Eurasia: Reflections on 2023 and Outlook for 2024
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Associate Fellow, VIF
Introduction

In recent years, the world has experienced significant geopolitical turmoil. While the major powers have been embroiled in serious conflicts, small countries with close ties to these powers have been equally affected. And even these nations have been in the spotlight as to whose side they would choose. The pattern has continued into 2023 as well. Since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began in early 2022, the spotlight has been on Central Asian nations, which have long been seen as Russia's underbelly. However, these nations have chosen a balanced approach, retaining connections with Russia while broadening their ties with the rest of the world, including the United States, the West, and the Middle East. In this article, the author will outline some critical domestic, regional, and international developments in the Eurasian region. In light of these findings, the author will also try to offer a forecast for the upcoming year.

Internal Developments

Domestically, the Central Asian nations have continued to implement reforms in several areas, which has helped the leadership gain popularity and allowed them to further consolidate their authority. The majority of the leaders in the region decided to amend the constitution as a popular means of bolstering their positions and the ongoing reform programme.

Constitutional Amendments in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan

Uzbek President Shawkat Mirziyoyev, who had been Prime Minister since 2003, took power after Karimov died in 2016 and began restructuring Uzbekistan’s political and economic system. The constitutional amendment was proposed to validate the reforms adopted by the Uzbek president. Politically, the most critical effect of the amended Basic Law is that it allows President Mirziyoyev to stand for re-election (the limit of two seven-year terms). Interestingly, the revisions to the Basic Laws restricting the status and current powers of the Karakalpak Republic's sovereign (independent) status were withdrawn following widespread protests. To approve the modifications, a countrywide referendum was held on April 30, 2023, which received 90.12% backing with an 84.5% turnout. As a result, fresh presidential elections were held under the new constitution, which Mirziyoyev clearly won by a landslide.

Similarly, Kazakhstan has continued to reform its constitutional and political systems. Interestingly, there was a reset to the election system. For the first time, Kazakhstan held elections for the position of akims, or local mayors, in districts and cities with regional importance. The Constitutional Court was re-established and has been in session since January 2023, giving every citizen a direct line of defence for their rights under the Constitution.[1] Numerous changes have been implemented to strengthen the nation's economy. In his September state-of-the-nation address, Tokayev promised a shift to a new economic model incorporating increased de-monopolization and economic diversification. President Tokayev also underlined the importance of small and medium-sized firms, which account for 36.4% of the GDP this year.[2]

Kyrgyzstan- Consolidation of Power of President Japarov and a Change of National Flag

Initiated in 2021, amendments to the Kyrgyz constitution have gradually strengthened the authority of the Kyrgyz president, Sadyr Zaparov, while reducing that of the parliament.[3] He has also worked to boost his image by launching a number of new projects. Revival of the long pending project of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railways was one such project. However, after displaying so much enthusiasm, no development has been made on this project so far.[4] President Zaparov has indicated that the country's national flag would be changed, and the matter is being debated in Kyrgyz parliament. Though this change of flag is unnecessary, the president has clarified the rationale for this change. He believes the symbolism is inappropriate. "Many people believe that the current flag resembles a sunflower." A sunflower is said to indicate vulnerability. As a result, our state has been unable to rise because it has been unable to do anything but look at the sun," Sadyr Japarov told a state news agency journalist in October this year. [5]

Tajikistan- Fighting the Impact of Climate Change and the Taliban Resurrection

Tajikistan is a mountainous country that is highly vulnerable to climate and disaster risks. Every year, over 400 climate-related catastrophes (such as avalanches, mudflows, landslides, and flash floods) occur in the country, severely harming people and the economy. Around ten persons were killed in avalanches in Tajikistan in February 2023. In February and March 2023, the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region experienced two earthquakes. In August, the death toll from severe rains in Tajikistan grew to 21, with flooding, landslides, and mudflows affecting villages around Dushanbe.

Tajikistan has encountered recurring incidents of Islamist extremism in addition to environmental issues. Tajikistan reported on September 6 that it had killed three Jamaat Ansarullah Islamist terrorists on August 29-30 after they crossed the border from Afghanistan to carry out terrorist activities in Tajikistan. Jamaat Ansarullah is a Tajik-majority terrorist group based in northern Afghanistan and sheltered and supported by the Taliban. They aim to topple the Secular Tajik Government and implement Sharia law.

