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IWPR and Chatham House Organized a Joint Online Event “The Impact of Coronavirus on Central Asia’s Development”

On the 29th of May the Representative Office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia, its regional analytical platform CABAR.asia and Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International Affairs organized a joint online event related to the COVID-19 crisis and its effect on Central Asian countries.


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On the 29th of May the Representative Office of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in Central Asia, its regional analytical platform CABAR.asia and Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International Affairs UK organized a joint online event related to the COVID-19 crisis and its effect on Central Asian countries. During the meeting, the participants discussed “The impact of coronavirus on Central Asia’s development”. The event brought together experts and academics from Europe, Central Asia, and the United States.

Сhair of the event – Director of Russia and Eurasia Programme James Nixey opened the discussion and gave the floor to the first speaker Dr. Marlene Laruelle, Director of the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University (USA). She shared her views on the immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region of Central Asia mainly focusing on the economy.

Giving a broad perspective of the immediate impact of the pandemic on Central Asia, Marlene Laruelle mentioned seven issues in the region.

Marlene Laruelle

«First, it is state capacity and preparedness. Hence the pandemic tests on the system of each of these countries, like the public health system, it is also a very interesting test on political communication in the way the authorities are managing the discussion with their own society. And of course, it is the capacity to enforce the lockdown measures. Without any surprise, we see that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are managing the crisis pretty well, meanwhile Kyrgyzstan is managing half way. At the same time Tajikistan is dealing pretty badly and Turkmenistan is still in denial.

The second thing to notice is accountability, especially in relation to humanitarian assistance that has been reaching Central Asia. The European Union, the USA, WHO and several other international organizations send a lot of money and equipment to the region and the question is how is the distribution going on? These countries are characterized as being with high corruption and traditional state budget smuggling. So, the crisis is reinforcing the features we already know and it is very difficult to function and send assistance to countries where the level of smuggling in the state budget is so high.

The third point of mine is the resilience of society. It would be difficult to measure the resilience of the society. But it is interesting to follow both civil society initiatives to create the network of solidarity, to increase the resilience of the society, at the same time to see the emergence of possibly oligarchs, the self-local benefactors who want to build the reputation, organizing some charity actions to increase the resilience.

The fourth point is inequality. The crisis hit the weakest and poorest, ones that are in the most difficulty who have both social-economic and geographical pockets of poverty all over Central Asia. So, it will hit them harder than the rich regions and social groups. We have already huge issues of malnutrition particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. So, there are concerns on food safety issues in the forthcoming months, especially in these two states and more globally for rural population.

The fifth thing to mention is migration. There are thousands of migrants blocked in Russia. The Russian authorities are not very generous in taking care of the migrants and we also see remittances decrease sent to the region. It shows the reliance on Russia which can be considered as weakness, but it also shows how Central Asia is globalized. The region is very much affected due to this connectivity.

The sixth point is cooperation and integration issues with the Eurasian Economic Union with Russia closing its borders (even with Belarus). Here we can see the signal that national interest is the main thing. The regional integration is good, but when everything is bad, managing its own crisis, every state goes back to their own national borders. We also see the signal that maybe we will have some impact on the way people perceive the Eurasian Economic Union.

The last point is society compliance to lockdown measures. Central Asia needs to navigate lots of social issues like attending funerals, going to mosques, managing the end of Ramadan in lockdown etc. They have a lot of cultural elements that make the legal compliance to lockdown measure so challenging. So, people should adapt and become innovative on the way they manage what they consider important in their daily life» – Dr Laruelle concluded in her speech.

Erica Marat

The second session continued with particular focus on the effect of pandemic to economic and internal political issues, by Dr. Erica Marat, an Associate professor and director of Homeland Defense Fellowship Program at the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University in Washington DC. She discussed how the current situation with pandemic may rise unemployment and lead to extension of intensity of autocratic politics in countries of Central Asia.

The governments are unable to deal with the economic fall down caused by the lockdown. It will lead to extension of poverty. It is exacerbated by slowing down of migration and revenues, and the economic impact will be felt for the next years to come. Population in Central Asia will not be able to find other jobs and more and more people will experience the lack of economic opportunities. Because of slowing down migration processes and growth of unemployment people may become vulnerable to exploitation, the crime rate may rise, as well as human trafficking that already were undergoing in Central Asia before pandemic.

The governments may use the current situation to enhance political power over both the population and political opponents, especially in countries experiencing some elements of transformation or transition. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular all facing uncertain political developments. In Kazakhstan the question of who will be the next leader of the country. In Kyrgyzstan parliamentary elections are scheduled for this year. In Tajikistan the president is preparing his son to become the next president.

The works of NGOs and civic movements may get restrained, for example in Kyrgyzstan the parliament is currently considering to pass a law that will limit work of NGOs. In Kazakhstan the government made a move over control of political mobilization and protests, that took place before the pandemic. In Tajikistan, there is violence against political opposition, especially against the leadership of the Islamic Renaissance Party.

