2018: What is Stirring in Central Asia?

Marlene Laruelle

Director, Central Asia Program, Associate Director and Research Professor, IERES, George Washington University

“The year 2017 has been an eventful one for Central Asia, mostly thanks to Uzbekistan’s transformation, in the rest of the region, the course seems more stable and less surprising.”

The year 2017 has been an eventful one for Central Asia, thanks in large part to Uzbekistan’s domestic transformation, relaunching of regional cooperation, and reopening of a yet-to-be-written future. In the rest of the region, the course seems to have been more stable and less surprising. Kyrgyzstan achieved a new presidential succession through peaceful elections that displayed both democratic and patronalistic features. Kazakhstan has been stable—some would say stagnant—in many respects, facing a slow public life hampered by the issue of succession and the difficulties of getting the national economy back on its feet while nevertheless being culturally active, as evidenced by the discussion about changing the alphabet and the growing movement to denounce Russia as a colonial power. Tajikistan seems to be continuing its slide into ever more restrictive policies, while Turkmenistan, which is often forgotten on the regional landscape, is accomplishing slow and discreet societal evolutions in the midst of economic difficulties (as the state budget struggles to function with almost no gas revenues).

On the international scene, Central Asia has had a fairly low profile over the past year, and this will likely remain true in 2018. The alleged new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan will not change the given of limited American engagement with the region. Washington’s foreign policy will remain focused on the Middle East: trying to put an end to the Syrian war while avoiding letting Russia and Iran look like the victors; stabilizing a post-Islamic State Iraq and a fast-changing Turkey; and managing the tensions created by the decision to shift the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The US may also potentially reopen the dangerous game of pressuring Iran on its nuclear program. Hysteria over Russia’s alleged meddling in U.S. elections and tensions over North Korea, combined with the United States’ already isolationist bent, leave little room for Central Asia to appear on Washington’s radar.

China will continue to develop its Silk Road strategy, but this appears to be slowing down. At least in the near-term, the project will not have any major transformative impact; China’s influence on the region’s economy and societies will remain roughly as it is. Russia, for its part, is busy with domestic affairs, in particular securing Putin’s re-election in March and preparing a new presidential mandate that many—among both the elites and the population—expect to be his last. As the Russian economy slowly recovers, with positive growth forecast for 2018, it will continue to attract Central Asian migrants, whose role in the region’s ongoing societal transformations, in particular with regard to Islam, remains critical. Yet in terms of foreign policy, Russia is primarily focused on: its relationship with the West, including re-establishing good relations with some European capitals; building on its success in Syria while at the same time finding a way to withdraw; and its interaction with its main Asian partners. In this context, Moscow still considers Central Asia a comparatively “secured” area; as such, it will not be given specific attention. Last but not least, it is worth mentioning Turkey’s role in Central Asia: 2018 could show us some new paths for Erdoğan’s Turkey to develop relationships with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, now that it is at odds (to put it diplomatically) with its main soft power tool, the Gülen movement.

Central Asia and the Eurasian Economic Union: A Scenario for 2018

Alexander Libman

Professor of Social Sciences and Eastern European Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich

“The EAEU could become a much more attractive institution for the Central Asian states, if it resolved its two main problems: external protectionism and still persistent internal barriers”

The EAEU could become a much more attractive institution for the Central Asian states if it resolved its two main problems: external protectionism and still persistent internal barriers. However, as the experience of 2017 shows, any progress becomes less and less likely. Partly it is because of persistent contradictions between member states. While in 2017 the EAEU countries managed to sign the agreements on the new Customs Code (in force since 2018) and on the creation of a joint market for medical products, these agreements became possible only because of substantial compromises as opposed to the original plans. But in 2017, an even more important problem materialized: Russia seems to gradually lose interest in the EAEU. While in 2010-2013, from the point of view of the Russian leadership, Eurasian integration was one of the major elements of Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, today Russia is much more concerned with other topics. The appointment of former head of the Russian Customs Service Andrey Belyaminov (who left his office after a very public corruption scandal in 2016) as the chairman of the management board of the Eurasian Development Bank is a sign that Russia is returning to using Eurasian institutions as a ‘place of exile’ for unsuccessful politicians (as it did in the 1990s and early 2000s) – hardly a policy one would use if one were interested in achieving long-term integration progress.

