ALMATY -- Central Asians are growing increasingly frustrated with their governments' co-operation with Russia as the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague recognised Russian President Vladimir Putin as responsible for crimes committed in Ukraine.
On Friday (March 17), the court issued international warrants for the arrest of Putin, as well as of Russian presidential commissioner for children's rights Maria Lvova-Belova, on the war crime accusation of unlawfully deporting Ukrainian children to Russia.
According to the ICC, there are "reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility" for the aforementioned crimes.
The day before, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine called Russian authorities' deportation of Ukrainian children a war crime.
For several months, commission members have been working in Ukraine to gather information surrounding the circumstances of the deportations.
Their report on the results of the investigation emphasises that international humanitarian law prohibits -- with certain rare exceptions -- the evacuation of children by a party to an armed conflict.
Commission Chair Erik Møse, a former judge at the European Court of Human Rights, told reporters that the commission carefully reviewed the cases of 164 children, between the ages of 4 and 18, who were taken out of Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kherson provinces.
According to official Ukrainian statistics, Russia has removed more than 16,000 Ukrainian children from occupied territories since February 24, 2022. Ukrainian authorities are seeking to bring them back home.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the ICC ruling "a historic decision, from which historical responsibility will begin".
"It would be impossible to conduct such a criminal operation without an order from the supreme leader of the terrorist state," Zelenskyy said Saturday.
"Separating children from families, depriving them of any opportunity to contact their relatives, hiding children on Russian territory, dispersing them to remote regions -- this is all obviously Russian state policy, state decisions, state evil ... which begins precisely with the state's top official."
Bad news for Putin
A few days before the Hague court handed down its decision, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declared that Russia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC.
After the warrant was issued, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that ICC decisions are meaningless to Russia and that potential arrest warrants are legally void.
Yet the warrant still bodes ill for Putin and Lvova-Belova, as it will significantly limit their ability to travel around the world.
In an interview with the BBC Russian service Friday, Gleb Bogush and Kevin Jon Heller, international law scholars at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, noted that international law requires ICC member countries that have ratified the Rome Statute to execute the warrant, detain suspects who set foot on their territory and hand them over to the court.
A total of 123 countries have ratified the Rome Statute, including allies of Russia, such as Venezuela and Tajikistan.
While Bogush and Heller said it is unlikely Putin will be arrested, the symbolism of the ICC decision is what matters, they added.
Putin's movements around the world will become much more difficult, Heller said, adding that the Russian president will now have "pariah status".
Cutting ties with Putin
Journalists, human rights defenders and activists in Central Asia have been calling on their governments to cut ties with Putin.
"Will the authorities of Tajikistan take such a step?" Khairullo Mirsaidov, a Tajik journalist based in Europe, mockingly wrote on Facebook regarding the ICC decision.
Mirsaidov personally supports the ICC's decision.
"I would also announce a reward for [Vladimir Putin's] head or arrest!" he wrote.
The decision is the correct course of action against someone who has committed and continues to commit crimes against humanity, said Bishkek resident Tolekan Ismailova, a human rights activist and member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).
"Putin has shown his face as an aggressor and should be held accountable for everything he has done," Ismailova told Caravanserai.
Bishkek activist Syimyk Kolbayev said he worries about the Kyrgyz government's ongoing co-operation with Moscow.
"Kyrgyzstan is now maintaining official ties with an internationally recognised criminal," he said.
"Won't that backfire on us?"
'Wanted: Dead or Alive'
While neighbouring Kazakhstan is not an ICC member, some citizens are hoping their nation will join the body.
Whether Russia recognises the Hague court's recent ruling is immaterial, since the perpetrators will be held accountable sooner or later, said Azamat Maitanov, a journalist and former editor-in-chief of Ak Zhaiyk, an Atyrau newspaper.
"Those who continued to maintain close relations with Putin amid the invasion of Ukraine are now thinking hard [about their decision], because they could be recognised as allies of a war criminal," Maitanov told Caravanserai.
Almaty resident Miras Nurmukhanbetov, editor of the YouTube news channel Elmedia, agreed. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev should cut ties with a person suspected of organising war crimes against children, he said.
"Imagine, you know with certainty that so-and-so is wanted by the cops, but you meet with him ... As it happens, experts have already predicted that Putin may now become an 'international outcast'," Nurmukhanbetov wrote on Facebook.
Kazakh social networks have also recently seen an upsurge of jokes about Putin, including one in which Wagner Group mercenary army chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict, gives a book to the Russian president about how to adapt to prison life.
Mentions of Putin should now include the phrase "Wanted by the International Criminal Court", Facebook user Igor Cheremnykh wrote.
His post included an image in which the Russian president is depicted on a Wild West poster with the caption: "Wanted: Dead or Alive".
One internet meme depicts a frightened Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka wiping sweat from his forehead, with the caption "That feeling that this won't be the last warrant."