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Qassem Soleimani’s Broken Dream in Central Asia

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Exactly two months ago, Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was killed, whom the Shiite world considered a national hero, while the Sunni regimes of the Arabian Peninsula regarded him as evil incarnate. What legacy has Soleimani left in Central Asia? Will the Iranian policy in Central Asia change after the loss of its most influential military strategist? Is the threat to US interests in the Middle East and Central Asia “after Soleimani” gone?

Central Asia after Qassem Soleimani

The five post-Soviet countries of Central Asia are cautiously following the development of confrontation between the US and Iran trying to take a “middle ground” without interfering in “someone else’s war”. Neither political leaders nor the foreign policymakers of these Muslim republics expressed their condolences to Iran on the occasion of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful general, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force (IRGC-QF). The books of condolences for General Qassem Soleimani at the Iranian embassies in Central Asia did not contain records even of mid-level officials. Kazakh president Kassym-JomartTokayev expressed his condolences to the Iranian people, not because of the assassination of Major General, but because of the crash of a Ukrainian airliner mistakenly downed by IRGC during the so-called “Iran’s revenge missile attack” at US military base in Iraq on January 8, 2020.

The analysis had shown that Central Asia’s presidents tried to overlook the fact of Qassem Soleimani’s assassination. Even Moscow’s position, condemning Washington for the murder of “Putin’s friend” and expressing condolences to Iran, could not force Central Asian leaders to speak about their own opinion on this event. Yet it is no secret that due to its economic and political influence, Moscow plays a key role in the foreign policy orientation for these post-Soviet republics. Such demonstrative “neutrality” is connected, first of all, with the concern of the region’s leaders that the US-Iran conflict in the Middle East could reflect onto Central Asia’s neighbor, Iran. Consequently, it could be expected that Central Asian governments will try to find a “diplomatic balance” between Washington and Tehran, as they wish to maintain cooperation with each of them individually. As a result, they will not openly take either side in the US-Iranian confrontation to the detriment of one of them.

After losing its distinguished military strategist, not a single high-ranking Iranian politician has yet visited Central Asia. Tehran’s attention today is turned to the Middle East where it makes clumsy attempts to oust the United States from Iraq. The Trump administration pursues a comprehensive policy aimed at maximum pressure on Iran not only in the Middle East but throughout the world, including the Central Asian region.

On February 3, 2020, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Central Asia, where within the framework of the meeting of the so-called C5+1 he defended US strategic interests, including aimed at minimizing Iran’s influence in the region. A month earlier, January 7, 2020, Alice Wells, U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, during a meeting with Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin, stated that “the chaos and unrest created by Iran directly through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threaten Tajikistan’s security and stability.” However, this time as well, Tajikistan, balancing between Washington and Tehran, cautiously circumvented the US-Iran confrontation and did not comment on the destructive activities of Iran’s Quds Force and the role of its former leader Qassem Soleimani.

However, unlike government officials, middle-level politicians and analysts widely commented on Qassem Soleimani’s assassination, blaming the US of “imperial behavior”. For instance, Tajik politician Shodi Shabdolov compared Trump’s actions, who ordered the neutralization of Qassem Soleimani, to a madman. He added that if a war between Washington and Tehran begins, it would be the end of the US, as it underestimates Iran’s military power.

Another well-known analyst, head of the Tajik Political Scientists Association Abdugani Mamadazimov, noted that Soleimani’s liquidation opens the door to a hybrid war, during which American embassies and other institutions in the region and in Europe can become targets for attacks by pro-Iranian Shiite militias. An analysis of local media showed that some public figures and organizations working closely with Iran for many years have expressed their support for Tehran and consider Qassem Soleimani to be a Shahid (Martyr)

Qassem Soleimani’s Shadow in Central Asia

The political elite and security agencies of newly independent Central Asian states knew first-hand Qassem Soleimani, who twice, officially and secretly, visited the region to strengthen Iranian military interests in the late 90s and early 2000s. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Iran seriously intended to expand its influence into Central Asia, using Islamic commonality, its transit attractiveness with access to Persian Gulf’s trading ports and common language factor with Tajikistan. It is known that Tajiks and Iranians are the closest related peoples in the world, speaking the same Persian language. During his presidency, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani had declared Tajikistan as an integral part of the “Great Persian World”.

To expand Iranian military influence, Tajikistan has become an ideal launching pad, the army of which was the weakest in the region, requiring external financial and technical assistance for modernization. Soon, Tehran began to actively use its leverage in the seven-year civil war in Tajikistan, playing the role of a mediator between the government of Emomali Rahmon and the Tajik Islamic opposition leader, Said Abdullo Nuri, in essence, providing hidden support to the latter.

Iran planned to realize the strengthening of its influence in Central Asia in two directions. The first provided for the establishment of political, economic and cultural cooperation with the government of Rafsanjani. The second way concerned the strengthening of military cooperation between the two countries and the creation of informal militarized groups within the Tajik Islamic opposition, focused exclusively on Tehran. The second focus was under the personal control of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who gave the task to his right-hand man, the Quds Force’s chief Qassem Soleimani to assess the prospects of creating Iran’s effective system of informal leverage in Central Asia opposing the United States.

For the first time, Qassem Soleimani visited Tajikistan on January 18, 1999, at the head of the Iranian military delegation, during which he met with Tajik Minister of Defense SheraliKhairullaev. According to the Tajik Ministry of Defense, the parties discussed the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding in the field of security between the two countries. The two generals agreed to form a joint intergovernmental defense commission.

