● Political Developments
● Economic Developments
● India-Central Asia Relations
Voters in Kyrgyzstan granted sweeping powers to President Sadyr Japarov on 11 April in a constitutional referendum that will also allow him to run for re-election. The vote to change the Constitution to make it a Presidential form of government was approved by the people with a huge margin of 79% in favour. In addition to directly strengthening the presidency, the new constitution envisions expansive financial reporting conditions on non-governmental organizations to limit and control them and allows the government to enforce vaguely defined “moral and ethical values.” These measures seem intended to muzzle organizations that have previously monitored elections and reported on government abuses. The proposed new constitution would reduce the size of the country’s parliament by 25% to 90 seats and give the president the power to appoint judges and heads of law-enforcement agencies. It also calls for creating an advisory council that critics say could essentially become a shadow parliament or an instrument for the president to exert pressure.
The referendum came three months after Sadyr Zhaparov was elected president, following the ouster of the previous president amid protests, the third time in 15 years that a leader of Kyrgyzstan had been driven out from office in a popular uprising.
Turnout was low but at nearly 37%, crossed the 30% barrier required for the referendum’s results to stand.
In a virtual summit of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States, also known as the Turkic Council, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argued for formally upgrading the group to an international organization, citing its “significant international prestige.” He said that changes facing the world render cooperation structures like the Turkic Council more important. With Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan among its members, the council aims to promote cooperation among nations with close ethnic, cultural, historic and linguistic ties. It serves as a key vehicle for Ankara to build closer relationships with these countries in its contest with Russia, which controlled them during the Soviet era. A number of these countries, still on shaky economic and political ground three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, are counting on Turkey’s help to shore them up.
Turkey has been leaning on Turkmenistan, the “permanently neutral” country to join the Turkic Council, angling to boost the council’s international profile. It appears to have set its sights on the vast oil and natural gas reserves of Turkmenistan and the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, which had clashed over ownership of an undersea oil and gas field in the Caspian Sea since the collapse of the Soviet Union, reached a historic agreement on its joint development in January. Turkey thereafter quickly proposed participating in joint energy development projects and offered to export oil and gas through its pipelines, seeking to become a hub for energy transportation.
Russia has also accelerated efforts to reach out to Turkmenistan. A Russian-Turkmen economic commission held a meeting that covered areas including a program of bilateral cooperation through 2023. Serdar Berdymukhamedov, son of the Turkmen President, who is speculated to succeed his father, was also part of these deliberations. The chiefs of staff of the two countries’ militaries met in April to discuss closer technical cooperation.
Turkmenistan is economically dependent on China, earning most of its revenue by exporting natural gas to Beijing. By building closer ties with Ashgabat, Moscow looks to curb Beijing’s growing sway in Central Asia, evident in the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Russia is also wary of Europe and the U.S. making their way into the region. “The Americans and Europe are very active — but the Americans are especially active — in Central Asia,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview. He added that the volume of economic ties that the U.S. and the EU were now building with Central Asia was still incomparable with Russia’s economic inter-penetration. But they were pursuing an unambiguous policy to weaken Russia’s ties with its allies and strategic partners in every possible way.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Lavrov and his Turkmen counterpart Rashid Meredov met in Moscow during which they discussed regional security and cooperation in overcoming common challenges and threats. They highly assessed the development of political, trade, economic, cultural, humanitarian and educational cooperation between the two countries. The parties reaffirmed their interest in growing foreign policy cooperation between Russia and Turkmenistan in the spirit of strategic partnership and meeting mutual interests.
