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Central Asia in Focus: August 9, 2022

Joint drill of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan forces named "Commonwealth-2022" started in Termez on August 4, 2022, the press service of the Ministry of Defense of Uzbekistan reported. Photo: Uzbek Defense Ministry.
Joint drill of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan forces named “Commonwealth-2022” started in Termez on August 4, 2022, the press service of the Ministry of Defense of Uzbekistan reported. Photo: Uzbek Defense Ministry.

What’s Happening in the Region

Some Thoughts on the Tajik-Uzbek Military Drills

Tajik and Uzbek soldiers started military exercises at Uzbekistan’s Termez training grounds on August 4, leaving me with a lot to unpack.

First, it is a good sign that the militaries of the two countries are conducting joint exercises because it is another indication that ties between the two countries, which ranged from bad to horrible from 1997-2016, are improving dramatically.

Tajik-Uzbek relations improved after Shavkat Mirziyoev became Uzbekistan’s leader in late 2016 and these recent joint military drills are another example of the new spirit of cooperation between the two neighbors.

Second, it is interesting that the military exercises are being held near Termez, which is located on the border with Afghanistan.

The Tajik and Uzbek governments have different positions on the return of the Taliban to power just across their borders in Afghanistan.

Uzbekistan’s government has actively engaged with the Taliban in an attempt to open new trade routes to Pakistan and India.

Tajikistan’s government has been hostile to the Taliban and declined to open a dialogue with the militant group, despite all the other Central Asian countries doing so.

But third, the joint military drills are not so strange when one recalls that the Islamic State of Khorasan (I-SK) militant group, which is fighting against the Taliban, has launched rockets from Afghan territory at both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

I-SK propaganda has also been targeting the Tajik and Uzbek governments as oppressors of Muslims.

Why It’s Important: It’s a great reminder of how complicated Central Asian regional politics can be.

Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have had bad relations for most of their nearly 31 years of independence, but now they are on friendly terms and conducting joint military exercises.

The Taliban have returned to power across the border in Afghanistan. When the Taliban were in power in the late 1990s, both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan refused to talk with the Afghan militant group and helped the Taliban’s enemies.

Now Uzbekistan talks to the Taliban, but Tajikistan does not.

So, it is difficult to say if the military drills are intended to impress or intimidate the Taliban, or more likely, the exercises are meant to send a message to ISK who has declared the Taliban, the Tajik government that is hostile to the Taliban, and Uzbek government that is on amiable terms with the Taliban, to be their enemies.

Twice the Nuclear Controversy in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan has been debating construction of a nuclear power plant (NPP) for some 20 years and recently the government has been looking at NPP proposals from several foreign companies.

But Kazakh Deputy Energy Minister Zhandos Nurmaganbetov let everyone know on August 3 that Kazakhstan is already looking to build a second NPP, and even has a prospective site for it.

Kazakh authorities have pressed ahead with plans to construct the country’s first NPP despite objections from some people in Kazakhstan.

During the Soviet era, there were 456 nuclear tests on Kazakh territory and people in the northern Semipalatinsk Province, where the testing took place, continue to suffer from an assortment of health problems.

Trying to convince Kazakhstan’s people that nuclear power is the answer to the country’s energy problems has been a hard sell.

But Soviet-era coal-fired thermal power plants (TPP) have been belching out pollution for years and two had to temporarily reduce operations in autumn 2021, so the government has reason to move ahead on nuclear power.

Kazakhstan is the leading producer of uranium in the world and has facilities for full-cycle production, from uranium ore to nuclear fuel.

But debate over building even one NPP has been going on since the early years of this century, and construction still has not started.

Akchulakov said the second NPP would probably be built on the Irtysh River near the town of Kurchatov, named after Igor Kurchatov, the director of the Soviet nuclear bomb program.

Why It’s Important: There are good reasons for Kazakhstan to build an NPP. The coal-burning TPPs are blackening the skies above the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan, the commercial capital Almaty, and industrial cities such as Karaganda, Temirtau, and others.

Some of Kazakhstan’s aging TTPs need to be retired.

But “nuclear” remains a bad word for many in Kazakhstan and there is likely to be some heated discussions about having two NPPs in the country.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

On the latest Majlis podcast we discussed the signs of climate change in Central Asia, what the expectations are for the near future, and what the Central Asian governments can do to slow effects.

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Questionable Support for Extending Uzbek President’s Term in Office

The deadline for the people of Uzbekistan to send in their suggestions for amendments to the country’s constitution expired on August 1.

RFE/RL’s Uzbek service, known locally as Ozodlik, reported that some state employees who spoke with Ozodlik said they were pressured by managers to support changing the presidential term from five to seven years.

Incumbent President Shavkat Mirziyoev is serving his second term in office and according to Uzbekistan’s constitution, two terms is the maximum. Mirziyoev should step down in 2026. But changing the presidential term limit to seven years nullifies the two five-year terms and would allow him to stay in office potentially until 2040.

The state employees’ statements to Ozodlik cast more doubt on the genuine support for these proposed amendments that will soon be put to a national referendum for approval.

Important Insight on GBAO

I’m still watching developments involving the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) in eastern Tajikistan.

Arrests and convictions of activists and local leaders continue (just since last week’s newsletter), but I recommend reading this recent article by Suzanne Levi-Sanchez who describes the situation in GBAO, based on her many years of visiting the region.

Fact of the Week

The chairman of Tajikistan’s Supreme Court, Shermukhammad Shohiyon, said in July that Tajik courts handed down guilty verdicts in 5,508 cases during the first six months of 2022. There was not even one acquittal.

Thanks for Reading

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