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Central Asia in Focus: Blinken Visits Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Blinken Visits Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Kyrgyz hydropower, gender-based violence in Central Asia, inequality in the workplace, and more.

The President of Uzbekistan (R) shakes US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's hand (L) in Tashkent.
UZBEKISTAN — The President of Uzbekistan met with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in Tashkent.

What’s Happening in the Region

Blinken Visits Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are the largest countries in Central Asia, with the biggest populations and biggest economies.

For these reasons, many regard the two as the most important countries in Central Asia. So, it was perhaps no coincidence that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited those two countries before heading to India for a meeting of G20 foreign ministers.

Blinken noted during his visit that the Central Asian countries have been more affected than others in the region by Russia’s war in Ukraine. Traditional trade routes to and through Russia have become less reliable due to international sanctions.

While none of the five Central Asian governments have openly criticized Russia for the war, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan stand apart as officials from those governments have voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

There were no surprises during Blinken’s visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but the timing was good, coming after the leaders of Russia and China already made their visits.

Russian President Vladimir Putin visited all five Central Asian countries in 2022 as the Kremlin was losing partners due to its war in Ukraine and needed to shore up relations with allies.

Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in September 2022.

Blinken’s visit came as Russia’s international image has been shattered by the military failures in Ukraine.

China has cultivated strong ties with all the Central Asian governments, but Beijing has not tried to increase its influence in Central Asia at Russia’s expense.

So, Blinken’s first visit was likely a welcome reminder to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan of their foreign policy options.

On March 3, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev went to the southern Kazakh city of Shymkent for an informal meeting with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev.

Again, nothing significant came from the meeting, but the timing was interesting after both leaders met with Blinken. It was also significant as Uzbekistan rarely cooperated with Kazakhstan when Islam Karimov was Uzbekistan’s president.

The new Kazakh-Uzbek partnership opens many economic and security possibilities for the two countries and for countries outside Central Asia.

Why It’s Important: Blinken’s visit, then the meeting of the Kazakh and Uzbek presidents in Shymkent, are the latest indications of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan emerging as the major players in Central Asia.

Blinken did meet in Kazakhstan with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian countries, but the choice of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan demonstrates the trend of many countries to focus diplomatic efforts on those two countries.

It’s a new division in Central Asia with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as the dominant countries in the region and Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan garnering secondary interest.

Is Kyrgyzstan Closing in on Realizing Old Hydropower Projects?

For years, Kyrgyz authorities have been trying to develop the country’s hydropower potential, but it has been difficult for the cash-strapped country to find investors for costly hydropower plant (HPP) projects that have sat on the drawing board for decades.

Recent reports indicate Kyrgyzstan has found potential foreign partners for two key Soviet-era HPP projects, although one partner seems questionable.

The Kambar-Ata-1 project aims to construct a HPP on the Naryn River that would be the biggest HPP in Kyrgyzstan, generating 1,860 megawatts (MW) of electricity annually.In June 2022, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov attended a ceremony for the start, or rather restart, of construction of Kambar-Ata-1. He called for foreign investors to participate in the project.

On March 4, there was a report that representatives of France’s EDF Energy, a company that has already built HPPs in the United States, Europe, and Asia, met with Kyrgyz officials to discuss financing for Kambar-Ata-1.

Less promising are developments with the Upper Naryn Cascade HPP project, a series of four smaller HPPs with a combined output of 238 MW.

March 3 report said Kyrgyzstan’s cabinet of ministers signed a Memorandum of Understanding with British company Minddock Limited DBA Enterprise Energy Investments to build the project.

The report noted the British company does not seem to have any experience building HPPs and as of September 30, 2021, shares in the company totaled £8,779 ($10,430).

The estimated cost of constructing the Upper Naryn Cascade project is more than $800 million.

Why It’s Important: In 2017 it appeared Kyrgyzstan had found Czech company Liglass to build the project.

But it turned out Liglass also had no experience building HPPs and Czech media reported Liglass sales in 2014 amounted to $15,000.

The news about Kambar-Ata-1 is encouraging, but the report about the Upper Naryn Cascade shows the current government may not have learned from the mistakes of previous governments.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast revisits the topic of gender-based violence in Central Asia.

The views of society can work against victims of violence. Even when there are laws meant to protect against abuse, these laws are often not enforced.

What is and is not being done, and what what work remains to end violence against women and girls?

This week’s guests are Najla Ayoubi, chief of coalition and global programs at the Every Woman Coalition; Gulbakhor Makhkamova, head of the Gulrukhsor Crisis and Women’s Shelter Center (@Sgulrukhsor on Twitter) located in Khujand, Tajikistan; and 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 women and girls.

What I’m Following

The Cost of Gender Inequality in the Workplace

The World Bank released a report on March 2 that linked economic growth in Central Asia to greater participation of women in the workforce.

The report said if women’s role in the labor market was equal to men’s, “national income would be anywhere from 27% higher in Kazakhstan to 63% higher in Tajikistan.”

The report said “removing legal barriers to equality is a critical first step,” and noted some Central Asian countries have started addressing the problem.

Fact of the Week

Kazakhstan’s government said cargo transit time across the Caspian Sea has been reduced from 12 to six days, and by the end of the year it should be five days. Delivery of cargo from China to Georgia’s Black Sea port at Batumi has been reduced from 38-53 days to 19-23 days.

Thanks for Reading

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

Until next time,