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Central Asia

Shifting Sands: Chinese encroachment in Central Asia and challenges to US supremacy in the Gulf

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China and Russia are as much allies as they are rivals.

A joint Tajik-Chinese military exercise in a Tajik region bordering on China’s troubled north-western region of Xinjiang suggests that increased Chinese-Russian military cooperation has not eroded gradually mounting rivalry in Central Asia, long viewed by Moscow as its backyard.

The exercise, the second in three years, coupled with the building by China of border guard posts and a training centre as well as the creation of a Chinese security facility along the 1,300 kilometre long Tajik Afghan Border, Chinese dominance of the Tajik economy, and the hand over of  Tajik territory almost two decades ago, challenges Russian-Chinese arrangements in the region.

The informal arrangement involved a division of labour under which China would expand economically in Central Asia while Russia would guarantee the region’s security.

The exercise comes days after China and Russia operated their first joint air patrol and months after Tajik and Russian forces exercised jointly.

The “exercise represents a next step in China’s overall encroachment upon Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘sphere of influence’ in Central Asia,” said Russia expert Stephen Blank.

“Moscow has given remarkably little consideration to the possibility that China will build on its soft power in Central Asia to establish security relationships or even bases and thus accelerate the decline of Russian influence there,” added Eurasia scholar Paul Goble.

The perceived encroachment is but the latest sign that Russia is seeking to balance its determination to ally itself with China in trying to limit US power with the fact the Chinese and Russian interests may be diverging.

The limitations of Russian Chinese cooperation have long been evident.

China, for example, has refrained from recognizing Russian-inspired declarations of independence in 2008 of two regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia that recently sparked anti-government protests in Tbilisi.

China similarly abstained in a 2014 United Nations Security Council vote on a resolution that condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Meanwhile, Chinese dependence on Russian military technology is diminishing, potentially threatening a key Russian export market. China in 2017 rolled out its fifth generation Chengdu J-20 fighter that is believed to be technologically superior to Russia SU-57E.

Perhaps most fundamentally, Chinese president Xi Jinping opted in 2013 to unveil his Belt and Road initiative in the Kazakh capital of Astana rather than Moscow.

By doing so and by so far refusing to invest in railroads and roads that would turn Russia into a transportation hub, Mr. Xi effectively relegated Russia to the status of second fiddle, at least as far as the Belt and Road’s core transportation infrastructure pillar is concerned.

China’s recently published latest defense white paper nonetheless praised the continued development of a “high level” military relationship with Russia that is “enriching the China-Russia comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era and playing a significant role in maintaining global strategic stability.”

In a bid to ensure Russia remains a key player on the international stage and exploit mounting tension in the Gulf, Russian deputy foreign minister and special representative to the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov this week proposed a collective security concept that would replace the Gulf’s US defense umbrella and position Russia as a power broker alongside the United States.

The concept would entail creation of a “counter-terrorism coalition (of) all stakeholders” that would be the motor for resolution of conflicts across the region and promote mutual security guarantees. It would involve the removal of the “permanent deployment of troops of extra-regional states in the territories of states of the Gulf,” a reference to US, British and French forces and bases.

Mr. Bogdanov’s proposal called for a “universal and comprehensive” security system that would take into account “the interests of all regional and other parties involved, in all spheres of security, including its military, economic and energy dimensions” and ensure the provision of humanitarian assistance.

The coalition to include the Gulf states, Russia, China, the US, the European Union and India as well as other stakeholders, a likely reference to Iran, would be launched at an international conference on security and cooperation in the Gulf.

It was not clear how feuding Gulf states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arb Emirates and Iran would be persuaded to sit at one table. The proposal suggested that Russia’s advantage was that it maintained good relations with all parties.

“Russia’s contributions to the fight against  Islamic terrorist  networks  and  the  liberation  of parts  of  Syria  and Iraq  can  be regarded  as  a  kind  of  test for  the role  of  sheriff  in  a  Greater Eurasia” that would include the Middle East, said political scientist Dmitry Yefremenko.

Mr. Putin this week  asserted himself as sheriff by signalling his support for embattled former Kyrgyz president Almazbek Atambayev, a Putin crony who has been charged with corruption. Following a meeting in Moscow, Mr. Putin urged Mr Atembayev’s nemesis. president Sooronbai Jeenbekov, not to press charges.

