A Year in Review: More Problems, More Reforms, More Cooperation for Central Asia in 2017

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 4

Presidents (L to R) Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan, Shavkat Mirziyaev of Uzbekistan, and Nursultan Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan (Source: RFE/RL)

Central Asia in 2017 recalls Charles Dickens’ observation in A Tale of Two Cities: it was truly the best of times, if far from perfect, and the worst of times, if far from disastrous. And depending on whether one focuses on the problems the five regional countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan) face, or instead emphasizes examples of reforms passed last year as well as increased intra-regional cooperation, including with the Russian Federation, one would be driven to draw dramatically different conclusions.

The problems are all too obvious: The region’s population continues to surge and passed 70 million this year (Inform.kz, January 9, 2017), almost 20 million more than in 1991; but many of its people are incredibly young, putting real strain on the economies and political systems there. In Tajikistan, for example, more than 70 percent of the population is under 30, a recipe for political instability. Foreign investment and transfer payments from guest workers employed abroad either stabilized or fell in most of the Central Asian republics; and as a result, the economies of the five grew but at a rate less than did their populations. Chinese investment increased as well, both a positive development and a matter of concern for these governments and Moscow (see EDM, May 17, 2017; May 24, 2017; November 17, 2017). Threats from Islamist groups in Afghanistan and from the return of Central Asians who had gone to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State increased the foreign and domestic security threats these countries faced, prompting some to take draconian steps to try to defend order (see EDM, March 15, 2017). And the brittle authoritarianism of the regimes across the region, especially in Turkmenistan but also in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, was showing signs of cracking almost everywhere, with the use of repression becoming increasingly counterproductive, driving more people into radicalism rather than dissuading them from opposing the regimes.

But more positive developments of the past year are also noteworthy. The new president of Uzbekistan has restarted regional integration efforts by his constant travels and talks with the leaders of the other countries, raising the possibility that they will be able to cooperate not just on security with each other but on also on trade and water-sharing. Moreover, he has haltingly moved to reform his own country, opening up the media, producing more accurate statistics, and freeing Uzbekistanis from some of the most burdensome policies of his predecessor; he has even called for the reform of the country’s thuggish security agency (see EDM, September 12, 2017). Moreover, Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to change leaders by elections rather than revolution or the death of an incumbent (see EDM, October 18, 2017); and despite instability there, the Kyrgyz Republic’s achievement may become a model for others. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, despite the continuing presence of an aging Soviet-era holdover at the top, not only increased its presence internationally but also ended the year nearly conflict free. The only real exceptions were Kazakhstan’s brief clash with Kyrgyzstan after Nursultan Nazarbayev met with an opposition Kyrgyz presidential candidate (see EDM, September 27, 2017; October 18, 2017; December 7, 2017) as well as the objections of Russians and Russia to the Kazakhstani president’s long-standing plans, now being implemented, to shift his Turkic republic from a Cyrillic-based alphabet to the Latin script (see EDM, April 25, 2017).

But just as the average temperature of all the patients in a hospital is not a good indication of the state of health of any one of them, so too the differences among the five countries in this region remained striking in 2017. Notably:

  • Uzbekistan. In his first full year in office, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was busy abroad and at home. He made more than 20 foreign visits, met with the leaders of more than 60 countries and signed just over 200 agreements with them, unfreezing relations with Uzbekistan’s neighbors, which he visited especially often: three times to Turkmenistan, twice to Kyrgyzstan, and once each to Kazakhstan and Russia (see EDM, April 24, 2017; May 3, 2017; September 18, 2017). He even reached agreements with Afghanistan (see EDM, June 27, 2017; December 13, 2017). At home, he freed Uzbekistan’s citizens from many restrictions and promised to do even more. But in many areas, his efforts so far did little to transform his country from a repressive state to a democratic one. Nonetheless, they have created expectations of change, and those may define 2018 in Tashkent.
  • Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev, the country’s aging leader, announced major reforms in the economy as well as continued his push for Latinization; but he also maintained a repressive environment, given labor unrest and social and political protests (see EDM, November 9, 2017). Astana also faced potential regional threats as Russian commentators in Moscow and activists in Kazakhstan raised questions about the predominantly ethnic-Russian north of that country, questions that some view as a possible prelude to a Central Asian Crimea action. Assuming Nazarbayev stays healthy and in office, however, the year ahead promises to be more stable than the year just passed.
  • Kyrgyzstan. The presidential election in which power passed from one person to another in a peaceful and legitimate way was far and away the most important development in that country this year. That said, the election itself was anything but problem free (see EDM, September 27, 2017), restrictions on human rights remain tight, and problems in the always-restive South continue to bubble, with conflicts over borders and ethnic rights as difficult now as a year ago. In 2018, these problems will pose serious challenges to Bishkek, especially if they are exacerbated by Islamist groups coming back from the Middle East or from Afghanistan.
  • Tajikistan. Tajikistan’s president continued to tighten his control over the government, even replacing the powerful mayor of the capital with his eldest son (Asiaplus.tj, January 12, 2017). Faced with a terrorist challenge, Dushanbe tightened the screws on Muslims and those who have studied abroad; but hopeful of receiving more transfer payments, it also amnestied 200,000 citizens so that they could go back to Russia to work. In the meantime, the government has subsisted on money from China, which Beijing is using to strengthen its hand there, to the consternation of Russia and Iran.
  • Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan also had a presidential election, but it was won by the incumbent, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, in typical Soviet fashion, with 97.69 percent of the vote. Over the past year, he has continued to build his personality cult and to repress his people. However, he created serious political dangers by cutting subsidies to the already impoverished population (see EDM, February 14, 2017). Reportedly, he fears he may face Iranian-style street protests (Fergananews.com, January 9, 2018).

After a year of relative stability, Central Asia may experience a more difficult 2018 for three reasons. First, one or more of the remaining Soviet-era leaders may pass from the scene. Second, the optimism in Uzbekistan may collapse into anger if the regime does not move forward far or fast enough. And third, the terrorist threat, especially in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, may dramatically increase, with Islamists infiltrating these countries from Afghanistan.