Central Asia Digest | November 2020


● Political Developments

● Economic Developments

● India-Central Asia Relations

Political Developments

Twists and turns continued at lightning speed in Kyrgyzstan after protests against results of the October 4 parliamentary elections brought down the government. President Sooronbai Jeenbekov tendered his resignation on 15th October. Sadir Japarov a nationalist leader who was undergoing a prison sentence of 11 years plus was freed from the prison by his supporters and assumed charge as acting President and Prime Minister. The presidents of the four Central Asian countries expressed serious concern over the political crisis in Kyrgyzstan in a joint statement and called for peace and stability in the country. In a meeting with Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Central Asia, Head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia (UNRCCA), Kyrgyz Prime Minister and acting President Japarov outlined his intention to pursue political and socio-economic reforms. He also briefed her about plans to hold new parliamentary elections on basis of improved electoral legislation. According to the constitution, Japarov as acting head of state can't run in the next presidential election expected in January. Japarov said that parliament is working on “changes in the legislation on parliamentary and presidential elections,” and if these changes will allow him to run for president, he will do so. (A Special Issue on the subject was published on 26th October, 2020).

Recently hundreds of residents in Kyrgyzstan protested against construction of a new Chinese-funded logistics centre. Holding signs reading “No Kyrgyz Land To China!”, protesters argued that locals would see few benefits from the $275 million project, designed to handle trade coming from the Chinese border some 140 kms away. Tension over the new centre had been brewing for months, with at least three previous protests. Bowing to popular pressure, the Kyrgyz government cancelled the project.

China’s growing presence in Central Asia, has not been welcomed by many locals. Feeling cut out of the benefits of Chinese investments, or outraged by China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang, Central Asians have increasingly protested against Beijing, sometimes violently. A recent database of protests in the region records 98 anti-China protests since 2018, with all but one (in Tajikistan) taking place in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

As its economic footprint has developed, so has its security presence. China has increased its share of the regional arms market from 1.5% between 2010 and 2014 to over 13%. And in 2016, the People’s Armed Police opened a military facility in Tajikistan, a few kms from the border with Afghanistan.

Opinion polls in the region indicate that while Russia is still viewed favourably by many Central Asians, China is viewed with greater suspicion, with 30% of Kazakhs and 35% of Kyrgyz polled reporting negative views of China. An important reason for growing protests is corruption. Many Central Asians also fear Chinese land grabs. Attempts to change the law in Kazakhstan to allow land to be sold to foreigners in 2016 were met with the largest protests in the country since independence, with thousands taking to the streets, many of them singling out fears of China as the reason for their protest. These fears are not unfounded. As part of a 2011 border deal, for example, Tajikistan gave 0.6% cent of its territory to China. Recently China has laid claim to considerable territory covering the Pamir mountains in eastern Tajikistan.

There is fear that China could seize assets as a form of debt repayment, a situation of particular concern to Tajikistan, which the World Bank has classified as being at “high” risk of debt distress. Dushanbe’s external debt has doubled in the past decade, with China accounting for just under half (US$1.2 billion).

In a rare occurrence, two ethnic-Kazakh men from China's northwestern region of Xinjiang who were convicted of illegally crossing the border a year ago obtained temporary refugee status in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan assumed chairmanship of Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) from Tajikistan. Kazakhstan will serve in that role for two years.  Kazakh Foreign Minister presented the vision and priorities of Kazakhstan as CICA chair for 2020-2022. He stressed that Kazakhstan will continue to work on further institutionalization as one of its priorities, a goal which will “expand cooperation between member states, and raise the status of the organization globally.”

According to China, Kazakhstan occupies a key position in the Central Asian segment of the BRI. Kazakh authorities share this perception, describing their country as “the first and key country of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a kind of geo-economic gateway of China to the West.” As evidence of depth of the bilateral relationship, Beijing has pledged to invest more than $5 billion in local infrastructure through 2022. Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia to have established an “all-around strategic partnership” with China.