At the same time, Mr. Putin, building on his visit to Kyrgyzstan in March, offered Mr. Jeenbekov a carrot.

Kyrgyzstan “needs political stability. Everybody needs to unite around the current president and to help him develop the state. We have many plans for cooperation with Kyrgyzstan and we are absolutely determined to work together with the current leadership to fulfill these plans,” Mr. Putin said.

Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed an agreement during the visit to expand by 60 hectares the Kant Air Base 20 kilometres east of the capital Bishkek that is used by the Russian Air Force and increase the rent Russia pays.

Mr. Putin further lavished his Kyrgyz hosts with US$6 billion in deals ranging from power, mineral resources and hydrocarbons to industry and agriculture.

Mr. Putin also allocated US$200 million for the upgrading of customs infrastructure and border equipment to put an end to the back-up of dozens of trucks on the Kazakh-Kyrgyz border because Kyrgyzstan has so far been unable to comply with the technical requirements of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).

Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyaev last month gave the EEU, that groups Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan Belarus, and Armenia,  a boost by declaring that Uzbekistan would need to join the trade bloc to ensure access to its export markets.

EEU members account for 70 percent of Uzbek exports.

Said Russia and Eurasia scholar Paul Stronski: “China’s deft diplomacy towards Russia — along with both states’ desires to keep the West out of their common backyard — has kept tensions behind closed doors. But with China now recognising it may need to strengthen its security posture in the region, it is unclear how long this stability will last.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Central Asia

Localism in Tajikistan: How would it affect Power Shift?

Omid Rahimi

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Localism has been a common characteristic of all post-Soviet Central Asian Republics. However, this trait emerged in different ways; the result has been almost similar. The phenomenon is stemmed in unbalanced developing process and deliberate unequal share of power between regional ethnic groups of Communist leadership.

In Tajikistan, the localism emerged with more complexity and has had more important consequences. In some opinions, a main root of Tajik Civil war of 1990s, had been localism which followed by religious and ethnic gaps. In essence, the war was between privileged and unprivileged areas[i]. Akbar Turjanzoda, prominent cleric and former deputy Prime Minister of Tajikistan, who is also known as an influential figure of peace process, in his book “Between water and Fire” emphasizes on a “balanced localism” and suggests the balance between representatives of different regions is the only solution for a peaceful country[ii]. After the Peace Accord, everyone expected to do so, however the balance never achieved. 

In Soviet era, the Khujandis were the most influential group that enjoyed the power and wealth. Moscow-based leadership made this due to dual Uzbek-Tajik identity of the Khujandis, who were under influence of regional focal point, Tashkent. On the other hand, any possibility for anti-Russian integration in North was less than any other region in Tajikistan. Moreover, contemporary history of revolutionary groups, such as Basmachis, shaped basically in other regions. Furthermore, in separation of Tajikistan from Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic in 1920s, the Khujandi elites made the most important role[iii]. These factors made the Khujandto become the prominent region in the Soviet Republic.

If we consider the identity based division of regions as Shavkat Kasymov did in his paper “Regional fragmentation in Tajikistan: The shift of powers between different identity groups[iv]”, we can categorize the Tajik regions into Khujandis, Kulobis, Gharmis and Pamiris. The geographical position of these 4 group is shown in Map-1.

Map-1: Geographical position of identity-based division of localism in Tajikistan[v]

However, after about 3 decades of geopolitical changes, more geographical features should be considered on Tajik localism. As you can see in Map-1, the identity based divisions do not cover all provinces of 1920s in Tajikistan. North, South, East and Center are the 4 contemporary key regions of the country which represent a political clan. Map-2shows the political map of independent Tajikistan.

Migration process is a factor that should be considered in second division, especially about capital, Dushanbe. The city is geographically included in Centre, but the political view is unknown due to migration flow[vi]. It is also true about those who were displaced from Gharm to Qurghonteppa for agricultural purposes during Soviet era.

