October 2019 in Central Asia was remembered by the selection of Chinese face recognition systems in the capitals of three countries, meetings of regional leaders within the CIS and the Turkic Council, toughening Internet censorship and active cooperation in the military sphere. The analytical platform CABAR.asia provides a brief overview of the most significant events of the region over the past month.
Tajik authorities expect the reform of the Ministry of Internal Affairs to strengthen the potential of the police in order to combat crime and ensure internal security. However, civil society expects these changes to also be a step forward in the fight against torture and ill-treatment.
Central Asian states have laws and regulations that govern drone flights. However, each state has its own approach: from liberal to tougher regulation. (more…)
September 2019 in Central Asia was remembered by the traditional foreign business trips of leaders, rallies, conflicts at the border of countries and preparations for the parliamentary elections. The analytical platform CABAR.asia provides a brief overview of the most significant events of the region for September.
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National Council of Public Trust
The National Council of Public Trust, created by President Kassym-Zhomart Tokaev after his election victory, began its work in September. Some see this as a big advantage, noting that the new head of state will regain the trust of the people. Some see this as a tricky step to bring back protesting voters from the streets and maintain his legitimacy after criticism from international observers at in the presidential election.
The National Council of Public Trust under the President of Kazakhstan (hereafter NCPT) is an advisory and consultative body. Its main purpose is to provide suggestions and recommendations on important issues of national policy based on public discussions with community leaders, representatives of parties and civil society.
The role of the NCPT becomes ambiguous if we accept the fact that the political system is becoming more complex. Already instead of one center of political decisions, there are two – Akorda and the Library. Here, the second power vertical is approaching: Elbasy, at the last expanded meeting of the political council Nur Otan, ordered his close associates to restructure party work so that it turns into a leading and directing force that would oversee the actions of the executive branch.
Read CABAR.asia’s material on how can Tokaev make use of NCPT.
State of the Nation Address of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan – 2019
On September 2, 2019, the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan (RK hereafter) Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, delivered his first State of the Nation Address. Undoubtedly, it aroused great interest in society, especially among academicians and the expert community.
The 2019 State of the Nation Address is undoubtedly a continuation of the policy that is defined by the First President of the RK, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Thus, the continuity of the main political course is observed. However, certain differences can be traced. This year’s address was not broadcasted live, and there are some peculiarities in the structure and content.
Tokaev’s first state of the Nation Address is not aimed at epochal transformations, but is based on concrete measures with “small step” tasks.
Read the article of CABAR.asia on the State of the Nation Address of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan
On September 3, about 100 residents of the Kazakh city of Zhanaozen gathered in the central square and demanded to stop the implementation of Chinese projects in Kazakhstan. On the same day in Nur-Sultan, Aktobe and Shymkent, an action entitled “We are against Chinese expansion” took place.
Protesters expressed outrage at the Kazakh-Chinese agreement on the construction of 55 enterprises in Kazakhstan in the agricultural and industrial fields.
In Zhanaozen, protesters gathered outside the city hall and demanded that Tokaev pledge to put an end to Chinese projects in Kazakhstan. Others highlighted issues such as the release of political prisoners.
The governor of the Mangistau region, Serikbai Trumov, assured the protesters that Chinese enterprises would not be built in Kazakhstan without a public hearing.
China is the fourth largest investor and the third largest credit provider in Kazakhstan.
Tokaev’s trip to China
Against the backdrop of increased anti-Chinese sentiment in the country, Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev went on a visit to China. During his visit to China on September 11-12, Tokaev and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed issues of bilateral cooperation.
According to Akorda, following the results of the negotiations between Tokaev and Xi Jinping on September 11, 10 documents were signed in Beijing. This is a joint statement of the heads of state, protocols between the Ministry of Agriculture of Kazakhstan and the main customs department of China on inspection, quarantine, veterinary and sanitary requirements, as well as an intergovernmental agreement on – “cooperation on the project on provision of supercomputer to the Kazakh side by the Chinese government.”
