Central Asia Digest | September 2019

Political Developments

Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev paid his first State visit to China. It was decided to forge a long-term, permanent comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries. Several agreements were signed including an agreement on cooperation in aviation search and rescue of civil aircrafts; an MoU on implementation of cooperation plan for connectivity of Nurly Zhol (Bright Path) Infrastructure Development and construction of Silk Road Economic Belt; an agreement on China providing Kazakhstan with a supercomputer; a memorandum on strengthening cooperation in border protection of intellectual property rights; an MoU on inspection, quarantine, veterinary and sanitary requirements for dairy products, flax and wool raw materials exported from Kazakhstan to China etc.
Russia and several other countries held one of the largest joint military, strategic command-and-staff, exercises in recent years, spanning two continents and involving 128,000 personnel, more than 20,000 pieces of military equipment, 600 aircraft and 15 warships and auxiliary vessels. The exercise, titled TSENTR 2019 (Center 2019)  was held according to a two-pronged design: the first was a mock invasion of a hypothetical terrorist rogue state in Central Asia; the second, a series of Special Forces landing exercises to defend Russia’s Arctic possessions in the event of a surprise attack. The military drill takes place annually but this year Russia invited forces from China, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to take part. Main operations were conducted at eight training ranges in Southern Russia, Siberia and Urals, and ranges in several other countries as well as Caspian Sea. Beijing contributed more than 1,600 troops along with tanks and strategic bombers. New Delhi sent hundreds of soldiers. As part of exercise, an Iskander-M short-range, nuclear-capable, tactical ballistic missile was fired at a cluster of mock enemy encampments in Kazakhstan. TSENTR 2019 underscored Russia’s power projection capabilities in Central Asia and reassured its Kyrgyz and Kazakh allies of Russia’s continued military commitment to stability of that region. Also participation of Chinese, Indian, and Pakistani troops was meant to convey the strength of Russia’s geopolitical position. Russian Defense Minister stated that the drills are defensive and not directed against third countries. In an accident, two BMD infantry fighting vehicles were destroyed during a paradrop from an Il-76 transport system over a military range in Russia’s Orenburg region. Presidents of Russia and Kyrgyzstan observed the exercises in the Orenburg Region after which they exchanged views on current bilateral relations and regional issues, including integration process in the post-Soviet sphere.

A Kyrgyz court impounded 120 properties of ex-President Almazbek Atambayev. Atambayev was arrested in August after a two-day-long storming operation at his residence, which resulted in violent clashes between law enforcers and his supporters and left one police officer killed. A criminal case has been launched against Atambayev’s wife also.

The fourth Ministerial meeting in the C5+1 format between foreign Ministers of USA and five Central Asian Republics took place in New York on sidelines of UNGA. The Joint Declaration of Partnership and Cooperation noted the new atmosphere of partnership, reaffirmed the value of the format, and agreed to strengthen cooperation, regional stability, and sustainable development through regular dialogue and joint action. Speaking after the meeting, US Secretary of State said that China’s repressive campaign in Xinjiang is not about terrorism. He exhorted all countries to resist China’s demand to repatriate the Uighurs.

Speaking at the UN, Russian Foreign Minister said that it is a matter of deep concern that several terrorist organizations including those linked with ISIS are actively recruiting new members in Central Asian countries. He added that fight against these is among the priorities of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Speaking at a University in USA, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister said that regional cooperation in Central Asia is about stability, both as a precondition for integration and as a measure of successful cooperation. Two main areas of contention that threaten regional harmony are border delimitation and energy. When describing Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with China, he emphasized the importance of having good relations with a neighbor. He spoke of China’s help in building infrastructure, but did not mention Belt and Road Initiative by name. He did not refer to protests against Chinese investment and infrastructure projects that have been organized across Kyrgyzstan over the last year, but stressed that “situation with the religious sphere” is the “internal policy of China.”

Since the snap election in June 2019 to elect Tokayev as President to replace long-ruling Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan has witnessed vigorous anti-government protests every week. In September, protesters drew on the recent anger over what are seen as inequitable Chinese investment projects. Some anger was also directed at the continued influence of Nazarbayev in ruling the country from behind the scenes. Banners reading “Let’s not give way to Chinese expansion” and “The old man is the enemy” and ‘’Old man, go away!’’ were displayed by the protesters. Previous demonstrations have also included criticism of number of Chinese workers in Kazakhstan, their salaries which some believe are higher than Kazakh workers, and Beijing’s treatment of ethnic Kazakhs in China’s western Xinjiang region.

Kazakhstan has stated that the issue of creating and introducing an “Asian Schengen” needs more time than was expected at the beginning. It said that the issue needs a deeper study, because over the years of independent development, all Central Asian countries have developed their own entry control systems.

Success of BRI in Kazakhstan shows that its shape and success largely depends on internal, not external, factors. China considers Kazakhstan crucial for transit, a source of energy and as a stable neighbour of its unstable Xinjiang province. It has invested billions in Kazakhstan’s energy and transport infrastructure, already prior to the BRI. Kazakh government has eagerly embraced Chinese efforts to establish Kazakhstan as a regional transit hub because this is in line with its own national development strategies because of which it assumed a high degree of ownership of BRI on its territory.

Policemen in civilian clothes in Tashkent, Uzbekistan have been apprehending vendors and sellers with beards and forcibly shaving them off. Tashkent police responded to the criticism by saying that for security reasons some men were asked to shave off beards so that their faces resembled the photos on their biometric passports.

