Central Asia Digest | December 2020


 Political Developments

● Economic Developments

● India-Central Asia Relations

Political Developments

Transformation of Kyrgyzstan from an authoritarian state to a semi-parliamentary form of government has been short-lived. Since 5 October 2020, Kyrgyzstan was torn apart by the third revolution leading to widespread protests following elections which were alleged to be rigged. Kyrgyzstan has been heavily impacted by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its economic implications, especially with regard to the poor segment of its population. The substandard health infrastructure and increased corruption during the pandemic made the people yearn for change. The national economy crumbled under rising international debt and a decrease in remittances from Russia and Kazakhstan.

The people of Northern Kyrgyzstan are more developed and are dependent on secondary and tertiary sectors as against population of largely agrarian South. This long-drawn battle between the politicians of the economically, ideologically and ethnically diverse North and South regions has for decades played a role in Kyrgyzstan politics. The economic impact of pandemic on the business centres, however, aggravated the north-south divide. The current crisis appears to be a coup staged by the violent ethnic clans of the north.

So far, the acting President and PM Sadyr Japarov has made some key ministerial and mayoral appointments seen as fairly reasonable. More important from a public relations perspective, he has announced that he will finally solve the problem of corruption that have plagued the country for decades. He has taken some cosmetic decisions in this regard. Many crucial questions however remain unanswered.

Playing the nationalist card would seem to make sense for Japarov. Some 80% of the country’s population are ethnic Kyrgyz, and nationalist rhetoric has often proven to be a successful tactic in gaining votes and support. Still, there are dangers to this approach. Russian remains a preferred language of Kyrgyzstan’s educated elites, especially in the capital. And, given geopolitical realities, no Kyrgyz leader can afford to alienate Russia which retains an air base not far from Bishkek.

Furthermore, Japarov’s power grab and apparent willingness to run roughshod over Kyrgyz democratic institutions have raised eyebrows. For although people might be willing to trade democracy for true anti-corruption results, they will not give it up to replace a weak and inept president (Sooronbai Jeenbekov) with a power-hungry leader who is unable or unwilling to solve the nation’s biggest problem.

The Central Election Commission scheduled the new parliamentary elections for December 20. However, Japarov signed amendments to the constitutional law on elections which postponed the new parliamentary vote to an unspecified date in 2021 and led the Election Commission to set January 10 as the date for an early presidential election.

Kyrgyzstan's constitution forbids a person serving as an acting or interim president from taking part in a presidential election so Japarov announced that he will step down before the end of the year and thus become eligible to run in the January 10 vote. The presidential elections would be followed by a potential referendum on constitutional changes, and then an election of a new parliament.

If Japarov wins the presidential election on 10th January, he will then try to ram through constitutional changes that he has recently proposed. While there is debate concerning their exact nature, their overall thrust appears to be to weaken the parliament and cement the power of the executive. This, in turn, would effectively end Kyrgyzstan’s democratic experiment and enable Japarov to serve as undisputed leader. However, it is by no means certain that Japarov will be able to create the outcome he desires.

Events thus far with Japarov in full power have doused any feelings of euphoria over the change and in its place, a sense of foreboding and nervousness has prevailed.

Although Kyrgyzstan continues to be at the centre of geopolitical rivalry between the US, Russia and China, the current turmoil seems to be completely internal.

Russia expects Kyrgyzstan to stay committed to strategic partnership. It has shown it is not happy with the change of leadership in Kyrgyzstan. Moscow has suspended $100 million in financial aid to Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan's new foreign minister, Ruslan Kazakbaev, who assumed this position on October 14, visited Moscow on October 23 and met with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Kazakbaev tried to assure Lavrov and the Kremlin that the situation in Kyrgyzstan was returning to normal. At a press conference after their meeting, Lavrov indicated the new Kyrgyz government would not receive the $100 million in assistance that had been pledged to the previous government anytime soon. The day before Kazakbaev met with Lavrov, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the situation in Kyrgyzstan a "tragedy" and said Russia had been watching with "pity and concern." “I think current developments are a disaster for Kyrgyzstan and its people,” Putin said during a video call with international foreign policy experts. “Every time they have an election, they practically have a coup. This isn't even funny.”