Arrests of participants in unauthorized rallies
On September 21, 57 alleged participants in “unauthorized rallies” were detained in Almaty and Nur-Sultan. Detentions also took place in Shymkent and, reportedly, in several other cities.
The “Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan” (DCK) movement, which the court in Kazakhstan called an “extremist organization,” and its leader Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker and critic of the Kazakh authorities who have been living in exile since 2009, called for rallies on September 21.
On September 20, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Kazakhstan warned Kazakhstanis against participating in “illegal protests.” The country’s authorities call the DCK rallies illegal, which, as a rule, end with the arrests of participants.
Tokaev took part in the session of the UN General Assembly
At the end of September, Kazakh President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev visited New York (USA) to attend the 74th session of the UN General Assembly. During the visit, Tokayev met with UN Secretary General Antoniu Guterres and heads of states and governments of several countries, heads of international organizations, representatives of American business, multinational companies, political and expert circles of the United States. The visit lasted until September 25.
Conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border
Mid-September was overshadowed by another conflict on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border. This time it happened in the village of Maksat, of the Leilek district. As a result, it ended in a shootout and using mortars. 13 people were wounded from the Kyrgyz side and Lieutenant Colonel of the Boru Special Forces of the Border Service was killed, from the Tajik side – 3 victims and 12 wounded.
The parties traditionally accused each other of what happened, and exchanged notes of protest happened at the level of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Officially, both countries believe that the conflict began because of illegal construction on the disputed area. As a result, the prime ministers of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who held negotiations in the Batken region, had to extinguish the confrontation. The situation was settled, but no one guarantees that the conflict will not recur in the very near future.
In July 2019, a joint meeting of the presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Sooronbay Jeenbekov and Emomali Rahmon, took place. The press services of the heads of two states excitedly talked about how fruitfully the leaders of friendly countries spoke and how important the meeting was for resolving cross-border conflicts. In less than two months, another conflict with gunfire and casualties broke out on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border.
The September conflict became 12th on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border since the beginning of this year. Read the detailed CABAR.asia material about the latest conflict.
Exchange of near-border territories
On September 10, a conflict occurred between the Uzbek border guards and local residents of Kerkidan village, which is located near a water storage basin. Residents of the Kerkidan village, which is located in Osh Oblast, were outraged by the fact that the border guards of Uzbekistan erect fences near the water storage basin.
Official authorities of the Osh region confirmed the exchange of land with Uzbekistan. The territory in Aravan district was transferred to Uzbekistan (in the district of Too-Moyun) – the land near the village of Kerkidan (alongside the reservoir) was exchanged for an area near the village of Gulbaar. Border demarcation will be carried out within a week.
Land near the villages of Kerkidan and Gulbaar have the same area of 407 hectares. According to the Osh administration, the exchange has long been initiated by Kyrgyzstan.
This exchange has long been initiated by the Kyrgyz side. During the recent negotiations, an agreement was reached on the delimitation of borders.
In 2015, residents of Kerkidan protested over reports that the land at the reservoir would be given to neighbors. They demanded that the reservoir should be given for equal use between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Jeenbekov met with Putin in Orenburg
On September 20, the president of Kyrgyzstan, Sooronbai Jeenbekov met with the Russian president Vladimir Putin as part of his one-day working trip to the Orenburg region (Russia).Photo: president.kg
According to the president’s press service, Jeenbekov and Putin jointly watched the progress of the Center-2019 military exercises at the Donguz training ground, and also watched an exhibition of weapons and military equipment.
In a separate meeting, the heads of the two states discussed the current situation, current issues and prospects for cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Russia.
“Eurasian Week” in Bishkek
From September 25 to 27, the international exhibition forum “Eurasian Week – 2019” was held in Bishkek. It was attended by more than two thousand people, where issues of economic integration and business cooperation were discussed.
