Central Asia Digest | June 2022


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

Political Developments

The new constitution of Kazakhstan proposes to exclude provisions on the status of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev. According to members of the constitutional working group, the historical role of the first president is ‘’well known’’ and does not require a separate provision in the constitution.

The present constitution accords considerable space to Nazarbayev and his role as founder of an independent Kazakhstan and, moreover, as Elbasy, or leader of the nation, a bespoke honorific devised for him as part of his cult of personality. That role as Elbasy was made a part of the constitution in 2017.

These provisions granted Nazarbayev perks more than might have otherwise been accorded to a retired head of state, such as an enhanced pension and a security detail. As Elbasy, Nazarbayev was granted lifetime immunity from prosecution, as were all his close relatives. It became an offense, punishable by a prison sentence, to cast aspersions on his honor and dignity.

All these provisions are poised to disappear. An earlier proposed update of the constitution had envisioned a partial downgrade for Nazarbayev, but the idea was to retain references to his historic role as Kazakhstan’s founder. In the end, it has been decided that that formulation should also be dropped. All these moves to sideline Nazarbayev are the consequences of the nationwide political unrest and riots that broke out in early January.

Until then, the 81-year-old had retained many behind-the-scenes powers and was understood to hold considerable sway over his handpicked successor, Tokayev. So much so that much of the rage seen on the streets at the start of the year was directed at his person specifically, even though he was not formally in charge of the country. Resentment has festered for many years over perceptions that Nazarbayev ran his regime in the interests of cronies, many of them close relatives, leaving the rest of the population in relative economic hardship.

Nazarbayev’s position was further compromised by insistent speculation around the idea that some of the worst violence had been engineered by members of his own family trying to carve out more power for themselves.

The above constitutional amendments will be put to vote in a national referendum on 5th June. Tokayev said that this will demonstrate Kazakhstan’s strong commitment to democratic principles. Some major amendments which will be put to vote include limiting presidential powers, giving more power to the Parliament, and making it more representative of the country’s 19 million population through replacement of the proportional system of elections with a mixed majority-proportional one, as well as significant decentralization of power with more competences given to regional and local authorities, consolidation of human rights protection mechanisms, including the Ombudsperson’s office, and the establishment of the Constitutional Court. According to the proposed reform, 70% of the Mazhilis will be elected through the party lists and 30% of the seats will be filled through single vote constituencies. Up to now, it’s a 100% party list proportional system.

Human rights activists and political observers are however wary of these changes. They welcome the provisions intended to bolster human rights, but question the grand predictions about an imminent radical transition to democratic values. They see the reforms as more of a tactical political move than a commitment to root-and-branch transformation.

Kairat Satybaldy, the nephew of First President Nursultan Nazarbayev was arrested on charges of embezzlement and abuse of power. He controlled a huge stake in Kazakhstan's communications monopoly, Kazakhtelecom, which has been seized by the government. This announcement came as President Tokayev continues to broaden his power following the removal of Nazarbaev and his clan from the tightly controlled country's political scene following the unprecedented anti-government protests in January. Just days after the protests, Nazarbaev's two sons-in-law, Kairat Sharipbaev and Dimash Dosanov, were pushed out of top jobs at two major state companies, Kazakh Gaz and KazTransOil, respectively. Sharipbaev is married to Nazarbaev's eldest daughter Dariga. Dosanov is the husband of Nazarbaev's youngest daughter, Alia. The National Chamber of Entrepreneurs, Atameken, announced the resignation of its chairman, Timur Kulibaev, who is also Nazarbaev's son-in-law. In late February, Dariga Nazarbaeva said that she was giving up her parliamentary seat. Tokayev has said publicly he wants Nazarbaev's associates to share their wealth with the public by making regular donations to a new charity foundation.

