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Reset Button: What Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s Election Means for Uzbekistan’s Domestic and Regional Future

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap] s Uzbekistan headed for the polls on December 4 to choose a successor for longtime strongman Islam Karimov, his prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev was all but guaranteed to succeed Karimov as president.

This came as no shock to analysts of the Central Asian nation as Mirziyoyev had long been in Karimov’s inner circle serving as the country’s prime minister since 2003. With Uzbekistan’s notoriously high turnover rates in senior government posts due to extensive infighting exacerbated by the country’s clan based power dynamics, Mirziyoyev’s political longevity has been attributed to his ability to effectively manage these dynamics, especially among the Tashkent and Samarkand clans, widely considered to be the most influential.

Despite rumors that the transition of power following Karimov’s death would dynastically pass to one of his two daughters, Mirziyoyev emerged as the clear frontrunner after he was appointed to organize Islam Karimov’s funeral where he was seen meeting with various heads of state including his Russian counterpart Dimitri Medvedev. His succession was placed beyond reasonable doubt after he was named interim president, a position which according to the Uzbek constitution should have passed to the little known Senate Chairman, Nigmatilla Yuldashev.

Preliminary results point to Mr. Mirziyoyev winning with approximately 88.6% of the vote. This would be considered a remarkable feat in almost any other country, but is a fairly common occurrence in Uzbekistan as Mr. Karimov had been winning elections with poll numbers upwards of Mr. Mirziyoyev’s current figure. Fraud had long been rampant in previous Uzbek elections and, despite attempts to increase transparency, all feasible political opposition had been heavily suppressed by state actors making this election devoid of any realistic competition.

However, an independent Uzbekistan has never known another president other than Islam Karimov and Mr. Mirziyoyev has already promised a range of reforms designed to increase his popularity domestically and abroad. What are these proposed policies and what effects would they have for the people of Uzbekistan?

Domestic Policy – A New Tone?

Islam Karimov ruled Uzbekistan with an iron fist for three decades by stamping out dissent with threats of imprisonment, torture, and violence, all the while continuing with Soviet style secularism in a Sunni majority population. Like its people, the Uzbek economy has also been tightly controlled.

The domestic economy has been propped up by a combination of small scale free enterprise, foreign investment in natural resource extraction, particularly in natural gas, and a cotton industry which is still supported in part by child labor. However, one of the most important sources of income for the average Uzbek population comes from remittances from abroad sent by migrant laborers who mostly live and work in Russia. Figures point to Twelve percent of the Uzbek GDP coming from migrant laborers sending money from Russia alone. That said, the fall of the Russian Ruble has reduced that figure by about half.

With the Uzbek economy on course to grow at its slowest rate in over a decade, Mr. Mirziyoyev has made economic reform a central pillar in his election promises. His main economic liberalization promises consist of mainly reforming the country’s currency market and easing restrictions for small businesses. While not earthshattering, these policies aim to placate some of the most apparent economic issues affecting the country.  

As stated earlier, much of Uzbekistan’s economy is based on remittances from abroad, yet convertibility of the Uzbek currency in either direction is strictly controlled by the state. With official monthly quotas in place for converting the Uzbek Som into U.S. Dollars or Russian Rubles, a thriving black market exists to handle the excess demand. This naturally brings with it a level of criminality and corruption which makes successful business ownership all but impossible for those not part of the government elite. A streamlined currency convertibility market would also serve to attract foreign investment, a part of the economy which could most benefit the largest market in Central Asia of approximately 30 million people.

Solving Regional Differences

Uzbekistan geographically straddles the divide between Asia and Europe. This is representative in the people, the culture, and in its diplomatic mindset. In the ‘near abroad,’ Uzbekistan borders and has varying relations with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. The ethnic boundaries between these countries are not represented with the current borders. Despite frequently conflicting national interests, it is important to maintain a base degree of relations in order to protect the interests of the fluid ethnic boundaries. In recent history, this has been easier said than done. Uzbekistan’s relations with its neighbors can be described as a range from stability to almost vitriol. For example, while Turkmenistan’s hermit state status keeps relations uneventful, Uzbekistan fell just shy of armed conflict with Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan’s chief economic rival in the region, has experienced the most cordial relations out of the rest of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics owing to the degree of coordination needed for mutual efforts to tackle drug trafficking through their mutual border. Uzbekistan is one of the main arteries for the opiate trade which originates from Afghanistan, its southern neighbor. The longtime Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev saw an equal in Islam Karimov as they were both their respective countries’ sole heads of state since independence and therefore approved of each other’s authoritarian grips on power by stifling dissent and opposition. Mr. Nazarbaev visited Uzbekistan to pay his respects at Mr. Karimov’s funeral in Samarkand and sat down for an official meeting with Mr. Mirziyoyev to discuss the improved development of ties between the two countries, particularly in trade. For continuity’s sake, it is most likely in Mr. Mirziyoyev’s best interest to attempt to maintain these relations especially as there have currently been few proposals to overhaul relations in any major way.

Mr. Mirziyoyev has also travelled to Tajikistan in late September to foster improved relations which have soured due to various reasons. The main strategic disagreement, and the main source of discussion in Mr. Mirziyoyev’s diplomatic has been over Tajikistan’s planned construction of the massive Roghun hydroelectric dam in one of the region’s major rivers. Tashkent has expressed concerns that the proposed dam will deplete the much needed irrigation canals and therefore harm its lucrative agricultural sector. No agreement has been made so far, but the fact that Mr. Mirziyoyev has attempted to create some dialogue on the issue is promising. If Mr. Mirziyoyev’s demonstrated intentions serve as a baseline for future relations, then they spell out more cooperative future for these two neighbors.

Uzbek regional relations with Kyrgyzstan have been the most problematic. Shortly before Mr. Karimov’s passing, Uzbekistan had security service members occupying a strategic point on a disputed part of the Kyrgyz border. Uzbek authorities also sealed the border indefinitely into Kyrgyzstan even for private individuals which heightened tensions with ethnic Kyrgyz who live in the border regions of Uzbekistan. This again highlights the imperfect borders of distinct ethnicities within Central Asia and the additional strain it places on mutual relations and diplomacy. Following the passing of Mr. Karimov, the occupied territory was promptly vacated and the border was reopened. This indicates a rapid shift of opinion coming from Tashkent which seems to favor a reconciliatory tone. While open negotiations about expanding ties with Kyrgyzstan have not yet taken place, it seems like Mr. Mirziyoyev has taken a step back from conflict and successfully de-escalated the situation.

What next?

The election of Shavkhat Mirziyoyev has brought with it exciting possibilities for the people of Uzbekistan and its regional partners. While his proposals have not been implemented, they signal a clear departure from Islam Karimov’s heavy handed politics and diplomacy. What is fairly certain, however, is the continued tradition of authoritarianism and widespread human right violations which had kept Islam Karimov in power to continue under his protégé. Ultimately, Uzbekistan’s future is uncertain. With increased attempts to exert their influence, major powers like Russia and China, and to a smaller extent the United States and Turkey, a ‘Great Game’ scenario may occur in an attempt to court the new president into a respective sphere of influence. It is too early to say how Mr. Mirziyoyev may respond to these outside pressures, but if his presidency maintains his predecessor’s neutrality while enacting liberalized economic reforms and and improving regional relations, then Uzbekistan has a chance to make the most of its potential

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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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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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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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