The three-day event was opened by a plenary meeting, and afterwards themed sessions began. The Prime Minister of the Kyrgyz Republic Muhammedkaly Abylgaziyev, the Chairman of the Board of the Eurasian Economic Commission Tigran Sargsyan, the Ministers of the EEC, representatives of state bodies and the business community of the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union spoke at the meeting.
The central theme of the forum in 2019 was to summarize the results of the first five years of the Eurasian Economic Union and its role in the global world community. The topics of strategic sessions were devoted to defining vectors of further development, analysis of implemented cases, developed and implemented mechanisms, and identification of integration growth points.
The second unit of the Rogun hydroelectric station was launched
On the 28th anniversary of state independence, Tajikistan launched the second unit of the Rogun hydroelectric station. On September 9, President of the country Emomali Rahmon, by clicking on a symbolic button, started the operation of the second unit of the hydroelectric power station with a capacity of up to 120 MW of electricity per hour.
The first unit of the hydroelectric power station was solemnly launched in November last year, the second, as expected, had to be commissioned in April of this year, however this did not happen due to technical reasons. Another date was announced – September 9th.
Currently, in summer time, Tajikistan supplies electricity to neighboring Uzbekistan and Afghanistan at a price of 40 dirhams (4 cents) for each kilowatt.
However, the residents of Tajikistan have their own expectations from the Rogun hydroelectric station. They hope that with the launch of the second unit, the problem with uninterrupted power supply in the country will be solved. Almost two decades, rural residents of Tajikistan, which make up 70% of the country’s population, suffer from restrictions on energy supply in winter time.
Engineers of the Rogun hydropower plant assure that from now on with the launch of the second unit, the generated electricity will be enough to ensure uninterrupted supply to the country’s inhabitants.
In total, there are six units at the Rogun HES, of which two, in accordance with the approved project, are installed temporarily and will generate electricity until 2021 and will be replaced.
Representatives of the Rogun Hydroelectric Power Station mentioned that the third hydropower unit will be installed in the next two years. All six units are expected to work until 2026.
Tajik authorities had terminated agreement with the Chinese company
The Government of Tajikistan terminated the investment agreement concluded three years ago with the Chinese company Henan Zhong-Ya Holding Group on the modernization and commissioning of ammonia and urea production facilities on the basis of Azot OJSC (formerly Tajik Azot).
The only producer of mineral fertilizers in the country is located in the city of Levakand (formerly Sarband) in the Khatlon region.
The corresponding decree was adopted by the government of the republic on August 30 of this year. The document states that the agreement is terminated “in connection with the failure to fulfill obligations undertaken by Henan Zhong-Ya Holding Group, China.
The agreement between the Government of Tajikistan and the Henan Zhong-Ya Holding Group company on the modernization and commissioning of ammonia and urea production enterprises on the basis of Azot OJSC was signed on September 3, 2016.
After that, a controlling stake in Azot OJSC was transferred to a Chinese company (50% + 1 share), which was supposed to invest $ 360 million in the enterprise.
The company undertook to complete the enterprise, equip it with modern production lines and begin production at the beginning of 2018. However, production work has not begun.
Preparations for parliamentary elections has begun
On September 27, Emomali Rahmon participated in a meeting of the Central Executive Committee of the People’s Democratic Party of Tajikistan (PDPT), and instructed to prepare well for the parliamentary elections in the country early next year.
It is reported that the meeting covered the results of the activities of the Central Executive Committee of the PDPT, regional, city and district committees for 9 months of 2019 were summed up, as well as internal party issues were discussed, including the convention of the next party congress, and preparations for it.
As the leader of the PDPT, Emomali Rahmon, drew attention to the nomination of worthy candidates for the election campaign. He instructed to take an active part and contribute to the conduct of the elections at the proper level.
