14 January 2019


Liviu Ioniţă

Image source: Mediafax

Far away and isolated, the Central Asia is something still unknown for us, but 2019 will hasten, probably, the moment when distances will be reduced and peoples will get closer. What succeeded to prevent Russia and the West couldn’t open, the gate to the Central Asia, it’s likely for China to get through by its new Silk Road generating expectations, but also concerns.

A group of five “bloc” states (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan), caught between Russia at North, the old imperial power which is military dominating the region, and the vulnerable South (Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan) and between China which is in an economic offensive and the Caspian Sea which is another obstacle in opening towards West, with common traditions (ethnical and historical origins, the Sunni Muslim religion, the recent Soviet history and the political-economic inherited model - clan dictatorships or semi-dictatorships) are hostages of quite the same destiny, however with some remarkable peculiar differences.

The most important one, Kazakhstan, is vulnerable because its supreme commander, Nursultan Nazarbaev, is almost 80 years old. He has been leading the country for 30 years now, hence giving up the power could generate a crisis. The country succeeded between the Chinese investments in infrastructure and the economic and military cooperation with Russia, as it was needed. The multi-vectorial policy aims for economic winnings, the internal political system not being open outward, which is the reason for the lack of a Russian threat, especially because the Russian minority is carefully protected.

Uzbekistan went through a power transfer and, under the leadership of the new president, Shavakat Mirziyoyev, is slowly heading towards a more relaxed political system, however aware that it will not get out of the autocratic system which is defining the region. The relative political ease, economic openness and foreign reconnection have some limits which should not be broken otherwise the regime’s repressive side will re-emerge.

Across the two republics in the Tian Shan and Pamir Mountains area, China’s economic domination seems, at the moment, quite beneficial, especially regarding the infrastructure field.

Kyrgyzstan is still politically unstable, the low level of democratization they reached in 2010 leading to a weaker system with a more active parliament. The political instability comes with ethnical tensions and nationalism as main characteristics.

Tajikistan is passing through a consolidated authoritarianism which along with poorness and militant Islamism can increase the political uncertainty. This is the area with the biggest level of radical Islamism at the Northern border of Afghanistan.

Turkmenistan, full of energy resources, can still economically evolve under the actual dictatorship of the president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. Neutral and isolated, this country has a lot to accomplish internally, in order to reach the needed openness towards progress. Its gas is getting through Asia and a small part of it, through the Russian system, to Europe. A pipeline to pass through the Caspian Sea and to get to Europe, economically reliable, cannot be created for political reasons: Russia does not want competence on this field.

The economic influence of China is growing through investments whether in infrastructure or in economy. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are already economically dominated by China, Russia being defeated. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are seeking for equilibrium, accepting the infrastructure projects, however balancing the Chinese investments with the Russian and Western ones. And Turkmenistan is already energetically connected to China.

Russia must take potluck with whatever can be economically controlled. Politically, the regimes are not a problem for Russia, because there is no democratic threat.

From a military point of view, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) that Russia wants as the very image of NATO is not but a mechanism which is protecting the autocratic and unstable political regimes against the Jihadism, which is waiting for the economic and social circumstances to bring them some followers.

The West will have to take potluck with some investments accepted from everyone and with the idea that Hinterland is not conquerable. Through the Central Asia, China will come towards West, passing through the ex-Russian influence zone, not the reverse.

The year of 2019 can come with instability outbreaks, specific to these regimes, some social development, an intensification of the Islamic threat and a modest economic increase created by China. But let’s take it in dribs and drabs:

