Kazakhstan, in an attempt to build its reputation as mediator and the leading country in Central Asia, is seeking a position on the 15-member nonpermanent United Nations Security Council for 2017-2018.
Kazakhstan outlined its global priorities for its position on the prestigious governing and security body via the “Kazakhstan: United Nations Security Council 2017-2018” web site. Kazakhstan’s priorities are: food security, water security, energy security and nuclear security. The campaign for Kazakhstan’s seat for 2017-2018 launched in September 2014; the Government of Kazakhstan declared its candidacy for the seat on 1 June 2010. A promotional video was also released in late 2013.
The four priorities are vital to the stability of the Central Asia states particularly the issue of water security as the Aral Sea is nearly depleted and diplomatic spats between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan over water resources and the Rogun Dam. Water and energy security are the most prominent as the Central Asia states are primarily land locked developing countries and are resource rich. Many attempts have been made by Kazakhstan to rectify this issue through agreements: Concerning Use of Water and Energy Resources in Syr Darya River Basin (1998); A Kazakh-Chinese Joint Commission on the Use and Protection of Transboundary Rivers has been founded to regulate the use of water resources with China and resuscitating the Aral Sea. Kazakhstan’s Working Paper for the UNSC is already available on Kazakhstan’s UNSC website.
Kazakhstan’s current international commitments (even if unmet) and current programs are consistent with UNSC priorities: Initiated the Congress of Leaders and Traditional Religions, Launched the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), and held the chairmanship of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010.
Kazakhstan maximizes the benefits of high-profile positions in seemingly low-level and weak organizations and committees. While the Chairmanship of the OSCE should not be downplayed— as Kazakhstan is a consolidated autocracy and the first former Soviet Republic to hold the position— the OSCE has been perceived as weak and unable to enforce its mandate and compliance. The organization failed to hold countries accountable for their human rights violations and make headway on transparency. Having a human rights violator (Kazakhstan) as the lead for Europe’s primary watchdog group was expected to damage the OSCE’s reputation. Kazakhstan’s location in a “rough neighborhood” made Kazakhstan a great candidate “to advance the organization’s mandate, invigorate efforts to settle existing conflicts, and generate discussions on important security, economic, and human development matters” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Kazakhstan’s legacy was adding a “Eurasian dimension,” by “highlighting security problems stemming from the Afghan conflict, potential failed states, destabilizing economic and environmental problems, and vexing human rights issues.”
Kazakhstan has failed to implement the principles of OSCE and its own commitments. Human rights in Kazakhstan before and after the OSCE chairmanship were poor. Journalists continued to be jailed, freedom of speech and religion is restricted, and the government imprisons human rights defenders and activists. After Kazakhstan’s 2010 chairmanship, the country struggles to consolidate democratic reforms, create a multi-political party system, guarantee freedom of press/speech and human and political rights for all. Arbitrary detention is still rampant despite the government passing the National Prevention Mechanism on Torture in 2014 according to Human Rights Watch. Laws established to support human rights are sophistry and are never enforced, but are passed to make it appear that Kazakhstan is upholding its obligations. Kazakhstan has made great strides compared to many of its neighbors falling behind and struggling with implementing basic governance.
Kazakhstan is scooping up high-profile chairmanships in regional organizations for two primary reasons: to advance Kazakhstan’s image as a peacemaker and mediator; and to fulfill President Nazarbayev’s vision for Kazakhstan of being the “Eurasian Bridge,” linking Asia to Europe. With a track record of high participation in international organizations, Kazakhstan can benefit from and build lasting trade and political and economic relationships. Obtaining the UNSC seat reinforces Nazarbayev’s multi-vector foreign policy and adds diversity to the Asia bloc of countries of the 15 member UNSC.
If granted the 2017-2018 UNSC seat, Kazakhstan would be able to move beyond its regional problems while addressing global issues most importantly nuclear security and energy security. Kazakhstan has experience with global threats (nuclear security), extremism, and terrorism. This includes, but not limited to, renewing and strengthening arms control agreements, cracking down on organized crime involving nuclear materials, and negotiating intra-regional water agreements/arrangements in Central Asia. Kazakhstan’s history with nuclear work can be considered soft diplomacy: passing the annual “International Day Against Nuclear Tests” (29 August); and starting the NGO, the ATOM project, aimed at stopping nuclear testing and to bring awareness about the physical and environmental devastation caused by nuclear testing.