Emomali Rahmon has been the leader of the PDPT party since 1998. In the current, VII convocation of the Majlisi Oli – the parliament of Tajikistan, this party occupies 51 out of 63 seats.
The “Friendship Bridge” opened on the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
On September 30, the opening ceremony of the Friendship Bridge at the Ovchi-Kalyacha-Kulundu checkpoint on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border took place. The bridge was built between the Tajik Bobojongafurov district and the Kyrgyz Leilek district.
The bridge was opened by the chairman of the Sughd region Rajabboy Ahmadzoda and the governor of Batken region Akram Madumarov. The opening ceremony was also attended by border guards, law enforcement agencies, journalists and residents of the two countries. In their speeches, oblast chairpersons called on residents for good neighborliness and peaceful life.
The bridge was destroyed in October 2017 during mudflows. The new bridge, with a length of 12 meters and a width of 8 meters, was built jointly, both sides financed 50% of the costs.
Parliament of Turkmenistan may become bicameral
A constitutional commission is being created in Turkmenistan in connection with amendments and additions to the country’s constitution.
This structure will improve the activities of the representative and legislative body of state power.
It should be reminded, that the president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took the initiative to switch to a bicameral parliamentary system. This was stated during a speech by the head of state at a meeting of the Halk Maslakhaty (People’s Council) – the highest representative body of Turkmenistan.
Political parties in Uzbekistan began collecting signatures
All registered political parties in Uzbekistan have begun collecting signatures. The day before the Central Election Commission issued sheets for the collection of signatures for the party representatives.
The Election Code of the Republic of Uzbekistan determines that a political party may nominate candidates for deputies provided that it has collected at least 40,000 signatures of voters supporting their participation in the elections, as well as letterhead forms issued by the Central Election Commission after the announcement of the start of the election campaign.
The election campaign for the election of deputies to the Legislative Chamber of the Oliy Majlis started on September 20. All five parties registered in the country expressed a desire to participate in the elections. Parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan will be held on December 22.
Read material about the upcoming parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan on the CABAR.asia. website
The prison term for Gulnara Karimova is going to increase
Another closed trial is being prepared in Tashkent on the case of Gulnara Karimova, the eldest daughter of the late President of Uzbekistan. On September 16, a court session was held in the Yashnabad district court of the capital, at which the issue of changing her preventive measure (that is, transfer from KIN-21 to another place) was considered.
The trial, apparently, was connected with the recent initiation of several more criminal cases against Gulnara Karimova. On August 19, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Uzbekistan announced this on its website, adding that these investigations are opened due to the theft of public funds and conclusion of transactions contrary to the interests of the country, as well as the seizure by extortion of other people’s property in especially large amounts.
Prior to that, she had already two terms of 5 years of restriction of freedom each, in March of the current year the last of them was replaced by a full-fledged conclusion.
Read the CABAR.asia material on how should the return to Uzbekistan of Gulnara Karimova’s ill-gotten assets be carried out
Uzbekistan joins Turkic Council
Uzbekistan made a decision on membership in the Turkic Council and became its full member country. Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed the Law “On ratification by the Republic of Uzbekistan of the Nakhichevan agreement on the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-speaking states”.
It is noted that on October 15 in Baku at the seventh summit of the Turkic Council, Uzbekistan will participate for the first time as a full member of the Turkic Council, represented by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev.
The Turkic Council, which was established on October 3, 2009 in Nakhichevan, is an international intergovernmental organization whose main activity is to strengthen friendship and good neighborliness between Turkic-speaking countries, preserving peace, security and mutual trust in the region and the world.
Currently, the Council includes Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey.
Uzbekistan introduces visa-free regime for citizens of China
Uzbekistan introduces a visa-free regime for Chinese citizens for up to seven days.
The introduction of a visa-free regime for Chinese citizens, including Hong Kong, is provided for by the decree of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev from September 12.
Chinese citizens will be able to enter Uzbekistan for up to seven days without visas as of January 1, 2020. However, they can enter by visa-free travel exclusively through the international airports of Uzbekistan.