All this seems to have rattled Japarov which led him to take the unusual step of sending an envoy to Russia for talks with its Foreign Ministry. Former Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Chingiz Aidarbekov, who is currently Japarov's foreign-affairs adviser, arrived in Moscow for talks -- except no one in Moscow seemed to be expecting him. Aidarbekov "wanted meetings in the Kremlin" with Lavrov, members of Russian government, and State Duma leaders but was "rejected by absolutely everyone."

During the unrest that followed the legislative elections in Kyrgyzstan on October 4, Chinese businesses were targeted for shakedowns nationwide, at times accompanied by violence. Women were threatened with rape, men were savagely beaten and the Chinese flag set alight. On October 16, Chinese Ambassador was called in to meet the acting Kyrgyz foreign minister. He asked for help to protect rights of Chinese investors. Three days later, the external security commissioner at the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Kyrgyz Ambassador to express China’s displeasure. Chinese in Bishkek have long felt that Kyrgyz officials “don't care” enough to protect them. Some are saying the violence was the last straw.

Finally, on October 30, Chinese Ambassador met Japarov and offered her congratulations. She expressed the hope that Kyrgyzstan can maintain stability and realize its social and economic development.

It’s not only the political unrest that has dented relations. For almost five months, Kyrgyz importers have not been receiving many goods from China. Chinese exports to Kyrgyzstan were down 44.7% in first three quarters of 2020.

The United States released a statement saying Kyrgyz "citizens and their leaders must continue to fight against the influence of organized crime and corruption in politics."

Kazakh President Tokayev met Kyrgyz Foreign Minister in Nur-Sultan on Oct. 30.  Tokayev said that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are countries most close to one another. ‘’We are not divided by anything. Kyrgyzstan is a reliable ally, an important strategic partner and brotherly state to Kazakhstan.” Kazakbayev said that main purpose of his visit was to reassure Kazakhstan that Kyrgyzstan’s foreign policy course remains unchanged. During his visit, Kazakbayev also met Kazakh Foreign Minister and discussed cooperation in trade, economic, investment, transit, transport and cultural and humanitarian sectors and growing cooperation in international organizations.

During a telephone conversation, Kazakhstan’s Prime Minister Askar Mamin and Kyrgyz PM Japarov discussed the current state and prospects of bilateral cooperation in trade, economic, transit, transport and water and energy spheres, issues of interaction within the EAEU and the CIS, as well as combating the spread of COVID-19.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Japarov acknowledged that several traditional allies have not been keen to cooperate with the new government. “Neighbours, the EU and the US have doubts,” he said. “But we will prove ourselves by deeds, not words.” Others at home remain unconvinced.

Japarov signed an order, providing resigned president Sooronbay Jeenbekov with status of ex-president, which carries a number of privileges, including lifetime state security, a right to reside in Ala-Archa state residence, a service car, and free medical service in the governmental clinic. This status also grants judicial immunity that could only be lifted by a ruling of the parliament.

The Central Election Commission received documents from Sazykbai Turdumaliev to run for President of Kyrgyzstan.

A fierce debate is raging in Kyrgyzstan whether it should revert to the Presidential system of government. Some analysts feel that returning to a presidential system, which Kyrgyzstan had up until a referendum in the wake of the 2010 revolution, would set the country back 30 years and put it on the path to authoritarianism. It is felt that without independent states and independent courts, or real freedom of speech, only a parliamentary system could keep the balance in Kyrgyzstan.

Since December 2010, Kyrgyzstan has had 10 prime ministers (not counting acting prime ministers and counting Almazbek Atambayev just once) under two presidents (not counting acting presidents). This constant churn hasn’t helped improve governance in the country. Although the prime minister is technically responsible to the parliament, the office of the prime minister has become de facto subordinate to the president’s office. Also control over the so-called power ministries (police, military, intelligence) under the 2010 constitution remain in the hands of the president. There are worries that returning to a presidential system would be, in reality, a step toward a dictatorship. Japarov is pushing for a more powerful president while hoping to be that president, making his critics nervous.

Kazakhstan’s Defence Minister met with his Turkish counterpart in Nur-Sultan on his first working visit. They agreed on the need to further expand military-technical cooperation. In September 2018, during the official visit of first Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev to Ankara, a number of important bilateral documents were signed, including an agreement on military cooperation.

