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Central Asia 2020: Trends and Challenges

The past 2019 for Central Asia marked by significant integration activities and domestic political developments in each of the five countries. The CABAR.asia analytical platform interviewed prominent political scientists of the region to note significant events of 2019 and to analyze their developments and trends for 2020.


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What happened in Central Asian countries in 2019?

According to Kazakh experts the landmark event of 2019 in Kazakhstan was certainly the beginning of political transit process in the country. The most significant events of last year for the country were the following: Nursultan Nazarbayev’s statement of March 19, 2019, on the resignation from the post of president, the holding of early elections, resulting in the election of the new president of the country, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev.

Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev at the oath ceremony to the people of Kazakhstan. Photo: akorda.kz

In the light of these processes the political field mightily reconfigured. Analysts note the continuation of the following trends: generations change, the enhanced youth participation and the growth of civic activity among the population.

In foreign policy the new government confirmed the strategic nature of Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia and China and the country’s participation in Eurasian integration processes and the “Belt and Road” Initiative; the Astana process in Syria continues.

2019 in Kyrgyzstan was marked by a further strengthening of presidential power. Last year did not demonstrate significant economic results or major strategic achievements development-wise.

The arrest of former president Almazbek Atambayev can be named as one of the main political events of last year in the country. According to experts, the use of law enforcement and judicial bodies for political purposes has increased.

On August 8, 2019, former president Almazbek Atambayev was arrested as a result of a two-day assault on his residence in the village of Koy-Tash by law enforcement agencies. Photo: 24.kg

Thanks to Kyrgyz journalists, 2019 also brought corruption talks to a new level. However, the whole year passed under an endless and almost inconclusive investigation of the relevant bodies to question the former deputy head of the customs service, Rayimbek Matraimov.

According to Tajik analysts over the past year Tajikistan has witnessed a tendency of increased social tension, mainly of the population’s most vulnerable segments. This phenomenon was provoked by the government actions making important decisions for the country without proper analysis and consideration of possible social consequences. For example issues related to the Internet, money transfers, SIM cards, and new domestic passports.

A key event in the country was the launch of the Rogun hydroelectric station’s second unit in September 2019. Tajikistan is steadily making every effort to complete the construction of this hydraulic structure, which soon can turn the country into a major producer of cheap and environmentally friendly electricity in the region.

A key event in the country was the launch of the Rogun hydroelectric station’s second unit in September 2019. Photo: president.tj

Another significant trend is the revitalization of underground groups of religious extremists in the republic. ISIS terrorist organization claimed responsibility for series of terrorist attacks and riots in Tajik prisons that took place last year. At the end of the year an armed group attacked an Ishkobod outpost located on the Tajik-Uzbek border.

In 2019 there was a surge in cross-border conflicts in the north of the country with the participation of residents and border services of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that resulted in injuries and fatalities of citizens of both countries. Despite the political will to demarcate and delimit state borders, this issue remains a matter of concern.

Foreign policy has noticed some warming in relations with Tehran undertaken under the influence of Tajikistan’s CIS and SCO partners. Another important trend in 2019 was the further growth of Tajikistan’s economic dependence on China, the growth of debt obligations, the transfer of several fields for further development to Chinese enterprises, and the holding of joint military exercises with China on the country’s territory.

In Turkmenistan 2019 was marked by the Caspian Economic Forum and a meeting of the heads of governments of the CIS countries. However, according to the Turkmen expert, such protocol events do not affect the lives of ordinary civilians.

Turkmenistan experienced great economic difficulties last year. The list of scarce food products increased in 2019. This year has become worse in terms of economic potential and providing the population with food.

People continue to leave the country. The most popular migration destinations are Russia and Northern Cyprus. It is difficult for Turkmen citizens to obtain a residence permit in Turkey due to the large influx of migrants from Central Asia.

Experts from Uzbekistan noted a couple of the country’s most notable political events in 2019.

The elections to the Oliy Majlis (national parliament) and local parliaments were held in Uzbekistan last year. These elections were the first parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan to which the full OSCE /ODIHR observer mission was sent.

In November 2019 the second Consultative Meeting was held in Tashkent with the participation of heads of all five countries in the region. The meeting was postponed several times, yet it took place and had a rather serious resonance.

Second Consultative Meeting of Heads of State in Tashkent. Photo: president.uz

In 2019 the country adopted the tax code that has been developed for the last two years. The fiscal policy sets the main priorities in the economy. Uzbekistan also outlined a large program for the privatization of state assets, about 300 state enterprises are for sale.

Upcoming events and trends in the countries of the region in 2020

Kazakhstan will hold a national census in 2020, which is scheduled for the beginning of the year. The previous one was held in 2009. The results of the census will help to obtain a complete and more accurate picture of the demographic and sociocultural processes in the country for the development of a state policy, which is the closest to modern realities.

According to a Kazakh expert, economy-wise Kazakhstan is expecting difficult and depressing times. In the social sphere, amid growing social imbalances, migration outflows and civic activity outbursts will intensify.

A positive trend would be the increased public attention on the awareness of its national identity in various aspects. Among the current events on the political agenda in Kazakhstan are the upcoming congress of the Nur-Otan party and public battles related to the country’s parliamentary elections.

Experts from Kyrgyzstan unanimously noted 2020 under the sign of parliamentary elections. The latter will determine the alignment of elite groups for the next two to three years. The current parliament is the product of behind-the-scenes agreements of regional elites and the formation of lists of the former president Almazbek Atambayev’s administration. Since then, the weight (electoral, financial, organizational) of various influence groups has changed, and accordingly, all this should get a legitimate form in the elections.

