Trends in Central Asia in 2019
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Research Associate , VIF

In 2019, a major highlight of political trends in Central Asia was the steady development of intraregional relations, driven primarily by Uzbek President Shawkat Mirziyoyev’s neighbourhood-first initiative. There were several other socio-economic and political developments in Central Asian Republics (CARs). Some of the most important were the power transition in Kazakhstan and the building political turmoil in Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan struggled to curb radical elements coming from Afghanistan, bolster its declining economy and curtail anti-Chinese sentiments. Turkmenistan remained politically isolated and economically distressed amidst the continuing excessive state control. However, it renewed its interest in pushing the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP) to diversify its energy exports. Also, Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow’s participation in the Summit of Central Asian leaders raised optimism for building a more positive outlook for Central Asia and its regionalism.

Steady Regionalism: Second Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Leaders

The ‘Second Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Leaders’ took place on 29 November 2019 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The first meeting of Heads of CARs was in March 2018. A wide range of issues and suggestions pertaining to regional development including facilitating bilateral and multifaceted transactions were discussed.1 A long-pending border delimitation and demarcation progressed swiftly including a historic land swap between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. However, bordering areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan continued to clash over the sharing of resources. 2 Yet, all these efforts towards regionalism indicate the need and priority of leaders of Central Asian states to balance or, to a certain extent counter the external influences in the region.

Domestic Developments
Power Transition and Anti- Chinese Protests in Kazakhstan

On February 21, 2019, the founder President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, sacked his entire government citing their incompetence to solve issues that bear grave importance for the country. The decision was followed by widespread anger from the public, leading to anti-government protests in big cities such as Almaty and Nur Sultan (formerly known as Astana) over deteriorating living standards.3 Later in March, Nazarbayev announced his retirement through a televised message. It was speculated that the power transition in Kazakhstan would be transferred to Nazarbayev’s family. However, he selected one of his loyalists Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to become the next President of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev continued to retain considerable formal and informal power with him as Elbasy (the leader of the nation), head of the Security Council and leader of the ruling party, Nur Otan.

Not surprisingly, the Presidential election in June was won by Nazarbayev’s successor based on the campaign of safeguarding his predecessor’s legacy. However, with claims of the election being rigged, there were countrywide protests on the Election Day in Kazakhstan. In October, President Tokayev signed a new decree which restrained his power in appointing high officials and Ministers. According to the Presidential Decree, the President of Kazakhstan would have to secure approval from the former President and the head of the Security Council, Nursultan Nazarbayev before appointing most of his cabinet ministers and other prominent officials.4 By the end of the year, there were speculations about emerging tensions between Nazarbayev and Tokayev. However, these appear now to be unsubstantiated. Without something extraordinary transpiring in the socioeconomic structure of Kazakhstan, the transition of power is expected to be smooth.

Another noteworthy development has been the rise in anti-China demonstrations. Protesters in Kazakhstan have raised concerns not only over Chinese economic expansion, but have also expressed anger over the treatment of Kazakhs and Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Though the government's reaction was muted, the administration has maintained that it is working behind the scenes to apply pressure on the Chinese government in specific cases involving the Kazakhs. Amidst these anti-China protests, President Tokayev visited China in September, with leaders from both the countries pledging to further improve their relations.

Political Turmoil and Expansion of Russia-leased Airbase in Kyrgyzstan

In 2019, the rift between the former President Almazbek Atambayev and incumbent head of state, Sooronbay Jeenbekov deepened. Accusing Atambayev of abusing his power during his presidency, Jeenbekov stripped his immunity and arrested him with many other senior politicians. However, after a violent scuffle between security forces and Atambayev’s supporters, the former President was arrested and charged with plotting a coup.5 In this conflict, both sides approached Russian President Vladimir Putin who supported President Jeenbekov and called upon the Kyrgyz people to maintain political stability. At present, Jeenbekov’s position in Kyrgyz politics seems to have consolidated. However, with parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in October 2020, his challengers may try and seize the opportunity to once again challenge him.6

The Kyrgyz political turmoil demonstrates the decade-long North-South divide in Kyrgyzstan that has been used every now and then by its leaders to fuel their political battles. Former President Almazbek Atambayev belongs to the Chui region located in the northern part of Kyrgyzstan, while incumbent President comes from Osh Oblast located in the south. Their rivalry helped entrench the regional schism even further.

