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Central Asia 2021: Challenges and Trends

Despite the transformation of many processes due to the coronavirus pandemic, the past 2020 was marked by significant events for the Central Asian countries. The editorial staff of the analytical platform CABAR.asia interviewed famous political scientists in the region to mark the most important events of 2020 and to analyze the development of events and trends for 2021.

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  1. What significant events, trends took place in your country in 2020?
Iskander Akylbaev

Iskander Akylbaev, Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Council of International Relations (Kazakhstan)

In Kazakhstan, the focus was on changes in governance, political reforms and the fight against coronavirus. The outbreak of the pandemic has largely exposed the existing problem areas in the field of health care, education and the provision of public services and the development of SMEs. At the same time, the pandemic accelerated the transformation of the state apparatus and updated the agenda on the systemic digitalization of domestic policy.

Within the framework of the “Hearing State” concept, an important shift was the implementation of the initiatives proposed by the National Council of Public Confidence (NCPC), namely, the adoption of a new law on rallies, the expansion of rights for the parliamentary minority, and a decrease in the headcount for parties from 40 thousand to 20 thousand people, accession to the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil Rights (ICCPR), approval of a 30% quota in party lists for women and youth. 

Against this background, the end of this year is marked by preparations for the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 10 in 2021. This process is accompanied by the emergence of new political associations and parties and the activation of the entire internal political field as a whole.

Emil Dzhuraev, Professor of Political Science at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

Emil Dzhuraev

2020 was an extremely difficult and eventful year for Kyrgyzstan. Some of the difficulties were the same as in most other countries – a pandemic and, as a result, an economic and social crisis. And a serious political crisis, called by some the third revolution in the last 15 years, arose in early October 2020.

The parliamentary elections on October 4 were massively manipulated and led to an overwhelming victory for two odious parties – the newly formed ruling party and the party of an extremely odious person who has become a kind of symbol of corruption. This result, which left at least 13 parties out of 16 outside the walls of parliament, mobilized an instant protest from a wide range of political and civil forces.

In turn, such an arbitrary and spontaneous protest brought the fastest, most unceremonious and mobile player – Sadyr Japarov and his circle of support – to the pedestal of power. Thus, 2020 ended on an open page, without a legitimate government, in anticipation of a whole series of popular votes next year, and in alarm over possible radical changes in the country’s policy on the wave of populism.

Sherali Rizoyon, a political scientist (Tajikistan)

Sherali Rizoyon

2020 for Tajikistan, and for all Central Asian countries, was more associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which significantly changed the ongoing processes and showed existing problems. All the events and activities that have taken place can be associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, since today we are witnessing the transformation of socio-political and economic processes. A coordination center was established in the country, which made all decisions related to restrictive measures in the context of a pandemic. Today we can say that this center was able to fulfill the tasks assigned to it.

Significant events in Tajikistan in 2020 are:

  1. Holding parliamentary (March 1) and presidential (October 16) elections. In 2020, Tajikistan left the electoral cycle and thus showed the stability of the political system as a whole. Research and study of this experience for analysts has a number of characteristics. As a result, the country received elected deputies and members of the upper house of parliament and the president
  2. Difficulties associated with the closure of state borders, the factor of labor migration in the context of a pandemic and the problems of labor migrants that they faced in Russia, and until a certain time could not return to their homeland. For those migrants who could not go abroad to work, certain problems also appeared. Families of labor migrants have faced significant difficulties and, in general, this issue requires a separate comprehensive study and analysis.
  3. In 2020, a population and housing census was conducted in Tajikistan. A feature of this event was that it used modern technologies, i.e., every citizen could fill out a questionnaire online and thus take part in this event. Also, a question about the respondent’s religion was added to the questionnaire.
  4. The foreign policy of Tajikistan in the year of the pandemic, like that of other countries, faced restrictions. Almost all meetings of regional organizations such as the SCO, CSTO, CIS were held online. Ministerial conferences were also held in this mode. Due to the pandemic, Dushanbe did not host a high-level international conference within the framework of the 4th global water initiative of Tajikistan “Water for Sustainable Development” 2018-2028.
  5. In September 2020, the 5500th anniversary of Sarazm was celebrated in the city of Penjikent and the 700th anniversary of the world famous Persian lyric poet Kamoli Khujandi in the city of Khujand. Another striking event in the cultural life of the country is the holding of the republican competition “Furugi subhi donoi …”, where all age groups participated and competed in the books read by domestic and world poets and writers.