A video-conference was held between foreign minister of Russia and his counterparts from the five Central Asian countries in the so-called CA + 1 format. A joint statement was issued after the session ‘Central Asia plus Russia.’ It was agreed that the countries would continue fighting the use of information and communication technologies for criminal goals, including the spread of fake news, recruitment and instructing, fund-raising and cyberattacks. They will develop bilateral and multilateral contractual and legal framework of international information security.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon won 90.92% of the vote in Tajikistan’s presidential election in which the turnout was 85.39%. Five candidates contested including the incumbent. With this victory, Rahmon retains his position as the longest-serving leader in former Soviet Union, edging out Belarus’ embattled Alexander Lukashenko by almost two years. Rahmon’s rule will now extend through 2027. The Tajik Constitution has been amended twice to make it possible for Rahmon to run multiple times. Not a single election in which Rahmon claimed victory was deemed free, fair, or democratic by Western observers.

Russia and Kazakhstan signed a new agreement to boost bilateral military cooperation. The new agreement extends collaboration to include a variety of fields such as peacekeeping, interaction within international organisations, countering regional challenges, culture and sports. Additionally, Russia and Kazakhstan agreed to cooperate on military education and training, weaponry procurement, participation in joint bilateral and multilateral exercises. In Nur-Sultan, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called Kazakhstan "one of the few states, if not the only state, with which we have such broad military cooperation and such a profound and all-embracing agreement." Russia’s defence minister said that Kazakhstan is Russia’s main strategic ally and closest partner.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a decree scheduling the Majlis (lower house of parliament) elections for January 10, 2021. Currently, the NurOtan party has a majority of 84 deputies in the Majilis, the AkZhol and the Communist People's party have seven deputies each.

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev signed a law amending the work of civil servants. The amendment introduced a complete ban on gifts, material rewards, and services of any value to civil servants and their families for actions in favor of the donor. The anti-corruption legislation also extended the ban to decision-making positions at the quasi-public sector on the procurement and implementation of projects financed from the state budget. In addition to this, the law now prohibits Kazakh civil servants from hiring relatives.

President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev addressed letters to Presidents of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on 28th September, 2020 in which he said that Armenia launched another military provocation against Azerbaijan and shelled Azerbaijani settlements, as well as military positions, using various types of weapons, including heavy artillery on September 27. He referred to the importance of resolving the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as soon as possible on the basis of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and inviolability of internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan.

Representatives of USA, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan convened via video teleconference and reaffirmed the importance of trilateral discussions to address mutual issues of concern including political, security, and economic matters. They affirmed their resolve to preserve and build upon the gains in democratization and human rights made by Afghans over the past 19 years, as a necessary condition for sustainable peace. They committed to engage in greater joint cooperation in support of regional security, economic growth, and development, and called on countries of the region and the broader international community, to support the Afghan Peace Negotiations, and ensure that the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned Peace Negotiations strengthen a united, sovereign, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan at peace with itself and the region.

Economic Developments

The Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) has projected Kazakhstan’s GDP to grow at 4.7% a year on average in 2021–2022, after a 2.5% decline this year. International Monetary Fund said that it might take countries in Middle East and Central Asia a decade to return to the economic growth seen before the coronavirus crisis, as long-standing regional vulnerabilities weigh on their recovery. Lack of diversification among oil-exporting countries and reliance of oil importers on sectors like tourism, as well as their dependence on remittances, are likely to curb growth. In the immediate future, containing the pandemic and limiting income losses remain top priorities.

Over the first eight months of 2020, Kazakh petroleum producing companies exported 362,100 tons of motor gasoline worth $125.6 million compared to only 6,300 tons in the same period in 2019. Kazakhstan’s production of oil and condensate reached 64.7 million tons in January-September of 2020. For these months, Kazakhstan’s oil exports totaled 52.2 million tons. Kazakhstan produced 41.6 billion cubic meters of natural gas during the year to date. Domestic natural gas consumption had reached 11.1 billion cubic meters, while natural gas exports – 10.3 billion cubic meters. This was considerably lower than corresponding figure for 2019, the reason for which was coronavirus infection in China. Volume of gas imports by China decreased.

