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Central Asia

Kazakhstan’s Snap Election Affirm Nazarbayev’s Power in Uncertain Environments

Samantha Brletich

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The Kazakhstan snap Parliamentary elections were held on 20 March 2016. The snap elections were called amidst economic turmoil and fears that the Kazakhstan government would lose voter and public confidence because of the economic situation in Kazakhstan.

The elections will solidify autocratic President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s rule over the country and make it appear that he has the unwavering support of the people of Kazakhstan. Reports of crackdown of dissent suggest otherwise. The crackdowns, aimed at political dissidents and non-conformists to President Nazarbayev’s policies, is a way to control civil unrest and silence critics which is a longstanding criticism of the Nazarbayev Administration.

The elections did not generate significant differences in the country’s political landscape which has remained relatively unchanged since Nazarbayev gained power in 1989. Arguably, the elections are part of Nazarbayev’s attempts to make Kazakhstan appear as a democratic country and are part of “managed democracy.” The elections are being held against the backdrop of a failing economy, fluctuating tenge, low oil revenue prices and the oil market crash, political dissent, and Nazarbayev’s need to be reaffirmed by the people of Kazakhstan. The election will also show regional countries that Kazakhstan handle economic problems and is a reliable partner. Nazarbayev’s victory was predictable and negative implications stemming from a minor Parliamentary mix-up are non-existent.

A Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) mission monitored the elections. Kazakhstan’s past elections have fallen short of international standards citing lack of competitive candidates and corruption. As many as 234 candidates from the following six parties vied for 98 available parliament seats: the ruling Nur Otan party and the Party of President Nursultan Nazarbayev (127 candidates), Ak Zhol (35 candidates), Auyl (19 candidates), the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan (22 candidates), the Nationwide Social Democratic Party (23 candidates) and the Birlik party (eight candidates). Over 1,000 candidates are running for seats in the lower Parliament. Not much has changed as the other parties platforms do not vary that greatly. Political parties are prohibited from forming blocks.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the results of the March 20, 2016, parliamentary elections show, “that three parties will have seats in the Majlis[:]Nur-Otan got 82.15 percent of the vote; Ak Zhol, 7.18 percent; and the Communist People’s Party of Kazakhstan took 7.14 percent.” These results are similar to the 2012 Parliamentary elections which highlights the lack of political variety and true democracy in the country. The elections were hailed a success by regional organizations, the SCO and the CIS. The ODIHR did not agree as Kazakhstan has a long way to go to fulfill its democratic agreement.

International observers were not surprised at the results. As early voting commenced on Sunday, the Kazakh Central Election Committee, stated that the elections were transparent. The OSCE have been heavily involved as “the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission opened in Astana on17 February, with an11 member core team and 28 long-term-observers deployed throughout the country.”

Whether or not the elections will expedite the reforms or guarantee implementation, the economy continues to slow. If Nur Otan retains its majority in Kazakhstan’s Parliament, the speed of implementation would not be effected. The snap elections directly are not being held to give the government a mandate on “100 steps.” The legitimacy of “100 steps” is derived from the President and support from Parliament and the overall willingness to reform Kazakhstan. Fifty-nine laws have already entered into force citing information from the Astana Times.

The snap elections center on economic recovery and political change. The snap elections are supported by the Majlis, and the miners and metallurgists to allow for “further implementation of reforms,” under Plan of the Nation (or “100 Steps”) and to “understand how we work in a new way, what laws should be adopted to meet the requirements of a market economy,” according to the Kazakh BNews news portal. The Head of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan (APK) stated elections will benefit the country politically and economically. Kazakhstan’s People’s Democratic Patriotic Party, known as “Aul” Party, also supports the snap elections. Support from Aul makes the elections and the decision not so one-sided appear pluralistic. The Astana Times, published astonishing, but not surprising, poll results about voting in a new Majlis and reforms: “92 percent of citizens believe the early elections make the public more confident the new reforms will be implemented.” Other poll results are similar.

Recently, on 12 January 2016, protests were held in Astana against the Kazakh Bank and the falling tenge. In response, the Kazakh government offered powdered mare’s milk on the global market which “can generate product worth $1 billion (a year)” to mitigate declining global oil prices. Another recent incident was the firing of the Sovereign Wealth Fund manager, Berik Otemurat, stated Kazakhstan’s National Oil Fund would run out in the next six or seven years. The National Oil Fund, often used as an emergency fund, has fallen 17% from $77 billion since August 2014 and the government is withdrawing about according to the Wall Street Journal. The tenge strengthened slightly in February after the currency declined after the government began to float the currency and the country is still experiencing weakened GDP growth. By mid-March the tenge has recovered by 10%.