In recent years, the impact of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) on the economic development of Central Asian countries has been a point of controversy. Two issues have stood out: high external tariffs and a lack of progress on abolishing internal non-tariff barriers. Economic crisis in Russia and the decline in the market price of oil since 2014 have had an ambiguous impact on the role of the EAEU: they have reduced the potential benefits of cooperation with Russia while simultaneously making the Central Asian economies more fragile and thus dependent on the preservation of existing economic ties, including those with Russia. Although Russia’s economic situation improved somewhat in 2017 (with a corresponding positive impact on the Central Asian states), Russia will not escape stagnation in the foreseeable future. The existing economic forecasts for 2018 suggest that the Central Asian economies will continue to grow, but this is due either to the current very low level of economic development (as in the case of Kyrgyzstan) or is conditional on the continuing stabilization of the oil price (as in the case of Kazakhstan), which, as recent years have demonstrated, could be subject to unpredictable fluctuations.

According to EBRD, in Central Asia, the average growth is expected to return to around 4.4% in 2018 after a weaker 2016, reflecting higher average price of oil, increased output of crude oil in Kazakhstan and expectations of an improved external environment.

From this point of view, the most probable scenario for the EAEU in 2018 is continued stagnation, with some limited progress in individual areas (like the common electricity market) where a lot of work has already been done. In fact, Russia might even be expected to become more tolerant of individual country’s neglect of their obligations to the EAEU. Whereas for Armenia and Belarus this tolerance will be limited by the logic of geopolitics (resistance to what the Russian leadership perceives as the increasing influence of the EU), Russia is likely to be less concerned about Central Asia. At the same time, the core elements of the EAEU will be preserved: as mentioned above, in the current economic environment, it is certainly not in the interests of Central Asian states to create new barriers to economic relations with Russia. The Central Asian countries will remain in the difficult situation of being dependent on Russia, yet unable to rely on Russia as a source of economic growth.

“In 2017, an even more important problem materialized: Russia seems to gradually loose interest in the EAEU…
Russia might become more tolerant of individual country’s neglect of their obligations to the EAEU.”

Illustration by Nicolas Journoud

Kazakhstan – 2018

Kate Mallinson

Associate Fellow for the Russia and Eurasian Programme at Chatham House and independent political risk consultant

“Despite the pre-eminence of the informal power-sharing arrangements, Nazarbayev will abide by the constitution to lend legitimacy to the future leadership”

As the only Soviet-era leader still in power and the world’s fourth longest-serving ruler, how will President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, use his tenure in 2018? His key objectives include working on his legacy as “the Ataturk of Kazakhstan,” as well as safeguarding his family’s dominance in the event of his inevitable departure. His messianic perception of the role he plays and the stability he provides in Kazakhstan—particularly in the face of current economic uncertainty—means that moving on is not on his agenda.

On the international stage, Nazarbayev has achieved significant victories and established a niche for Kazakhstan within an increasingly turbulent geopolitical order. In January 2018, Kazakhstan commences its hard-earned chairmanship of the UN Security Council. In the coming year, Nazarbayev will continue to offer Kazakhstan as a neutral base to host peace talks and unprecedented meetings between Central Asian leaders. The country will also take further steps toward Kazakhstan’s membership of the OECD.

Given the challenging short-term outlook for the Kazakhstani economy—owing to vagaries in the oil and commodities markets, the ongoing weakness of the banking sector, and depreciation pressures on the tenge—a successful program of privatization in 2018 is vital for the country’s longer-term economic success. Various privatization programs have commenced in fits and starts over the last two decades, and the implementation of the latest chapter is being keenly watched as a bellwether for Kazakhstan’s reform trajectory.

Despite Nazarbayev’s legacy-building, the inevitable presidential transition looms large. Kazakh business elites and investors alike are concerned about policy continuity in any post-Nazarbayev scenario. Global events in 2017, including the “anti-corruption” crackdown in Saudi Arabia and the ousting of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, will have unnerved the inner Kazakh circle. Closer to home, the first democratic transfer of power in Central Asia (in Kyrgyzstan) and the eclipse of the influence of former President Islam Karimov’s family in Uzbekistan will also be keeping members of Nazarbayev’s coterie awake at night.