In March 2019, during the visit of President Putin, Russia agreed to increase the rent for the Kant airbase in Kyrgyzstan by almost 300 thousand USD, which now amounts to 4,794 thousand USD. Both countries have also agreed to expand the base area by 60 hectares.7

Reforms in Uzbekistan

Uzbek President Mirziyoyev has drastically changed the closed economic model seen during his predecessor Karimov’s regime. He has launched multifarious economic reforms such as creation of a numerous special economic zones and liberalization of foreign exchanges. This has had a positive impact on Central Asia as a whole, encouraging traffic in goods and people and promoting trade in the region. Year 2019 was dedicated to the ‘Active Investment and Social Development’ of Uzbekistan. Economic reforms carried out by the government attracted 20.5 billion USD in the first ten months of the year. In the same time frame, 179 projects were implemented. Another 938 promising projects are in initial stages of implementation.8

In efforts to expand international cooperation, there were two very notable summit meetings. South Korean President Moon Jae-in paid an official visit to Uzbekistan in April. Both sides signed deals worth 12 billion USD. Enhanced economic relations between Uzbekistan and South Korea will help reduce their reliance on China and the US. President Mirziyovey also paid an official visit to Japan in December, where the two leaders signed the “Joint Statement on Further Deepening and Expanding Strategic Partnership.”9

Excessive State Control and Resumption of Russian Gas Imports in Turkmenistan

In the mid of 2019, the disappearance of Turkmen President from public affairs for almost a month prompted speculations about his early demise. However, when he reappeared, state television pitched its evening news with evidences that the President was not just healthy and alive, but bursting with energy by showcasing several videos of his involvement in different recreational activities.10 Turkmenistan continued to struggle with its economic predicament, hyperinflation, and prevalent food shortages. However, increasing volumes and revenues from its energy exports to China helped sustain the autocratic regime, while making it considerably even more dependent on China. The southward-bound Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline supposed to become operational in 2020 remains a distant possibility.

In 2016, Russian gas giant Gazprom officially stopped purchasing gas from Turkmenistan which made the latter exclusively dependent on its revenues from gas export to China. However, noticing a renewed push for the Trans Caspian Gas Pipeline, Russia resumed its gas imports from Turkmenistan from early 2019.

Rise of threat from Islamic State in Tajikistan

In 2019, Tajikistan’s main political agenda revolved around securing its territory from security threats emanating from Afghanistan. In early 2019, President Emomali Rahmon talked about the rising threats of terrorism and extremism from Afghanistan. Security officials reported several clashes on the Tajik-Afghan border with criminals and terrorist groups and alerted about a pending cross-border incursion. By the end of the year, this warning seemed to have come true when a group of 20 militants crossed the border deep into Tajik territory and attacked a checkpoint on the Tajikistan–Uzbekistan border. Tajik authorities claimed that they have killed 15 militants and arrested five. Islamic State (IS) claimed accountability for the attack.11 In 2019, Russia intensified its efforts to enhance the military capability of Tajikistan, along with bolstering its forces stationed at the 201st Military base near Dushanbe. According to a report published in Washington Post in February 2019, China has also increased its security presence by setting up its military outpost in Tajikistan’s remote Gorno-Badakhshan region.12

Russia-China 2019 Dynamic in the Region

Central Asia was regarded as the Russian ‘Sphere of Influence’, until the strong Chinese economic intrusion in the region changed this perception. China is not only the economic and trade facilitator of the Central Asian region, but has also turned out to be a military and strategic ally. The age-long animosity between Russia and China in Central Asia has been transmuted to strategic cooperation to counter the spread of western and American influence in the region. Security cooperation between Russia and China in Central Asia appeared to be one of the main aspects of their strategic cooperation in the region. In this region, Russia and China pursued the ‘Eurasian Economic Union’ and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) respectively to expedite the regional economic integration process. These projects may not complement each other but they also did not display any open competition between the two major powers in Central Asia in 2019.

India and Central Asia Ties in 2019
First India Central Asia Dialogue

In 2019, India’s engagement with the region started with the first India-Central Asia Dialogue at the Foreign Minister’s level in January 2019 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In this dialogue, many issues including improving India’s connectivity with the Central Asian region and peace and reconstruction of Afghanistan were discussed. Indian Foreign Minister, S Jaishankar, proposed setting up of an ‘India-Central Asia Development Group’ to assist the developmental partnership between India and CARs.13 India further proposed dialogue on air corridors with the countries of landlocked Central Asia in an attempt to boost trade, which is currently below 2 billion USD. It also called on the CARs to participate in the Chabahar Port project. India will host the next India-Central Asia Dialogue in 2020.14

President Mirziyoyev as Chief Guest of Vibrant Gujarat Summit

During the Vibrant Gujarat Summit in January, he mentioned his commitment to changing the business environment in Uzbekistan to attract Indian investors. Uzbekistan is primarily interested in the implementation of promising projects in areas such as energy, pharmaceuticals, textile, leather and footwear, chemical industry, tourism.15

India-Uzbekistan Defence Cooperation

In November 2019, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, held talks with his Uzbek counterpart Major General Bakhodir Nizamovich Kurbanov in Tashkent. Following the meeting, the two sides concluded a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on cooperation in the field of Military Medicine between the armed forces of the two countries. For the first time in history, a joint field training exercise called ‘Dustlik-2019’ was conducted as part of military diplomacy between India and Uzbekistan in November 2019. The aim of the exercise was to build and promote positive relations between the armies of India and Uzbekistan.