According to a detailed Survey conducted by the Central Asia Barometer, respondents in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have shown an increasingly negative view of China from 2017 to 2021. Kyrgyzstan has remained more consistently negative, with the number of those who indicated that they had a “very unfavorable” opinion of the nation steadily rising with each subsequent survey wave.  While the sentiment of Kazakhstanis, Uzbekistanis, and Kyrgyzstanis toward China has followed a downward trend, Chinese investments have increased dramatically. A possible key explanation for this trend can be found in the Kazakhstani response to human rights violations in the Chinese border region of Xinjiang adjoining Kazakhstan. The treatment of ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and Kyrgyz peoples in Xinjiang has sparked huge protests, particularly in Kazakhstan’s largest cities, Almaty and Nur-Sultan. Hundreds gathered in these cities in addition to Oral, Shymkent, and Aktobe to protest creeping Chinese influence and the mass incarceration of indigenous Turkic-speaking communities in Xinjiang. For many Kazakhs with family members detained in Xinjiang, the specter of Kazakhstan boosting economic ties and relations with China is unacceptable. Many Kazakhs do not want to be aligned with China and view President Tokayev and his government as being complicit in the persecution of Turkic groups due to Kazakhstan’s massive economic dependence on Beijing.

The growing hostility of many Central Asia citizens toward Beijing could impact Beijing’s credibility in the region. This presents attractive opportunities for other powers to capitalize upon this growing apathy and establish themselves within the region as a viable alternative to China.

Russia has remained the region’s primary security guarantor. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which revealed Moscow’s military shortcomings, presents a new opportunity for Central Asian regionalism. Most Central Asian countries consider the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and have reduced cooperation with Moscow in the conflict. Unlike the Afghanistan occupation in the late 1970s, when Moscow was able to mobilize support from most of the Warsaw Pact countries, the CSTO members have refused to endorse Moscow’s stance in the current conflict. Given the presence of Russian speaking peoples in Central Asia and irredentist policy in Moscow, a Russian victory in Ukraine could present a real threat to these countries’ sovereignty. The shortcomings of Russian military power in Ukraine provide a new opportunity for Central Asians to rethink regionalism and collaboration to ensure a safe and free Central Asia.

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has given Uzbekistan second thoughts. Uzbek officials have in recent weeks condemned the war and expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As a result, Uzbekistan appears to have reversed its ambition to join the EEU and forge closer ties to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the region’s Russian-led military alliance.

The way Central Asia thinks about Russia has changed since the Russia-Ukraine conflict started. While before, Russia was seen as a source of stability, its position is now perceived as a weakness for regional stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Central Asian governments could seek to minimize the influence of Russia, which will be difficult to do, but they have no choice since it has become an unpredictable power.

Kazakh President Tokayev paid an official visit to Kyrgyzstan on May 26, 2022. The two Presidents held one-to-one and extended meetings in Bishkek on issues of development of the Kazakh-Kyrgyz strategic partnership focusing on further strengthening political dialogue, and enhancing trade and economic, investment, and cultural cooperation. On May 27, Tokayev took part in a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council which took place via videoconference.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu led a delegation to Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan from May 23-27 to strengthen U.S. relations with the region and advance collaborative efforts to create a more connected, prosperous, and secure Central Asia. The delegation comprised senior representative from the National Security Council, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, U.S. Agency for International Development Deputy Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Asia, and the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the delegation met senior Kyrgyz officials, civil society, and economic leaders to find ways in which the United States can better support shared values, local culture, and economic development.  In Uzbekistan, the delegation met Uzbek government officials, business leaders, and civil society to discuss strengthening our economic partnership, shared values, and U.S. support for women’s empowerment. The delegation then travelled to Tajikistan to meet with senior officials and participate in U.S.-Tajikistan Annual Bilateral Consultations to promote economic ties and strengthen security cooperation.  Assistant Secretary Lu met with civil society to discuss humanitarian assistance and other support for Afghan refugees, human rights, and joint initiatives on food security and the role of women in society. In Kazakhstan, the delegation met with senior Kazakhstani officials and civil society leaders to discuss Kazakhstan’s reform agenda, efforts to strengthen human rights protections, and advance women’s empowerment.

Kazakhstan is being wooed by Turkish investment and military hardware. Although Kazakhstan’s economy is and will likely remain heavily linked to Russia, at least in the short term, Ankara is gradually developing close ties with Nur-Sultan in a bid to strengthen its own position in the region. In early May, President Tokayev visited his Turkish counterpart Erdogan, in Ankara, where the two leaders agreed to co-produce Turkey’s Anka drone, and to hold joint drills near Turkey’s coastal city of Izmir this spring.