Ongoing protests outside China’s consulate in Almaty show that activism continues in Kazakhstan over the Chinese concentration camps in East Turkistan/Xinjiang where Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are interred. The situation today is however very different from the groundswell of activity around the issue in 2018 and 2019 that forced the Kazakh government to walk a tightrope between appeasing Beijing and quelling an increasing restive and agitated segment of its own population. Since then, the government has led a swift crackdown against activists agitating on Xinjiang issues in the country. It has shut down organizations, arrested activists, and intimidated high-profile figures into exile, leaving only a small but committed segment for public protests. This highlights the government’s evolving strategy to impede Xinjiang activism in the country. The government is succeeding in intimidating and scaring people from coming forward. China also seems to have become more forceful in its pushback. Not only does China deny the genocide allegations, it claims the camps are “re-education” facilities for combating terrorism. And it has gone about threatening and targeting those who speak out publicly about what they’ve witnessed in the camps. Chinese ambassador to Kazakhstan has been outspoken in refuting accusations that Beijing is mistreating Kazakhs. Kazakh government has avoided criticizing China and has publicly toed Beijing’s line about the camps — eager not to anger its main investor and strategic partner in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Afghanistan, the United States, and Tajikistan inaugurated a new trilateral format to promote development, security, and peace in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. They discussed trilateral cooperation in security, political, people-to-people, energy, and economic realms. Moreover, enhancing connectivity between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, construction of energy and transport infrastructure, and further support for capacity building in the border security and counter-narcotics forces of both countries were emphasized during the online negotiations.
A similar trilateral dialogue between Afghanistan, the United States and Uzbekistan was officially launched in May 2020. The online conference underlined the increasing role of cooperation to address issues of mutual interest including security cooperation, improving connectivity and trade, food security, energy supply, humanitarian collaboration, gender equality etc.
Washington has been testing different ideas like the new trilateral dialogues in Central Asia to build an updated strategy for Afghanistan. If the tri-laterals with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan prove successful, this model may be extended to cooperation with other neighbours of Afghanistan, like Turkmenistan. Moreover, reconciliation of the situation in Afghanistan is a top priority for both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Through these moves, the United States intends to demonstrate its comprehensive presence in Central Asia and to counterpoise the influence of China and Russia in the region. By initiating new platforms like the tri-laterals, Washington wants to send a strong signal to Afghanistan and Central Asia that it has no plans to fully abandon the region, even if U.S. forces exit Afghanistan in the coming months, and stress that its presence will be a long-term phenomenon.
China has stated that allegations against it ‘’transferring polluting production enterprises to Kazakhstan go against the facts and have ulterior motives.’’ It said that the ‘’so-called anti-China protests in Kazakhstan are in fact malicious hyping by a handful of people.’’
President Tokayev met Russian FM Lavrov during the latter’s visit to Nur-Sultan. The meeting focused on key aspects of bilateral cooperation, including trade, economy, culture and humanitarian fields as well as the space industry. In 2020, the two countries traded US$19 billion, a 4.7% decrease compared to 2019. Despite the coronavirus outbreak last year, Kazakhstan and Russia launched several important projects together, including the construction of Kamaz factories in Kostanai, the launch of Eurochem chemical facilities in the Zhambyl Region and a tire production project with Russia’s Tatneft in the Karaganda Region. The meeting also focused on an interregional meeting scheduled to take place in Kokshetau and expected to be attended by Tokayev and Putin. The forum was initially supposed to take place in November 2020 but was postponed due to the worsening epidemiological situation. Lavrov also spoke about the next meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council.
Bilateral cooperation was also focus of Lavrov’s meeting with Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi. The two sides discussed cooperation in the Caspian Sea region, preparations for the sixth Caspian summit in Turkmenistan, and the 60th anniversary of Yuriy Gagarin’s first flight in space from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
During his visit to Iran, the Tajik Defence Minister held meetings with his Iranian counterpart. The two sides highlighted the importance of bilateral cooperation in ensuring regional peace, stability and security. The ministers said that the existing conflicts and insecurity in the region will further necessitate deeper cooperation between the two countries in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking.
After discussions with the Tajik Defence Minister, Iran’s Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces said Iran and Tajikistan have agreed to establish a joint defensive and military committee and that during the trip “foundations for the development of military relations between the two countries were laid.” It was also decided that a joint working group between the armed forces of the two countries would be established and this working group would draw and plan the future of military and defence relations. The two sides signed a memorandum of understanding to widen defence cooperation between the two Persian-speaking countries. Iran said that ‘’Tajikistan had always had a special place in the foreign policy of Iran”.
