Central Asia: A Look Back At 2021 and Outlook For 2022
Dr Pravesh Kumar Gupta, Senior Research Associate , VIF
Introduction

The year 2021 has been challenging for Central Asia. The year marked the three decades of independence for the Central Asian countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The socio-economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been devastating for Central Asia’s developing economies. They adopted certain measures like Lockdown, Quarantine, and the announcement of relief packages to curb the consequences of the pandemic on the lives of people. However, the economic inequality has widened, leading to anti-government protests and demonstrations. Simultaneously, the pandemic also provided an opportunity for major players like China to play its medical diplomacy in Central Asia. Developments in Afghanistan became a litmus test for the frontline states like Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. This has also proven to be a test for regional cooperation in Central Asia. Afghanistan, Energy Diplomacy, changing inter-state relations, and major power dynamics are some of the major highlights in 2021.

Regional Cooperation: Enhancing Trade and Connectivity

Regional cooperation in Central Asia has been increased in the recent past. Due to Uzbekistan’s active diplomacy, inter-state relations have been at their best in Central Asia. As a result of Tashkent’s efforts of rechanneling regional cooperation in Central Asia has gained some positive results. The consultative meeting of the heads of all the Central Asian countries is one of the significant achievements. The third meeting was held in Turkmenistan on August 6, 2021. The other two meetings were held in Nursultan, and Tashkent in 2018 and 2019, respectively.[1]

Some of the significant issues discussed in the third meeting were Afghanistan, the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and connectivity. Although in Afghanistan, each Central Asian country has a certain approach based on its geopolitical interests and domestic situation. The consensus was made on developing regional connectivity and increasing cooperation in the post-Covid recovery. As a result of increased regional cooperation, the inter-state trade in Central Asia has doubled, and it is also expected that this will go up in the coming years.

Revitalizing Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Relations

Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan are bordering states in the Caspian Sea, yet the trade and commercial links between the two countries remained limited. The tense relations were mainly due to the disputes in sharing the resources of the Caspian Sea. Last year has been marked by significant developments in bilateral relations between these countries. The signing of the ‘Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea’ in the Kazakh city of Aktau in August 2018 raised the possibility of Turkmen gas exports to Europe via Azerbaijan. It has also given a push to the Trans-Caspian Gas Pipeline (TCGP). TCGP, which is critical for Turkmenistan’s diversification of gas exports cannot be materialised without Azerbaijan’s cooperation While Azerbaijan can get benefits as a transit delivering Turkmen gas to Europe.

In a related development, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the mutual exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbon resources in the ‘Dostlug’ (Friendship) field in the Caspian Sea on January 21, 2021.[2] The agreement between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is a product of warming relations and increased contact between the sides that have taken place in the last two years. Cooperation between them will likely expand into multiple fields beyond the energy sphere. The likely next sphere will be an expansion of transportation links. Despite being neighbouring states, few citizens of the two countries visit each other’s territories, and there is an absence of institutional linkages between the two countries.[3] People-to-people ties are also likely to increase.

Turkmenistan’s natural gas exports are mainly reliant on China. Facilitating this alternate gas export route will be strategically advantageous for Ashgabat’s energy diplomacy. Recently, Turkmenistan has also joined Turkic Council as an observer, which will further help strengthen Turkmen-Azerbaijan relations and energy ties.

Developments in Afghanistan: Responses from the Region

The Taliban took control over Kabul on August 15, 2021, resulting in the fall of the Afghan government led by Ashraf Ghani. The Taliban’s return to Afghanistan seemed unavoidable, but few anticipated it to be falling that quickly. CARs have been concerned about the potential consequences of this development. Afghanistan shares a border with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, and the Taliban’s re-emergence posed a direct threat to their internal security. As a result, the neighbouring Central Asian republics, except for Tajikistan, have engaged the Taliban on diplomatic levels while preparing for the potential security threats.[4]
In a reaction to the Taliban takeover of Kabul, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan closed their border and mobilized militarily. Similarly, Tajikistan, a member of Russia, led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), mobilized forces at the Tajik-Afghan border, and asked for additional help from CSTO. Russia, the security provider in Central Asia, conducted a combined military drill with Uzbekistan near the Afghan border. In Tajikistan, near the Afghan border, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan conducted combined military exercises. These military drills demonstrated CARs preparedness to face the difficulties posed by the Taliban’s revival.[5]

At present, except for Tajikistan, other CARs have been engaged with the Taliban at some levels. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have an economic interest in Afghanistan. Uzbekistan is doubly landlocked; therefore, it aspires to get access to the Pakistani ports via Afghanistan while Turkmenistan is one of the main electricity providers to Kabul and is also crucial as a transit to Afghanistan’s Lapis Lazuli corridor. Afghanistan is also an important component of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline. Therefore, they are the ones who initiated the humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan. They also keep insisting on other regional countries to provide assistance to Afghanistan. Their economic interests can only be realised if the country is stable and the Taliban government is recognized internationally. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have also sent their representatives to Kabul to discuss a cooperative framework with the Taliban government.

