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Central Asia in Focus: Taliban’s Creeping Diplomatic Inroads in Central Asia

‘Terrorist’ and ‘Extremist’ charges in Tajikistan, China investing in Afghan lithium, ban on meetings in Bishkek, and more.

Taliban's Acting Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi in Afghanistan.
Taliban’s Acting Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi in Afghanistan. (Courtesy Image).

What’s Happening in the Region

The Taliban’s Creeping Diplomatic Inroads in Central Asia

Kazakhstan’s Trade Minister Serik Zhumangarin led a delegation to Kabul on April 15 to meet with representatives of the Taliban government and deliver a shipment of humanitarian aid.

Following meetings with the Kazakh delegation, the Taliban’s acting deputy prime minister, Abdul Ghani Baradar, said Kazakhstan is prepared to reopen the Afghan embassy and consulate soon.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aibek Smadiyarov confirmed the accreditation of Taliban diplomats on April 17, but made clear that did not mean Kazakhstan was recognizing them as Afghanistan’s government.

The Afghan embassy has not been operating since the Taliban returned to power in August 2021.

The press service for the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry said Zhumangarin’s delegation discussed increasing railway traffic between the two countries to boost trade ties.

The statement also mentioned the Talban had offered the Kazakh delegation an opportunity to invest in Afghan mining projects (See item below in What I’m Following).

According to a report from the Afghan media outlet Tolo News, the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi said Afghan-Kazakh trade during the last year came to some $900 million.

Nooruddin Aziz, the acting Taliban Industry and Commerce Minister, called for increasing trade between the two countries to some $3 billion.

This seems unlikely as Kazakh Foreign Ministry spokesman Smadiyarov said Kazakhstan’s main exports to Afghanistan are flour, wheat, flaxseed, and sunflower oil.

Smadiyarov did mention exporting railway locomotives to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan currently has three railway lines, one connecting the country to Uzbekistan, which is the route Kazakh exporters use, and two other short lines connecting to Turkmenistan.

Tolo News reported Zhumangarin said Kazakhstan was prepared to issue 30-day business visas to Afghan businessmen.

Kazakh media outlet Kazinform said Kazakhstan will open a trading house in Afghanistan.

Why It’s Important: Plans to allow the Taliban to have diplomatic representatives in Kazakhstan shows the Afghan militant group continues to improve its ties with its Central Asian neighbors.

A Taliban delegation visited Tajikistan at the end of March, reportedly visiting the capital Dushanbe and going to the eastern city of Khorugh to discuss occupying the Afghan consulate there.

No government in the world recognizes the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, but in a world of realpolitik, the Central Asian governments seem to be accepting the Taliban will not lose control of Afghanistan anytime soon.

Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Russia, China, Pakistan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have already accredited diplomats from the Taliban.

Tajikistan’s Loose Definitions of ‘Terrorist’ and ‘Extremist’

Tajikistan’s prosecutor general reported to the deputies in the upper house of parliament, the Milli Majlisi, that 97 Tajik citizens wanted on charges were extradited back to Tajikistan from other countries in 2022.

Prosecutor general Yusuf Rahmon said 18 of the 97 were wanted in Tajikistan on charges of extremism or terrorism.

Rahmon did not mention which countries were involved, but throughout 2022, Russia extradited activists and journalists living in Russia who were natives of Tajikistan’s eastern Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO).

When GBAO residents attempted to conduct a peaceful protest on May 16, 2022, Tajik authorities branded them extremists and launched a sweeping security crackdown in the region.

Tensions had been high in GBAO since the killing of a local man by police in November 2021.

The extradition from Russia of GBAO natives started shortly after that.

Among the first was Chorshanbe Chorshanbiev, a mixed martial arts fighter who was competing in matches in Russia.

Chorshanbiev had posted messages of support for the demonstrations that followed the killing.

Several other people from GBAO who similarly posted their support for the GBAO demonstrators were extradited from Russia.

After the security operation in eastern Tajikistan May-June 2022, the extraditions increased.

Rahmon said in 2022 alone there were 1,197 crimes in Tajikistan connected to terrorism or extremism, an 18.5 percent increase compared to 2021.

Why It’s Important: Prosecutor general Rahmon’s figure seems high in a country of some 10 million ruled for decades by an authoritarian government.

The more likely explanation for this number is Tajik authorities are resorting to charging critics of, or potential threats to the government with crimes that carry harsh penalties.

The prosecutor general did not list any individual cases.

If he had, he might have been embarrassed to admit that among these alleged terrorists and extremists were lawyers, poets, and journalists with no previous record of association with anti-government groups.

It has become clear after the May 2022 security operation in GBAO that anyone Tajik authorities consider an obstacle or potential threat will be branded a terrorist or extremist and imprisoned.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the recent labor strikes by oil workers in Kazakhstan.

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev might talk about a “new Kazakhstan” but there was nothing new about the way Kazakh authorities reacted when oil workers from the western part of Kazakhstan travelled to the capital, Astana, to press their demands.

This week’s guests are Assel Tutumlu, lecturer at the Department of International Relations and Political Science at the Near East University in Nicosia, Cyprus and Luca Anceschi, professor of Central Asian Studies at Glasgow University.

What I’m Following

China Ready to Invest Big in Afghan Lithium Deposits

The Taliban’s acting Minister for Mining and Petroleum, Shahabuddin Delawar, says Chinese company Gochin could invest up to $10 billion to develop lithium fields in Afghanistan.

It’s difficult to say which Chinese deals with the Taliban are genuine and which ones are made simply to keep the Taliban believing China is their friend, with Beijing knowing the project might never be realized.

In any case, China stakes a claim to some of Afghanistan’s lithium fields.

What I’m interested in is the size of this investment.

The mining project involves development of infrastructure – roads and tunnels, and construction of a hydropower plant.

It is the largest amount of money China has invested in a single project in the Central Asian region since the oil and gas pipelines from, respectively, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

When Is Meeting Time in Bishkek?

Bishkek court upheld the ban on public meetings in the center of Bishkek that has been in effect since March 2022.

The issue is gathering more public interest lately in a country where 20 years ago and more, citizens blocked roads and camped out on city squares for demonstrations that lasted weeks, and sometimes even months.

Fact of the Week

The Kyrgyz ombudsman’s press service says there are 1,077 Kyrgyz citizens serving time in Russian prisons.

Central Asians imprisoned in Russia have been targeted for recruitment by the Russian private military contactor Wagner Group.

Thanks for Reading

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

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

Until next time,