped Riyadh in gaining footholds. In May 2017 there were reports Saudi Arabia would provide a $200-million grant to Tajikistan to build a new parliament building, far more money than Saudi Arabia has ever invested in Kyrgyzstan.
In August that same year, the Tajik government suddenly accused Iran of being behind assassinations committed during the 1992–1997 Tajik civil war. Iran, Russia, and the United Nations helped mediate the Tajik peace agreement signed in June 1997. Iranian-Tajik ties cooled in late 2015 when Tajik authorities declared their primary wartime adversary, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), to be an extremist group and banned its activities, but Tehran continued to invite the IRPT leaders to Iran for conferences. After the August 2017 accusations of Iranian involvement in attacks and killings during the Tajik civil war, relations between the two countries hit an all-time low.
Gen. Bagheri’s visit to Tajikistan in May and the announcement of the opening of a factory there to produce drones indicate relations between Iran and Tajikistan have improved, which is not surprising considering not only Tajikistan’s need for advanced weaponry to counter Kyrgyzstan’s acquisitions, but also because of the return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan, a development that pleases neither Tajik nor Iranian authorities.
The Emergence of New Partners
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan purchasing drones from, respectively, Turkey and Iran is an example of two Central Asian countries looking beyond Russia for help in meeting their needs and this process is happening across Central Asia. Turkey sells Bayraktar drones to Turkmenistan and reached an agreement with Kazakhstan in May 2022 to produce Turkish Anka military drones in Kazakhstan. All the Central Asian states are finding new weapons suppliers, many in the Middle East, but also China and some European countries.
The Central Asian states are also scrambling to replace trade routes through Russia that are now disrupted by Western sanctions. Many of the options being pursued go through Turkey or Iran. In October, the first train bound for Turkey left the newly opened cargo center in Tajikistan’s southern city of Kulob. The route passes through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran, and connects to Tajikistan’s road to China.
Representatives of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and China signed a Memorandum of Cooperation for constructing a railway to link the three countries on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan in mid-September. If the line is completed it would connect through Uzbekistan’s railway network to rail lines running to Iran and further to Turkey, but also to Kazakhstan’s Caspian ports at Kuryk and Aktau, and to Turkmenistan’s Caspian port at Turkmenbashi City.
And the five Central Asian countries are also seeking new partners for trade and investment to fill areas Russia is vacating and many of the countries the Central Asians are turning to are in the Arab world. Central Asian officials have been speaking frequently during the last six months with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Russia has been the dominant power in Central Asia since the 19th century. China has established a strong influence in the region during the last 25 years. But the countries that are stepping up their activity in Central Asia, and to whom the Central Asians are turning to in this time of diminishing Russian influence, are mainly in the Islamic world, and they have their own rivalries and competing interests that are not, as is seen in the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and those countries cooperation with Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, as concerned with Central Asian regional stability as the interests of Russia and China have been.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.