● Political Developments
● Economic Developments
● India-Central Asia Relations
President Shavkat Mirziyoyev of Uzbekistan embarked on his second term of office with a pledge to reform Uzbekistan’s constitution. He did not specify what changes he had in mind, as he made the announcement when he was sworn into office on November 6, following his landslide re-election victory on 24th October. Mirziyoyev embraced an ambitious economic reform agenda since he came to power in 2016, and allowed greater freedom of speech and more space for civil society. Pointing to “important measures to assure freedom of speech and of the press,” he promised action to make officials bear greater responsibility for interfering with media freedoms. He was speaking days after firing senior officials for blocking some social media sites which were then unblocked. Mirziyoyev presented his plan to reform the constitution as a grassroots initiative.
At present, Russia and China do not appear to be competing in Central Asia. But this will be tested as China’s rise in the region continues during the early post-American era. China may not be eating into Russia’s share of the arms market at present, but it may soon start to do so as China’s domestic arms industry develops and continues to seek export markets.
Although China has largely been deferential to Russia and is likely to remain so in the near term, there are signs that it is considering its own approach to this strategic part of the world. Increasingly, China has developed its own initiatives without Russia. It organized its first exercise outside of the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2014, and established its own multilateral mechanisms such as the China+Central Asia meeting of foreign ministers, launched in 2020, and the counter-terrorism dialogue with Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, established in 2016.
As China’s economic and security interests continue to grow in the region, the current Sino-Russian framework of cooperation may be folded within a broader PaxSinica in which Beijing increasingly calls the shots.
Tajikistan parliament’s announcement that China will finance the construction of a “security outpost” near Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan has brought into the open a security relationship that has quietly evolved in recent years with an eye ostensibly on checking Islamic terror and militant groups. The post, to be located in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province in the Pamir mountains that border China’s sensitive Xinjiang province and Afghanistan’s volatile Badakhshan province, will nominally be used for Tajikistan police special forces and managed by the ministry of internal affairs. Analysts claim that the facility is a spy station all but in name. Tajikistan has insisted that Chinese troops will not be stationed at the US$8.5 million facility. China will undertake the facility’s design and provide its equipment, according to local Tajik press reports. Russian media recently reported that the Taliban has entered an alliance with an ethnic Tajik militant group bent on overthrowing President Rakhmon’s government. The announcement came as tensions rise between Afghanistan’s Taliban government and Tajik President Rakhmon, who like others has still refused to recognize the country’s new Islamic rulers.
At the same time, China is wary of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an ethnic Uyghur militant group that fought side-by-side with the Taliban against the US and NATO forces but ultimately aims to create an independent state in China’s Xinjiang province – where Beijing has built a network of “vocational camps” in which hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs are held. In speeches on Xinjiang, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has expressed concern about Uyghur militants potentially using Tajikistan as a backdoor to attack China.
Tajik authorities have deported an estimated 3,000 Uyghurs to China in recent years, leading to rights groups’ complaints that Tajikistan is de facto complicit in China’s Xinjiang repression. Beijing is clearly sensitive to the wider regional risk. Xinjiang is a key conduit for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) drive in Central and South Asia.
Tajik President Rahmon appears content to support China’s security initiatives. Tajikistan’s public debt is equivalent to 45% of its GDP; 80% of this debt is external, and much of it is owed to China. The Tajik government owes the Export-Import Bank of China, its largest creditor, more than twice as much as it does its second-largest creditor. Tajikistan’s economy is completely dependent on foreign investment, which it has welcomed from China through the Belt and Road Initiative. The Chinese government has also given Tajikistan over US$300 million to build its parliament and government complex. Moreover, Rahmon is concerned about the Tajik Taliban, Tajik militants in Afghanistan who over the past decade have attempted to overthrow the Tajik government in Dushanbe. Beijing’s shared concern about cross-border terrorism and its superior military resources makes China a valuable partner for Rahmon.
The situation in Afghanistan is compounding Tajikistan’s existing problems: unstable economy, undemocratic political system, and the threat from religious radicalism. Dushanbe faces some immediate repercussions, like a resurgence of the extremist elements in the region who aspire to establish a caliphate, and an uptick in the refugees and smuggled drugs. It becomes imperative for Tajikistan to prevent the smuggling of drugs as it is the Taliban’s largest source of funding; illegal opium is smuggled from Afghanistan into Tajikistan, then to Russia eventually reaching Europe.