Map-2: the political map of independent Tajikistan[vii]

The Southerners leading by Emomali Rahmonhave enjoyed the power in post-peace era. In all political arrangements, the localism has been affected roguishly. Danghara, Kulob and Farkhor from Khatlon province are the main power spots in South. The major powerful and influential structures within the state such as President, Defense, Internal and external affairs ministries and State committee for National Security are all occupied by elites from these regions. Interestingly, opposition believes that according to peace accord, the power-based ministries such as defense and internal affairs should have been allocated to opposition, but never done[viii]. Even the potential president of the country, the Chairman of National Assembly is from south. According to the country’s constitution, in case of death, resignation and incapability of the President, his duties prior to the beginning of assignment by the new President, shall be taken over by the Chairman of National Assembly[ix].

Although the Northerners’ share of power has been marginalized dramatically after the Soviet dissolution, they have still a better situation comprising to Center and East. According to the political traditions rooted in contemporary coalition during the civil war, the Prime Minister belongs to North. However, his power has been limited, and the authority shared with 3 deputies from south. The position is personally under the control of the President.

The Eastern Pamirs have even the smallest share of power, due to their different culture, language and especially religion. It seems that the Eastern elites trend to have more control to their homeland as an autonomous region, rather having national power positions. After 2018 conflicts, as a sign of appeasement, Rahmon appointed a figure close to Aga Khan, the religious leader of the Pamiris as provincial chief. But in National share of power, nothing considerable.

Understanding the share of Center is a bit more complicated. Today, the Islamist opposition is mainly from this part of the country. This clan is known to its religious identity. Sayid Abdulloh Nuri, the former leader and founder of Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) and former United Tajik Opposition (UTO) is a well-known politician of this share. Other prominent political Islamist figures such as former deputy PM, Akbar Turjanzoda, and Muhiddin Kabiri also belong to this clan. While the first circles of IRPT had a Gharmi identity,a senior member of the party believes that they have moved beyond localism and as an example, the party introduced Muhammadalihayit, deputy chairman of the party, who was from South.

On the other hand, there are also small shares within the State. Chairman of the Assembly of Representatives belong to Center. There are also some ministries from cities like Hisor and Vahdat.

Muhammadjon Kabirov, a Tajik expert and senior member of IRPT believes that the current power sharing system in the country is even deceptive. First, there are always parallel state institutions which belong to Southerners such as Energy and electricity institutions. On the other hand, while the head of these structures have been granted to non-Southerners, the deputies and bodies of the ministries are mainly from South. Thirdly, these elites cannot and not let to apply their local identity in their share of power. And eventually, these points are while the state positions are not sold by money or allocated by political affiliations.

RegionPositionNameBirth place
                  SouthPresidentEmomali RahmonDanghara
Chairman of National AssemblyRustam EmomaliDanghara
Prosecutor GeneralYusuf RahmonVose
Min. of DefenseSheraliMirzoHamadoni
Min. of Internal AffairsRamazon RahimzodaKulob
Min. of Foreign AffairsSirojiddin MuhriddinTemurmalik
Chmn., State Committee for National SecuritySaymumin YatimovFarkhor
Mayor of Capital                            RustamEmomaliDanghara
Min. of Education & ScienceMuhammadyusuf ImamzodaTemurmalik
Min. of FinanceFayziddin QahhorzodaVose
Min. of Industry & New TechnologiesZarobiddin FayzullozodaDanghara
Min. of Health & Social ProtectionJamoliddin AbdullozodaDanghara
Min. of Agriculture                        Amonullo SolimzodaDanghara
Min. of Economic Development & TradeZavghi ZavghizodaHamadoni
  NorthPrime MinisterQohir RasulzodaGhafurov
Min. of JusticeRustam ShohmuradKonibodom
Min. of Labor, Migration, & Public EmploymentGolru JabbarzodaIsfara
EastMin. of CultureZulfia DavlatzodaKhorog
Min. of TransportKhudoyor KhudoyorzodaRushon
    CenterChairman of the Assembly of RepresentativesMuhammadtoer ZokirzodaRasht
Min. of Energy & Water ResourcesUsmonali UsmonzodaVahdat

Table1: Distribution of power in Tajikistan based on localism[x]

Localism and Shift in power

At the first shift in power in Tajikistan, the localism played a prominent role. In the post-Soviet era, th power was in hands of Northern pro-communists. At the same time that the central Gharmis and Easters were seeking a share in the country’s politics, the Southerners made a clever coalition with weakened North and simply came into power. At that time, when the opposition groups were mainly in unstable and disconnected regions of the country as well asAfghanistan, the political competition defined between North and South. In 1994, the Northern candidate, Abdumalik Abdullajanov lost the election to the Southern Emomali Rahmon (with 58%)[xi]. Then the war started, the peace achieved and due to the peace accord, 30 percent of the state’s power should have been allocated to opposition. However, step by step it tends to less than 5 percent.