For reference, now citizens of 65 countries can enter Uzbekistan without visas. This is the second indicator in the level of liberalization to the visa regime in the world after Georgia. In addition, citizens of 77 countries have the opportunity to enter Uzbekistan by electronic visa.
Forced cotton picking continues
In some regions of Uzbekistan, cotton picking started on September 14. Despite the promises of Uzbek officials that this year they will not be force people to pick up crops, employees of some budgetary organizations were ordered to go for cotton picking.
Despite the fact that Uzbekistan has adopted a number of laws aimed at eradicating forced labor, citizens continue to be forcibly involved in the harvest of cotton.
It should be reminded that at a video conference on August 12, President of Uzbekistan Shavkat Mirziyoyev officially banned sending school students, university students and employees of budgetary organizations to pick cotton. This happened after the US Department of Labor excluded Uzbekistan from the list of countries where child or forced labor is used in the production of goods.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.
 Head of State Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev delivered a Message to the people of Kazakhstan. Akorda.kz. http://www.akorda.kz/ru/events/astana_kazakhstan/astana_other_events/glava-gosudarstva-kasym-zhomart-tokaev-vystupil-s-poslaniem-narodu-kazahstana
 More than 100 people rallied in Zhanaozen. Lada.kz. https://www.lada.kz/aktau_news/society/73145-bolee-100-chelovek-vyshli-na-akciyu-protesta-v-zhanaozene.html
 President of Kazakhstan Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev held talks with President of China Xi Jinping. Akorda.kz http://www.akorda.kz/en/events/international_community/foreign_visits/prezident-kazahstana-kasym-zhomart-tokaev-provel-peregovory-s-predsedatelem-knr-si-czinpinom
 13 people were injured. 24.kg. https://24.kg/proisshestvija/129536_konflikt_nagranitse_postradali_13kyirgyizstantsev/
 The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan presented a note of protest after Tajikistan. 24.kg. https://24.kg/obschestvo/129595_konflikt_nagranitse_mid_kyirgyizizstan_vruchil_poslu_tadjikistana_notu_protesta/
 Land exchange between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Kloop.kg. https://kloop.kg/blog/2019/09/12/obmen-zemli-mezhdu-kyrgyzstanom-i-uzbekistanom-teper-vodohranilishhe-kerkidan-polnostyu-nahoditsya-na-uzbekskoj-territorii/
 President Sooronbai Jeenbekov and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed pressing issues of bilateral cooperation. President.kg. http://www.president.kg/en/sobytiya/15044_prezident_sooronbay_gheenbekov_i_prezident_rossii_vladimir_putin_obsudili_aktualnie_voprosi_dvustoronnego_sotrudnichestva
 The Tajik Azot restoration agreement with the Chinese is terminated. They did not fulfill the obligation. Asiaplus.tj. https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/economic/20190911/soglashenie-o-vosstanovlenii-tadzhik-azota-s-kitaitsami-rastorgnuto-oni-ne-vipolnili-obyazatelstva
 Emomali Rahmon called on party members to nominate worthy candidates for parliamentary elections. Asiaplus.tj. https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/power/20190927/emomali-rahmon-prizval-odnopartiitsev-vidvinut-dostoinih-kandidatov-k-parlamentskim-viboram
 On the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan opened the “Friendship Bridge. Asiaplus.tj. https://asiaplustj.info/ru/news/tajikistan/politics/20190930/na-granitse-tadzhikistana-i-kirgizstana-otkrili-most-druzhbi
 The parties of Uzbekistan began collecting signatures. Five political forces will take part in the parliamentary elections. Podrobno.uz. https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/partii-uzbekistana-nachali-sbor-podpisey-/
New criminal cases have been launched against Gulnara Karimova. Asiaterra.info. http://www.asiaterra.info/news/protiv-gulnary-karimovoj-vozbuzhdeny-novye-ugolovnye-dela
 Uzbekistan introduces a visa-free regime for citizens of China. Podrobno.uz. https://podrobno.uz/cat/uzbekistan-i-kitay-klyuchi-ot-budushchego/uzbekistan-vvodit-bezvizovyy-rezhim-dlya-grazhdan-kitaya/
E-government has been discussed for 10 years in Tajikistan. However, despite the growing number of Internet users, the e-government has not become a part of citizens’ daily lives. (more…)
«The carrots and sticks policy could be the beginning of joint Sino-Russian rule where Central Asian countries would not have a voice in decision-making processes that concern them or their future development» – researcher Nina Miholjcic, mentioned in her article written specifically for CABAR.asia.