Also, under the elections sign, one should expect a crystallization of the president’s position on the case of Rayimbek Matraimov (this issue has become a litmus test for him), and on the issue of his support or cooperation with any party.

In 2020 the third Consultative Meeting of Central Asian Heads of State is due to take place in Bishkek. The summit will attract a certain interest in the region. Experts await the meeting of leaders this time to have a more practically oriented part.

According to Tajik experts, the socio-political life of Tajikistan in 2020 promises to be busy. The country should hold parliamentary and presidential elections this year. The parliamentary elections will take place on March 1 – the Majlisi Namoyandagon, the Majlis of regions, cities, and districts, as well as jamoats. Political parties are becoming more active today, most of which held their election congresses, prepared an election program and decided on the party-list candidates. Presidential elections are to be held traditionally in November.

Also, in October 2020, Tajikistan is planning a census of population and housing. The previous census took place in 2010. The use of modern technologies during the census would be a feature of the event.

This year for Tajikistan will be marked by a chairmanship in regional organizations. Starting January 1, 2020, Tajikistan will chair the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, and the Istanbul Process for Afghanistan. In 2020, the country will host a meeting of the SCO and CSTO heads of state. Experts assume convening an international high-level conference in Dushanbe within the framework of the fourth global water initiative of Tajikistan “Water for sustainable development” 2018-2028. 

In the coming year Tajikistan will again face a choice – whether to join the EAEU, try to balance its foreign policy in some other way, or continue its ever-increasing tilt towards China. It is unlikely that the decisions will be final in the pre-election year, but the Tajik government will have to take some steps in one direction or another.

Turkmenistan seriously discusses the issue of releasing the exchange rate. If authorities don’t let go at all and make it “floating,” at least they will drastically reduce it. According to a Turkmen expert, there are almost no foreign exchange reserves in the country. 

At the political level, the authorities began to actively seek ways of interaction and cooperation with the World Bank and the IMF. Most likely, the authorities, having already understood the full depth of the crisis, are now more inclined to listen to the opinion of economic and financial experts.  

Perhaps in 2020 the Council of Elders of Turkmenistan will be transformed into the Upper House of Parliament and will have the powers of the Senate. 

In 2020 the discussion of Uzbekistan’s entry into the EAEU will widen, and negotiations on accession to the WTO will strengthen. 2020 can become a litmus test for Uzbekistan; trends on the inevitability or reversibility of reforms will be outlined. In other words, if Uzbekistan can attract foreign investment and expand export destinations, the country will continue to open, otherwise, the country might follow an already familiar path of protectionism.

In early February 2020 the President of Uzbekistan will visit Russia to discuss important issues, primarily, joining the EAEU. Uzbekistan might be formalized with the status of the observer. According to Uzbek experts, this is a significant visit for the country and one of the main events of the year that would have major consequences in the future.

Uzbekistan will chair the CIS in 2020. Against the background of discussions on Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU, Uzbekistan’s chairmanship in the CIS may bring innovations in terms of regional integration. 

In 2020, planned visit of US State Secretary Mike Pompeo in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan (editor’s note – due to the tense situation in the Middle East Pompeo postponed January visit to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan). Given the changes in the country and the region, new projects and subjects for cooperation have appeared. Uzbekistan’s renewed policy on Afghanistan can also become an important negotiation subject. Experts forecast a discussion of particular aspects of the US Central Asian strategy.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

The main trend in the region next year is the growth of social tension and the related public demand for change. The states will face the main challenges precisely in the sphere of their socio-economic policy.

Another trend, directly related to the first, will be the complication of the economic situation – in all countries of the region.

On the other hand 2019 consolidated an increase in regional trade. In 2020, the trend of increased trade between countries will continue.

Among the planned events, of particular interest are the next Consultative Meeting of the Heads of Central Asian States and the first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum, due to be held in Bishkek in 2020.

Integration issues will be deliberately discussed between heads of state, as well as in media, academic, and expert circles. However, to date, no data would allow us to claim with confidence any anticipated serious breakthrough in this area.

Relations between individual countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, may not have the best effect. The clarification of leadership in Kazakhstan is also critical – the full participation of the President of Kazakhstan, Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev, in the dialogue without leaving it to the former leader, is equally important.

2020 will observe the increased competition among global powers in Central Asia. Particularly, the role and influence of China in Central Asia will grow. The revitalization of the European Union is expected with the adoption of a new strategy for the countries of the region. If the United States adopts a separate document regarding the Central Asian states, then we can witness the transformation of the C5 + 1 format. Russian policy in the region will be aimed at attracting Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the EAEU and strengthening military-political relations with the Central Asian states.

In 2020, Central Asia enters the electoral cycle: parliamentary and presidential elections in Tajikistan, parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and 2021 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan held its parliamentary elections in December 2019. Apart from Kyrgyzstan, there is not much excitement expected in general during the election processes in Central Asia, however, it still is a serious challenge for the state system. A census is also scheduled in countries in the region.

See full answers of experts for each country: 

KAZAKHSTAN

Askar Nursha, Dean of the School of Public Policy and Law at AlmaU (Kazakhstan)

What significant events took place in Kazakhstan in 2019?

