Posts Tagged ‘Kazakhstan’

More belated commentary, this time for the Straits Times exploring the range of trouble spots in Central Asia that have not gotten much smaller since I wrote this.

Trouble brews in Central Asia

A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil is stirring unrest in all but one country in the region, which serves as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia.

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan. PHOTO: REUTERS

The world has a collective habit of forgetting Central Asia. Rich in natural resources, the region sits at the heart of what British geographer Halford Mackinder described as the geopolitical pivot of the world – serving as an important land bridge between Europe and Asia. Key overland routes – like the Silk Road of yore – cut across the region connecting Europe directly to China.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the region. A mix of geopolitics and domestic turmoil has created a dangerous brew in all but one of the five countries making up the region – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Only Turkmenistan, which has just seen a power transition from a tried and tested leader to his young son, appears unaffected. There is no evidence of instability in the country at the moment, although it is impossible to know what is really going on because of the lack of information. Food prices are reportedly high, inflation has long been a problem, while the population is still struggling amid a Covid-19 crisis.

REINVIGORATED MOTOR AND BULWARK

The most recent bout of trouble in the region emerged in Uzbekistan last month with unrest in Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic in the north-eastern region of the country. An attempt to redraft the nation’s Constitution led to anger as locals felt their special status was being taken away without their consent. At least 18 people were killed.

The violence in Uzbekistan had followed unrest in Kazakhstan, the wealthiest and most influential Central Asian power which had thus far been regarded as the bulwark of regional stability. Both countries were widely seen as former Soviet bloc countries seemingly on the path of reform.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev turned the country around when he took over in 2016 following the death of founding president Islam Karimov. Moving to rapidly open up the previously reclusive regime, the government in Tashkent was viewed elsewhere in Central Asia as a reinvigorated motor to the region.

When Kazakhstan’s founding leader and president Nursultan Nazarbayev handed over power peacefully in 2019 he seemed to set the tone for how such power transitions could be handled elsewhere. But, in January last year, a fuel tax hike led to mass protests that were quickly overtaken by a political dispute. The violence rapidly spiralled out of control, leading President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to call on Russia to deploy its forces under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to help stabilise the country. Reports suggest that over 200 people were killed in the unrest.

The authorities in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are still counting the costs of the unrest, including the geopolitical and political consequences of what occurred. President Tokayev’s decision to bring in Russian forces was highly sensitive politically in a country where the government has long been pushing an increasingly nationalist narrative.

In Tajikistan, the trouble centres on the Pamiri community living along the country’s border with Afghanistan with many people angry at their treatment by the central government. The Pamiri people, who are ethnically and linguistically different from the Tajiks, have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe. Last November, a young local man was tortured and killed by the authorities. This led to protests and repression which, in turn, erupted into much larger violence in May this year. The government is still suppressing the violence and has only recently reopened communications lines from the region.

Afghanistan has been a source of concern for Central Asia. As majority Muslim countries ruled by secular authoritarian or semi-authoritarian leaders, they fear the rise of Muslim fundamentalists in their region. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban put everyone on edge. As the militant group swept into Kabul, Russia rapidly dispatched aid to Central Asia in the form of joint training exercises and speeded up arms sales to the region. China, another regional power, contributed less, though it stepped into an active diplomatic role and bolstered its forces in Tajikistan along the Afghan-Tajik border.

Border disputes remain an obstacle to better ties in the region and the problem is particularly complicated in the volatile Ferghana Valley, where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan meet. Almost half of the 970km Kyrgyz-Tajik border has yet to be demarcated and this has led to repeated tensions between the two countries. In April last year, more than 40 people were killed as Tajik and Kyrgyz troops clashed over their disputed frontier and access to water. Tensions have since remained high with a Tajik border guard killed just a month ago.

SHADOW OF UKRAINE

All of these developments have taken place in the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has a particular resonance in the case of Kazakhstan, which has a large ethnic Russian population in its north along the border with Russia. Kazakhstan has been pushing Kazakh nationalism in an effort to craft a stronger sense of independent national identity, to the detriment of Russians. This has stirred anger in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin and other prominent commentators questioning Kazakh national identity as a concept. The similarity with Ukraine is not lost on seasoned observers.

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner. Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

These regional powers are also not interested in trying to manage the problems in Central Asia. Moscow continues to take a paternalistic attitude towards the region, while China is an entirely disinterested regional hegemon – increasingly the most consequential economic and political partner – but only willing to just watch as problems play themselves out. Iran is preoccupied with too many domestic problems.

The result is a Eurasian heartland in turmoil. This has consequences for energy prices – Turkmenistan is home to the world’s second largest natural gas field, and Kazakhstan is a key regional oil and gas producer. The country is also a major wheat exporter, at a time when the war in Ukraine has impacted two of the world’s largest exporters (Russia and Ukraine). The instability also has potential consequences for China’s Belt and Road visions across Eurasia, as most of the key land routes cut through this region on their way to Europe.

In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot Of History, Sir Halford identified the Eurasian heartland as the key territory to control the planet. Recently it has seemed as though Russia is relinquishing its control of the region and China is assuming it, the more accurate recent narrative is that everyone is watching as it becomes unstable. The question the world needs to pay attention to is what happens if this same pivot falls off its hinges. An unstable heartland is as dangerous as a dominated one.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Side box

Nestled between China, Russia and Iran, Central Asia is isolated from the West and yet wishes it was part of it. The United States and Europe have made efforts to connect with the region, but distance, prioritisation and local governance issues have often meant that it has ended up being nothing more than a distracted partner.

Instead, Central Asia has found itself stuck with regional superpowers which are locked in a geopolitical struggle with the West, and tend to see the world in entirely transactional terms.

Causes for strife

BORDER DISPUTES

When the region’s borders were defined during the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved up in such a way as to ensure that its patchwork of ethnicities would remain in conflict with one another and, therefore, no threat to Moscow. The result has been a series of ill-defined borders that still cause trouble to this day. This is most apparent between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where each country has communities living in exclaves entirely surrounded by the other.

Waterways, roads and food supplies have regularly been a source of conflict, most recently in border shootings that erupted into conflict in April last year.

ETHNIC DIVISIONS

In Tajikistan, the region called the Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) is home to the Pamiri people, who have historically been locked in conflict with the rulers in Dushanbe, the capital. In the 1990s, the country was wracked by a brutal civil war which led to tens of thousands of deaths. The civil war ended in 1997 with an internationally mediated accord.

In November last year, the death of a young Pamiri man in custody led to renewed tensions and fighting as the government sought to crush the Pamiri protests.

In Uzbekistan, as part of a broader drive to reform the country and potentially extend his rule, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev sought to redraft the national Constitution – including changing the status of Karakalpakstan. Physically the largest of the country’s 14 regions, Karakalpakstan has been an “autonomous republic” since the establishment of modern Uzbekistan in 1991. People in the area have always cherished their special status which gave them particular power and status within the country. Last month violent protests occurred in the regional capital, Nukus, which left 18 people dead.

ECONOMIC WOES

The apparent trigger for trouble in Kazakhstan came from a fuel tax hike at the beginning of the year. Already suffering from a domestic economic contraction, the public expressed anger at the visible economic inequalities in a resource-rich country.

The apparently organic protests were quickly overtaken by a larger power struggle as factions close to former long-time founding leader Nursultan Nazarbayev sought to undermine President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev using the cover of the protests.

Part of the problem was that many in the security forces remained loyal to the former leader, leading President Tokayev to make the politically risky decision to seek Russian forces to help stabilise the situation.

His gamble worked, and the trouble was contained, but it highlighted the deep political tensions in the country overshadowed by the apparently peaceful transition of power in 2019.

Still catching up on myself, this time a longer piece for the Straits Times about the how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is seen in parts of its former Soviet dominions. Varied and worried views.

Living Dangerously in Russia’s backyard

From the Baltics to countries in Central Asia, the war in Ukraine is a reminder of their precarious position amid questions about how far Putin will go in pursuit of his revanchist dreams.

Russian troops stand guard at the entrance to the village of Varnita, in Transnistria, a breakaway region in eastern Moldova, on March 4, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

There are many unanswered questions to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Key among them is whether Ukraine is the extent of President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, or part of a longer and more ambitious path towards European dominance.

Or, placing this within a wider context, is Russian activity abroad all about meddling for the sake of continued relevance or aimed at some actual imperial gain.

This is a difficult question to entirely answer, as ultimately the only person who knows is President Vladimir Putin and he is keeping the answer to himself. But in reading his actions and how they are seen in the former Soviet space, a part of the world that has long had to live with Russia, it is possible to start to divine something of an answer.

It is worth starting by looking back at when Mr Putin came to power. When he was appointed as president of the Russian Federation in 2000, he inherited a mess from an often inebriated Boris Yeltsin, who oversaw the final collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia – the heart of the once mighty USSR-was plundered by gangsters and oligarchs while ravaged by Chechen terrorists.

Mr Putin set about undoing much of the damage left by Mr Yeltsin. The terrorism menace in the North Caucasus was quelled, the treasury put in order, and the military rebuilt. The stabilising of the country in the early part of his two decades in power was popular among Russians who remember the 1990s when the country tried Western liberal economic approaches and was rewarded with penury and oligarchs.

But that was not the end of it for Mr Putin. Having turned it around, he then went on to start to “grow” the country he inherited, with territory “liberated” from Georgia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukraine in Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region, as well as the full seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

The so-called people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region have joined Abkhazia and South Ossetia as vassal statelets dependent (and loyal) to Moscow. Belarus is a vassal state in all but name, while the Eurasian Economic Union gives Russia a say in the economic affairs of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan.

The old idea of revanchist Russian nationalism is a key driver of this expansion. The notion of Mother Russia as the home of all of the Slavic peoples is something that has long been seen as a goal by successive leaders in Russia. Russian nationalism, however, is something that those living in the states adjacent to Russia have also long worried about.

THE VIEW FROM CENTRAL ASIA

Its resurgence has stirred unease not only in the Baltic states and Russia’s central European neighbours but also in Central Asia.