Regional Developments

Central Asia as a region proceeded well this year from a regional standpoint. A wave of positive regionalism began in 2017 at the urge of Uzbek President Mirziyoyev and received acceleration as countries in the region participated in multiple summits and highlighted and discussed topics of regional significance.

5th Annual Regional Summit of Central Asian Leaders

Dushanbe held the 5th Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Heads of State on September 14, attended by other Central Asian leaders. Unlike prior meetings, the 5th summit hosted Azerbaijan's President, Ilham Aliyev, as a guest of honour, marking the first time in history that a country leader from outside Central Asia has attended this regional conference. Central Asian nations have Turkic links with Azerbaijan, and because they are landlocked, Azerbaijan plays a vital role in diversifying their transit routes.

The discussion focussed on the region's multisectoral developments while highlighting the bilateral interregional linkages between them. The leaders gave updates and evaluations on ongoing cooperative initiatives that centered on the infrastructure, trade, energy, education, and transportation sectors. Expounding on the intended objectives of the region, all leaders agreed on the advancement of transportation infrastructure, industry, and digitization.
President Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan expressed concerns about the enormous strain being placed on Central Asia as a result of present geopolitical tensions. In response to these challenges, Uzbek President proposed the immediate installation of a full-fledged Free-Trade Zone (FTZ) within Central Asia. These FTZs will prove to be effective mechanisms for developing transport corridors to access Asian, European, and Middle Eastern markets, and an interregional transport and transit agreement.[6]

Several agreements were signed as a result of the meeting, including an agreement on the youth policy among the five Central Asian countries, an agreement on strengthening land transport connectivity, and joint statements on the outcomes of the Fifth Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia.[7]

Positive Indications of Resolution of Border Conflict between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan

There are indications that the long-standing border issue between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will finally be resolved. Following the tragic clashes in September 2022, both nations increased border discussions, and favourable news about them reaching a mutual agreement this year is a promising indicator of growing regionalism. Head of the State Committee for National Security of Tajikistan (SCNS) Saimumin Yatimov and his Kyrgyz counterpart Kamchybek Tashiyev met on December 12 in Batken, Kyrgyzstan, as co-chairs of the Tajik-Kyrgyz Commission for delimitation and demarcation of the disputed Tajik-Kyrgyz border. According to media sources, they discussed the findings of the topographic and legal working groups' work in 2023 and assigned duties to push up work on the mutual border demarcation. In a press briefing, they informed that more than 90% of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan's shared boundary has been delineated.[8]

The Conundrum of Qosh Teppa Canal

Due to their heavy reliance on the Amu Darya for water supplies, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will be significantly impacted socioeconomically by the Taliban administration's construction of the Qosh Teppa canal on this transboundary river. The canal's first phase, estimated to cost about USD 100 million, has been completed. It is anticipated that the project will take two years to finish. The Taliban government portrays this project as an important undertaking to sustain thecurrent financial crisis. However, the project would severely impact a few Central Asian countries.

The Amu Darya supplies water for 2.3 million hectares of land in Uzbekistan and 1.7 million hectares in Turkmenistan hence the canal project is economically devastating for both countries. Because of the canal project, the two may lose up to 15% of the existing water flow into their territory from the Amu Darya. As a result, both countries are gravely concerned about the effects of decreased water flow, particularly in light of their highly profitable cotton crops. They have attempted to convince the Taliban administration to discuss the canal concerns diplomatically, but their reaction has been undesirable since the Taliban continued to advance on this project.

Taliban officials consistently disseminate project information via social media channels. The local community also supports the project, and expectations about the canal and its future are high because of the regular posting of films and conversations by eager Afghan YouTubers and reporters.[9]

Trilateral Summit: A Regional Mechanism to Deal with Taliban?

