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Central Asia

Turkmenistan- a brand in the making?

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Turkmenistan can be labeled as the most traditional society in the Caspian area. As a country, somewhere between historical tribalism and current authoritarianism, Turkmenistan has yet to establish a clear image of itself beyond state borders.

With the power change in 2007, following the death of the former president-for-life Niyazov, many political analysts claim Turkmenistan entered a new era of alternated and to some extent softened internal politics, accompanied with the process of establishing the country`s image on the international stage, as a reassuring sign of the country`s willingness to open up to the world.

Turkmenistan is also one of the most homogenous countries of Central Asia and is fiercely proud of its traditions and culture. Turkmen people are well known for their generosity and hospitality, as witnessed by the growing number of tourists in the country. Besides the many historical and cultural sights the country can offer, some even protected as UNESCO world heritage sites, along with the famous authentic horse breed Akhali- Teke and world renowned rugs, one of the well-known ones is definitely the so called Door to hell, a burning natural gas field in the middle of the Karakum desert, burning continuously after being lit by the Soviet petroleum engineers back in 1971. More vivid tourism activity in the future would arguably benefit the soft power of the country, but for now remains only one possible future outcome. Many prospective tourists are namely deterred by the very strict visa regime.

This seems to be perpetually more and more understood by the Turkmenistan regime that is looking for ways to diversify and strengthen the soft power tools of the country. After being somewhat isolated for a long period of time, this goal seems a bit distant for now, but there are signs of setting the course for different trends in the future. For example, with a new mega-project named “Avaza National Touristic Zone”, which started back in 2009, country wishes to establish a chain of hotels, entertainment structure and casinos to transform the area by the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan Las Vegas in the next decade. First important international event was held there last year, when 12th of August was marked as “The day of the Caspian Sea” and the ceremony was attended by the diplomatic delegations of Caspian littoral countries and representatives from Asia Development Bank, World Bank, UNDP, OSCE and German Society for International Cooperation. Accompanied conferences on the ecological issues of the Caspian Sea were also held.

Besides tourism attractions and renowned hospitality of local people, Turkmenistan has various other means to help boost the soft power country has in international community, which is for now still to a large extent power in the making. One of them is certainly expanding and enlarging the prospects for (still very careful and monitored) cooperation with international scientific community on various topics, but most prolifically on the cultural identity of peoples, dialogue of civilizations and preserving the national heritage. Most of the international scholarly mingling is still being held inside the Turkmenistan state borders, for example, in 2015 only we can list almost 30 different international exhibitions and conferences on vastly different array of topics, from sports, trade, tourism, art to gas and oil. This can be identified as the first step towards a broader and more prolific international engagement.

Turkmenistan is also very proud of its neutral foreign policy and is highlighting their direction of positive neutrality in international relations as many times as possible. The regime proclaimed the year 2015 as the Year of Peace and Neutrality and President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov was promoting this brand in a series of official visits to Austria, Italia and Slovenia, in addition to exploring possibilities for energy cooperation with the selected countries.

One of the most fruitful cooperations and arguably an additional display of attention the soft power tactics have in the country`s establishment is the relationship with Germany. Bilateral cultural links include Turkmen- German Forum and the Turkmen- German Cultural Institute, founded for attaining the goal of closer ties between the countries` people. The latter is based in Cologne, Germany, with a special endeavor of promoting Turkmen culture and cultural heritage in Germany and concentrating on creating and enhancing ties between Turkmen and German artists, poets, sportsmen and students by organizing events, festivals and exhibitions. Similar events were held this year in May in Zagreb, Croatia and in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan titled “Days of the Turkmenistan Culture”, presenting work from various Turkmenistan artists, poets, singers and musicians.

In addition to substantial cultural exchange there were also events, focusing on the economics. One was the so called “The Day of Turkmenistan Economy in France”, held last year in Paris and an economic forum in Ashgabat, titled “The Day of the German Economy in Turkmenistan”, attended by some 350 people, including representatives from around 90 German companies. Germany is arguably the biggest European presence in Turkmenistan with businesses in oil and textile industry, healthcare, communication, transportation and agriculture. With the current (ongoing) desire of the EU to diversify its energy supply chain, the significance of bond between Germany, as one of the leading countries of the EU, and Turkmenistan is even more important.