«Would the excessive economic dependence on China lead to an equally excessive dependence on geopolitics, security and the military? In the end, there is a well-known axiom, which has come from world history and political science – economic dependence will eventually turn into political and military dependence», – said Tajik political analyst Parviz Mullodzhanov, in his article written specifically for CABAR.asia.
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Joint Tajik-Chinese military field exercises – “Cooperation-2019” in GBAO. Photo: mod.gov.cn
Recent joint Tajik-Chinese military field exercises – “Cooperation-2019” in GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) have attracted attention both in Tajikistan and abroad, caused widespread discussion in the press and on the Internet. It would seem that bilateral military field exercises should not cause such a resonance. Particularly, both states have an agreement on cooperation in the field of security and counter-terrorism.
According to official reports, the military field exercises were carried out with the aim of working out cooperation in repelling the possible breakthrough by militants of jihadist groups across the Tajik-Afghan border. According to the Tajik border service, to date, in the northern regions of Afghanistan several thousand extremists have accumulated, where natives from the post-Soviet republics and Chinese Xinjiang also take part.
Following the official logic, these military filed exercises are in the interests of both parties, and should not cause any special questions either from the partners of Tajikistan in the CSTO, or in the Tajik society itself. Moreover, the scale of this military field exercise is small, where only one battalion from the Tajik side and one troop from the Chinese side are involved.
However, several circumstances explain why a small-scale military field exercise have suddenly acquired a character value in the eyes of the international community and many other observers. These circumstances cause many questions that require a deeper analysis and remain unanswered to date.
The main concern is the fact that the growth of Sino-Tajik military cooperation is taking place against the background of the rapidly growing economic dependence of Tajikistan on China. Today, China is already the main creditor of Tajikistan, becoming also the main investor and trading partner of the country, which has long pushed Russia and other CIS countries into the middle ground.
Under these conditions, a quite reasonable question arises: Would the excessive economic dependence on China lead to an equally excessive dependence on geopolitics, security and the military? In the end, there is a well-known axiom, which has come from world history and political science – economic dependence will eventually turn into political and military dependence.
The fight against terror? Or…
If China invests hundreds of millions of dollars in the country’s economy, then in the future it may well declare its right to protect its investments – under the pretext that its economic interests are threatened in the event of political destabilization or any other actions of local governments.
It follows with a high degree of probability that the fight against terrorism is only one of the reasons for the joint military field exercises in GBAO – which in fact is far down the list of priorities. Indeed, it is rather difficult to believe in the possibility of Uyghur militants breaking through two borders into China. It is also hard to believe that the breakthrough of several hundred jihadists could even pose a serious threat to the Chinese People’s Army or the territorial integrity of China.
In fact, the strategic task for the PRC today is to protect its large-scale, multi-billion foreign projects and investments. First of all, we are talking about the strategic project “One Belt, One Road” within the framework of which about 60 billion US dollars are supposed to be invested in post-Soviet Central Asia alone.
Map of the One Belt One Road Initiative in Central Asia
The strategic scope of the project is also evidenced by the fact that at the end of April 2019 it already covered 126 countries, on the territory of which 63% of the world’s population lives. To implement this project, the Chinese leadership has entered into agreements with 29 international organizations, and the expected economic scale is estimated at 21 trillion US dollars.