Even though the Taliban explicitly mentioned that their interests solely lie in Afghanistan and that it wouldn’t interfere in the affairs of Central Asia, they have been recruiting Tajik jihadists with the help of Al Qaeda, to form a base in the northern region of Afghanistan (close to the Tajik border), propagating the Taliban ideology in the rural communities and setting up Madrasas. Another pressing concern for the Tajiks is the presence of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) closer to their border, a handful of Taliban militants who aren’t averse to the idea of the “new Taliban” have come out in support of ISKP as it claims to expand their reach to the Central Asian region. Moreover, some Tajik provinces which are close to the Afghan border have been spotted hoisting Black flags usually associated with ISKP. Regardless of the many challenges, Tajikistan is trying to use the political situation to its advantage. President Rakhmon has openly voiced his concerns against the Taliban, saying he wouldn’t recognize a government “created by humiliation and ignoring the interests of the people of Afghanistan as a whole including those of ethnic minorities”. Dushanbe’s position on this issue didn’t toe the line of the two major actors in the region: China and Russia. This depicts the emerging role of Tajikistan as an important actor in the region.
The Tajik-Afghan border is the weakest link in Central Asia’s security. This has been keeping Moscow on edge since the stability of the CAR region is in its best interest, considering it still hasn’t recovered from its wounds of extremism and the two wars that it fought for relative peace in Chechnya. Russia hence aims for peace and stability in the region since it doesn’t want extremist elements to trickle into Russia. Aside from Russian interests, Tajikistan is also a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (an intergovernmental military alliance) and is the only member country to share a border with Afghanistan which makes it essential for the CSTO countries to provide security and support to Tajikistan. Russia who is the largest and most powerful member of CSTO has one of the largest overseas military bases in Tajikistan which makes it an imperative security partner. On the other hand, Western countries are hunting for potential opportunities to partner with Tajikistan. Therefore, Moscow would not like to alienate Dushanbe, making it easier for Dushanbe to push forward its security demands and concerns.
Authorities in Kyrgyzstan and other Central Asian countries acknowledge they find themselves in uncharted territory when thousands of their citizens -- family members of IS fighters -- come back home from Syria and Iraq. Since 2019, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have repatriated more than 1,000 women and children stranded in Syria and Iraq. Hundreds more returned privately, long before the defeat of the extremist group in Syria in 2019. Authorities in the predominantly Muslim region have since been working to rehabilitate and reintegrate their citizens who have been exposed to such things as IS atrocities, air strikes, poverty, and hunger. Some were deeply indoctrinated by the IS's extremist ideology. Many professionals, including doctors, teachers, psychologists, and religious figures have been recruited to help the returnees transition to “normal life.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the main task for Moscow is to prevent destabilization of Central Asian allies after the Taliban (outlawed in Russia) seized power in Afghanistan. There is visa-free regime with almost all these countries. It is hence essential to prevent destabilization and influx of terrorists and drug threats from Afghanistan.
Uzbekistan has hosted Taliban delegations on several occasions in recent years, and continued to do so without pause despite the collapse of the Western-backed government in Kabul in mid-August. Indeed, mere days before August 15, a Taliban delegation was in Tashkent to discuss “current and future national projects such as security for railroad and power lines.” Recently Uzbek Foreign Minister Kamilov landed in Kabul to continue talks with the Taliban. Energy and transportation issues topped the agenda.
According to Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, throughout recent history Moscow and Nur-Sultan have demonstrated "significant successes in consolidating society, and strengthening interethnic harmony." He said that nationalist incidents against Russian-speaking citizens of Kazakhstan are often the result of propaganda fomented by foreign powers seeking to sabotage relations between Moscow and Nur-Sultan. Both sides are well aware of how important the unifying mission of the Russian language is.
The vision of the U.S. State Department for development in Central Asia entails grants and investment—a “clear alternative” to Chinese loans—and protecting the independence and sovereignty of these states which is a “top priority” for the current administration. To rebuild trust and to present itself as a serious alternative, the United States will have to seriously enhance its commitments in the region. This will not work unless the United States is seen as a serious partner, worth giving up other opportunities to pursue. The West’s extended neglect of Central Asia has served to undermine faith in democracy while making it easier for authoritarian regimes to establish exploitative relationships that will last for generations to come. Political isolationism and inward-looking policies will only make this worse.