If Turkmenistan is a country somewhere between tribalism and authoritarianism, then its energy policy is somewhere in between soft and hard power tactics. Traditionally, the buyer of the Turkmen gas was Russia, which left the country with little maneuvering space. After a dispute with Gazprom on the prices and quantity of the purchased Turkmen gas, which reached its high in an explosion on the common pipeline infrastructure in 2009 that the Turkmen authority labeled as a deliberate act of technical sabotage, Turkmenistan had to reduce its gas production and distribution, causing a big hole in the country`s budget. Consequently, Turkmenistan started looking east and west to diversify its options, making China the number 1 supplier of its gas and vocally lobbying for the Trans- Caspian Pipeline, also supported by Azerbaijan, which is very intriguing for European markets.

Here, we enter another important loop for Turkmenistan; the not yet agreed upon border limitation on the energy-rich Caspian Sea. The clearly marked borders between the five littoral states would immensely strengthen the negotiating position of the country when closing and proposing new gas deals to potential buyers, be it Iran, China or the EU. Therefore, we can mark the latest alleged agreement on the maritime border between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan as a great success for both.

Relationship with Kazakhstan can be described as the warmest of all the Caspian states with countries having good railroad and highway infrastructural connectivity. Arguably, the toughest issue with demarcating the border has been between Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan and this issue has pitted the countries against each- other since the 1990s. It reached a very hostile stage in 2001, when the rhetoric on both sides implied gestures aiming at military threats and the leadership of both countries publicly accusing each other of illegal exploration, development and/or operation on the disputed oil fields, in addition to violation of territorial waters with military and non- military vessels. Situation worsened with Baku purchasing two American military boats, which was viewed as a provocation on the Turkmen side and ignited the arms race between the countries, the only significant time Turkmenistan applied somewhat hard power tactics since becoming independent. Luckily, in 2003 and 2004 the situation shifted towards efforts for the diplomatic solution, but the countries have yet to find a satisfactory long-term answer to these pending issues, which is also of great importance for the feasibility of the Trans- Caspian Pipeline. Armed conflict seems unlikely though, especially (but not exclusively) because of the Turkmenistan devotion to its policy of positive neutrality. So hard power in any sense of the word, both economic and especially military, is not a viable option for Turkmenistan.

After years of isolation, the new president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov is making great efforts to increase the ties Turkmenistan has with the outside world. Mainly, we have to mention the relationship and regional cooperation with Central Asian states, Russia and many high level commercial ties and political visits to China. Additionally important are financial investments from Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Turkmenistan has to carefully balance out the potential islamization spill-over effect within the country`s (preferred secular) borders. Also very crucial are the ties with neighboring Afghanistan, where Turkmenistan is helping with the reconstruction process, investing in schools, hospitals and other vital infrastructure projects, providing electricity and issuing grants for Afghan students to study on Turkmenistan university programs. Turkmenistan also, although staying loyal to its neutral status, enhanced its activities inside the Commonwealth of Independent States, cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer member and within NATO infrastructure as a Partnership- for- Peace country.

Arguably then, with the new leadership, Turkmenistan is reforming its relationship with the broader international community and trying to establish a specific kind of brand for the country and its internationally- recognized image. With enhanced relationship with various countries, Turkmenistan is hoping to enhance its soft power capabilities, which could result in more prolific FDIs to important infrastructure and technological projects and the reinforcing of the negotiating power when it comes to pipeline diplomacy for country`s rich energy resources. We have yet to witness the success and outreach of the changes in Turkmenistan and whether or not they represent a successful tactic for deviating away from the isolationistic status the country was confined in for a significant amount of time.

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Central Asia

Kazakh court case tests Chinese power

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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A Kazakh court is set to put to the test China’s ability to impose its will and strongarm Muslim nations into remaining silent about its brutal crackdown on Turkic Muslims in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

The court will hear an appeal by a former worker in one of Xinjiang’s multiple re-education camps against the rejection of her request for asylum. The appeal illustrates the political quagmire faced by Central Asian nations and Turkey given their ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties to China’s estimated 11 million Turkic Muslims that include 1.5 million people of Kazakh descent.

It also highlights China’s risky bet on being able to leverage its economic power to ensure the Muslim world’s silence about what amounts to the most concerted effort in recent history to reshape Muslim religious practice.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have, according to the United Nations, been detained in a network of re-education camps in which they are being forced to accept the superiority of Chinese Communist Party beliefs and the leadership of President Xi Jinping above the precepts of Islam.

