Central Asia Digest | May 2020

Political Developments

Statements by terrorist groups based in Central Asia and Afghanistan welcoming the US-Taliban “Peace Deal’’ signed on 29th February and congratulating the Taliban for evicting the occupying forces have impelled Afghanistan’s northern neighbours to extend their cooperation beyond rhetoric and multilateral meetings. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan signed a “Partnership 2020” agreement on military cooperation. Large-scale Tajik-Uzbek anti-terror exercises, extending over four days, were held at Tajikistan’s Fakhrobod training range, 19 miles (30 kms) south of Dushanbe. The exercises involved aircrafts, armoured vehicles, artillery and small arms in a joint training exercise to repel the infiltration of terrorists from Afghanistan. The inclusion of aircrafts is significant; as neither the Taliban, nor any of the terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan have elements of air power, control of the sky has provided the decisive edge in Western military operations there. Furthermore, while Turkmen, Uzbek and Tajik military assets are relatively modest, those of its fellow CIS, CSTO and SCO member Russia are not and can potentially provide significant military backup in worst-case scenarios.
Although Kazakhstan is facing a serious multiple crisis on account of the coronavirus pandemic as well as the steep decline in global oil prices and the precipitous fall in exports of its energy resources, Kazakhstan’s first President and life-long Chairman of the Kazakh Security Council has not been seen in public for some time. This has led to circulation of many rumours about the state of his health, some even going so far as to speculate that he might be no more. Nazarbayev’s office has denied these rumours and stated that he is well and will Address the people of the country through television when circumstances improve. The last meeting of the National Security Council was held on 11th February, 2020 to discuss the attack on the Chinese origin Dungans in the south of the country. At that meeting Nazarbayev had noted that the coronavirus could have adverse effects on the economies of China and Kazakhstan. But no one could have imagined at that time that the crisis would metamorphose into a life-threatening and economically debilitating health and economic catastrophe. In 2018, the Kazakh Constitution was amended to give the Security Council more powers and make Nazarbaev chairman of the Council for life. The council gained the status of a constitutional body "responsible for coordinating the implementation of a unified state policy in ensuring national security and defense capabilities to maintain domestic political stability, protect the constitutional order, state independence, territorial integrity, and the national interests of Kazakhstan internationally." Notwithstanding its sweeping and extensive power, the Council has been absent from the public view for more than two months.
The eldest son of Tajik President Rustam Emomali, 32 who also serves as the mayor of capital Dushanbe was unanimously elected as speaker of the Tajik senate cementing the family's grip on power ahead of a presidential election in Tajikistan. Under Tajikistan's constitution, the speaker assumes presidential powers in the event of the president's death or any inability to perform his duties. Both President Emomali Rakhmon, 67, who has been in power since 1994 and whose current term ends in November, and his son are eligible to run in the presidential election. Neither has so far announced plans to do so. Rakhmon's daughter Ozoda Rakhmon is also a senator and serves as the president's chief of staff, while her husband holds the No.2 position at the central bank.
Amnesty International expressed human rights abuse concerns over emergency COVID–19 responses inter alia across Central Asia. Amnesty accused governments of broadening and abusing their police powers through emergency–pandemic measures intended to suppress political dissent, freedom of expression, and civil society. Amnesty said that many governments viewed the pandemic as a carte blanche to roll out even more draconian methods and overtly telegraph their abuses.
China shut down 153 social media accounts for carrying fake nationalistic content. These accounts featured articles claiming countries neighbouring China wanted to be reunited with the "motherland.’’ This was the latest sign that the nationalistic sentiment driven by the coronavirus outbreak was getting stronger. The articles said countries like Kazakhstan and Vietnam as well as parts of other nations, like the state of Manipur in India, were looking to return to China. Chinese state media described them as “fabricated and misleading”, harmful to China’s national interests and the cause of unnecessary diplomatic friction. Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan was summoned by the Kazakh foreign office to complain about one of these articles, titled “Why is Kazakhstan eager to return to China?” The article claimed that some ancestors of the Kazakh people shared deep historical ties with China and the Han Chinese bloodline and were eager to return to China. Chinese Ambassador to Kazakhstan said that the articles did not represent China’s official stance on the matter and that they went against the two nations’ efforts to build trust and promote development.
