By Paul Goble
Moscow has sought to rely on ethnic Russians and some non-titular nationalities in the former Soviet republics as a means of exerting influence on the governments of those now independent states. But that “soft power” option is increasingly less available as these countries become more ethnically homogeneous with the exit or dying out of the ethnic-Russian communities, the growing share of the population formed by the titular nationalities, as well as the ever greater role played by neighboring states whose own majority nationalities form co-ethnic minorities in these countries. All these trends—and the fact that they are leaving Moscow with fewer options besides economic power or the direct use of coercive force—are suggested by newly released data from and about Kyrgyzstan.
According to Kyrgyzstan’s Statistics Committee, the population of that country has grown by 8 percent over the last five years and now stand at approximately 5.7 million. The share of ethnic Russians has declined slightly; and the fraction occupied by Uzbeks and certain other nationalities has gone up. Meanwhile, the ethnic-Kyrgyz share of the population has continued to increase, rising from 71 percent in 2010 to 72.6 percent at the beginning of this year (kyrtag.kg/news/detail.php?ID=118294&sphrase_id=2943).
Over this five-year period, Kyrgyzstani officials said, the number of ethnic Kyrgyz increased by 10 percent, slightly more than the population as a whole and slightly less than the 14 percent increase registered by ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan but in stark contrast to the ethnic Russians there whose numbers continued to decline, albeit less rapidly than in the 1990s, and now stand at 375,400. Moreover, the Russian community increasingly consists of older people rather than those of working age and thus is less influential than it was in the past.
The rise of ethnic Uzbeks is especially striking and has given Tashkent—but not Moscow, as was the case in Soviet times—significant leverage on Bishkek. Indeed, one cannot make sense of the unrest of the last several years in the southern portion of the country without taking into account the rise of the Uzbek minority and Uzbekistan’s interest in using it in order to extract more water and deference from Kyrgyzstan.
According to the Bishkek statisticians, there are also five other ethnic groups who now make up part of the Kyrgyz Republic’s citizenry: 63,000 Dungans, 51,000 Uighurs, 40,000 Turks, 49,000 Tajiks and 33,400 Kazakhs. The first three of these, along with the Chinese who reside in Kyrgyzstan but are not citizens and thus were not counted in this enumeration, are deeply involved in Bishkek’s relationship with Beijing, often creating problems for the former and sometimes offering opportunities for the latter. The Tajiks and Kazakhs, in turn, often look to Dushanbe or Astana and are influenced by those capitals. They do not look to Moscow as they might have in the past.
Demography, of course, is not destiny except in the very long term, but such changes over the last five years are having an impact on power relations and especially in the current climate on Moscow’s apparent interest in using hard power now that its soft power options are declining.