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Central Asia in Focus: New Russian Trade Corridors Through Central Asia

In this week’s edition: a new Russian trade corridor in Central Asia, an Uzbek citizen was sent to prison for fighting in Ukraine, how foreign wars are affecting governments and people in Central Asia, and more.

The new Central Asian trade corridor is being set up to avoid transportation bottlenecks, such as this traffic jam at the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border in August 2023.
The new Central Asian trade corridor is being set up to avoid transportation bottlenecks, such as this traffic jam at the Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan border in August 2023.

In the Region

New Russian Trade Corridors Through Central Asia

Russia is involved in two new proposed trade routes that would pass through Central Asia as the competition for east-west and north-south trade corridors through Central Asia picks up momentum.

Transportation officials from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) countries met for a forum in Tashkent, Uzbekistan on November 1.

Kyrgyz Transportation Minister Tilek Tekebaev, Uzbek Transportation Minister Ilhom Mahkamov, and Russian Deputy Transportation Minister Dmitri Zverev signed a memorandum to establish a new trade corridor.

The corridor would link Kyrgyzstan to Russia via Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, avoiding Kyrgyzstan’s traditional routes to Russia through Kazakhstan.

Kyrgyzstan has been complaining for years about long lines at the Kazakh border for cargo trucks bringing goods north to Russia.

The proposed new route would require shipping goods by boat from Turkmenistan’s Caspian Sea port of Turkmenbashi to the Russian ports at Makhachkala or Astrakhan.

Turkmenistan is not an SCO member and there is no confirmation yet from Turkmen authorities about their participation in the proposed corridor.

Kazakh Deputy Transportation Minister Talgat Lastayev said another memorandum was signed to set up a Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan route.

Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Pakistan are SCO members. Afghanistan and Belarus have observer status in the SCO.

Since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August 2021, Afghanistan has not sent representatives to SCO events.

Both the newly proposed routes are multimodal, meaning they use rail, road, and ships to transport goods.

Why It’s Important: While the Russian government has been focusing on its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the European Union, China, and others have been working to enhance trade routes transiting the so-called Middle Corridor through Central Asia.

The EU and China have been investing in improvements in road, railway, and maritime connections through the Caucasus and Central Asia, and across the Caspian Sea to facilitate EU-Chinese trade.

Expansion of the Middle Corridor has been progressing rapidly and has as one of its aims to create an extensive trade network that avoids Russian territory.

A legacy of Russia’s 150 years of colonizing Central Asia is that, when the Soviet Union fell apart in late 1991, all the routes out of Central Asia led through Russia.

Until recently, the situation had only changed modestly with the establishment of new, alternative routes.

However, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, infrastructure expansion has increased the volume of goods passing through the Middle Corridor – even as Russia appears to be working to bolster its own trade routes to Central Asia.

Uzbek Citizen Sent to Prison for Fighting in Ukraine

For the first time, Uzbekistan has imprisoned a citizen for serving with pro-Russian forces in Ukraine in 2014-2015.

A Tashkent court found 38-year-old Ildar Hayrulin guilty of mercenary activities in the service of the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR).

Hayrulin was sentenced to five years in prison.

Hayrulin’s relatives claim he did not participate in combat and left Donetsk when Russia announced in September 2022 it was annexing the DPR into Russia.

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in October 2022 calling the move an “attempted illegal annexation” and urged countries not to recognize Russia’s claim on the territory.

Uzbekistan’s government has already said it will not recognize Donetsk, and another Russian-backed separatist region, Luhansk, as part of Ukraine.

Why It’s Important: Russian authorities have not yet reacted to the verdict in Uzbekistan, and it will be interesting to see if any Russian official comments on the case.

Russia has been recruiting Central Asian migrant laborers to fight in Ukraine, offering large salaries and special benefits.

The threat of prosecution back home for Central Asians who join the Russian military or pro-Russian para-military forces complicates these Russian recruitment efforts.

Kyrgyzstan has already convicted and sentenced one of its citizens for taking part in fighting in Ukraine.

Askar Kubanychbek uulu was convicted in May 2023 of being a mercenary in 2022 for the Luhansk People’s Republic and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In August, several Russian officials, including Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova complained about Kubanychbek uulu’s conviction.

At the end of August, Kyrgyzstan’s Supreme Court overturned the verdict and sent the case to a regional court for review.

Kyrgyzstan is a member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, both of which are Russian-led and give Russia extra leverage to pressure Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan in not a member of either of those organizations.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the ways foreign wars are affecting governments and people in Central Asia.

How are conflicts in the Caucasus, Ukraine, and Middle East shaping state policies and social discourse in Central Asia?

This week’s guests are:

What I’m Following

Kazakh Peacekeepers to the Golan Heights?

Kazakhstan’s Defense Minister Ruslan Zhaksybekov said November 1 that Kazakh peacekeepers could be sent to the Golan Heights.

Zhaksybekov said discussions about a possible deployment of Kazakh troops to the Golan Heights as part of UN peacekeeping efforts were continuing.

Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since seizing the area from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Zhaksybekov said those discussions did not include sending Kazakh troops to areas near Gaza where fighting is underway.

Kazakhstan has contributed to UN peacekeeping missions since 2007.

In the last 16 years, some 500 Kazakh soldiers have served in UN peacekeeping missions in Nepal, Western Sahara, Ivory Coast, and Lebanon.

Measles Outbreak in Central Asia

Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have reported unusually large outbreaks of measles.

Kazakh officials said in late October they had registered some 10,000 cases of measles since February.

Kyrgyz health officials said in early November they had registered 3,500 cases so far in 2023, up from one reported case in 2022.

In both countries, health officials are stressing that unvaccinated children make up the majority of measles cases.

Turkmen authorities have said nothing about an outbreak, but correspondents for RFE/RL’s Turkmen service reported “hundreds” of children being treated for measles in just one of the hospitals in the capital Ashgabat.

Fact of the Week

Archeologists working in northeastern Kazakhstan uncovered the country’s oldest gravesite – a pit containing the remains of two humans that have been radiocarbon dated to approximately 5,471-5,222 BC.

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 X (formerly 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,