In the early days of the invasion of Ukraine, an old video popped up on Uzbek social media. In it, first president (and former Soviet apparatchik) Islam Karimov spoke of his concerns about Russian nationalism, suggesting it was a greater threat than whatever might emerge from Afghanistan. The interview was from the late 1990s, a moment when the former Soviet space was wracked by various conflicts. But Mr Karimov was particularly worried about what might emerge from Moscow, something contemporary Uzbeks saw now rearing its head in Ukraine.

But while Uzbekistan has always had a somewhat prickly relationship with Moscow, it is Kazakhstan that has been particularly fearful of revanchist Russian nationalism.

Northern Kazakhstan is home to an ethnic Russian community that makes up around a fifth of the country’s population. In the past few years, the government in Kazakhstan has sought to encourage greater Kazakh national identity, rejecting Cyrillic script and encouraging more use of Kazakh language rather than Russian.

If Russia’s actions in Ukraine were not bad enough, comments by Russian nationalists have added to Kazakhstan’s fears. For instance, Mr Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the United Russia party in the Duma, once raised doubts about Kazakhstan’s sovereign status on the grounds that the “territory of Kazakhstan was a great gift from Russia and the Soviet Union”. His remarks prompted other like minded politicians to call for the return of parts of northern Kazakhstan to the Russian Federation.

Worryingly for Kazakhs, a few years ago, Mr Putin made similar comments in public which appeared to question Kazakh statehood. He praised the then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev for building something out of nothing. Praise on the one hand, but also undermining the logic of an independent Kazakh state, one with a history and existence not contingent on Russia.

The parallels with Russia’s dismissal of Ukrainian statehood are inescapable to Kazakhs who worry about Moscow’s revanchist intentions.

Tellingly, even though Kazakhstan abstained on the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it would not recognise the separatist republics of Donetsk or Luhansk. The authorities also turned a blind eye to some public rallies supporting Ukraine.

However, for all their fears of Russian nationalism, the Central Asia states still look up to Russia as their ultimate security guarantor. As the Taliban surged in Afghanistan last year, it was Moscow that dispatched forces to undertake border training exercises with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as well as rushing through arms sales across the region. Similarly, when Kazakhstan was wracked with domestic strife earlier this year, it was Moscow that President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev turned to to help restore order.

Kyrgyzstan, the most democratic of the five states in the region, has also been the most unstable. Internal tensions are often fanned by Russian media or stoked by Moscow. Russia is able to make its displeasure known and continues to exert influence when it needs to – through powerful oligarchs close to Mr Putin or hard military power or its intelligence services. The Central Asians all recognise this, and are fearful of the mighty Russian bear turning on them.

At the same time, they are certainly not happy about the pattern of Moscow’s behaviour. They condemned the assault on Georgia in 2008, expressed concern about the 2014 incursions into Ukraine and have shown their unwillingness to completely toe Moscow’s line in the wake of this year’s invasion.

But there is a limit to their push back against Russia, given the precarious position they are in.

OTHER NEIGHBOURS

The Baltic and eastern European countries are in a far more secure position, given their membership in institutions like the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, with its pledge of collective defence. It offers them a level of deterrence against Russian aggression that is also not available to Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.

Moldova, nestled between Ukraine and Romania, sits on just the other side of the EU’s outer border and has a small ethnic Russian enclave in Transnistria, complete with Russian soldiers. Recent comments by Russian General Rustam Minnekayev that Moscow’s goal was to secure a corridor across Ukraine connecting to the enclave, as well as explosions targeting infrastructure in the region, has set alarm bells off in Chisinau.

While Mr Putin may no longer have sway over the Baltics and their ethnic Russian populations, he does have other cards to play, such as Kaliningrad, an isolated Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea between Poland and Lithuania. Largely known for smuggling, it is a Russian foothold which Mr Putin’s administration have threatened to use as a base for nuclear weapons should Nato expand further.

All of this adds up to a Russia which is basically interested in maintaining influence in what it perceives as its backyard, with the option of claiming them back if the context permits (or is fabricated).

From Mr Putin’s perspective, the countries of the former Soviet Union are only permitted to be independent states insomuch as he allows it. And where he has grey lines or borders, he has a space in which he can operate.

While it remains to be seen whether he is eager to court the danger that would follow invading an EU or Nato country, he certainly sees no issue in stirring trouble in any of the other countries in this space. And every so often, lash out violently to remind them about staying in line.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, and the author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Another piece for the excellent Nikkei Asian Review, this time trying to make the point that there is a missed opportunity for the west in Central Asia. It is a not a new point for me, but it does seem to be something which is all the more relevant given current events in Ukraine. The title is a bit more blunt about the great gaming element of the intended idea than was meant, the idea was really about getting the west to focus on the region and highlight the region’s agency a bit more.

Western powers should exploit Central Asia’s unease over Ukraine war

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have both distanced themselves from Moscow

Demonstrators take part in an anti-war rally in support of Ukraine in Almaty on Mar. 6: Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been received differently around the world, especially in Central Asia, where the two most powerful countries have both expressed clear signs of concern at Moscow’s behavior. There is an opportunity here for the West if they have the agility to take it.

While the modern countries of Central Asia were among the last to separate from the Soviet Union, since then, they have embraced independence and sought to forge a sense of nationhood. Still, when it comes to Russia and its potential to behave like an overbearing bully, there remains a lurking sense of trepidation, even though Russia remains vital to their development, security and future.

Nowhere is this more true than in Kazakhstan, where a similar narrative that Russia has used to invade Ukraine twice and Georgia can also be applied.

In the north of Kazakhstan, there is an ethnic Russian community that makes up around 20% of Kazakhstan’s total population. At the same time, Vladimir Putin sometimes takes digs at Kazakhstan’s legitimacy as a state; a theme periodically picked up by Russian nationalist commentators and officials who like to claim that Kazakhstan or at least part of it is theirs.

While few in Central Asia were surprised by Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine, this had not diminished their horror at what was unfolding there. For the region, Ukraine was an important partner as well as a fellow former Soviet state.

Central Asia has expressed concern about Russian behavior before. In 2008, they criticized Russia’s actions in Georgia, while in 2014, they sought to try to find ways of encouraging Moscow to peacefully resolve its dispute with Ukraine. In both instances, Russia sought to pressure the Central Asian powers to back its actions.

This time around, the Central Asian powers have been even more vocal. While Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have stayed predictably quiet, the Kyrgyz have made positive remarks seemingly supportive of Putin’s actions but also allowed protests against the war. But the two most powerful states, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, have made clear signs of wanting to highlight their independence.

Neither country has acceded to Russia’s request to formally recognize the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Kazakhstan has allowed large protests against the war, sent aid to Ukraine and President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has held talks with Putin and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. In Uzbekistan, while public opposition to the war has been more limited, influential Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov declared his support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Moscow has also not been oblivious to the mood in Central Asia. In mid-March, Russia held large-scale training exercises in Tajikistan, while Russia’s Minister of Economic Development Maxim Reshetnikov spoke at a Tashkent trade event highlighting the opportunities for Uzbekistan in the wake of Western sanctions on Russia, as well as encouraging Uzbekistan to play a more active role in Eurasian Economic Union.

Central Asians only need to look back to last August at the fall of Kabul to remember how Moscow rushed in with military aid and support to defend themselves from the unfolding chaos in Afghanistan, while it was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country during violent protests at the beginning of the year.

Collective Security Treaty Organization peacekeepers are on guard in Almaty on Jan. 11: It was Russian soldiers who were called on by Kazakhstan to help stabilize the country. (Handout photo from Russian Defense Ministry Press Service)   © AP

All of which makes the signals from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan over Ukraine all the more striking. While the criticism may be tempered, it is nevertheless a sign that both countries are eager to show they are not in lockstep with Moscow.

The most recent sign of this was Deputy Foreign Minister Roman Vassilenko telling German newspaper Die Welt last week that Kazakhstan did not want to be on the wrong side of a new Iron Curtain and would welcome any companies who were finding themselves obliged to exit Russia as a result of Western sanctions.

This was an opportunistic statement and a clear message that Kazakhstan has little desire to be consigned to simply being part of the Russian space involved in a geopolitical conflict with the West. Instead, Kazakhstan wants to maintain its links with the West, something reinforced by the reforms President Tokayev has announced in the wake of the civil unrest earlier in the year.

All of this presents an interesting opportunity for Western countries if they can figure out how to take it. Central Asia’s two most influential players have hinted at a desire to assert their independence from Russia, but Western powers have largely taken their eyes off Central Asia in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. This disinterest was compounded by the unrest in Kazakhstan earlier in the year, which highlighted the region’s volatility, as well as the fact that a tendency toward repression still exists.

For Western powers eager to find ways of shaping the new global order to their advantage, however, Central Asia is an interesting theater to explore. Increased Western support for Central Asia would create some complexity for Russia on its other flank while also helping encourage regional powers to continue on their stated paths of greater openness, governance and the rule of law.

More updating from last month, this time a piece for the South China Morning Post which attracted a certain ire online at the time looking at China’s broadly passive approach to all of the trouble on its periphery of late. My point was maybe not as strongly put as the headline, but as ever headline writers are focused on clarity and not subtlety.

Eurasia in turmoil: how China’s passivity foments the chaos

  • From Afghanistan to Kazakhstan and now Ukraine, the Eurasian heartland has fallen prey to three forces: authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity
  • Beijing may be happy to sit out the chaos for now but it will ultimately spill over and create problems it cannot ignore
A sign outside the the Canadian embassy in Beijing on March 3 in support of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

It has been a tumultuous six months for Eurasia. The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan last August was followed by widespread civil unrest in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year and now a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

While Russia has had a prominent role in each context, it is China’s perspective that people most frequently ask about. Yet Beijing has stayed broadly passive, highlighting the role that China sees for itself in the world.

China may be the new superpower on the international stage, but it appears to have little interest in committing itself to resolving any problems that emerge in its neighbourhood or beyond.

The attention on China can sometimes seem exaggerated. We look for Beijing’s view on everything nowadays, sometimes where it is unlikely to be relevant. Yet the truth is that Beijing is a significant actor in all three Eurasian contexts.