Tajikistan has in recent decades kept its distance from Iran for fear of Tehran influencing fervent Islamic inhabitants who have long been steadfastly opposed to the Soviet-legacy rule of President Emomali Rahmon. Dushanbe has also traditionally played Tehran off against its major southern Islamic rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have poured financial assistance into Tajikistan while Tehran watched from the side-lines.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif visited Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to strengthen bilateral and regional ties. He had visited Tajikistan in March to participate in the Heart of Asia Conference on Afghanistan during which he met the Tajik President and Foreign Minister. Zarif’s visit likely sought to counterbalance growing Turkish influence in Central Asia, following Azerbaijan’s military victory over ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh. Iran worries increased Turkish clout in the area could undermine its own regional influence. Zarif’s tour also followed virtual Turkic Council Summit, where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Turkey agreed to significantly enhance cooperation, even discussing the potential establishment of a Turkic investment fund. Both Iran and Turkey cite cultural and historical commonalities to justify diplomatic courtship of Central Asia.
During his visit to Kyrgyzstan, Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif referred to the deep historic, cultural and civilizational ties between the two nations and people of the region. He said that both the countries have common interests and face common threats like insecurity and instability in neighboring Afghanistan and spread of extremism and terrorism. The common interests, he added, include benefiting from regional conditions to expand economic development and providing access to international waters and transit. He stressed the necessity of broadening bilateral relations.
In Nur-Sultan, foreign ministers of Iran and Kazakhstan signed a document on cooperation between the Foreign Ministries of the two countries. The document entails interaction between the two sides to ‘’enhance the friendly and brotherly ties on the basis of mutual respect and trust.’’ The deal also highlighted the importance of constructive bilateral, regional and international negotiations in order to achieve a mutual understanding, weigh plans for stronger cooperation, and remove the obstacles on the basis of positive political will as well as a comprehensive, targeted and long-term approach. In 2020, trade between Kazakhstan and Iran was US$237 million, dropping by 37% compared to 2019. The two ministers discussed ways to increase trade and develop economic ties between their countries, particularly in the fields of transport and agriculture. Kazakh FM said that the importance of ‘’making full use of the potential of the Uzen (Kazakhstan) — Bereket (Turkmenistan) — Incheboron (Iran) railway, which allows fast access to the Persian Gulf and European, Russian and Chinese markets, was emphasised.” Kazakhstan is supportive of talks to convert the temporary agreement signed between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union on creation of a free trade zone into a full-fledged accord, which will increase trade between Kazakhstan and Iran. Developments in the JCPOA, the peace process in Afghanistan, the Astana, and the CICA process were among other topics discussed at the meeting.
Iran can be expected to push for the establishment of an Iran-Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan-Oman transport corridor with renewed vigour. Iran hopes such a development will counter ongoing preparations for a Turkey-Azerbaijan transit route that will likely expand to connect Ankara with Central Asia. Tehran may also augment imports of Turkmen electricity as it moves to enhance its regional commercial relationships. In the longer-term, Iran could look for increased coordination with its Russian and Chinese partners in Central Asia, especially regarding transportation and trade corridors, as all three share concerns about Turkey’s growing regional clout.
A group of more than 100 defendants in Tajikistan was sentenced to between five and 23 years in prison on charges of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood organization. All but two of the 119 people on trial were given prison sentences. Many dozens of alleged Muslim Brotherhood members were detained in January 2020 as part of wide-ranging security sweeps. The detainees included university teachers and heads of local government. Around 30 suspects were released the following month. The Muslim Brotherhood, a politically engaged and conservative Islamic group founded in Egypt in the 1920s, was banned in Tajikistan in 2006.
Number of coronavirus cases in Kazakhstan tripled in the first 11 days of April compared to the same period in March. There was also a significant rise in coronavirus fatalities. A vaccination campaign involving the Sputnik V vaccine produced in Russia kicked off in Kazakhstan on February 1. Distribution of domestically made Sputnik V vaccines began in the country in late February. Kazakhstan’s own coronavirus vaccine, QazCOVID is currently undergoing the third phase of clinical trials.
Pakistan is considering importing cotton from Uzbekistan via land routes after it reversed a decision to import it from India. Pakistan textile exporters want government to take decisive steps amid 40% drop in crop output in the country.