This year, Turkmenistan is celebrating 25 years of pursuing permanent neutrality policy adopted as an essence of the country’s foreign policy approach, recognized and endorsed by the United Nations by a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly on December 12, 1995 and again supported by another landmark resolution by the UN General Assembly on June 3, 2015. This has been the essence of Turkmenistan’s foreign policy. To acknowledge the neutrality of Turkmenistan and its efforts for regional peace and stability, the UN General Assembly also declared December 12 as the International Day of Neutrality on February 2, 2017.
It is strongly believed that Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have not been open and frank with their respective populations about the Covid-19 pandemic. The severity of the virus has been diluted in official Tajik and Turkmen government statements and media outlets. This is evident in Tajikistan’s refusal to halt the Tajikistan Football League, despite major football leagues, such as the English Football League, Premier League, and UEFA having been cancelled. In Turkmenistan, individuals have been arrested for openly talking about the virus and it is illegal to wear masks in public. The government has gone a step further in removing any reference to coronavirus from health pamphlets, schools, universities, offices, and hospitals. In spite of all the efforts of the Turkmen government denying any cases of Covid-19, some restrictions have been imposed at the local level. It is felt that both these countries have high levels of corruption, and would rather withhold data than be perceived as incapable of handling the outbreak within their sovereign borders.
Turkmenistan held a series of mass sporting events despite the coronavirus threat. According to official sources it has no case of coronavirus infection. President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, mentioned COVID-19 only once, whilst state television showed him at the sports festival riding a horse, then cycling, along with other officials. Large groups of cyclists were also shown, dedicated “to a healthy life regime.” In the capital of Ashgabat, some 3,500 people participated in the outdoor event; more than 7,000 in other provinces. Various activities were held in parks, including gymnastics, acrobatic performances, judo and boxing. Turkmenistan is set to restart its suspended soccer league amid the coronavirus pandemic. It will become part of a small group of countries around the world where professional soccer is being played despite the virus outbreak. That includes the former Soviet nations of Belarus and Tajikistan, as well as Burundi and Nicaragua.
Tajikistan also sees itself as above the COVID-19 pandemic, with no case reported. No public event or gathering has been banned or cancelled. Nevertheless, matches are played in empty stadiums as few fans are eager to attend. In the capital Dushanbe, despite government assurances, one of the city’s main eateries, the Max biff burger, has heeded concerns handing out about 10,000 free protective masks to customers and passers-by.
Kazakhstan detained political activist and government critic Arman Shorayev in connection with alleged spreading of “false information” during a state of emergency. Shorayev, a former television executive turned nationalist politician has often attacked members of President Tokayev’s cabinet, while avoiding criticism of the president himself. A brief police statement said that using social networks, Shorayev ... repeatedly spread knowingly false information. It said Shorayev’s actions had endangered public order at the time of the national coronavirus emergency and could be punishable by up to seven years in prison.
Police in Kyrgyzstan’s north-eastern Naryn Province prepared charges against a man infected with the coronavirus who refused to self-quarantine and as a result is believed to have spread the virus to at least three other people. The man had returned from Pakistan where he attended a "da'wah" -- training in how Muslims teach Islamic beliefs and practices, which is a feature of the controversial Islamic group Tablighi Jamaat.
German authorities arrested four suspected members of the Islamic State group, all from Tajikistan, alleged to be planning an attack on American military facilities. The suspects were arrested at various locations in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia. They reportedly first planned to carry out an attack in Tajikistan but later shifted their target to Germany, including US Air Force bases in the country and a person they deemed critical of Islam. Throughout, they are alleged to have been in contact with two high-ranking IS figures in Syria and Afghanistan.
A court in Tajikistan sentenced a high-profile journalist and government critic to a year in jail for “inciting religious hatred.” The journalist was handed the sentence by a court in the capital Dushanbe. Sharipov rejected the accusations of “inciting religious hatred” in a long paper he authored titled “The Prophet Muhammad and Terrorism”.
