In the build-up to and after the start of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Putin regime, in addition to referring to the alleged threat of NATO encroachment, has also attempted to justify the “military solution” it engaged in by explicitly mentioning the purported threats posed to ethnic Russians in Ukraine, even going as far as to accuse the Ukrainian authorities of committing genocide against the Russian-speaking population of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In addition to the expert community soundly refuting the claim that the Russian minority in Ukraine has had its language and cultural rights significantly curtailed and was in any way a potential target for ethnic cleansing, with the arguments advanced by Russia characterized as an abuse of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, an examination of the Putin government’s past record when it comes to protecting ethnic Russians abroad reveals that it has been underwhelming, with its policies lacking consistency in this realm.
As a general rule, the Russian establishment has viewed the presence of ethnic Russians in the Central Asian states as helpful in terms of being able to exert additional influence in these countries. Even though Putin has often identified the readiness to offer support for Russians abroad as a national goal of crucial importance, in practice his policies with regard to safeguarding the rights of ethnic Russians in former USSR countries have not necessarily been overly assertive, with ethnic-based considerations frequently taking a back seat to other concerns, such as ones that are purely economic in nature.
One example of the Russian president’s willingness to relegate the rights of ethnic Russians to the backstage pertains to his dealings with Turkmenistan, a rigidly authoritarian state, which has since the early 1990s pursued a policy of Turkmenization, resulting in a systematic discrimination against ethnic minorities, including ethnic Russians. In April 2003, Russia and Turkmenistan signed a long-term agreement covering the sale of Turkmen gas to Russia. Shortly after that Turkmenistan unilaterally ended a bilateral deal which provided the option of dual citizenship to the Russians residing in the Central Asian country. This decision caused panic among the approximately 100,000 Russian-speakers who lived in Turkmenistan, many of whom subsequently emigrated to Russia due to fear of being trapped inside a state where their recourse to legal process would be severely limited. The Russian president barely protested the decision taken by his Turkmen counterpart, Saparmurat Niyazov, and was criticized by the media in his country for what they saw as a “soft approach” to the citizenship issue. The gas contract is believed to have essentially taken precedence over the interests of the ethnic Russians, many of whom equated the passivity displayed by Putin with a betrayal. Notably, at the time Russia’s Union of Right Forces Party drew a comparison between Niyazov’s treatment of ethnic Russians and the forced population transfers during the Stalin era.
Russia has also enjoyed amicable relations with Tajikistan, another Central Asian country, which has in some respects promoted a strong brand of ethnic nationalism and exhibited features that are typical of nationalizing states. For example, the Tajik authorities have applied pressure on the citizens to abandon Russian-style names and have not been averse to using language policies as a leverage to extract economic concessions from Russia.
According to Aleksandr Shustov, an expert on Central Asia, with the exception of Kazakhstan, the Russian establishment has been far from successful in preventing an exodus of ethnic Russians, which has complicated its ability to maintain a significant Russian foothold in the Central Asian republics. In his assessment, as early as 2016, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan had essentially left Russia’s sphere of cultural-civilizational influence while Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were also gauged to be moving in the same direction.
The discordance in the case of Russian policies pertaining to ethnic issues has continued into the present day. Even though the Putin regime has singled out Ukraine and forced it to pay the ultimate price with regard to having its territorial integrity blatantly violated, referring to it as Nazi state on a multitude of occasions due to the latter supposedly ticking the boxes of an aggressively ethnocratic country (where the state apparatus is purportedly controlled by a dominant ethnic group at the expense of national minorities), in 2021 Russia had no qualms about endorsing the current president of Kyrgyzstan, Sadyr Japarov, whose views have been described as staunchly nationalist and who has in addition to that been characterized as suspicious of minority groups in his country, such as ethnic Uzbeks. Kamchybek Tashiev, the chairman of the GKNB, the State Committee for National Security, who is part of the inner circle of Japarov, has been accused of making controversial statements, described as having fascist overtones, about the ethnic minorities of Kyrgyzstan, of which Russians constitute the second largest group.
Furthermore, taking into account the current geopolitical realities, there are already strong signs that the ongoing invasion of Ukraine has weakened Russia’s influence in Central Asia, possibly an acceleration of pre-existing trends, while China has arguably been gaining ground in what has been described as Russia’s “backyard.” With Russia being bogged down in a protracted and very costly (in terms of both economic repercussions and human capital) struggle in Ukraine as well as the erosion of its soft power in the five ‘stans,’ it is not inconceivable that the Central Asian states, possibly assuming that they have less to fear in terms of potential punitive actions taken by the militarily weakened Russian state, may implement further laws that restrict the rights of the Russians residing in their countries. In fact, given that the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has raised fears in countries such as Kazakhstan of ethnic Russians becoming a “fifth column,” a tightening of the legal regulations at the expense of Slavic minority groups may be used as a tool to encourage out-migration of Russians and thus further tilt the demographic balance in favor of the titular ethnicity.
It is also doubtful that Russia would be able to rely on its ally China to serve as a “protecting power” for the rights of ethnic Russians in Central Asia given the Chinese government’s own track record when it comes to defending the interests of overseas Chinese. For a variety of reasons, which are connected to the premium placed on ideology and possibly China’s general reluctance to engage in overt interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, Beijing’s reaction to events affecting Han Chinese residing abroad, such as the 1998 riots in Indonesia (during the final year of the Suharto regime) that targeted ethnic Chinese or the ethnic cleansing of Chinese over the course of the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, have been rather muted.
One of the paradoxes, if we are to assume that the Putin regime is genuinely concerned with the social and cultural rights of ethnic Russians, is that a potential Ukrainian membership in the European Union (EU) would provide one of the best guarantees that certain standards pertaining to the treatment of minorities will continue to be observed. The respect for and protection of minority rights are enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria, which define the rules of eligibility for becoming a member of the EU. The precedent is clearly there as well – the Baltic countries’ accession to the EU as well as the pre-2004 preparatory work have certainly contributed to improving the situation for ethnic minorities, including Russians, due to ensuring that citizenship laws are in alignment with EU-wide norms. On a societal level, these developments have also made the integration of ethnic Russians easier.
The Putin regime’s firm stance when it comes to demanding respect for the rights of ethnic Russians in its near abroad is even more hypocritical due to its inability to guarantee them inside Russia, especially in certain regions where a non-Russian ethnicity forms the majority group. Ramzan Kadyrov’s vociferous pro-Kremlin proclamations notwithstanding, what has been described as his private state of Chechnya has become a largely mono-ethnic entity (with the share of ethnic Russians about 2% of the population). Kadyrov recently even attracted controversy among some Kremlin hardliners due to the praise he offered to his son Adam for mistreating the ethnically Russian prisoner Nikita Zhuravel, who had found himself in Chechen custody after being suspected of publicly burning a Qur’an. In this instance, the Kremlin was by no means quick to comment on the incident.
The Russian government’s preoccupation with the rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine (which in certain respects offers more robust protections for Russian speakers in comparison to many of the former Soviet states) has a hollow ring to it and is hardly in line with past Russian policies when dealing with countries where the Russian minority has faced inordinately more difficulties in securing respect for its cultural and linguistic rights. It is another misguided accusation leveled at Ukraine, intended to provide an excuse for a morally and legally indefensible military campaign, which is likely to be to the short- and long-term detriment of the ethnic Russians who call Ukraine their home.
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