Beyond the camps, Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, a strategic minerals-rich province bordering on eight Central and South Asian nations that China has turned into a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state, are forced to refrain from religious practice and custom in public.

After denying the existing of the camps for the longest period of time, China last month felt obliged to acknowledge them and give them legal cover.

Authorities in Xinjiang amended their anti-extremism regulations “to allow local governments to set up institutions to provide people affected by extremist thoughts with vocational skills training and psychological counselling.” China asserts that the crackdown is intended to counter extremism, separatism and terrorism.

China’s acknowledgement was designed to counter the UN report, threats of US sanctions against officials and companies involved in the Xinjiang crackdown, and revelations by 41-year-old Sayragul Sauytbay, a Chinese national of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay testified in an open Kazakh court that she had been employed in a Chinese re-education camp for Kazakhs only that had 2,500 inmates. She said she was aware of two more such camps reserved for Kazakhs.

Ms. Sauytbay was standing trial for entering Kazakhstan illegally after having been detained at China’s request.

She told the court that she had escaped to Kazakhstan after being advised by Chinese authorities that she would never be allowed to join her family because of her knowledge of the camps. Ms. Sauytbay was given a six-month suspended sentence and released from prison to join her recently naturalized husband and children.

Since then, Ms. Sauytbay’s application for asylum has been rejected and she has until the end of October to leave Kazakhstan. She hopes that an appeal court will reverse the rejection.

Ms. Sauytbay’s case puts the Kazakh government between a rock and a hard place and is but one of a string of recent cracks in the Muslim wall of silence.

Kazakh authorities have to balance a desire to kowtow to Chinese demands with a growing anti-Chinese sentiment that demands that the government stand up for its nationals as well as Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent.

Ms. Sauytbay’s revelations that ethnic Kazakhs were also targeted in the Chinese crackdown sparked angry denunciations in Kazakhstan’s parliament.

“There should be talks taking place with the Chinese delegates. Every delegation that goes there should be bringing this topic up… The key issue is that of the human rights of ethnic Kazakhs in any country of the world being respected,” said Kunaysh Sultanov, a member of parliament and former deputy prime minister and ambassador to China.

In a further crack, Malaysia this week released 11 Uyghurs who were detained after having escaped detention in Thailand.

The Uyghurs were allowed to leave the country for Turkey. The move, coming in the wake of a decision by Germany and Sweden to suspend deportations of Uyghurs to China, puts on the spot countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, where Uyghurs risk extradition.

Malaysia’s release of the Uyghurs occurred days before Anwar Ibrahim took the first hurdle in becoming the country’s next prime minister by this weekend winning a parliamentary by election.

Mr. Ibrahim last month became the Muslim world’s most prominent politician to speak out about the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Earlier, Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad’s Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Bersatu) party and head of its Policy and Strategy Bureau, cautioned that “that geographical proximity cannot be taken advantage by China to ride roughshod over everything that Malaysia holds dear, such as Islam, democracy, freedom of worship and deep respect for every country’s sovereignty… On its mistreatment of Muslims in Xinjiang almost en masse, Malaysia must speak up, and defend the most basic human rights of all.”

Pakistan’s Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony minister, Noorul Haq Qadri, was forced to raise the issue of Turkic Muslims with Chinese ambassador Yao Xing under pressure from Pakistanis whose spouses and relatives had been detained in the Xinjiang crackdown.

Ms. Sauytbay’s appeal for asylum is likely to refocus public opinion in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian nations on the plight of their Turkic brethren.

She will not be deported, we will not allow it,” said Ms. Sauytbay’s lawyer, Abzal Kuspanov.

Mr. Kuspanov’s defense of Ms. Sauytbay is about far more than the fate of a former Chinese re-education camp employee. It will serve as a barometer of China’s ability to impose its will. If China succeeds, it will raise the question at what price. The answer to that is likely to only become apparent over time.

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Why the upcoming Congress of the Leaders of World is so vital for peace and prosperity

Kassym-Jomart Tokayev

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Religion has been, and remains, an immense spiritual force for good in our world. The shared values which underpin all world’s major faiths have positively moulded how we treat each other. Religious beliefs give direction, comfort and hope to billions of people.

Religious communities appear to have enormous potential for addressing today’s social problems. Faith groups across the globe are prominent in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and caring for the vulnerable.  Our world would be poorer without the impact of religion on our lives.

