Central Asia Digest | March 2021


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


Political Developments

Sadyr Japarov officially took over as the new Kyrgyz president on 28th January, 2021, becoming the sixth president of Kyrgyzstan. Japarov defeated his 16 opponents, receiving more than 79% of votes polled, second highest total in Kyrgyzstan’s history after Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s 89% in the 2005 presidential election. Some 81% of voters approved the referendum reverting to a presidential form of government. Less than 40% of eligible voters cast ballots on January 10.

Japarov said Kyrgyzstan will adhere to a multi-vector foreign policy. He stressed that enhancing cooperation and strengthening economic and cultural ties with strategic partners would be a priority of his foreign policy.

Given the overwhelming support that Japarov enjoys at the moment, it seems highly probable that the parliamentary election scheduled for May, 2021 will consolidate the presidential system as the dominant paradigm in Kyrgyz politics. Given that the January 10 referendum affirmed a change to a presidential form of government, the next step will be for the new authorities to present a draft presidential constitution for the electorate to approve in another referendum. This vote is likely to be hold in conjunction with the April 11 elections for local councils.

Japarov’s presidential campaign program was full of lofty goals and priorities. Buzzwords, such as fighting corruption and preserving national unity and stability, featured prominently, as did pledges to strengthen social welfare benefits and create jobs. With support of the parliament, he pushed through a law that grants economic amnesty for individuals with illegally obtained financial assets in exchange for compensating the state some amount of their theft. Such shortcuts might give him some respite in the short-term. Addressing Kyrgyzstan’s many challenges, however, would require a well thought-through reform program. Yet, on matters of policy, Japarov’s program appears conspicuously hollow.

Main challenge for President Japarov will be to live up to the high expectations of the people. Given the magnitude of the problems facing the country, this is an unenviable task. If he fails to meet expectations, Kyrgyzstan could enter another cycle of authoritarian rule coupled with social resentment. In that case, sooner or later, a fourth major revolt would become a strong possibility.

Japarov laughed off jibes from critics that he was a “Kyrgyz Trump”, but said he would use his stronger mandate to launch a broad anti-corruption crackdown.

As soon as election results in Kyrgyzstan were officially announced, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev congratulated Japarov on his victory.  Tokayev noted that the outcome of the vote was an evidence of popular support for Japarov’s program of developing Kyrgyzstan.

First official foreign visit of President Japarov will be to Russia. He will have a meeting with President Putin to discuss a possible discount on gas prices.

While China is keen to expand its economic presence in Central Asia, the feeling is not necessarily shared by all countries in the region. A 2020 study by Central Asia Barometer suggests that Central Asians are becoming increasingly uneasy with Chinese presence in the region. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where tensions towards Chinese investors have been brewing for some time, only seven and nine per cent of populations respectively, expressed “strong support” for Chinese energy and infrastructure projects in their countries.

In Uzbekistan, which – unlike Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan – does not directly border China, locals have a somewhat more enthusiastic outlook towards Chinese investments, but even there, scepticism has been growing. While 65% of Uzbeks expressed “strong support” for Chinese investment in 2019, only 48% did in 2020.  Similarly, in 2019, 69% of Kazakhs answered that they were “very concerned” by Chinese land purchases in their country, which grew to 75% in 2020, while in Uzbekistan the number grew from 30 to 53%.

More recently, multilateral bodies such as Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) have become spaces for competition between China and Russia. The Belt and Road Initiative has led to intensified Chinese engagement with Central Asia, which has alarmed Moscow, which sees its sphere of control shrinking. Through the SCO, China is trying to write the rules of the game that will define future development in areas such as logistics and technology.

Kyrgyzstan hosts a Russian military base and counts Moscow as a strategic partner. But it has also sought to expand business and trade ties with China, which is vying with Russia to be the dominant geopolitical player in the region. Japarov admitted that China and Russia compete for assets and influence in Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, but said that rivalry “does not play a huge role”.

Elections to Kazakh Majilis (lower house of Parliament) as well as maslikhats (local government bodies) were held on January 10, 2021. These were the first elections held after implementation of a package of political reforms designed to further enhance the ‘’openness, fairness, and transparency’’ of Kazakhstan’s electoral system.

In an attempt to modernise the system and make politics attractive to women and youth under 29 years of age, the government stipulated a quota of 30% for this segment in the candidate lists of political parties.

As per results announced by Central Election Commission, three parties garnered enough votes to pass the required 7% threshold: The Nur Otan (Radiant Fatherland) Party-71.97%; the Ak Zhol (White Path) Democratic Party – 10.18%; and the People’s Party (formerly the Communist People’s Party) – 9.03%. This tripartite configuration is an almost exact replica of the 2012 and 2016 legislatures, indicating the emergence of a stable ideological spectrum in parliament. Western critics of the election focussed on the artificial and controlled nature of such ‘opposition’, arguing that ‘voters had no genuine political alternatives to choose from’. They also commented on the difficulties independent observers faced and the police crackdown on an election protest in Almaty.

The decisive victory of Nur Otan party did not come as a surprise as it has occupied a commanding position in the country’s political life since it was established by the first president of the country, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 1999. Nur Otan has the most organised and cohesive infrastructure in the country, with various internal committees, a youth wing, its own media resources, etc.