A three member US-Russian crew returned to the Earth safely after spending several months in the International Space Station (ISS). They landed in the steppes of Kazakhstan and were greeted with extra precautions amid the coronavirus pandemic. The ISS which orbited about 400 kms above Earth was tasked with conducting scientific experiments.

Economic Developments

A World Bank Report on the impact of coronavirus pandemic on the economies of Central Asia said that after a lacklustre 2019 for Eurasia’s energy producers, COVID-19 will derail economic stability across the region in 2020 by “interrupting daily activity, putting further downward pressure on commodity prices, disrupting tightly linked global and regional supply chains, reducing travel and tourist arrivals, and decreasing demand for exports.” While stay-at-home orders and the shuttering of non-essential businesses will sharply reduce economic growth the world over, it is the weakening of the Russian economy (the report expects GDP to contract by 1%) and the depreciation of the rouble – due both to the pandemic’s effect on business generally as well as the collapse in the price of Russia’s chief export, oil – that present the biggest threat to remittance-dependent economies from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan.  In Kazakhstan, the World Bank expects growth, which clocked in at 4.5% in 2019, to fall to -0.8% this year. The attenuation of Kazakhstan’s economy will also reduce remittances to neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In 2018, migrant remittances totalled the equivalent of 33.2% of GDP in Kyrgyzstan and 29% in Tajikistan; already in 2019 these flows into Kyrgyzstan fell by 13.6% after Russia introduced limits on money transfers. The report expects remittances to Uzbekistan to contract by 50%.
Uzbekistan devalued its national currency, the som, against the U.S. dollar and euro for the second time in three days. The bank said on April 15 that as of April 16, US$1 will cost 10,121 soms, which is some 4.4% weaker, or 428 soms higher, than the rate on April 14. This move came on the heels of an April 13 weakening of the rate, and is a surprise to some analysts, since rates are usually fixed by the central bank in Uzbekistan for at least one week. The country locked down all of its provinces and some major cities as it looked to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Uzbekistan’s economy is faltering amid a plunge in energy prices. Uzbekistan relies on gas exports and remittances from millions of Uzbeks working in Russia, a major oil exporter. The inward flow of funds was choked by the impact of the pandemic on the global economy coupled with a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Uzbekistan said that incoming remittances dropped by 23% in March. IMF has projected a contraction of 1% in 2020, after a growth rate of 4.8% a year earlier in the Caucasus and Central Asia (CCA) region. Given the double whammy of lower global demand and lower oil prices, oil-exporting countries face weakening fiscal and external balances. Oil importing countries could be adversely affected by a large decline in remittances and investment and capital inflows from oil-exporting countries. IMF sharply cut growth outlook for all economies in Central Asia and urged them to focus on protecting public health and engines of economic growth amid the double whammy of coronavirus disruptions and the plunge in oil prices.
Tajikistan has applied for the International Monetary Fund's emergency financing, becoming the second Central Asian nation after Kyrgyzstan to do so during the current global crisis prompted by the new coronavirus outbreak. Kyrgyzstan, which has already received US$121 million from the IMF has asked to double the sum fully utilising its own quota. Uzbekistan is "exploring" such an option but has so far made no request. Tashkent has, however, announced plans to borrow a total of US$1.1 billion from several other institutions such as the World Bank.
Kazakhstan provided aid of 5,000 tons of flour each to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan totalling more than US$3 million. The decision was taken in response to official appeals of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to ensure uninterrupted food supply to their population. Both countries expressed gratitude to Kazakhstan for the support.
Uzbekistan announced a tender for 100 MW of wind power projects and associated infrastructure in the country. The Government has plans to develop an additional 200 MW of wind power through another tender in the future. This is the country’s first wind power project and will be developed with technical assistance from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and Government of Japan. This is part of government’s much broader large-scale renewable energy strategy to deploy up to 3 GW of cost-effective and environment-friendly wind generation in the next 10 years to meet the country’s rising power demands. Earlier the government had invited Expression of Interest (EoI) from international investors to develop nearly 400 MW of solar independent power producer (IPP) projects. Each solar project will have a capacity of approximately 200 MW. The scope of work included the development, finance, construction, and operation of the two solar projects.
