Welcome back to Central Asia in Focus, an RFE/RL newsletter that looks at the events shaping Central Asia’s 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.
I’d like to say hello to our new subscribers from Georgetown University, the Overseas Development Institute, and Trier University. Thanks for joining us!
The Kazakh-Russian Rift
Back in February, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev said Kazakhstan and Russia were neighbors from God.
Toqaev might be rethinking that.
Toqaev made a visit to Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on April 17.
Kazakhstan has been trying to stay neutral about Russia’s war on Ukraine, but Toqaev has been walking a tightrope keeping lines of communication open with both its giant northern neighbor Russia and Western countries.
Ahead of his visit to St. Petersburg, Toqaev said Kazakhstan valued its relationship with Russia but could not violate the international sanctions against Russia.
During the forum, Putin said he believed Russia had a claim to all the former territory of the USSR.
Toqaev called the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, which Russia now recognizes as independent countries, “quasi states.” He repeated, as he and other Kazakh officials have said several times, that Kazakhstan would not recognize the independence of the separatist regions.
But the situation quickly worsened.
Toqaev declined to accept the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky, which Russian authorities wanted to give him. The Order is usually awarded to Russian citizens with long civil service careers, but is sometimes awarded to foreigners for developing cooperation with Russia.
Toqaev’s press secretary, Ruslan Zhelbibay, explained Toqaev previously decided not to accept any awards, domestic or foreign, while he served as president.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later denied there were any plans to give Toqaev the award.
On June 19, Russia’s Black Sea port at Novorossiysk announced it was partially suspending the loading of Kazakh oil onto tankers, again.
In late March, Novorossiysk port authorities said they needed to reduce Kazakh oil shipments due to damage from a storm.
This time the reason is the discovery of “more than 50 objects that could be explosive devices” from World War Two still in the water near the port.
The Novorossiysk port has been exporting Kazakh oil since October 13, 2001.
Why it’s important: Russian officials have commented that Kazakhstan never existed as a country until 1991, that parts of northern Kazakhstan were “basically uninhabited” until Russians arrived there,” and that many ethnic Russian still live in northern Kazakhstan. So, the latest exchanges between the presidents raise tensions between the two countries.
As Russia Wages War on Ukraine, Central Asia Improves Ties with Iran
The Kremlin’s war on Ukraine has spurred the Central Asian states into action to open southern trade routes to compensate for the loss of traditional trade routes through sanctions hit Russia.
After Kazakh President Toqaev departed Russia, he went straight to Iran, and Toqaev’s trip to Tehran followed visits by the Turkmen and Tajik presidents to Iran in the last few weeks.
Toqaev’s June 19 arrival in Iran coincided with the arrival of the first train to be making the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan-Iran-Turkey route.
The train was loaded with Kazakh sulfur bound for Europe and Toqaev called the new railway route a “very important event, given the complicated geopolitical situation.”
The Tehran Times reported the national railway companies of Iran and Kazakhstan signed a Memorandum of Understanding during Toqaev’s visit under which “part of the cargo passing through the China-Russia-Europe railway corridor will be transported through Iran via the China-Kazakhstan-Iran-Europe railway corridor.
Turkmenistan’s new president, Serdar Berdymukhammedov, visited Iran on June 14. He also visited Russia on June 10 prior to his stop in Tehran.
The purpose of Berdymukhammedov’s visit to both Russia and Iran is almost certainly an attempt to restart Turkmen natural gas exports to both countries.
Russia stopped importing Turkmen gas at the start of 2016, though Russia has resumed buying modest volumes since 2019.
Turkmenistan cut off gas supplies to Iran at the start of 2017, claiming Iran owed some $2 billion for Turkmen gas supplies from 10 years earlier.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon was in Iran on May 29 as Tajikistan and Iran continue to warm up ties that sunk dramatically after Tajikistan accused Iran of backing assassinations of influential Tajik figures during the 1992-1007 Tajik civil war.
Why it’s important: The visit of three Central Asian presidents to Iran in three weeks is not a coincidence. Relations with Russia are now uncertain, and the Central Asian states are invigorating their efforts to find new trade routes and partners.
THE LATEST MAJLIS PODCAST
Our most recent Majlis podcast looks at gender discrimination and violence against women in Central Asia.
This week’s guests are:
• Leila Nazgul Seitbek, chairwoman of the NGO Freedom for Eurasia, and member of the working group for the global treaty to end all forms of violence against women and girls.
• Aynabat Yaylymova, Founder of Saglyk and Progres Foundation that supports educational initiatives benefitting the public in Turkmenistan.
• Niginakhon Uralova, adjunct professor at Webster University in Tashkent who conducts research on gender, Islam, and education in Central Asia with a special focus on Uzbekistan.
WHAT I'M FOLLOWING
Investigating What Happened In GBAO
The UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues sent a request to the Tajik government on June 14 to visit the country and look into allegations of “excessive and unlawful use of force” by Tajik troops during the recent anti-terrorist operation in Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).
Several hundred soldiers left GBAO between June 12-14, nearly a month after the crackdown started.
Mirziyoev’s Third Term
Sadyk Safaev, first deputy chairman of Uzbekistan’s Senate, has all but confirmed what many suspectedthat incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev will be able to run for another term in office after his second term ends in 2026.
Speaking about the new constitution being drafted for Uzbekistan, Safaev said, “If a new constitution is adopted, then of course it gives the opportunity for all citizens, including the current president, to participate in elections according to the new constitution.
FACT OF THE WEEK
In 2021, 53.1 million metric tons of Kazakh oil were transported via the pipeline that runs to Novorossiysk, and 18.7 million metric tons in the first four months of 2022. Some 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil exports go to the European Union.
THANKS FOR READING
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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.