“Nazarbayev sits at the apex of a vertical power system, imposing his own informal system of checks and balances, astutely balancing myriad powerful business elites and individuals”

Nazarbayev sits at the apex of a vertical power system, imposing his own informal system of checks and balances, astutely balancing myriad powerful business elites and individuals. Without Nazarbayev as the ultimate arbiter, the political economy of Kazakhstan will change irrevocably. The president is therefore keen to construct a scenario analogous to Singapore’s transition (2004­–2011), during which Lee Kuan Yew acted as a “minister mentor” to his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Under this scenario, a new, less authoritative president would become the international face of Kazakhstan, while Nazarbayev would continue to manage the elites using his nuanced organizational skills and political ruthlessness; he would also retain his status as “leader of the nation.”

Such a managed succession is likely to occur toward the end of Nazarbayev’s current term, in 2020—and possibly earlier, if Nazarbayev calls early elections. Despite the preeminence of informal power-sharing arrangements, Nazarbayev will abide by the constitution in order to lend legitimacy to the future leadership. Key elites and family members would be appointed to a collective leadership rather than relying on a single designated heir. Working toward this scenario, in 2018, Nazarbayev will continue to provide input into government strategy, including constitutional amendments that will reduce his successor’s power, strengthen the prime ministerial role and distribute power—including responsibility over national security and foreign policy and the right to veto laws—away from the supreme leader-based governance structure.

In the short term, an unmanaged transition scenario resulting from President Nazarbayev’s incapacitation, a coup, or an outbreak of lawlessness cannot be ruled out. The era of high economic growth that largely insulated the regime from public engagement in political life is over. Murmurs of discontent, including a worrying brain drain and sporadic protests over the past few years, suggest that the social contract between the ruling elite and society has been shaken, posing a more significant challenge to succession. Aware of this rising disaffection, the government will entrench its repression of civil society and the media in 2018.

Uzbekistan – 2018

Sean R. Roberts

Director and Associate Professor,International Development Studies ProgramElliott School of International AffairsThe George Washington University

“The real test of Uzbekistan’s future trajectory will be over the next year. Events in the country during 2018 should help answer the question of whether Uzbekistan is truly liberalizing or merely softening its authoritarian style of governance”

In 2017, Uzbekistan has delivered the most surprises of any country in the Central Asian region. While the ascension of Shavkat Mirziyoyev to power in the aftermath of Islam Karimov’s death was not very surprising, the changes that Mirziyoyev has proposed for the country since taking power have been unexpected to say the least. Having served as Karimov’s Prime Minister for over a decade, there was little expectation that Mirziyoyev would change the course of the country, and many analysts predicted that he would rule with an even stronger fist than did Karimov. However, the new president’s development strategy, a blueprint for sweeping reforms launched shortly after he took power, promised a quiet revolution from above that would gradually dismantle the largely unsustainable system his predecessor had built. Furthermore, while critics have continually questioned the sincerity of this strategy’s proposed reforms, the changes already made by the new government in Tashkent during 2017 have been nothing short of transformational.

“Mirziyoyev has spent most of the last year promoting regional integration and making multiple trips around the region to demonstrate his dedication to cooperation…
These trips have resulted in the resolution of long-standing disputes.”

Whereas Uzbekistan had long been seen as standing in the way of regional cooperation on virtually every issue imaginable, Mirziyoyev has spent most of the last year promoting regional integration and making multiple trips around the region to demonstrate his dedication to cooperation. Among other things, these trips have resulted in the resolution of long-standing disputes between countries and agreements for further cooperation. Furthermore, after years of tight control over the conversion of Uzbekistan’s currency, which led to a thriving black market in hard currency and an unofficial two-rate system, the new government has made substantial strides towards converting its currency, effectively rendering the black market useless and potentially opening the door to new foreign investment. Finally, Mirziyoyev’s government has begun embarking on a difficult process of reform in the rule of law sector, establishing protections for those arrested and developing a new system for appointing judges. Although the ultimate impact of these legal and judicial reform, they show promise of bringing a new sense of justice to a country long viewed as among the least just in the world.