Throughout history, religion has also been exploited to sow divisions. Instead of bringing people together and encouraging them to behaving decently toward each other, it has been abused to fuel suspicions and hatred, spread confusion about the true essence of religion. We are facing the problem of ignoring what religions have in common and exaggerating and distorting the difference between, and at times within, faiths.

The abuse of religion continues and is undermining hopes for peace and progress. In recent years, many thousands have died and millions more had to flee their homes in conflicts, in which religion has been used to justify discrimination and violence. Countering these dangerous distortions is one of the challenges that religious leaders should address.

There is no single answer. Yet at the heart of the solution is dialogue between religions to foster understanding and respect. This is an overarching aim of the Congress of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions which is to be held for the sixth time in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana this month (October.)

The Congress was initiated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev amid the growing religious tensions and extremism following the 9/11 terrorist attack in the United States. He believed it was critical that the opportunity be provided for religious leaders to work together to prevent religion being used to divide us.

His vision has struck a chord across the world. The Congress, which takes place every three years since 2003 has engaged prominent religious leaders and politicians from different countries around most pressing issues. By 2015, the number of delegations attending had increased from 23 to 80. High-profile attendees included then UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, King Abdullah of Jordan and President of Finland Sauli Niinistö. Discussions centred on the role of religion in promoting development and measures to reduce appeal of violent extremism among young people.

The Sixth Congress, which takes place on October 10-11, will build on this efforts. Its focus is on how religious leaders can work together to play their full part in creating a secure world and prevent faith being abused to set people against each other.

Located at a crossroads of different civilizations, Kazakhstan has placed greater importance on promoting religious harmony and mutual respect. Our country’s history and geography have combined to create a society in which people of many different backgrounds and faiths live within single boundaries. Religious freedom has become a precious asset of our nation, which allows diverse beliefs to peacefully coexist and helps us to negotiate any concerns in a constructive spirit.

Such a mixture could have been, as it has been the case in other countries, a worrying source of tension and conflict. Despite negative expectations such diversity has been turned into a strength in our society where citizens are equally respected and are able to make their full contribution to the common welfare.

As a matter of fact, while Kazakhstan’s population may be largely Muslim, followers of all traditional faiths live in harmony with each other, are free to worship and enjoy equal rights guaranteed by the constitution. It is a source not only of national pride but has also been an indispensable platform for our stability and prosperity at home and growing influence abroad.

In this turbulent world, dialogue and mutual respect has never been more important. Nor has it been more critical to provide the forum where religious and political leaders can work together to prevent any distortion of faith for violent ends. The upcoming Congress is so vital for peace and prosperity.

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Central Asia

Reforms Can Accelerate Economic Diversification in Kazakhstan

MD Staff

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Kazakhstan’s future growth depends on reforms that provide a level playing field for the private sector and support economic diversification, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) Country Diagnostic Study launched today.

The study, Kazakhstan: Accelerating Economic Diversification, identifies the most binding constraints to growth and provides in-depth analysis of structural reforms that will bring the country to its growth potential. The report finds that consistent and successful reform efforts can add an average of 1.2 percentage points per year to Kazakhstan’s gross domestic product.

“Kazakhstan needs to accelerate structural reforms to support the country’s economic diversification,” said ADB Country Director for Kazakhstan Mr. Giovanni Capannelli. “These reforms include improving the country’s business climate, enhancing competitiveness, and increasing private sector participation in the economy.”

Kazakhstan’s economy has transformed since its independence in 1991, mainly due to a surge in oil and gas exports. While the country achieved middle-income status in 2006, the downturn of oil and other commodity prices in 2014 exposed the country’s vulnerability to external shocks and constrained government revenues.

Future growth will depend on identifying sectors in which Kazakhstan has a strong growth potential, according to the study. These include food processing, basic metals, and chemicals. In agriculture, redirecting subsidies toward investment in infrastructure, improving access to finance, and promoting innovation can substantially boost productivity. Greater investment in infrastructure is essential to provide a link to unexploited markets, decrease transport costs, and support the production of tradable goods. Transit trade has a large growth potential, while increasing the efficiency of transport infrastructure can generate additional growth from other tradable sectors such as manufacturing, the report said.

ADB began supporting Kazakhstan in 1994 and has since approved over $5 billion in sovereign loans, nonsovereign loans, and guarantees. ADB operations in Kazakhstan are helping open up transport routes, foster private enterprise, address inequalities, promote inclusive growth, and deliver knowledge products and services. ADB also contributes to Kazakhstan’s participation in the Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program.

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