Outlook for 2020

There are many ongoing trends that will need to be observed in 2020. The Managed Transition of power in Kazakhstan could encounter troubles as there are already visible fissures emerging between the former President and his handpicked successor. With presidential elections scheduled in Tajikistan in 2020, it is speculated that the current Tajik President may go for a planned transition of power to his son Rustom Emomali, the Mayor of the capital city of Dushanbe. Economic reforms in Uzbekistan and its expanding relations with European Union, US and China and its implications for Russia will be worth noticing in the coming year. Also, Turkmenistan’s efforts to diversify its energy exports will have implications for both Russia and China. Turkmenistan’s socio-economic development process has been problematic in the previous year. It will be interesting to monitor the government’s initiatives to overcome the continuing challenging situation in 2020.

China’s economic ascendency in Central Asia has given impetus to enhanced security cooperation from more counterterrorism exercises to increasing probability of Chinese military bases in the region. As far as India is concerned, it will require more assertive policies with regard to Central Asia in 2020. More investments in areas such as pharmaceuticals, IT and communication will help India to improve its position in the region. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization will need to be used more effectively by India to realize connectivity and security cooperation with the region. In all, the new emerging developments will bear a stronger impact on the geopolitical power play in Central Asia in the coming years.

References
  1. Pravesh Kumar Gupta (2019), ‘Second Consultative Meeting’ of Central Asian Leaders in Tashkent: A Significant Feature of Regional Integration in Central Asia’, commentary, Vvekannada iNternational; Foundation, December 9 2019, https://www.vifindia.org/2019/december/09/second-consultative-meeting-of-central-asian-leaders-in-tashkent
  2. Kirill Nourzhanov (2019), ‘Cooperation grows in Central Asia’, East Asia Forum, 18 Dcember 2019. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/12/18/cooperation-grows-in-central-asia/
  3. Paul Stronski (2019), ‘Why Has Kazakhstan’s President Sacked His Government?’, Carnegie endowment for international peace, 22 February 2019. https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/02/22/why-has-kazakhstan-s-president-sacked-his-government-pub-78435
  4. Catherine Putz (2019), ‘Kazakhstan Remains Nazarbayev’s State’, The Diplomat, 20 October 2019. https://thediplomat.com/2019/10/kazakhstan-remains-nazarbayevs-state/
  5. Nastassia Astrasheuskaya (2019), ‘Kyrgyzstan’s former president detained after threat to oust incumbent, Finacial Times, AUGUST 8 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/972dfd0a-b9d9-11e9-96bd-8e884d3ea203
  6. Kirill Nourzhanov (2019), ‘Cooperation grows in Central Asia’, East Asia Forum, 18 Dcember 2019. https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/12/18/cooperation-grows-in-central-asia/
  7. ‘Bishkek, Moscow Agree To Expand Russian Base In Kyrgyzstan’, RFE/RL, 28 March 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/russian-military-base-in-kyrgyzstan-under-focus-at-putin-jeenbekov-talks/29847265.html
  8. ‘Ministry of Investments and Foreign Trade of the Republic of Uzbekistan’, https://mift.uz/en
  9. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, ‘Japan-Uzbekistan Summit Meeting’ December 2019. https://www.mofa.go.jp/erp/ca_c/uz/page4e_001170.html
  10. David Trilling (2019), ‘2019: Eurasianet’s year in review’, Eurasia net 30 December 2019. https://eurasianet.org/2019-eurasianets-year-in-review
  11. Bruce Pannier (2019), ‘Reported Attack In Tajikistan Could Have Broad Implications For Central Asia’, RFE/RL, November 6 2019. https://www.rferl.org/a/reported-attack-in-tajikistan-could-have-broad-implications-for-central-asia/30256653.html
  12. Gerry Shih (2019), ‘In Central Asia’s Forbidding highlands, a quite newcomer: Chinese troops’ , The Washington Post, 18 February 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/in-central-asias-forbidding-highlands-a-quiet-newcomer-chinese-troops/2019/02/18/78d4a8d0-1e62-11e9-a759-2b8541bbbe20_story.html?arc404=true
  13. Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury (2019), ‘India proposes joint development group at maiden dialogue with Central Asia; discuss expansion of business ties’, The Economic Times, 13 January 2019. https://m.economictimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/india-proposes-joint-development-group-at-maiden-dialogue-with-c-asia-discuss-expansion-of-business-ties/articleshow/67514495.cms
  14. ‘India committed to economic reconstruction of Afghanistan: Sushma Swaraj’, The Economic Times, 13 Januray 2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-committed-to-economic-reconstruction-of-afghanistan-sushma-swaraj/articleshow/67512045.cms?from=mdr
  15. ‘President of Uzbekistan attends Vibrant Gujarat Global Summit’, The Permanent Mission of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United Nations, 18 January 2019. https://www.un.int/uzbekistan/fr/news/president-uzbekistan-attends-vibrant-gujarat-global-summit

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