Weekly Digest of Central Asia


BISHKEK (TCA) — The Publisher’s note: Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Central Asia was the scene of intense geopolitical struggle and the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, and later between the Soviet Union and the West, over Afghanistan and neighboring territories. Into the 21st century, Central Asia has become the area of a renewed geopolitical interest, dubbed the New Great Game, largely based on the region’s hydrocarbon and mineral wealth. On top of that, the region now is perhaps the most important node in the implementation of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative through which Beijing aims to get direct access to Western markets. Every week thousands of news appears in the world’s printed and online media and many of them may escape the attention of busy readers. At The Times of Central Asia, we strongly believe that more information can better contribute to peaceful development and better knowledge of this unique region. So we are presenting this Weekly Digest which compiles what other media have reported on Central Asia over the past week.


Nazarbayev’s departure triggering new Russian exodus from Kazakhstan

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the number of ethnic Russians has significantly decreased in Kazakhstan, and this trend may increase after Nursultan Nazarbayev’s resignation

Apr 21 — “Although there are still no official statistics as to its size, the exodus of ethnic Russians and Russian-speakers from Kazakhstan has clearly accelerated since Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president last month. Nazarbayev was the last central Soviet-era leader of the republic and a man viewed by many Russians as a guarantor of ethnic harmony. According to Igor Pereverzev, a Russian commentator based in Kazakhstan, even though Nazarbayev remains in power behind the scenes, the emerging post-Nazarbayev leadership appears less interested than him in balancing the interests of ethnic Russians and ethnic Kazakhs; instead, the incoming political elite looks more committed to a “Kazakh first” approach, which concerns ethnic Russians.” READ MORE: https://www.timesca2stg.wpenginepowered.com/index.php/news/21080-nazarbayev-s-departure-triggering-new-russian-exodus-from-kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s Top Party Picks President, Meanwhile the Youth Debate the Future

As state power transition is taking shape in Kazakhstan according to Nazarbayev’s plan, the question remains if the country will succeed in political and economic modernization

Apr 23 — “Two meetings — of Nur Otan in Nur-Sultan and an assembly of youths in Almaty — tell a tale of two Kazakhstans.” READ MORE: https://thediplomat.com/2019/04/kazakhstans-top-party-picks-president-meanwhile-the-youth-debate-the-future/

The Myth of the Kazakh Economy

For the past decade, the economy of Kazakhstan has been stalling and the cracks are becoming clearer by the day

Apr 24 — ““Let us recall how the Soviet empire fell, leaving us with confusion and emotional turmoil, a ruined economy and politics…Our first task was to build a market economy, dismantle the totalitarian system of ideology and modernise all the institutions of society. And we did this in the name of creating a modern democratic state – the Republic of Kazakhstan.” These were the outgoing words of President Nursultan Nazarbayev.” READ MORE: https://intpolicydigest.org/2019/04/24/the-myth-of-the-kazakh-economy/

China’s Belt and Road hits a speed bump in Kazakhstan

Located about four hours by car from Almaty on the Kazakh-Chinese border, Khorgos seems an unlikely place for a logistics hub. But Khorgos is important for China because it connects its densely populated Xinjiang with Central Asia

Apr 24 — “One of the most ambitious projects in China’s Belt and Road Initiative aims to transform a vast plot of open land along China’s border with Kazakhstan into the launch point for a river of Chinese goods flowing to Europe by rail. A depot hums with giant cranes, hoisting containers. Newly built rail lines stretch into the distance and hundreds of workers go about their jobs. The vision is taking shape. But just four years in, the project already faces slowing growth.” READ MORE: https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Belt-and-Road/China-s-Belt-and-Road-hits-a-speed-bump-in-Kazakhstan


Kyrgyzstan’s president dodges a crisis, but his worries are not over

Battle lines in Kyrgyz politics are almost never about policy, but instead center on personalities and their interests

Apr 22 — “Politics in Kyrgyzstan is playing out like a Brazilian soap opera these days. Miss one episode of high drama and low cunning and you are adrift. Surveying over the action is Sooronbai Jeenbekov, a sphinx of a president elected to office in October 2017. His hapless nemesis, spurned ally and predecessor is Almazbek Atambayev. The bone of contention over the past few weeks has been the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, or SDPK – the backbone of the governing coalition.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/kyrgyzstans-president-dodges-a-crisis-but-his-worries-are-not-over