All of these changes have come as a welcome surprise to much of Uzbekistan’s population, which had become accustomed to one of the most authoritarian regimes in the world during the last years of Karimov’s life. Furthermore, these winds of change have been accompanied by at least a modicum of new space in the political arena. While there have not been significant steps taken towards actual democratization by the new government, Mirziyoyev has sought ways to reduce the repressive nature of the state and to solicit more input from citizens. These measures have included the release of countless political prisoners, increased government tolerance of religious behavior among citizens, and the institution of a “virtual cabinet,” which allows citizens to lodge complaints or make recommendations to government via electronic media.

Despite these major changes in 2017, the real test of Uzbekistan’s future trajectory will be over the next year. Events in the country during 2018 should help answer the question of whether Uzbekistan is truly liberalizing or merely softening its authoritarian style of governance. Already, there are mixed messages regarding the extent to which the state intends to open up its political space. Just as many political prisoners have been released, the state has recently jailed other political opponents. While state media has reported more on controversial issues over the last year, there is little sign of re-establishing a vibrant privately-owned media sector. Furthermore, despite the government’s active solicitation of complaints and recommendations, there remains virtually no independent civil society in the country. Finally, there are no signs that political parties are developing in order to contest elections in a competitive manner or that parliament is truly serving as a check on executive power.

Even modest progress in these areas over the next year would suggest that Uzbekistan is truly changing, but the continuation of the status quo in the areas of media freedom, civil society development, and political competition would signal that there are significant limits to the changes that Mirziyoyev will bring to the country. However, if the Mirziyoyev does seek to liberalize the political space even gradually over the next year, the other question that 2018 could answer is the actual extent of the new president’s powers vis-à-vis security organs and other powerful players. On the one hand, at least partial political liberalization could strengthen Mirziyoyev’s hand by bolstering his public support and weakening the power of conservative elements who remain dedicated to the culture of control created by Karimov. On the other hand, doing so could be a dangerous game if Mirziyoyev’s power is at all tenuous, resulting in a backlash that could void even the gains made in 2017. Regardless, 2018 is destined to be a critical year for Uzbekistan and is likely to tell us a lot about the future of the most populous country in Central Asia.

“2018 is destined to be a critical year for Uzbekistan and is likely to tell us a lot about the future of the most populous country in Central Asia…Events  during 2018 should help answer the question of whether Uzbekistan is truly liberalizing”

Illustration by Nicolas Journoud

Kyrgyzstan – 2018

Medet Tiulegenov

Assistant Professor, Department of International and Comparative Politics, AUCA

“The year 2018 may be comparatively non-volatile with possible occasional tensions between the government and the parliament being the most dramatic events and “stability”, as a key campaign word of a new president, may describe what the year may look like”

The overall power transition seems to be stable, at least in the short run. The major task of ensuring smooth succession through elections has been successfully (please forgive the tautology) achieved by now ex-president Atambayev. This was the first occasion on which a Central Asian president participated in the elections without running in them (not counting the interim presidency of Otunbaeva). Atambayev, though he remained relatively distant from the elections, quickly and unequivocally engaged a month before Election Day in support of his eventual successor, Sooronbay Dzheenbekov, fiercely attacking Dzheenbekov’s major competitor, Omurbek Babanov, on many occasions. To a large degree, the electoral victory of Dzheenbekov, whose approval ratings were very low just a few months before the election, was assured by his predecessor.

It is not only a newly elected president to be thankful to Atambayev for acquiring his position. The prime-minister Sapar Isakov, who has been a long-time aide to an ex-president, is a technocratic manager with no at the moment independent political ambitions of his own. A recently elected speaker of the parliament Dastan Dzhumabekov, coming from a minor faction, is also politically a low figure. All three politicians have relatively low political capital commensurable with their posts and it would take time for them to gain the loyalty of various political groups to start playing independent politics. These weaknesses would ensure stability, which yet is fragile and can last as long as some of them would start nurturing their ambitions at the expense of power bases of other leaders.

