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Discussing an Eventful 2022 in Central Asia With Bruce Pannier

It’s been an eventful year in Central Asia. Kazakhstan kicked off 2022 in dramatic fashion with nationwide protests, followed by unrest a few months later in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan and in July in Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan faced off, violently, along their unsettled border, while Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan made peace on theirs (though not without domestic complaints in Kyrgyzstan and the mass arrest of dissenters). Meanwhile, the Russian invasion of Ukraine cast a pall over the year, heightening anxieties across the former Soviet Union and forcing the states of Central Asia to walk a careful diplomatic tightrope between Russia and the rest.

To discuss all this and more, The Diplomat’s Catherine Putz spoke with Bruce Pannier. Pannier started covering Central Asia as a journalist in 1995. He now authors RFE/RL’s Central Asia in Focus newsletter and hosts the Majlis podcast.

This year alone, Kazakhstan’s President Tokayev has faced nationwide protests, pushed through a constitutional referendum, and, surprising no one, come out on top in a snap presidential election. How would you assess the strength and stability of Tokayev’s government now, at the end of 2022, in comparison to early January?

I think Tokayev’s grip on power is still tenuous. He benefited from several prominent Russians talking publicly about seizing part or all of Kazakhstan before and after the February war on Ukraine. Tokayev’s moves to distance Kazakhstan from Russia after February brought him some needed support at home.

The issues that brought people out onto the streets in early January remain unresolved. Their protests sought changes to the way Kazakhstan was run under Nazarbayev. I do not yet see that very much has changed in the way Kazakhstan is governed. Tokayev is promising changes, but words won’t be enough for much longer.

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We also do not know the situation with whoever it was that tried to oust Tokayev during the January protests. Some people, like the former KNB boss Karim Masimov, are in custody, but if Nazarbayev supporters were behind an attempted coup, how many of them are still free? And what damage could they still cause?

Two hundred and thirty-eight people were killed and thousands of family members and friends are looking for answers that the government is not giving.

Meanwhile, labor strikes for higher wages continue. Infrastructure, certainly Kazakhstan’s energy infrastructure, is crumbling. And that will require billions of dollars to solve.

Tokayev won the snap presidential election in November, but it was the usual staged event, and he actually received fewer votes in 2022 than he did when he was elected in 2019. Fewer people voted in 2022, which is sign many people did not see any purpose in casting a ballot. Tokayev easily won but the second highest number of votes went to “none of the candidates,” more than 5 percent of total votes, more than 400,000 people. That’s a vote against Tokayev’s government.

Tokayev needs to show progress in tackling the big socioeconomic issues in Kazakhstan and he also needs to do it in a unique way that shows a clear departure from the policies of the past.

In the wider post-Soviet world, in 2022 we saw Russia finally make good on its threats and invade Ukraine. The war continues. How has the war in Ukraine affected how Central Asian people, and Central Asian governments, view Russia?

Russian influence in Central Asia since the 19th century has been backed up by fears Russia would use force to get what it wants. That fear is now greatly diminished. 

With the exception of Turkmenistan, all the other Central Asian states have seen hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens arriving, fleeing their homeland, many dodging the draft. The myth of superpower big brother has been smashed, for now. 

We see it in the way Central Asian leaders no longer kowtow to Russian President Vladimir Putin. We see it in the discussions Central Asian people are now having about their history as a colony of Russia, forced to adopt Russian customs and the Russian language.

Central Asia’s people and governments have lost respect for Russia and the more the Central Asian states develop relations with other countries, particularly Islamic countries, the less respect and fear they will probably have for Russia.

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Russia has strong connections to Central Asia and no matter the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Russia and Central Asia will still be tied together in many ways. But relations between Russia and the states of Central Asia will be more equal than they have been in more than 100 years.

