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Leap year for Central Asia: interview with Alexander Knyazev

Political analyst Alexander Knyazev

The five countries of Central Asia with common and particular problems are traditionally in the zone of Russia’s geopolitical interests and responsibility. Last year was uneasy for most of those countries. The new year will hardly be easier, given the hardest realities in the region and the global processes it is being increasingly involved in. Alexander Knyazev, PhD in History, expert in Central Asia and Middle East, shares his views of the prospects and the tasks of the five countries of the region in an interview with EADaily.

There are superstitions that leap years are rarely successful. 2016 is a leap year too. What should Central Asia anticipate in the current year?

Survival remains the priority for all the five countries. I think the authorities understand this and make efforts therein. The strong role of the government in Uzbekistan still helps the country maneuver, in the security field as well. At the same time, Tashkent prefers staying away from the major political centers and does not involve into heavy processes, for instance, the open war against the “Islamic State” (a terrorist organization banned in Russia and some other countries).

Kazakhstan looks to reform the power structures again. They expect these reforms to upgrade efficiency of the government in the uneasy future the country is facing. The parliament is known to have appealed to the president for dissolution saying its current staff has completed its mission.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan are expected to pass Constitutional amendments that will actually make quite noticeable institutional changes in their governments. It is not clear yet what kind of changes Ashkhabad and Dushanbe are striving for, but they are very likely to increase the presidential power and give formal freedoms to the opposition.

And finally, Kyrgyzstan will launch preparations for the presidential election 2017 after the recent parliamentary ones. Yet the question remains: who may lead that problematic country?

Still, foreign-policy lines of several countries in the region are unstable. Will that instability increase or you anticipate certain stabilization?

Instable foreign policy is about Tajikistan, first of all. The scandalous visit of Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon to Riyadh that coincided with the Tajik-Iranian confrontation and escalation of the Saudi Arabia-Iran conflict has damaged the reputation of the country and its position in the region in general. Rahmon put into question the development of the bilateral relations with Tehran and his own reliability as Russia’s ally. Given the current processes, the Tajik president’s visit to Riyadh can be assessed as challenges to both Iran and Russia who have been involved in an indirect military conflict with Saudi Arabia in the territory of Syria for a long time already.

As for the statements he made in Saudi Arabia, they just mean that Tajikistan is ready to join the so-called “Islamic coalition” led by Saudi Arabia. However, it will run contrary to Tajikistan’s CSTO membership and, consequently, Russia as a military and political ally. This will be a direct political support to Riyadh amid the conflict with Iran. Tehran is already trying to defuse tensions. If the conflict is de-escalated, Tajikistan will have to make serious concessions to regain Iran’s trust and Russia’s strong alliance.

For such a delicate situation Dushanbe should blame its own leadership that messed things up inside and outside the country. The ban on the activity of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) and its labeling as a terrorist organization is a phantom of domestic audience. No one in the world has accepted the explanations of the reasons why IRP and its leader Muhiddin Kabiri were persecuted. Probably it is logical that his name was not on Interpol wanted list, and the politician was officially invited and participated in the conference in Iran and even met with representatives of the Iranian leadership, which has destabilized Dushanbe. It’s about more than persecution of IRP and its leader. There is total silencing of dissent in Tajikistan and stirring-up of Islamophobia from above. All this together has sparked anti-Iranian hysteria. Taking a practical view of the situation, Tajikistan needs Iran more than Iran does. Dushanbe has lost itself in “multi-vector” policy and endangered its relations with Tehran and Moscow.

Earlier, it was Kyrgyzstan that used to make foreign-policy U-turns…

There is an anti-Russian tendency in Kyrgyzstan too, though not so dramatic. At the end of 2015, the government denounced the agreement with Russia on the construction of the Kambar-Ata-1 Hydro Power Plant and Upper-Naryn Hydropower Cascade. The Kyrgyz government did it allegedly for the interests of Russia – President Almazbek Atambayev said “the current state of the Russian economy will hold Moscow from investing in these facilities.” That high-level decision was made very hastily, which means that Bishkek decided to attract new investors in these projects or is preparing for another populist campaign around the “future energy might of Kyrgyzstan.” Atambayev and his team care for keeping the issue in the focus of attention rather than launching the construction of hydro power plants.

The agreements with Russia on the hydro power generation facilities were denounced, as Bishkek was disappointed with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). The Foreign Ministry of Kyrgyzstan hinted at that fact extremely delicately on December 30 2015. It was an anticipated step: due to the global economic crisis and the West’s sanctions against Russia, Bishkek did not receive the preferences it counted upon. In addition, the incumbent leadership of Kyrgyzstan is rather pro-Western than pro-Russian. Besides, the people were not happy with the strict control of the agricultural products and cattle-breeding within the EEU. However, the strict control is necessary, as the country sees a high rate of brucellosis and splenic fever in the cattle-breeding sector. As for the stability in Kyrgyzstan, it is worth relying on the fact that the population is tired of instability and social shocks. So, the desire to live peacefully at least for a while will be dominating in the Kyrgyz society prone to unrest and protests.

What about Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan? Do you anticipate any U-turns or political shocks in those countries?

There is nothing intriguing about the initiative of the parliament dissolution in Kazakhstan. What is important about it is that the regime is traditionally trying to avoid a situation when its political opponents and external forces that seek to replace the ruling elite, changing the current policy, including the foreign policy in Kazakhstan, have time to prepare for elections, especially amid the economic crisis. The devaluation will inevitably prompt inflation processes, which will, in turn, create certain social tension. I don’t think that the situation is critical, as the Kazakh society is not as prone to unrest as the Kyrgyz public. Anyway, after learning the lessons of other countries, Astana preferred playing safe.

There are no signs of destabilization in Uzbekistan yet. There are difficulties connected with the economic crisis, but the economy of Uzbekistan is rather diversified and planned. This enables the government to undertake certain, not very large, social responsibilities and other budget maneuvering. In the field of foreign policy, Tashkent still manages to maneuver within its “multi-vector” policy, though it is becoming harder and harder.

What about Turkmenistan?

Well, it is the “grey zone” of the regional security. The situation is worrisome there. Last autumn, the first shipment of weapons was registered from Herat. The shipped weapons are stored at arm dumps. The main participants are Afghan ethnic Turkmens; their commanders were mainly trained in Turkey or Arab countries. It is known that they shipped small weapons and some quantity of man-portable air defense systems. This province of Turkmenistan is known with its complicate inter-tribal relations. Tekin Turkmens from Maryisk do not get along with Tekin Turkmens from Akhal who dominate in the government structures in Ashkhabad. There are even some separatist sentiments. The situation in Turkmenistan is uneasy, though the leadership tries its best to conceal it.

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