The Russian Diaspora in Central Asia: Russian Compatriots and Moscow's Foreign Policy

By Ziegler, Charles E. | Demokratizatsiya, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Russian Diaspora in Central Asia: Russian Compatriots and Moscow's Foreign Policy


Ziegler, Charles E., Demokratizatsiya


Abstract: This article examines how Russians and the Russian government have conceptualized their compatriots living in Central Asia, examines the circumstances surrounding Russian immigration to and emigration from the region, discusses the role played by the Russian diaspora in Russian foreign policy and Central Asian politics, and outlines the Putin administration's approach to Russian compatriots abroad. President Putin has devoted considerable attention to promoting and defending the interests of Russian compatriots in Central Asia, and Russian foreign policy is slowly changing to utilize soft power more effectively in achieving Russia's goals in the near abroad. Russia's nationalist movement actively lobbies for greater attention to the diaspora in Russian foreign policy. A surge of patriotism resulting from terrorist attacks and the Chechnya conflict heightens Russians' sense of identity and could lead to greater pressures to "defend" Russians abroad. The Russian diaspora is now more important symbolically than it was under Yeltsin, yet traditional political and security considerations, a vigorous energy diplomacy, and participation in emerging regional organizations overshadow Russia's compatriots abroad as factors in Moscow's Central Asia policy.

Key words: Central Asia, compatriots, diaspora, foreign policy, Russians

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Diasporas can have a significant impact on the domestic and foreign policies of states. The American Jewish community, for example, constitutes a powerful voice within the United States in support of Israel, and shapes American policy toward the Middle East. For years, the Armenian community has influenced U.S. policy toward Turkey and the Caucasus, whereas Florida's Cubans have pressured Washington to maintain a hard line against Castro's regime. Ethnic Chinese living in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Taiwan have invested heavily in the PRC, contributing substantially to the mainland's phenomenal economic growth. When the Soviet Union collapsed, some twenty-five million ethnic Russians were living in the fourteen non-Russian republics, with several million more scattered around the globe. This article assesses the importance of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in Central Asia (collectively termed "compatriots") for Russian foreign policy under Vladimir Putin.

The Russian diaspora issue was on Moscow's agenda only intermittently when Boris Yeltsin was in office. President Putin has emphasized restoring Russian power and influence in the world, particularly along the unstable southern border where ethnic Russians mix with peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Under Putin, Russian nationalism is becoming a stronger force in domestic politics and foreign policy. Given these developments, Russian foreign policy could become more assertive in defending the interests of Russians abroad, or at least in playing the diaspora card in international relations. Moscow's efforts to exert greater influence in the southern border regions, which pose the greatest security challenge to Russia, elevate the potential importance of the Russian diaspora as an instrument of statecraft.

This article addresses the following questions. First, how have Russians and the Russian government conceptualized their compatriots living in Central Asia? What are the circumstances surrounding Russian immigration to and emigration from the region? What role has the Russian diaspora played in Russian foreign policy and Central Asian politics since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Has Vladimir Putin's administration adopted a substantially different approach to Russian compatriots abroad than that of Boris Yeltsin? What has been Russia's ethnic strategy in the critical security region of Central Asia, and how does the ethnic factor fit into Russia's overall strategy toward the region?

My first task is to present some theoretical issues relevant to diaspora politics and foreign policy, outline the pattern of ethnic Russian settlement in Central Asia, and discuss the elusive concept of Russian identity outside the Russian Federation. …

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