Central Asia Digest | March 2020

Political Developments

Tajikistan’s parliamentary election, held on March 1, delivered the expected victory to President Emomali Rahmon’s party and a small array of pro-government outfits. The Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan, the only opposition party left in the country following the 2015 banning of the Islamic Renaissance Party, failed to meet the threshold to gain a single seat. Tajikistan’s Central Election Commission announced that the People’s Democratic Party — Rahmon’s party — captured 50.4% of votes, securing 47 seats in the 63-seat Assembly of Representatives. Six other parties aligned with the government also won seats. Runner-up in terms of votes cast was Party of Economic Reforms, with 16.61%; Agrarian Party with 16.5%; Socialist Party with 5.15%, Democratic Party of Tajikistan with 5.1%, and Communist Party, which got only 3.1% of the vote, but secured a seat in a single-mandate district. Tajik election officials claim that 4 million votes were cast, 86% of the eligible voting population. The Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan was the only party to fail to meet the 5% national threshold (and none of its five candidates won a single-seat constituency like the communists did). The vote marked Tajikistan's first parliamentary elections since the Supreme Court outlawed the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT) as a terrorist organization in 2015. Tajikistan has long been accused of rigging its elections and putting political and financial pressure on opposition parties to secure the PDPT's majority in parliament and to keep opponents at bay. Tajik parliament is seen as a rubber-stamp body, while real power and all major decision-making rests with President Rahmon, who has been in power since 1992. There is considerable speculation that Rustam, President Rahmon’s son, is being primed to eventually take over from his father although there is no clarity when his turn will come.


Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev and Deputy Chairman of Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev reviewed the current state and prospects of a comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries. The leaders paid special attention to ensuring international and regional security.


Russia reaffirmed its intent to help its former Soviet allies in Central Asia to safeguard their borders amid presence of militants from the Islamic State (IS) rebel group in northern Afghan provinces bordering Tajikistan and other Central Asian states. Following a meeting with his Tajikistan counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia will continue to assist Tajikistan and its neighbors secure their borders with Afghanistan. Russia has an interest in this as Moscow is concerned that terror threats emanating from Afghanistan can end up on Russia’s doorsteps. Russia provides assistance to Tajikistan in equipping its armed forces and strengthening the borders. In addition, Russia routinely conducts counter-terrorism drills in Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries. Terrorism in Central Asian states remains rare, despite the high numbers of citizens who have travelled to become foreign fighters. An estimated 1,300 to 2,000 Tajiks have reportedly travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State and other jihadi groups.


Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev blamed "criminal groups" for the deadly ethnic clashes in the southern region of Zhambyl that claimed 11 lives on February 7-8. During a visit to the region, Tokayev said the clashes were caused by one group trying to take over another group's cross-border smuggling business. Tokayev called on law enforcement to punish perpetrators "regardless of their ethnicity." More than 30 houses, 17 commercial buildings, and 47 vehicles were destroyed or damaged during the violence. More than 23,000 people, mostly Dungans, fled villages where the violence erupted. Many of them ended up in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Majority of Dungans returned to Kazakhstan several days later. Many members of Dungan community appear keen to leave Kazakhstan. Their preferred destination seems to be Russia's Krasnodar, Saratov and Volgograd regions, which have good farmland and many empty villages.


Turkmenistan published a draft bill on constitutional amendments that offers a possible succession road map for leadership in the country. The bill formalized turning the single chamber of nation's parliament into a two-chamber institution and putting the head of the upper house as second-in-line for the presidency. The move comes amid speculation about Berdymukhammedov's alleged bad health and his efforts to groom his 38-year-old son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, as his successor.  Serdar is currently a lawmaker who has taken on more of a public profile in recent months. Last year, Berdymukhammedov disappeared from public view for several weeks, leading to rumors that he had died or had slipped into a coma during hospital treatment. Berdimuhamedov recently appointed his son as minister of industry and construction. Just before that, it was revealed that Turkmenistan was planning to import US$1.47bn worth of equipment and materials to build a new city from scratch with Serdar set to oversee its construction. Serdar, who previously held the position of a provincial governor, also headed a parliamentary committee on legal affairs in 2017-2018 along with a deputy foreign minister post he was assigned to in March 2018.