A senior World Health Organization official cast doubt on Turkmenistan's claim that it has zero Covid cases, saying that it is unlikely the virus is not circulating in the country. Turkmenistan is one of only a handful of countries, including North Korea, that claim to have no coronavirus cases. These comments represent the first public challenge by the WHO to Turkmenistan's claim, as a growing number of Covid cases are being reported in the country informally. Until recently, the organization repeated Turkmenistan's claim that no Covid-19 cases had been registered in the country - drawing criticism from independent observers and media. Some positive signs have become visible recently - face masks and social distancing requirements have replaced a previous system of fines against those wearing masks, who were accused of "sowing panic". And earlier this year the country became the first to make vaccination mandatory for all adults.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov sent his only son, Serdar, to Glasgow to represent Turkmenistan at the COP26 world climate conference. Serdar is seemingly being groomed to take over from his father. In 2020, the International Energy Agency estimated that Turkmenistan’s overall methane emissions from oil and gas were behind only Russia and the U.S., both of which have significantly larger energy industries and populations.
Kazakh President Kassym Tokayev has denied reports that a violent brawl which erupted following a fight at school between ethnic Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Almaty region, was sparked by ethnic tensions. Clashes between Uyghurs and Kazakhs that followed a mass fight between teenagers in a local school left several private houses and vehicles damaged and one house destroyed by fire.
The Interior Ministry publicly described the clashes that left two people injured as interethnic violence. But Tokayev rejected the characterization, saying that those who sparked the clashes were "provocateurs."
Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin has proposed to set up a European Union – Central Asia Business Council during the first European Union – Central Asia Economic Forum in Bishkek. The council is expected to bring together representatives of governments and financial institutions, as well as businesses to facilitate trade and investment. Over the past 10 years, EU member states have invested more than Euros 105 billion (US$121.3 billion) in Central Asian countries, which exceeds 40% of the total amount of foreign direct investment in the region. The EU accounts for more than a third of total foreign trade of Central Asia. Over the first nine months of 2021, trade turnover between EU and Central Asia increased by 18.4% to US$20.8 billion, while in the first half of 2021, the European investments in the economy of Kazakhstan grew 14.1% to over US$4.7 billion.
To stop Kyrgyzstan’s electricity shortage from becoming a multi-year crisis, Bishkek has warned its neighbors that it must start keeping more water for itself. That will mean less water for farmers and power plants downstream in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Since shortly after independence in 1991, the Central Asian republics have struggled to share, though this year Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors have been helping with electricity transfers – a planned 500 billion kWh from Turkmenistan, 900 million kWh from Kazakhstan and 750 million kWh from Uzbekistan. Also, since October, Kyrgyzstan has reportedly been receiving 1 million kWh per day from Tajikistan. Imports from at least two of these countries are not a long-term solution: Tajikistan is perennially short of power, and Kazakhstan is now plagued by shortages due, in part, to its thriving crypto mining industry. Local disputes over water have even triggered bloodshed. Last April, in a contested section of the Kyrgyz-Tajik border, villagers came to blows over access to irrigation infrastructure. More than 50 people died during fighting, which involved troops from both sides exchanging gun and mortar fire. Kyrgyzstan is now investing in new weapons, including armed Turkish drones.
Austria’s Foreign Minister Linhart visited Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with a business delegation to attend the first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum and discuss economic relations with various government representatives. During his visit, Foreign Minister Linhart focused on expanding bilateral economic relations with each of these countries.
Kazakhstan is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide in Central Asia and the 14th in the world. The carbon intensity of Kazakhstan’s GDP is two times higher than the world average and three times higher than the EU. Like many other countries, Kazakhstan is highly vulnerable to climate change, especially as it is a landlocked state. The median annual temperature has increased 2°C in the last 75 years with serious droughts now striking twice every five years. Kazakhstan, as one of the world’s leading producers of wheat and flour, could also lose almost 40% of wheat yields by 2030 if the current negative climate change trajectory continues.
Kazakh President Tokayev pledged full decarbonization of Kazakhstan’s economy by 2060. Tokayev also instructed the government to bring the share of renewable energy in the nation’s total energy grid to 15% by 2030. These are highly ambitious targets, but Kazakhstan has been blessed with large-scale wind and solar irradiation potential, as roughly 50% of the country’s territory has average wind speeds of 4 to 6 meters per second – suitable for energy generation. They include abandoning new coal-fired generation projects and phasing out of coal combustion by 2025, planting two billion trees by the same year, doubling renewable energy sources in total energy balance by 2030, 100% sorting of municipal solid waste by 2040, the introduction of green hydrogen, and other measures.
Kcell, a cellular communication operator in Kazakhstan and part of Kazakhtelecom, has announced that it plans to cooperate with Ericsson in the field of development of 5G-ready networks. Ericsson will carry out the upgrade of the LTE network of Kcell based on its solutions under the Ericsson Radio System line.