Kazakhstan is planning significant increases to its military budget, and some experts point to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the impetus. For instance, there are fears that Moscow may have territorial claims in northern Kazakhstan, where ethnic Russians make up the majority of the population. Besides defense, Turkey and Kazakhstan are strengthening economic cooperation. Presidents Erdogan and Tokayev signed more than a dozen agreements during their meeting in areas such as information technology, culture, agriculture and education. Ankara and Nur-Sultan are even said to be developing transport ties to bypass Russia via the Trans-Caspian international transport route, which travels through China, Kazakhstan, the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Turkey, and onward to Europe. Meanwhile, total trade volume between Turkey and Kazakhstan now exceeds $5.3 billion annually. Erdogan has pledged to push that to $10 billion. While this is still less than half of the $25.5 billion in trade that Kazakhstan does with Russia, the potential for trade with Turkey is exponential.

Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tileuberdi held bilateral talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington DC. Tileuberdi emphasized that in line with the multi-vector foreign policy, Kazakhstan will continue to strengthen cooperation with the United States. Secretary Blinken stressed that the United States is committed to ‘’the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan." Blinken welcomed the democratic reforms in Kazakhstan and underlined Washington, DC's readiness to assist in the practical implementation of political and economic reforms. Blinken said— “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” would have “profound impacts” in Central Asia in the areas of food, energy, trade, etc. Blinken confirmed the US commitment to minimize the impact on allies and partners, including Kazakhstan, from the sanctions imposed on Russia. This assurance virtually rules out secondary sanctions and will come as a great relief to Kazakhstan. While Washington’s engagement with the Central Asian region used to be episodic in the past, in a marked departure, the Biden Administration has shown the determination to pay sustained attention. This coincides with the sharp deterioration of US-Russia relations during the past year. The state department readout stated pointedly that “Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Tileuberdi plan to stay in close contact.”

Minister Tileuberdi held talks with US Deputy Secretary of Energy and noted that Kazakhstan is a reliable partner of the United States both in the energy sector and in nuclear non-proliferation. With the increasing importance of clean energy sources and zero-emission economies, Kazakhstan is also aligning its economic priorities with the climate agenda by focusing on decarbonizing the economy and introducing low-carbon technologies.

During the visit, Minister Tileuberdi also met with the heads of "think tanks" - the president of "Center for Strategic and International Studies" John Hamre and the chairman of the "Central Asia Caucasus Institute" Frederick Starr.

UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues has warned that many Pamiris in eastern Tajikistan are living in fear of a return to the violent conflict of the 1992-1997 Tajik civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands. He urged Tajikistan to end its deadly crackdown against the Pamiri minority in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) saying that the use of counter-terrorism operations to quell protests could fuel even wider and more violent trouble.

The Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK) claimed to have launched rockets at Uzbekistan from a border town in northern Afghanistan. Uzbek and Afghan officials denied it, but there is evidence that a failed attack did happen. Meanwhile, IS-K has been making threats on social media against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. IS claimed it fired a number of rockets from Afghanistan into the territory of neighbouring Tajikistan. In a statement, Tajikistan said that “bullets, not rockets”, were fired “accidentally” into Tajik territory during a firefight on the Afghan side of the border between Taliban forces and IS militants.

International NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) has stated that Kazakhstan has failed to properly investigate the deaths of over 200 people in protests and riots in January 2022. Kazakh security forces detained several injured protesters who were receiving hospital treatment and are accused of torturing them. HRW has said that despite many announcements by Kazakhstan in the last four months that they are investigating the January events, survivors and their families tell a different story. Also criminal investigations into killings have not been transparent and timely while investigations into torture and other ill-treatment allegations have been delayed with complaints passed from one state body to another and no suspects identified. The authorities have not published the official list of those who died, except the 19 security officials. Local human rights defenders say that numbers of those killed are higher than the official figures. Kazakh President Tokayev said in a speech on March 16 that based on preliminary results of investigation, the January events were an “attempted coup,” with some officials taking part. Tokayev said that “terrorists” had killed civilians, without providing substantive evidence.

