Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Kiarash Ighani is a research intern at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. J. Berkshire Miller is deputy director and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

Last week, Canada joined other countries in imposing sanctions on Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and other high-ranking members of his administration over allegations of human rights violations following a rigged presidential election this past August. Yet Mr. Lukashenko, aptly labelled “the last dictator of Europe,” has carried on with his 26-year reign – thanks in large part to Belarus’s superpower neighbour to the east, Russia. Unfortunately for Belarusians, Russia continues to staunchly support its undemocratic ally, and Moscow has been one of the primary pillars in its longstanding survival.

The situation in Belarus should be seen as a warning to the West once again on the reach of authoritarian regimes such as that in the Kremlin, and their ruthless drive to pursue their regional interests.

Story continues below advertisement

Central Asian countries find themselves in a precarious geopolitical situation, sandwiched between two massive Eurasian authoritarian superpowers in Russia and China. Like Belarus, since their inception as new countries, gaining independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan have all had to try to cope with the political, economic and social pressures placed onto them by their domineering neighbours. It does no help to the people living in those states that the Central Asian countries are all run, to varying degrees, by authoritarians.

But what has changed in the past decade is the increase in economic and, ultimately, political pressure exerted on these states by their ambitious neighbours.

In 2015, Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a customs union between Russia and several former Soviet republics, came into effect. But while there is some economic benefit to having a smoother customs process – not having to wait three days to cross the borders with cargo, for example – the EEU has been an overall negative experience for Central Asia. Coupled with the Commonwealth of Independent States Free Trade Area (CISFTA), the EEU creates greater economic dependency on Moscow, and so when Russia’s economy slumps – which it often does and has in the past decade – the Central Asian economies suffer. Moscow’s economic woes and the collapse of the ruble have contributed to local economies taking a major hit.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the only plausible alternative currently available – China – has been welcomed by the ruling elites of the Central Asian republics. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) – one component of its massive infrastructure building vision dubbed the Belt and Road Initiative – is a multibillion dollar investment effort from China to create the necessary infrastructure for its economic vision in a multitude of countries spanning Eurasia. The catch: these lucrative development contracts are awarded to Chinese enterprises by the same self-serving undemocratic governments. While corrupt bureaucrats fill their pockets with bribe money, their countries go into even greater debt. Further, development projects almost always employ Chinese instead of local labour.

In order to secure Chinese investments, governments of Central Asian countries have entered into agreements with China and have changed their own laws. Kazakhstan, for example, has enacted land reforms that allow foreign interests to lease agricultural land for 25 years. This sparked anti-government and anti-Chinese protests in several cities across Kazakhstan – a country that does not have freedom of assembly, and arbitrarily detains anyone presumed to be protesting against government policy.

Indeed, the prospects and hopes for democratization in Central Asia seem grim. On one hand, the entirety of their short political history has been authoritarian and their bases for liberal democracy are lacking. On the other, the economic and political pressure exerted onto them by Russia and China emboldens and maintains the power of the authoritarian political elite of these states.

The economic reality of the reliance on Russian and Chinese markets certainly moulds the political reality of having to be more or less aligned to the policy positions of at least one of these two powers. Greater political independence from China and Russia necessitates the creation of greater market opportunities outside of the immediate region. Higher volumes of trade with a broader range of partners, especially democratic ones such as Canada, can provide the space to be more politically independent.

Story continues below advertisement

This move might be easier for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, given their wealth in natural resources. But governments in Canada and likeminded countries would be wise to engage Central Asian markets. That wouldn’t just be a mutually beneficial economic endeavour – it would also empower citizens who are thirsty for democracy.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies