Central Asia Digest | February 2021


● Political Developments
● Economic Developments

● India-Central Asia Relations

Political Developments

Sadyr Japarov who took over as prime minister and also as acting president of Kyrgyzstan in mid-October, soon after the parliamentary elections, resigned his posts on 14th November, 2020 in order to run for president. Soon thereafter Kyrgyzstan’s parliament, which had ceased to exist, published for public review a draft constitution that kicked up a new tempest within Kyrgyzstan’s already boiling political sea, dotted with at least 60 presidential hopefuls in the early presidential election.

Impetus for constitutional change came from Japarov but was taken up by parliament, itself no longer legitimate. Given its own decisions in late October — to prioritize constitutional reforms — the parliament won’t see elections until sometime before mid-2021.

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister held a phone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, to “draw attention to the importance of providing assistance in alleviating the burden of external debt on the country's budget.” He pledged that Kyrgyzstan would protect Chinese businesses, a vow that has assumed particular salience since several Chinese companies came under threat during recent political unrest. 

Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, First Deputy Foreign Minister of Kyrgyzstan, and European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy held the 16th EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting through video-conference. They reaffirmed their commitment to work together for peace, security, universal human rights, democracy and sustainable development in full respect for international law. Participants stressed their determination to work together to promote resilience, prosperity and a green, sustainable and inclusive post-Covid recovery. Central Asian Ministers expressed strong appreciation for 'Team Europe' solidarity package worth EUR 134 million delivered to the region to meet the immediate needs of healthcare systems and address longer-term socio-economic challenges. EU and Central Asian Foreign Ministers emphasized the relevance of priorities set out in the EU Strategy on Central Asia adopted in 2019 in current context and for future development of the region.

Tajikistan has become a strategic battleground for influence between Russia and China. China sees the country as a critical link in its overland Belt and Road Initiative, while Putin wishes to maintain Russia’s post-Soviet sphere of influence. The scale of this year’s Russia-Tajik military exercise may serve as a warning to China, declaring that the country’s future rests with Moscow. China can be expected to contest Russia’s influence by holding their own Sino-Tajik joint exercises or by further developing the Chinese-led “Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism in Counter Terrorism.” Russia-Tajik military exercise involved 3,000 Russian personnel and 550 pieces of military hardware and equipment, a nearly four-fold increase from previous years’ exercises. Under supervision from Russia’s Central Military District, the exercises were set against a backdrop of rising instability in Central Asia. The 201st military base, located in Dushanbe and Bokhtar, is Russia’s largest outside of its borders.

Rustam Emomali, the son and widely presumed successor to Tajikistan’s incumbent president, made his maiden official visit to Russia in his capacity as speaker of the Senate. This visit came in wake of rigid coronavirus-related restrictions for people from Tajikistan to Russia, despite easing entry rules for those arriving from elsewhere in Central Asia. This is matter of acute concern for Tajikistan as its economy relies heavily on remittances. While in Moscow, Emomali, met his counterpart, Federation Council Speaker, Deputy Prime Minister, Mayor of Moscow and other officials.

Russia’s Central Bank has said that remittances from Russia to Tajikistan in the first half of 2020 decreased by almost 40% compared with the same period in 2019. The regulator said that the money transfers amounted to US$681 million, a drop of US$430 million. Emomali appealed for Russian government to grant an amnesty to Tajik citizens unable to regularize their documents. Emomali spoke at all his meetings about the need to improve Russia language-education in Tajikistan and improve the status of fellow Tajiks working and living in Russia. This visit underscored the depth of Tajikistan’s economic reliance on Russia.

During the U.S.-Uzbekistan Annual Bilateral Consultations in Washington, the U.S. reiterated “strong support for Uzbekistan’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” U.S. assistance to Uzbekistan in what the State Department called a “new era of strategic partnership” amounted to nearly US$100 million in 2019, ten times what it was in 2016. The US intends to provide over $9 million in assistance to combat transnational organized crime and promote rule-of-law and anti-corruption initiatives.