In his first Address to the Nation after becoming President in place of  Nazarbayev, President Tokayev said that without political reform, economic progress is no longer possible. He supported the development of a multi-party system and a “state that listens” to its citizens’ complaints — including the creation of the new citizens’ appeals department within the presidency.

Economic Developments

Royal Dutch Shell, Eni and their partners in the Karachaganak oil and gas venture may be required to pay an additional US$1 billion to settle a dispute with Kazakhstan over revenue sharing. This claim comes on top of last year’s similar-sized settlement from the Karachaganak partners. Kazakhstan has a history of disputes with international investors over revenue, taxes and cost-sharing at its energy projects.

In the 25 years of partnership with Kazakhstan, Asian Development Bank (ADB) has invested more than US$5 billion in sovereign loans, non-sovereign loans and guarantees to support the country’s development. These include nearly 30 projects in sovereign loans, ten projects in private sector and nearly 100 technical assistance grants worth US$50 million. ADB urged the government to incorporate Sustainable Development Goals in the country’s medium- and long-term goals. It added that environment-related goals present the biggest challenge for Kazakhstan.

Nine countries of Central and West Asia signed a declaration in Tashkent on cooperation and reforms in the energy sector, signaling a new step towards creating a regional energy market. Declaration was signed by energy ministers of Central Asian Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) countries comprising Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Ministers also approved a new CAREC energy strategy for next 10-year period, which will serve as a roadmap for achieving the region’s goal of a secure energy future. According to ADB, CAREC countries are rich in natural resources, but have an uneven distribution of these resources. This, compounded by inadequate infrastructure and inefficient state-owned energy utilities, means some countries continue to face power shortages.

The China-Central Asia Gas Pipeline delivered 23 billion cubic meters of natural gas to China in first half of 2019. The 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, Xinjiang. The China-Kazakhstan oil pipeline delivered 5.59 million tonnes of crude oil to China in first half of 2019.

Astana International Financial Center (AIFC), Kazakhstan's regional financial hub, is preparing to become a key financial platform of BRI. AIFC regards BRI as a clear and important priority for its development as it opens up a new prospect for financial cooperation between Kazakhstan and China. AIFC has set up a "Belt Economics Department," which works with various financial institutions to develop investment models for Belt and Road projects in Kazakhstan and beyond.

Uzbekistan has signed a 10-year contract with Afghanistan for electricity supply on soft terms. In the first year, supply would be 4.2 billion kWh which would increase to 6 billion kWh annually from third year.

Pakistan has stated that it is fulfilling its responsibilities in constructing the multi-billion dollar Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline. Groundbreaking for Pakistan-section of the pipeline is expected to be held soon.

India-Central Asia Relations 

EAM Dr S Jaishankar met his recently-appointed Kazakh counterpart Mukhtar Tileuberdi on the sidelines of UN GA in New York and held discussions on issues of mutual interest. Kazakh Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit India soon.

A joint military exercise between India and Kazakhstan with focus on counter terrorism operation in mountainous terrain will be held in Pithoragarh in October, 2019. Nearly 100 soldiers from both Indian and Kazakhstan armies will share their experiences of counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism operations during the 13-day exercise named KAZIND-2019. It is a yearly event conducted alternatively in Kazakhstan and India.

Higher Command Course delegation from Army War College, Mhow, India visited Kazakhstan on the Strategic Neighbourhood Area Tour. During the visit the delegation visited various Military, Civil and International institutions in addition to Military Defence Industrial Complexes in Almaty and Nur-Sultan.

Speaking at the 4th Eurasian Speakers Summit in Kazakhstan, Speaker of Pakistan National Assembly raised the issue of Kashmir. He was strongly challenged by Deputy Chairman of Rajya Sabha who led the Indian Delegation.

Indians will be able to visit Uzbekistan without visas from next year.  Indians can already avail of E-visa facility to travel to Uzbekistan.  Sister-city relationship between Bukhara and Hyderabad is likely to be established soon which would promote mutual exchange of art and culture, education, trade etc between the cities.

CAPEXIL led a delegation of 18 leading Indian Rubber Products Manufacturers and established Exporters seeking to sell and establish business ties with potential importers of Rubber products, Distributors, Dealers and Consumers in Kazakhstan. The delegation comprised of members from both the Non Tyres and Tyres Sectors. The delegation participated in the Central Asia Mining and Kazcomak 2019 Expo and a B2B event in Almaty.

The new Ambassador of Kazakhstan to India Yerlan Alimbayev presented his credentials to President Ram Nath Kovind on 3rd October, 2019.

A delegation of Indian Defence Equipment Manufacturers participated for the first time in a Defence Industrial Conference held in Tashkent.

An Indian delegation participated in the First International Festival of Handicrafts in Uzbekistan. MoU on cooperation between Surajkund Mela Authority, Haryana, and Organizing Committee for International Handicrafts Festival in Kokand, Uzbekistan was signed.

A Three-member delegation from College of Military Engineering, Pune carried out a training exercise on counter Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and Bomb Disposal at Forish training area in Uzbekistan.

A 19-member delegation from Uzbekistan participated in the flagship Reverse Buyers-Sellers meet "Source India" organized by Synthetic and Rayon Textiles Export Promotion Council under aegis of the Ministries of Commerce and Industry, and Textile. About 150 leading buyers from around 40 countries participated in ‘’Source India.’’

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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.