Ruslan Myatiev, editor-in-chief, TurkmenNews (Turkmenistan)

Ruslan Myatiev

The most significant political event of 2020 in the country was the introduction of amendments to the country’s Constitution, according to which, from 2021, a bicameral parliament will operate in Turkmenistan. However, the population of the country is not interested in the political life of the country, and changes in parliament will not greatly affect the lives of ordinary people.

As it is known, an acute economic crisis has been going on in Turkmenistan for several years now – there is no work, the national currency is falling, wages remain unchanged, or they go up quite a bit, while prices for food products are only growing. As a result, there are huge queues at state stores, where the population can buy limited food at subsidized prices. Therefore, the common people are more worried about how to feed their families, and not about political problems.

Despite the fact that Turkmenistan still has not officially recognized the presence of coronavirus in the country, the pandemic has severely affected the country’s population. In July and August, the country experienced an “Italian” scenario for the spread of coronavirus with only one difference: while in Italy or other countries people know the cause of death and are treated as much as possible, the population in Turkmenistan, knowing what it dies from, does not know how to be treated. People are trying to find ways of self-treatment on the Internet, which is also limited in the country, and this only makes the situation worse.

The border closures caused by the pandemic affected Turkmen migrants working in Turkey and Cyprus – people could neither leave the country nor return, and there were also difficulties with remittances. 

Moreover, the situation in Turkmenistan in 2020 was aggravated by natural disasters. At the end of April, two regions of Turkmenistan suffered from a devastating hurricane, but the authorities not only did not disclose information about this, but also did not provide any assistance to the victims. People were forced to restore houses and other property on their own. As a result, Turkmen, known to be patient and quiet, have begun to protest in the countries where they work.  

Farkhod Tolipov, political scientist, director of the non-state scientific and educational institution “Caravan of Knowledge” (Uzbekistan)

Farkhod Tolipov

As it is known, 2020 has been declared in Uzbekistan as the “Year of Science, Education and Digital Economy Development”. Within the framework of this program, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev issued the Decree “Digital Uzbekistan”. In particular, IT parks have been created in Tashkent and a number of cities in the country, and the implementation of the “1 million programmers” project has begun.

In 2020, Uzbekistan joined the EAEU in observer status. This was not an easy decision, since the issue of membership in the EAEU caused heated discussions in society and in the expert community, as well as critical positions in the US and the EU.

In November 2020, an official delegation of Uzbekistan visited the United States: during the visit, the existing mechanism of annual bilateral consultations was transformed into the Strategic Partnership Dialogue, which will include issues of closer cooperation in the political, economic, cultural, educational spheres, as well as in the field of security and the human dimension. …

In 2020, Uzbekistan was the chairman of the CIS. President Mirziyoyev took part in the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, at which he put forward a number of new international and regional initiatives.

Regionally, the cross-border incident in the Sokh enclave and the tragedy of the destruction of the dam on the Sardoba reservoir became an important test for Uzbekistan, which highlighted the need to strengthen cross-border cooperation with neighboring countries in the spirit of fraternal friendship and integration relations.

  1. What significant events and trends will take place in your country in 2021?

Iskander Akylbaev, Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Council of International Relations (Kazakhstan)

The fight against the pandemic will remain and will be a key factor in the country’s domestic political and economic life in 2021. Many processes within Kazakhstani society will depend on measures and approaches to reduce mortality and morbidity from COVID-19. The issue of vaccination, namely its distribution and increasing the level of trust in various types of vaccines within the population will require additional efforts from the state. All this will shape new discussions and requests from the civil sector.

On January 10, 2021, elections to the Parliament of Kazakhstan will be held. We should expect the rejuvenation of the ranks of the ruling party, members of Parliament, as well as the entry of new political forces into the supreme legislative body of Kazakhstan. Experts also do not exclude a change of government and the emergence of new faces within the state apparatus.