Two activists in Kazakhstan, Serizkhan Mambetalin and Ermek Narymbaev, were convicted and sent to prison for two and three years respectively for Facebook posts “inciting national discord” (Article 174 of the Criminal Code) and the “authorities claimed the clips amounted to a ‘serious crime against peace and security of humankind’ ” according to Human Rights Watch. The two men were arrested in October 2015 and their trial began 9 December 2015. A third activist, Bolatbek Blyalov, has movement restricted for three years and cannot “[change] his place of residence or work, or [spend] time in public areas during his time off.” The punishment for the three activists violates many of Kazakhstan’s international commitments. On 22 February, the head of the Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan National Press Club, Seitkazy Matayev, was arrested on charges of corruption—accused of tax evasion and embezzlement of funds. According to TengrinNews, “the state anti-corruption agency said Matayev was detained along with his son Aset Matayev who heads the private KazTAG news agency.” Seitkazy Matayev was President Nazarbayev’s press secretary from 1991 to 1993. The Committee on Protecting Journalists reported that the Mateyevs sent statements to Adil Soz (a local press group) indicated harassment by city and state authorities began in January 2016.

There was also a recent protest in Almaty on 18 March 2016 about the incarceration of activist Yermek Narymbayev, one of the facebook activists, jailed for incitement ethnic strife (Kazakhstan Criminate Code Article 174).

Kazakhstan repeatedly has fallen short of commitments for democratic reforms (particularly press freedoms) and instead has strengthened Nazarbayev’s soft authoritarianism. Edward Schatz categorizes Kazakhstan as a soft authoritarian regime that engages in managed information and “[discourages] opposition and [encourages] pro-regime authorities.” Information management, according to Schatz, is not only through media, but by staging “many events to convey information dramatically.” Nazarbayev has a history of staging political events. Applying this notion to snap elections, Kazakhstan’s citizens know of the economic troubles. Snap elections are unnecessary to highlight the problem and snap elections give the impression the government is actively handling the problem and that political change is imminent.

Kazakhstan does consider itself a democracy and whether or not Kazakhstan’s democracy meets international standards will be revealed once institutions are strengthened. The Kazakhstan-based Astana Times calls the 20 March elections the first step towards returning “to the levels of growth and prosperity we experienced.” Constitutional reforms may give more power to the lower house, redistributing more power from the strong Presidential system the country now has (in theory).

Poor economic conditions are simple a pretext for squashing dissent and reducing political opposition. The poor economic conditions should be viewed as an opportunity to engage and strengthen civil society, establish dialogue between the government and non-governmental organizations, strengthen financial institutions, and explore alternatives in the energy sector. The crash of the commodities and oil markets presents Kazakhstan a unique opportunity to diversify its economy. The elections also present the opportunity to implement electoral reform as Nazarbayev has not picked a successor which greatly increases political instability and the possible formation of a power vacuum.

Kazakhstan during its time as the Chair for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has failed to live up to its democratic obligations. The early Presidential elections of April 2015 showed that democratic reforms have yet to materialize. However, failure of democratization (all-encompassing to include media and political rights) and constant criticism has not stopped Kazakhstan from taking on the role of an international mediator on many high-profile conflicts—Iran and Syria—and from becoming a reliable and cooperative economic, trade, and security partners to its neighbors. Kazakhstan’s slow rise on the stage fuel autocratic behaviors.

Kazakhstan’s elections, while varied, reflect Kazakhstan’s wavering commitment to democracy and lack of party pluralism. Snap elections and early Presidential elections provide an opportunity for Kazakhstan to slowly implement electoral reforms and most importantly media reforms. Kazakhstan’s Election Law is weak as it does provide for equal party distribution and fails to provide a concrete and non-ambiguous criteria for campaign finance.

Samantha M. Brletich is a researcher and writer specializing in Central Asia and governance, security, terrorism, and development issues. She possesses a Master’s in Peace Operations Policy from George Mason University in Virginia, United States. She works with the virtual think tank Modern Diplomacy specializing in Central Asia and diplomatic trends. Her work has appeared in multiple publications focused on diplomacy and Central Asia respectively. She is currently an employee of the U.S. Federal Government.

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Central Asia

Poverty Continues to Decline, but Pace of Poverty Reduction is Slowing in Central Asia

MD Staff

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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.

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Central Asia

Eurasian Economic Union Might Expand

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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

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Central Asia

Unjustified Hope of Iran’s Central Asia Policy

Uran Botobekov

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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.

Regional Implications

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.

Conclusion

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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