The only B&B owners in the former Soviet uranium mining town of Min Kush are hoping tourism is the key to changing the town’s ailing fortunes

Apr 26 — “There is no signpost, but my driver Azamat knows to turn off the main highway and to take the winding narrow road through the Tian Shan mountains. Our destination for the night is Min Kush, a former Soviet uranium mining town, which my guide book describes as the end of the road in every way. During Soviet times, uranium was mined here for Russia’s nuclear programme. It was regarded as so important that the Kyrgyz town was ruled directly by Moscow and attracted highly skilled labour from all over the Soviet Union” READ MORE: https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/asia/kyrgyzstan-min-kush-soviet-union-guesthouse-a8884711.html

Kyrgyzstan aims to be in the forefront of digitalization in Central Asia

The State will ensure conditions for investments to stimulate the national digital infrastructure in Kyrgyzstan

Apr 27 — ““Our goal is to bring our country to the forefront of digitalization in the region,” Kyrgyzstan President Sooronbai Jeenbekov said at the first telecommunications forum “Digital Kyrgyzstan: Regional Development” held in Osh on April 22. In early January, President Jeenbekov declared 2019 the Year of Regional Development and Digitalization of Kyrgyzstan.” READ MORE: https://www.timesca2stg.wpenginepowered.com/index.php/news/26-opinion-head/21103-kyrgyzstan-aims-to-be-in-the-forefront-of-digitalization-in-central-asia


Fighting Fire With Firefox: Imam Uses Internet To Urge Tajiks Not To Use Internet

For Tajik authorities, the Internet is an evil as it was often used to radicalize Tajik citizens and is also a platform for free public expression and dissent

Apr 23 — “A Tajik imam who was once jailed for spreading banned Salafist “propaganda” has plunged into an intense public debate over authorities’ doubling of Internet costs, praising the policy and accusing social media of being the source of “all bad things in Tajikistan.” Eshoni Sirojiddin Abdurakhmonov, the unofficial leader of the country’s banned Salafist movement, made an 18-minute video on April 20 in which he described the Internet as “the plague of the century.” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/fighting-fire-with-firefox-imam-uses-internet-to-urge-tajiks-not-to-use-internet/29899158.html

Tajikistan caves to public pressure on internet price rise, sparking glee

The government’s plan to limit Internet use incited unprecedented public pushback

Apr 24 — “Authorities in Tajikistan have caved to a vocal grassroots campaign and dropped plans to drastically hike prices for mobile internet connections. This surprise change of heart has shown that the country’s civil society still has some life, despite years of repression at the hands of President Emomali Rahmon’s increasingly arbitrary and undemocratic regime.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-caves-to-public-pressure-on-internet-price-rise-sparking-glee

China’s military base in Tajikistan: What does it mean?

China is the largest foreign investor in Tajikistan — and all of Central Asia — and Beijing’s growing economic expansion in the region is being complemented by the growing military and security influence in this strategic area

Apr 24 — “The Washington Post recently reported that China has an operating military base in Tajikistan, confirming earlier accounts of this base and opening a window on China’s interests and strategic developments across Central Asia. However, China may have a second base situated in the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan. Chinese forces have been present there since 2017, around the same time that the base in Tajikistan became functional. The newly discovered base, along with the base in Djibouti and the possible base in Afghanistan, reflects the pressures building from within the PRC and PLA to project military power beyond China’s borders, e.g. in the South China Sea.” READ MORE: https://www.timesca2stg.wpenginepowered.com/index.php/news/26-opinion-head/21092-china-s-military-base-in-tajikistan-what-does-it-mean


Turkmenistan: Water fuss about nothing

In its ‘Akhal-Teke: A Turkmenistan Bulletin’, Eurasianet reviews the main news and events in the Central Asian country for the previous week

Apr 23 — “Turkmenistan enjoys setting records, so one fresh development could be considered an achievement of sorts. The country has ranked at the very bottom of the Reporters Without Borders 2019 World Press Freedom Index, thereby pipping North Korea to the title of worst repressor of the free press. This intimidation has most recently been focused on Soltan Achilova, a former correspondent for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service, Radio Azatlyk.” READ MORE: https://eurasianet.org/turkmenistan-water-fuss-about-nothing