Kazakhstan, while pursuing these initiatives, offers the UNSC non-permanent Security Council distinct advantages. Kazakhstan would expectedly act as a mediator, but many members such as Russia and China, may attempt to exploit Kazakhstan’s membership, calling on Kazakhstan for support, as China and Russia tend to veto and block actions by other UNSC members. Kazakhstan, in such a scenario, would most likely abstain or make the decision reinforcing its “mediation” stance. This would be no surprise to Russia. From an international security perspective (beyond the issue of nuclear terrorism), Kazakhstan aligns itself with Russia-led organizations as they primarily deal with regional issues such as separatism, extremism, and terrorism. Kazakhstan would also serve as the outlier of the Soviet states (along with the Baltics) that is able to disagree with Russia without retaliation. As a result of the multi-vector foreign policy, Kazakhstan has friendly (or stable) relationship with most P5 members.
India supports Kazakhstan’s seat on the 15 member UNSC as “both leaders affirmed their commitment to the negotiations on comprehensive reform of the council.” According to the Astana Times, “Nazarbayev reiterated his country’s support for India’s application to be a permanent member of the expanded UN Security Council.” If both India and Kazakhstan were to become members, their policies would be mutually reinforced as India is recognizing the strategic importance of Central Asia and in recent months increased relations with Kazakhstan. India became a full member of the SCO on 11 July 2015. Kazakhstan’s and India’s presence on the council would challenge the notion that developing countries or “countries in transition” are unable to fulfill the role of power players and would balance out the P5.
As global issues are no longer dominated by a hegemon or a bipolar power structure and cooperation is conducted on a regional level, the UNSC membership is expected to reflect the shift.
Kazakhstan’s relations and memberships are on a regional level, but memberships in organizations like the SCO, CSTO, and the EAEU have not provided Kazakhstan the opportunity to make impactful decisions and author substantial policy. Kazakhstan relies on bilateral or multilateral relationships and organizations to execute its policy or to project ideas. Kazakhstan’s involvement with organizations like the SCO and CSTO have been narrowly focused primarily on economics and security respectively and often Russia and China set the agenda. Debate continues over the proportionality of representation and “geopolitical shifts have led to the radical changes in the distribution of power, interstate interactions on the global playing field, economic fluctuations, and the growth of political confidence of rising nations.”
Kazakhstan within the last ten years has increased participation and has expanded its reach not only through natural resource markets and trade, but also diplomatically. Kazakhstan’s further integration is demonstrated accession to the World Trade Organization. Mediating high level talks between Syrian rebels (late May 2015), Iran Nuclear Talks (February and April 2013), and the Ukraine Peace Talks with individual leaders (Putting and Poroshenko) the Normandy Group—France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. The talks in Kazakhstan in February and April 2013 made little progress, but were lauded by the Kazakhstan Government as Astana has “consistently advocated for peaceful dialogue and negotiations” and “Kazakhstan “was proud to have made a practical contribution to the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear [program.]”
Kazakhstan may not be able to convince Russia or China on many pressing global security issues, but Kazakhstan’s participation on the UNSC might mitigate some tension. It is unlikely that Kazakhstan’s participation would end badly for Kazakhstan as many of the agitators on the P5—China and Russia—have too much to lose to endanger their diplomatic relations with Kazakhstan. By winning a seat on the UNSC, Kazakhstan will be able to continue its policies it wished to implement during time overseeing the OSCE to better its country and nations facing the same issues.
Poverty Continues to Decline, but Pace of Poverty Reduction is Slowing in Central Asia
Although poverty rates in Central Asia continue to decline overall, the pace of poverty reduction is slowing, according to new data released by the World Bank. High levels of poverty remain in pockets of rural and remote areas, which also suffer from lack of employment opportunities, say new Poverty Outlooks for Central Asian countries, released ahead of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October.
“The good news is that Central Asia continues to make progress towards eliminating poverty,” says Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Country Director for Central Asia “However, poverty reduction is happening much less quickly than before. Rekindling inclusive growth should therefore be among the region’s most urgent priorities.”