China remains the putative largest single external investor in Afghanistan, is Kazakhstan’s second-largest trading partner (and fastest-growing investor), and since 2019 has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner.

China has undertaken or signed contracts for large-scale investments in all three countries, is an important trading partner and (in Afghanistan and Kazakhstan) has a particular interest given the shared borders.

So it is not entirely surprising that people look for China’s views in these contexts, and expect Beijing to want to step in when things turn bad. Yet, in each situation, China has instead stood by to let others try to fix the problems.

A similar playbook can be observed in all three cases. In the first instance, Beijing apportions blame – often finding the United States culpable for the situation.

In Afghanistan, the American withdrawal precipitated the Taliban takeover, making it an easy connection. In Kazakhstan, mutterings of “colour revolutions” started in Moscow and Nur-Sultan, giving Beijing ample fuel to point towards the US. And in Ukraine, China has continued to point to US-driven Nato expansion as a key underlying reason for the conflict.

Having blamed the US, the next step is to try to embrace tightly. In Afghanistan, this has led to a surge in Chinese activity on the ground, regular aid, close engagement with the Taliban authorities, regular championing of their interests at the United Nations and the constant promise (that has yet to materialise) of larger-scale investment.

In Kazakhstan, Beijing picked up seamlessly from where it left off before the trouble in January, while in Ukraine it is trying to sell itself as an impartial supporter of both sides.

Yet in all of this, Beijing commits very little. The constant presentation of multiple-point plans to resolve situations are largely empty declarations which appear well meaning but are not followed by any real evidence of effort to resolve the situations. Instead, they largely state the obvious and seem to suggest that Beijing is somewhat above the situation as a benign observer.

There is no doubt some element of Beijing’s stasis is not really knowing what to do. China’s offers to act as a peace broker have tended to be hollow, usually offering a table around which the various parties can sit.

While this is a useful role, a proper negotiator will need to work the various groups, understand their interests and force heads together. This is also likely to mean telling people what they do not want to hear, something Beijing is never very interested in doing as it potentially creates adversaries.

But so far, by sitting and watching, Beijing has not done itself much ill. While its international standing may be damaged among those who would like to see it take a more active role, by not doing so, China is leaving itself in a position where it can continue its relations with whichever party comes out on top.

And given Beijing’s strong economic interests in every situation, all the parties involved will usually have a strong incentive to continue to engage with Beijing after the chaos subsides.

But there is a longer-term problem here, which may eventually cause China some regret. The result of this passivity has been a Eurasia increasingly in tumult.

As Washington leads the West in a mostly seaborne crusade in the Indo-Pacific against China, we see the Eurasian heartland fall prey to three forces. Authoritarian incompetence, Russian adventurism and Chinese passivity. The result has been large-scale loss of life, and growing constraints on people’s liberties.

This is the net result of a Eurasian heartland abandoned to local forces, and increasingly overseen by superpowers who see value only in shaping history when they deem it important to their grandeur, and otherwise seem content to simply let things play out, no matter the consequences on the ground.

For now, China might be happy to watch things play out. But, unfettered, these forces are likely to create nothing but misery and a Eurasian backyard in which China will find itself the dominant power watching over chaos.

And while in the short term it might be possible to find some benefit from this situation, in the longer term, it will spill over and ultimately create problems that Beijing cannot just watch from the sidelines.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

More catch up posting from last month, this time a short piece for the wonderful Nikkei Asian Review looking at how Central Asia is likely to suffer from the chaos generated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Have a few more since this which make similar points but through different lenses, but for now enjoy this.

Central Asia braces for economic catastrophe

Sanctions aimed at Russia will have serious knock-on effects

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan collect potatoes at an agrarian field in Beryozovka near Russia’s Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk: their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire” (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Across what is still referred to as the former Soviet space, there has been a sharp intake of breath. While many have grown accustomed to overbearing Russian behavior, few expected the dismemberment of Ukraine.

For Central Asia, the consequences go deeper than worrying whether they might be next. The intertwining of their economies with Russia means the drastic sanctions being imposed on Moscow will likely hit them too. And for a region that is increasingly being targeted by the West, this will further exacerbate economic suffering.

It is not so long ago that Central Asia was actively calling for greater Russian military support. Following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last August, Russian forces rushed in to undertake joint training exercises with Tajik and Uzbek forces, while Moscow sped through military sales to customers across the region.

In January, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called on Russian forces, under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, to help reestablish control in the wake of violent protests wracking his country.

For Central Asians, Russia remains an essential security partner. While China is seen as ascendant, it is Russia that remains hugely significant in political, economic and security terms.

The truth is that while Beijing may be the rising power, China tends to be quite passive, as its responses to the crises in Kazakhstan and Afghanistan have shown. Similarly now with Ukraine, Beijing appears largely content to talk rather than actually try to do something on the ground.

While China sees Central Asia as five nations it wants to do business with, Russia takes a more paternalistic view, in some cases even questioning their viability as states. Vladimir Putin has on occasion questioned Kazakhstan’s nation status, just as he has with Ukraine. This worries Central Asians.

Take Kazakhstan, which has a population of around 3.5 million ethnic Russians, nearly 20% of its population, concentrated near its border with Russia. It is very easy to envisage a scenario where Moscow stakes a claim to these people back in much the same way as in Ukraine.

Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 first crystallized this concern. At the time, Moscow not only sought regional endorsement through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but recognition of the two breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia that Moscow claimed it had gone in to defend. This appeal was roundly rejected, with China in particular horrified by the precedent that Moscow was setting.

Fast forward to today, and while it is clear that Central Asians are uneasy, there is a lot less condemnation. In fact, in a conversation with President Putin, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov appeared to support Russia’s position, prompting Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to withdraw his ambassador from the capital Bishkek.

Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Sadyr Japarov during a meeting in Strelna on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg, in December 2021: the Kyrgyz President appeared to support Russia’s position. (Handout photo from Kremlin Press Office)    © Reuters

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan both found themselves pulled into the information war, with both being forced to deny that they supported Russia’s actions in Ukraine and Kazakhstan that they had been asked to participate in the fighting by Moscow. In Uzbekistan, the government issued a statement pointing out that any national who was found to be fighting for a foreign army would be prosecuted upon return home.

Ultimately though, it will be economic questions that will dominate minds across Central Asia. Millions of Central Asian citizens work in Russia, and their remittances to their families back home are a crucial source of income, something that will be hit by the abrupt drop in the value of the ruble.

The collapse in the value of the Russian currency has also led to massive knock-on devaluations across Central Asia as markets reflect on the consequences of Russia’s exclusion from the international economy.

Russia is a major investor and partner to all five countries. Russia has reportedly invested around $40 billion in Kazakhstan alone since the fall of the Soviet Union, while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are bound intimately to the Russian economy as members of the Eurasian Economic Union.

All of this means that when Russia suffers economically, Central Asia feels it. Now, the region is bracing for the worst. Central Asia may have experienced something similar following the 2014 sanctions leveled against Russia, but this time the hit is likely to be exponentially harder.

All of which comes at a moment of great flux in a region still suffering from the fallout from COVID. Add to that, Kazakhstan is still recovering from the national unrest that rocked the country in January, Turkmenistan is in the midst of a leadership transition, and Tajikistan appears to be on the cusp of something similar.

Many geostrategists may be tempted to conclude that Beijing is likely to benefit. And there is no doubt that this will strengthen Chinese options in the region. But the reality is that Central Asia will still be very much tied to Russia, with all the consequent loss of income that will entail. Central Asian migrant labor will struggle to find the same opportunities in other countries.

Now entirely encircled by countries that are being targeted by escalating Western sanctions — Afghanistan, Iran, China and Russia — Central Asia is increasingly finding itself between an economic hard place and a politically precarious one.

Pushed into a corner not of its choosing, the collateral damage to Central Asia from Putin’s Ukrainian invasion is likely to be considerable.

More very late posting, this time from January for the Straits Times looking at how China was impacted by events in Kazakhstan at the turn of the year. Seems a world away from what we are facing now, though there is clearly a link that runs through Moscow.

China’s Kazakh Concerns

China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the secure and predictable neighbour that it was, says the writer. PHOTO: REUTERS

When Chinese President Xi Jinping first announced his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) vision in 2013, he started it with a speech in Astana, as the capital of Kazakhstan was then called.

In an expansive speech, Mr Xi articulated the importance of Kazakhstan within his broader vision of Chinese policy across the Eurasian landmass.

The Kazakh government appreciated the speech and the wider concept, so much so that a year later then President Nursultan Nazarbayev articulated his own national economic strategy called Nurly Zhol (bright path), which built on the Chinese ideas and projects. 

China and Kazakhstan would grow and prosper together. The Kazakhs benefited from Chinese trade and investment while Beijing appreciated having a stable “soft authoritarian” success story on its border. This intertwining highlights the importance of Kazakhstan to China, and explains the consequent horror with which Beijing watched the chaotic way in which the country welcomed in the new year. 

Chinese strategists were not alone in being shocked at the chaotic scenes that have played out over the past couple of weeks. Central Asia watchers both within the region and beyond were equally surprised by the turn of events, which began as demonstrations against a fuel price hike and escalated into violent clashes with hundreds reported dead and injured.

STABILITY AND PROSPERITY

Most used to see Kazakhstan as the most stable and prosperous country in what is still described as the post-Soviet belt that surrounds Russia. The government was an almost perfect articulation of the concept of “soft authoritarianism”, in which a strong authority dominated the country but left a certain space for political discourse, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and a free (but controlled) media. 

The main reason it was able to do this was the massive wealth accumulated by the government, thanks to its large mineral and hydrocarbon reserves. 

These were exploited by numerous foreign companies, including Western ones.  Chinese firms have long looked at Kazakhstan as an important opportunity. Soon after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) stepped in to exploit oil fields in Atyrau on the shores of the Caspian Sea.  In order to get the oil back to China, it built China’s first direct oil pipeline which stretched from Atyrau back to China covering more than 2,300km of the empty Central Asian steppe. This was only the first of numerous hydrocarbon projects. 