Askar Nursha

The resignation of Nursultan Nazarbayev from the post of President of Kazakhstan in March and the election of Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev are the news of the year. A significant reconfiguration of the political field took place, leading to the following appointments: in February – of Askar Mamin as head of the government, in March – of Dariga Nazarbayeva as speaker of the parliament’s Senate, and in November – of Marat Tazhin as ambassador to the Czech Republic. In line with these processes, the opposition field began to restructure. Here we see the continuation of the following trends: generations change, the enhanced youth participation and the growth of civic activity among the population.

In foreign policy, the new presidential administration has confirmed the strategic nature of Kazakhstan’s relations with Russia and China and the country’s participation in Eurasian integration processes and the “Belt and Road” Initiative; the Astana process in Syria continues.

What significant events are expected in Kazakhstan in 2020?

First, I would single out the national census of Kazakhstan, which is scheduled for early 2020. The previous one was held in 2009. The census results will help to identify key parameters of ethno-demographic composition, basic indicators of population dynamics, fertility, migration, including by age, gender and by region. The results of the census will help to obtain a completer and more accurate picture of the demographic and sociocultural processes in the country for the development of a state policy, which is the closest to modern realities.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

In 2020, the trend of strengthening bilateral and multilateral relations of Central Asian countries with Russia will further develop. The parties will be encouraged by economic, political and geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent. Among the planned events, of particular interest are the next Consultative Meeting of the Heads of Central Asian States and the first EU-Central Asia Economic Forum, due to be held in Bishkek in 2020.

Aidar Amrebaev, Director of the Kazakhstan Center of Applied Political Science and International Studies (Kazakhstan)

What significant events took place in Kazakhstan in 2019?

Aydar Amrebaev

The landmark event of 2019 in Kazakhstan was certainly the beginning of the political transit process in the country. The most significant events for our country in 2019 were the following: Nursultan Nazarbayev’s statement of March 19, 2019, on the resignation from the post of president, the holding of early elections, resulting to the election of the new president of the country, Kasym-Zhomart Tokayev, to some extent the gradual awakening of the civil identity of the people of Kazakhstan, the adaptation of the country’s population and the international community to a new configuration of power in the Republic of Kazakhstan – are the most significant events in our country in 2019.

What significant events are expected in Kazakhstan in 2020?     

2020 promises to be busy and fundamental to design the transformation model of the state into a new quality. We are talking about major changes with a large development horizon. I believe that great clarity awaits us in the hierarchy of political influence centers in the country and, accordingly, the choice of the vector and content of the future political process. Turbulent processes in world politics, especially the increased competition of influential foreign forces in Central Asia, will withdraw the region and Kazakhstan from their peripheral status in the spectrum of world political news.

Economy-wise, Kazakhstan is expecting difficult and depressing times. In the social sphere, amid growing social imbalances, migration outflows and civic activity outbursts will intensify.

A positive trend would be the increased public attention on the awareness of its national identity in various aspects. Among the current events on the political agenda in Kazakhstan are the upcoming congress of the Nur-Otan party and public battles related to the country’s parliamentary elections.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

In 2020, Central Asia will undergo a kind of test for the strength and sustainability of the Central Asian Region concept. The presence of active, multidirectional and mutually blocking vectors of external influence will become a serious challenge both for each country and the region as a whole.

The main external players will carry out “massive attacks” to “test the strength of sovereignty” of the countries in the region and greater certainty in international positioning. The Central Asian countries will no longer be able to “sit back in an ambush.”

Political elites in the states of the region will be forced to take serious steps in the direction of greater legitimacy of their power and coordination of foreign policy and foreign economic activity among themselves at the regional level. Empirically, the process of forming a common Central Asian market is just around the corner. The region and individual countries will experience the threat of socio-political destabilization with the aggravation of the social imbalances’ issues and the actualization of regional security risks from external forces.

KYRGYZSTAN

Emil Djuraev, professor of political science at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

What significant events and trends took place in Kyrgyzstan in 2019?

Emil Djuraev

In the general character of the country’s socio-political life, no major changes have taken place since 2018. As the year before last, last year went with further strengthening of President Jeenbekov in his role. Also, as in 2018, this central political leitmotif did not allow the country to witness significant economic results or even large strategic achievements in development.

Process in detail comprised several important events: the former president Almazbek Atambayev was taken into custody, while almost losing control of the country. The use of the law enforcement and judicial bodies for political purposes has increased even more.

Omurbek Tekebaev was released from prison but continues to sue and did not receive full freedom. Babanov returned, but he is also under the pressure of investigative measures.

And most importantly, this year brought corruption talks, particularly, the phenomenon of the former deputy head of the customs service, Rayimbek Matraimov, to the surface, thanks to the efforts of journalists. However, the whole year passed under the endless and almost inconclusive investigation of relevant agencies on Matraimov’s case. Thus, 2019 continued the trend of 2018, bringing to some extent this trend to its logical but not quite end.

What significant events and trends are expected in Kyrgyzstan in 2020?

2020 is anticipated as an elective year, and therefore, bearing certain expectations: restructuring the country’s elite groups, merges, and disintegration among political parties.

Also, under the elections sign, one should expect a crystallization of the president’s position on the case of Rayimbek Matraimov (this issue has become a litmus test for him), and on the issue of his support or cooperation with any party, which obviously will not be SDPK.

