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The label "Russia's backyard" is being rejected by the newly assertive countries of Central Asia.

The label “Russia’s backyard” is being rejected by the newly assertive countries of Central Asia.

During a briefing on November 9 in the capital of Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev surprised Vladimir Putin and his group by speaking to the Russian president in his native language.

Although Tokayev only spoke in Kazakh for a brief 30 seconds, the message was clear: Kazakhstan is a distinct country from Russia. Despite being strategic allies and neighbors with a shared history, Kazakhstan is an independent nation.

Azamat Junisbai, a professor at Pitzer College, stated on X that it requires bravery for President Tokayev to include even a small portion of his message in Qazaq, which is valued and recognized by those familiar with the situation.

Junisbai’s posting, using the native rather than the more familiar Russian spelling for the language, itself reflected the former Soviet republic’s determination to establish its own identity apart from Moscow.

Perception changes take time to manifest.

The leaders of Central Asia, including Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan, have been globetrotting to sign important investment agreements and hold global conferences in their home countries. They are working to advance their plans for development and improve the region’s future.

However, numerous individuals in Western countries have been hesitant to recognize this development. This includes prominent media outlets like Reuters, Deutsche Welle, The Wall Street Journal, and Time, who have all recently labeled Central Asia as “Russia’s backyard.”

For instance, Bloomberg reported on the French leader’s trip to Central Asia this month with a headline that caught attention: “Macron Arrives in Putin’s Territory to Forge New Relationships and Secure Uranium.”

Many researchers from Central Asia and the Western world are offended by the use of this phrase, as they view it as a sign of a colonial and patronizing perspective towards a region that has its own unique history, culture, and path.

Akbota Karibayeva, a doctoral student from Kazakhstan at George Washington University, expressed her frustration on X with Bloomberg’s depiction of Kazakhstan/Central Asia as “Putin’s backyard,” criticizing it as ignorant, insulting, and unethical journalism.

Asel Doolotkeldieva from the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, also responded to X by stating, “Bloomberg did not make an effort to mention the name of the country. Kazakhstan is merely referred to as a ‘backyard.’ So, can you explain how this narrative of Western imperialism differs from that of Russian imperialism towards Central Asia? How are you any better?”

Eric Rudenshiold, a senior fellow at the Caspian Policy Center in Washington and former National Security Council director for Central Asia during the Biden and Trump administrations, stated at a recent Washington roundtable that Central Asia should not be overlooked as a travel destination.

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During a panel discussion, Akram Umarov, a scholar from Uzbekistan, shared his perspective on the importance of understanding the developing identity in Central Asian countries for those looking to improve relations with the region.

According to him, Central Asia is primarily concerned with its own progress and growth. It desires a dedicated and enduring partnership from its allies, including the United States.

One aspect of this identity comes from Central Asia’s position in a difficult region, being landlocked and bordered by Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, while also serving as a meeting point between eastern and western Asia.

Umarov stated that our geography is a constant factor that we cannot alter. We must work with what we have and approach situations realistically.

According to Iskander Akylbayev, a colleague from Kazakhstan, Central Asia is not just a region that connects bigger and stronger countries, but it also strives to become a center for business and commerce.

Kazakhstan, one of the world’s top 12 oil producers, “does not just want an energy-oriented cooperation. It wants to become a knowledge-based economy,” Akylbayev said, stressing the importance of regional connectivity, which could lure more investment to Central Asia and boost its image.

French President Emmanuel Macron visits Uzbekistan, talking with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev on Nov. 2, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Uzbekistan President's Office)

On November 2, 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Uzbekistan President Shavkat Mirziyoyev during his visit to Uzbekistan. (Photo credit: Uzbekistan President’s Office)

However, the situation is more intricate, as confirmed by officials from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. They recognize that the leaders in the region are greatly influenced by concerns of potential Russian aggression and a lasting mistrust of the United States and the European Union. As a result, governments in Central Asia are attempting to strike a delicate balance.

During a conversation with VOA on the subject of Central Asia’s situation, a member of the Biden administration expressed a similar worry: “In the face of being bordered by Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, how can one successfully transport goods and advocate for their own interests?”

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Rudenshiold observes that the five Central Asian countries are collaborating and overcoming their previous seclusion in order to join the global community and pave the way for potential opportunities for the United States.

The heads of state gather at the Economic Cooperation Organization's member meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, on Nov. 9, 2023. (Photo courtesy of the Uzbekistan President's Office)

On November 9, 2023, the leaders of various countries will convene in Tashkent, Uzbekistan for a meeting of the Economic Cooperation Organization. This photo was provided by the Uzbekistan President’s Office.

The countries of China, the Gulf states, and the EU have committed to investing large sums of money, which the Central Asian nations are hopeful will release them from the control of Russia. In comparison, America’s promise seems insignificant, according to Rudenshiold’s recent publication for the Caspian Policy Center.

Kazakhstan is determined to create a “Middle Corridor” that would allow for the transportation of goods from East Asia to the West through its land, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus. Uzbekistan, which is doubly landlocked, is in great need of access to seaports. Turkmenistan is seeking a trans-Caspian gas pipeline in order to improve the export of its primary resource.

According to Rudenshiold, Washington is not taking advantage of a crucial opportunity to support the region. While American diplomats and development specialists are communicating the appropriate messages to Central Asian capitals, they lack adequate resources to take further action.

How can the U.S. Congress be persuaded to invest in the region? This may seem like an impossible task, particularly since some lawmakers still see Central Asian countries as subordinate to Russia and China, influenced by reports describing the region as their “backyard.”

One possible rewording could be:

According to Rudenshiold’s suggestion, American legislators could begin by abolishing the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This law, which was implemented almost 50 years ago with the intention of limiting trade with the Soviet Union, continues to prevent certain countries from obtaining the most-favored nation trading status with the United States.

According to Rudenshiold, the U.S. cannot take the place of Central Asia’s neighboring countries as trade partners. However, it has the potential to empower Central Asians to conduct business according to their own preferences, rather than being controlled by Moscow and Beijing.

Opponents argue that revoking Jackson-Vanik and granting additional trade privileges would be premature until the area demonstrates greater advancements in upholding legal principles. They highlight that nations in Central Asia continue to implement oppressive tactics, detain reporters, limit the activities of non-governmental organizations and religious groups, and uphold strict anti-LGBTQ laws.

Rising regionalism

Per Edward Lemon, who is the president of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs and a professor at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, there has been a notable shift in foreign relations within Central Asia in recent years towards increased regionalism.

According to Lemon, visa regulations have been eased, borders have been reopened, trade has grown, and there has been an increase in migration within the region, as reported to VOA.

According to him, despite this, leaders in Central Asia do not work together as a unified group. “This would undoubtedly enhance their ability to negotiate.”

According to Lemon, despite efforts to shake off the perception of being “Russia’s territory,” all involved nations have maintained close relationships with Moscow, which have remained largely unchanged since the complete invasion of Ukraine.