Kazakhstan in January-September 2020 produced 53,755 vehicles of all types. This is 60.3% more than in the same period last year. The production volumes of commercial vehicles also increased: trucks were produced 148.1% more than last year – 5,273 units, bus production – 1,401 units. (+ 65.2%).

United Arab Emirates and Kazakhstan signed an agreement worth $6.1 billion during Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin’s two-day visit to Abu Dhabi under which the two countries will implement more than 20 projects across a wide range of economic sectors. The two countries agreed to expand collaboration in trade, transport, logistics, agribusiness, construction, petro chemistry, space and tourism. They accorded special attention to expanding cooperation in agro-industrial sector – 10 out of 21 planned projects envisage launch of food production with high added value. This will allow Kazakhstan to become an important link in Food Security Strategy implemented by the UAE until 2051 and will further increase trade between the two countries.

Kazakhstan has registered positive GDP growth in the first nine months of 2020. Certain​sectors of processing industry had demonstrated incredible growth, including car manufacturing industry (51.6%), pharmaceutical industry (39.8%), paper products (15.1%) and light industry (14.1%). Majority of industries had demonstrated positive growth in September, including agriculture, construction, education, finance, trade, transport and many more.

The World Bank has estimated that in 2020, global remittances would drop by 19.7%, to only $445 billion. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan depend heavily on the economy of Russia. From 2004 to 2018, Tajikistan received an average of 30.57% of its GDP through remittances. World Bank estimates that Europe and Central Asia will witness decline in remittances by 27.5% this year. In 2021, remittances to low and middle-income countries will begin to recover.

Kazakhstan announced that from October 26 it reduced the weekly number of outbound and inbound flights to UAE, Belarus, Germany, and Ukraine. The move is in line with decision of Commission that deals with prevention of spread of coronavirus infection in Kazakhstan.

Turkish Space Agency (TUA) signed a memorandum of understanding with Kazakhstan's national space agency Kazcosmos on bilateral cooperation in the space sector.

India-Central Asia Relations 
India and Kazakhstan are exploring widening defence partnership including joint production as well as taking new initiatives in the heavy engineering sector. A webinar between India and Kazakhstan was held recently with the theme "Make In India For The World, India – Kazakhstan Defence Cooperation: Webinar and Expo". It was organized under the aegis of Department of Defence Production, Ministry of Defence through FICCI. This is part of the series of webinars which are being organized with friendly foreign countries in order to boost defence exports and achieve defence export target of $5 billion in the next five years.
Ambassadors of both countries and senior MoD officials from both sides participated in the webinar and spoke about the need to leverage opportunities not only for co-development and co-production but also to meet each other's requirements. Various Indian companies such as L&T Defence, Ashok Leyland Limited, Bharat Forge, Zen Technologies, Elcom Innovations, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Alpha Design Technologies and Bharat Electronics Limited. made company and product presentations on major platforms/equipment like Artillery Systems, Radars, Protected Vehicles, Missiles and Air Defence Equipments, Training Solutions etc in the webinar. BEL announced its plans to open a representative office in Kazakhstan.

Head of Directorate, Department of Defence Production, Ministry of Industry and Infrastructure Development, Kazakhstan said that it was necessary to discuss the range of issues in the repair, maintenance and upgrade of the military equipment, R&D and joint ventures. Kazakhstan is also interested in the joint production of space equipment. He added that Kazakhstan is keen to cooperate in developing the robotised complex and land surveillance, and reconnaissance systems.

Indian Ambassador to Kazakhstan Prabhat Kumar said that the new agreement included joint training, exercises, military-technical cooperation, UN Peacekeeping and exchange of intelligence. The two countries also undertake a company level joint military exercise which is done with only select strategic partners. Kazakh Ambassador to India Yerlan Alimbayev said that bilateral relationship between the two countries is very stable, a striking example of which is the joint peacekeeping activities within the framework of the UN mission in Lebanon which have provided additional impetus to strengthening of the bilateral military cooperation.

