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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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Central Asia

Kazakh President Tokaev introduces reforms

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Authors: Srimal Fernando and Kirtan Bhana* 

Political transformation will make Kazakhstan a success story. Political reforms will ignite progress in economic reforms this, according to President Tokaev  as he met with the National Council of Public Trust in Nur-Sultan (formerly Astana), the Kazakh capital on December 20.

The Council, created by President Tokaev .   in July is entrusted with facilitating the reforms through interactions and discussions with the general public, political parties, civil society and business. Composed of 44 public figures the Council is representative of the broader Kazakh demographic.

‘Different Opinions, One Nation’ said the President as he introduced new measures that guarantee the fundamental rights and freedoms to all its citizens. These measures will deepen the public discourse allowing for debate and open engagement on issues that affect all Kazakhs.

The emotive issue of land and its effective use was top on the list of challenges to be tackled by the Tokaev  Presidency.  Apart from the unbreakable link to ancestry and heritage the economic value of the land is priceless. Kazakhstan is listed as the 9th largest country in the world with a relatively small population of around 19 million people. On this issue, my position is adamant: only those who are able to cultivate the land deserve to be its owner stated Tokaev. The Ministry of Agriculture is implementing a pilot project to monitor unused land through remote earth sensing, and to increase the base tax rate for those who own but do not use their land from 10 to 20 times.

Growing the private sector and reducing the economic involvement of state businesses in competitive markets and adjusting the quota of foreign labour by 40% were also proposed.  

On Foreign debt President Tokaev  instructed The Ministries of the National Economy, Finance and the National Bank to develop a Unified Register of External Debt in the form of a digitised database by April 2020.

Stabilising the Tenge (the currency in Kazakhstan) to increase public and investor confidence, a new monetary policy strategy will be adopted. The National Bank will, from 1 January, announce the exchange rate of the National Fund’s currency market on a monthly basis.

Modernizing the pension system, jobs for disabled people, state allowances and social packages for low-income households will be increased by over 70%.  In addition school going children from these families will receive free school meals, uniforms and kits, as well as free transportation to and from school. These were among other social services measures presented to the council.

Political reforms were central to the President’s remarks. A draft law on political rallies will outline the correct registration procedures of political rallies and will determine the status of the organiser(s), participants, observers and their respective rights and obligations. A minimum membership threshold needed to register a political party will be reduced from 40,000 to 20,000 members. Women and Youth candidates must make up 30% of party election lists. A law will be passed to allow representatives from other parties to hold Chair positions on some Parliamentary committees, in order to foster alternative views and opinions.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is tasked to begin the process of acceding to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which deals with abolishing the death penalty. Article 130 of the Criminal Code on defamation will be decriminalised and transferred to the Administrative Code.

Key Domestic reforms include the transition of the Kazakh language from a Cyrillic to a Latin alphabet will necessitate a modernising of the language system and require a scientific approach.

“Much depends on simple values that are cherished by our people, in the family, in everyday life. Frankly speaking, today people are tired of the world full of aggression and conflict. Therefore, we must spread good intentions and good actions. We should be kind, benevolent and principled – this is the driving force of sustainable development and spiritual revival,” said President Tokaev as he concluded his speech.

*Kirtan Bhana in the Founding Editor and Travel Envoy for the Diplomatic Society of South Africa.

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Central Asia

Kazakhstan: Celebrating 28 Years of Independence

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Pictured cutting the celebratory cake are (l-r) Mr Kanat Tumysh, Ambassador of Kazakhstan, Mr Joseph Gerard B. Angeles, Ambassador of Philippines and Dean of the Asian Group, Mr Bene M’Poko, Ambassador of the DRC and Dean of the Diplomatic Corps and Dr Monde Tom, Director-General of the Department of Trade and Investment of South Africa

Authors: Srimal Fernando and Kirtan Bhana

In Kazakhstan, like in many other nations around the globe, Independence Day is commemorated by conferring awards, national orders and medals on those that have made exemplary contributions to statehood. On December 16, 1991 the Constitutional Independence Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan was passed making Kazakhstan the last of the Soviets to leave the Union and declare sovereignty.

Many other milestones followed this historic date for the Kazakh people, including membership of the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1992 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1994. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of the closing of the world’s second largest Nuclear Test Site at Semipalatinsk by the historic decree of Nursultan Nazarbayev, First President of Kazakhstan, which paved the way for the adoption in 1996 of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty – CTBT. The country was declared a nuclear weapon free country.

Located strategically in the heart of Central Asia, Kazakhstan shares a 6800km border with Russia and a1700km border with China. Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are the other three regional neighbours. Kazakhstan is considered a landlocked country but adjoins a large part of the Caspian Sea in the west.

The Kazakh people elected a Presidential system of government with two chambers of parliament. There are 14 political parties; Nur-Otan is the current ruling party. The lower house is the Mazhilis, with 107 seats and the upper house is the Senate which has 47 members. Women representation in national and local government is steadily increasing.

Having diplomatic relations with over 120 countries, Kazakhstan has a clear multi-vector international relations policy and has achieved much on the global stage in almost three decades of independence. Being elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), Kazakhstan was further crowned by being elected as president of the UNSC for 2018. Its stance on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is well known and so is its support for the transformation of the UNSC. Kazakhstan also presented a proposal for ending terrorism in the world by 2025 during its presidency.

Kazakhstan has become a fully integrated member of the international community joining many multilateral organizations, and bilateral treaties and agreements. Turkey was the first country to present letter of credence for the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador to Kazakhstan.

The radical transformation of the economic to a free market has seen large foreign direct invest flows into the country, growing the economy to become the most significant in the Central Asian region. New president KassymJomart Tokayev has introduced a raft of new measures that are directly aimed at stimulating enterprise, entrepreneurship and small business development. Other reforms introduced are motivation for Kazakhstan to become one of the top 30 economic nations.

Islam was introduced to Kazakhstan in the 7th century. Its ancient history is steeped in nomadic life of hunters and animal rearing. The philosophy of Al-Farabi and the poetry of Abai is legendary and filled with folklore. The dombra, a string instrument, is at the very essence of Kazakh culture and resonates with the music of love and heartache.

Modern and contemporary art forms, classical music and ballet have also found place in Kazakh society as the younger generations narrate poetry in restaurants. This together with the Kazakh’s nomadic heritage, Islamic traditions and modern art and culture has become an attraction for tourists looking for new and dynamic destinations to experience and explore. Its breath-taking landscapes and abundant natural beauty and the snow-capped mountains offers much to the intrepid traveller as it emerges as a unified nation with much potential, opportunities and prospects.

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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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