In near-term future, northern Afghanistan will remain susceptible to militants from multiple countries as well as Taliban and Islamic State and potentially al-Qaeda. This region will hence be perceived as being capable of contributing to destabilization of Central Asia, including Fergana Valley.

Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, US interlocutor on Afghanistan said that US will soon announce a regional investment fund and high-level meeting of representatives from United States, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to discuss connectivity, trade and development initiatives. This message followed his meeting with Uzbekistan's Foreign Minister in Washington.

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) held the tenth annual Central Asia Trade Forum, an international event promoting regional trade and connectivity across Central Asia and beyond. This five-day virtual event included 100 speakers and 4000 registered participants representing 39 countries including USA, Afghanistan, Georgia, Germany, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, UAE, UK, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, among others. The theme Central Asia – Growth and Prosperity explored new trends and market reactions in Central Asia during the post COVID-19 economic recovery.

During the 13th Korea-Central Asia Cooperation Forum, a dialogue platform launched in 2007 to strengthen cooperation in economic, cultural and educational and other areas, Foreign Minister of ROK said that "Peace and prosperity on the Korean Peninsula is also a journey toward peace and shared prosperity on the entire Eurasian continent.’’ She asked for Central Asian countries' continued support and cooperation. Participating countries discussed cooperation in the area of improving healthcare, distance education, standardization, environment, combating the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as ways to overcome its negative consequences for the regional economy, and to facilitate foreign economic activity.

Kazakhstan is considering the purchase of Turkish Bayraktar Tactical Block 2 (TB2) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over Chinese drones after Turkey-made aircraft proved capable in several fields, especially during Azerbaijan's operations in the Caucasus.

Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov ordered a 20-foot gold statue of his favorite dog erected on a busy roundabout in capital Ashgabat. Most people commented on this derisively but some said that the statue contributes to preserving Turkmenistan’s ecological balance.

General Nadeem Raza, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee of Pakistan called on President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon during his official visit to Tajikistan. Both sides deliberated upon ‘’various areas of mutual interest & bilateral cooperation including security, counter-terrorism and the prevailing regional environment particularly with reference to Afghanistan.’’

Economic Developments

Since announcement of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China has overtaken Russia to become the largest investor in Central Asian economies, attracted by the region’s mineral deposits and hydrocarbons, economic opportunities for Chinese products and desire to ensure stability and security in its western Xinjiang region. Reflecting these motivations, Chinese investment has mainly been in infrastructure and extractive industries, which has brought an array of negative environmental impacts and social tensions to the region.

Kyrgyzstan will benefit from construction of a railroad link connecting China and Uzbekistan which will transit Chinese goods to Caspian ports and Europe. The project, however, would face resistance from Russia, which tries to maintain its influence in Central Asia. Talks about the construction of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan corridor have dragged on for decades. Finances have been a major problem. Kyrgyzstan’s politically unstable situation and poor economic condition, as well as Kyrgyz nationalistic sentiment against China will raise further obstacles to railway project and its funding. New corridor is about 300 kilometers shorter than Russia-Kazakhstan route, potentially making it the fastest route to Europe via improved ports infrastructure in Caspian and Black Seas.

IMF has stated that countries in Middle East and Central Asia face the daunting possibility that impact of coronavirus will linger for even longer than global financial crisis. Five years from now, countries in the region could be 12 percent below the GDP level suggested by pre-crisis trends. A return to pre-crisis trend could take more than a decade.

Kazakhstan and Russia reached an agreement on construction of a plant for production of a Russian vaccine against coronavirus.  

