On October 13, Kyrgyzstan will host the annual Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) heads of state summit in Bishkek.
In attendance will be Russian President Vladimir Putin – his apparent first trip abroad since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin in March 2023 on war crimes allegations stemming from the stealing of Ukrainian children amid the Russian war. Putin most notably did not attend (in person that is) either the BRICS Summit in South Africa in August or the G-20 Summit in India in September. But he’s heading to Kyrgyzstan.
Meanwhile, Armenian President Nikol Pashinian informed his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov, in a telephone conversation earlier this week that he will not be attending the meeting. Armenia’s absence from the summit flows from a deterioration in relations between Yerevan and Moscow. Earlier in October, Armenian troops skipped a Collective Security Treat Organization (CSTO) military training exercise – Indestructible Brotherhood – also held in Kyrgyzstan. In early September, Pashinian lamented his country’s long reliance on Russia in an interview, remarking that “dependence on just one partner in security matters is a strategic mistake.”
Less than two weeks later, Azerbaijan – which Armenia has long wrestled with over control of territory, specifically the ethnically Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh exclave – began a new military offensive in the breakaway region. The offensive was over quickly, with a Russian-brokered ceasefire and afterward a shocking announcement: The region’s leaders agreed to dissolve the breakaway region’s government structures entirely by January 2024. Ethnic Armenians almost immediately began fleeing the region. Just like that, one of the world’s long-running frozen conflicts ended, and not in Armenia’s favor.
There is certainly bad blood between Yerevan and Moscow. Last year, after the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia flared up again, Armenia officially appealed to the Russian-led CSTO for support. The CSTO declined to get involved. (Armenia is a CSTO member, Azerbaijan is not; both are members of the CIS.)
Considering Armenia’s absence – and the reasons behind it – and the fact that the 2022 edition of the CIS leaders meeting, hosted by Astana, made headlines for Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s apparent upbraiding of Putin, it’ll be important to watch the Russian leader’s reception in Central Asia carefully.
In comments directed to Putin – and made in a public phase of the 2022 meeting – Rahmon stressed, “We have always respected the interests of our main strategic partner [Russia]… We want respect, too.”
Rahmon made reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union, noting that “I was there in those meetings in the room when the Soviet Union collapsed… Then like now – and you have to forgive me for saying this – not enough attention was paid to the small republics, the small nations.” He went on to describe neglect of the USSR’s smaller republics, like Tajikistan, as one of the reasons for its collapse.
The host, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, tried to intervene but Rahmon cut him off, stating, “We came to talk.”
At the time, it seemed that – if anything – Rahmon was trying to shame Russia into making more investments in Central Asia. He said that even billions invested by Russia “can be recouped in a very short period.”
The verbal sparring didn’t touch off a deterioration in relations between Russia and Tajikistan, but it did highlight a shift in the narrative balance between Central Asia and Russia in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Another angle was highlighted by Ryota Saito in an article for the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which importantly noted the timing of Rahmon’s outburst – in the immediate aftermath of a violent flare-up of conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Saito argued that the states of Central Asia “still want Russia to ‘take responsibility’ and be involved as the major power in the region.”
We shall see if there is similar drama at this year’s meeting. It’s clear that amid the various geopolitical shifts currently underway, Central Asia’s leaders are riding the storm and eyeing every possible port.
So far in 2023, the five Central Asian presidents (with the Turkmen leader representation swapping between father and son, seemingly at random) have met with Chinese President Xi Jinping (May), European Council President Charles Michel (June), U.S. President Joe Biden (September), and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (September).
The CIS covers much of the former Soviet Union, including as full members Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, and Moldova, as well as Turkmenistan as an “associate.” Ukraine, which participated in the CIS since its inception, never actually ratified its charter – disagreeing with the document’s positioning of Russia as the only legal successor state to the Soviet Union. Kyiv ceased most engagement with the CIS in 2014 and formally withdrew its representatives in 2018.