Some 1.6 million Tajik citizens have entered Russia to work so far this year, new government data from Moscow shows. Migrant laborers are Tajikistan’s top export. In 2019, the remittances they sent from Russia exceeded $2.6 billion – about triple the value of all other Tajik exports that year combined, and equivalent to approximately 28 percent of Tajikistan’s GDP.
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is expecting Central Asian economies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to grow by 4.9% on average in 2021. The region is expected to continue growing by around 4.8% in 2022 thanks to continued expansionary policies and strong external demand for key exports and labour resources.
Rising commodity prices benefit exporters of oil, gas and metals such as Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Turkmenistan, and, to a lesser degree, Uzbekistan. At the same time, commodity importers such as the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan are seeing increased demand for migrant workers in Russia and subsequently higher remittance flows.
India-Central Asia Relations
India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval hosted the Delhi Regional Security Dialogue to discuss the evolving situation in Afghanistan. NSAs/Secretaries of National Security Councils of Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in addition to India took part in the deliberations. Pakistan Representative did not attend because he said that ‘’spoilers cannot be peace-makers.’’ Chinese Representative did not attend most probably to show solidarity with Pakistan but official reason cited was a scheduling conflict. Chinese absence suggests that China’s Afghanistan policy will continue to be guided and shaped by Pakistan. No one from Afghanistan was invited.
The participants paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and briefed him about their discussions. PM Modi himself provided fresh impetus to the regional dialogue and efforts to build lasting peace and security in Afghanistan. While receiving the participants attending the Delhi meeting, he succinctly outlined four key aspects that require focus: The need for an inclusive government in Afghanistan; a zero-tolerance stance about Afghan territory being used by terrorist groups; a strategy to counter drugs and arms trafficking from Afghanistan; and, addressing the increasingly critical humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. A proactive approach enabled India to actively contribute to the task of building a regional consensus on the future of Afghanistan.
This was a Security Dialogue and not one anchored by the Foreign Office as most of the other discussions on Afghanistan in recent times have been. This was the third in the chain of Security Dialogues held on Afghanistan, the first having been organized in 2018 by Iran. The second was held in 2019. In September 2018, the participating countries were Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, China and India. At the second meeting in December 2019, again hosted by Iran, seven countries attended, with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan the new participants. Pakistan attended neither meeting. In fact, Islamabad — rather Rawalpindi — had put a precondition to Tehran early that if India attended, they wouldn’t. Tehran did not yield.
India was to host this Dialogue in 2020 but could not do so because of the Covid-19 pandemic. China attended both previous meetings in Iran, but this time it cited “scheduling issues” to convey that it will not participate. It told India that it is “open to maintaining contacts with India on Afghanistan through bilateral or multilateral channels”.
Analysts stated that it was unfortunate that Pakistan had opted not to participate in the meeting, and noted that there is a “credibility gap” between Pakistan’s actions and intentions for Afghanistan. If Pakistan was truly sincere about helping Afghanistan, it should have allowed the routing of India’s humanitarian aid through its soil.
A Joint Declaration was issued at the end of the deliberations. The participating countries unanimously declared that an inclusive government be formed in Afghanistan, human rights of minority religious and ethnic communities as well as of women and children be safeguarded, Afghan territory should not be used to launch terror attacks on its neighbours and beyond, and, urgent humanitarian assistance be distributed across the country “in a non-discriminatory manner” through “unimpeded, direct and assured access”. It also “condemned in the strongest terms all terrorist activities and reaffirmed their firm commitment to combat terrorism in all its forms and manifestations," and “called for a collective cooperation against the menace of radicalization, extremism, separatism and drug trafficking in the region."The declaration sought collective cooperation in tackling extremism and drug trafficking in the region. The Taliban welcomed the Delhi Declaration though they were not invited.
NSA Ajit Doval met his counterparts from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on sidelines of the Delhi Dialogue. A detailed exchange of views on Afghanistan, with significant convergence of assessments, was held between the NSAs. Concerns were reportedly expressed over the sharp increase in terrorist threats from Afghanistan in the recent past. The Tajik side highlighted the gravity of the situation in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover. They also discussed the looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
With Uzbekistan, the crisis in Afghanistan was again the major focus of discussions. Both sides agreed that the future of Afghanistan must be decided by its people. They felt that the legitimacy of any Afghan government within Afghanistan was important before the issue of its international recognition. Uzbekistan also highlighted the need for long term economic development in the nation. Both sides emphasized the need for Afghanistan’s neighbours to ensure unhindered access to humanitarian assistance for the people and agreed that neighbouring states must play a constructive role in the war-torn nation's future.
