On January 31, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Sadyr Japarov signed a series of cooperation agreements.
This prompted Western media outlets to spin the recent development as another sign of Russia losing control of the post-Soviet space.
There is some truth to this assessment based on the way the war in Ukraine has proceeded but it would be simplistic to read too much into it.
Autocratic regimes in Central Asia, propped-up by Russia, are distancing themselves from Moscow but only in a limited way.
They are unlikely to capitalize on it at the strategic level and formulate their own geopolitical and economic policies.
It should also be noted that the US is suffering a similar setback in its own spheres of influence as a result of its failure in the proxy war in Ukraine.
Even the Saudis are talking back to their masters in Washington.
In the current environment, Russia understands that it cannot rely on force to retain its primacy in the post Soviet regions as it did in Georgia in 2008 and in Kazakhstan in 2022 .
Coercive measures will open additional geopolitical fronts for Russia in its immediate vicinity and create new opportunities for western pressure points against Moscow.
The Kremlin knows that this will not be in its interest.
Therefore, quite uniquely for the region, currently it is in Russia’s interest to push for closer intra-Central Asian cooperation at all levels.
This includes strengthening China’s Belt and Road Initiative and create a new economic ecosystem for Moscow to evade western sanctions.
Well-organized economic and political cooperation between Central Asian states free from western dominance will allow Russia to import and export products and services through Central Asia.
However, for this to happen, the Central Asian states will have to take a firm stance against western demands to close Central Asia as an economic outlet for Russia.
For Central Asian states to play a balancing role between NATO regimes and Russia will require certain internal adjustments.
They have to develop a cohesive internal political system and demonstrate authentic resistance to Russian and American pressures.
To convert Central Asia into an economic and geopolitical playing field which would function based on its own interests and rules, these regimes will have to insulate themselves against external meddling.
The 2022 events in Kazakhstan showed that even the most “stable” of all Central Asian regimes lacks popular legitimacy.
It could not withstand the population’s angry outburst.
This situation makes the Central Asian states vulnerable to various kinds of external meddling by Moscow and Washington.
Without an authentic and well-organized grassroots opposition movement, the chances of Central Asian states seizing the current unique geopolitical circumstance look highly unlikely.
Apart from Kyrgyzstan, all the other regimes are illegitimate because they lack popular support.
In such circumstances it becomes virtually impossible to initiate regionally transformative policies.
Authentic popular backing is essential for this phenomenon to succeed.
This situation can change dramatically if, upon the demise of Tajikistan’s current ruler, the region’s oldest and most organized Islamic movement, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) makes some sort of a political comeback.
A weakened Russia, liberated Afghanistan and distracted west create a unique opportunity for the IRPT to make a bold political move and surprise the region just as it did in the 1990s.