Staunton, September 4 – Widespread fears among ethnic Russians in Central Asia in the wake of Islam Karimov’s death, whether or not these fears are justified, are likely to lead to a new upsurge in Russian flight from that region, a development that could worsen security and economic development there and would likely reduce Moscow’s influence still further.
According to Aleksey Verkhoyantsev of “Svobodnaya pressa,” the comments of Russians in Central Asia and not just in Uzbekistan following the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov show that Russians there are frightened of the possibility of instability and are thinking about leaving (svpressa.ru/politic/article/155777/).
Some of these fears may prove justified; others almost certainly are not, Moscow experts say. But the existence of these fears among the five million ethnic Russians in the countries of Central Asia and the nearly five million members of other non-titular nationalities who are classified as “Russian speakers” could result in the largest wave of departures since the 1990s.
The largest ethnic Russian community continues to be in Kazakhstan, which has 3.6 million ethnic Russian residents. Kyrgyzstan has only 350,000. Uzbekistan, which hasn’t conducted a census has an estimated 500,000. And there are smaller communities in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
Grigory Lukyanov, a specialist on Central Asia at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that “the change of elites frightens ethnic Russians in Central Asia because they have already encountered unfriendly attitudes towards themselves, especially at the beginning of the post-Soviet period.
The situation has improved in recent decades, he continues, as the remaining Russians have integrated into national life and done well financially. But they face real problems in Kyrgyzstan precisely because they are so much better off than the extremely poor population they live among and because the Kyrgyz state lacks “an authoritarian regime.”
As far as Uzbekistan is concerned, Karimov created strong state institutions and involved ethnic Russians in them. “In particular,” Lukyanov says, “ethnic Russians occupy part of the security sphere. It is no secret that in the ranks of the National Security Service of Uzbekistan, there is a large fraction of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.”
The ethnic Russians of Uzbekistan would only be really threatened if a major civil war were to break out triggered either by a fight within Uzbek elites or by a upsurge in Islamist activity. But Lukyanov says that he does not see a high probability of either, regardless of what local Russians may feel.
He says that Moscow must support both institutions to help hold ethnic Russians in the region and authoritarian regimes that can be counted on to protect that community and to maintain good relations with Russia. Balancing Russia’s requirements will sometimes be difficult, Lukyanov says.
More than in other parts of the former Soviet space, he continues, Moscow must support not just ethnic Russians but the Slavic population as a whole, a group that although he does not say so includes Ukrainians. These groups together play a critical role in maintaining Russian influence in the region.