On August 4, 2023, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, presidents convened the first-ever trilateral summit meeting. Following the summit, the leaders released a joint statement. The statement outlines three primary areas of the framework for cooperation: energy (oil, gas, and electricity); and water resources and related challenges. The management and use of the shared water resources in the Amu Darya Basin are emphasized in the joint statement. The leaders agreed that the river basin's water distribution pattern changes have incredibly wide-ranging effects. The joint statement acknowledges, if not explicitly, that there is anindication of urgency. The Taliban's recent arbitrary conduct over the usage of Amu Darya water has highlighted this necessity.[10]

The result of this trilateral summit is foreseeable, but the framework is very significant. It will provide regional geopolitics with a fresh perspective if the commitments made in the joint statement have been taken seriously.

Foreign Relations: Improved Relations with the US, West and Middle East

As previously stated, Russia's involvement in the Ukraine conflict has provided Central Asia with an excellent opportunity to improve relations with other nations. China hosted a C5+ 1 meeting with Central Asia, demonstrating that it has benefited from the current circumstances. The five Central Asian nations additionally participated in a leaders' summit with the US, Germany, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the first time. This has once again confirmed their balanced position in light of the shifting geopolitical landscape.

US+C5

A meeting between US President Joe Biden and the leaders of five Central Asian countries occurred on September 19, 2023, in New York, during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The US+C5 meeting seems to have produced more symbolic than practical outcomes. The positive aspect of the meeting was that instead of prioritising US security interests, leaders concentrated on working together on investment and business, transit routes, climate concerns, human rights, and Afghanistan. This showed a change in emphasis from long-standing security issues to more prevalent issues of mutually beneficial cooperation.

Economic relations were another significant topic of discussion as well. During his speech, Biden declared that USAID would organize a "C5+1 Regional Connectivity Ministerial in Central Asia in October" to discuss strategies for fostering long-term, steady economic growth. This indicates that maintaining economic ties would remain an important focus in US-Central Asian relations.

President Biden also recommended initiating the C5+1 Critical Minerals Dialogue. Despite being an energy-rich region, the countries of Central Asia have experienced an energy shortage in recent times. Central Asian presidents have emphasised on green energy and hydropower in their addresses. An increased cooperation with the United States may also lessen their dependency on China.

President Macron’s First Visit to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

French President Macron's first-ever visit to Central Asia took place in November 2023. Macron's primary goal in visiting Central Asia is establishing cooperation in uranium mining and import. Due to the possibility of a falling supply of uranium from Niger (the second-largest supplier of France) following a military coup in July, Central Asia became important. The visit also reflects France’s ambitions to play a more active role in the post-Soviet space, such as supporting Armenia in its conflict with Azerbaijan and Ukraine against Russia. To utilize the opportunity, France, in addition to its traditional cultural and educational offerings, is also portraying itself as a partner in the region's economic modernization (via technological transfers and development initiatives).[11]

From the Central Asian point of view, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan recognised cooperation with the West as a chance to bolster their international standing, particularly about Beijing and Moscow, while also drawing investment and modernization (technological and educational).

Germany+ C5

Following the Ukraine crisis, European nations sought to diversify their energy imports, as they relied highly on Russia for their energy requirements. Germany has been a consistent buyer of Russian energy. Following the sanctions imposed on Russia, Germany has expressed an interest in interacting with Central Asia. In this context, the first Germany-Central Asia summit was convened in Berlin in October 2023. The major highlights of the summit were keeping contact with sanctions regimes, avoiding sanctions evasion, and a solid commitment to ensure the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all Afghanistan citizens, in particular women, girls, and ethnic groups. Both sides agreed on the continued importance of connectivity between the EU and Central Asia. Using the "Middle Corridor" as an alternative route for transportation was underlined. The suggestion to hold the next meeting of the Central Asian Heads of State and the German Federal Chancellor in Central Asia in 2024 was welcomed by the leaders.

Relations with India

India's Central Asia strategy is primarily focussed on two areas: connectivity and security. In October 2023, the second meeting of the NSAs of India and Central Asian countries was held in Astana, Kazakhstan. In his remarks, India’s NSA Ajit Doval highlighted the connectivity and security issues predominately. He said, "India prioritises connectivity and economic integration with Central Asian countries. However, ensuring that connectivity projects are deliberative, transparent, and participatory in promoting connectedness is critical. They must respect all countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity. They should also follow environmental guidelines, maintain financial viability, and avoid becoming debt burdens." [12]

To connect with the region, India has invested in the Chabahar port in Iran; nevertheless, little progress has been made on the connectivity front. To boost this project, an inaugural meeting of the India-Central Asia Joint Working Group (JWG) on Chabahar Port was held in Mumbai on April 12-13, 2023. The meeting emphasized the importance of this port in delivering India's humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and called for greater private-sector engagement in the project.

