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Russian Neo-Imperialist Assertions Spark Pushback in Uzbekistan

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Russian Neo-Imperialist Assertions Spark Pushback in Uzbekistan

Reactions in Uzbekistan following Zakhar Prilepin’s comments are indicative of a larger, ongoing conversation about nationhood, independence, and national identity in Central Asia.

Russian Neo-Imperialist Assertions Spark Pushback in Uzbekistan
Credit: Depositphotos

Zakhar Prilepin, a notable Russian public figure, made a startling statement during a press conference in Moscow on December 20, 2023. Advocating for the Soviet Union’s restoration and Russian language imposition in former Soviet states, his remarks have resonated deeply within public discourse in Uzbekistan. Prilepin’s televised remark that Russia could claim territories with significant Russian-speaking populations mentioned Uzbekistan in particular, given the large number of Uzbek labor migrants in Russia, and triggered widespread indignation.

Prilepin’s exact words as reported by 

I am actually sincerely advocating that these territories, from where migrant workers come to us, should be annexed and taught the Russian language on the spot, not here, but there, in Uzbekistan, for example. We will raise the topic of disavowing the collapse of the Soviet Union, which will allow us to say at any time: since 2 million of your citizens are on our territory, we claim your territory. Because the majority are already here, and they even voted for it. Who forbids us to do anything in Eurasia after the parade in Kyiv? No one.

This provocative claim spurred a vigorous reaction across Uzbekistan, mobilizing citizen journalists, bloggers, and the general populace into heated discussions. There were widespread calls on social media for the Uzbek government to issue a formal inquiry to the Russian embassy for clarification on these contentious remarks. Political experts urged the government to adopt a firmer stance in response to Prilepin’s words. 

The reaction to his statements in Uzbekistan, however, is not just about a single provocative claim. It is a reflection of a deeper, more pervasive anxiety about the future of the region’s sovereignty and identity. The unity in the Uzbek response, cutting across societal divisions, signifies a collective resolve to safeguard the national integrity and to resist any attempts at undermining the country’s hard-won independence.

Subsequently, on December 21, the Russian ambassador to Uzbekistan, Oleg Malginov, was summoned to the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a later statement, Maria Zakharova, the official spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, clarified that Prilepin’s views were personal and did not represent the official stance of the Russian Federation. She highlighted the comprehensive strategic partnership and alliance relations between Russia and Uzbekistan.

In response to Prilepin’s statements, Uzbekistan’s Ministry of Defense, referencing Article 153 of the Constitution, made a public statement reaffirming the nation’s military preparedness to ensure national security. Moreover, members of the Uzbek parliament countered Prilepin’s stance, stating, “Such statements are completely unacceptable and this kind of view is further reducing Russia’s ever-decreasing influence.” They emphasized the growing negative perception of Russia among Uzbeks.

Even President Shavkat Mirziyoev have made a statement at a public event on December 22, seemingly in response to the Prilepin’s words. He said that: 

We have all witnessed that the powerful centers of the world, which used to protect their goals and interests mainly through diplomacy and politics, have now turned to the path of open pressure, confrontation, and conflict. Unfortunately, the impact of such large-scale and extremely conflicting processes does not bypass the Central Asian region and our country, which is part of it. It is certainly not easy to find the right way that meets the national interests of Uzbekistan in such a complex and dangerous situation.

Although this was a soft diplomatic response, and did not address the issue directly, such a comment from the president is rare in Uzbekistan.

Russian public figures have made controversial statements in the media before, often triggering frustration among the Central Asian countries. These declarations typically revolve around territorial claims, Russian language promotion, migrant worker issues, and interference in the internal affairs of former Soviet states, indicating a persistent view of Central Asia as being within Russia’s sphere of influence. 

The resurgence of an imperialistic mood in Russia, labeled “New Tsar Russia,” reflects an attempt to apply outdated rules and strategies in modern geopolitics. These provocative statements exacerbate negative sentiments toward Russia in Central Asia and in the current milieu potentially increase support for Ukraine. Central Asia’s intellectuals view Ukraine’s struggle as a defiant stand against imperialist Russian ambitions, making the conflict’s outcome pivotal for the region’s own future. A Russian victory, feared by many, could embolden Russia to make further territorial claims in other former Soviet states, a daunting thought for the independent nations south of Russia. Previous incidents, like Russia’s territorial claims against Kazakhstan, demonstrate that Russian political rhetoric often transcends mere words. 

The labor migration dynamics between Central Asia and Russia further illuminate this complex relationship. In 2022, a significant share of foreign workers in Russia were Uzbeks (41.9 percent), followed by Tajiks (28.4 percent), and Kyrgyz (16.2 percent). These migrants primarily work in construction, agriculture, trade, and public catering, often in unskilled, manual labor roles.

In early 2023, nearly 1.3 million foreign workers entered Russia, nearly half of whom were Uzbeks. The largest contingents came from Uzbekistan (630,859), Tajikistan (349,357), and Kyrgyzstan (172,591). The economic repercussions of this migration are profound. World Bank reports indicate that remittances remain high to Central Asian countries, forming a critical part of their economies. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan received remittances equal to 32 percent and 31 percent of GDP, respectively, while in Uzbekistan, remittances equaled about 17 percent of GDP in 2022, rising sharply from 13 percent in the previous year. Notably, 80 percent of these remittances originated from Russia.

The fact that a considerable number of Central Asian citizens are employed as migrant workers in Russia has increasingly become a significant political issue. This condition impacts more than just economic ties; it also presents a potential for geopolitical influence, affecting the balance of power within the region considerably. The reliance of these countries on remittances, alongside their vulnerability to foreign media influence and propaganda, constitutes a major challenge to their sovereignty and independence. 

Prilepin’s comments sharply highlighted these issues, signaling an urgent need for Central Asian nations rethink and strengthen their geopolitical and economic strategies. As Uzbekistan, along with its Central Asian neighbors, observes the developments in Ukraine, there’s a growing recognition of the need for regional solidarity and a wider strategic vision. The echoes of their shared history serve as a constant reminder of the importance of shaping a future where sovereignty and cultural identity are not only safeguarded, but also revered. The reactions following Prilepin’s comments are indicative of a larger, ongoing conversation about nationhood, independence, and national identity in Central Asia.