The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought an unprecedented change in the geopolitical world order, and Central Asia has, more than most regions, been ruffled by the aftermath, considering its proximity and relations with Moscow. The main reverberation of this on the region has been a fragmented response. Kazakhstan, the main economic powerhouse of the region, even though remaining a strategic partner of Russia, has been consistently supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, thus indirectly condemning the war. Turkmenistan, even though maintaining its neutrality status, has depicted small signs of shift in its behavioral pattern. An example is the fact that President Vladimir Putin, during a Central Asian summit held in Ashgabat, was the sole foreign dignitary not to be welcomed with the traditional manner of bread and salt. The need for the Kremlin to keep the existing ties and even ameliorate them is eminent, especially considering that the envisaged North-South corridor, passing through Central Asia, is deemed as the only lifeline for Moscow amidst the isolationist tendency that is looming. In this struggle, regional paradiplomacy can prove to be the key. Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, two neighboring regions to Central Asia, in contrast to the rest of the country, have been eyeing increasing growth rates and exports and their diplomatic outreach is more successful towards their southern neighborhood. Moscow could be using this as leverage through regional paradiplomacy and many opportunities can be generated because of that. However, at the same time significant challenges arise that Russia ought to be mindful of.
Relative winners of the war
Tatarstan and Bashkortostan are both Russian regions, part of the Volga federal district, very close to the border with Kazakhstan. They are both endowed with natural resources, such as oil and gas, however their total income is largely diversified. In Bashkortostan, the aforementioned industry provided around $10 billion of the region’s GDP, whereas for Tatarstan, the oil-manufacturing-chemical complex provides half of the region’s GDP. Apart from the foregoing industries, they are also very strong on the vehicle manufacturing sector, particularly cars, helicopters and planes, but also in agriculture, with grain produce being in total more than 4 million tonnes in 2021, whereas pasture is also at high levels. In contrast to the rest of the country, these two regions comprise predominantly of peoples of Turkic descent.
The commencing of the war, however, shifted the tide in favor of the two republics. Whilst the vast majority of the Russian regions faced recession and a decrease in exports, this was not the case for Kazan and Ufa. Tatarstan, more specifically, saw a GDP growth that initiated at 6.5% in the first months after the war and ended in around 1% in the last quarter, whereas at the same time the Russian economy in total has been shrinking. Similarly, in Bashkortostan, GDP grew by 2.7% in total and industrial production by 3.1%. Their key markets have been considered Central Asia and the Middle East, both of which have been reluctant to fully engage with Russia as a whole. Taking this into account, how have the two regions been pursuing their agenda in contrary to Moscow?
From strong economies to top diplomats in Central Asia?
Tatarstan has been the most active region in Central Asia, actively pursuing a regional paradiplomacy agenda. Its relations with Turkmenistan are the most indicative ones and depict great eagerness from Ashgabat to engage with Kazan, one that has not been as evident with the rest of the country. Throughout the past year, the two sides penned a series of agreements and met on several occasions. The first one was in May 2022, in the International Russia-Islamic World Summit in Kazan, where President Serdar Berdymukhammedov supported the purchase of locally-made electric buses. This was followed by a Tatarstan-Turkmenistan business forum in January, but also a Ministry of Trade bilateral conference in March, where cooperation was expanded in scientific, cultural and humanitarian sectors as well. It is becoming clear that relations are moving from a clearly binational to an interregional level.
The situation is similar with other Central Asian partners. Kazakhstan’s cold shoulder pattern over Russia is not observed in Tatarstan as well, as in December, the two sides reiterated support to each other and inaugurated a joint effort of an automotive manufacturing plant in Karagandy. Similarly, the Tatar Deputy prime minister Roman Shaikudinov visited Tashkent and the IT Park Innopolis, where he met with the head of the IT park and they agreed on strengthening cooperation, not just on establishing Tatar IT companies within the park, but also on developing joint educational curricula and vocational training for future IT experts.
