What's Happening in the Region
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.
The Latest Majlis Podcast
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.
What I'm Following
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.
The 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.
Fact of the Week
The voter turnout of 54.19 percent for Kazakhstan’s March 19 parliamentary elections was the lowest in the country’s history.
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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.
Until next time,