Central Asia Digest | August 2021


● Political Developments
● Economic Developments
● India-Central Asia Relations

Political Developments

Few could have foreseen the rapid advances Taliban fighters have made in northern Afghanistan since the start of May. The fighting has spread swiftly to Afghanistan's northern borders and involved Central Asia. The earlier isolated cases of Afghan government troops seeking refuge across the border in neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are becoming a commonplace occurrence.

The defeat on June 22 of Afghan government forces at the town of Shir Khan Bandar, with its vital border crossing into Tajikistan, seems to have been as much of a shock to Central Asian authorities as it was to the 134 Afghan soldiers who escaped the Taliban assault by fleeing into Tajikistan. Some days later on the morning of June 27, an armed group of Taliban militants launched an attack on a border checkpoint in Afghanistan’s Kaldar district, forcing 17 Afghan troops to flee to Tajikistan.

Adding to the alarm, Uzbekistan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that 53 armed Afghan troops and allied militia fighters also fled into Uzbekistan on June 23. Uzbekistan has taken a firmer line against escaping Afghan troops, warning them that they are violating international law by crossing the border without approval. Uzbekistan said on June 28 that there had been several such attempts in the previous few days.

Governments of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are concerned not so much about the Taliban, but rather, about radicalized Islamists from their countries who are fighting in the ranks of the Taliban or other militant groups. Most concerning to them would be their citizens among groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan, or Central Asian extremist groups that now operate in Afghanistan -- the Tajik-dominated Jamaat Ansarullo or Uzbek-dominated groups, the Islamic Jihad Union, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari, Katibat Tahwid al-Jihad, or the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Tajikistan is working to set aside accommodation and accumulate fuel, food, clothing, and transportation facilities in anticipation of a possible refugee crisis from Afghanistan. Tajikistan appears ready to accept more than 10,000 refugees.

Turkmenistan, with its official policy of neutrality, has always tried to stay out of Afghanistan’s internal conflicts.

The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a Moscow-based military alliance has promised Tajikistan all possible help in dealing with the situation on its border with Afghanistan. CSTO is a post-Soviet security bloc led by Russia which includes the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as members.

There are recurrent reports that U.S. officials are seeking to persuade partners in Central Asia to provide basing options as a way of leaving U.S. forces the means to engage in military operations in Afghanistan as and when the need arises. The facility is conceived as being along the lines of bases that U.S. had at its disposal in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan following the 9/11 attacks. Those bases were vacated in 2005 and 2014, respectively. Uzbekistan indicated its opposition to such an idea in May. It is not certain that the idea has been entirely removed from the table. Russian Special envoy to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov has warned the United States that the process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan should not turn into a redeployment of the US and NATO infrastructure to the countries of Central Asia. Kabulov said that Russia has already sent such a signal to Washington at various levels.

The Russian military is also maintaining its bases in several Central Asian States. Most of the Central Asian Republics are dependent on Russia in one or another way for their security, energy, or connectivity routes. Hence, it is not possible for any country to go against Russian interests in the region because it would have adverse consequences for them in future.

Meanwhile, China is another factor that perceives the US presence in the region as a threat to its economic and military interests.

A report prepared by the Bertelsmann Stiftung (Foundation) baldly stated, “Beijing’s government-to-government relations in Central Asia are warm, but public perception of China is broadly negative.” Indeed, the report noted, “Sinophobia, or what Beijing dismisses as the ‘China threat theory’, is rampant in Central Asia, and represents a major stumbling block to its ambitions.” A 2020 report by the Caspian Policy Center agreed with that assessment. The public in these nations “tends to view things through the prism of long-standing skepticism” of China.

From January 1, 2018 to August 31, 2020, the Central Asia Protest Tracker (CAPT) created by Oxus reported 981 protests in the five nations of Central Asia. Of those, 10 percent (or 98 protests in a 31-month period) were protests against the Chinese presence. All but one of the protests took place in either Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan experienced 57 protests against Chinese investment projects and ‘’Chinese expansion’’ during this period. Kazakh leaders and citizens understand their country’s strategic importance to China. Kazakh officials often refer to their country as the ‘buckle’ in the Chinese ‘belt’ – a reference to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)’s overland infrastructure projects linking Europe and Asia. Kyrgyzstan saw 40 protests against Chinese activity within its borders over the same period. According to Oxus, protests targeted the mining sector, failures in power generation at Bishkek’s main power plant following a Chinese company’s upgrade of its system, calls to send the 12,000 Chinese workers in the country home, and protection of Kyrgyzstan’s land from seizure by China. In addition, violence broke out between “hundreds” of Kyrgyz locals and Chinese mining workers in August 2019 over accusations that the Chinese company was poisoning the local water supply. Plans to build a US$280 million Chinese-funded logistics center were abandoned.