Against this background, Kazakhstan will celebrate the 30th anniversary of its independence. In the context of the changing geopolitical situation, the difficulties associated with the global pandemic and the transformation of Kazakhstani society, 2021 will be of symbolic significance for the country’s leadership. This process will be accompanied by the strengthening of ideological messages aimed at greater consolidation of society and a signal to regional actors. 

Emil Dzhuraev, Professor of Political Science at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

2021 in Kyrgyzstan was largely predetermined – including in its high degree of uncertainty – by the events of the end of 2020. The year 2021 begins with early presidential elections, followed by elections to local authorities, a referendum on the adoption of a new Constitution, and new parliamentary elections, in an as yet undetermined sequence and unspecified dates. This round of voting will take place against the backdrop of an extremely alarming economic situation, and an unpredictable situation with COVID-19.

A number of opposite behaviors will be demanded from the citizens of Kyrgyzstan – activity in the political field, patience and restraint in the economic field, and caution in the epidemiological field. To what extent all these processes will go smoothly and lead to the necessary and constructive results by the end of the year is a big question that will hang over the whole of 2021.

Sherali Rizoyon, a political scientist (Tajikistan)

In the country, the main event in 2021 will be the celebration of the 30th anniversary of state independence, preparations for which have been going on for two years. In the center of Dushanbe, a new national park with the “Independence” monuments will be laid out, which will change the face of the capital. A new national theater is expected to be commissioned in 2021, as well as a new mosque, which will be the largest in Central Asia in scale.

It is expected that in September 2021 Dushanbe will host a meeting of the SCO heads of state, preparations for which are already underway. There will also be a high-level international conference within the framework of the fourth global water initiative of Tajikistan “Water for Sustainable Development” 2018-2028.

Ruslan Myatiev, editor-in-chief, TurkmenNews (Turkmenistan)

In 2021, a solemn celebration of the 30th anniversary of the independence of Turkmenistan is expected. For this event, many objects are being built in the country, but the minus is that resources are taken from the population and sent not to improve the country, but to unnecessary infrastructure. From a socio-economic point of view, the situation in Turkmenistan in 2021 will be more difficult. Turkmenistan was one of the first to close the borders due to the pandemic and will be the last to open them. 

Farhod Tolipov, political scientist, director of the non-state scientific and educational institution “Caravan of Knowledge” (Uzbekistan)

The most important event in 2021 will be the presidential elections. Obviously, there is currently no alternative to the incumbent president, since he has gained immense popularity among the people thanks to the large-scale reforms being carried out. However, Mirziyoyev is gradually approaching the need to reform the political system of Uzbekistan towards greater pluralism. Therefore, it is likely that some steps in this direction will be taken in the near future.

Significant progress of reforms is expected in such areas as education, transport, entrepreneurship, civil society, public administration, etc. The Public Chamber under the President of the Republic of Uzbekistan should start working, which should become a key link in establishing a modern form of systematic and effective dialogue that brings together the efforts of the state, citizens, civil society institutions.

  1. What important events and trends will affect Central Asia as a region in 2021?

Iskander Akylbaev, Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Council of International Relations (Kazakhstan)

In 2021, the countries of Central Asia will continue the vector of strengthening step-by-step cooperation. The postponed third consultative meeting of the heads of Central Asian countries is likely to take place in Turkmenistan. In turn, the 20th SCO Summit will be held in Dushanbe, while Tajikistan will become the chairman of the interregional platform. In May 2021, in Kazakhstan, the Summit of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council will be held, at which the heads of the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) meet, which will outline the further development trajectory of the Eurasian direction.

At the same time, the military-political situation in Afghanistan will also influence the formation of a regional view and mechanisms for the settlement of the “Afghan process”, especially between Tashkent and Nur-Sultan. The further relations of the new Administration of US President Joe Biden with Russia and China are also important. Aggravation or improvement of relations between key stakeholders will have an impact on the state of financial markets and geopolitical tensions in the region. In this context, the Treaty on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START) between the United States and Russia expires on February 5, 2021. Consequently, until the moment of extension, the existing disagreements between Washington and Moscow on the Treaty will leave their mark on the regional security of Central Asia.   