What is noteworthy is that Dariga Nazarbayeva, daughter of First President Nazarbayev, is included in the list at a prominent position. This will provide her an opportunity to rehabilitate herself in the political landscape of Kazakhstan. Nazarbayeva had replaced Tokayev as President of the Senate on March 20, 2019, when he took over as the interim President of the country after Nazarbayev suddenly tendered his resignation.

She was then seen to have been positioned by Nazarbayev to be next in succession to Tokayev when he relinquished his office. This assessment however received a rude shock when she was removed, without any explanation, from the position of President of Senate by Tokayev in May 2020 and also lost her parliament seat.

On 15th January, Kazakh President proposed to the newly elected parliament a third package of political reforms aimed at further modernising Kazakhstan’s political and human rights system to gradually democratize the country. The President announced lowering of the threshold for parties to win seats in parliament from 7% to 5%. Kazakhstan will also include a ‘vote of no confidence’ in future elections, giving the people a chance to express discontent with the whole system.

Kyrgyzstan’s former president Sooronbay Jeenbekov left the country as investigators considered opening a criminal probe into his role in a crackdown on protesters last year. Japarov, who was inaugurated on 28th January with Jeenbekov in attendance, had previously said that he didn’t see a reason to investigate his predecessor, despite a man dying on the night of October 5 after security services attempted to put down unrest related to the disputed vote on 4th October, 2020.

Kyrgyz journalist turned politician Myktybek Arstanbek -- who is known for promoting Islamic values on social media and in public statements -- insists he is not a religious figure. Arstanbek also pointed out that his newly established political party Noor (which means "light" in Arabic) has no religious agenda despite its plan to call for a "public discussion" on introducing Shari'a norms in Kyrgyzstan. Despite his reassurances, many Kyrgyz remain unconvinced as Arstanbek's statements continue to focus on religion and its role in society.

Religious believers in Tajikistan streamed back into mosques after the government ordered opening religious buildings amid official claims that there had been no new coronavirus cases in the country for three weeks.

A comprehensive tactical exercise involving about 3,000 servicemen of the 201st Russian military base was held in Tajikistan. The drills involved about 250 combat and special vehicles, such as T-72 tanks, upgraded BMP-2M infantry fighting vehicles, BTR-82A and BTR-80 armored personnel carriers, Grad and Uragan multiple launch rocket systems.

A human rights group claimed that two people who were granted asylum in Kazakhstan after fleeing repression of minority groups in China were assaulted after their arrival in the country. One of them is in a critical condition after a knife attack in Nur-Sultan.

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov's love for dog breed Alabai is a well-known fact. In 2020, he inaugurated a 15-meter long statue in the country's capital, Ashgabat. Not only that, he published a book and wrote a song about the dog breed. In 2019, he gifted a puppy to President Putin and in 2017 to the then PM, Dmitry Medvedev.

Economic Developments

In recent years South Korea has become one of the largest trading partners of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Despite their small economies, South Korean trade with Kazakhstan reached US$ 4.22 billion, and with Uzbekistan US$ 2.36 billion, ahead of several major economies. In terms of direct foreign investment from South Korea, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan beat out all countries in emerging Europe and exceeded US$ 7 billion in 2020 across these states.

Figures for 2020 show that the Kyrgyz economy declined by 8.6% due to spread of coronavirus and reduced remittances from migrant laborers abroad, particularly from Russia. The unrest of October 5-6, plus suspicion of many that organized criminal groups put Japarov into power will combine to make Kyrgyzstan toxic for foreign investors.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are launching a tourist corridor that will connect the main pilgrimage sites of the two countries. Authorities in the two countries plan to simplify the rules for crossing the border to attract tourist flow. A special program with a unified visa regime allows citizens to freely enter their neighbors’ territory. The purpose of the project is the joint development of the tourism industry traversing the two countries and connecting history-rich Turkistan with the historical sights of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan. The infrastructure plan, however, has implications beyond just physical connection between both countries, serving as another affirmation of strong relations and the two countries’ desire to work together. Activities and cooperation between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan go beyond economic projects, extending into a role as joint guarantors of regional stability. This was exemplified in a joint statement calling for stability and peace following the toppling of the government of ex-President Sooronbai Jeenbekov in Kyrgyzstan last October. Although the statement was made on behalf of Kyrgyzstan’s four Central Asian neighbors, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan were almost certainly the initiators. Similarly, as further fallout from the political situation resulted in a high debt crisis in Kyrgyzstan, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan pledged economic and humanitarian assistance to Kyrgyzstan.

The governments of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and the United States launched the Central Asia Investment Partnership under the umbrella of C5+1 format, in order to promote private-sector growth and strengthen regional economic cooperation. The partnership is “designed to raise at least $1 billion over the next five years to support private-sector growth” in order to advance private sector-led projects that “exemplify international standards for quality infrastructure and promote inclusive, transparent, and sustainable investments.”

