Is the surprise result in the U.S. elections likely to affect the way the countries of Central Asia perceive the United States, and how does the dislike for Washington’s policies among the Muslim populations of the region weigh up against the antipathy toward their former imperial master Russia?
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after touring the Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Astana, Nov. 2, 2015. Photo: AP
The victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race has prompted heated debate within the expert community of Central Asia. Such interest stems primarily from Trump’s controversial statements about Muslims as well as his intentions to ban the issuing of visas to the citizens of the countries involved in terrorist attacks against the United States.
The list of these countries includes Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Somali and, finally, Uzbekistan (one of its citizens, a refugee living in Idaho, was arrested in 2013 and accused of teaching terror recruits how to produce bombs).
On the other hand, Trump’s victory has attracted a great deal of attention because his presidency will have an impact on U.S.-Russia relations. After all, in the case of the confrontation between Moscow and Washington increasing under Trump, the Central Asian country will have to shoulder this burden as well. And pundits cannot help but take an interest in such risks.
The interest toward U.S.-Russia relations also results from domestic political trends within the countries of Central Asia — anti-Russian and anti-American sentiments in the region. These stem from the growth of xenophobia toward representatives of Central Asia both in Russia and the U.S. amid the increasing threat of terrorism.
Moreover, foreign policy skeptics in Kazakhstan, one of the key countries in Central Asia, raise their eyebrows at Russia’s policy in Ukraine and express fears that the Kremlin might revive its colonial policy in the region. All this fuels anti-Russian sentiments in the region to a certain extent. Likewise, the Trump campaign against Muslims could aggravate anti-Americanism. However, there could be other reasons that account for these trends.
Russophobia in Central Asia
Anti-Russian sentiment in Central Asia is commonplace, but the scale of this trend is not so frightening, partly because of the region’s historical background. After all, Russia is seen as a very important stakeholder in the region, having contributed to the modernization of Central Asia and, most importantly, its security. Nevertheless, the colonial policy of the Russian empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the suppression of numerous protests in the region, haunts Central Asia and has left a very unpleasant aftertaste among the Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik populations.
The second factor that fuels anti-Russian sentiment is the controversial legacy of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, including his repressions and purges, which killed many prominent cultural, public and political figures in Central Asia. And calls within Russia for the rehabilitation of Stalin’s image only increase such Russophobic sentiments.
Moreover, xenophobia in Russia exacerbates anti-Russian sentiments in Central Asia, as indicated by media reports and numerous polls conducted by the Moscow-based Sova analytical center. Citizens of Central Asia are a major target for Russian nationalists in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other cities.
What is behind anti-Americanism?
While anti-Russian sentiments result from the legacy of the past, anti-Americanism in Central Asia is primarily related to the post-Soviet agenda and the present. However, the first roots of anti-Americanism in the region can be found in 1991, according to Vyacheslav Katamidze, a respected Russian expert in Oriental Studies.
In 1991 the U.S. launched its Desert Storm operation in Iraq, which came as a response to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s attempts to invade neighboring Kuwait. This gave a good reason to Hussein to launch an information war against Washington. The Iraqi propaganda machine also manipulated Central Asian countries, with anti-Americanism finding fertile ground in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and other neighboring countries, according to Katamidze.
The 2003 U.S. military campaign in Iraq contributed further to the rise of anti-Americanism in Central Asia: While the Uzbek authorities welcomed this operation, the people of the region met it with a great deal of indignation. They saw the intervention as the act of aggression against Muslims, with the execution of Hussein on Dec. 30, 2006 having fallen on the day of a sacred Muslim holiday. Naturally, this was seen as disrespect to Muslims.
However, today’s anti-Americanism is also the result of Russia’s propaganda campaign amid the Ukrainian and Syrian crises, taking into account that Russian television channels are very popular in post-Soviet republics of Central Asia. It is a simple matter of fact: The population of the region prefers Kremlin-controlled media outlets over local ones, which in any case echo their Russian counterparts.
Anti-Americanism and Russophobia: not a game-changer
Even though anti-Americanism and anti-Russian sentiments are commonplace in Central Asia, these trends don’t have a great impact on the domestic agenda in the countries of the region. For now anti-Americanism trumps Russophobia, if for no other reason than because Russia is still influential in the region due to its geographic proximity and historical roots. It remains to be seen if the U.S. under Trump will be able to change this trend in favor of Washington.
However, today the U.S. is trying to establish dialogue with the countries of Central Asia within the so-called “C5+1” format, which includes Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Whether this initiative will reverse the trend is an open question, at least because Washington has no intention of competing with Russia in the region, as indicated by the statements of officials.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.