  • Kazakhstan.  As it was previously mentioned, politically speaking, it has a huge uncertainty, when and to whom it will be made the power transfer from president Nazarbaev? The way the actual president will leave the political scene and who will take the power are important topics for the stabilization of this state. The relations with Russia will remain a priority also for the following period, as Moscow is the top diplomatic and security partner. Kazakhstan has a high percentage of Russian ethnic population concentrated next to the border with Russia. Though at the moment the inter-ethnic relationships are good enough, Moscow could mobilize this human resource if a foreign policy re-orientation of the Kazakh political leadership is perceived. This is the reason for Kazakhstan to not have any interest in the full integration with the Western economic or security structures as the geo-political confrontation is getting a lower risk. Economy’s vulnerability against the external shocks will still remain the main challenge in creating a stable and durable development in 2019. The external demands from China and the Russian Federation, the Kazakhstan’s main commercial partners and the oil demands and global prices as well will continue to be the main external factors which will influence Kazakhstan’s economic performance. The internal factors will include the effectiveness of the institutional and structural reforms implementation.
  • Uzbekistan. For the next period of time, Tashkent government will be focused on: upkeeping the macro-economic stability; hastening the transition from an economy controlled by the state to a market economy, but, as much as possible, without the government losing its role as economy’s lead actor; improving the social services and maintaining the political and social stability.  The Uzbek political scene will also be dominated this year by the attempts of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to consolidate the power. This president, who took the power in 2016, will dare more than his predecessor (Islam Karimov) regarding the economic reform, trying to introduce some economy liberalization elements. Meanwhile, Mirziyoyev will be extremely cautious in all of his actions, in order not to offer his opponents the opportunity to disagree with his ideas and willingness, and also to countervail the potential reactions against its governance.
  • Externally, China and the Russian Federation will remain the Uzbekistan’s main political and economic partners. The Russian political and economic influence is starting to be died down by the significant Chinese investments in the last years, China also being the most important outlet for the Uzbek products. Furthermore, president Mirziyoyev will seek to extend the economic relations with the neighbor states, especially with Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, based on the existent ones.
  • Kirgizstan has a small and open economy, which makes it vulnerable against the economic fluctuations of the main commercial partners as Russia, China and Kazakhstan. On the other hand, the political instability, the weak public administration, the precarious economic increase, corruption and the regional divisions will still define the situation in the small central Asiatic republic in 2019. The fight for power between president Sooronbai Zheenbekov and his predecessor, Almazbek Atambayev and his allies, can bring some changes in the government, but it will not ease the control of the leading party (Kirgizstan Social Democratic Party- KSDP), given the lack of a strong national opposition. China’s economic calling card will increase through infrastructure investments and loans to the Kyrgyz state. China will also have an increasing influence through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the areas it is interested in as up keeping the security in the Eastern border area between the Kyrgyzstan Republic and the Xinjiang province.
  • Tajikistan. This year, the Tajik president, Emomali Rahmon, will try at any cost to monopolize the political system through crushing his political adversaries, the independent media and the religious groups. Crushing the political liberties, the free speech and religion liberties is something which defined the authoritarian Tajik political regimes which exaggerated the risk of Islamic radicalization to oppress the opposition. A potential instability source comes also from population’s living, who is facing with poorness, lack of central heating and water to which the lack of jobs is added. The population’s complaints are also increasing because of the authorities’ punitive reactions against the protesters.       

Another threat against the already weak internal stability is the insurgent activity from the border with Afghanistan. This comes mainly from the drugs traffic on both sides of the border, which is raising a lot of violent clashes for transportation lines and fighting over the incomes which come from drugs traffic. Even if these incidents are not jeopardizing the Tajikistan’s stability as a state, these can increase the tensions between the central Tajik government and the autonomous one of the Gorno-Badakhshan’s province, a region with strong connections to Islamic radicalism.

  • Turkmenistan remains a state which is led by a dictatorial state, one of the bossiest and closed states in the world. It has a neutrality policy and it is avoiding the official commitment in multilateral organization. The main economic and foreign policy objective is diversifying the natural gas export markets, at the moment having only one customer - China. A new contract is likely to be signed with Gazprom in 2019, but the delivery conditions of the Turkmen gas will be in Russian state’s company favor, because the Turkmen state will be in a weaker negotiation position due to the dependency on China.

One of the major energy projects that Turkmenistan has joined is TAPI gas pipeline (Turkmenistan- Afghanistan- Pakistan-India). In 2018, president Berdimuhamedov visited many states in the Gulf to ask them for financial support for this project. Turkmen president’s actions have failed and with all his optimism for the TAPI project to be completed by the end of 2020 there are small chances for this to happen. Not only the lack of financing sources, but especially the adversity relations between some of the states on whose territories the gas pipeline should pass thorough, are holding this project off.

The Central Asia is still far away from us. On the arrival time it will not bring Russia, but China, not only energetically, but together with all its issues.