Nothing else big is expected in the country, unfortunately including positive economic events.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

I expect that the high-level dialogue that has begun will continue, and in the spring of 2020,  we should expect the next “working meeting” of the leaders of the five countries. It is unlikely that this process will go radically fast, but the main thing is not to lose the soft trend that has appeared. Relations between individual countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, may not have the best effect. The clarification of leadership in Kazakhstan is also critical – the full participation of the President of Kazakhstan, Kasym-Zhomart Tokaev, in the dialogue without leaving it to the former leader, is equally important.

Denis Berdakov, founder of the Central Eurasia Transboundary Research Network analytical agency (Kyrgyzstan)

What significant events and trends took place in Kyrgyzstan in 2019?

Denis Berdakov

In my opinion, the outgoing 2019 in Kyrgyzstan has left primarily social trends.

The first: Kyrgyz workers in the Russian Federation (at least 1 million people from Kyrgyzstan with and without Russian passports) became Russian citizens. In Moscow, according to the results of the year, it is the Kyrgyz diaspora that massively reduces remittances to the Kyrgyz Republic, settles in the territory, tightly gets involved in social institutions, acquires housing in large numbers, and plans the fate of its children in the Russian Federation. This is an important social marker. I do not exclude the possibility that in a couple of years Kyrgyz (as an ethnic group) will live on two states.

The second: in a fierce battle between traditions and the modern, conditionally western way of political thinking and perception and feudal practices, the purity of understanding among the population crystallizes. This year, with its numerous media scandals based on an examination of a nation-wide mentality, made Bishkek people think hard about one of the main dilemmas of our time: nation (values) – ethnicity (customs and traditions).

The third: Kyrgyzstan slowly approached what Kazakhstan (due to excess profits from the sale of natural resources), Tajikistan (due to the civil war), Uzbekistan (due to the size of the ethnic group) have long had —this is the formation of permanent islands of the Kyrgyz diasporas around the world. Their composition, financial position, size – are different. But their influence on the society of Kyrgyzstan is extremely profound and not always obvious.

2019 was the year when the country saw itself as in the mirror of the diasporas. Each diaspora provides a powerful “informational stuffing” through messengers and social networks, telling its relatives back in Kyrgyzstan that “the world is big”, “the ways you can and should live”, “the world does not end outside your valley” and other.

What significant events and trends are expected in Kyrgyzstan in 2020?

Parliamentary elections will determine the alignment of elite groups for the next two to three years. The current parliament is the product of behind-the-scenes agreements of regional elites and the formation of lists of the former president Almazbek Atambayev’s administration. Since then, the weight (electoral, financial, organizational) of various influence groups has changed, and accordingly, all this should get a legitimate form in the elections.

Elections will be extremely competitive in terms of competition for each parliamentary seat through which (having strayed into groups) you can influence appointments in the government, LSG, etc. The qualitative composition of the parties and party rhetoric will remain the same – populism, socialist promises, parties of the leader or oligarchy type formed under the very elections without a clear ideology and plan of action. 

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

The transit of power in Kazakhstan, which will enter its acute phase associated with the physical change of both senior political leaders and certain oligarchs and intellectual groups tied to them. This transit, which began in 2019, causes more and more fears among both neighbors and geopolitical superpowers. Most analysts are inclined to believe that at best it will be a kind of intermediate option between the Uzbek and Kyrgyz transit, which have passed in recent years. But there is a high risk that everything can slide into an oligarchic war following the example of Ukraine with such aggravating factors as ethnic conflicts and religious extremism.

The war of the United States and China. Seemingly so distant and related to the prices for customs clearance of certain goods, this war, in fact, is for the technological future of the region and an understanding of who will ensure regional security in Central Asia. The ban on the use of American iron in China, the export of Chinese financial technology to Central Asia (Wechatpay, for example), equipment for smart cities, visa exemptions for citizens of the PRC in Central Asia, a sharp increase in 2019 by 50% of the PRC in the WTO rating to facilitate export and import flows at its customs – these are all links one chain to form imperial China. For thousands of years, China has been an empire, now it is returning to its usual state and the countries of Central Asia need to completely reconsider their foreign policy strategy regarding China with an understanding of the new situation. In just 10 years, Central Asian countries have accumulated so many debts that they are almost impossible to repay and are closely integrated into the export of Chinese goods to the Middle East and Europe. The level of political freedoms, the overall design of social institutions, the key points of the economic model, and the priorities in the foreign policy of all Central Asian countries will be largely determined in 2020 based on the results of both the US elections and the confrontation (the degree of its fierceness) between China and the USA.

TAJIKISTAN

Parviz Mullodzhanov, political scientist (Tajikistan)

What significant events and trends took place in Tajikistan in 2019?

Parviz Mullodzhanov

In 2019, the most significant trends were the following:

Firstly, throughout the year, there was a tendency of increased social tension, mainly of the population’s most vulnerable segments. This phenomenon was provoked by the government actions making important decisions for the country without proper analysis and consideration of possible social consequences. For instance, at the beginning of the year, the public outcry was provoked by the decision of the Ministry of Communications of the Republic of Tajikistan on a significant (almost three times) increase in tariffs for mobile communications. This decision directly affected the interests of a large majority of the population – that is, labor migrants and their families, who maintained communication with each other through online messengers. The outrage was so great that the authorities were forced, in the end, to step back and reverse their decision. Shortly before, the government also ordered mandatory and re-registration of SIM cards, which could be done only with new passports the majority of the population did not have yet. As a result, huge lines grew in the passport offices of the country, which did not contribute to the approval of government decrees among the population.