Since the 2000s, all Central Asian countries have made significant progress in reducing poverty, but most of this progress occurred in the first few years of that decade. In the eight years from 2002 to 2009, the poverty rate dropped an average of seven percentage points per year in both Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic – down from nearly 70 percent to 25 percent in Tajikistan and to 20 percent in the Kyrgyz Republic. Since then, however, poverty rates have fallen much more slowly: by only one percentage point per year on average in Tajikistan (from 25 percent to a projected 13 percent in 2019), and by nearly zero in the Kyrgyz Republic, stalling at about 20 percent from 2009 through to today.
Poverty in Kazakhstan was already lower in the early 2000s and declined at a rate of four percentage points per year from 2002 to 2009, at which point the country had almost eliminated poverty, as measured by the low-middle-income indicator of $3.20 per day. However, when measured by the upper-middle-income indicator of $5.50 per day, the poverty rate in Kazakhstan reached its lowest point in 2013, at about 6 percent, and since then has remained stuck above 7 percent.
The slowing rate of poverty reduction in Central Asian countries reflects several economic challenges, as well as difficulties securing jobs with decent incomes for vulnerable groups of the population.
Youth and women in the region are most likely to struggle with unemployment or low incomes. In Uzbekistan, World Bank data shows that over 25 percent of women aged 15-24 were unemployed in 2018, compared to 13 percent of men in the same age group. In the Kyrgyz Republic, 15 percent of women aged 15-28 were unemployed at that time, compared to only 9 percent of men in the same age group.
Recently published poverty maps for Central Asian countries reveal that many of the remaining poverty hotspots in the region are in rural areas that lack close integration with urban growth centers. This is especially pertinent for parts of Tajikistan and the Kyrgyz Republic, where poverty rates are above 40 percent in the most remote districts.
The analysis also finds that the middle-class in Central Asia is almost entirely concentrated in and around a handful of big cities: Nur-Sultan, Almaty, Tashkent, and to a lesser extent, in Dushanbe and Bishkek. One of the main challenges faced by all countries in the region is ensuring that people are not excluded from these dynamic labor markets.
The World Bank recommends policies that provide greater employment opportunities for people, expanding the availability of affordable housing in growing and prosperous cities, encouraging faster wage growth, and supporting vulnerable groups so they can be more competitive in the labor market.
Eurasian Economic Union Might Expand
As the strained Russia-EU relations somewhat softened recently, and a rising cooperation is being seen over questions such as Ukraine and Moldova, Russia is on the economic offensive throughout the former Soviet space.
Valentina Matviyenko, a high ranking Russian official, announced recently that Uzbekistan had already decided to join the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and that final preparations are taking place in that regard.
Uzbekistan is arguably the most important country in Central Asia as it is the only state bordering all four “stans” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan) of the region. From a purely geographic perspective, influence over Uzbekistan would increase Russian clout throughout the entire Central Asia.
Uzbekistan’s importance is also maximized by the fact that it possesses a pretty competitive industrial sector capable of producing various machinery and other vital products.
Uzbekistan’s membership of the EEU will also be a win for Moscow because of the latter’s quiet competition with the Chinese over the region, specifically in the economic and slightly military realms. As China rolls out its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, Uzbekistan is of primary importance to Beijing.
True, membership of the EEU will not mean cutting off trade between Uzbekistan and China, and the latter will certainly continue investing in the Uzbek economy. However, though no open animosity exists between Beijing and Moscow on Central Asia issues, Tashkent’s choice to become a member of the EEU will serve as a certain limit to rising Chinese ambitions.
On the other crucial front of Russia’s borderlands, Moscow is seemingly close to reaching a higher level of integration with Belarus (a country already an EEU member) by 2022. Though Minsk has officially refuted Russian plans on economic integration, it is clear that pressure from Moscow is indeed mounting and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Belarus to withstand various Russian moves.
Both events, which, at least according to the open source material, are likely to take place in the near future, will strengthen Russia’s position in Eurasia. It will also increase the EEU’s position and make the bloc economically more attractive for non-member former Soviet states such as Azerbaijan and potentially for Middle East powers (Iran and Turkey).