Analysts argue that Central Asian governments find themselves caught between assuaging local discontent and even outrage over what protesters see as exploitation of their country through suspect deals with Beijing, while at the same time, having taken China’s funding in infrastructure projects, finding ways to keep it cooperative and content.

China and Russia currently strive for decisive influence over Central Asia. As a result, it would take a lot of diplomatic effort and new initiatives for the US to return to the region. There is no sign of this at the moment. Central Asian countries do not appear to buying Joe Biden’s understanding of the world as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism. They do not wish to jeopardize their growing relations with Russia and China. They remain preoccupied with identifying strategies to preserve their independence and sovereignty. At the same time, these states are increasingly realizing how vulnerable they are to foreign influence.

Central Asia is unlikely to exercise the American option over the multi-vector policy currently available. These countries have considerable potential but they still face issues of ethnic tension and radical Islam. Competition for power and influence within the group remains rife as each of them continues to try and find a place for itself in global geopolitics. With NATO leaving Afghanistan, these challenges will become even more acute. The countries will preserve their statehood but there is no clear solution in sight for long term stability. Simultaneously, global rivalry in the region will be ever more evident. Russia and China will dominate this competition and it will be increasingly difficult for them to harmonize their interests.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acknowledged that Turkish-Kyrgyz educator Orhan İnandı, who went missing in Bishkek on the night of May 31, was actually abducted by Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Erdogan lauded the Turkish spies’ efforts in the rendition. İnandı, the founder and president of the Turkish-Kyrgyz Sapat school network operating in Kyrgyzstan was feared to have been abducted by MİT due to his alleged links to the Gülen movement, a faith-based group inspired by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. The movement is labeled as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government and accused of masterminding a failed coup in Turkey in July 2016. Both Gülen and his followers strongly deny any involvement in the abortive putsch or any terrorist activity.

Erdoğan stated that MİT, through genuine and patient work, brought the FETÖ [a derogatory acronym used by Ankara to describe the Gülen movement] member in charge of Central Asia, Orhan İnandı, back to Turkey. Earlier Erdoğan had told Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov during an official visit to Ankara that he had no idea of the whereabouts of İnandı. According to HRW, allowing İnandı’s rendition to Turkey would violate Kyrgyzstan’s obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which it ratified in 1997. Protests have taken place inter alia in Kyrgyzstan and the UK over the alleged enforced disappearance of Turkish teacher Orhan Inandi.

Inandi lived and worked in the country since 1995, gaining citizenship in 2012. He is believed to have been kidnapped on May 31. Inandi’s wife, Reyhan said she believes her husband is being held at the Turkish Embassy in Kyrgyzstan and has been tortured into revoking his second citizenship.

Kyrgyzstan’s deputy foreign affairs minister confirmed that in 2019, Turkey had requested his extradition which they refused due to his dual nationality. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has repeatedly called out Turkey for arbitrary deprivation of liberty and enforced disappearances. In a joint letter UN rapporteurs accused the Turkish government of engaging in systematic practice of state-sponsored extraterritorial abductions and forcible returns to Turkey, with at least 100 Turkish nationals from multiple states inter alia including Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Gabon, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, and Lebanon.

Serikzhan Bilash, a Xinjiang-born Kazakh activist who co-founded the Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights channel and has been arrested multiple times for his activism, said government advisors told him five years ago to stop using the word “genocide” to describe the situation in Xinjiang – an order which ostensibly came from Chinese pressure on Kazakhstan. Bilash who fled to Istanbul last year after suffering repeated threats and intimidation from Kazakh authorities when he refused to stop working with Atajurt, said his equipment including hard disks and mobile phones had been confiscated multiple times in Kazakhstan.

Fresh evidence supporting claims of forced deportation of Uighur Muslims from Tajikistan into China has been delivered to the International Criminal Court (ICC). An initial attempt last year to persuade the prosecutor who stepped down recently on completing her nine-year term – to investigate the plight of the Uighurs was turned down for lack of evidence, though the court said it would keep the file open and consider new information. This has raised the question whether the new prosecutor would be willing to take the matter forward.

Russian President Vladimir Putin held a meeting with Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s first president in Moscow. Issues related to current status of strategic partnership and alliance between Russia and Kazakhstan were discussed as well as advancement of integration processes in the Eurasian space and several current international topics.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev held a meeting with Speaker of the Russian Federation Council (upper chamber of parliament) Valentina Matviyenko in Nur-Sultan. At the meeting, Tokayev highlighted the influence of Putin’s political course to boost Russia’s positions globally as well as the role of contacts between legislators in bringing the two countries closer together.