The third factor in these series was the recent government decision to radically reform the bank transfer system. In November, the National Bank of Tajikistan (NBT) announced that from now on all the remittance to the republic will be carried out only through the National Processing Center (NPC). However, as it turned out, the technical aspects of the new system have not yet been finalized, which creates huge inconveniences and difficulties for hundreds of thousands of labor migrants working abroad.

Another significant trend is the revitalization of underground groups of religious extremists in the republic. ISIS terrorist organization claimed responsibility for series of terrorist attacks and riots in Tajik prisons that took place last year. At the end of the year, an armed group attacked an Ishkobod outpost located on the Tajik-Uzbek border. According to the authorities, the attackers crossed to the Tajik side from the territory of neighboring Afghanistan and are also related to ISIS, which in this case also claimed responsibility for the attack. An important trend is the frequent aggravation of the situation in the Isfara-Batken zone on the Tajik-Kyrgyz border.

In 2019, there were more than ten serious incidents at the border, involving border guards and armed units on both sides. On July 26, 2019, the two presidents Emomali Rahmon and Sooronbai Jeenbekov first met in the conflict zone, trying to find a way out of the crisis, but unfortunately, without any positive results.

At the international level, the main trend was, on the one hand, the ongoing rapprochement with neighboring countries in the region, as well as some warming relations with Tehran – apparently, undertaken under the influence of Tajikistan’s CIS and SCO partners. Another important trend in 2019 was the further growth of Tajikistan’s economic dependence on China, the growth of debt obligations, the transfer of several fields for further development to Chinese enterprises, and the holding of joint military exercises with China on the territory of the country.

What significant events and trends are expected in Tajikistan in 2020?

The parliamentary elections will be held in the country next year. For the first time in the post-conflict period, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which came under an official ban shortly after its participation in the 2015 elections, will not take part in these elections. Most likely, the ruling People’s Democratic Party will repeat its success in the upcoming elections, having received at least the same number of seats in the Lower House of Parliament – the Majlisi Namoyandagon. The only intrigue here is the possible participation in the elections of the Social Democratic Party of Tajikistan. Soon the party leadership should decide whether it will participate or declare a boycott. Today, this party remains the only legally registered opposition party in the country. 

In the coming year, Tajikistan will again face a choice – whether to join the EAEU, try to balance its foreign policy in some other way, or continue its ever-increasing tilt towards China. It is unlikely that the decisions will be final in the pre-election year, but the Tajik government will have to take some steps in one direction or another.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

The main trend in the region next year is the growth of social tension and the related public demand for change. The states will face the main challenges precisely in the sphere of their socio-economic policy. Another trend, directly related to the first, will be the complication of the economic situation – in all countries of the region. Integration issues will be deliberately discussed between heads of state, as well as in media, academic, and expert circles. However, to date, no data would allow us to claim with confidence any anticipated serious breakthrough in this area.

Sherali Rizoyon, political scientist (Tajikistan)

What significant events and trends took place in Tajikistan in 2019?

Sherali Rizoyon

For Tajikistan 2019 was full of various events, and analyzing them we can note the following:

Firstly, the launch of the second unit of the Rogun hydroelectric station. A key event in the country was the launch of the Rogun hydroelectric station’s second unit in September 2019. Tajikistan is steadily making every effort to complete the construction of this hydraulic structure, which soon can turn the country into a major producer of cheap and environmentally friendly electricity in the region. Another important point related to the Rogun hydropower plant is to provide residents of the country with electricity in the winter. The image of Tajikistan is also closely connected with the Rogun hydroelectric power station and other hydropower facilities, which can potentially be used in the future for rebranding the country. 

Secondly, the strengthening of interstate and diverse relations with Uzbekistan. In 2019, there was a positive development between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Trade between countries is increasing markedly. Dushanbe exports, among other, construction materials and electricity to Tashkent (it should be noted that Uzbekistan is today a major importer of electricity in Tajikistan). In 2019, the demarcation of state borders was announced, and countries became strategic partners. There was also an increase in cooperation between law enforcement and defense subdivisions. They passed joint military exercises and established cooperation between the Security Councils of both states. 

Thirdly, an amnesty in honor of the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan. In October 2019, a law passed on amnesty and the release of citizens serving sentences in prisons. According to media reports, this is the largest amnesty in the history of Tajikistan. More than 20 thousand citizens were released from punishment; 3,100 prisoners in correctional institutions and 3,000 prisoners in penal colonies were granted freedom.

Fourth, the warming of relations with Iran. For instance, the former first deputy Foreign Minister Nizomoddin Zohidi was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Muhammadtaki Sabiri, a senior official of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, was sent as ambassador to Tajikistan. According to media reports, in 2020, the President of Tajikistan will visit Iran.         

Fifth, the problems associated with extremism and terrorism. In 2019, Tajikistan faced serious problems related to extremism and terrorism. This is primarily a riot in the colony No. 3/2 in the city of Vahdat, near Dushanbe. As a result of the riot, 29 prisoners and 3 employees of the correctional institution were killed. On the day of the 25th anniversary of the Constitution of the country, on November 6, attacks were made on outpost No. 4 “Ishkobod” of the border troops on the border with Uzbekistan. The attack involved 20 militants who used women and children to carry out this terrorist act. The ISIS claimed responsibility for the commission of both acts. Thus, the challenges and threats associated with terrorism acquire special relevance, which makes it vital for Central Asian countries to cooperate in this direction.