There are evidences that the country is moving toward another shift in power. The amendments applied to the constitution in 2016 and paved the way for Rustam’s (Rahmon’s elder son) presidency. In the meanwhile, Rustam is experiencing different positions and rising up for a hard inter-family competition (maybe with his more experienced sister Ozoda) and a wider confrontation with potential and indeed opposition (Internal power groups and exiled opposition).

There is still a possibility that due to recent security issues and Corona Virus pandemic, Rahmon run for another term and keep the power by himself. Maybe he will learn from Nazarboyev’s experience. After achieving the leadership of country’s National Assembly by Rustam, it is more likely to happen. The situation allows Rahmon to leave the power anytime he wants and does surprise everyone.

Any of the mentioned scenarios happen to the shift in power, the localism’s affect is inevitable. As Rahmon raises his effective/ineffective authoritarianism with less legitimacy, he will try to change the regional balance in power in a kleptocratic space of the country’s politics. The change in Badakhshon and other changes of more politicians from Danghara were the first spark. But still no one guarantee that the unrests won’t happen again. We should also expect consolidating the ties with North by various means.Recent change in the Minstry of Labor, Migration and Public Employment, that a politician from North (GolruJabbarzoda)  replaced a Southern Minister (Sumangul Taghoyzoda from Kulob) is a sign. Also Rahmon’s granddaughter married to a Northern family (grandson of the governor of the Sughd region)which was unprecedented in large presidential family[xii].

How the exiled opposition will play their role in a country increasingly closing, is a vague question at the moment. Forming the coalition such as “National Alliance” is unlikely to affect dramatically. However, the restricted figures inside the country, has a potential to fire the spark. That’s the reason that Rahmon will strictly keep control over these two potentials.

Endnotes


[i]For example HoonanPeimani in his book “Regional Security and the Future of Central Asia: The Competition of Iran, Turkey, and Russia” believes that; P. 28. 

[ii]АкбарТӯрадчонзода, Миёниобуоташ, Саҳифа 5-6.

[iii]Talking to a Tajik expert, MuhammadaliBurhanov.

[iv]Kasymov, Shavkat, (2012), Regional fragmentation in Tajikistan: The shift of powers between different identity groups, Asian Geographer, 30:1, 1-20.

[v]The map is obtained from “Tajikistan: A Political and Social History” written by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, published by ANU E Press, P. 93.

[vi] Three Tajik experts suggested that Dushanbe does not represent any political clan.

[vii] The map is obtained from: https://geology.com/world/tajikistan-satellite-image.shtml.

[viii]Interview with MuhammadjonKabirov, Tajik expert and senior IRPT member.

[ix]Article 71.

[x] The data in table mainly obtained by official websites and in some cases by talking to Tajik experts.

[xi]Freedom in the World 1999 – Tajikistan, https://www.refworld.org/docid/5278c6d58.html.

[xii]Tajikistan: Marriage Folds Northern Elite Into Presidential Family, https://eurasianet.org/tajikistan-marriage-folds-northern-elite-into-presidential-family.

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Central Asia

COVID-19 Pandemic May Result in a Long-term Human Development Crisis in Central Asia

MD Staff

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The COVID-19 pandemic can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on education and human capital, economic and social development in Central Asian countries, where schoolchildren and students make up nearly half of the overall population, warned World Bank experts at an online briefing held today for regional media, experts, academia, and development community in the region. The crisis threatens to deprive this generation of future earnings, as it pushes a large share of Central Asian students into functional illiteracy – inability to read, write, and do math at a level necessary to be productive,  World Bank estimates.