Uzbekistan has emerged as a key interlocutor with the Taliban, engaging with it across a range of issues while insisting that it will not formally recognize the interim government in Afghanistan before the world community does. That nuanced position has allowed it to begin exploring opportunities for economic cooperation with Kabul without alienating the United States and other Western powers that have sought to isolate Afghanistan with asset seizures and other sanctions. Uzbekistan sees the Taliban "as a reality that must be accepted." Uzbekistan seeks a peaceful and stable neighbor with whom it "shares a border, deep history and culture." Senior Uzbek officials have said that if they don’t engage with the Taliban, "there would be more conflict, another civil war, more blood, poverty, suffering, threats to the neighbors and the international community." Uzbekistan sees a "common future with immense common interests, no matter who is in power there." Uzbekistan is however committed to moving ahead with formal recognition only in concert with the international community.

European External Action Service (EEAS) arranged the 9th round of annual EU-Central Asia High-level Political and Security Dialogue, with the participation of the Deputy Foreign Ministers of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The meeting provided an opportunity for the EU to reiterate its strong commitment to the region, which has been confronted in the past two years to the severe repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, of the Taliban takeover in Kabul, and of Russia's military operations in Ukraine. The EU reaffirmed its willingness to support all efforts aiming to intensify regional cooperation in Central Asia.

Production line for the all-Iranian Ababil-2 UAV was inaugurated in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. This is a low radar signature and high operational speed UAV which makes it difficult to detect. Similar models have been operational in Palestine, where it is called 'Jenin,' in Yemen where it is called 'Samad,' and in Lebanon, where it is called "Hassan" and used by the Hizballah resistance.

In Turkmenistan, women are no longer allowed to wear "tight-fitting" clothes, dye their hair, or use beauty accessories such as false nails or eyelashes. In a new, Taliban-style ban, traffic police in Turkmenistan also now prohibit male drivers of private vehicles from picking up women unless they are related. Females are also banned from sitting in the front seat next to the driver. Still further bans have been made on women having cosmetic surgery, such as breast enhancement, lip fillers, or even eyebrow microblading, which is popular with many young women in Turkmenistan. The women were told to remove their beauty accessories and pay a fine of about $140 which is half of a monthly salary for the average Turkmen. Dozens of women have reportedly lost their jobs in recent weeks for allegedly having had breast implants or lip fillers. These informal restrictions in the country came into force in May -- shortly after new President Serdar Berdymukhammedov, the son of former President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, took office in a March 12 election in which he replaced his father. Authorities in Turkmenistan have always encouraged women to wear traditional clothes, shunning both Western-style outfits and the Islamic hijab. The new ban takes the restrictions a step further, outlawing jeans and any tightly fitting clothes.

Economic Developments

Kazakhstan expects to produce 90-93 million tons of oil next year, up from 87.5 million tons this year, depending on when expansion projects at the giant Tengiz field are completed as they may be slightly delayed. Kazakhstan believes that western sanctions against Russia will have no effect on transhipment of Kazakh crude to Europe. About 80 percent of Kazakh oil exports are piped through the Caspian Pipeline Consortium, with additional volumes going through another Russian pipeline. Much smaller quantities are shipped to China.

Kazakhstan's GDP growth is expected to slow down to 3-4% (previously:5.3%) this year, despite the favorable situation in the oil market and the projected growth in production.

Uzbekistan has restarted gas exports to China after halting them at the beginning of this year to meet domestic demand. Uzbekistan exported $132.8 million worth of gas to China in the first four months of this year. Turkmenistan was China’s largest supplier of gas by pipeline in the period January-April, with $2.87 billion worth of gas. Kazakhstan sent $270.6 million worth.

India-Central Asia Relations

Minister of State for External Affairs V Muraleedharan interacted with Labor, Immigration and Employment Minister of Tajikistan Shirin Amonzoda in New York and discussed the possibility of increasing engagement in different sectors like IT and skill development, tourism, and education.

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.