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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.