Sixth, issues related to the Internet, money transfers, SIM cards, and new domestic passports. In 2019, several problems appeared that affect the rights and interests of citizens. In March, by the decision of the Antimonopoly Service of Tajikistan, the price of one gigabyte of the Internet went from 30-35 TJS ($ 3.7) up to 63 TJS ($ 6.7), this information was widely discussed on social networks and caused public outcry and indignation. Action groups began collecting signatures to cancel this measure. As a result, on April 23, at the decree of the president of the country, prices for mobile Internet returned to their previous tariffs.

According to the government decision adopted in February 2019, citizens cannot have more than two SIM cards and must register on the passports of a new sample (ID cards). As a result, this caused a stir for obtaining passports and in August it was decided to extend the re-registration of SIM cards until February 2020. The National Bank of Tajikistan has introduced a new money transfer system, which began to operate on December 3, 2019. Citizens who were abroad could not send money to their families, and citizens could not send money from Tajikistan to students studying in foreign universities.

Seventh, cross-border conflicts with Kyrgyzstan. In 2019, there was an escalation in cross-border conflicts in the north of the country with the participation of residents and border services of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan that resulted in injuries and fatalities of citizens of both countries. Despite the political will to demarcate and delimit state borders, this issue remains a matter of concern. Resolving the issue will certainly play a positive role in the peaceful development of the entire region.

What significant events and trends are expected in Tajikistan in 2020?

Parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held in Tajikistan in 2020. So, the parliamentary elections will take place on March 1 – the Majlisi Namoyandagon, the Majlis of regions, cities, and districts, as well as jamoats. Political parties are becoming more active today, most of which held their election congresses, prepared an election program and decided on the party-list candidates. Presidential elections are to be held traditionally in November. Thus, the socio-political life of Tajikistan in 2020 promises to be busy. 

In October 2020, a population and housing census will be held in Tajikistan. The previous census took place in 2010. The use of modern technologies during the census would be a feature of the event.

 A special application is also being developed on the website of the country’s statistics agency, where a questionnaire for the census will be displayed and those who wish can take part online. Another feature of the census questionnaire is that new one features a question about the respondent’s religion.

Thirdly, the chairmanship of Tajikistan in regional organizations. Starting January 1, 2020, Tajikistan will chair regional organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea, and the Istanbul Process for Afghanistan. Thus, in 2020, the country will host a meeting of the heads of state of the SCO and the CSTO. Experts assume convening an international high-level conference in Dushanbe within the framework of the fourth global water initiative of Tajikistan “Water for sustainable development” 2018-2028. 

Fourth, the celebration of the 5500th anniversary of Sarazm and the transition to 12-year schooling. In September 2020, the 5500th anniversary of Sarazm will be celebrated (editor’s note – the oldest settlement of the settled peoples of Central Asia) in the city of Panjakent, which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Register. From September 2020, Tajikistan will switch to 12-year schooling and the reform will end in 2032. This step will enable students to prepare for university admission and acquire the necessary profession.

Fifth, preparations for the celebration of the 30th anniversary of state independence. Starting in 2019, crucial preparations are underway to celebrate the 30th anniversary of state independence. In this vein, it can be expected that work will also continue in 2020. Today, the construction of a national theater and park in Dushanbe is underway. In 2020, we can expect the opening of a new central mosque in Dushanbe, which will be the largest in Central Asia.   

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?  

In 2020, Central Asia enters the electoral cycle: parliamentary and presidential elections in Tajikistan, parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan and 2021 parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan. Uzbekistan held its parliamentary elections in December 2019. Apart from Kyrgyzstan, there is not much excitement expected in general during the election processes in Central Asia, however, it still is a serious challenge for the state system. 

Secondly, the possible membership of Uzbekistan in the EAEU has been discussed starting from 2019. This process can actually happen in 2020, seriously impacting the nature of regional processes in Central Asia. The states of the region and external players will have to reconsider their position regarding other countries of the region and Central Asia itself since the concept of Uzbekistan’s foreign policy states that the country will not be a member of supranational organizations that limit sovereignty.

Thirdly, 2020 might also observe the increased competition among global powers in Central Asia. Particularly, the role and influence of China in Central Asia will grow. The revitalization of the European Union is expected with the adoption of a new strategy for the countries of the region. If the United States adopts a separate document regarding the Central Asian states, then we can witness the transformation of the C5 + 1 format. Russian policy in the region will be aimed at attracting Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the EAEU and strengthening military-political relations with the Central Asian states.

Fourth, the next and third consultative meeting of the heads of Central Asian states in 2020 will be held in Bishkek. The uniqueness of this format is in providing an opportunity for the countries of the region to discuss acute and urgent problems, as well as “synchronize their watches” on the regional and global agendas. In 2020, we can expect the institutionalization of regional cooperation based on the results of the meeting.

Fifth, threats related to extremism and terrorism will be relevant on the regional agenda. Burning questions will be related to the rehabilitation and reintegration of former extremists and members of their families. Based on the ambiguity of the situation in Afghanistan, extremist groups in the region may intensify and threats associated with terrorist attacks might increase.

TURKMENISTAN

Ruslan Myatiev, Editor-in-Chief, TurkmenNews (Turkmenistan)

What significant events and trends took place in Turkmenistan in 2019?

Ruslan Myatiev

What does “significant” mean? Significant for the authorities of Turkmenistan? Yes, once again media covered for a few days holding of Caspian Economic Forum and a meeting of the heads of government of the CIS countries. These were planned events, more for a tick, protocol events. There were no important decisions, agreements, anything concrete that would fundamentally change the current life of the ordinary Turkmen people. The Turkmen media especially eagerly covered these events and attached particular importance. This is all on the agenda. It was planned, passed and everyone has already forgotten it. For an ordinary citizen, this did not change his life and never will.      

