By Marat Suleymanov
Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation has retained a tight grip on countries in today’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia. From security to foreign policy and invasions notwithstanding, these have struggled to remain outside Russia’s sphere of influence. This is often due to geographic proximity, with infrastructure linkages making it difficult if not impossible to disconnect, while in other instances this has been a result of cultural similarities and even large segments of the population being Russian.
Due to the geopolitical tangle which the region and any would-be external national players find themselves in, it seems that one of the best and least explored chances which Central Asia and Eastern Europe have of remaining outside Russia’s sphere of influence is through the help of private sector investment. This may very well be the last opportunity to ensure political and economic freedom in a key part of the world.
The hand of Russia has long been all-encompassing in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Many a nation has essentially been left powerless to escape, with the only variation being the extent to which Russia’s presence is felt. As might be expected, slight spats have of course occurred. One might appeal to Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 Tulip Revolution, which the Kremlin denounced as a western backed ‘colour revolution’, Turkmenistan’s, short lived, replacing of Russia as its major gas export route or Russia’s constant squabbles with the late dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. More recently, Jacek Czaputowicz, the former minister of foreign affairs in Poland delivered a speech to the Bucharest Nine at Vilnius, where he described Russia as ‘the most important challenge and threat’.
Importantly, though, relations between Russia and nations in Central Asia and East Europe have remained largely similar in spite of these spats, without significant promise of these nations escaping the Russian orbit until recently. Now, however, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created the opportunity for significant advances in relations due to firstly, the great deal of negative international attention which is on Russia at the moment. Secondly, Russia is more occupied and weaker than ever before. Moreover, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has presented nations who previously found themselves threatened by Russia with an unenviable realisation – Russia does not fully respect their sovereignty and no external players would provide sufficient help, were they to also become victims of Russian aggression.
As such, these nations are keen to seek valuable opportunities at increased independence, yet the situation is too complicated for this to happen between nations alone. In Central Asia vast economic ties in the form of Russian led organisations, such as the Eurasian Economic Union tie nations economic interests to Russia and make it difficult to pull these out of the Russian orbit. Meanwhile, China lingers in the background of Central Asia, but seems no less likely to free the nations at risk of falling into Russia’s orbit. Beijing’s lack of engagement in Kazakhstan’s Bloody January riots was apparent. Besides, escaping the Russian orbit, only to fall into a Chinese one would be a textbook example of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’.
Rather independent players, who can engage with the region in a constructive manner with less concern for the geopolitical complications are the way to effect true positive impact. A good example has been the work of Jusan Technologies Limited, an investment holding company incorporated in the UK with business interests in banking, e-commerce, telecommunications, and other financial sectors, with a diverse portfolio and primary interests in partner companies operating in Kazakhstan and other former Soviet Union countries. Importantly, Jusan Technologies Limited, is based in a Western jurisdiction, for the reasons of ensuring accountability, transparency and long-term corporate stability. It is exactly these sort of private sector actors that can help facilitate meaningful change. This stands in contrast to other financial heavyweights in the country connected to the country’s government or former leadership.
Jusan Technologies Limited has been focused, for example, on liberalizing Kazakstan’s financial sector through one of its many subsidiaries, Jusan Bank. Making capital available through its bank which is structured on western financial models, it has facilitated economic development by providing the assurances individuals and companies need to do business in Kazakhstan. Although perhaps unintentional, through attracting western financing for domestic for-profit economic projects and providing the guarantees needed to make international companies comfortable to do business in the Kazakh market, Jusan has attracted actors who would otherwise certainly be disinclined to invest. More importantly, bringing in such international economic actors, which develop the local business environment and create local economic opportunities shows the further added benefits of departing Russia’s sphere of influence.
The same goes for Jusan’s e-commerce wing, which through its Jusan Mart has been working to liberalise many of the closed economies in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Indeed, economies across Central Asia, over 30 years since the fall of the Society Union, have remained notoriously illiberal and heavily reliant on state planning mechanisms. The circumstances for change are well-aligned, with the majority of state leaders potentially amenable to free market reforms considering how, unlike their predecessors, they have spent the majority of their lives in market-based economies and are less resistant to change. What is missing across the region are private sector actors such as Jusan to encourage this economic transition with actionable projects and encouraging investments.
Aside from business activities, one of Jusan’s flagship projects has been developing the educational and social welfare missions of the Nazarbayev University and Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools, the only educational programs in the country conducted in English (alongside Russian and Kazakh) and emphasizing western economic education. These have sought to encourage economic excellence among future leaders of the country, emphasizing skills such as critical thinking and intellectual debate.
Private sector companies such as Jusan Technologies Limited, whose business model and social commitments reflect this hopeful transition away from Russia and towards western actors are instrumental in facilitating this reorientation. It is the involvement of private sector actors such as these across Central Asia and Eastern Europe which will make all the difference in keeping countries out of Russia’s orbit in the long term.
About the Author
Marat Suleymanov is a student in Manchester pursuing graduate studies in global communications and IR. His areas of research include UK-Asia Relations, with an emphasis on UK-Kazakhstan international cooperation and economic ties