Kazakhstan will invest in start-ups across south-east Asia as part of efforts to diversify its economy away from oil and gas, where prices have been slammed by the coronavirus pandemic. The country’s state wealth fund, Baiterek National Managing Holdings, will be the anchor investor in a vehicle run by Singapore-based Quest Ventures. The fund has also been backed by Pavilion Capital, which is owned by Temasek Holdings, Singapore’s state investment company. At US$50m, the fund is small but it forms part of a broader push to create an economic corridor between central and south-east Asia.
Since independence, total inflow of foreign direct investments into Kazakhstan has amounted to about US$350 billion. In 2019, gross FDI inflow to Kazakhstan amounted to US$24.1 billion compared to US$24.3 billion in 2018. In 2019, mining and metallurgy accounted for the largest volume of foreign investment ie 56.3%. Industry attracted a record US$13.586 billion. FDI inflows to metal ores extraction sector increased by 60%, while inflows to coal and lignite extraction decreased by 60%.
Kyrgyz President asked the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) for assistance in the fight against the coronavirus. President Jeenbekov held a telephone conversation with the IDB President during which the parties discussed these issues. Previously, Kyrgyzstan received financial assistance from the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund amid the coronavirus pandemic.
World Bank is set to provide a financial grant of US$11 million for Tajikistan to prevent the coronavirus outbreak. Tajikistan has so far reported zero coronavirus cases in the country. The country will allocate the money to purchase medical equipment, disinfectants and protective suits for health workers. Tajikistan will also purchase 100 more artificial lungs ventilators in addition to the 500 that the country already possesses.
Many Tajik migrants whose remittances make up a bulk of the nation's cash inflows have had to return home over the past few months as the countries where they worked lurched towards recession. The total damage to the Tajik economy from the coronavirus crisis and other external factors stood at US$650 million. Tajikistan's gross domestic product stood at about US$8 billion last year. Tajikistan has reported no cases of the coronavirus on its soil, but it closed its borders at the end of March -- which also stopped more migrants from returning.

India-Central Asia Relations 
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sincerely thanked the Government of India and PM Modi for donation of the medical supplies to contain COVID-19. In a twitter post the Kazakh President said “Sincerely thank the Government of India and personally Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the donation of medical supplies to Kazakhstan to contain the coronavirus. This high mark of friendship and solidarity is made even at a time when India banned export of drugs abroad.’’ In response Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted that “India and Kazakhstan are strategic partners and a demonstration of solidarity during challenging times like the COVID-19 pandemic further strengthens the bonds between the two countries.’’
An initiative to introduce a 72-hour visa waiver for Chinese and Indian nationals was initially launched in 2018 and covered airports located in Nur-Sultan and Almaty. In early 2020, Shymkent, Aktau, Karaganda and Taraz were added to the list. Citizens of India and China could enter Kazakhstan through these cities visa-free for 72 hours before traveling onward to their final destinations. The regulation was set to last through 2020 with the aim of increasing the number of transit tourist visitors to Kazakhstan. The government earlier suspended this regulation until July 1 to contain the spread of coronavirus. It is likely that this suspension could be extended till November 1, 2020.
Eight Kyrgyzstanis, affiliated to the Tablighi Jamaat, were booked in Karnataka for allegedly violating visa rules under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act. The foreign nationals were camping at a mosque from the time they came from Hyderabad on March 10. They were put under quarantine.
20 Indonesians and nine more Kyrgyzstani Tablighis were booked in Karnataka for allegedly violating visa rules under Section 14 of the Foreigners Act and over staying to carry out religious activities without legal permission.
Indian investors, with the support of Kazakh Invest, implemented a project for production of instant noodles in Kazakhstan’s Turkestan region. The plant, with a production capacity of 180 tons, employs over a hundred local citizens. In addition to supplying the local market, products are exported to Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and India.


(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.