‘To the large degree the electoral victory by Dzheenbekov, whose poll approval was minimal just few months before elections, was assured by his predecessor”

It is not only the newly-elected president who has Atambayev to thank for his current position. Prime Minister Sapar Isakov, a long-time aide to the former president, is a technocratic manager who currently has no political ambitions of his own. Recently elected Speaker of the Parliament Dastan Dzhumabekov, who comes from a minor faction, has also historically flown below the political radar. All three politicians have relatively low political capital, commensurate with their posts, and it would take time for them to gain the loyalty of various political groups and start playing independent politics. This weakness ensures stability, but it remains fragile, as it can last only until some of these figures start nurturing their ambitions at the expense of other leaders’ power bases.

The newly-elected president has at least three immediate tasks. The first is building an image that corresponds to his status as president. This includes building his image as an independent politician, even while bowing to Atambayev’s legacy. This is the only way to gain the support of the public and the political elite, whose backing he needs if he is to carry out even the most minimal presidential functions. Comparisons to Atambayev, which are likely to be made frequently in the near-term, may be both a blessing and a curse—it is easy to look better when you are no longer overtly formulating your own moral judgments into state policy, but there will be expectations by many that this void be filled in some way.

Another task is to rectify the lingering damage left by his predecessor on the foreign policy front, primarily in terms of bilateral relations with Kazakhstan. Yet it is not only a question of improving relations with Kazakhstan, but also of using this momentum in foreign policy more broadly: with the EAEU, with Uzbekistan, and beyond post-Soviet space.

“The most complex task for Dzheenbekov is to identify own place within the overall power configuration
…Tensions will likely occur.”

That task may also relate to the president’s third, most complex task, which is to identify his own place within the overall power configuration. Atambayev’s legacy left the new president with informal powers that have been accumulated since 2012. The only significant formal powers accruing to the presidency are in the realm of foreign policy; those will be maintained. Informal powers include controlling access to various important political posts and formulating a national development strategy, since the most significant strategies have heretofore come from the presidential administration. That being said, the continuation of the latter practice would not be without tension with the office of the prime minister.

High tensions within a triumvirate (president, prime minister and speaker) will likely occur mostly between the president and prime minister. Running their own independent shows—on the foreign and domestic fronts—is a way for the politicians to ensure the separation of powers. Yet the two fronts are interrelated and there is an institutionalized legacy of presidential engagement in domestic policy. The way the current government proceeds with its reform package (Dzhany doorgo 40 kadam—“40 steps toward a new epoch”) will be indicative of the executive’s approach. In many ways, the ball is in Dzheenbekov’s court: overcoming Atambayev’s legacy of regularly having cabinet ministers reporting to the president in front of cameras would be an example of reconfiguring relations between political posts.

The situation with Kazakhstan could be viewed as a temporary aberration or as a symptom of a wider problem. It is a crisis on many fronts—in terms of bilateral relations, multilateral relations within the EAEU, and displaying the vulnerability of Kyrgyzstan. While the first two will be remedied at a formal level, the issue of logistical vulnerability in Kyrgyzstan must be explored further.

Atambayev will likely keep a comparatively low profile and his public engagement in politics will perhaps be confined to his favorite theme, the moral development of the country. This is, at least, an area where he has a certain legitimacy and where he would not feel competition from a new president. There is a high likelihood that he will remain a public figure and/or exert informal influence over the president and the current head of the Cabinet. While the latter role may not last long, Kyrgyzstani citizens will continue to see him engage publicly on a variety of issues, perhaps making it possible for him to return to formal politics in some capacity, e.g. as the head of his party in parliamentary elections.

The year 2018 will likely be comparatively non-volatile, with occasional tensions between the executive and the parliament the most dramatic events. “Stability,” a key campaign word for the new president, may be the theme of the year. That being said, there is the possibility of reshuffling the parliamentary coalition or changing the government, which would make the politics of the upcoming year somewhat more lively. Processes that spur more radical political change may be galvanized by the dissatisfaction felt by those groups left in the cold during the post-electoral transition. This could be exacerbated by another possible division of roles between the new prime minister and the president, with the prime minister undertaking liberal reforms while the president gains control over security (formally a presidential function) and clamps down on dissent. All of this has the potential to create rifts within the political elite.


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