Before the pandemic, education across Central Asia was already suffering from low learning levels, as the countries struggled to eliminate learning poverty, distribute equal opportunities to poor learners, and promote inclusion. Students across the region performed 1.5 years below the average of Europe, i.e.  an average student in Central Asia was a year and a half behind their peer in Europe. Many students in the region also performed significantly below functional literacy, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Learning inequality is of particular concern, with the gap between students from various income levels widening due to a number of factors, including differential access to distance learning for teachers and students, teaching support, access to teaching and learning materials at home, and household contribution to home schooling. According to PISA, in Kazakhstan, children from the poorest families were one year behind their peers, while in the Kyrgyz Republic poor students were 2.5 years behind.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the learning deficiencies, with school closures impacting already marginalized groups, including students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, learners with disabilities and minorities.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a blow to education and learning so destructive we will feel its negative effects for decades to come, including $44 billion in economic loss in Central Asia alone, and this is not our most pessimistic scenario,” said Ayesha Vawda, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank in Central Asia during the event. “Central Asian countries took swift action to deliver emergency learning via multiple channels and modes. Now is the time for governments to respond in a way that lays the foundation of the new education system – one that is high quality, resilient and equitable”.

During the briefing, the World Bank stressed that education needs to be at the forefront of the national recovery plans in Central Asia. The countries need to protect education budgets, improve the quality of distance learning, allow flexibility in the curricula to focus on competencies and skills instead of knowledge, empower teachers with effective remediation strategies and with diagnostic and formative assessments and increased instruction time to allow recovery of learning losses.

As teachers become more aware of the learning, and learning loss of each child, remedial education plans will need to be developed. Special attention will need to be given to those students who have suffered the most during the school closures. The countries also need to develop digital skills amongst students, youth and teachers and increase teacher-student interaction on different distance learning platforms to better respond to the needs of the continuing crises.

The World Bank in Central Asia and globally has always put special focus on education and building human capital, understanding too well that these investments bring the highest dividends,” said Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “Currently, we have adapted three education projects in the region to respond to COVID: in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan. Through these projects, we were able to mobilize some support for emergency and remote learning. For instance, in Kazakhstan this includes monitoring distance learning and provision of digital equipment for rural teachers”.

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Tajik opposition movement

Malgosia Krakowska

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Once fractured Tajik opposition has joined forces in Warsaw to challenge the regime in Dushanbe. Early September 2018, an opposition coalition of four Tajik dissident parties and organisations (the Forum of Tajik Freethinkers, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the Association of Central Asian Migrants, and the People’s Movement “Reforms and Development in Tajikistan) formed an alliance to fight the regime from the outside.

But is the political mobilization strong enough to resonate in their native Tajikistan?

Outside of this geographically challenging and historically conflict-ridden state (ed. from 1992 to 1997, Tajikistan was shattered by a deadly civil war), the stories of dissidents rarely receive international attention. The regime, already shaken by the 2012 Uprising in Khorog and the Islamic State threat, is determined to silence dissenting voices outside the country, and to overthrow foes as fast as they show up.

Photo: the Tajik Opposition Alliance (photo by author).

In Russia, several members of the dissident movement Group 24 had been detained, kidnapped or extradited to Tajikistan. In Turkey, a founder of the group was killed and his family poisoned.

Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch  said that the level of surveillance and activity of security services in post-Soviet republics is very high.

This case dramatizes the issue of human rights abuse in Tajikistan.

The disappearance of a young political activist Ehson Odinayev, 24, has become a symbol of a long harrowing nightmare. For several months, the Tajik KGB was on a Kafkaesque hunt after Odinayev for his  ‘extremist’ social media posts. He was charged with ‘cyberterrorism’. Odinayev vanished without a trace on May 19, 2015.  

The regime visited vengeance on the dissidents also outside of Russia.

In March 2015 in Istanbul, the leader of Group 24 Umarali Quvvatov was gunned down, and his family members poisoned. Shabnam Khudaidodova suffered brutal torture after she was detained in Belarus. Only enormous pressure from human rights organizations- including appeals from Human Rights Watch- saved her from extradition. Or from disappearance.

International organizations, admittedly, have few appealing options for stopping the repressions. Denunciations from Human Rights, Freedom House or Amnesty International have failed to affect the government’s position on dissidents. And placing economic sanctions would only aggravate an already charged situation, and drive the authoritarian ruler further in the arms of Russia and/ or China.

So far there is not much sign of the fresh dawn for any major change for the downfall of the out-of-touch autocrats.

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