It is worth mentioning that Russia has lost wars and suffered severe setbacks in the past and has been able to reconstitute itself and rise from the ashes, so to speak. Russia is weakened by the war it unleashed in Ukraine, and it might be that the war in Ukraine ends with a battered Russia unable to threaten anyone. But that probably won’t last for too long.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border was the scene of terrible violence this year (and last), while Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan made marked progress on their border (though not without political difficulties in Kyrgyzstan). What is different about these two borders — the Kyrgyz-Tajik border and the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border — and what explains increased tension on one but negotiated progress on the other?

The difference is that Uzbekistan has always been able to enforce what happens along its border with Kyrgyzstan, and there was little Kyrgyzstan could do about it. Uzbekistan’s population is roughly five times larger than Kyrgyzstan’s, and Uzbekistan has the largest military in Central Asia. 

Uzbek troops have occupied small areas in Kyrgyzstan several times since 1991. Uzbek troops were occupying the Ungar-Too site in 2016 when Islam Karimov died (Ungar-Too was recognized as Kyrgyz territory under the recent border agreement).

There was never much Kyrgyzstan could do about it. The Kyrgyz military and border guards never even tried to attack Uzbek troops on Kyrgyz soil. So Kyrgyz officials must be pleased this particular section of the border with Uzbekistan is settled, even if Kyrgyz citizens living by the Kempir-Abad, now the Andijan reservoir, are not.

Tajikistan is different. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are approximately the same size in terms of territory and Tajikistan’s population is somewhere over 10 million while Kyrgyzstan’s population is just over 7 million. Kyrgyzstan has been willing to fight for territory along the unmarked sections of the frontier with Tajikistan, probably seeing that it is more evenly matched with Tajikistan than it is with Uzbekistan.

From the Tajik side it is worth mentioning that I can see where it might not be in Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s interest to settle the border issue with Kyrgyzstan. Every time there is a conflict on the Kyrgyz border, his popularity among many at home gets a bump. 

And the tense border gives the Tajik government a reason to maintain increased troops level in northern Tajikistan, where Rahmon has been generally unpopular since he first became leader in 1992. Rahmon’s opponent in the 1994 presidential election was Abdumalik Abdullajanov, a native of Khujand (Leninabad), who received more than 35 percent of the vote in a rigged election. And there was an assassination attempt on Rahmon in Khujand in April 1997.

Both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan faced particularly acute difficulties in the last year in their autonomous regions — the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region (GBAO) and the Republic of Karakalpakstan, respectively. Acknowledging the uniqueness of each case, why do these two regions pose such challenges to Dushanbe and Tashkent?

I think it bothers the central governments that there are regions within their countries that have a special status. If Karakalpaks in Uzbekistan and Pamiris in GBAO can have some sort of autonomy, will other ethnic groups in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan want the same someday? 

There are economic reasons at play in both cases also. Karakalpakstan is where Uzbekistan’s large gas fields are located and GBAO is the road link to China, and there is almost surely some mineral wealth in the mountains of GBAO.

But Karakalpakstan and GBAO were recognized as distinct administrative areas during the Soviet era and it will be difficult to change the way things have been for the last 100 years.

What are you watching most closely in Central Asia as we head into 2023?

What happens to regional cooperation in Central Asia as Russia’s influence in the region is reduced due to the Kremlin’s preoccupation with its debacle in Ukraine?

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Central Asian regional cooperation was increasing since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became Uzbekistan’s president in 2016, but that was happening against the backdrop of an established balance of foreign influences in the region.

Russia cannot provide all the things to the Central Asian states that it has been doing for the last 30 years and now the Central Asian states are looking elsewhere to fill in gaps in trade, financing, and security and they are often looking at the same potential sources.

The situation is a bit reminiscent of the early years of independence when the five Central Asian countries were competing for the attention of the outside world. Sort of “pick me as a friend/partner, I’m better than my neighbors.”

That sort of mentality works against regional unity. If, for an example, an Arab country shows more interest investing in Uzbekistan than Kazakhstan, does this hurt Kazakh-Uzbek ties?

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