The Boris Nemtsov Assassination and Central Asia
Image Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

The Boris Nemtsov Assassination and Central Asia


The brazen killing on February 27 of Boris Nemtsov, the longtime critic of the Putin regime and one of the leading figures in the Russian opposition, has sent shockwaves through the former Soviet republics. Russia’s domestic politics are still closely followed in the CIS states, particularly in those where Russian broadcasting stations and news media are readily available. Nemtsov’s assassination is yet another indication of the political direction the Russian leadership has taken after the Kremlin’s military adventure in Ukraine, which itself has been revealing of the extent of Putin’s ambition.

Of course, Russian meddling in the internal affairs of post-Soviet states is hardly a novelty. The Kremlin’s strategy in its “sphere of influence” only adds to the current regional divides in Central Asia. Take the Kyrgyz Republic, where Russian intelligence has been visibly active. Kyrgyzstan had a turbulent decade, during which it also hosted a U.S.-NATO airbase on the outskirts of Bishkek. During its years of domestic instability, a series of high profile killings of journalists and political figures occurred. The most appalling assassinations took place during the rule of the runaway President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who these days resides in the city of Minsk under the protection of Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko. Immediately after the Kyrgyz coup, Vladimir Putin denied any involvement in the ousting of the regime. Nonetheless, Moscow’s “Kyrgyz project” was in motion during the Bakiyev presidency and after his overthrow in 2010 under new governments.

In a striking resemblance to Ukraine, the Russian leadership is wary of political developments in Kyrgyzstan because of the Kremlin’s fading influence in the region. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan tend to be the most distrustful of Russia’s regional initiatives. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s unorthodox approach to its northern neighbor is understandable: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns in Kazakhstan about the prospects of a “Russian spring” in its border territories.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

That leaves the two weakest Central Asian states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which rely on Russia for political and economic support. From time to time the Tajik regime does remind the Kremlin of its duty to ”respect” its friendly ally. In contrast, under the leadership of the current ruler Almazbek Atambayev, Kyrgyzstan is the one regional state that has declared its loyalty to Moscow. Once dubbed an “island of democracy,” Kyrgyzstan is now rolling back its human rights record. Similarly, in the last three years the Kyrgyz state has been following in Russia’s legislative footsteps when it comes to basic rights. Meanwhile, domestic tension in Kyrgyzstan is mounting over Atambayev’s policies, which last year took the country’s corruption index to Russian levels.

Political assassinations in Kyrgyzstan have rocked the Central Asian nation in the past and cannot be ruled out in the future. Just weeks ago, a Kyrgyz mob boss was found dead with a fake Russian passport in the trunk of a car in Minsk. He was also on the designated list of the U.S. Treasury Department. It is unclear whether this death is related to broader political developments in Kyrgyzstan. But in an unusual statement, the Kyrgyz President blamed the Bakiyev family for the mobster’s death and demanded that Lukashenko extradite Bakiyev and his family back to Kyrgyzstan. Apart from the high-level exchange between Belarus and Kyrgyzstan over this episode, it should be noted that for a small state like the Kyrgyz Republic, the killing of a widely known gangster will have an impact on the country’s clan based politics. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise given the strong links between state institutions and organized crime in the country’s modern history.

Consequently, Ukraine’s experience is an extension of the Kremlin’s heavy-handed policies in its near abroad. The murder of a Russian politician in Moscow – and more broadly, the Kremlin’s policy towards opposition figures – has parallels in the former Soviet states as well. Certainly, it does in Kyrgyzstan.

Ryskeldi Satke is a contributing writer-analyst with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail: rsatke at 

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief