Understanding Public Outrage and Diplomatic Neutrality in the Context of the Gaza War’s Effect on Central Asia

Central Asian states prioritise diplomatic neutrality in the Gaza conflict for security while the public expresses anger towards Israel. The ire of the Muslim world, including the region’s longstanding allies like Turkey and Iran, is pushing the region to take a stance against Israel and show support for Palestine.
People gathered in the streets of downtown Bishkek in a public display of support for Palestine. [Eurasianet]


Central Asian states prioritise diplomatic neutrality in the Gaza conflict for security while the public expresses anger towards Israel. The ire of the Muslim world, including the region’s longstanding allies like Turkey and Iran, is pushing the region to take a stance against Israel and show support for Palestine.

Before the conflict between Israeli forces and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza became a full-scale war with global influence, the countries in Central Asia were trying to overcome the geopolitical, security and economic impacts resulting from Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, they are also faced with the task of assessing the impact of the war in Gaza and preparing to deal with the expected threats. The post-Soviet countries in the region are wary of openly criticising Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, given the real risk of pressure by Russia. However, none of them support Russia’s war on Ukraine, as they have always recognised the territorial integrity and independence of Ukraine. (1)

Central Asian leaders appear to be carefully navigating their stance on the ongoing Gaza conflict. They refrain from strong condemnation or support towards Israel, despite its military actions in Gaza resulting in civilian casualties. Simultaneously, they emphasize solidarity with the Palestinian people. If we interpret this stance as neutrality, it's crucial to understand the underlying factors influencing it. Additionally, it's notable that Central Asian societies hold distinct views compared to their governments' more reserved positions. Public sentiment in the region is firmly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Below, we will explore the reasons behind the governments' neutral diplomatic stance and the contrasting strong opposition from the population.

The positions of Central Asian states

The neutrality and cautiousness of Central Asian states in international relations is not new, but stem back to the start of independent foreign policy. Consequently, they have remained neutral regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip. On 8 October 2023, the Kazakhstani and Tajikistani ministries of foreign affairs, and on October 9, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan expressed serious concern about the significant escalation of the situation in the Middle East. Their statements did not differ in terms of content, and called on the warring parties to take all measures to quickly end the armed conflict and resolve the crisis through political and diplomatic means. (2)

In many instances, Central Asian presidents have expressed their views on the ongoing war in Gaza only as part of their speeches in international forums. On 13 October 2023, at the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstani President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev spoke about the absolute unacceptability of trying to solve problems that have not been solved for decades by terrorist means. (3) The presidents of the region also focused on the war in Gaza at the Organisation of Turkic States (OTS) summit held on 3 November 2023 in Astana, Kazakhstan with the participation of the presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Hungary. During the summit, Uzbekistani President Shavkat Mirziyoyev declared, “...we call on the involved parties to immediately cease hostilities and fire, and to negotiate peace. The only and fairest solution to this problem is to resolve the conflict on the basis of the principle of two states for two nations.” (4) Similar statements were made at the Economic Cooperation Organisation (ECO) summit held in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on 9 November 2023. In addition to Central Asian states and Azerbaijan, this organisation includes Iran, Pakistan and Turkey. The last three states are openly against Israel vis-à-vis the war in Gaza. However, it should be noted that even though the countries of Central Asia are among the majority who officially express solidarity with Palestine, they have stated that they do not want to participate directly in the conflict in the Middle East or fully support one of the parties. In two of the international forums mentioned above, the initiative to discuss the problems of the Middle East was made by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and late Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi. Central Asian leaders remained passive, trying not to make too radical statements and maintaining a general tone. Nonetheless, one could recognise Erdogan’s influence in the formation of the positions of countries such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, on the events in Gaza. As a result, the speeches of Central Asian presidents on international platforms can be viewed as contextual speeches that contain statements that lean more towards the Palestinian position than the Israeli position, even if Israel is not openly criticised.

Two days later, at the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which took place in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the countries of Central Asia once again expressed their position towards the war in Gaza. “The indiscriminate attack on civilian infrastructure, schools, hospitals and residential buildings is not only a violation of international humanitarian law, but also a serious violation of human rights,” said Kyrgyzstani president Sadyr Japarov. However, the speech of Tajikistani president Emomali Rahmon was delivered with a tone of relative criticism of Israel, probably due the influence of Iran, with whom Tajikistan shares a common language and culture. Rahmon even stated that “Tajikistan supports the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital within the 1967 borders.” (5)

At the United Nations General Assembly, Central Asian member states were among the majority that voted against Israel, albeit cautiously. They even supported a UN resolution (6) calling for a humanitarian ceasefire between Israel and Hamas on 27 October 2023, and a resolution calling for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip on 12 December 2023.

Although they did not make statements against Israel, the region’s presidents expressed their solidarity with the Palestinian people and provided humanitarian assistance to prevent a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. Uzbekistan provided financial assistance of 1.5 million 500 thousand dollars to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to for the people of the Gaza Strip. (7) Kazakhstan provided humanitarian assistance of 1 million dollars to Palestine, (8) and while Turkmenistan sent humanitarian cargo consisting of medicine and medical supplies, shoes, food products, children's clothing, bedding and other goods. (9) In Kyrgyzstan, members of parliament donated a day’s worth of pay to the Palestinian people. According to estimates, their donations amounted to several thousands of dollars. (10)

Notwithstanding, according to Israeli analysts, it is impossible to draw a practical conclusion from the positions of Central Asian states, who are officially closer to Palestine than Israel. (11) As a proof of this conclusion, they draw attention to the fact that cooperation between Israel and the countries of the region even during the war.

Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have active relations with Israel in various fields. For example, in September 2023, shortly before the start of the war in Gaza, Israel signed a grain agreement with Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan to create a regional alliance for the supply of wheat, (12) thus bolstering food security long-term. In the same month, Kazakhstan's flag carrier, Air Astana, launched the first direct flight from Almaty to Tel Aviv, (13) thereby further strengthening mutual relations.

Furthermore, the states in the region factor in their strategic relationships with the United States, Israel's foremost ally. Given Central Asia's historical context, navigating foreign policy has often been challenging, necessitating constant diversification of international partnerships. Hence, it's understandable why leaders in the region have refrained from making public statements against Israel. (14)

Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the Central Asian countries' relations with Palestine, as they universally support recognising Palestine as a state. Each country in the region hosts a Palestinian embassy. In August 2023, Palestinian Minister of Foreign Affairs Riyad al-Maliki conducted official visits to all these nations except Kazakhstan.

“Shoulder to shoulder with Palestine”

The position of the Muslims of Central Asia towards this war is fundamentally different from that of their governments. From the outset of the war, the people of Central Asia actively came to the defence of the people in Gaza on social media platforms. In the comments section of a YouTube video posted by KUN.UZ, (15) one of Uzbekistan’s most popular news websites, more than a thousand users expressed their solidarity with Palestine.

On 21 October 2023, the first demonstration for Palestine was organised in Bishkek, and about a hundred people took part in it. (16) A week later, another demonstration was organised in Bishkek, according to Sputnik Kyrgyzstan, by the Erkin Kyrgyzstan Progressive-Democratic Party. About 700 people participated, calling for the end of the genocide in the Gaza Strip and the boycott of Israeli companies. (17)

On 29 October 2023, an unauthorised demonstration in support of Palestine was attempted in Tashkent. According to Gazeta.uz, however, the police dispersed the protesters and arrested the organisers. The demonstrators drew inspiration from a pro-Palestine protest in Istanbul, displaying banners reminiscent of those seen there. Their signs included slogans such as “Shoulder to shoulder with Palestine,” “15 days do not scare me,” and “If we are the majority, they will hear us,” alongside flags of Palestine and Uzbekistan. Reports indicate that over 100 protesters, including individuals from neighbouring areas, gathered in the capital's centre for the demonstration. (18)