Uzbek Foreign Minister paid a week-long visit to USA in June/July, 2021. Security in the region and situation in Afghanistan featured prominently on the agenda.

The Kazakh National Security Strategy for 2021-2025 signed by Kazakh President covers the most important issues of national security and the protection of the state from a whole range of current and potential threats. Development of public healthcare, along with ensuring biological safety, has become one of the main priorities. As the world and domestic experience in combating the pandemic has shown, the prevention of threats in the field of medical and biological security is becoming an unconditional priority for any country.

Moreover, a high level of cyber protection is becoming an indispensable condition for successful development of any state, which is also reflected in the new strategy. Large-scale incidents in global cyberspace in recent years have demonstrated that the protection of personal data and information infrastructure is becoming critical to security.

The strategy also emphasizes the importance of revising targets for ensuring economic security. It is extremely important to consider the possible negative impact of external economic shocks. To that end, the government has set the agenda for risk management in the field of food security, transport, logistics, and the financial sector.

Finally, the growth of geopolitical tensions, the changing nature of wars and armed conflicts with the dominance of hybrid forms dictate the need to build up the country’s defense potential. At the current critical time for the system of international relations, Kazakhstan set itself task of guaranteed preservation of its sovereignty and the effective defense of its borders.

The 16th meeting of the Astana trio – made up of Turkey, Russia and Iran – on Syria took place in Kazakhstan's capital Nur-Sultan.

Deputy Chairman of the Senate of the Parliament of Kazakhstan Askar Shakirov was elected Vice-President of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA). Shakirov has extensive experience in international relations and in the area of protection of human rights. Previously, he served as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador to India, and Human Rights Commissioner.

Peacekeeping activity remains one of the most important directions of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy. Over the years of independence, Kazakhstan has established itself as a responsible participant in international efforts to ensure global peace and security. In 2018, 120 troops from Kazakhstan were sent to assist the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) as part of the Indian battalion (INDBATT). Their tasks included foot and vehicle patrolling, staff work, duties at checkpoints and observation posts, ensuring the security of UN posts, and carrying out operations in the Battalion Mobile Reserve (BMR).

Economic Developments

Kazakhstan ranks 13th among the countries of the Asia-Pacific region and 66th in the overall rating among 83 countries in the Global Fintech Index Rankings Report. Kazakhstan entered the ratings for the first time. Global Fintech Rankings offers an annual ranking of fintech ecosystems based on the assessment of the local infrastructure, the regulatory environment, the quantity, and quality of fintech companies on the market.

The German investor and project developer SVEVIND Energy GmbH and Kazakh Invest National Company JSC signed a memorandum of understanding regarding SVEVIND’s plan to develop and realize mega-sized facilities for producing green hydrogen by utilizing wind and solar power in Kazakhstan. SVEVIND plans to install wind and solar farms with a total capacity of 45 gigawatt (GW) in mainly steppe areas in Western and Central Kazakhstan. The green electricity will feed 30 GW of electrolyzers to produce about three million tons of green hydrogen every year. The green hydrogen can either be exported directly to growing Eurasian markets or used locally to produce high-value green products, like ammonia, steel or aluminum. The overall development, engineering, procurement and financing phases are expected to take about three to five years. Construction and commissioning phases are predicted to take approx. five years.

Turkmenistan has approved the construction of the country’s first hybrid solar and wind power plant. This would help advance implementation of the National Strategy on the Development of Renewable Energy. This relatively paltry 10-megawatt plant in the western Balkan region is being paid for with foreign money – around US$25 million of credit extended by the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development. The Emirate has been extending similar lines of credit to multiple developing countries. The job to build the plant has been put out to tender, and there is a good chance an Abu Dhabi company will get the job – the way the Dhabi Future Energy Company has won contracts to build two 200-megawatt solar power plants in Uzbekistan. 

China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) has won the contract to drill new wells at the giant Galkynysh gas field in Turkmenistan. The job had been put out to tender and CNPC’s offer was found to be the “most worthwhile.” CNPC might have been chosen because Turkmenistan struggles chronically to generate a cashflow that would permit it to broaden its options. The drilling project is designed to last 30 months and payment will be made in the form of 17 billion cubic meters of gas delivered to China over a three-year period. This implies that more than one-tenth of the gas that Turkmenistan will be sending to China over that span of time is to be used to pay a Chinese state company to complete the job of drilling for its own gas.

