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Central Asia in Focus: Concerns and Opportunities with the Taliban


AFGHANISTAN — A Kazakh delegation meets with Afghan representatives in Kabul in April 2023.
AFGHANISTAN — A Kazakh delegation meets with Afghan representatives in Kabul in April 2023.

In this week's edition: Central Asian countries' concerns about the Taliban, China funds a hydropower plant, and more.

In the Region

Central Asian States See Concerns, Opportunities in Afghanistan

There are two big events coming in Central Asia in early August concerning Afghanistan.

One is the meeting of the Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek presidents in the Turkmen capital Ashgabat.

The other is a Kazakh-Afghan business forum scheduled for August 3-5 in the Kazakh capital Astana.

The meeting of the Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek presidents is intriguing.

Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all border Afghanistan.

The Turkmen and Uzbek governments have established trade ties with the Taliban after the Afghan group returned to power in August 2021.

The Tajik government has had minimal contact with the Taliban government and Dushanbe continues to view the Taliban with suspicion.

Despite years of turmoil in Afghanistan, the presidents of those three Central Asian countries have never gathered to discuss the situation south of their borders.

On July 26, the foreign ministers of the three countries held a video conference to prepare the agenda for the summit.

The date for the summit was given as “in August” and no information was released about the agenda, but water use will certainly be one of main topics.

The Taliban are building the Qosh Tepa canal using water from the Amu-Darya, the river that divides much of Central Asia from Afghanistan.

The headwaters of the Amu-Darya are in Tajikistan.

From there, the Amu-Darya passes westward to Uzbekistan. Not far into Turkmenistan, it turns north, passing back and forth through dozens of farming communities in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

According to international law, Afghanistan has as much right to the water of the Amu-Darya as its Central Asian neighbors do.

A recent dispute over water between the Taliban and Iran led to a brief clash along the Afghan-Iranian border.

The economic forum in Kazakhstan promises, according to Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, to bring “more than 150 businesses from various sectors…”

Kazakhstan is the leading exporter of wheat and flour to Afghanistan, so this forum will likely build on that foundation.

Why It’s Important: The summit and the economic forum are two sides of the same coin in dealing with the Taliban.

A stable Afghanistan is useful to Central Asia for trade and security.

The Central Asian states want to trade with Pakistan and India through Afghanistan, but this has been impossible all the 32 years the Central Asian countries have been independent due to instability in Afghanistan.

The Central Asian states have spent most of those years fortifying their defenses along their borders with Afghanistan to keep Afghan problems from spilling into Central Asia.

Stability is what the Taliban are promising, but the Taliban remain unpredictable.

The Biggest Chinese-Funded Project in Central Asia in Years

Kyrgyzstan’s Energy Ministry announced on July 28 that deals were signed with a Chinese consortium to build the Kazarman Cascade hydropower project.

The consortium is expected to invest between $2.4-3 billion in the project.

That is the most money China has sunk into a project in Central Asia since the last of the oil and natural gas pipelines from China to Central Asia were completed nearly a decade ago.

For Kyrgyzstan, the timing could not be better.

President Sadyr Japarov’s government just announced a three-year energy emergency situation in Kyrgyzstan.

The Kazarman Cascade’s four hydropower plants on the Naryn River will provide a combined 1160 megawatts (MW) of electricity after they are built.

By way of comparison, Kyrgyzstan’s Toktogul hydropower plant, the country’s biggest, generates 1260 MW, or 40 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity output.

The Chinese companies involved are Power China Northwest Engineering Corporation Ltd., Green Gold Energy, and China Railway 20 Bureau Co Ltd.

The problem with the project is that it might be coming too late.

Hydropower plants produce most of Kyrgyzstan’s domestic power.

Climate change is lowering average annual precipitation in many parts of Central Asia and melting glaciers in Central Asia’s mountains, including in Kyrgyzstan.

There are concerns about the unusually low water level at the Toktogul reservoir this summer and the effect that will have on power output from the Toktogul hydropower plants.

The water level at the Orot-Tokoi reservoir that farmers in northern Kyrgyzstan depend on is also extremely low.

In mid-July the reservoir had 37.3 million cubic meters (mcm) of water, 139.2 mcm less than in 2022.

Why It’s Important: It is curious Chinese companies are interested in this project.

Other multi-billion-dollar projects such as the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and Line D of the natural gas pipeline network from Turkmenistan to China remain on the drawing board.

China receives something from those projects but doesn’t seem to get anything from the Kazarman hydropower plants.

There is also the matter of Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China. Kyrgyzstan’s foreign debt is $4.5 billion. More than 40 percent is owed to China’s Export-Import Bank.

President Japarov vowed to reduce Kyrgyzstan’s foreign debt and now Kyrgyzstan is set to take on billions of dollars of additional Chinese debt.

And if climate change continues hitting Central Asia as it has in recent years, the Kazarman hydropower plants will have difficulty operating at capacity, if they operate at all.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the problems the Central Asian states are having with water and electricity this summer.

Climate change is already very noticeable in Central Asia.

How bad is it? And what, if anything, are Central Asian governments doing to alleviate the effects?

This week’s guests are:

  • Nurzat Abdyrasulova, President and CEO of Bishkek-based strategic advisory firm Unison Group;
  • Alisher Sidikov, Director of Ozodli, RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service; and
  • Farruh Yusupov, Director of Azatlyk, RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service.

What I'm Following

The Heat in Turkmenistan

RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service reports that in the eastern Mary Province, where daytime temperatures are currently reaching 113 Fahrenheit, hospitals are seeing an increase in patients, especially traffic police.

The extreme heat this summer is the big story for Central Asia. And it’s only the first day of August.

An Opportunity for Kazakh Uranium

Following the military coup in Niger at the end of July, the junta announced it was suspending uranium exports to France.

That raises questions about uranium supplies for France’s nuclear power plants, but also about supplies to the European Union.

Niger reportedly supplies 20 percent of the European Union’s uranium imports.

Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest uranium producer, and it has a contract with French mining company Orano.

It will be interesting to see if Kazakhstan can gain.

Fact of the Week

Eighty-seven thousand Tajik citizens received Russian citizenship in the first six months of 2023, which is 13,000 more than the same time last year.

Tajikistan’s population is just a bit more than ten million people.

Thanks for Reading

Thanks for reading Central Asia in Focus! I appreciate you sharing it with other readers who may be interested.

Feel free to contact me on Twitter or by responding to this email, especially if you have any questions, comments, or just want to connect about topics concerning Central Asia. See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,
Bruce

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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier authors RFE/RL's "Central Asia in Focus" newsletter and appears regularly on the RFE/RL's Majlis podcast.

About Central Asia in Focus

An authoritarian tide is sweeping through Central Asia, resulting in political repression and a stark retreat in civil liberties. Central Asia in Focus, a bi-weekly newsletter, focuses on key events shaping the course of the region. Author Bruce Pannier shares personal insights informed by his three decades of experience covering Central Asia, and tells his readers what may come next.

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