While protests in Bishkek did not greatly concern the Kyrgyzstani government, the attempted demonstration in Uzbekistan—home to Central Asia's largest Muslim community—was met with caution. On 31 October 2023, President Mirziyoev addressed the nation, acknowledging the deepening humanitarian crisis caused by the ongoing conflict between the Israeli army and Hamas. He emphasised the significant toll on innocent civilians and urged the youth and all citizens to avoid spreading misinformation or engaging in illegal activities. (19)

The efforts of Central Asian Muslims to support the Palestinian cause may seem modest compared to the solidarity seen in countries like Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. However, this disparity can be explained by the aforementioned events. Nonetheless, it is arguable that a significant majority of Central Asian youth aged 18 to 40 oppose any conflict in Gaza and harbour strong resentment toward the Israeli government and its Western allies.

Throughout my nearly 10-year career as a university professor, teaching thousands of students, particularly those studying Arabic studies, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been a frequent topic of discussion. It has become evident during lectures that young people, especially those aged 18-22, who are new to global politics hold a firm stance against the modern-day colonialism that has created the ongoing genocide in Palestine. Moreover, informal discussions with colleagues specialising in Arab history indicate that this perspective is shared widely among the academic community.

Therefore, it is plausible that if a comprehensive poll were conducted, a substantial majority of the population aged 18-40 would strongly support the view that the Israeli occupation of Palestine constitutes genocide and colonialism.

Access to information

Awareness among Central Asian populations regarding the Gaza war is low due to limited access to comprehensive information. According to research conducted by the European Neighbourhood Council, the people of Central Asia consume global news mainly through three sources: social media platforms, national television channels and Russian television channels. (20) Not to mention, no surveys on public opinion have been conducted on the views of Central Asian peoples on the war.

What is more is that state-owned television channels in Central Asian countries tend to provide limited and cautious coverage of events due to their governments' official stance of neutrality and their reluctance to openly criticize the Israeli Zionist regime for the Gaza conflict. For instance, Kazakhstan's popular Channel One Eurasia aired a brief report on March 28, 2024, highlighting the famine and suffering of children amid the escalating conflict in Gaza, but refrained from attributing these issues to Israeli aggression. Similarly, Uzbekistan24, a major news channel in Uzbekistan, rarely covers the Gaza war, and when it does, avoids mentioning Israeli aggression.

Given the fluency of most people in the region in Russian and the widespread viewership of Russian-language channels, their significant influence on information consumption must be recognised. Russian news sources are perceived as lacking a clear editorial stance on Israel and Hamas' actions, contributing to biased public opinions, particularly on sensitive religious matters. Some, like Uzbekistani political scientist Farkhod Tolipov, further argue that Russian media contains propaganda that negatively impacts Central Asia by distorting reality. This creates a division in public opinion that mirrors the situation seen regarding Ukraine. (21)

Overall, the passive response of Central Asian people to the war in Gaza can be traced back to political apathy ingrained during the Soviet era, which persists today. Even after gaining independence, governments in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan suppress popular protests and perceive calls for Islamic unity as a threat, thus stifling public expression. While Uzbekistan has made strides in religious freedom recently, receiving international praise, deep-seated patterns within the population and power structures endure.

Beyond politics, the mindset of the peoples also plays a role. Central Asians are often characterized as part of the "silent majority." They privately condemn Israel's actions in Gaza, calling them genocide, and advocate for peace, yet refrain from public demonstrations. However, on platforms like Telegram and Facebook, hashtags such as “Free Palestine” and “Stop genocide” are widespread. Many display the Palestinian flag on their profiles, indicating solidarity.

It is clear that the majority in Central Asia stands with the Palestinian people and condemns Israel's actions as war crimes and genocide, aligning with global sentiments.


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