India-Central Asia Relations

Speaking at the 20th summit of the SCO Council of Heads of State, which was held virtually, Prime Minister Modi said India firmly believed in “regional peace, security and prosperity and raising voice against terrorism, smuggling of illegal weapons, drugs and money-laundering.” Prime Minister underlined India’s strong cultural and historical connect with SCO region and reiterated India’s firm commitment towards strengthening connectivity in the region with initiatives like International North-South Transport Corridor, Chabahar Port and Ashgabat Agreement. He spoke of India’s initiatives to hold first SCO exhibition on Shared Buddhist Heritage to be organised by National Museum of India, the SCO Food Festival in India in 2021 and translation of 10 regional language literary works into Russian and Chinese. PM Modi said that as the country which is the biggest vaccine producer in the world, India will use its vaccine manufacturing and distribution capacity to help all humanity fight this crisis. India had sent 75,000 MT of wheat to Afghanistan with an aim to provide food security to the country during COVID-19 pandemic. The Afghan President Ashraf Ghani thanked India at the SCO Summit for its aid amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Ghani said that ‘’India provided over one hundred thousand tons of wheat at a time when markets were jittery, through the Chabahar corridor and kept the air corridor open."

Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu chaired the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation's (SCO) council of heads of government summit hosted for the first time by India. The virtual summit focused on further strengthening trade, economic and cultural cooperation among eight member-nations of the influential grouping. In course of India's chairmanship, it particularly focused on creating three new pillars of cooperation: startups and innovation, science and technology, and traditional medicine. India offered to create and chair a new special working group on start-ups and innovation and to set up an expert working group on cooperation in traditional medicine.

India and Kazakhstan held the seventh round of Foreign Office Consultations (FoC) via digital video-conference and reviewed the entire gamut of bilateral cooperation within the framework of their Strategic Partnership. Indian side was led by Vikas Swarup, Secretary (West) and Kazakh side by Shakhrat Nuryshev, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan. The consultations covered political, economic and commercial, energy, defence, space, consular and cultural matters. They also shared views and experiences on combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The two sides also exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual interest and agreed to enhance cooperation in the multilateral arena, including during the forthcoming stint of India in the UN Security Council for the period 2021-22. As announced by the External Affairs Minister during the recent India-Central Asia Dialogue, an MoU on "Indian Grant Assistance for Implementation of High Impact Community Development Projects in Kazakhstan" was signed between both sides coinciding with the FoC.

14th round of Foreign Office Consultations between India and Uzbekistan was held through virtual mode with Indian side led by Vikas Swarup, Secretary (West), MEA and Uzbek side headed by Farhod Arziev, First Deputy Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan. Both sides reviewed cooperation in diverse areas including political, economic, defence, development partnership, capacity building, consular matters and cultural cooperation. Special emphasis was laid on timely implementation of projects in Uzbekistan being covered under the Indian Line of Credit. The two sides exchanged views on regional and international issues of mutual interest and agreed to enhance cooperation in UN and multilateral arena. Both sides also discussed challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic and shared views on ways to mitigate its impact. They welcomed opening of branches of Amity and Sharda universities in Uzbekistan, confirmed their mutual interest in expanding ties in this area by opening branches of other universities and joint departments in specialized higher educational institutions of Uzbekistan. Agreement was reached on further deepening cultural dialogue, including through holding of Days of Culture in both countries.

A two-day India-Kazakhstan Defense Cooperation Expo was held in virtual format. Several Indian companies are already in talks with Kazakh defense industry for co-production and co-development. India’s export of military ware globally marked a five-fold increase in 2020. With India’s strengths in software coupled with strengths in hardware manufacturing, India could be one of the major electronics manufacturing hubs in the world. Kazakhstan expressed its interest in cooperation in developing robotized complex and land surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. Both the countries also agreed to embark on a joint-training & exercises and military-technical cooperation in future. A total of 246 officers from Kazakh armed forces have been trained in India till date under defense program.

Indian Air Force carried out a 19-hour special mission to rescue 50 Covid positive Indian scientists from Central Asia

Indian Institute of Management Bangalore has retained the top spot among the best B-schools in Central Asia in the Eduniversal rankings 2020. Eduniversal is a global ranking and rating agency specializing in higher education. 

Ambassador of Tajikistan to India Lukmon Bobokalonzoda presented credentials to President of India via videoconference.

(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.