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Kazakh interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (L) and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev (R) attend the Astana Economic Forum in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.
Kazakh interim President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev (L) and former President Nursultan Nazarbayev attend the Astana Economic Forum in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan May 16, 2019. REUTERS/Mariya Gordeyeva

Welcome back to Central Asia in Focus, a newsletter that offers insight and analysis on the events shaping the region’s political 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.


Kazakhstan: The Second Republic

Kazakhstan is conducting a national referendum on changes to the constitution on June 5.

President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev says it will be a major step in the development of “new” Kazakhstan and create a “Second Republic.”

I’ve been looking at some of the proposed amendments, and my thoughts were: “some progress, but it won’t meet the expectations of the people who were protesting in early January in Kazakhstan.”

Amendments transfer some powers of the president to parliament, but parliament is currently packed with pro-government deputies.

All three parties in parliament are pro-presidential and most deputies are from the Amanat party, formerly the Nur-Otan party of Kazakhstan’s first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, also known as Elbasy – Leader of the Nation.

Toqaev currently leads the Amanat party, though under another amendment the serving head of state cannot simultaneously be the head of a political party.

A majoritarian-proportional system of electing local officials and deputies of Mazhilis, the lower house of parliament, is introduced, partially fulfilling demands of recent protests in Kazakhstan for the people to have more say in electing officials.

But there are still no genuine opposition parties registered in Kazakhstan, and in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, parliamentary elections conducted last November on a majoritarian-proportional basis produced an overwhelmingly pro-presidential parliament.

And Kyrgyzstan does have registered opposition parties.

Why it’s important: Widespread protests in Kazakhstan at the start of January had their roots in 30 years of Nazarbaev rule in Kazakhstan, a period when Nazarbaev’s cronies and family members plundered Kazakhstan, and Nazarbaev established a political system where he was more king than president.

Amendments strip Nazarbaev of his constitutional privileges and any mention in the constitution of the “founder of independent Kazakhstan,” or “Elbasy,” but that’s as much punishment as Nazarbaev is likely to see.

He won’t be investigated and he won’t stand trial for turning Kazakhstan into his personal playground and bank.

The January protests were caused by economic, social, and political disparity in Kazakhstan and I don’t see that the amendments sufficiently address these issues.

Problems along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek Border

As tensions continue to fester along Kyrgyzstan’s border with Tajikistan, the recent deadly shootings along Kyrgyzstan’s border with Uzbekistan are particularly alarming.

On April 5, Uzbek border guards shot dead two alleged smugglers from Kyrgyzstan, and on May 5, Uzbek guards at a different section of the Kyrgyz border killed three more alleged smugglers.

For a long time, the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border was the most dangerous border inside Central Asia, but after Shavkat Mirziyoev came to power in Uzbekistan in late 2016, that situation changed.

Frequent meetings of officials from the two countries, especially local officials, have dramatically reduced violent incidents along the frontier, and relations between the two countries are better than they have ever been.

Are the bad old days of border tensions returning? I hope not and other recent events indicate cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is increasing.

Uzbek Prime Minister Abdullo Aripov visited Kyrgyzstan between April 1-2 and talked about boosting annual bilateral trade to $2 billion, up from $500 million in 2021.

President Mirziyoev spoke with his Kyrgyz counterpart Sadyr Japarov a week later and the two discussed construction of a hydropower plant and the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, a project that’s been on the drawing board for some 25 years.

Uzbekistan is funding reconstruction of the Uzbek theater in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, and construction of two schools in Kyrgyzstan’s southern Batken Province.

Why it’s important: Economic times are hard, especially with fewer migrant laborers making the annual trip to Russia for work, so cross-border smuggling is likely to increase.

Over the border in Afghanistan, the Islamic State of Khorasan has been vowing to attack Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, (listen to this week’s Majlis podcast) so border guards along Kyrgyzstan’s border with both those countries are going to be extra nervous about intruders.


This most recent Majlis podcast looks at the Islamic State of Khorasan’s (IS-K) failed attempt to launch an attack on Uzbekistan.

This week’s guests are Jennifer Murtazashvili, a professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at Pittsburg University and non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, Navbahor Imamova who hosts “Amerika Ovozi” for Voice of America, and Lucas Webber, co-founder and editor of “Militant Wire.”


The growing ability of IS-K to threaten the Central Asian states. That was the topic of our latest Majlis podcast, but after that was recorded IS-K fired rockets into Tajikistan. IS-K seems to be gathering momentum in northern Afghanistan, putting Central Asia is a bad position.

The situation along the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border. Kazakhstan announced on May 6 it will tighten controls over trucks crossing from Kyrgyzstan after discovering more than 1.1 million counterfeit excise stamps of the Republic of Belarus.

Smuggling from Kyrgyzstan is a problem, but the majority of cargo haulers are legitimate and even with normal control on the Kazakh border, these trucks sometimes wait for days to cross.


Kazakhstan’s June 5 referendum is the first since 1995, when there were two; one on April 29 to extend President Nazarbaev’s term in office, and another on August 30 to adopt the constitution.


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

Every week we like to ask our audience a question and hear your thoughts about issues we cover in the newsletter. This week: What do you think about the Central Asian countries offering any sort of support to the Taliban to defeat IS-K?

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