2 Dec 2021

Russian Foreign Ministry department director Alexander Sternik: No one has monopoly on relations with Central Asian countries

Director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Third CIS Department Alexander Sternik has given an interview to Interfax in which he discusses Moscow's view of the situation in Central Asia after the change of power in Afghanistan, as well as Russia's interaction with regional countries, primarily in the sphere of security.

Question: China and the United States have been actively penetrating the Central Asian region, both politically and economically. Does Moscow consider this a threat to Russia's interests in the region? Is Moscow concerned about actions of Turkey and Iran in Central Asia?

Answer: What does 'actively penetrating’ mean? I would say they are developing ties in pursuit of goals as they understand them. The efforts of our leadership, federal and regional authorities, as well as companies and investors have the same aims. No one has a monopoly on relations with sovereign countries in the region. Resting on historical and geographical proximity, our task is to expand our competitive advantages, remaining an attractive business partner and an honest security 'provider' for Central Asia.

Q.: Kyrgyz authorities said they would buy Bayraktar combat drones. Kyrgyzstan is Russia's ally in the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Does Moscow consider this to be a breach of allied obligations?

A.: We see no breach of obligations. Moreover, such sporadic purchases are incomparable to the scale of our military and technical cooperation and allied help both through bilateral channels and within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Q.: Is Moscow concerned about the possible expansion of threats, both physical and ideological, from Afghanistan to Central Asia, or is it absolutely sure that no such scenario will play out?

A.: We are worried, but we're not sitting on our hands. Acting together with frontline countries, we're taking pre-emptive measures, exchanging information, conducting joint exercises and maneuvers, assisting by way of delivering military equipment and goods, special equipment, primarily for border security.

Q.: Can the countries bordering Afghanistan - that is Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan - cope with the protection of their southern borders from a possible threat? Are they making requests regarding additional assistance to reinforce the border besides plans for a new border post at the Tajik-Afghan border?

A.: This is a question for them. According to our estimates, the regional countries have considerably expanded their capability to control the situation along the border with Afghanistan. Naturally, we have responded and will be responding to requests for assistance from our partners. A great deal is being done to reinforce the longest border, the Tajik-Afghani border, including within the framework of the CSTO.

Q.: How does Moscow assess relations between Central Asian states and the new Afghan authorities? The Uzbek foreign minister visited Kabul for negotiations, while Tajik-Afghan relations are extremely tense. Could events in Afghanistan trigger ethnic and international riots in Central Asia?

A.: The Central Asian states have neighbored Afghanistan for centuries and understand better than many others the specifics of building relationships with them. The do this in pursuit of their security and development goals and based on traditional ties with related communities on the other side of the border. We understand this. Our goal is to coordinate steps in our common interest, which is to overcome the intra-Afghan crisis and to prevent any threats from spilling over to our side.

Q.: Has interaction with large regional countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and Iran to guarantee security been ramped up, including at the level of special services?

A.: We have a wealth of experience of consultations and information exchange on regional problems with these large players. We find them to be partners interested in cooperation and respecting the privileged nature of relationships between Russia and Central Asian states, our historical and present-day contribution to stability.

Q.: Could the growing migration pressure on the Central Asian countries expand to other countries? How big is the risk that the refugee problem will overwhelm Russia as well? Is it possible that the Central Asian countries and Russia will become a transit route for refugees to Europe? What steps are being taken to mitigate this problem? How are refugee flows filtered, and how are potential extremists exposed? Does Moscow interact with the Central Asian countries to this end, in particular near the Afghan border?

A.: Migration pressure could potentially manifest itself. Much depends on developments in Afghanistan, on whether joint efforts could protect it from a humanitarian disaster, when people start to flee hunger and deprivation in droves. This is a comprehensive task. We are helping to resolve by offering direct assistance to the people of Afghanistan and pressing for the mobilization of international support, including by unfreezing the assets of the Afghan government in foreign banks.

Q.: How big is the risk of the ideological growth of extremist cells in Central Asia against the backdrop of Afghanistan turning into a foothold for terrorists and social problems? What countries face the biggest threat from this?

A.: There is fertile ground for extremist attitudes everywhere where there are acute social and economic problems. No region is exempt. Radical propaganda knows no borders thanks to modern communication means. Efforts by law enforcement officers alone are not of course enough to reduce its 'grateful audience’. We are looking at the problem comprehensively, maintaining access to our labor market for working-age people of the region’s countries and developing joint projects with new jobs and other positive effects on the socio-economic situation in the region. Our partners in advanced economic integration within the framework of the EAEU, that is Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, are taking full advantage of the benefits of such cooperation. Investment and project interaction with Uzbekistan are on an unparalleled rise today.

Q.: The vast majority of labor migrants in Russia come from Central Asian states. Do you fear that the absence of integration opportunities makes the risk of extremism and crime grow? Is Moscow working with the Central Asian countries to elaborate more advanced control and integration mechanisms?

A.: Russia is very attractive for education, work and careers. Geography, close mindsets, and the binding role of the Russian language help here. For decades, millions of citizens of the Central Asian countries have been coming to our country to study and work each year. We have accumulated a wealth of experience of migration interaction over this period of time. We have made valuable conclusions both from positive and negative aspects of such cooperation. This is a two-way street. Labor migrants help our economy. We are interested in using the most up-to-date approaches here, for example organized rather than spontaneous recruitment of personnel at large sites in Russia. We are actively doing this job as part of interagency groups.

Q.: Experts say that Turkey is trying to tempt Turkmenistan into joining the union of Turkic nations in order to gain control over the gas route from Turkmenistan to Europe. Does Moscow fear this?

A.: Our cooperation with Turkmenistan and Turkey in energy and transit transportation is open and mutually beneficial. However, the politicization of energy has started to show lately, not without the participation of the U.S. and its associates. There is empty talk about threats to the European Union's energy security posed by Russia. They're offering all sorts of projects aimed at cutting down the share of Russian energy on European markets. Time will tell whether the authors of these ideas can prove with numbers in hand, as they say, the superiority of their alternatives over our product.

Q.: Does Moscow consider the issue of dual citizenship with Turkmenistan resolved?

A.: The presidents of Russia and Turkmenistan reached agreement on this in 2017. The process has already started. We together with our Turkmen friends must do all we can to implement a top level agreement to the fullest extent as soon as possible.