President Mirziyoyev has advocated for greater connectivity between South and Central Asia. And, stability in Afghanistan is a prerequisite for developing connectivity between South and Central Asia. To advance Tashkent’s connectivity initiatives, he convened a high-level conference on connectivity in July 2021. The conference’s keynote speaker was Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. With the Taliban in power in Kabul, Islamabad now enjoys an advantageous position in Afghanistan. In recent years, ties between Pakistan and the Central Asian Republic have improved. The Trans-Afghan Railway Line, which will be an expansion of the current Termez-Mazar-e- Sharif railway line, is an essential part of Tashkent-Islamabad cooperation. Turkmenistan has also expressed its interest in joining this project.[6]

Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan Border Dispute

As already mentioned, interstate relations in Central Asia have improved. Uzbekistan has solved its border disputes with both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The border demarcation process between these countries has also progressed well. However, the disputes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remained unresolved. Last year a large-scale conflict between these countries erupted in late April 2021, which has been the worst conflict in decades. The dispute, which began on April 28, was escalated following the installation of surveillance cameras at an intake station of a water reservoir by Tajik officials. This reservoir is located in disputed territory. This evolved into a fight between the military forces of both countries over the next two days. More than 50 Tajik and Kyrgyz people were killed, with more than 200 wounded. In both nations, houses, schools, and stores were damaged, and tens of thousands of people were displaced.[7]

The violence over water sharing is symbolic of decades of deteriorating relations between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. These countries are heavily reliant on remittances and the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened economic hardship. Climate change has had a significant impact on the environment and natural resources, putting a lot of pressure on land and water sharing. Furthermore, growing nationalist rhetoric and economic instability have played a significant role in escalating tensions along the disputed territories.

Russia-China and Regional Dynamics in Central Asia

Russia and China remain the dominant players in the region. Their positions have been strengthened with the changing regional environment concerning Afghanistan and the Covid-19 pandemic. Russia’s role as the security manager in Central Asia has revived with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. On the other hand, China has sustained its role as a dominant economic player in the region. Beijing convened the second conference of Foreign Ministers from China and Central Asia on May 12, 2021, in Xi’an, Central China. The first meeting was held in July 2020 through video conferencing. China has established this new dialogue mechanism with Central Asia to examine opportunities for post-pandemic economic cooperation.

This approach is critical since Beijing already has good and friendly connections with all CARs. China also brings them together on a common platform, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This new method has been viewed as a fresh challenge for other regional parties like the United States, Russia, and India. The Second Meeting was significant for two main reasons; first, it was held in China, and secondly, it was physically attended by the Foreign Ministers of the CARs amid the pandemic. This illustrates the amount of trust that the CARs leadership invests in Beijing. It also demonstrates China’s confidence in dealing with Central Asia without being concerned about other actors, primarily Russia. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi also met with ministers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan on a bilateral basis.

Central Asia is critical to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has also been affected by the Covid-19 epidemic. China’s increased support to Central Asia in post-pandemic recovery aims to accelerate its BRI projects. In addition, it is indeed a required practise on Beijing’s side to counteract the growing Sinophobia in the Central Asian region.

India-Central Asia: From Traditional to Strategic Partners

India-Central Asia relations have gained momentum in the recent past. India extended its support to the region by providing medical assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.[8] In July 2021, EAM Dr. S. Jaishankar visited Tajikistan to take part in SCO Foreign Ministers’ meet. In the second leg of his trip, he visited Tashkent to participate in the regional connectivity conference organized by Uzbek Government. Later in October 2021, Dr. Jaishankar visited Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. During this visit, he announced a 200 million USD Line of Credit (LOC) to Kyrgyzstan for developmental projects.[9] These visits have set the tone for enhanced cooperation between India and central Asia in 2021.

Prime Minister Modi participated at the 21st SCO Summit through a video conference on September 17, 2021. He took a strong stance against radicalization and extremism in his speech, calling for the development of a comprehensive plan to tackle terror financing and cross-border terrorism. PM Modi has also pushed India’s commitments to improve connectivity with Central Asia. He also stated that territorial integrity should be respected when implementing any connectivity initiative, alluding to China’s BRI.[10]

The developments in Afghanistan required close cooperation between India and the CARs. However, with the Taliban’s return to power, India’s Afghanistan policy was critically undermined. India took a firm stance against the Taliban, demanding a stable Afghanistan with an inclusive government as a prerequisite for interacting with them in any form. As part of its active diplomacy in Afghanistan, New Delhi convened a regional security dialogue on Afghanistan on November 10, 2021, which brought together National Security Advisors (NSAs) from CARs, Russia, and Iran. All participants have agreed to work together to maintain peace and stability in Afghanistan and combat terrorism and illicit drug trafficking. In addition, the NSAs of the participating nations agreed to form an inclusive government in Kabul and reaffirmed that Afghan territory should not be used against any other country.[11]

As a positive outcome of India’s Central Asia policy, the Third Edition of the India-Central Asia Dialogue was held in New Delhi on December 2021, which exalted the mutual trust and cooperation between India and CARs. The consistency in reciprocal interactions has become vital in elevating the bilateral relations. The EAM S. Jaishankar met with the Foreign Ministers of Central Asian nations both collectively and bilaterally. He emphasised the need to focus on the four Cs: commerce, capacity building, connectivity, and contact. The Foreign Ministers of CARs have also met with PM Modi. These factors are critical in furthering India’s presence in Central Asia. Nonetheless, there is huge potential for further collaboration between the two regions.[12]

Outlook for 2022

Developments in Afghanistan need to be observing closely. It would be interesting to watch how Central Asian countries deal with the Taliban. Until now, it has been confined to humanitarian assistance, but broader collaboration is essential for the large-scale reconstruction of the country. Along with that, the possibility of extremism and terrorism spreading to Central Asia is also something to keep an eye on.