Four ethnic Kazakhs convicted of illegally crossing the border from China were granted temporary refugee status by Kazakhstan, marking an apparent about-turn in its position on Beijing’s campaign of anti-Islamic repression in Xinjiang. The United Nations has estimated that 1 million Uyghurs and members of other, mostly Muslim indigenous, ethnic groups in Xinjiang were being held in "counter-extremism centers," while millions more had been forced into re-education camps.

Kazakhstan Tourism department has embraced the phrase “Very nice!” from the film ‘’Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’’ in a bid to promote tourism in the country. This phrase is uttered many times by Borat in the course of the film. While the film has offended many people, Kazakhstan is not complaining. It was upset with the first Borat but appears to have embraced the sequel.

According to a Gallup poll of law and order index, Turkmenistan, along with Singapore, with a score of 97 out of 100, is the safest country in the world. The law and order index is a composite score based on people's reported confidence in their local police, their feelings of personal safety, and the incidence of theft and assault or mugging in the past year.

Kazakhstan is extending the suspension of the visa-free regime for foreign citizens until May 2021. It is also extending the suspension of 72-hour visa-free stay for transit passengers from China and India through Jan. 1, 2021.

The "5+1" format, in which Central Asian states hold regular meetings with a single country outside the region, is not a new arrangement. Japan was the first country to institute such a cooperative format in 2004, followed by South Korea (2007), the European Union (2007), the United States (2015), and India (2019). China recently held a similar meeting with the five Central Asian countries. They assured mutual respect for the integrity and internal security of all participants, with promises of mutual aid in case of need. The signatories specifically agreed not to make their territory, air, and sea space available for war need to other countries outside the region. It is understood that the Americans are exploring the possibility of flying some routes over these areas with their military and observation aircraft, especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for corridors to and from Afghanistan.

Economic Developments

As of September 1, 2020, the total trade turnover of Kazakhstan amounted to $55.6 billion. 29% of exports went to EU market, 20% to Russia and 18% to China. Due to coronavirus outbreak, exports of Kazakh products decreased by 18.6%, while imports by 6.4%.

Volume of Kazakhstan’s exports for first eight months of 2020 amounted to $31.9 billion, a shortfall of $5.9 billion as compared to 2019. Kazakh crude oil supplies in absolute terms increased by 12.7%, but in monetary terms, due to the collapse of the oil market, they decreased by 25.9%, reaching $17.1 billion. In the first eight months of 2020, China imported products from Kazakhstan worth $5.2 billion. This is 16.3% of the total volume of Kazakhstan’s exports. This year China increased the import of Kazakh oil by 46% to $1.2 billion. Hydrocarbons accounted for 22.6% of Kazakhstan’s total exports to China. Supplies of copper and copper alloys also increased by 22.5%, natural gas by 19.7%, and inorganic chemical products by 12.1%.

The economies greatest at risk in the region are Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where remittances – primarily from Russia – account for more than a quarter of GDP. Remittances from Russia to Central Asia dropped by 23% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to 2019. Fall in income of Central Asian workers in Russia appears directly linked to the lockdown measures to curb the spread of Covid‐19.

Uzbekistan’s Association of Exporters became an official partner of China’s Alibaba e-commerce platform. The designation makes it much easier for Uzbek sellers to list their wares on Alibaba and reach Chinese buyers.

Uzbekistan is not alone in seeing China as marketplace of future. Kazakhstan selected 35 Kazakh grain and agriculture businesses to receive training on how to meet Chinese customs regulations, building on recent successes in shipping food products there. Kazakhstan noted that “some people on social networks expressed dissatisfaction with the ministry’s plan to expand meat exports to China, believing that this may lead to a rise in domestic meat prices in Kazakhstan.” Ministry assured journalists that domestic prices would not be affected.

The above comments are indicative of rising concerns about impact of Chinese businesses across Central Asia. Several polls have shown highly negative opinions of Chinese businesses in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In Uzbekistan, respondents were more confident that Chinese investments will benefit the country, though the percentage of Uzbeks calling themselves “very concerned” about an increase in national debt jumped 18% in the last year; those “very concerned” about Chinese nationals buying land shot up from 30 to 53%; and confidence that the Chinese will create jobs dropped significantly.