On 1 March, Agreement on Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation between Kazakhstan and European Union entered into force. The agreement covers 29 specific areas in fields of international and regional security, trade, investment, facilitating visa procedures, infrastructure development, innovation etc. The agreement marks a qualitatively new stage in EU-Kazakhstan relations.


Top Chinese official Yang Jiechi said that China and Central Asian countries have reaffirmed deepening cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative. Yang said the leaders of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan all voiced further increasing economic connectivity and bringing benefits to people in each country. Yang, member of Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China made these comments after his visit to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.


Tajikistan is a hotbed for radical Islamic groups that operate in the country’s rugged terrain. Tajikistan detained 113 people who were suspected of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical terrorist group that was banned by Tajik government in 2006. They were members of the clergy, teachers, and employers of various universities. The group’s objective is to forcibly overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state. The mass arrests took place before the parliamentary elections in Tajikistan on March 1. Presidential elections are due later this year. Political observers suggest that the government is trying to put pressure on religious leaders who deviate from official line regarding Islamic religious practices.


Police in Kazakhstan arrested dozens of people in Almaty after an activist Dulat Agadil's death in jail triggered diplomatic condemnation and calls for anti-government rallies. Policemen cordoned off the city's main square and about 40 people were detained. Agadil died in a jail cell, a day after police arrested him on charges of contempt of court and insulting a judge. Videos posted on Facebook showed how Agadil, a 43-year-old father of six, was apprehended by a squad of plainclothes police at his family home. He was led to an unmarked vehicle, which transported him to a temporary detention facility in Nur-Sultan.  This is where he died, from heart failure, according to a statement by Nur-Sultan police. The United States and United Kingdom raised concern over his death and called for a "thorough" investigation. The authorities - including President Tokayev - said his death was caused by acute cardiovascular failure, ruling out any foul play. Police claimed that an autopsy showed that he was drunk. This was received with disgust by his friends who said he neither smoked nor drank. This incident is dissipating residual hopes in some quarters that Nazarbayev’s successor Tokayev might oversee a softening of authoritarian rule. Agadil was a sympathizer of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement headed by Europe-based fugitive and regime opponent Mukhtar Ablyazov.


A Kazakh court granted early release to former state nuclear company chief executive Mukhtar Dzhakishev, whose conviction on corruption charges in 2010 was criticized by many as politically motivated. The court ruled that Dzhakishev will not be allowed to leave the country and will live under parole-like restrictions until his 14-year term is over. He has served about 11 years of his sentence and has complained of health issues. Dzhakishev's supporters and international human rights organizations have urged Kazakh authorities to release him since his arrest in 2009. Several international organisations said that his rights to a fair and public trial, to have contact with his lawyers, and to be treated humanely had been violated.


As of early March, there were no confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, dubbed COVID-19, in Central Asia. The countries of the region have taken various steps to prevent the spread of the virus, with Tajikistan banning citizens of 35 countries from entry and Uzbekistan closing its border with Afghanistan. Kazakhstan closed its Caspian Sea ports of Aktau and Kuryk to ships carrying passengers from Iran and Azerbaijan to prevent the spread of coronavirus. All countries of Central Asia closed their borders and put restrictions on flights and movement of passengers and cargo between China and their countries in end-January, 2020 to check the spread of coronavirus. This is likely to have a significant adverse impact on their economies if the crisis in China extends beyond the first quarter of 2020.

Economic Developments

Kazakh natural gas exporter Kaztrans gas is discussing further gas supplies with PetroChina after the latter issued a force majeure notice citing the coronavirus outbreak. Kaztrans gas said gas exports to China continued "in the agreed volumes" for now. Kazakhstan planned to ship 10 billion cubic metres (bcm) of its own gas to China this year, in addition to transhipping even larger volumes from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. PetroChina has suspended some natural gas imports, including liquefied natural gas shipments and gas imported via pipelines, as a seasonal plunge in demand added to impact on consumption from the coronavirus outbreak.


Uzbekistan will become an observer of Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union before deciding on whether it joins it or not. The bloc aims to ensure free flow of goods and capital within its borders, although some members have criticized it for allowing too many exceptions to free trade.


Saudi Arabia’s ACWA power will invest up to US$1.1bn to build a wind farm of 1GW capacity in Uzbekistan. This is part of a wider strategic partnership with Uzbekistan that will also see ACWA build and operate a 1.5GW combined-cycle gas plant there. This agreement would propel fossil-reliant Uzbekistan into the wind power big league. A 1GW development would be by far the biggest in the region and rival the largest onshore wind projects in Europe.