Tajikistan has taken a tougher stance towards the Taliban and pushed for the creation of an inclusive government with representation for Afghanistan’s Tajik minority, while the political leadership of Uzbekistan has shown greater willingness to work with the Taliban, albeit without recognizing the interim administration formed by the militant group.
On the bilateral side, discussions took place between India, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on deepening cooperation in areas like defence, border management and border infrastructure development.
India’s objective in hosting the dialogue was to forge a joint approach for tackling security threats emanating from Afghanistan. The Dialogue appears to have exceeded India’s expectations, as the foreign security officials easily arrived at a complete consensus that enabled the issuance of the joint Declaration on Afghanistan. Since this is the only Dialogue at the level of NSAs, there was unanimity on the need to continue with this mechanism and have regular consultations.
The meeting underscored India’s attempts to protect its strategic interests in Afghanistan. India fears that the Taliban rise to power will encourage Pakistan to feed a long-simmering insurgency in Kashmir.
According to India, the five main threats and challenges following the Taliban takeover on August 15 are terrorism within Afghanistan and across its borders, radicalization and extremism, cross-border movements, drug production and trafficking, and the danger posed by vast amounts of weapons and military gear left behind by US troops.
By holding the Third Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan, New Delhi sent out three strong messages: one, that it intends to remain an important and engaged player in the future of Afghanistan; second, that with the exit of U.S.-NATO troops, the ideal solution to the situation is through consensus in Afghanistan’s extended neighborhood including Russia; and third, that the Afghan humanitarian crisis should be the region’s immediate priority and political differences can be set aside to help. The Delhi Declaration issued by the eight participating nations is a milestone in keeping India inside the discussion on Afghanistan. The declaration goes farther than the previous such regional discussion of SCO countries in Dushanbe in September, in its strong language on terrorism, terror financing and radicalization. It also expands on the need for an inclusive government in Kabul that will replace the Interim Taliban regime, and promotes a national reconciliation process.
In a bid to strengthen bilateral relations and improve international cooperation, India’s External Affairs Minister met the Tajikistan NSA in New Delhi. They expressed concern over the worsening situation in Afghanistan, including the socio-economic and humanitarian situation. They noted the need to extend urgent humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people residing under the Taliban regime.
Russia sounded a note of caution after signing the Delhi Declaration. Following the joint declaration, Russia issued a separate statement in which it appeared soft on the Taliban over terrorism. Its separate statement chose to omit the reference expressing concern over the possibility of Afghanistan becoming “a safe haven for global terrorism”. Russia also sought to mellow its stand taken in the joint declaration over the rights of women, children and minority communities under the Taliban rule in Afghanistan, radicalistaion and drug trafficking.
While the consensus over the Delhi Declaration is a creditable feat, it does not paper over all the differences between India and the other countries over their far stronger engagement with Kabul. For instance, Turkmenistan sent a Ministerial delegation to discuss connectivity with the Taliban, while Uzbekistan accorded the visiting Taliban Deputy PM full protocol and discussed trade, transit and the construction of a railway line. Russia and Iran still maintain their embassies in Kabul, and a “Troika-plus” U.S.-China-Russia-Pakistan engagement took place with the Taliban Foreign Minister, in Islamabad the same week.
India said that there was an “overwhelming response to India’s invitation”. This was the first time that all Central Asian countries, not just Afghanistan’s immediate neighbours, participated in this format. The enthusiastic response was a manifestation of the importance attached to India’s role in regional efforts to promote peace and security in Afghanistan.
The high-level participation at the meeting reflected the ‘’widespread and growing concern of regional countries about the situation in Afghanistan and their desire to consult and coordinate with each other”.
Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister has said that work in Afghanistan on the TAPI gas pipeline project from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan and India via Pakistan is likely to begin soon. He made the remarks after a meeting with the Turkmen Foreign Minister in Kabul. Afghan minister said that the two sides discussed strengthening political and economic ties during the Turkmen foreign minister’s visit. Important issues like TAPI, rail connectivity and electricity were discussed.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan have all turned down U.S. requests to use their territory for “over-the-horizon” counterterror operations in Afghanistan. Lavrov said that despite those hurdles he expected the U.S. – due to its “pushy nature” – to continue trying to secure an agreement with regional countries, adding that he understood the Pentagon has approached India in that regard.
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(The views expressed are personal)