Turkey’s Görkem Construction Co. and Al-Farabi Kazakh National University (KazNU) signed a long-term investment agreement to launch the construction of a science and technology center in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is planning to join the global tech revolution with the launch of this center similar to Silicon Valley in the US. Under the agreement, the center will include innovation, biomedical, and information technology (IT) clusters

According to a World Bank report, Kazakhstan’s economy is expected to grow modestly by 2.5% in 2021 and a little higher by 3.5% in 2022, but significant downside risks remain due to uneven worldwide economic recovery and higher debt-related risks on the global financial market. Experts have named 2020 as the most challenging year for Kazakhstan’s economy in the last two decades. The fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the economy harder than the crises in 2008 and 2015. The spread of the pandemic halted global activity in the second quarter of 2020 and depressed global demand and price of oil, which is Kazakhstan’s main export commodity. Projection of modest growth in 2021 is based on an improved global economic outlook, higher demand for exports, resumption of domestic economic activities, and higher disposable income. According to World Bank estimates, Kazakhstan’s poverty rate will increase to 12-14% in 2020 from a baseline of 6% in 2016.

Kazakhstan was placed at 94th position in the Corruption Diffusion Index for 2020 published by Transparency International. It climbed almost 20 places, while remaining in the range of countries most exposed to corruption, on a par with Brazil, Ethiopia, Peru and others.

A voluntary vaccination campaign against the coronavirus infection was launched on 1st February in Kazakhstan. It is expected that up to 6 million Kazakhs will be vaccinated by the yearend. WHO, with financial support from the European Union (EU), delivered over 8 tons of medical supplies to Kazakhstan to support the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kazakhstan reaffirmed its plans to transition to a Latin-based Kazakh alphabet. Some experts are calling the alphabet unity in the Turkic world as a strategic move. This transition would be one of the first steps in the economic, cultural, and political integration of the Turkic world. This move will affect Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmens, and will be an important path towards Turkish unity since the change in "alphabet difference creates a psychological barrier."

Kazakhstan exports of wheat, sunflower and flaxseed were delayed at the Chinese border for months due to COVID-19 restrictions. In November 2020, China implemented new import regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19. The new regulation has left Kazakhstan exports at the Dostyk-Alashankou railroad border crossing for months.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan have signed a roadmap for a multi-billion-dollar rail project that is designed to boost trade relations between Central and South Asia. This proposed 573km railway project will link Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent through the Afghan capital Kabul and Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar. In January, the three countries signed a request seeking a loan of US$ 4.8bn from world financial institutions for the project.

Afghanistan and Turkmenistan inaugurated three energy and connectivity projects. The projects launched include a fiber optic line for high speed internet, a railway track between the two countries, as well as a power transmission project.

India-Central Asia Relations

IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria met Lt Gen Safaralizoda Rahmonali, Chief of Air Force of the Republic of Tajikistan during Aero India 2021. The chiefs acknowledged strong bilateral ties and discussed enhancement of ongoing defence engagements.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between India and Uzbekistan for implementation and deployment of a pilot project under the International Solar Alliance (ISA). India is running the world’s largest clean energy programme with the country’ solar tariffs falling to a record low of ₹1.99 per unit.

To fast-pace the work on the crucial Chabahar port, India has supplied the much-awaited first shipment of two 140-ton mobile harbor cranes (MHC) with a total value of over US$ 25 million under a contract agreement for supply of 6 MHCs to Iran.  The consignment of cranes arrived from Italy.

Uzbek national airline Uzbekistan Airways began regular charter flights to India from February 7, initially operating the Tashkent-Delhi flight once a week. Since March 2020, the Uzbek authorities had suspended passenger flights with other countries due to COVID-19. Special flights were organized to carry foreign citizens and compatriots to their homeland. Since October 1, the borders were opened for the entry and exit of any type of transport, also allowing inbound tourism.

India and Uzbekistan are working on a bilateral investment treaty, which would serve to reassure Indian investors and enterprises to set up their operations in Uzbekistan. Both the countries have jointly agreed that bilateral trade needs to reach the figure of US$ 1 billion per year. Current volume of bilateral trade is about US$ 350 million which is much below the true potential. India and Uzbekistan are working upon a joint feasibility study which will pave the way for opening negotiations for a bilateral preferential trade agreement. In addition, India has also offered a US$ 1 billion concessional line of credit for implementing development projects in Uzbekistan in various sectors such as the building of roads, sewerage systems, use of IT equipment in education, etc.

India, Iran and Uzbekistan held their first trilateral talks to explore ways for joint use of Chabahar port for trade and enhancing regional connectivity. The trilateral meeting took place in the backdrop of India pitching for participation of Uzbekistan in the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) project. INSTC is a 7,200-km-long multi-modal transport project for moving freight among India, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe.

A part of the Kannada film Gaalipata 2 (English: Kite) will be shot in Kazakhstan. It is the first film from Karnataka to go overseas for shooting after the pandemic.

Shubhdarshini Tripathi, currently Deputy Director-General of Indian Council for Cultural Relations, has been appointed as India's next Ambassador to Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan appointed Hyderabad-based businessman Mir Nasir Ali Khan as an honorary consul at its Consulate in Hyderabad, for States of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.



(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.