Ambassador of India to Uzbekistan Manish Prabhat said that India will soon finalise an air corridor between India and Uzbekistan and other major Central Asian countries. He affirmed the urgency of taking the strategic relations between India and Uzbekistan to newer heights that would translate into close cooperation in all areas, including trade, economy, and investments. He suggested that Uzbekistan become a member of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). Highlighting the trade and investment possibilities for Indian companies, Ambassador Prabhat said that Uzbekistan is providing several opportunities in various greenfield and brownfield projects. There are tax benefits that Indian industries can avail of in various regions in Uzbekistan.

Ambassador of Uzbekistan to India Dilshod Akhatov, said that India occupies a special place in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy. “Economic and trade potential of both countries are not fully utilized, and we need to mutually increase our volume of qualitative trade through improvement in bilateral trade,” he added. Akhatov said that a joint feasibility study for a preferential trade agreement will contribute significantly to further improve trade and business and establish much stronger relations in sectors like agriculture, energy, pharmaceuticals, textiles, leather, ICT, and tourism. He added that Uzbekistan is highly interested in the implementation of joint projects in the fields of pharma, healthcare, education, and social and infrastructure developments.

Dr Adarsh Swaika, Joint Secretary, Eurasia Division, Ministry of External Affairs, India said that economic partnership needs to be evaluated through the prism of overall bilateral relationship. He advocated greater focus on new areas of engagement like energy, pharmaceuticals, auto, agro-products, and education. He said that India is looking at the implementation of several projects from the Indian line of credit in priority development sectors of Uzbekistan.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad hosted seventh Justice Ministers’ meeting of SCO member states while Department of Legal Affairs hosted the Second meeting of the Experts Working Group. Addressing the SCO Ministers, Minister Prasad highlighted the initiatives taken by Indian Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, for providing affordable and easy access to justice for all. He mentioned initiating pro bono legal services to provide free legal aid to marginalized sections of the society. He highlighted that through tele-law services initiated in 2017, so far 3.44 Lakh free legal consultations have been given to poor people through video conferencing. Earlier, the Experts Working Group of SCO Member States discussed the importance of promoting alternative dispute resolution as also cooperation in all spheres including legal, given the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

India is keeping up its engagements at SCO as it participated in 18th meeting of Prosecutors General of SCO via video conference. Participants inter alia agreed to strengthen cooperation in preventing and combating corruption, mutual legal assistance, exchange of regulatory legal acts. Representing India, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said India has zero tolerance to corruption and black money.

BJP president JP Nadda addressed the International Interparty Forum of SCO and said that India aspires for global stability and world peace under leadership of PM Modi. Addressing the opening ceremony through video conference, Nadda expressed India’s concern regarding impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the world and called for a coordinated and global response to counter it. He assured that India will keep helping the world during this unprecedented situation.

The first-ever Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Startup Forum was launched on October 27, 2020, ahead of the SCO trade ministers meeting on October 28, 2020. The forum laid the foundation for multilateral cooperation and engagement among the SCO Member States to develop and hone their startup ecosystems, collectively.

As part of events to mark India’s presidency of SCO Heads of Governments Council, Yoga at SCO was organised by Embassy of India in Beijing. Ambassadors, SCO Missions and many others participated in the programme.

Innovation and Startups are going to be the key focus area of SCO Heads of Government meeting on November 30, 2020, that will be hosted by India. During the meet, the forum is likely to identify areas of cooperation by launching multiple entrepreneurial activities like startup showcases through a dedicated virtual platform, mobilizing capital for startups, sharing of best practices, procuring social innovations, multilateral incubator programs and knowledge exchange workshops among others.

Ambassador Manish Prabhat presented his credentials to Uzbek Minister of Foreign Affairs H.E. Mr Abdulaziz Kamilov on 14th October, 2020. Both sides emphasised their full support for development of cooperation in all spheres.

(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.