The World Competitiveness Center of the International Institute for Management Development (IMD), Lausanne, Switzerland announced the results of the 2021 World Competitiveness Ranking, according to which Kazakhstan ranked 35th, rising seven points compared to 2020.

In the Mercer's 2021 Cost of Living city ranking, Ashgabat in Turkmenistan is named as the most expensive city in the world for international employees, pushing Hong Kong to second place. India debuts in the list with its financial capital Mumbai ranking at 78th spot.

India-Central Asia Relations

National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and representatives of other member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) participated in the meeting of NSAs of SCO member States in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. All participants called on President of Tajikistan in a bid to strengthen anti-terror cooperation. They agreed to cooperate within the SCO grouping in the “joint fight” against “international terrorism”, “extremism”, “separatism” and “religious radicalism”. Despite speculation, there was no pull-aside or bilateral conversation between Indian and Pakistani NSAs. A statement was issued by the government of Tajikistan. The meeting also “stressed” that the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation can play an important role in ensuring “regional security and strengthening ties between member states in combating threats and challenges of the modern world”.

NSA Doval pitched for an "action plan" against Pakistan-based terror groups Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed under the SCO framework and called for expeditiously bringing the perpetrators of terror attacks to justice. He also called for full implementation of the UN resolutions and targeted sanctions against UN-designated terrorist individuals and entities. Doval emphasised the adoption of international standards to counter terror financing and suggested having a memorandum of understanding between the SCO and anti-terror watchdog FATF (Financial Action Task Force). Doval advocated monitoring of new technologies being used by terrorists including drones for smuggling of weapons and misuse of dark web, artificial intelligence, blockchain and social media. On sidelines of the meeting, Doval had an extended meeting with Russian NSA Nikolai Patrushev in which they discussed "further plans of the Russia-India interaction in the security sphere, cooperation among the security and law-enforcement agencies. They also exchanged their opinions on the situation in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific region.

Another of Doval’s key messages was that “greater connectivity including through initiatives like Chabahar (port in Iran), the INSTC (International North South Transport Corridor), Regional Air Corridors, Ashgabat Agreement (on connectivity between Central Asia and the Persian Gulf) always leads to economic gains and building trust. However, connectivity must respect sovereignty and territorial integrity." The reference was to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that runs through Pakistan occupied Kashmir which is an inalienable part of India.

Indian Army Chief General M M Naravane held a telephonic interaction with his Kazakh counterpart to discuss issues of bilateral defence cooperation.

Indian Ambassador to China presented English, Russian and Chinese translations of 10 classic works of modern literature written by prominent Indian authors in different languages to SCO Secretary General in Beijing. This was a follow-up to the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the SCO Council of Heads of State Summit in Bishkek in 2019 that 10 great works of Indian literature will be translated into Russian and Chinese, which are the official languages of the SCO.

President Kovind accepted credentials inter alia from the envoy of Kazakhstan to India, Nurlan Zhalgasbayev. President Kovind said that India enjoyed warm and friendly relations with Kazakhstan and that bilateral ties were deeply rooted in a common vision of peace and prosperity.

The previous issues of Central Asia Digest are available here: LINK


(The views expressed are personal)


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About the Author

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar

Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of Global Studies and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar belongs to the Indian Foreign Service and has acquitted his responsibilities in the diplomatic service for 34 years. He was Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia and has worked in senior diplomatic positions in Indian Embassies/Missions in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Geneva, Tehran, Dhaka and Bangkok and also at Headquarters in India. He negotiated for India in the Uruguay Round of Multilateral Trade Negotiations and in negotiations for India-EU, India-ASEAN and India-Thailand Free Trade Agreements.

He contributed significantly to strengthening strategic ties and promoting cultural cooperation between India and USA, EU, Russia and other countries.Ambassador Sajjanhar worked as head of National Foundation for Communal Harmony to promote amity and understanding between different religions, faiths and beliefs. Ambassador Sajjanhar has been decorated by Governments of Kazakhstan and Latvia with their National Awards and by Universal Peace Federation with Title of ''Ambassador of Peace.'' Currently Ambassador Sajjanhar is President of Institute of Global Studies, New Delhi. He writes, travels and speaks extensively on issues relating to international relations, foreign policy and themes of contemporary relevance and significance. He appears widely on TV panel discussions. Ambassador Sajjanhar is interested in reading, music and travelling. His wife Madhu is an economist and an educationist. They have a son and a daughter both of who are accomplished singers. Their son passed out of Yale University and their daughter is pursuing her PhD at University of Minnesota.