And it was not only a story of oil and gas. Mining company Kazakhmys, which dominates Kazakhstan’s rich copper reserves, received loans of around US$4.2 billion (S$5.7 billion) from the China Development Bank. The company would regularly take some parts of its loan facilities in yuan, something the Chinese bank appreciated as it helped with its wider strategy of trying to get the Chinese currency in wider global circulation, as well as ensuring that Chinese firms were used as contractors. 

Kazakhstan is one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, and in November last year started a joint venture with Chinese firms to produce nuclear fuel – a key part of China’s national energy strategy to reduce their carbon footprint. Kazakhstan is also a major target for Chinese agribusiness eager to take advantage of the vast underpopulated territory. 

According to Kazakh Invest data, there are some 20 million hectares of arable land (roughly the size of the United Kingdom) and another 180 million ha of meadows and pastures. This is very attractive to a country like China, with its booming population of middle class consumers looking for bountiful cheaper food options. 

Shortly before the Covid-19 outbreak, Kazakhstan opened a new market in Wuhan, where its products were sold. This became an early victim of the pandemic.  Kazakhstan was also a crucial first way station in the BRI. As mentioned, this was the country where Mr Xi first articulated his vision, even though elements of his ambitious trans-continental network were in existence long before the concept was announced. 

Kazakhstan had long sought to develop its rail and road links to China, eager to access its markets.  In the early 1990s, then President Nazarbayev had encouraged opening up his markets and rail routes to China, keenly sending his representatives to a Eurasian rail connectivity conference hosted in Beijing by then Premier Li Peng in 1996. 

For China, the Kazakh connection was useful more as a path on the way to more prosperous and populated markets in Russia and Europe. Either way, the two countries saw mutual advantage, with the Kazakhs getting infrastructure and transit fees, while China had a smooth path across the Eurasian heartland. 

Yet all this was thrown into question these past couple of weeks. The unexpected chaos in Kazakhstan caused concern among investors around the world. 

Western consultancies with large offices in big cities Nur-Sultan (Astana’s current name) and Almaty (the biggest city in the country) suddenly lost communications with them during the Internet outages amid the protests. Chinese firms were slightly more insulated from these disruptions, as most of their in-country staff were based at remote locations near oil fields or mining concessions.

PASSIVE BUT POINTED RESPONSE

While the riots look to have been put down, questions remain over stability in Kazakhstan and how China will manage this relationship going forward. At the moment, the response has been fairly passive, though pointed.  In a message to Kazakhstan’s President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the wake of the violence, Mr Xi talked about “colour revolutions”, highlighting the degree to which China was concerned about the instability in the country. 

This was an allusion to Western interference, referring back to the series of government overthrows seen in the former Soviet space in 2004, when Ukraine underwent a so-called “Orange Revolution”, Georgia a “Rose Revolution” and Kyrgyzstan a “Tulip Revolution”. For the Russians and the Chinese, these uprisings were widely seen as being linked to American-sponsored NGOs. 

For Beijing, the “colour revolutions” as well as the “Arab Spring” are like deadly viruses – something to be kept out lest the “bug” of public uprising catches on in China too. 

Yet, notwithstanding these concerns, China has done little in trying to help stabilise the situation. Instead, it has sat back and applauded as the Kazakhs called on Russia to step in and help bring stability under the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a Moscow-led alliance of six former Soviet states. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did offer “law enforcement and security cooperation” to help the country oppose interference by “external forces” – a narrative which echoed the explanations offered by the Kazakh government for the unrest. But these are likely just words. There is little to suggest the Kazakhs would take the Chinese up on the offer. 

This is in part because it is not clear what China would really be able to contribute that would be needed by the Kazakhs. There are also sensitivities at a public level about the relationship with Beijing. China has always struggled with an underlying sense of Sinophobia in the country. 

Earlier attempts by Chinese agribusiness to rent land in Kazakhstan had led to protests against the government for selling the people’s national patrimony to foreigners. Back in 2010, protests and violence erupted in Zhanaozen over a dispute between workers and a local CNPC affiliate, leading to at least 14 deaths. There have also been repeated lower-level clashes in the country between Chinese workers and locals. 

More recently, Covid-19 has made things even more awkward. While the Kazakhs have been keen to keep the borders and trading going, the Chinese have made entry to China very difficult. Although goods were coming out of China, they were not going back into the country. 

This had led to problems in Kazakhstan, in terms of sellers struggling not only to get their goods to China but also through it to other markets. Lianyungang, a city in Shandong, is heavily used by Kazakh sellers eager to gain access from their landlocked country to global markets. The Kazakh economy, already suffering from the effects of Covid-19, now found that the BRI, which was supposed to be about free-flowing connectivity, suddenly went only one way.

WORRIES AHEAD

All of this sets the context for how China is going to have to manage future relations with Kazakhstan. It is clearly happy that Russia had stepped in to help stabilise the situation, but the Kazakh government still has a lot of work to do in resolving bigger entrenched problems such as a glaring income divide, corruption and elite power contests. 

China is unfortunately a part contributor to these issues. Its investments have tended to engage with the elites, with locals feeling cut out. While Mr Tokayev will undoubtedly want to maintain the strong economic relationship with China, it will now have an added layer of concern to it from the Chinese perspective, and he will have to juggle his desire to keep Beijing happy while finding himself needing to answer to his local population in a more timely manner than before. All of which is likely to mean China is going to find that Kazakhstan is not the entirely secure and predictable neighbour that it was. 

The bigger problem for China is that if this is the case in Kazakhstan – the starting point of the Belt and Road chosen in large part for its stability – where else might their current assumptions be wrong

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, and the author of the forthcoming Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).

Have been very slow in posting of late for a wide and varied set of reasons – stuff at home, lots of work and generally chaotic start to the year. Made all the worse by current events which seem to continue to trump themselves in misery. Anyway, first up, one of three contributions to this year’s Annual Assessment Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses (CTTA) for my Singaporean host institution the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS). This ones provides an overview of events last year in relation to extremism and terrorism linked to Central Asia – either in the region or beyond. As ever, enjoyed doing this with Nodir.

Central Asia

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

Despite the absence of recorded terrorist attacks over the last two years, countering terrorism and extremism remained a security priority for the five Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan in 2021. This is primarily accrued to potential risks arising from the presence and activities of Central Asian jihadist groups in Syria and neighbouring Afghanistan, where the radical Taliban movement took power in August. In both theatres of conflict, Central Asian fighters continue to fight under the protection and control of bigger militant groups such as the Taliban, Hay ’ at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Islamic State (IS). Another ongoing challenge is the exploitation by regional groups of online tools to radicalise, recruit and fund-raise both within the region and amongst diaspora communities scattered around Europe, Russia and beyond.

Militant Groups in Afghanistan

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan has left Central Asia with a complex security dilemma along its border. While Afghanistan’s strategic landscape may differ from the five Central Asian states in a number of ways, the presence of interlinked cross-border communities, as well as relatively porous borders and linked economies, also binds them together. The overriding regional security concern is Central Asian militant groups that had been fighting alongside the Taliban will take advantage of the situation to regroup and refocus their attention towards Central Asia, using Afghanistan as a springboard. This, alongside the possibility that the wider militancy in Afghanistan might lead once again to an unstable state whose violence might overspill in other ways into the region, has put Central Asian authorities on alert.

For more than two decades, Afghanistan has sheltered various Central Asian militant groups. Currently, four Central Asian militant units, namely the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), Islamic Jihad Union (IJU or IJG) and the Afghanistan wing of Katibat Imam al-Bukhari (KIB) are known to be active there. All four groups operate under the protection and control of the Taliban and retain some ties among themselves. From the late 1990s to early 2010s, IMU, JA, IJU and two other Central Asian groups, Jund Al Khilafah and Jaysh Al Mahdi, which might not be active presently, had carried out some significant attacks in Central Asia from their bases in Afghanistan-Pakistan, while maintaining close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (AQ).

Over the past decade, the aforementioned Taliban-linked groups have not carried out an attack in Central Asia. Nor have there been many large-scale plots disrupted by local governments that were planned by them.651 While this could partly be explained by the Central Asian states’ increased capacity to prevent attacks, another significant factor could be the Taliban’s prohibition of its foreign units to involve themselves in external operations or their sustained focus on fighting the Afghan National Army and western forces.652 While there has not been much public reporting around this, as the Taliban had been in protracted negotiations with the US government in recent years, they did start to issue edicts aimed at their foreign militant allies. For instance, in September 2020, the Taliban reportedly ordered the foreign groups operating from their territory to halt unauthorised travel and recruitment.653 Other leaked messages from the Taliban to their commanders and other groups had contained instructions to refrain from using Afghan territory to plan or execute external attacks, while some also detailed punishments if these groups worked with foreigners without special permission from the central leadership.654

Before capturing Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban used these foreign fighters as foot soldiers in their offensives against the Afghan forces, the US-led coalition and jihadist rivals. This generated a lot of video and other visual content which the groups would actively promote to highlight their activities, further recruit, fund-raise and radicalise. However, since 2020, the Taliban has prohibited Central Asian groups from publishing online photo and video materials of their activities in Afghanistan.655 As a result, their release of online propaganda materials has dropped precipitously. It is unclear how much this correlates with a cessation of activities, but it is likely part of an attempt by the Taliban to hide the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan.

Before the Taliban takeover, the IMU, with less than 700 fighters and their family members, were residing in the Afghan provinces of Faryab, Sar-e Pol and Jowzjan.656 The group was reportedly experiencing financial difficulties after the Taliban reduced financial support to them in the wake of their former leader Usman Ghazi’s defection to IS in 2015. Ghazi was killed by the Taliban as punishment in late 2015. The result of this clash was that the IMU would splinter into two factions: one comprising predominantly ethnic Uzbek militants (led by Jafar Yuldash, the son of Takhir Yuldash, the notorious founding leader of the group who was killed in 2009) and the other with mainly ethnic Tajiks (led by “Ilhom” alias “Usmoni Khon,” Yuldash’s former deputy). IMU has been significantly weakened in recent years by the loss of key leadership, the Taliban’s pressure and ongoing internal fissures within the group. It remains unclear how close the respective factions are with the Taliban, though their continual presence in Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan shows they are clearly still dependent on their support to some degree.