Pakistan government assured the value-added textile exporters that their demand inter alia for import of duty free cotton via land would be positively considered. Prices of cotton yarn have been exorbitantly high in Pakistan that reflect hoarding and black-marketing of cotton yarn. The value-added textile exporters are facing financial hardships as their cost of manufacturing has gone out of control due to dollar depreciation and increase in prices of cotton yarn by more than 40%, and 700% increase in sea freight charges.
India-Central Asia Relations
Kazakh Minister of Defence Lt General Nurlan Yermekbayev paid a 4-day visit to India at the invitation of his Indian counterpart Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh. The two Ministers met last in Moscow on the side-lines of the SCO Defence Minister’s meeting in September, 2020. This was Yermekbayev’s first meeting with Singh after he was re-appointed Defence Minister of Kazakhstan. Both countries share common interests of actively combating the threat of global terrorism and maintaining peace.
Yermekbayev visited the Longewala sector in Jaisalmer, HQs 12 Corps at Jodhpur and Agra during his trip. He paid respect to the fallen soldiers by laying a wreath at the War Memorial in Delhi.
At their meeting, the two ministers exchanged views for further strengthening bilateral defence cooperation, including through defence exercises, training, and capacity building. The Defence Ministers agreed that both the countries must engage in defence industrial collaboration in mutual interest. Kazakh Minister thanked Rajnath Singh for the opportunity provided to the Kazakh troops for deployment as part of the Indian battalion in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon – UNIFIL. Both Ministers positively assessed the annual KAZIND joint military exercise between the two countries. They agreed that both sides must look at the possibility of co-production and co-development in defence manufacture. Kazakhstan expressed interest in the joint production of aerospace equipment. The two sides are also interested in repair, maintenance and upgrade of the military equipment and setting up joint ventures.
Bilateral cooperation in the defence sector has strengthened over the last few years with programmes in military education and training.
By the end of May, 2021, India is expected to begin full-scale operations in its first foreign port venture at Iran’s Chabahar which will aim to facilitate more South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia trade. India has nearly completed development of two terminals at Chabahar’s Shahid Beheshti complex that opens onto the Gulf of Oman. Recently New Delhi has doubled down and accelerated the project with the expectation that the shift from Trump to Joe Biden will usher in a breakthrough in the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement. Chabahar has seen limited operations since 2019, a result of U.S. restrictions imposed on Iran’s energy exports. The port handled a mere 123 vessels with 1.8 million tons of bulk and general cargo from February 2019 to January 2021, well below its operating capacity. That’s set to change. New Delhi aims to ultimately link Chabahar to its International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a project initially proposed by India, Russia, and Iran in 2000 and later joined by 10 other nations.
The original plan committed at least US$21 billion to the so-called Chabahar–Hajigak corridor, which then included US$85 million for Chabahar port development, a US$150 million credit line to Iran, a US$8 billion India-Iran MOU for Indian industrial investment in a Chabahar special economic zone, and US$11 billion for the Hajigak iron and steel mining project awarded to seven Indian companies in central Afghanistan. Hajigak is the best known and largest iron oxide deposit in Afghanistan. Unlike Chabahar, which is designed more to serve the economic and trade interests of the wider region, Gwadar is more tilted toward fulfilling Beijing’s economic and geopolitical ambitions.
Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan has inter alia been launching satellites into space as part of the OneWeb global satellite network. OneWeb, a broadband satellite communications company acquired by a consortium of investors comprising the UK government and Sunil Mittal-led Bharti Global, has partnered the Kazakhstan government to digitise the country’s economy by providing high-speed internet connectivity.
OneWeb has signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan to digitise its economy and become a pioneer of the latest satellite communications technologies. Under the partnership, OneWeb has planned the first network demonstration in Kazakhstan in June. The trials will show the way OneWeb’s constellation of low-earth orbit (Leo) satellites and user terminals provide high-speed and low latency broadband connectivity in remote and rural areas. The trading subsidiary will enable delivery of OneWeb’s services across central Asia. Prime Minister Askar Mamin discussed the development of satellite internet with Sunil Mittal, chairman of board of directors of OneWeb.
Mittal said that till now, 110 satellites have been launched into space. In 2021-2022, more than eight launches from the Baikonur cosmodrome are planned.