The former Soviet states have been in the spotlight of international attention this year starting with the January unrest in Kazakhstan, Russian invasion of Ukraine, renewed hostilities over territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Here are the latest developments in a Central Asian region of increasing geostrategic importance.
For most of 2022 Kazakhstan, the largest and wealthiest state in Central Asia, has tried to navigate a fine line between Scylla of the Russian war and Charybdis of Western sanctions. Once Russia’s close ally and a loyal member of all Russia-led organisations, Kazakhstan has experienced increasing tensions with Russia since President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s announcement Kazakhstan had no intentions to recognise the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. This gesture was followed by Russia’s quick suspension of Caspian Pipeline Consortium’s (CPC) (transports 70% of Kazakh oil) activity for 30 days, citing oil spill concerns. This geopolitical uncertainty has unfortunate timing for Kazakhstan since there are major political reforms happening in the country after mass protests in January. As recent CIS summit in Astana demonstrated, Russia is losing its positions as a regional power in Central Asia. This change in Russia’s power means an opportunity for Kazakhstan to become a regional leader and strengthen cooperation among its neighbours. Russia’s decline is also followed by China’s quick re-affirmation of its presence in the region: in September 2022 Xi Jinping personally attended Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit followed by his visits to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The visits paid off as both countries voted against a decision to discuss the situation in Muslim-majority Xinjiang during the UN Human Rights Security Council.
Kyrgyzstan, the most liberal of Central Asian states, is having a challenging year with the recent escalation of border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and neighbouring Tajikistan. Ironically, the conflict occurred while leaders of both countries were gathering in Uzbekistan for the SCO summit. The recent escalation resulted in the evacuation of about 100 thousand people and the death of more than sixty people on Kyrgyz side. While hostilities ceased at the moment, it is uncertain whether both sides will hold their commitment to a peaceful resolution. Russia, who used to be a mediator in regional conflicts, is currently occupied in Ukraine, while China does not seem to be too involved with these two Central Asian states.
Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev is taking directions similar to Tokayev as he proposed amendments to the constitution to increase the presidential term to 7 years. Unlike in Kazakhstan, however, Mirziyoyev can be elected for two additional terms: fourteen years in total. This development indicates how the current president is willing to hold power for an extended period, as did his predecessor Islam Karimov who was the president from 1991 until his death in 2016. In July 2022, several hundred protestors gathered in the capital of the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, Nukus. They opposed the amendment to remove the autonomous status of Karakalpakstan and the possibility for it to withdraw from Uzbekistan. As the protests turned into unrest – 18 people died and 243 were injured – the government declared a state of emergency. The protests were dispersed, but on July 4, President Mirziyoyev announced he would remove amendments touching on the status of Karakalpakstan. The state now awaits a referendum to implement other changes.
The fifth and the most closed Central Asian state Turkmenistan remains highly authoritarian as Serdar Berdymukhamedov, the son of ex-president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, won the presidential elections in March 2022. Despite people’s hopes for reforms, the new president has preserved his father’s legacy with certain human rights deteriorating even further. In the first week of Serdar’s presidency, he initiated a number of strict restrictions on women’s freedoms such as prohibiting beauty procedures or sitting in the front seats of a car. Female public workers must also wear traditional clothing and adhere to ‘traditional values.’ While the world shares sympathy for Iranian women suffering from the authoritarian regime and moral police, Turkmen women are deprived of such attention.