Unlike the IMU, JA remains a reliable partner of the Taliban. Made up mainly of ethnic Tajiks, the group is known as “the Tajik Taliban” in Afghanistan. Its leader, Muhammad Sharifov (alias “Mahdi Arsalan”), who is originally from Tajikistan’s eastern Rasht Valley, is said to have at least 200 fighters under his command.657 In July and August 2021, the Taliban relied on JA when it captured the northern Afghan provinces. including Badakhshan, which shares a common border with Tajikistan. The Taliban have placed Mahdi and his militants in charge of several districts in the northern region, and armed them with new military vehicles (including Humvees), weaponry and other equipment seized from the toppled Afghan civilian government. While expressing doubts over the seriousness of the threat these groups pose across the border, Tajik authorities have heightened security along their own borders. The Taliban has denied that the militants were planning to infiltrate Tajikistan.658

Separately, the KIB’s Afghan wing, with about 25 to 150 fighters, was based mostly in Badghis. The group had reportedly received funding from its central core in Idlib through hawala methods to increase its operational capability.659 KIB’s leader Dilshod Dekhanov (alias “Jumaboi”) has encouraged the Taliban leadership to bring together all Central Asian militant groups in Afghanistan under his command. Some factions, however, instead proposed the IJU’s current leader, Ilimbek Mamatov (a Kyrgyz national who is also known as Khamidulla), as the overarching commander.660 Overall, the fate of Central Asian groups in Afghanistan, and their potential unification prospects remains unclear since the Taliban returned to power.

Militant Groups in Syria

In Syria, AQ-linked Central Asian combat units such as Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and KIB’s central core have remained active. As in previous years, both KTJ and KIB are part of the jihadist alliance of HTS, itself an evolution of AQ’s former representative on the Syrian battlefield. There are no official updated numbers on the force strength of KTJ and KIB in 2021. However, relevant reports from 2020 and recent online propaganda videos featuring militant training sessions suggest both remain among the most prominent foreign militant groups in Syria, commanding hundreds of fighters.661

KTJ is still led by Khikmatov (alias “Abdul Aziz”) and Akhliddin Novkatiy (Navqotiy), who serves as his deputy. Like KTJ’s former leader, both figures are hardline Salafi-jihadist ideologues who constantly preach before KTJ fighters and their families and release recorded videos online. Mainly, their propaganda appears designed to emphasise the importance and legitimacy of conducting armed jihad in Syria.

In this light, the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan represents an iconic moment for Central Asian groups. In August, KTJ posted a video on its Telegram channel congratulating the Taliban on its “victory,” which it claimed “was achieved through a sustained patience and determined struggle.” In a recent video, Khikmatov also claimed that “the fate of the state built by Morsi” in Egypt was a “reminder of realities that it would be impossible to build an Islamic state through political methods.” For its part, KIB still operates under the command of “Abu Yusuf Muhajir,” who also actively engages in jihadi preaching activities.

Amidst their ongoing dispute for supremacy in Idlib, HTS and Hurras ad-Din (HAD), AQ’s current affiliate in Syria, had also jostled for control over the Central Asian fighters operating in the territory. As discussed in the previous year’s reporting, this had ended with the arrest of KTJ’s former leader, Abu Saloh, by HTS for attempting to defect to HAD. There has been some speculation about his subsequent fate. According to the United Nations’ (UN) reporting, Abu Saloh was given the choice of declaring his affiliation to HTS or being convicted of theft.662 Others speculated that HTS had considered deporting him to Russia, where he is suspected of masterminding the 2017 metro bombing in Saint Petersburg, if it could receive a substantive bounty in exchange.663 Currently, his status is unknown.

Nearly three years after IS’ territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq, Central Asian fighters have become nearly invisible. Whilst many detained IS women and children have been repatriated by their respective governments, the remaining IS fighters from the region have either gone into hiding or are scattered across ungoverned parts of Syria and Iraq and continued fighting. Some of those still at large have also opted to leave the battlefield to return home or relocate elsewhere. For instance in February 2021, Turkish security agencies in the city of Kilis detained Amanbek Samat, a former IS militant from Kazakhstan’s Atyrau region as he attempted to cross the border from Syria.664 Kazakh authorities worked closely with their Turkish counterparts to extradite Amanbek, who was on Kazakhstan’s most wanted terror suspect list.665

Internal Challenges

In 2021, Central Asian countries continued to foil attack plots and arrest suspected terrorists and self radicalised individuals. In the first half of the year, Kazakhstan had recorded 139 criminal cases related to terrorism and extremism, largely involving online radicalisation and the propagation of violence.666 This marked a twenty percent increase over the same period in 2020. Most cases were observed in the southern provinces of Turkistan and Jambyl as well as Shymkent city. In January 2021 in Kyrgyzstan, security agencies arrested a Kyrgyz national for planning to attack a local military unit under the instruction of an unnamed international terrorist group, of which he was suspected of being a member.667 Later in July, a Kyrgyz citizen who returned home from Afghanistan allegedly on the pretext of carrying out an attack was also detained.668 Details around this case were not released, making it hard to assess any potential links to Afghan jihadist groups. However, reflecting local officials’ concerns around the cross-border links of radicalised Kyrgyz, two individuals were arrested in October for their involvement in fund-raising believed to be linked to the January 2017 IS-linked shooting at an Istanbul nightclub.669

In August in Tajikistan, the Minister for Internal Affairs revealed the authorities had thwarted three attacks in the first six months of 2021 in Farkhor, Isfara and Vahdat districts. The foiled attacks were reportedly planned by members of IS and the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). The latter is banned in Tajikistan and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation.670 The country also arrested 143 suspected members and supporters of other banned terrorist and extremist organisations, including IS, AQ, JA and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Uzbekistan in April, security authorities revealed they had thwarted two attacks in 2020, without providing further details.671 Further rounds of arrests were also conducted across the country throughout 2021, disrupting several online recruitment and fund-raising cells particularly linked to KTJ.672 In June, Uzbek authorities detained members of two separate support cells in Jizzakh and Samarkand for trying to travel to Syria to join KTJ and propagating extremism among residents in these provinces.673 In the same month, police also held another 20 individuals from Sirdaryo on suspicion of distributing ‘extremist materials’, while seizing extremist literature, a laptop, pistol, and sniper rifle.674 As in previous years, no reporting was available from Turkmenistan.

Diaspora Radicalisation

The networking of Central Asian and Russian-speaking fighters on the ground in Syria and Iraq and the ability of such networks to reach out and radicalise some segments of Central Asian and Russian diaspora communities abroad, particularly in Europe and Russia, remains a security concern. In March 2021, investigators in France revealed that Abdoullakh Anzorov, a Chechen immigrant who murdered the French schoolteacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb, was in direct contact in October 2020 with Farrukh Fayzimatov, an Idlib-based Tajik militant, through Instagram right before the murder. Fayzimatov is an active member of HTS who goes by the nom de guerre “Faruq Shami,”675

While it remains unknown what role (if any) Fayzimatov might have played in Paty’s murder, Anzorov reportedly had regular discussions with him about jihadi topics. It also should be noted that Paty’s murder came a month after Fayzimatov called for an attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s offices, while expressing his own readiness to take part in it, in response to the republication of the controversial cartoon of Prophet Muhammad.676 An HTS spokesperson claimed that they did not know Anzorov, but stopped short of condemning the murder.677

Despite allegations that Fayzimatov might have been killed in Idlib, recent videos discussing battleground events in Syria indicate that he is still alive and continues working for HTS as an important virtual jihadist propagandist and fund-raiser. Since 2016, Fayzimatov has produced hundreds of audio and video propaganda materials in Russian and Tajik. In July 2021, the US Treasury Department blacklisted Fayzimatov for providing financial and material support to HTS.678 Through various online crowdfunding campaigns, Fayzimatov has apparently collected several thousand dollars in Bitcoin (BTC) and other cryptocurrencies transferred from multiple US, Russian, Asian and European exchanges.679

Like in recent years, Russian authorities in 2021 continued to investigate and arrest Central Asian migrants suspected of having links to terrorist or extremist groups. Most arrests involved cases of terrorism financing and recruitment as well as attack plots linked to members and supporters of KTJ in particular. For instance in August 2021, Russian security services rounded up 31 suspected members of KTJ in a coordinated operation across Moscow, Yakutsk, Krasnoyarsk and Novosibirsk.680 According to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the detainees were part of an “interprovincial structure of terrorists” that had transferred funds and recruits to Syria and called for committing terrorist crimes in Russia. However, it did not reveal how many of those detainees were from Central Asia.

Similar but smaller scale arrests of Central Asians in Russia with links to KTJ took place in February in Novosibirsk and Tomsk, in May in Kaliningrad, and in October in Moscow and Vladimir. Other frequent arrests involved members and supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) within this migrant community. HT is a transnational pan-Islamist and neo-fundamentalist revolutionary group, which has been banned in Russia and all Central Asian countries and designated an extremist and terrorist organisation. Similar arrests involving HT-linked individuals are conducted regularly in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan.

In previous years, concerns had been raised about a segment of the Central Asian diaspora networks in Europe having possible links to terrorist networks in the Syrian and Afghan conflict zones. In 2021, however, there were no major disruptions from this community. Previous cases, however, continue to work their way through the system, with police in Germany finally incarcerating a member of a Tajik cell detained in April 2020 for planning attacks on US military facilities, while posting charges against five of his associates.681 In January, a Greek court also refused an extradition request by Tajikistan against a 27-year-old individual accused of being an IS member. According to reports, the Tajik national, who was initially arrested in Tripoli in November 2020, had claimed the extradition request was politically motivated as he was the persecuted brother-in-law of an IRPT member.682

The case reflects an ongoing issue between Europe and Central Asia involving aspects of cooperation on counterterrorism, where European courts continue to accuse some countries in the region of alleged human rights abuses, which the latter have often refuted Still in other areas, it is notable that Central Asian states are providing some European powers, Germany and France in particular, a great deal of support, including supporting their evacuation of nationals and others stranded in Afghanistan. Beyond Europe, countries in the region have developed bilateral counter-terrorism cooperation, including the extradition of terrorist suspects, with countries such as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Responses

Broadly, state responses in Central Asia for managing extremism and radicalisation have stayed fairly constant. Governments maintain heightened security measures, while also working through international partnerships to disrupt militant networks. Concurrently, community-level programmes have been rolled out to counter-radicalisation. A major effort deployed (to varying degrees of success and commitment) across the region is the deradicalisation and reintegration of those repatriated from Syria.683 While no independent evaluations of these programmes exist, it is notable that no plot involving returnees has been publicly highlighted yet.

Over the past year, the major shift in the threat picture has been prompted by developments in Afghanistan. Despite shared concerns, the five Central Asian republics have adopted differing responses to the ground situation and the Taliban’s return. Most in the region have viewed the Taliban’s capture of power in Afghanistan as a new reality to contend with, and sought to develop pragmatic but cautious relations with the new authority in Kabul. For now, this pragmatic relationship has been confined to the delivery of humanitarian assistance, re-establishment of mutual trade and discussions on important security issues, including the Taliban’s future relationship with Central Asian militants in territory under its control.

Beyond this, it will likely extend to an establishment of diplomatic relations only after international recognition of the Taliban-led government is attained. Ashgabat was one of the first capitals to engage with the new Taliban government, publicly meeting with them repeatedly long before Kabul fell. During the closing weeks of the Republic government, Turkmenistan faced clashes directly on its borders; as soon as the Taliban took over, they rapidly re-engaged and commenced talks about restarting major infrastructure projects connecting Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Tashkent sees shutting off economic and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan as something which will only risk greater instability.684 The bigger question for Uzbekistan is the degree to which they will engage a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan into their vision for a greater Central Asia, which includes Afghanistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has placed great emphasis on his regional foreign policy initiative and, shortly before the fall of Kabul, hosted a large conference focused on Central and South Asian connectivity, with Afghanistan sitting at its core.

In contrast, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon has chosen to turn his country into the main home for opposition figures to the Taliban, hosting numerous elements from the Northern Alliance faction that used to dominate Kabul. Shortly after the Taliban’s takeover, President Rahmon signed a decree which posthumously awarded the country’s third highest honour, the Order of Ismoili Somoni, to Ahmed Shah Masood and Burhanuddin Rabbani, two dead leaders of the Northern Alliance who had fought against the Taliban and also played a role in Afghanistan’s brutal civil war.685 The awards have been followed by open and loud condemnation of the Taliban and a continuing willingness to back opposition groups.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have taken a more circumspect approach. While Kyrgyzstan in particular had suffered in the late 1990s from numerous large assaults by militants in the south with links to groups in Afghanistan, both countries have now established direct contact with the Taliban and largely accepted them as a new reality.686 Additionally, they seem keen to work both bilaterally and through regional structures like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to manage their responses.

Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s responses have also been bolstered by external military support, including from Russia. In the weeks before Kabul fell, Moscow held joint military exercises near both countries’ borders with Afghanistan. Russia has also sped up military sales, and sent military aid to the region. Mirroring its particular concerns, China undertook some limited joint exercises with Tajik Interior Ministry forces, and offered more support for Tajik border forces. China has also increased its diplomatic activity in Central Asia, though this reflects a wider range of concerns beyond just terrorism and extremism.

Outlook

The fate of Central Asian militants in Afghanistan will largely depend on the commitment, ability, and approach taken by the Taliban in dealing with foreign militants in the country. So far, the discussion around foreign militants has focused on western fears about AQ’s revival, the potential for the Taliban’s implacable adversary, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), to export terrorist violence or how the Taliban are managing the Uyghur contingent wanted by Beijing, believed to be in Afghanistan. Whilst historically, the Uyghur group has been close to the Central Asian militants fighting alongside the Taliban, the latter could now seek to decouple them, reflecting very different concerns in Beijing vis-a-vis Central Asia.687

In Syria, Central Asian fighters continue to play an active part in ongoing fighting, though it is not clear that their trajectory varies from that of HTS or the other remnant IS fighters on the ground. While the Central Asian governments continue to express a high degree of concern about the potential for terrorist violence to affect them, attacks are rare, and few indicators point to this changing soon. As in elsewhere, the spectre of foreign fighters returning home to launch terrorist attacks has not yet materialised, though they remain a concern for regional governments for the near to medium term.

The other key element involves the instances of Central Asians appearing in terrorist networks outside their region. While still an occasional occurrence, that Central Asian jihadist groups and ideologues continue to exploit – to varying degrees – online platforms, such as Telegram, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, to post and disseminate their extremist materials underscores their connection with the increasingly diffused diaspora. Sometimes, this has manifested in attacks around the world, though the degree of direction involved is not always clear (for example, the Samuel Paty murder). Instead, the continuing presence and spread of extremist materials, inspiring segments of the Central Asian diaspora, provide another reason for security officials to be concerned about them.

About the Authors

Nodirbek Soliev is a Senior Analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isnsoliev@ntu.edu.sg.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.

651 Attacks which have taken place have been linked elsewhere (for example, the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek was linked to Central Asian and Uyghur militants in Syria).

652 Further, it should be noted that sustained kinetic operations by the US-led international coalition has been another important factor in the decline of the militant threat in Afghanistan in the last decade as they had restrained the organisational capability of Central Asian groups, in addition to killing or capturing key jihadist leaders.

653 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 18, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486.

654 Rahmatullah Amiri and Ashley Jackson, “Taliban Narratives on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” Centre for the Study of Armed Groups Working Paper, September 2021, https://cdn.odi.org/media/documents/Taliban_narratives___13_Sept.pdf.

655 “Sovet Bezopasnosti OON: Taliban prodolzhayet pokrovitel’stvovat’ tsentral’noaziatskim dzhikhadistam,” The Center for Studying Regional Threats, March 19, 2021, https://crss.uz/2021/03/19/sovet-bezopasnostioon-taliban-prodolzhaet-pokrovitelstvovatcentralnoaziatskim-dzhixadistam/.

656 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

657 “Commander of Jamaat Ansarullah Radical Group Declares His Readiness to Invade Into Tajikistan,” Asia-Plus, October 7, 2021, https://asiaplustj.info/en/news/tajikistan/security/20211007/commander-of-jamaat-ansarullah-radical-group-declares-his-readiness-to-invadeinto-tajikistan.

658 “Tajikistan Concerned About Taliban Plots to Infiltrate From Afghanistan,” RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, September 25, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-concernedtaliban-plots/31477716.html.

659 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (June 1, 2021), 20.

660 Prior to the Taliban takeover, the IJU had about 100 fighters active in Faryab and Kunduz provinces. See “2002 god. Prednovogodniy terakt,” AKIpress, December 27, 2017, https://kg.akipress.org/news:628918.

661 HTS has involved these groups mainly in frontline duties, running checkpoints and offensives against the Syrian army.

662 United Nations Security Council, Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (February 3, 2021), 16, https://undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/68.

663 Charles Lister, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Fight for Supremacy in Northwest Syria and the Implications for Global Jihad,” CTC Sentinel 14, no. 7 (September 2021): 1-105, https://ctc.usma.edu/twenty-years-after-9-11-thefight-for-supremacy-in-northwest-syria-and-theimplications-for-global-jihad/.

664 “Zaderzhan kazakhstanets, kotorogo nazvali odnim iz samykh razyskivayemykh terroristov,” Tengrinews, February 20, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/world_news/zaderjankazahstanets-kotorogo-nazvali-odnim-samyih429572/.

665 “KNB raskryl lichnost’ samogo razyskivayemogo kazakhstantsa,” Sputnik, March 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kz/society/20210302/16427658/KNB-raskryl-lichnost-samogo-razyskivaemogokazakhstantsa.html.

666 “Chislo svyazannykh s ekstremizmom i terrorizmom prestupleniy vyroslo v Kazakhstane,” Tengrinews, September 3, 2021, https://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/chislosvyazannyih-ekstremizmom-terrorizmomprestupleniy-447516/.

667 “V Kyrgyzstane predotvratili terakt v voyskovoy chasti — GKNB,” Sputnik, January 2, 2021, https://ru.sputnik.kg/incidents/20210102/1050972720/kyrgyzstan-gknb-terakt-predotvraschenieterrorizm.html.

668 “V Kyrgyzstane zaderzhan boyevik, planirovavshiy sovershit’ terakt,” 24kg, July 16, 2021, https://24.kg/obschestvo/201365_vkyirgyizstane_zaderjan_boevik_planirovavshiy_sovershit_terakt/.

669 https://svodka.akipress.org/news:1736685

670 “MVD: v Tadzhikistane udalos’ predotvratit’ triterakta,” Sputnik, August 4, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210804/mvd-tajikistanterakt-1041398103.html.

671 “SGB predotvratila 2 terakta v Uzbekistane v 2020 godu,” Gazeta, April 5, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/04/05/securityservice/.

672 “V Syrdar’ye zaderzhany chleny terroristicheskoy gruppirovki “Katiba Taukhid val’-Dzhikhad,”” Podrobno, July 20, 2021, https://podrobno.uz/cat/obchestvo/v-syrdarezaderzhany-chleny-terroristicheskoy-gruppirovkikatiba-taukhid-val-dzhikhad-/.

673 “Zaderzhany 14 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v popytke primknut’ k boyevikam v Sirii,” Gazeta, June 11, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/11/terrorism/; “Jizzaxda Suriyadagi terrorchilik tashkiloti tarkibiga kirmoqchi bo’lgan shaxslar qo’lga olindi,” Daryo, June 15, 2021, https://daryo.uz/k/2021/06/15/jizzaxda-suriyadagiterrorchilik-tashkiloti-tarkibiga-kirmoqchi-bolganshaxslar-qolga-olindi/.

674 “20 chelovek, podozrevayemykh v ekstremizme, zaderzhano v Syrdar’ye,” Gazeta, June 17, 2021, https://www.gazeta.uz/ru/2021/06/17/extremists/.

675 Thomas Chammah, “Assassinat de Samuel Paty : le dernier contact du tueur identifie en Syrie,” CNews, March 10, 2021, https://www.cnews.fr/videos/france/2021-03-09/assassinat-de-samuel-paty-le-dernier-contactdu-tueur-identifie-en-syrie; “Posobnikom ubiytsy uchitelya vo Frantsii okazalsya urozhenets Tadzhikistana,” Sputnik Tajikistan, March 9, 2021, https://tj.sputniknews.ru/20210309/urozhenetstajikistan-soobschnik-terrorista-france1032967527.html.

676 “Kak spetssluzhby Ukrainy formiruyut rusofobskuyu povestku v siriyskom Idlibe,” RIA FAN, December 3, 2020, https://riafan.ru/1345935-kak-specsluzhbyukrainy-formiruyut-rusofobskuyu-povestku-vsiriiskom-idlibe. This came after a separate attempt in France by a young radicalized Pakistani who tried to kill two journalists outside Charlie Hebdo’s old offices.

677 Luc Mathieu, “Le Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, parrain syrien d’Anzorov?” Libération, October 23, 2020, https://advance.lexis.com/api/document?collection=news&id=urn:contentItem:6147-P9D1-JBW3-818W-00000-00&context=1516831. It is worth noting that in other contexts, HTS has been linked to attacks which it has kept silent about – like the 2017 metro bombing in St Petersburg which Russian investigators had linked to the group.

678 “Counter Terrorism Designations; Syria and Syria-Related Designations and Designations Updates,” July 28, 2021, https://home.treasury.gov/policy-issues/financialsanctions/recent-actions/20210728.

679 “OFAC Sanctions Syrian-Based Terrorist Financier and Associated Bitcoin Address,” TRM Labs, July 28, 2021, https://www.trmlabs.com/post/ofac-sanctionssyrian-based-hayet-tahrir-al-sham-terroristfinancier.

680 Roman Shimaev, “«Osushchestvlyali perepravku rekrutov v zony boyevykh deystviy»: FSB zaderzhala boleye 30 terroristov v chetyrokh regionakh Rossii,” Russia Today, August 25, 2021, https://russian.rt.com/russia/article/899393-fsb-zaderzhanie-terrorizm-yacheiki-regiony.

681 “Germany Charges Five Tajiks Over Islamic State Membership,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, February 15, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/germany-charges-fivetajiks-over-is-membership/31104482.html.

682 Yannis Souliotis, “Court Rejects Tajikistan’s Extradition Request for Alleged Jihadist,” Ekatheimerini, January 1, 2021 https://www.ekathimerini.com/news/261187/court-rejects-tajikistan-s-extradition-request-foralleged-jihadist/.

683 Kanymgul Elkeeva and Farangis Najibullah, “Central Asia Struggles to Reintegrate Islamic State Returnees,” RFE/RL, November 6, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/central-asia-islamic-staterepatriation/31548973.html.

684 Kamran Bokhari, “The Friend America Needs in Afghanistan,” The Wall Street Journal, November 1, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-friend-americaneeds-in-afghanistan-taliban-aid-diplomacyuzbekistan-11635708869.

685 “Tajikistan Posthumously Awards Afghans Masud, Rabbani With One of Country’s Highest Honors,” RFE/RL Tajik Service, September 2, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/tajikistan-masudrabbani-awards/31440569.html.

686 Bruce Pannier, “Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Open Channels With the Taliban,” Qishloq Ovozi, October 1, 2021 https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-kyrgyzstantaliban/31487684.html.

687 So far, it is hard to gauge the Taliban’s actions in this regard. Having won the war fighting alongside these militant groups, it may see little reason to betray them. There is also a danger in rejecting one group, as the others will immediately fear a similar betrayal in future, potentially stirring tensions within Taliban ranks.

Been very busy with other things of late and have entirely failed to post. As a result a short backlog has accumulated, while some bigger projects and issues elsewhere have kept me rather busy. Anyway: catching up now starting off with a piece for the South China Morning Post on China-Russia relations over events in Kazakhstan at the beginning of the year. Crazy to think how far we have come now with everyone’s attention firmly on Ukraine.

Why China won’t lose sleep over Russian troops in Kazakhstan

Suggestions of China-Russia rivalry for power in Central Asia miss the mark. In reality, while both are active in the region, their roles are more complementary than competitive

Russia is the de factor provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone wants to tap

The outbreak of violence in Kazakhstan has awakened the question of Sino-Russian competition in Central Asia. The assertion of Russian hard power is interpreted as being an example of Moscow getting the upper hand, to Beijing’s detriment.

Yet this analytical framework is unhelpful in really understanding the situation or the nature of the current China-Russia relationship. Beijing and Moscow have no reason to clash with each other over Kazakhstan. Rather, they will play the situation to their advantage and further freeze out the West from the Eurasian heartland.

China and Russia’s broad interests in Kazakhstan are the same. Both want a stable country that is in their collective economic and military thrall, and ideally with looser ties to the West.

China has the upper hand in economic terms, but this is partially because Kazakhstan is rich in the raw materials needed for the Chinese economy. In contrast, Russian firms see Kazakhstan as a state in which they can ply their trade, and to which they have easier access thanks to the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

Russian service members disembark from a military aircraft as part of a peacekeeping mission from the Collective Security Treaty Organisation amid mass protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities, at an airfield in Kazakhstan. This still image is from a video released by Russia’s Defence Ministry on January 8. Photo: Handout via Reuters

In strategic security terms, Russia has long had bases in Kazakhstan. The arrival of Russian forces under a Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) banner is new – both in terms of Russian deployments in Kazakhstan and in a first for the CSTO. But it is not clear how or why this might be a challenge to China.

Beijing has not expressed an interest in deploying its forces in Kazakhstan. China and Kazakhstan have done training exercises together, but these have been limited and done either bilaterally (mostly on counterterrorism questions) or under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), of which Russia is also a member.

Beijing has pressured the Kazakh government to do something about dissident networks of Uygurs, and it has in the past sought to get permission for its private security companies to operate in the country. While the Kazakh government was willing to accede to the first request, they were unwilling to let Chinese private security firms in.

None of China’s activity has been about competing with Russia. China is consistently focused on its specific interests in Kazakhstan.

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Containers are loaded onto a train to Kazakhstan in the China-Kazakhstan Logistic Base in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, on September 17 last year. The base is an important seaport for Kazakhstan export and provides efficient transit for cargo and consumer goods from the Central Asian country. Photo: EPA-EFE

Where there was a possible overlap in competition with Russia was on military sales, with Chinese firms having sold high-end weapons to the Kazakh government, like drones, some air and missile systems, as well as technological surveillance and communications tools. It is, of course, possible that these arms sales are depriving Russian companies of contracts, but Kazakh purchasing is done on the basis of quality and price, rather than Beijing trying to edge Moscow out of Kazakhstan.

In fact, China is happiest when someone else is dealing with Central Asian security questions. In the immediate fallout from the collapse of the government in Afghanistan, it was not Chinese soldiers or weapons that were rushed to Central Asian borders, but Russian ones.

On the economic side, Russian companies are active in Central Asia, but cannot compete with their Chinese counterparts, whose appetites are on a different scale.

Similarly, the almost bottomless Chinese consumer market is something that Central Asian producers are increasingly keen to have access to. The entire economic geography of this region is being pulled towards China not because of geopolitics, but because of its sheer economic weight.

The “Silk Road economic belt” strand of the Belt and Road Initiative, which cuts through Central Asia, also ties Russia into China’s wider vision of global prosperity. Consequently, Moscow has little interest in complicating it; rather, it is focused on ensuring it benefits as well.

The point being, this is not a competitive relationship. Beijing and Moscow are both active in Central Asia, but are different actors on the ground. Russia is the de facto provider of security guarantees, while China is the economic opportunity everyone (including Russia) wants to tap.

Seeing this through the lens of competition suggests that Beijing would rather be the one who is stepping in to provide security guarantees, and that Moscow is somehow going to push China out economically. There is little evidence in either capital that this goal is in play. Rather, they both seem happy to operate in parallel, playing a supportive rhetorical role and staying out of each other’s way.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures during his videoconference with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow on December 15 last year. Photo: Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The question is in the medium to longer term – when China starts to worry about being dependent on Russian security guarantees.

At the moment, Beijing seems comfortable. But, at some point, this thinking may change. In many other places, China has increasingly started to try to provide its own security guarantees, and there is no reason to think this might not also take place in Central Asia.

On the other side of the coin, the tipping point for Russia is likely to be when Chinese economic investment into Central Asia starts to turn into unfettered Chinese economic influence and power in Russia directly.

But this concern appears to be receding, as Moscow seems to increasingly welcome and open up its economy to Chinese investment and connections – in large part due to tensions with the West.

But none of this is about Kazakhstan. Rather, this is about China and Russia’s larger posturing and view of their respective roles in the world. Within this context, Beijing is happy if Moscow is going to play a role in tidying up what looks like an increasingly messy bout of political infighting in Kazakhstan, while Moscow is pleased to be seen as the regional security guarantor.

In contrast to many other situations involving China, this is a win-win for them both.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

With this piece I finally catch up to current events in my writing on Central Asia. I realize have been writing a lot about it late last year, and thus far don’t think events have vastly disproved what I wrote. Certainly, did not predict things, but then no-one really did. This short piece for my UK institutional home RUSI in the wake of events in Kazakhstan has I think stood reasonably well so far, but it remains still to be seen what the longer-term impact of events in Kazakhstan at the end of the year might be.

Kazakhstan in Crisis: It’s About the Country, Not Big Power Politics

The true significance of current events in Central Asia’s biggest country remains domestic.

Protests in the Kazakh city of Aktobe, 4 January 2022. Courtesy of Esetok / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The sudden and chaotic start to the year in Kazakhstan has taken even the most seasoned Central Asia watchers by surprise. The extreme and widespread violence and protests have been made even more shocking by the extraordinary decision of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to request the deployment of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) to help bring stability back to the country. Given wider global tensions with Russia, the prospect of a Russian-led military deployment in the country has been interpreted through the lens of Russian geopolitics and President Vladimir Putin’s aspirations, but this misses the degree to which this is about events in Kazakhstan.

Well-Concealed Cracks

For years, Kazakhstan has been considered among the most stable and prosperous of the belt of countries surrounding modern Russia. Endowed with enormous mineral wealth, the country seemed to be tacking a very different path. Autocratic and ruled largely by the same group who had been in power at the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan’s elites had also used their wealth to foster a growing middle class, which included large numbers of smart young Kazakhs whose education was paid for to help the country develop. Glittering events and buildings showcased the country to the world as a very different sort of post-Soviet state.

Yet, cracks existed beneath this façade. The ruling class was dogged by tales of massive corruption. Protests would periodically emerge, a sign of deep unhappiness in parts of the country that had not benefitted in the same way as the capital city. But the country was also home to a thriving NGO community and an active (if controlled) media, and was considered a place where a certain degree of openness was permitted. The government would tolerate some dissent, but would ensure that it never challenged its authority.

This generally positive trajectory clearly masked a more brittle structure than was generally thought. While regional watchers were unsurprised by the violence that marred Kyrgyzstan’s elections in October 2020 – the latest in a sadly long history of such violence – the sudden and widespread protests and subsequent violence in Kazakhstan have come as a shock. While it remains to be seen how organised any of it has been, there seems little doubt that underpinning it all is a deep well of local anger.

Botched Handling of Crisis

Part of this can be seen in the government’s initial reaction. Recognising what was happening needed a dramatic response. President Tokayev initially responded by removing from power the cadre of officials linked to the country’s founding President Nursultan Nazarbayev who were blamed for much of the corruption and inequality in the country. The father of the nation who had shepherded his country out of the Russian-Soviet yoke, Nazarbayev had formally stepped down as president in January 2019, handing over the reins of power to Tokayev – a longstanding member of his close cabinet. President Nazarbayev retained his influence, however, including as Chairman of the powerful National Security Council. His family and allies continued to control key parts of the country’s wealth and hold great power. The smooth transfer to Tokayev, however, was praised, although it was never entirely clear how much had actually changed.

Yet Tokayev’s sop to the protestors did not work. Pictures emerged from around the country of police putting down their weapons and joining the protestors. The decision to remove Karim Massimov, a close ally of Nazarbayev, from his role as head of the National Security Council showed how little faith Tokayev had in his own security forces, while also firmly cementing the removal of Nazarbayev’s cadre from the central leadership.

Pulling Out All the Stops

Hence, the decision to call in the CSTO. Fearing that the chaos in the country was escalating out of control and that his own security forces would not hold muster, it is clear that Tokayev felt he needed an external hand to help steady the ship. Russia initially seemed to dismiss the issues in Kazakhstan, with presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov telling the media ‘we are convinced that our Kazakh friends can independently solve their internal problems’. The Kremlin also warned others not to interfere in Kazakhstan, while various Russian commentators took this one step further and accused the US of being involved in instigating the trouble in Kazakhstan.

While the subsequent Russian action in sending its forces into Kazakhstan as part of the CSTO mission seems to entirely contradict these Kremlin statements, it is a response to events on the ground and requests from Kazakh authorities. This is not an informal invasion, or a way for Russia to firmly embed itself in Kazakhstan to draw the country back under Moscow’s sway. The truth is that Kazakhstan will always likely be tied to Moscow, no matter who is in charge. The country is bound through treaties, geography, infrastructure and population to Russia. Whoever is in power in Nursultan will have to have a good working relationship with Moscow. And while there has undoubtedly been a growth in anti-Russian sentiment in the country over the past few years as the government has sought to develop its own national identity and pride, Moscow is still an important partner (and locals tend to be even more sceptical of other partners like the US or China).

And even if Kazakhstan were to choose a different path, it would likely be towards China. In fact, both Nazarbayev and Tokayev have sought instead to strike a path between Russia and China, leveraging Kazakhstan’s natural wealth to foster an independent, ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy which attempts to stay somewhere in between the two (and even close to the West, where possible – Europe and the US are important economic partners for Kazakhstan).

Implications

Clearly, the credibility of this narrative is now in question. But this should not be interpreted as the success of Russian adventurism. Rather, it should be seen as a reflection of realities on the ground in a country whose government clearly did not appreciate the depth of its people’s unhappiness, which was playing out some complicated internal politics and which was always likely to rely on its traditional security partner, Russia, to play a supportive role in extremis.

The world should not be confused by the tweeting of Russian commentators in the West and meddlesome pro-Kremlin commentators in Moscow – echoed by parts of the Chinese state media – who suggest a larger plot which encompasses Ukraine and Belarus and falls into the geopolitical confrontation between Russia/China and the West. These events are about Kazakhstan.

This is not mere sophistry. For, if the events are seen only through the lens of confrontation between the West and Russia, then current developments could lead Kazakhstan to turn away from the Western direction it has kept trying to steer itself towards. If, however, the emphasis is placed on the issues underpinning the violence in the first place and efforts are focused on persuading the government to try to actually address those problems, it is possible that a better outcome can be found.

Of course, this will be hugely complicated by the presence of Russian forces under the CSTO banner. And it is possible that we will discover the levels of violence that took place over the past few days will fundamentally change things on the ground. But Kazakhstan is a country whose natural wealth and confidence does give it options – even if, at least for the moment, it seems to have taken the wrong ones.

It is a new year and there is a lot going on, something that I mean in every way. A lot of big projects landing this year, as well as various substantial papers. That on top of stuff in life in general means it is going to be very busy, and it seems as though posting material on here has already fallen foul of my scheduling! Am going to try to catch up slowly on myself, but have quite a few bits to do. Am also going to try to get back to posting my media comment highlights as well, but that is going to be an adventure for another day. First of all, a piece for the ever wonderful Nikkei Asian Review which ran back in early December before the current chaos in Kazakhstan. I have a lot more on those events which will come in due course, and of course all of this China-Central Asia writing is hopefully whetting your appetite for the forthcoming book, Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, which should be landing in April this year (and if you are so minded, can be pre-ordered here). A lot more on this to come as you can imagine.

Ties that bind Kazakhstan to China are starting to unravel

Frustrations with Beijing are becoming increasingly visible

Nursultan Nazarbayev, right, and Xi Jinping attend a news briefing after signing bilateral documents in Astana in September 2013: Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they once were.   © Reuters

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of the forthcoming “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire (Oxford University Press, April 2022).”

When President Xi Jinping launched China’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, he chose to do it in the Kazakhstan capital of Astana, where the concept of connectivity with China has been playing out for years.

Since then, Astana has changed its name to Nursultan, and Kazakhstan’s view on its connections to China is not as rosy as they were when the Silk Road Economic Belt was launched.

Among the countries that most warmly welcomed the Belt and Road Initiative, Kazakhstan had already been embracing Chinese investment for some time. A year after Xi’s speech, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev inaugurated his own national vision Nurly Zhol, or Bright Path, which consciously sought to build on what was then called the Silk Road Economic Belt that President Xi had announced in Astana. Kazakhstan predicated its national development on China’s new foreign policy vision.

Yet, nearly a decade later, Kazakhstan is finding binding itself tightly to Beijing comes with as many problems as benefits.

Some of these issues are long-standing. In mid-November, Kazakh authorities reported that the water level in Lake Balkhash will fall to a critical point by 2040 unless something urgent is done, in particular at the consumer end of the river Ile in China. Kazakh authorities are developing plans, but most of them involve requiring China to curb its water consumption. Shrinking aquifers are not a new problem, but it has a growing urgency.

This is not the only waterway that Kazakhstan has problems with. Its shared rivers with Russia and Uzbekistan also suffer from similar problems, but the Chinese water consumption is causing the drying up of a critical lake.

But while too much Kazakh water is flowing into China, not enough Kazakh goods are. According to Kazakh data, between January and September 2021, food exports to China dropped 78%.

By March, a bottleneck of some 12,000 railcars had accumulated, and long queues of trucks were stopped at the border as stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in at the same rate as they were before.

Trains loaded with containers at the Altynkol railway station near the border with China in Kazakhstan, pictured on Oct. 26: stringent Chinese COVID-19 regulations prevented Kazakh products from getting in.   © Reuters

To the extreme irritation of Kazakh producers, transit traffic passing through Kazakhstan to and from China is facing no such delays. In fact, transit traffic has increased. This would seem to violate a key Belt and Road concept, which is supposed to be all about improving trade and connectivity among China’s neighbors first and foremost.

Another aspect of the Belt and Road idea that Central Asian nations have always liked is the idea that as manufacturing got priced out of China, production would move into their countries.

While Kazakhstan was never going to be that attractive for low-end manufacturers, the country did hope to reap some benefit from China’s economic boom, not just in terms of trade but helping its economy advance, and succeed in attracting some Chinese companies across the border.

Beijing’s decision to crack down on cryptocurrency mining has offered an unexpected opportunity for this transfer. Since China moved to shut down bitcoin mining in May, a substantial number of Chinese companies migrated to Kazakhstan, attracted by the country’s tech-friendly policies and cheap electricity.

However, these miners’ electricity consumption was too much for the Kazakh national grid to bear, forcing them to request more electricity from neighboring Russia that has created a new set of tensions with Moscow. This unexpected surge in demand for electricity is not the sort of technology transfer Kazakhstan was hoping for.

There is an element to which blaming all of these problems on the BRI is unfair. Geography can often be seen as the root issue. Similar issues are less relevant in more distant BRI countries. But at the same time, it does show the dangers of being overdependent on China, and how abrupt changes within China can have destabilizing consequences on countries that are heavily dependent. It also quite clearly undermines the win-win narrative often painted at the heart of BRI.

While Beijing continues to show a positive face with Kazakhstan, they have also let the country fall foul of the narratives stirred up during the pandemic. When Moscow started to spread stories that COVID-19 may have emerged from laboratories in Kazakhstan that the U.S. had supported after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Beijing fanned the flames.

And when a series of articles emerged in the Chinese media suggesting Kazakhstan was, in fact, a historical part of China, leading to an uproar on Kazakh social media, the Chinese embassy in Nursultan did not apologize and instead blamed it all on the West.

All of this for the country where President Xi launched his keynote foreign policy initiative and which has eagerly embraced China as an economic, security and cultural partner.

In some ways, Kazakhstan had no choice, forced by geography to be bound to China. But it is slowly finding that the ties that BRI fosters are not necessarily ones that deliver as you expect.