Central Asia Digest | September 2020


 Political Developments

● Economic Developments

● India-Central Asia Relations


Political Developments

An article appeared in Chinese news outlets recently claiming that Tajikistan’s Pamir mountains historically belonged to China and should be returned. The article was penned by a nationalist historian. The message hit Dushanbe hard. Tajik officials are perennially concerned about the Pamirs as this is a region where they have tenuous authority over the local population. Anxieties about China’s intentions in Central Asia run deep. It takes little to fuel fears that post-Soviet sovereignty will be a short-lived affair, that the peoples of Central Asia have traded one imperial master only to be dominated by another. Already in 2011, Dushanbe ceded over 1,000 square kms of the Pamirs to China in return for an unspecified amount of debt forgiveness. Five years later, it invited China to open a military base. Beijing owns over half of Tajikistan’s foreign debt. The publication of the current article raised a furore in Tajik government. In a meeting with Chinese ambassador, first Deputy Foreign Minister of Tajikistan termed the article inadmissible and stressed that “parties must take necessary measures to prevent publication of such materials in the media.”

Total contract value of projects executed by China in Kazakhstan under BRI exceeds $27.4 billion. These projects added to the rapidly increasing China-Kazakhstan trade and give it heavy influence in numerous rungs of Kazakhstan’s economy and government. Kazakhstan is not the only Central Asian nation where Beijing’s footprint is expanding. The same trend is visible in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and also Turkmenistan. No other external actor is capable of matching China’s economic capacity and investment potential in the region. China’s power in the region does not end with economic influence. They are also increasingly providing security to Central Asia, and even establishing military presence in different parts of the region. It is true that many Central Asians harbour anti-China sentiments. This is due largely to the Chinese Communist Party’s systematic human rights abuses of peoples that Central Asians are ethnically, culturally and religiously linked to: Uyghur, Kazakh and Kyrgyz minorities in Xinjiang. But Central Asian governments generally suppress anti-China demonstrations among their people in order to continue benefitting from Chinese investment and trade.

China has made significant investments in Central Asia in recent years especially after the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and even used its debt diplomacy in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. More than half of external debt of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan comprises of loans from China’s EXIM Bank. Beijing has exploited the weak economies and their inability to repay the loans and forced both the countries to cede lucrative mines as well as agricultural land. Clearly, the recent claim over the Pamir region in Tajikistan reveals how China is deploying its South China Sea strategy to further its imperialistic agenda in Central Asia. It would appear essential for Central Asian countries to revisit their policy towards China and take note of the historical colonisation process of Xinjiang. They need to come together unlike countries in South China Sea to stop Beijing’s assertion of its hegemonic agenda.

Over recent weeks, China has reacted to COVID-related events in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan with out-of-character zeal. In both cases, China’s embassies in these countries jumped at the opportunity to comment on local events related to the pandemic rather than keep to their historically low profile. In Uzbekistan Beijing rebutted the claim that China is the source of the novel coronavirus. Earlier, China had sowed panic that a new, deadlier virus had emerged in Kazakhstan. Chinese embassy deemed it necessary to issue a statement that China is not the “motherland of the coronavirus,” but merely the first country to report it. The statement asserted that “scientific research” indicated that the coronavirus appeared in other parts of the world much earlier than the first outbreak in China. Chinese officials and state media have been trying to deflect blame surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing back against language that notes Wuhan, China as the origin of the virus. China is shifting from a low profile, characterized by avoiding commenting on domestic affairs in partner countries, to an aggressive posture that injects Chinese commentary into local developments to further Beijing’s talking points.

Suspicions about an increasingly assertive China show little sign of flagging in Kazakhstan. But authorities are still intent on demonstrating fealty to Beijing by thwarting grassroots activism critical of Chinese government. Serik Azhibai emerged as the latest example of that harassment. Azhibai was arrested by police after holding a one-man picket outside China’s consulate in Almaty. The purpose of demonstration was to demand the expulsion of Beijing’s ambassador who has provoked ill-will among citizens and officials alike with remarks perceived as disrespectful of Kazakhs and their nation’s sovereignty. The final straw was apparently reached when Chinese Ambassador talked about how Kazakh-Chinese cooperation in security would help Kazakhstan ward off threat of internal unrest. “We are not an autonomous region of China,” Azhibai complained during his protest. “We are a sovereign state. We have the right to determine our own internal affairs.” Azhibai is a regular fixture at protest demos. For him, the ambassador’s comments constituted intolerable meddling. Police sought to argue in a court hearing on the same day that the activist had been recruited by others. Azhibai was reportedly sentenced to 15 days in prison. 

