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central asia in focus

Central Asia in Focus

Author: Bruce Pannier

Mar 22, 2023

Image source: CPC

Copyright (c)2022 RFE/RL, Inc. Used with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036. Read the original here

Welcome to Central Asia in Focus, a newsletter that offers insight and analysis on the events shaping the region's political future. 

I’m Bruce Pannier. I’ve been studying Central Asia for more than 35 years, went to summer school at Tashkent State in 1990 when Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union, and then lived in villages in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 1992-1993. And since 1995, I’ve been writing about the region I think of as my second homeland. Thanks for joining us! 



Those Russian Ties
Central Asian states have been walking a diplomatic tightrope since Russia began its full-scale war in Ukraine in February 2022.
Both Russia and Western countries backing Ukraine want Central Asia’s support.
As former Russian colonies, Central Asians are concerned about Russian expansion in Ukraine, but Russia is a leading trade and security partner of the five Central Asian countries.
Western countries are important trade partners for Central Asia also. The European Union is Kazakhstan’s leading trade partner, for example.
Trade routes between Central Asia and Europe through Russia have been disrupted and the Central Asians are scrambling to open alternative connections.
And it appears there will be no change in the situation anytime soon.
Faced with a dwindling number of allies, Moscow has worked hard to keep close ties with the Central Asian states in the months since it launched the full-scale war in Ukraine, including President Vladimir Putin visiting all five Central Asian countries in 2022.
Recently there have been reports in Western media that Central Asia is closer to Russia than to the West.
On March 14, The Economist published a report listing the top 12 countries it considered to be “Putin’s Pals.”
Four of the Central Asian countries were on the list: Kyrgyzstan at number three, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan tied for number four (along with Iran), and Uzbekistan tied for number 10 (with India and Nicaragua).
On March 17, Reuters published a report on Russian companies using Kazakh partners to “circumvent Western sanctions and import badly needed goods…”
Reuters noted Kazakhstan’s exports to Russia increased by 25 percent in 2022.
Why It’s Important: Whether the governments or people in Central Asia support or oppose Russia’s war, they still have to consider Russia’s potential to cause problems in Central Asia now and in the future.
Besides the trade and security ties with Russia, there are eight million Central Asian citizens working in Russia. If Russia suddenly expelled them, they would join the ranks of the unemployed back in Central Asia and increase the potential for social unrest.

And 80 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports are currently shipped through Russian territory and those supplies were halted four times in 2022 on various pretexts.
That means cooperation with Russia which may take forms that countries supporting Ukraine find questionable.
Afghan Project Will Leave Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan with Less Water
Afghanistan is finally working to claim its share of the water from the Amu-Darya, one of Central Asia’s two great rivers (the other is the Syr-Darya).
Work started on the 175-mile Qosh Tepa canal at the end of May 2022.
According to plans, the canal should be completed in 2028 and will bring water from the Amu-Darya to agricultural fields in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh, Jowzjan, and Faryab provinces.
But that will also leave downstream areas in neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan with less water.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s acting Deputy Prime Minister, inspected the canal earlier in March. A report on Baradar’s visit said the project is already more than one-third completed.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have been siphoning water from the Amu-Darya to expand their agricultural fields since the Soviet era, but decades of war in Afghanistan have prevented that country from doing the same.
One report said Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan could lose up to 15 percent of the water that currently flows into those two countries.
Uzbek media outlet kun.uz reported the Qosh Tepa canal “could have serious consequences for [Uzbekistan’s] Khorezm, Bukhara, Surhandarya and Navoi provinces, as well as the Republic of Karakalpakstan, and Turkmenistan.”
Conditions in the downstream areas of the Amu-Darya have been deteriorating for years.
It has been decades since the river reached the Aral Sea due to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan drawing water from the Amu-Darya for agriculture. Now most of the Aral Sea is dried up.
Why It’s Important: There are no formal agreements on water use between the three countries involved, and Afghanistan has as much right to use water from the Amu-Darya as its northern neighbors do.
The Afghan media outlet Khaama noted that “due to the two decades of conflict, [Afghanistan] has yet to be able to use its water resources… most neighboring countries took advantage of the situation and utilized the water.”
That is true, but the kun.uz report was correct also in noting already parched areas in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan need every drop of water they can get, and significantly reduced water supplies will prove disastrous for some communities.



This week’s Majlis podcast looks at what has happened in Turkmenistan in the year since Serdar Berdymukhammedov took over the post of president from his father.
This week’s guests are Aynabat Yaylymova, founder and executive director of Progres Foundation, which supports progressive, educational initiatives benefitting the public in Turkmenistan; and Victoria Clement, a scholar and historian who lived in Turkmenistan and authored the book Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014.


Looking for Signs of “New” Kazakhstan
About this time last year, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev promised political changes that would usher in a “new” Kazakhstan.
Amendments to about one-third of Kazakhstan’s constitution were passed in a national referendum in June, there was a snap presidential election in November, and on March 19, elections to the lower house of parliament and provincial and municipal councils.

Those elections seemed like the old elections. The ruling Amanat party won some 60 percent of the seats in the lower house and the remainder look to be filled with members of other pro-government parties.
But Toqaev says pieces are now in place, and I’m waiting for signs of the “new” Kazakhstan.
Kyrgyzstan’s Kempirabad Fiasco
Human Rights Watch is calling on Kyrgyz authorities to free “Kempri-Abad protest detainees.”
Kyrgyz police and security forces rounded up 25 politicians, activists, journalists, and bloggers at the end of October 2022.
They were initially detained for 48 hours but 22 of those people are still in custody.
Those detained were part of a committee to protect the Kempir-Abad reservoir from being given to Uzbekistan as part of a border demarcation agreement.
They were charged with plotting to overthrow the government.
Their period of confinement has been extended three times and now runs to late April, nearly six months since they were detained.
Some of the committee members say authorities are not even conducting an investigation and are simply keeping them locked up.


The voter turnout of 54.19 percent for Kazakhstan’s March 19 parliamentary elections was the lowest in the country’s history.


Thanks for reading our Central Asia in Focus newsletter! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who you think may be interested. 

Feel free to contact me on Twitter or by responding to this email, especially if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia. 
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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time, 

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