With energy exports depressed, Turkmens turn to towel smuggling

Textiles are among the few items manufactured domestically from local feedstock and prices for items produced by state-owned companies have remained stable for years even as the Turkmen manat lost four-fifths of its value on the black market due to Turkmenistan’s falling gas export revenue

Apr 23 — “Beset by economic hardship, enterprising Turkmens have found a way to supplement their incomes – smuggling towels and bed linen into neighboring Kazakhstan. Moving hundreds of items every trip in trademark Chinese plaid bags which at times have clogged airport luggage belts, informal traders – mostly women in their late forties and fifties – hand them over to relatives or local partners to be resold for up to five times the purchase price.” READ MORE: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkmenistan-textiles/with-energy-exports-depressed-turkmens-turn-to-towel-smuggling-idUSKCN1RZ17F

‘Killing Hope’: Turkmenistan’s List Of ‘Accepted’ Universities Deals (Another) Blow To Students

The latest restrictions, issued on April 23, are part of a series of actions in recent years to prevent Turkmen students from studying abroad or creating conditions that force them to give up their studies

Apr 24 — “Young Turkmen studying abroad are angry with a new government decision to only recognize diplomas from certain foreign universities and to not recognize certain degrees of study. “Why are [Turkmen officials] doing this?” asked Nurgeldi Berdiyew in a Facebook post. “They’re killing the last piece of hope in us [for a better future].” Rayat, who gave only his first name, said the new decree enforces the perception that Turkmen education is laughable” READ MORE: https://www.rferl.org/a/killing-hope-turkmenistan-s-list-of-accepted-universities-deals-(another)-blow-to-students/29901588.html


In Uzbekistan, a lowly tree afforests a lost sea

Central Asia is one of the world’s most vulnerable regions to climate change, with many of its main challenges relating to water: glacier melt, flooding, desertification, changing precipitation patterns, mudslides, and drought

Apr 23 — “In one of the world’s newest deserts, water is most readily found in the spongy bark of saxaul trees. Gnarled and gray with scaly leaves, these trees appear ancient, as if they have long stood watching as the Aral Sea shrank from being the world’s fourth-largest lake to just one-tenth of its size, a water surface area the size of Ireland disappearing into sand. But in reality, the desertification of the Aral Sea only took some 50 years, and it is only in the last decade that these trees have only been planted here.” READ MORE: https://news.globallandscapesforum.org/34210/in-uzbekistan-a-lowly-tree-afforests-a-lost-sea/

UZBEKISTAN: Bloggers jailed for criticising Muftiate

All religious communities in Uzbekistan are under tight government control. The regime uses the Muftiate to impose complete control on all public manifestations of Islam, including appointing all permitted leaders, controlling what they preach, and deciding on the numbers and locations of mosques. All public manifestations of Islam outside the Muftiate are banned

Apr 25 — “Muslim bloggers Rustambek Karimov and Tulkun Astanov face criminal charges launched by the SSS secret police, which still holds Karimov. The two completed 15-day jail terms on 23 April, but only Astanov was freed the following day. They were jailed the same day Deputy Chief Mufti Mansur accused them of being “hooligans” and disrespectful to Muftiate “spiritual leadership”. READ MORE: http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2471

Uzbekistan exhibits wine industry in Italy

Uzbekistan aims at becoming the leading wine producer and exporter in Central Asia

Apr 25 — “Uzbekistan considers Italy as a long-term and promising partner on the European continent. The Embassy of Uzbekistan, with the assistance of the Il Santuccio Wine Association, the Italian companies Marchesi de Frescobaldi and Tecnovite Group, made a presentation of Uzbekistan’s wine industry. The presentation was held in one of the ancient castles of Florence for the 100 leading experts in the field of winemaking in the Toscana region.” READ MORE: https://www.azernews.az/region/149557.html

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan hope planned border trading centre will boost trade to $5 billion by end of 2020

The new trading centre will allow the two countries to improve transport logistics and centralise trade interaction with other Central Asian countries, as well as partners from other regions

Apr 26 — “Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are planning to open the Central Asia international centre for trade and economic cooperation on their shared border. The countries have set a goal to increase bilateral trade to $5 billion by the end of 2020, said Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev at the April 15 press briefing summing up his two-day visit to Tashkent, Uzbekistan.” READ MORE: https://astanatimes.com/2019/04/kazakhstan-uzbekistan-hope-planned-border-trading-centre-will-boost-trade-to-5-billion-by-end-of-2020/