Russia is the major investor in Central Asia. The accumulated assets, excluding capital investments from the jurisdictions of third countries, amount to about $20 billion, of which 47% was invested in energy sector, 22% in non-ferrous industry, and 15% in telecommunications. More than 17,000 enterprises with Russian capital operate in the region. Russia provides technical assistance for the sustainable development of Central Asia. For the period from 2008 to 2019, this assistance amounted to more than $6 billion.

Kazakhstan has almost completely fulfilled its obligations under the OPEC plus agreement. In October 2020, according to official preliminary data, oil production in Kazakhstan, excluding condensate, amounted to 1.4 million barrels per day. This represented nearly total fulfillment of obligations of OPEC plus agreement.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and its partners are promoting the further transition from coal-fired power plants to renewable-energy power generation in Kazakhstan by supporting the construction of a 100 MW wind farm in south of the country. EBRD’s financing of up to $24.8 million is the latest transaction under the Bank’s Kazakhstan Renewables Framework II. It will be complemented by a $34.3 million loan from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), $13.3 million loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and a concessional loan of up to $22.9 million from the Green Climate Fund (GCF). The funds will be used by Zhanatas Wind-Power Station, a special project company run and owned by China Power International Holding (CPIH) in partnership with Visor Investments Coöperatief, to construct and operate the wind farm as well as to build an 8.6-kilometre 110 kV single-circuit line connecting the facility to the national grid.

India-Central Asia Relations 

Second session of India - Central Asia Dialogue took place in virtual format on 28th October, 2020 under Chairmanship of EAM Dr S Jaishankar and participation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as also Afghanistan and acting FM of Kyrgyzstan. The first ministerial meeting was held in Samarkand in January 2019. Participants explored ways to expand long term multifaceted cooperation between India and the region and to deepen bilateral ties to strengthen security and ensure sustainable growth in Central Asia. EAM said that India and Central Asia face common challenges in the areas of terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking etc. "All these commonalities make us natural partners in our developmental journeys," he said. Ministers also discussed cooperation in trade and economy, implementation of projects in transport connectivity and assistance in stabilizing sanitary and epidemiological situation in the countryside. The meeting also noted the urgent need for settlement of Afghan conflict through an Afghan-led and Afghan-controlled peace process. India announced a $1 billion line of credit to Central Asian countries to finance high impact community projects in the region. (A Special Report on the 2nd India-Central Asia Dialogue was issued on 1st November, 2020.)

Speaking at 19th meeting of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Ministers of Foreign Economy and Foreign Trade hosted by India, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal urged SCO countries to leverage their economic strength and explore partnerships to enhance trade and investment in the region. This would be critical in ensuring the speedy recovery from COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting adopted four documents including a statement on response to COVID-19 reinforcing the need for greater cooperation for access to medicines and facilitation of trade.

Launching the India-SCO Startups Forum, Minister Piyush Goyal said that creativity, innovation and disruption will be the new mandate in the emerging future. "Sharing our best practices, knowledge, engaging corporates and investors from all the member nations, monetising and mobilising capital, setting up incubators, providing exposure and scale with market access will certainly help the worthy ideas of our startups' innovations," Goyal said. Four documents were adopted at the meeting, including statement on the response to COVID-19; statement on the multilateral trading system of ministers of SCO countries which are World Trade Organization (WTO) members; and statement on cooperation on Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

India is planning to increase intake from neighbouring and Central Asian countries for the strategic leadership course in the National Defence College (NDC). The Defence Ministry has decided to increase its intake from 100 to 110 in 2021 and to 120 in 2022. Now five more friendly countries -- Tajikistan, Indonesia, Maldives, Uzbekistan and Philippines -- will be able to send their officers to the NDC. This new initiative has been taken in view of huge demand from several countries for some-time.

A ceremony was organized in Embassy of Pakistan in Dushanbe to observe the so-called Kashmir Black Day. Chairman of Tajik-Pakistan Friendship Society Karomatullo Alimov, former Minister of Culture of Tajikistan was Chief Guest on the occasion. The event was attended by members of Pakistani community, local journalists, representatives of Human Rights Organizations, academicians, members of Pakistan-Tajikistan Friendship Society, and Pakistan Study Centre. Two Tajik literary figures Nazokat Alimova and Shopuri Faris recited their poems

(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.