The essence of the project is to create in the world and, above all, around China, a belt of transport and trade infrastructure, which would provide access to local mineral resources and trade areas. The implementation of this program would make it possible to cheapen the prime cost of exported goods produced by Chinese industry – which would make it more competitive in the world market.
Thus, the “One Belt, One Road” initiative is of paramount strategic importance for the Chinese leadership, which made the main bet in the further development of the country and its exit from the crisis precisely on this mega-project. The size of the project’s cost is already huge that failure or even partial failure on its realization will cause irreparable damage to the Chinese economy.
Accordingly, in these conditions, protecting the interests of this mega-project and, in general, foreign investment, comes to the prime for the current Chinese leadership. This implies a more active nature of foreign policy, when the PRC gradually becomes the largest international player, not only in the field of economics, but also in the field of security and military cooperation.
This also implies direct intervention into the domestic political situation in countries where significant Chinese investment and economic interests are already located.
China’s new role in the world
For the first time, the new role of China raised up in worldwide discussion after the end of civil war in Sri Lanka – the victory of government forces in 2009 was made possible largely due to large-scale military-economic assistance from China, amounting to about 1 billion USD. Being internationally isolated due to human rights violations, the Sri Lankan government has relied heavily on Chinese loans, diplomatic and military assistance.
At the same time, external loans were distributed among the family members of President Rajapaksa, who controlled 80% of all government spending. As a result, to date, instead of economic prosperity, Sri Lanka has ended up in a debt hole, with over 40% of the country’s external debt accounts for China.
The example of Sri Lanka explains well, why the mega-project “One Belt One Road” is so successfully implemented in countries of the Third World. In the list of debtor-countries, where 40 to 80% of external debt accounts for China, as a rule, are states that occupy the last lines of international ratings for corruption, economic freedoms, democratization, and so on.
Their activities and decisions are beyond the control of society and parliament; accordingly, the agreements concluded to the greatest extent reflect the long-term interests of the Chinese side – not only purely economic but also geopolitical and related to the sphere of security.
In this context, it can be assumed that the countries of Central Asia, primarily Tajikistan, are going in the same direction. After 2014, when the open confrontation of the West and Russia in Ukraine began, the Chinese presence in the region significantly increased.
It can be said that the manic obsession of Putin’s leadership over the West and Ukraine, in fact, opened the door for Chinese expansion into the region not only in the field of economy, but also in military and regional security. In his confrontation with the West, Vladimir Putin is forced to seek allies and partners in Southeast Asia, primarily via China.
In fact, the only answer from Russia was the Customs Union and the Eurasian Economic Union, which looked like an attempt to “stake out” the territory and limit the Chinese expansion to at least the area of economy and trade. In the Russian expert community, the situation in the region is sometimes optimistically described as a “Russian-Chinese duumvirate,” when Russia remains the main security player, while China dominates the economy.
“Duumvirate”? Or a triumvirate?
However, if we consider the case of Tajikistan, which has not yet joined the EAEU, the term “duumvirate” looks more like an attempt to mistake the wish for the reality. Especially in light of recent decisions on the organization of a de facto joint border service with the PRC on the territory of GBAO, along Tajik-Afghan border. This agreement from 2016 is of great importance for the country and the region – since according to it, the Chinese side finances the construction of eleven border posts and creates 30-40 posts on the Tajik side of the border with Afghanistan. Citizens of Tajikistan will serve in these posts, while all expenses for the upkeep and operation of the outposts are paid by the Chinese side.
Details of the agreement are not known, but its provisions are very reminiscent of the Russian-Tajik border agreement terms, which was valid until 2005. Back then, the Russian side also funded the protection of Tajik-Afghan border, while the main contingent of border guards were also Tajiks.