Why the U.S. Democratic Project Failed in Afghanistan

International forces seeking to democratize Afghanistan did not promote the free enterprise and capitalism that could tangibly improve Afghan livelihoods

Apr 21 — “Simple cost-benefit analysis of the conflict in Afghanistan would conclude that the United States of America—along with the thirty-nine other countries with troops deployed on the ground—lost their eighteen-year battle to democratize Afghanistan. As even the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) admits, almost half of the country remains under Taliban control. Meanwhile, the war has cost over $1 trillion; an amount that could fund the entire U.S. education system for fifteen years, or provide free university education for all U.S. citizens for ten years. The trillion-dollar question, then, is how could such a massive investment by the United States not yield its goal of a stable, Afghan democracy?” READ MORE: https://nationalinterest.org/feature/why-us-democratic-project-failed-afghanistan-53292

How the US military’s opium war in Afghanistan was lost

Opium is woven deeply into the fabric of the conflict in Afghanistan. The profits from the heroin it produces are used to fund the Taliban, and heroin also drives the rampant corruption in Afghanistan

Apr 25 — “The US has spent $1.5m (£1.15m) a day since 2001 fighting the opium war in Afghanistan. So why is business still booming? It’s November 2017. The night vision camera shows a network of streets in a town in Helmand province, the poppy-growing centre of Afghanistan. The camera wheels around the targets before the missiles come arcing in.” READ MORE: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-47861444

On Sale in Kabul: Mementos of America’s War in Afghanistan, for $2 or Less

American, Russian, British and Afghan medals are on sale in a jewelry store in Kabul

Apr 25 — “In March, I went to Chicken Street in Kabul, a well-known shopping stop for those Americans and foreigners who are allowed to venture outside the Green Zone. In one of my favorite shops, I noticed a tray of silver in one of the display cases. As the shopkeeper splayed the trinkets out on the glass, he uncovered a single gold disc, slightly larger than the others. I couldn’t help but laugh when I read the inscription: “Chief Petty Officer’s Mess.” Here in the heart of Kabul, the capital of landlocked Afghanistan, I’d found a challenge coin from a group of American Navy officers who decided their tradition of shared meals warranted permanent commemoration.” READ MORE: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/magazine/military-challenge-coins-afghanistan.html

Afghanistan’s Hired Guns

The number of private contractors in America’s war in Afghanistan jumped at an unprecedented rate in the last three months

Apr 26 — “THE NUMBER OF SECURITY contractors the military employs in Afghanistan is higher now than at any time since President Barack Obama declared an end to combat operations in the country in 2014, Defense Department documents show. More than 5,800 privately employed security personnel are currently operating in Afghanistan under Pentagon contracts, according to the latest report released this month that the military headquarters overseeing Middle East wars compiles for Congress. The number of security contractors jumped by more than 1,000 in the three months since the last report – a spike of more than 20 percent and the biggest increase in two years.” READ MORE: https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2019-04-26/us-employs-unprecedented-number-of-security-contractors-in-afghanistan


The Geopolitical Implications of Expanding Ties Between the Gulf and Central Asia

In recent months, the member-states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have ramped up efforts to consolidate and expand their trade and investment ties with the countries of Central Asia

Apr 24 — “Though the differences between the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and the cold steppes of Central Asia might be stark, the two regions do share some fundamental similarities. Both regions are rich in natural resources, with access to an abundance of fossil fuels. Irrespective, both are seeking to diversify their economies toward lessening their reliance on this traditionally fruitful source of income. They share a faith in the form of Sunni Islam and share an affinity for authoritarian governance.” READ MORE: https://globalsecurityreview.com/relationship-gulf-cooperation-council-central-asia/

How China is looking beyond borders

A graphic explainer of the Belt and Road Initiative

Apr 26 — “The “Belt and Road Initiative” was announced by the Chinese government in 2013 as a global trade strategy based on the ancient Silk Road trading route. It aims to develop a new Silk Road economic belt and 21st century maritime Silk Road by promoting economic cooperation across Asia, Africa and Europe. The initiative combines new and older projects and includes improved soft and hard infrastructure, and even cultural ties.” READ MORE: https://multimedia.scmp.com/news/china/article/3007692/belt-and-road/

Sergey Kwan