An international conference titled “TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) - a gas pipeline of peace and cooperation” took place in Dubai as part of the oil and gas road show of Turkmenistan. About 100 companies from more than 40 countries attended the forum. Information was provided on progress in construction of TAPI gas pipeline and its impact on socio-economic development of the region. On side-lines of the conference, negotiations were held between the Turkmen fuel and energy complex and interested foreign companies. Construction of Turkmen section of TAPI pipeline was launched in December 2015. Construction of Afghan section was initiated in February 2018, while Pakistani section is to be launched in 2020.


China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline has delivered more than 300 bcm of natural gas to China since pipeline was put into operation. Pipeline runs from border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, passes through Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and links up with China's West-to-East gas pipeline in Khorgos of Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. With a total length of 1,833 km and a designed annual gas transmission capacity of 60 bcm per year, the pipeline has been operating since it was put into operation in December 2009. Natural gas imports via the pipeline account for more than 15% of China's total consumption.


A train loaded with 660 tonnes of cargo left north China's Hebei Province, and headed for Uzbekistan marking the first cargo train between the region and Central Asia since the novel coronavirus outbreak. The 42 containers of goods included auto parts, mechanical equipment, building materials and other commodities valued around 30 million yuan (about US$4.3 million). Resumption of freight trains provided strong support for commencement of production for trade enterprises in the province. Operations of cargo trains between Chinese cities and countries along the Belt and Road appear to be gradually resuming.


Following the first successful TIR pilot operation from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Tajikistan via Afghanistan, the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran (KTAI) corridor is now open for Transports Internationaux Routiers (International Road Transport) (TIR) transports. The corridor offers the shortest possible route between Iran and Kyrgyzstan with TIR saving up to five days on usual transit time. The new trade route opens up the region to trade and development and will enable freight forwarders and transport operators to benefit from significant cost and time savings when transporting goods.


Kazakhstan is working on measures to cut costs with oil prices nearing US$40 per barrel following the collapse of international oil talks in Vienna. Oil slid to its biggest daily loss in more than 11 years after Russia balked at Opec’s proposed steep production cuts to stabilise prices hit by economic fallout from the coronavirus to which Opec responded by removing limits on its own production. Brent futures had their biggest daily percentage decline since December 2008, falling by US$4.72, or 9.4%, to settle at US$45.27 a barrel. It was Brent’s lowest closing price since June 2017. Kazakh Petroleum Minister said that they had budgeted oil price at US$50-55 (per barrel). If it falls to US$40 and below, the government would have to optimise costs on which they were already working.

India-Central Asia Relations 

An international scientific, research and practical conference was held in Samarkand on the initiative of the Silk Road International Tourism University (SRITU), Uzbekistan. During this conference, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between SRITU and Lovely Professional University of India. MoU will contribute to further development of cooperation in education as well as in tourism sector. Scope of collaboration includes joint research projects, students and faculty exchange programmes; organization/participation in joint conferences, workshops etc.


Farhod Arziev whose two-and-a-half year tenure as Uzbek Ambassador to India saw transformation in bilateral ties was appointed First Deputy Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan. Arziev had earlier served in Uzbekistan's UN missions in New York, Geneva as well as Deputy Ambassador in Berlin. His tenure witnessed opening of flights between Mumbai and Tashkent. Arziev's tenure was marked by two visits by Uzbek President resulting in elevation of ties to strategic partnership, opening of new vistas in partnership including Indian investments in SEZs and alignment of policies of Delhi and Tashkent.


The 9th Defence and Security Expert Working Group (EWG) meeting of SCO was held in Islamabad on 19-20 February 2020. This was the first meeting of the group under ‘SCO Defence & Security Cooperation Plan – 2020’ that envisages defence and security cooperation among member states particularly through training military personnel for increasing their capability and preparedness. The defence and security cooperation mechanism of SCO provides for extensive cooperation in multiple areas including counter-terrorism cooperation, functional exchanges and joint exercises. The meeting in Islamabad was attended by all members of SCO including India.


Indian security apprehended two Kyrgyz nationals carrying US$1.76 lakh at Delhi airport as they exhibited "suspicious behaviour." They were bound for Bishkek via Almaty.


(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.