Thus, a quite reasonable question arises – is it a de facto transfer of part of the border to the Chinese control?
At some point, the Russian border troops left Tajikistan at the insistence of the Tajik side. According to WikiLeaks, the main reason was that the Russians began to intervene directly in Tajik internal political disputes, engaging in talks with the opposition and the former government warlords.
The question is – can the Tajik side also ever, if such a desire or need arises, expel Chinese border guards from the Tajik-Afghan border, given the level of economic dependence on China?
When Russians were at the border, it was often heard from Russian politicians that the Tajik-Afghan border is the “external border of Russia”, “the front line of defense against Islamic fundamentalism”. Similar rhetoric and arguments about the need to protect against jihadists are used today by the Tajik and Chinese sides to justify new agreements on protecting the border with Afghanistan.
The question is whether the Chinese leadership also considers (as the Russians used to be) the Tajik-Afghan border as its “external border”? How then will Chinese strategists consider the Sino-Tajik border in future – as the “internal” border of great China or the “second line of defense” against Islamic terrorism?
In this regard, conflicting data and publications in the world media regarding the true situation on the Sino-Tajik border should be mentioned. These publications became especially frequent in 2011, after the transfer of the part of disputed territory by Tajikistan to China. At this time, foreign news outlets came out with sensational headlines about the alleged transfer of Chinese military units and border guards to disputed territories in the Murghab region and some secret arrangements on paying off debts through the transfer of land and mineral resources.
Therefore, in 2013, in a number of Russian mass media, information was received about the entry of Chinese troops into the territory of the Murghab region of GBAO, and not so long ago there were publications about the advance of Chinese border posts deep into Tajik territory. The vast majority of these publications were not subsequently confirmed and were disproved.
At the same time, their very presence reflects a general concern both in the CIS countries and in the international community regarding the future development of the situation in the region. There is a certain and growing concern among Tajikistan’s CIS collaborates, especially in the Russian Federation. The arrival of the Chinese border guards here may well be perceived as a departure from a multi-vector policy – towards one-sided and growing dominance of China. In this regard, Tajikistan’s refusal to join the EAEU will also most likely be interpreted by its CIS partners as a result of Chinese influence and even pressure.
Increasingly, alarmist publications can be seen in the Western press and academic journals, reflecting general concern and skepticism in Western countries. Given the difficult relations between the United States, India and China at present, the situation in Afghanistan, the issue of Chinese economic and military expansion in the Central Asian region is gaining considerable international importance.
In many ways, this concern and distrust are also caused by the signing nature of Sino-Tajik agreements of this kind – without preliminary public and expert discussions, consultations with geopolitical partners, press coverage, secret negotiations, behind closed doors, etc. As a result, both the local society and the international community, the CSTO partners, learn about the decisions made after the action, when everything has already been decided and nothing can be changed.
Hence, doubts and speculations appear regarding the future of Sino-Tajik relations and the further development of the situation on the border, the resolution of the problem of territorial claims by China, and so on. Meanwhile, the very existence of such doubts about the ability of Tajikistan to properly defend its independence and territorial integrity, significantly affects the country’s image in the international arena, undermines the confidence of international players and partners in the future of Tajikistan as an independent and stable state.
But most importantly, this same distrust and pessimism is growing more and more within Tajik society – as evidenced by the negative reaction on the Sino-Tajik agreements and the nature of publications and comments in the Tajik segment of the Internet and social networks.
Today, social networks in Tajikistan are good material for measuring the reaction of society to government activities or decisions. In addition, the observed public criticism and pessimism regarding the country’s ability to defend effectively its independence is the worst and most alarming sign for the Tajik authorities – as well as for the Tajik society as a whole. Because any national state in the modern world, is stable and has a future only when the people themselves believe in it.
This article was prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial or donor.
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Unity is Primary Task – Diversity is Secondary? Features and Omissions of Ethnic Policy in Tajikistan
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