A Court in Almaty asked Serikzhan Bilash and five co-workers to appear (by WhatsApp, due to quarantine) and answer charges filed under Code of Administrative Offenses of Kazakhstan, punishing activities by unregistered or banned organizations. This new prosecution is part of the conflict between three branches of human rights association Atajurt, two registered and one, led by Bilash, which was refused registration and is critical of Kazakh government’s attitude towards China. Bilash is critical of other branches, which have downplayed the presence of ethnic Kazakhs in re-education camps in Xinjiang. Bilash operates highly successful YouTube and Facebook accounts, which are almost exclusively devoted to exposing atrocities in the dreaded concentration camps in Xinjiang, where several thousands of ethnic Kazakhs are also reportedly detained. Chinese Communist Party has consistently exerted pressure on Kazakhstan to stop activities of Bilash.

A court in Kazakhstan recently convicted Kazakhstan’s  preeminent China specialist of espionage. This is widely seen as a warning against increased meddling by China in Kazakhstan’s internal affairs. The fact that case has been made public now suggests a more assertive China has become a concern for nations considered its partners, too.

It was decided in the Ministerial meeting organised by Foreign Minister of Japan with his counterparts from the 5 Central Asian countries to cooperate in responding to the new coronavirus pandemic. The Central Asian ministers voiced gratitude for Japan's grant aid to fight the pandemic, including a supply of health and medical equipment totalling about 2 billion yen ($18 million). Japan is strengthening cooperation with the Central Asian countries, having held in-person ministerial talks seven times since 2004. Subjects of discussions within this format have significantly expanded. They cover topical issues of ensuring international and regional security, sustainable development, creating favourable conditions for effective trade-economic ties, active exchange in the cultural-humanitarian field. Foreign Ministers discussed possibilities of developing and adopting the Concept of partnership between the states of Central Asia and Japan in the field of security, developing a new Platform for development of economic partnership, preparation and discussion of the Roadmap on cooperation of the participating states in the field of high technologies. Other countries like China, India, Russia, the United States and the European Union also seek to expand influence in the region through similar dialogues.

“The Spiritual World of the Turkmens’’ is the 53rd and maybe the most consequential – in his own mind, at least – work ever to be put to Turkmen President Berdymukhamedov’s name. It is a moral-historical treatise on the customs of Turkmen people through the centuries. The book is divided into 12 chapters devoted variously to “the beauty of life, prosperity on earth, the eternity of existence, the importance of science and education in the development of society, the principles of a healthy lifestyle, and the significance of industry, hospitality, friendship and kinship, moral foundations and unity.” With boasts of prosperity appearing unrealistic in light of economic stagnation only deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic, more emphasis is being placed on spirituality.

Marking the 175th birth anniversary of famed Kazakh poet and philosopher Abai Kunanbaev, Kazakh President Tokaev said that his concept of “A State that Listens to the Voice of the People” is aimed at developing the ideal just society. A constructive dialogue between government and society strengthens trust in the state. Government members, including ministers and akims (governors), must consider the suggestions and wishes of citizens when making decisions on matters of state and social importance. The words of Abai illustrate that the public is not always satisfied with the representatives given to them by the authorities.

A team of World Health Organization (WHO) experts finally received permission from Turkmenistan government to conduct independent COVID-19 tests in the country. In the meeting of DG, WHO and Director WHO Regional Office with President of Turkmenistan, “WHO expressed serious concern about the rise in COVID-19 negative pneumonia and urged for a WHO team to independently sample COVID-19 tests in the country and take them to WHO reference labs.’’

In a series of meetings with the foreign ministers of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the five Central Asian republics - as well as Taliban negotiators based in Qatar -Zalmay  Khalilzad, the US interlocutor for Afghanistan sought to reinforce the message that Washington intended to remain the top geopolitical player in Afghanistan, on the basis of its continuing role as the country's major financier. During talks, Khalilzad reportedly proposed to help fund a railway project to link Uzbekistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India.

One of the most defining aspects of Trump’s Central Asia policy has been strengthening of US relations with Uzbekistan. This was facilitated by socio-political and economic reforms driven by Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev who assumed charge in 2016 following the demise of Islam Karimov. Mirziyoyev’s reforms allowed US to constructively engage with Uzbekistan. Another important aspect of bilateral relations is their congruence of approaches over resolution of Afghanistan conflict. Mirziyoyev was quick to grasp Trump’s South Asia policy and US withdrawal strategy from Afghanistan which involved negotiation with Taliban and facilitating intra-Afghan negotiations. Uzbekistan hence assumed the regional leadership role to host both the Taliban and the Afghan government separately to understand their concerns and provide a mediating platform. This was a diplomatic success for Trump’s Central Asia and Afghan policy. The United States seeks to build counterterrorism and border security capabilities in Central Asia and it views the region as critical to its logistical infrastructure into Afghanistan.

