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Central Asia in Focus

Author: Bruce Pannier

May 23, 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 original article 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! 



In Central Asia, It’s Advantage China after the Xian Summit 


The Central Asian presidents came to Xian, the ancient Chinese capital, on May 18-19 where host President Xi Jinping was waiting to offer them what no one else can. 


The Central Asian leaders are always glad to meet with Chinese officials. 


China will bankroll projects in Central Asia that no other country or company would touch. 


China funded and sent workers to build the $350-million thermal power plant (TPP) in the Tajik capital Dushanbe. 


China helped repair the TTP in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, loaning Kyrgyzstan $386 million. 


There are many other such projects that fail to elicit much investment interest from any other party. 


That’s not surprising since Tajikistan could not pay for the TPP and signed over rights to a Tajik gold mine to China as payment and in Kyrgyzstan, some $100 million of the Chinese loan was stolen by officials.  


In Xian, Xi talked about other Central Asian projects China has agreed to participate in – the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and Line D of the natural gas pipeline network from Turkmenistan, for example. 


Uzbek media reported “41 documents” were signed with China, and Kazakh media reported “47 documents totaling $22 billion” were signed between Kazakh and Chinese officials on the sidelines of the summit. 


Such reports are in stark contrast to the visit of the five Central Asian leaders to Moscow on May 9 for the Victory Day parade. 


No significant agreements were signed there and in fact, less than a week before Victory Day, the Kyrgyz president was the only one of the five scheduled to attend the event. 


The Kremlin seems to have exerted some strong last-minute pressure on the other four presidents to get them to Moscow so Putin wouldn’t look so alone watching the parade on Red Square. 


In Xian, China rolled out the red carpet and treated the Central Asian guests to a lavish feast. 


In March, Xi started an unprecedented third term as Chinese leader. 


Manipulating the constitution to stay on for more than two terms has been done in all five Central Asian countries. 


It just happened, again, in Uzbekistan where the country’s second president, already elected twice, will benefit from a constitutional amendment that makes him eligible to run for two more terms. 


Why It’s Important: China loans Central Asia sums of money that are huge by Central Asian standards, and sometimes go toward needed infrastructure projects in which no one else shows interest in participating. 


And no criticism from Beijing about constitutional manipulation and rights violations in Central Asia. 


In Xian, China showed those policies, which the Central Asian governments have greatly appreciated for some three decades, will continue. 


Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan Strengthening Military Cooperation 


Since 1991 independence, the five Central Asian countries believed if they faced a serious security threat, Russia would help them. 


With the Russian military bogged down in Ukraine, help from Moscow is now uncertain. 


Who to depend on then if a serious security crisis erupts? 


Why not each other? 


Special forces and border guards from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan conducted the “Qalqon (Shield)” joint exercises in Uzbekistan from May 15-19. 


Beyond the usual drills of ground and air (helicopter) forces to neutralize a hypothetical security threat, the joint forces coordinated their efforts using surveillance drones. 


Drones are a relatively new addition to the militaries of countries around the world. 


Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have started producing their own drones in recent years and both countries are working to integrate the technology into their battlefield strategies. 


The Uzbek Defense Ministry released a statement on the exercises that mentioned “instability, tension and armed conflicts” in various areas of the world including “near our region.” 


“Near our region” is likely, in part, a reference to Afghanistan.  


The two countries have been holding the Qalqon and Hamqorliq (Cooperation) exercises since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021. 


Why It’s Important: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the two largest countries in Central Asia and have the two largest militaries. 


Russia might not be able to send much, if any, military help to Central Asia as long as the full-scale war in Ukraine continues. 


So, for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan it makes sense to boost their military cooperation.  


Given the questions about where to find security help in a dire situation, it could be that neighbors Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Turkmenistan might one day need to call on Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan for aid. 

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This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the May 18-19 summit of the Central Asian and Chinese presidents in Xian, China. 


Central Asia’s relations with China have acquired a new importance since Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine, disrupting Central Asia’s ties with Russia, and jeopardizing Central Asia and China’s trade routes to Europe. 


What was discussed in Xian and where are Central Asian-Chinese relations headed? 


This week’s guests are:  

  • Giulia Sciorati, postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Trento in Italy, whose research focuses on memory and culture in diplomacy, particularly in China’s relations with Central Asia; and  
  • Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and at the OSCE Academy in Bishkek. 


Askar Akaev Back in Kyrgyzstan 


Former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his wife Mayram arrived in Kyrgyzstan on May 18. 


Akaev, Kyrgyzstan’s first president, was ousted in the Tulip revolution of 2005 and fled the country. 


For some in Kyrgyzstan, Akaev has become synonymous with corruption.  


Akaev was charged but he returned to Kyrgyzstan twice in 2021 to give evidence against the owners of the Kumtor gold mine; a court ruled the statute of limitations for Akaev’s charges had expired. 


Officially, Akaev is now in Kyrgyzstan to visit the gravesites of his mother and brother and give lectures at the Iskhak Razzakov State Technical Institute and Academy of Sciences. 


Some students at the Technical Institute are calling on the university administration not to allow Akaev to speak. 


Kazakhstan reports that for the first time in 12 years, the water in Kazakhstan’s section of the shrinking Aral Sea has increased. 


Thanks for reading this week’s newsletter.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter @BrucePannier or click reply if you have any questions, comments, suggestions, or just want to connect with me about topics concerning Central Asia.

Please consider filling out this brief survey so that I can better understand how this newsletter can be useful for you. 

See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time, 

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Central Asia in Focus

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