In July 2023, as Chair of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation (SCO), India hosted the 22nd SCO Summit virtually. This was a usual affair overshadowed by India’s Presidency of G20. Nevertheless, during its presidency, India proposed a few thoughtful proposals. The leaders adopted two joint statements: one on combating radicalization leading to separatism, extremism, and terrorism, and the other on cooperation in digital transformation. In the SCO, India has established five new pillars and focus areas for cooperation: Startups and Innovation, Traditional Medicine, Youth Empowerment, Digital Inclusion, and Shared Buddhist Heritage.

Projections for 2024
  • The ruling regimes will consolidate their power as they have made some progress in enacting constructive changes.
  • The resolution of regional conflicts in Central Asia is expected to lead to increased economic and political integration within the region.
  • They will keep working to diversify their logistical and transport routes in an effort to lessen their reliance on traditional routes.
  • To counter the influence of China and Russia, a multidimensional foreign strategy will be reinforced. However, these two neighbouring nations will remain the main economic partners of CARs.
  • Turkey is becoming more influential. It will boost its economic and military cooperation with Central Asian nations.
  • Russia will continue to work to retain its influence in the region by interacting with the regional leaders more often.
  • India-Central Asia ties will gain momentum as the next Leaders’ Summit is scheduled for 2024.
References

[1]https://astanatimes.com/2023/11/from-promise-to-action-president-tokayev-implements-reforms-against-power-monopoly-for-just-kazakhstan/
[2]Ibid.
[3]Johan Engvall, ‘The Fall of Kyrgyzstan’s Parliamentary Experiment and the Rise of SadyrJaparov’, the CACI Analyst, Thursday, 21 JANUARY 2021.https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13657-the-fall-of-kyrgyzstan%E2%80%99s-parliamentary-experiment-and-the-rise-of-sadyr-japarov.html
[4] ‘Start of construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway expected in 2024’, AKI Press, December 28, 2023. https://akipress.com/news:751776:Start_of_construction_of_China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan_railway_expected_in_2024/
[5]AyzirekImanaliyeva, ‘Kyrgyzstan: Flag-tinkering, another Japarov nation-building exercise’, EurasiaNet,
Dec 18, 2023. https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstan-flag-tinkering-another-japarov-nation-building-exercise
[6]Accessed from Uzbek FM twitter handle, https://twitter.com/FM_Saidov/status/1702383393152049534
[7]President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Jomart Tokayev took part in the V Consultative Meeting of the Heads of State of Central Asia, Akorda Press, September 14, 2023. https://www.akorda.kz/ru/prezident-kazahstana-kasym-zhomart-tokaev-prinyal-uchastie-v-v-konsultativnoy-vstreche-glav-gosudarstv-centralnoy-azii-1484611
[8]https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/security/20231213/we-agree-upon-more-than-90-of-common-border-say-chairs-of-tajik-kyrgyz-commission-for-border-delineation
[9]Freshta JalalzaiThe Qosh Tepa Canal: A Source of Hope in Afghanistan, The Diplomat, December 01, 2023. https://thediplomat.com/2023/12/the-qosh-tepa-canal-a-source-of-hope-in-afghanistan/
[10] PK Gupta, Significance of Tajikistan-Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan Summit VIF Article, August 21, 2023.https://www.vifindia.org/2023/august/21/significance-of-tajikistan-turkmenistan-uzbekistan-summit#_edn1
[11]https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-67283849
[12]Kallol Bhattacherjee, In Kazakhstan, NSA Doval says a ‘particular country’ is hurdle in India-Central Asia connectivity, HT, October 17, 2023. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/in-kazakhstan-nsa-doval-says-a-particular-country-is-hurdle-in-india-central-asia-connectivity/article67431175.ece

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