Located in different cities of Kazakhstan, UN Volunteers are to introduce initiatives of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) project "Strengthening Community Resilience and Regional Cooperation for Prevention of Violent Extremism in Central Asia" to the whole region. The project’s overall objective is to mobilize youth’s energy, mobility, open-mindedness and dynamism as a potential positive force of countering extremist influences and narratives in the vulnerable communities. The project focuses on development measures to contribute to prevention of violent extremism through in-country activities in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Economic Developments

The pilot project of the Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan transit corridor became operational under the TIR system with two trucks transporting goods from Iran to Afghanistan and finally to Uzbekistan. This follows the recent successful shipment of goods from Shahid Rajaee customs in south Iran to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan via the KTAI (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran) corridor. The Iran-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan corridor is a new short and low-cost route which can play an effective role in developing trade and regional cooperation, and will lead to stable peace and security in Afghanistan. Iran is the most economical route for transit of goods from Central Asian countries due to shorter access to open waters.

Tajikistan has been discussing its potential membership in Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) for some time. Although joining EEU has been on the table for a while, there are indications that Tajikistan’s future in the organization hinges in part on Uzbekistan’s decision and timeline for EEU membership. If and when Uzbekistan enters the organization, Tajikistan will have little choice but to follow. All of Tajikistan’s international rail and much of its road transport network passes through Uzbekistan to access markets for imports and exports. Uzbekistan’s entry would make Tajikistan the only country without synchronized and advanced customs, sanitary, and phytosanitary norms applied to EEU members in the region (except Turkmenistan). Furthermore, Uzbekistan would become more attractive compared to Tajikistan for investments as a result of a common EEU market. Another concern is that large transportation corridors would circumvent Tajikistan to avoid higher customs duties. This would further isolate Tajikistan. Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan feel pressures from Russia to join the organization. One point of pressure is the labour migrants that both countries send to Russia. The remittances these migrants send constitute a larger share of Tajikistan’s GDP compared to Uzbekistan’s.

Tajikistan said it had stopped delivering electricity to neighbouring Uzbekistan and Afghanistan because diminished river levels caused by a winter of reduced snowfall have constrained output at the Soviet-built Nurek hydroelectric plant. Snowfall in areas where melted ice pours into Vakhsh River was at levels of 50% compared to previous years.

Russia will build a seaport with capacity of 12.5 million tonnes in Kalmykia region in Caspian Sea to connect with operating ports of Iran, India, and Kazakhstan. The new port will consist of 32 off-loading terminals and other facilities, such as elevators with a capacity of 3 lakh tonnes of simultaneous storage for grain crops, as well as terminals for storing and shipping vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, and other goods.

China’s gas purchases from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have fallen significantly during the coronavirus economic slowdown. Imports from the three in the first half of 2020 amounted to 19 billion cubic meters, a 17% decline compared to same period in 2019. In all of 2019, China imported 47.9 billion cubic meters from the three countries. China does not disclose what it pays.

Air services between Ukraine and Kazakhstan were resumed on August 17 after a temporary suspension caused by coronavirus lockdown measures. Flights between Kazakhstan and Turkey resumed from August 27. Kazakhstan also gradually resumed flights to United Arab Emirates, Belarus, Germany, Netherlands, Egypt, and Russia starting Aug. 17.

The spread of coronavirus appears to have abated in Kazakhstan. 99,442 cases of coronavirus infection have been recorded in the country. 72% of total number of patients with coronavirus had recovered. Situation has stabilised. 20,913 people continue to receive treatment, another 4,713 are being treated on an outpatient basis.

A project to build a ring road around Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty, has reached its financial close with a financing package of $585 million (496 million euros) thanks to a series of loans from international finance institutions. The project, known as BAKAD, is the largest public private partnership (PPP) deal ever to be undertaken in Central Asia. The financial package was coordinated by European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and includes funds from Bank of China, PGGM, Eurasian Development Bank and Islamic Development Bank.

India-Central Asia Relations 
Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh had productive and fruitful interactions with his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the side-lines of Meeting of Defence Ministers of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Moscow. Discussions on ways to add further momentum and expand ties in the area of defence and security were held.

Kazakhstan has sent its fourth peacekeeping company to Lebanon. A total of 120 Kazakh soldiers replaced their compatriots who were in Lebanon since November 2019. They will work in the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The peacekeepers will conduct patrols and assist civilians, as well as participate in organization of observation posts. Since October 2018, Kazakh military has been part of the Indian peacekeeping battalion. They jointly perform at least 50 tasks every day. The company includes military personnel from all regional commands and other troops. The personnel, including junior command personnel, officers and communications officers, underwent seven months of training at a peacekeeping centre in India.  

 A contingent of Indian Armed Forces was all set to participate in the Russian KavKaz 2020 strategic command-post exercise in mid-September (15-26 September) in Astrakhan, Russia. In view of India’s tense relations with China on account of the latter’s aggression into Indian territory in Ladakh, India decided to opt out of these exercises as Chinese PLA would be participating in these war games. The exercises are being held under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

India marked the 175th Birth Anniversary of the well-known Kazakh poet, writer and philosopher Abai Kunanbayev by releasing a Hindi Translation titled “Shabd Manjusha’’ of his iconic “Book of Words.’’

SpiceJet operated two flights from Moscow and Tashkent to repatriate 295 Indians.

(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.