The governments are cutting communication and trying to marginalize civic voices and voices from society and public space, on these circumstances protests are dynamic trends to escalate. Nowadays society is vulnerable to information and becoming victims of fake news that can also lead to uncontrollable and unexpected mobilization against a variety of issues.

The positive side is that in scarcity around the world as well as in Central Asia there are some mobilization of charity networks, help lines that were arranged to help people in need at this uncertain time.

Shairbek Juraev

Dr. Shairbek Juraev, co-founder and director at Crossroads Central Asia, research fellow and a PhD candidate of the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews (Kyrgyzstan) talked about coronavirus impact on Central Asia focusing on debt dependency and democracy.  

Talking about the pandemic in Central Asia, Shairbek Juraev pointed out several factors as debt, disparity, dependence and democracy issue in Central Asia.

«Talking about the disparity among Central Asian states, we have to acknowledge that the region’s states are different countries and over time they will become even more different. For example, in terms of trade balance, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are heavily import-dependent countries. Their imports are 3 times more than exports, meanwhile this statistic does not refer to other states as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  So, if the pandemic brings greater protectionism in international trade, especially these two countries will suffer (if not already suffering).  Another great example of disparity is the remittances. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been in the top 5 countries of the world in terms of the dependence on remittances for the past 10 years. Consequently, this crisis will heavily hit the local economy.

Another thing I want to emphasize is dependence on external countries, to be precise, deepening debt issues. Again Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are heavily indebted countries and half their debt is owned by China. Due to the pandemic, the local businesses are sitting at home and remittances and tax revenues are dropping. So, there are all conditions that we will have problems with paying back, plus, we will be needing to borrow more and more to support the budget (what we are doing now).

Another topic is the democracy issue. Democracy has become an unpopular and exotic term in Central Asia for the past several years. As an example, Kyrgyzstan’s evidence suggests that two main pressures for democratization- pressure from below and pressure from outside- are both weakening. And the COVID-19 has been weakening it even further. So, I suspect that the values of the liberal democracy will further weaken in Central Asia, but not necessarily at the expense of creation of a strong authoritarian state».

Iskander Akylbayev

Iskander Akylbayev, Executive Director of the Kazakhstan Council on International Relations (Kazakhstan), evaluated the current situation from geopolitical perspective and application of soft power elements in the region.

The year 2020 started as an ideal storm, with the global pandemic like a black swan, bringing the world to unpredictable and unknown ever before reality.

The geopolitical aspect of COVID-19 to Central Asian states is concluded in the integration pace to unions like «Eurasian Economic Union», «Shanghai Cooperation Organization», and «Belt and Road Initiative». The challenges are how these integration mechanisms are going to play out within the economic slowdown and global lockdown, as well as how states are going to adjust to this reality.

Soft power elements, that China demonstrates nowadays by so called «Mask Diplomacy», where it sends medical protective supplies to 120 countries, in order to play out this pandemic on their own benefit. There is another element of the so-called «Health Silk Road» where China also started to cooperate with Central Asian states in the health and medical care sphere. This, in turn, is going to be the really interesting element of the Belt and Road Initiative, which is raising another question, whether China is going to promote this initiative or it will fall into stagnation because of the economic slowdown. The global competition between China and the US is going to take place for a long time, and COVID-19 only will add fuel to it.

But there is a room for state to state diplomacy with some features of soft power. For example, Uzbekistan assists Tajikistan and Kazakhstan sends masks to Kyrgyzstan. There is a question why Russia did not help Central Asian states in terms of medical supply, and instead favored to help Italy.

This unknown situation certainly put pressure on the governments. Specifically, in Kazakhstan the situation has revealed weaknesses of government institutions, because they did not know how to operate and integrate in this situation. But there are also positive aspects, for example, in Kazakhstan the government allocated 2.5 million dollars to support 700 thousand companies and entrepreneurs, and provided 100 dollars each month to people whose income was limited because of the lockdown.

“The global pandemic pushes us to learn and adjust to the new reality. Solving this issue is going to take time”, – Akylbaev added in conclusion, closing the session of thematic reports.

Next on the agenda was a session of diverse and informative questions and answers. Numerous event participants from various fields of activity and countries could interact with speakers by asking urgent questions related to the coronavirus pandemic and the further development of Central Asia.

After an interesting Q&A session, Anthony Borden, Executive Director of IWRR, gave a small closing speech, where he thanked the experts, organizers and other participants for taking part in the online discussion. The meeting was also attended by IWPR’s Regional Director in Central Asia Abakhon Sultonazarov; British Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic – H.E.  Charles Garrett; Norwegian Ambassador to Central Asia – H.E. Ole Bjornoy, as well as the representatives of research and analytical centers and the general international community.

Moderator of the event James Nixey concluded the expert meeting, thanking all the participants for their hard work and expressing hope that this event would contribute to further research.

The IWPR Representative Office in Central Asia thanks and acknowledges the Chatham House’s help in organization of the event. Joint events with international partners and experts from the Central Asian region in order to promote stability of peace and harmony in the region.  

Watch the full video recording of the expert online meeting:

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