Other than that, 2019 is remembered by great economic difficulties. In all 28 years of independence of Turkmenistan, we have never had such a shortage of food products even in comparison with the “hungry” Niyazov years of 1994-1995, when we bought bread on cards. Huge lines are now forming for cottonseed oil. They write here that they collected and fulfilled the plan; over one million tons of cotton were picked. Nevertheless, people almost kill each other in lines for cottonseed oil. Take usual chicken eggs, you have them in bulk in any country. In Turkmenistan, they are scarce. That’s all ordinary Turkmen remembers from 2019. Unfortunately, the trend is that 2020 will be the same, if not worse. 

Can you claim that the 2019 economic situation has deteriorated from 2018?

The situation has not improved and most likely it has worsened. In 2019, the list of scarce food products increased. This year has become worse in terms of economic potential and providing the population with food. These products are sold on the market, but they are very expensive. People cannot afford to go and buy at the market price. If people had money, they would not stand in lines for a limited supply of butter or eggs. 

That is, there is a big price difference between private business and public provision?

The shortage is precisely in public provision. These products are in limited quantities, not to the extent that would satisfy the existing demand. The bazaar is full of available goods. You might as well not poison yourself with the crude dirty cottonseed oil from the state store and buy regular imported vegetable oil. But the price will be ten times more per liter. Suppose if now a liter of cottonseed oil is sold at 2 manats 60 tenges, then imported vegetable oil costs 25-26 manat (7.40 US dollars).  

What are the trends in labor emigration from Turkmenistan?

The trend is that people continue to leave the country. Somewhere in the middle of the year, there was a figure that 1.9 million people left Turkmenistan over the past ten years. It turns out that two out of five million people of Turkmenistan went abroad. I am inclined to believe that this is a very real figure. Experts leave the country. Even civil servants who have stable jobs leave and take their families away because this wage is no longer sufficient to live in Turkmenistan. People barely make ends meet. Life rises in price, instability, uncertainty about tomorrow. Today there are no eggs, chicken, and butter, and tomorrow it might be something else. Even working people who have stable wages travel to Uzbekistan to make money on the difference in the exchange rate. People manage to make money from it.   

The most popular migration destinations are Russia and Northern Cyprus. It is difficult for Turkmen citizens to obtain a residence permit in Turkey due to the large influx of migrants from Central Asia. People consider all options anywhere. There are at least three or four cases when relatives move to Belarus with the children who study there. People sell apartments and it has become very unprofitable. Real estate prices have fallen precisely because of the huge outflow of the population. If earlier a three-room apartment somewhere on the periphery could be easily sold for 30-40 thousand US dollars, now 15-16 thousand USD is already a good amount. What can I buy with this money in Minsk, Gomel or Grodno? Nothing.

What significant events will affect Turkmenistan in 2020?

Turkmenistan seriously discusses the issue of releasing the exchange rate. If authorities don’t let go at all and make it “floating,” at least they will drastically reduce it because there are almost no foreign exchange reserves in the country. At the political level, the authorities began to actively seek ways of interaction and cooperation with the World Bank and the IMF. Most likely, the authorities, having already understood the full depth of the crisis, are now more inclined to listen to the opinion of economic and financial experts. Perhaps in 2020, the Council of Elders of Turkmenistan will be transformed into the Upper House of Parliament and have the powers of the Senate. 

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020? 

For Turkmenistan, events of a regional scale, for example, the Consultative Meeting of Heads of Central Asian States, to be held in Bishkek in 2020, will again be a protocol event. It does not bear any economic benefits. Turkmenistan does not intend to abolish the visa regime with neighbors. Not for that, the country was building a “wall”, fenced off from around the world to freely let foreigners, like the format of “Silk Visa”.

UZBEKISTAN

Bakhtiyor Ergashev, Director of the Center for Research Initiatives «Ма'no» (Uzbekistan)

What significant events and trends took place in Uzbekistan in 2019?

Bakhtiyor Ergashev

2019 is the third year of a new stage of reform that the new leadership of the country is pursuing. In 2017, it was a “grope”, the definition and proclamation of the main priorities of economic, political and social reforms. In 2018, the bulk of the reforms began. In 2019, these reforms manifested. 

The most important event, which largely determines the economic policy of the country, is the adoption of the tax code in 2019 that has been developed for the last two years. The fiscal policy sets the main priorities in the economy. Undoubtedly, the tax code still does not satisfy a certain fraction of small business, but at least there is a certain document by which both society and business now live.

Also, the most important domestic political event is the parliamentary elections held in December 2019. The elections were held under the “New country – new parliament” slogan. It is too early to talk about a new parliament. There is still time while the parliament, as a legislative body, will play the same role and have an impact on the social, political and economic processes in the country along with a strong executive branch. This is a parliament that will gain experience in effective interaction with other branches of government and be a more active force in society. 

The openness strategy in foreign policy, with a priority on the countries of Central Asia, was announced back in 2017. In 2018, as part of this work, the first Consultative Meeting of Heads of Central Asian states was held in Astana. In November 2019, the second Consultative meeting received a major resonance: the presidents of all five Central Asian countries gathered in Tashkent to make major decisions. I would note particularly the adoption of the Consultative Meetings’ rules and the need for adoption of roadmaps in specific areas of cooperation among the countries of the region. 