Though the expansion is a good indicator of Russia’s fortunes, in the long run it shows the limit of the EEU and Moscow’s strength. Still without Ukraine, the EEU is a constrained market, solely dominated by Russia, both economically, militarily and in terms of population numbers. In fact, as I have written in several articles for GT, nowadays the expansion of Russian economic (i.e. geopolitical) interests in Belarus and Uzbekistan is logical, as avenues for Moscow’s active foreign policy are limited to Central Asia and Belarus. Elsewhere (Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia), the Russian influence reached a certain limit, going beyond which would see Moscow needing to increase its military pressure in those countries.
Thus, Economic competition around Georgia and in wider Eurasia is intensifying, with large states increase their efforts to get smaller ones into their respective economic zones. All this is likely to build up geopolitical tensions in the super-continent.
Author’s note: first published in Georgia Today
Unjustified Hope of Iran’s Central Asia Policy
The Washington factor has been and remains, if not the main obstacle, then at least a deterrent to Iran’s strengthening in Central Asia over the past thirty years. The former Soviet Central Asian Muslim republics – Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – collectively known as the “Five Stans”, is a scene of the big game and intense rivalry. In view of geopolitical and geo-economic conditions, these countries have experienced ups and downs in collaboration with Iran. Amid the background of the intensifying Iranian crisis, this article presents a brief analysis of the cooperation between Iran and Central Asian countries, whose people are regional neighbors and have close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities.
Iran’s “soft power” in Central Asia
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Iran was among the first countries to recognize the independence of the five Central Asian republics, intending to spread its influence through cultural, historical and religious commonalities. The establishment of the first diplomatic relations fell on Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was identified in Central Asia as a relatively moderate leader. He was well aware that after 80 years of communist influence, these “Stans” secular regimes would not accept any Islamic ideology. Therefore, in the late 1990s, his government sought to consolidate the foundations of cultural and historical ties as a tool of “soft power” of Iran’s Central Asia policy.
The main executive body for promoting Iranian “soft power” in the region has become the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization (ICRO), a parastatal agency that is subordinate to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. This organization was considered Iran’s de facto public diplomacy organization and is under the control of the Supreme Leader’s office. By opening Iranian cultural centers in all Central Asian capitals, it has sought to institutionalize elements and patterns of its Persian language and culture in the region. Today, leading Central Asian faculties sufficiently promote Persian language courses that are supported by the Islamic Republic embassies.
In the light of the objectives of the present study, particularly Tajikistan case is seen as a tool of Iranian ‘soft power’ to create a “bridge” between Tehran and Central Asia and become a regional leader. These two ethnicities are considered relatively close, sharing the same Persian roots and constituting the basis of the “Great Persian World.”
Accordingly, with the financial support of Iran’s government, Research Projects such as the Tajik-Persian Culture Research Institute, the “Alhoda” bookstores and “Payvand” magazine have also had an important role in the regional influence. In accordance with the agreement on cooperation in the field of higher education, Tehran funded Tajik students to study at Iranian universities, especially in the modern Persian language and literature. In addition, in 2009, the Iranian state-run Persian News Agency opened its first office in Dushanbe. Correspondingly, Iran was able to represent itself as the main defender and provider of Persian heritage to the Tajik nation.
Additionally, Iran has solidly invested in the Tajik economy, ranking itself as the second foreign investor after China. This was particularly seen during the rule of conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who due to the growing confrontation with the West, preferred cooperation with the northern post-Soviet countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus. His government funded the construction of the Anzob/Istiqlol tunnel through the Pamirs, and the Sangtuda-2 hydropower plant. Alongside its economic support, the Tehran government has been trying to implement its own nuclear project and receiving political support from Tajikistan.
A single geographical territory in the past made these countries to have closer cultural, economic and political integration. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sought to use the national-cultural identity as a starting point for creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Its first joint summit was held in Dushanbe onJuly 2006, when they decided to establish a jointly-run Persian-language TV channel called “Navrooz-TV”. Also Ahmadinejad’s initiative, the three states established the Economic Council of the Persian-Speaking Union in March 2008.