The main questions that arise here have to do with the nature of this approach by the two regions. This move might have three potential intentions and scenarios. The first one is a clear move of them to increase trade and support with Central Asia, because of the lack of alternative markets and also because of the proximity of the region. The second one is that this is a coordinated move by the Kremlin, seeing that it cannot attract allies in a centralized way, and looking to invent a new type of diplomacy, namely regional paradiplomacy, to cope with the sanctions and the isolationist landscape that currently exists. The third scenario has to do with the existing separatist movements in both states, that have been enhanced this year. Separatists in Tatarstan, Chechnya, Bashkortostan and Dagestan have all united, eyeing at their cultural similarities, which are the same as those with Central Asia, and wish to use the current situation that Kremlin faces in order to pursue their independence.
The last scenario has been essentially gaining traction the past year, predominantly due to the increasing unification of the Turkic world. A unified Turkic world has been the vision of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and this notion has been gaining momentum across Central Asia. The only Turkic state that has not yet become a member of the Organization of Turkic States, namely Turkmenistan, is currently considering full membership. Ankara has been increasing involvement in the region, with trade surging from $8.5 billion in 2019 to almost $500 billion in 2023, whereas cooperation has moved to sectors of huge importance, such as defense, with the TB-2 Bayraktar drones being purchased from all state actors in the region. At the same time, President Erdogan has been creating stronger bonds with Tatarstan, visiting Kazan recently and pointing out the increase of the trade with the specific region to $1.37 billion for this year, but also with Bashkortostan, which has been listed by newspaper Karar as an “autonomous state”. Ankara is certainly envisioning a corridor from Turkey to Xinjiang, where all Turkic nations can collaborate in peace, and the current status can be seen as a unique opportunity for further integration.
On the other hand, regional paradiplomacy, namely the participation of regional actors in the democratic process, has been a tactic that has been used by Moscow in a relatively successful manner. Under Yeltsin, regions such as St Petersburg and Karelia have been attempting to maintain close ties with Finland and other EU member states, in an effort to keep stability within the Brussels-Moscow relations. Their successful maneuvering can be considered among the reasons that no conflict took place during the 1990s. A similar practice took place during the Putin regime following the 2014 annexation of Crimea, where the bulk of Russia’s northwestern sub-units made massive efforts to approach European actors in a diplomatic manner and avoid any further deterioration of relations that would bring results similar to the existing ones, namely supply cuts towards Europe and essentially losing a major market for energy and food commodities. A similar outreach towards the Southern regions has not taken place until now. However, given the necessity to find other markets, most of which are located south, which passes through Central Asia, are converting the mobilization of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan into an eminent need.
Coming down to the first scenario, both Kazan and Ufa are within a deadlock and need to find markets that will be interested in their supplies. Central Asia is growing, both due to its local population, but also due to the increasing numbers of Russians that are fleeing the country. A growing market can, by default, be seen as an excellent business opportunity, which also makes it probable, although least than the other two scenarios, that such an approach is purely of business nature.
In effect, the war on Ukraine has brought a massive shift in the geopolitical landscape for Central Asia. Regional paradiplomacy is among the main themes that is being observed. The region has a serious need to come to each other and strike a balance between Russia, Turkey and China. It is advised that a coordinated effort takes place in Central Asia to engage further with Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and result in a fruitful diplomacy, but always taking into consideration that maintaining stability in the region is the top priority, and any action from radical movements should not be endorsed, because their spillover effect might prove to be dire for neighboring countries like Kazakhstan. Another pitfall to look out for is the sanctions that exist for Russia, hence collaboration with Kazan and Ufa ought to take place in a way that does not become the cause for isolation of Central Asia as well. Finally, the unification concept of the Turkic World is one that promotes trade and brings further development and new markets to the landlocked region. However, for every decision, countries with Turkic populations such as China and Russia should also be involved as stakeholders through their central governments as well, creating an interregional and multi-level panel for further discussion.
[Photo by 최성녕, via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Dimitris Symeonidis is an energy policy & geopolitical risk analyst based in The Hague. He is an MSc Engineering & Policy Analysis graduate specialized in the geopolitical aspects of the energy transition, with a special focus on Central Asia and South Caucasus.