Emil Dzhuraev, Professor of Political Science at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan)

In the Central Asia region, 2021 is unlikely to be more active than previous years. This is mainly due to the epidemiological situation and economic challenges facing all countries. The meeting of the heads of state of the region, which did not take place in 2020, may be held in 2021, but by the beginning of the year, no specific plans for it are known.

Perhaps broader, non-regional processes, such as changes in relations between the big powers in the light of the new power in the United States, can help the leaders of the Central Asian countries to be interested in coordinating their actions in the region.

The situation in the internal political life of Kyrgyzstan, unfortunately, does not promise the country’s active participation in regional dialogues, and may serve as one of the factors hindering the intensification of regional dialogue between all countries. Much in this regard will also depend on the positions of other countries, especially Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, in relation to the processes in Kyrgyzstan.

Sherali Rizoyon, a political scientist (Tajikistan)

  1. In 2021, Central Asia may experience increased competition between global powers, which will primarily be felt in the information space. In 2020, it ended with the systematization of the policy of China and Russia in Central Asia, which in July (China) and in September (Russia) launched the 5 + 1 formats with all countries in the region. It is possible to expect such a policy of Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
  2. It is expected that the next, and third in a row, meeting of the consultative meeting of the heads of states of Central Asia in 2021 will be held in Ashgabat. Due to political events in Kyrgyzstan, this meeting was not held in Bishkek. The importance of this format for the countries of the region in the context of the activation of global and regional players lies in the fact that it provides an opportunity for the heads of state to discuss acute and urgent problems that, due to the pandemic, events in Kyrgyzstan and the turbulence in the post-Soviet space in general (the conflict in the Caucasus) is gaining special relevance. This meeting will also allow us to synchronize clocks on the regional and global agenda.
  3. Central Asia will be significantly influenced by the ongoing processes in Afghanistan. With the launch of intra-Afghan talks to achieve sustainable peace between the official Kabul and the Taliban, terrorist attacks are not abating. It can be assumed that terrorist activity in Afghanistan will increase, since it is important for the parties to take as strong a position as possible before “bargaining” and possible compromises. For the countries of the region, militants of Central Asian origin, affiliated with the Taliban movement, pose a serious threat. They pose both a potential and a real threat to all Central Asian countries.

Ruslan Myatiev, editor-in-chief, TurkmenNews (Turkmenistan)

In 2021, no rapprochement of Turkmenistan with neighboring countries is expected in terms of introducing a visa-free regime or easing restrictions on border trade. Despite the fact that the people are not satisfied with the situation in the country, in 2021 Turkmenistan will not face mass protests similar to those in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. At the moment, about 8,000 students from Turkmenistan study in Belarus, so it is very likely that if a change of power in Belarus does take place, then Turkmenistan can put this country on a black list and prohibit students from traveling there as it once happened with Kyrgyzstan. 

Farhod Tolipov, political scientist, director of the non-state scientific and educational institution “Caravan of Knowledge” (Uzbekistan)

At the beginning of 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Uzbekistan, and a meeting was held within the framework of the C5 + 1 forum. The United States announced a new Strategy for Central Asia. In the same year, similar new trends emerged according to the “5 + 1” formula on the part of Russia and China. Therefore, it seems that in 2021 the geopolitical rivalry according to the “5 + 1” model will intensify, especially in the context of the expected weakening of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the third Consultative Meeting of the Presidents of Central Asian countries is expected to be held in the capital of Turkmenistan, Ashgabat. It will take place after the January presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan; therefore, it will become a kind of expression of the new political climate in the region. At this meeting, it would be extremely important to adopt a certain plan (Roadmap) for the development of the region in the near future, and not be limited to the adoption of a Joint Statement.

Данный материал подготовлен в рамках проекта «Giving Voice, Driving Change — from the Borderland to the Steppes Project». Мнения, озвученные в статье, не отражают позицию редакции или донора.

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