Since the beginning of 2022, there have been episodes of large-scale protests against governments in Kazakhstan about socio-economic inequality. This brings us back to 2019 when similar protests forced President Nazarbayev to resign. However, the new Kazakh President Tokayev launched broader economic and constitutional changes, although these have not successfully appeased the Kazakh people. How Kazakhstan’s government handles these protests will decide the trajectory of domestic politics in Kazakhstan, as well as the regional dynamics.

Russia-China relations in Central Asia have proven mutually beneficial. Russia dominates the security architecture, while China retains its dominance in Central Asia’s economic components. With the developments in Afghanistan, Russia and China’s influence in Central Asia’s security will grow. There have already been claims of a Chinese military installation in Tajikistan. This might be a bone of contention between Moscow and Beijing as the situation develops. However, with the escalation of hostility between Russia and China and the US and the West on the other side, the prospects of a Russia-China confrontation are limited.

Japan and South Korea have progressively gained significance as economic and trading partners in Central Asia. CARs have also been promoting their relations with these nations to lessen their reliance on Russia and China. Turkey and the European Union have also taken steps to strengthen their positions in Central Asia. However, it would be intriguing to see if these nations can play a significant role in Central Asia’s already complex geopolitical and geo-economic landscape.

The heads of five Central Asian nations have been invited to India’s 73rd republic day in 2022 as Chief Guests. Indian and Central Asian leaders are set to hold a summit-level meeting during this visit. This is a crucial step toward India’s Central Asia strategy. On the other hand, New Delhi has to boost connectivity, trade, and commercial links with Central Asia if it is to achieve meaningful results. Until the situation in Afghanistan stabilises, India should investigate connecting Central Asia through Iran, where infrastructure already exists.

References:

[1]Third Consultative meeting of heads of the Central Asian States: Some Perspectives, Diplomacy India, August 8 2021. https://diplomacyindia.com/third-consultative-meeting-of-heads-of-the-central-asian-states-some-perspectives-29193/
[2]ehun Aliyev, “Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan sign deal on Caspian hydrocarbon field”, Anadolu Agency, January 22, 2021. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/economy/azerbaijan-turkmenistan-sign-deal-on-caspian-hydrocarbon-field/2118835
[3]Brenda Shaffer, “More than Just Friends? New Azerbaijan-Turkmenistan Agreement on Joint Energy Production in the Caspian Sea”, CACI Analyst, February 16, 2021. https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13662-more-than-just-friends?-new-azerbaijan-turkmenistan-agreement-on-joint-energy-production-in-the-caspian-sea.html
[4]‘Developments in Afghanistan: Concerns for Russia’s Central Asia Policy,’ Article, VIF, August 13 , 2021. https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/august/13/developments-in-afghanistan-concerns-for-russia-s-central-asia-policy
[5]Ibid.
[6]‘Why are Central Asian Republics wooing Pakistan?’, Article, VIF, July 15, 2021. https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/july/15/why-are-central-asian-republics-wooing-pakistan
[7]‘Best of 2021: What drove the worst Kyrgyz-Tajik conflict in years?’, The Third Pole, December 24 , 2021. https://www.thethirdpole.net/en/regional-cooperation/climate-nationalism-unresolved-borders-and-the-pandemic-drove-kyrgyz-tajik-conflict/
[8]‘India’s Medical Diplomacy in Central Asia amid COVID-19’, The Diplomacy and Beyond Plus, June 25, 2020. https://diplomacybeyond.com/indias-medical-diplomacy-in-central-asia-amid-covid-19/
[9]‘India agrees on $200 million LoC support to Kyrgyzstan, says S Jaishankar’, The Business Standard, October, 11 2021. https://www.business-standard.com/article/international/india-agrees-on-200-million-loc-support-to-kyrgyzstan-says-s-jaishankar-121101100373_1.html
[10]‘PM Modi at SCO Summit: Security a challenge and root cause is radicalisation, Afghanistan an example’, India Today, September 17, 2021. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/pm-narendra-modi-sco-summit-address-on-islam-radicalisation-1853828-2021-09-17
[11]‘Third Edition of India-Central Asia Dialogue: Bolstering India’s Central Asia Policy’, Article, VIF December 30 , 2021. https://www.vifindia.org/article/2021/december/30/third-edition-of-india-central-asia-dialogue-bolstering-indias-central-asia-policy
[12]Ibid.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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