The shift of political soft power is taking place at a time of intensified geopolitical uncertainty for Iran. Therefore, it is imperative to question whether Tehran’s ambitions to break out of international isolation was indeed successful. At first, the person spearheading this debate the most was none other than Afghanistan’s former president Hamid Karzai, when the U.S. and NATO forces ensured country’s military, economic and financial stability of the country. Therefore keeping excessive close ties with Iran would damage its connections with powerful western partners. Secondly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was negatively viewed at the new Persian Union as it has military and political leverage in Tajikistan. Consequently, Russia was firm in ensuring that Tehran would not strengthen its role in the region. Moreover, Iran’s activities in the Middle East, which caused inter-religious tensions between Sunni and Shia Islam, also affected the sentiments of Central Asian Muslims. Saudi Arabia, Iran’s historical rival, has taken active steps to reach out to Sunni Tajiks to bring them to its side. Over the past thirty years, the Gulf monarchy has spent billions of dollars on spreading radical Islam in the “Five Stans” and Iran’s retention.
Tit for tat
Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015 as Tajik authorities accused Iran of supporting the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), attempting a coup d’état in the country and training Tajik Islamic militants in Iran. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when Iran’s top leader Ali Khamenei received IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities. Dushanbe saw the hand of Iran in a terror act on July 2018, in Danghara where 4 foreign tourists were killed. Notwithstanding, Iran has diplomatically rejected the accusation, which deteriorated the relationship between the two Persian-speaking states.
The growth of anti-Iranian sentiment, accompanied by demonstrations in front of the Iranian embassy in Dushanbe, putting an end to Tehran’s initiative in creating a Union of Persian-Speaking Nations based on close linguistic, historical and cultural commonalities. Due to the opposition of regional players and the absence of a broad Shia base, Iran failed to implement the project of the “Great Persia” in Central Asia, as it tries in the Middle East.
As a result of growing tensions, Iran significantly reduced investment in the Tajik economy and closed its economic and cultural offices in the north of Tajikistan. To hold on to its strong lineage of refuting sanctions, Tajikistan banned the import of Iranian food and goods “due to poor quality”, abolished a simplified way of obtaining visas for Iranians, and closed the branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee.
After reaching the 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and partial withdrawal of the international sanctions, the Rouhani government sought to resume broken relations with the European Union, Japan, South Korea, and East Asia. The result of this policy was a significant reduction in Iran’s trade with all the countries of Central Asia since 2016. According to official data, trade between Tajikistan and Iran decreased substantially more than three times, while Iran’s trade with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan experienced a significant loss in numbers.
Iran’s nuclear agenda in the Central Asian multilateral cooperation
The “diplomatic quarrel” and a “trade war” between Tajikistan and Iran negatively influenced Tehran’s ambition to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even though Iran filed a formal application for membership in 2008, Tajikistan twice vetoed its admission and promptly placed its harsh posture against Iran. At the last SCO summit in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek on June 2019, Russia and China firmly supported Iran and stated that the other members, despite the U.S. withdrawal from JCPOA, should respect the nuclear deal. Now that the temperature of tension between Tehran and Washington has reached its highest point, as the SCO has become one of the international platforms for Iranian President Rouhani, who accused the US of “serious” threat to regional and global stability.
Governments of the “Five Stans” seek to maintain a middle position on the Iranian nuclear issue, affirming the right of Iran to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Today, as the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy has cornered Iran and its economy has been in terrible pain, the new president of Kazakhstan, Kasymzhomart Tokayev, called for the resolution of nuclear contradictions through diplomacy. Being the country’s top diplomat and Prime minister in the 90s, Tokayev played a key role in eliminating Kazakhstan’s nuclear arsenal, inherited from the USSR, and gaining the status of a non-nuclear power. In the past, Kazakhstan has repeatedly called Iran to follow its example.
In addition, Iran and the Central Asian countries also cooperate within the framework of the OIC, the ECO and the CICA, whose platform Iran uses to accuse “American imperialism” and defend its nuclear ambition.
The ups and downs of bilateral and multilateral cooperation of Iran with the “Five Stans” over the past quarter-century have shown that Tehran failed to establish its zone of influence in Central Asia, in the same way as it has created Iranian proxy Shia groups in the Middle East. The main reason for Tehran’s inability to prove itself as an attractive economic partner in Central Asia is the US long-term strategy to contain Iran through economic sanctions and its confrontation with the West over its nuclear program. Therefore, despite the advantages of geographic, religious and cultural commonalities, Iran remains unable to open a “window” to Central Asia in conditions of international isolation and emerge as a regional power.
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