What significant events and trends are expected in Uzbekistan in 2020?

In early February, the President of Uzbekistan will visit Russia to discuss serious matters, primarily, joining the EAEU. Uzbekistan might be formalized with the status of the observer. This is a significant visit for the country and one of the main events of the year that would have major consequences in the future.

Uzbekistan is entering a serious phase of public service reform. The law on public service, which has been drafted over the past two years, is still under active discussion. I believe that the country will begin to implement a whole range of measures to reform the civil service in 2020.

Let us remember that 2020 is the year of the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War. Major decisions might direct the rapprochement of the positions of the CIS countries on issues of common victory, the format of anniversary events, etc.

This year will also be the 75th anniversary of the UN. Most countries of the world use the UN platform to express their views on global and regional issues and problems. This is important for foreign policy and the positioning of a country in major processes.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

2019 consolidated the trend of an increase in regional trade. Trade between countries has fallen sharply since the late 1990s. No country in the region is the main foreign trade partner for another. This is the result of a resource model for the development of countries in the region. Now the countries are trying to implement industrial development projects. In 2020, the trend of increasing trade between countries will continue.

I hope that practical work will begin in 2020 on the preparation of a real feasibility study for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway corridor project. This is an important project that will play a serious role in strengthening the transport and transit potential of all countries in the region. The process will hopefully be at least at the beginning of the real preparation for the feasibility study of the project. Negotiations now are underway, and the positions of countries are agreed upon.

Regarding the accession of Uzbekistan to the EAEU, this question remains open. Even the parliamentary elections demonstrated the differing opinions and approaches of Uzbek society regarding the entry or non-entry into the union. There are a lot of questions, which might be clarified by the visit of the President of Uzbekistan to Russia. In any case, this process will not be simultaneous; it will take place in several stages. 

I am also sure that there will be a third Consultative Meeting of the Presidents this time in Kyrgyzstan. I hope the meeting will already be much more practically oriented. There is an agreement that roadmaps will be developed for cooperation in certain areas that are of interest to all countries in the region.

Bakhrom Radjabov, Political Analyst (Uzbekistan)

What significant events and trends took place in Uzbekistan in 2019?

Bahrom Radjabov

I would note two political events that took place in Uzbekistan in 2019.

First, elections to the Oliy Majlis and local parliaments. These elections were the first parliamentary elections in Uzbekistan to which the full OSCE / ODIHR observer mission was sent. This made it possible to observe elections throughout the country, even in places where election observation had not previously been carried out.

The second event, a meeting of the heads of Central Asian states in Tashkent. The meeting was postponed several times, but it is gratifying that it still took place and was organized at the level of heads of state. The consultative meetings will hopefully result in real regional cooperation.

What significant events and trends are expected in Uzbekistan in 2020?

First, US State Secretary Mike Pompeo in Central Asia, including Uzbekistan. Given the changes in the country and the region, new projects and subjects for cooperation have appeared. For example, humanitarian projects with the American Agency for International Cooperation, educational projects, and renewed collaboration with the American Councils for International Education. US military consultations with Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries are ongoing. Uzbekistan’s renewed policy on Afghanistan can also become an important negotiation subject. I look forward to the discussions of specific aspects of the US strategy for Central Asia.

Second, Uzbekistan will chair the CIS in 2020. Against the background of discussions on Uzbekistan’s accession to the EAEU, Uzbekistan’s chairmanship in the CIS may bring innovations in terms of regional integration. 

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

The first, mentioned above, is the possibility of Uzbekistan joining the EAEU. Although the issue is allegedly being worked out, the possibility of a country joining the Union in 2020 is very real. This could change the status quo in the region economically and politically. There is a possibility of strengthening further cooperation between Central Asian countries, although consultative meetings do not oblige it. Despite this, integration projects, such as “One Belt – One Road” with China, can push the countries of the region to cooperate, since the cooperation will be in their interest. Another project could be the World Bank CASA project, which will also connect Afghanistan to five countries. The project can serve to create joint energy, electronic, and ultimately, economic space.

Farrukh Irnazarov, Director of the Central Asian Development Institute (Uzbekistan)

What significant events and trends took place in Uzbekistan in 2019?

Farrukh Irnazarov

On December 22, 2019, parliamentary elections were held in Uzbekistan. Economic and political reforms are ongoing. “The Economist” recognized Uzbekistan as the number 1 country in terms of promotion and scale of reforms. Uzbekistan has outlined a large program for the privatization of state assets, about 300 state enterprises are for sale.

What significant events and trends are expected in Uzbekistan in 2020?

In 2020, the discussion of Uzbekistan’s entry into the EAEU will widen, and negotiations on accession to the WTO will strengthen. 2020 can become a litmus test for Uzbekistan; trends on the inevitability or reversibility of reforms will be outlined. In other words, if Uzbekistan can attract foreign investment and expand export destinations, the country will continue to open, otherwise, the country might follow an already familiar path of protectionism. A lot is expected from the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the country will root for its boxers.

What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2020?

If we see Uzbekistan as part of the EAEU, then, inevitably, Tajikistan will also join the EAEU. In any case, we will see an increasingly active role of Russia in the economic and political life of the Central Asian countries.


This material has been prepared as part of the Giving Voice, Driving Change – from the Borderland to the Steppes Project project, implemented with financial support from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The opinions expressed in the article do not reflect the position of the editorial board or donor.

 

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