As one of the participants in that meeting later told, General Qassem Soleimani surprised many with his pronounced modesty and courtesy. He spoke in a quiet calm tone, without drawing attention to himself, which is not typical for post-Soviet military commanders educated in the spirit of Russian military traditions. His visit went unnoticed, with no media attention.

However, the real reason for Soleimani’s visit was to protect Iran’s interests in Afghanistan after the Taliban executed 8 Iranian diplomats. But instead of confronting the Taliban from the Iranian border, Soleimani directed the operations in support of the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, also known as the “Northern Alliance,” from the Tajik border. This was a unique case when the interests of the governments of Central Asia, Iran, Russia and the West coincided against the Taliban, and Soleimani successfully implemented the model of proxy warfare.

According to local sources, the second time Qassem Soleimani secretly visited Central Asia through Turkmenistan after September 11, 2001. But information about the purposes of his visit and the participants of the meeting is practically not available. Perhaps his visit was related to the upcoming deployment of U.S. troops in Central Asia, which Tehran considers a threat to its security.

Unlike the Middle East, Iran failed to create its proxies in Tajikistan. The main obstacle to the creation of the pro-Iranian Network was the difference in religious views between Central Asian Sunni Islam and Iranian Shiism. The majority of Central Asians belong to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, which doesn’t accept Shia ideology in the region. Qassem Soleimani, as a realist military strategist, soberly assessed the situation that Iran would not be able to create strong levers of pressure in the region with the help of fragmented Tajik Islamists. In addition, Russia could not allow the creation of Iranian interests in Central Asia, which it considers a zone of its influence. Soleimani convinced Ayatollah Ali Khamenei of the futility of creating pro-Iranian proxy groups in Central Asia. He expressed his concern that funding for Tajik radical Islamists could push Dushanbe away from Tehran, and, as a result, Khamenei abandoned this venture. What Iran failed to achieve in Central Asia, it more than compensated for in the Middle East ten years later.

After 15 years, Major General’s concerns have come true. Relations between Tajikistan and Iran seriously deteriorated in 2015. 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 MuhiddinKabiri, who left the country due to political persecution of the authorities.

After the failure of Iran’s plan in Central Asia, Qassem Soleimani brilliantly completed the task assigned to him by Ayatollah Khamenei in the Middle East. He successfully created a pro-Iranian Shi`a Foreign Fighter Network of 50 000 bayonets, which became an effective tool of Tehran’s influence in the Middle East. Today Soleimani’s unique creation, Shia proxy groups such as Hezbollah, Liwa Fatemiyoun, Liwa Zainebiyoun, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, Asaib Ahl al- Haq, play the role of Iran’s shock transnational terrorist forces against interests of US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.

Iran-Central Asia Military Cooperation: Problems and Challenges

As we said above, the official government of Iran conducted military cooperation with Central Asian countries. In order to jointly combat the threats of terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking, Iran has signed a package of bilateral treaties with all governments of Central Asia.

 In particular, there are intergovernmental agreements between Iran and Uzbekistan on Border cooperation, Cooperation in reducing drug use and controlling the production of narcotic and psychotropic substances. In June 2000, a Memorandum on cooperation in the fight against terrorism, transnational crime and illegal migration was signed between the National Security Service of Uzbekistan and the Ministry of Information of Iran, which performs the tasks of intelligence, counterintelligence and counter-terrorism. 

However, the military cooperation between Uzbekistan and Iran was sharply reduced after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the deployment of the U.S. military base in Uzbek Khanabad to combat international terrorism in Afghanistan. Tehran was opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in Central Asia. Moreover, Uzbekistan was alarmed by unofficial allegations that Iran allegedly provided asylum to the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its leader, Tahir Yuldash, after September 11, and the Iranian secret services allegedly trained and supplied them with documents, weapons and explosives. Tehran has repeatedly denied the allegations. However, given the fact that the IMU was closely linked with Al Qaeda, and after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, Iranian authorities allowed Osama bin Laden’s family to reside temporarily in the eastern Iranian city of Zahedan, the claims of the Uzbek side about Iranian secret service would possibly have a solid foundation

Despite the denial of Iran’s intelligence services of any ties with the IMU, this assumption left a deep distrust between the two countries. Fearing Tehran’s declared “export of the Islamic revolution”, although this did not fit into Iran’s policy in Central Asia, President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, sharply reduced economic, cultural and military ties with Iran.

The political leaders of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were not interested in military cooperation with Iran because of their pro-Western views. They actively participated in the NATO Partnership for Peace program, under which they received military and technical assistance from Western countries and trained their military personnel in Russia. The activity of the U.S. military base at Bishkek’s Manas airport in Kyrgyzstan (2002-13) and the participation of Kazakhstan’s peacekeeping troops in the U.S. led coalition in Iraq (2003-08) deterred Iran’s desire to military cooperation with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

 Iran tried to develop close military cooperation with Tajikistan and through it to extend its military influence in Central Asia. The only Iranian military attaché in Central Asia worked at the Iranian embassy in Tajikistan, who was responsible for the development of military cooperation with other countries of the “Five Stans”. 

 Military delegations of Iran and Tajikistan regularly made mutual visits. More than 20 agreements were signed between the Ministries of Defense of these two countries, in particular, the Memorandum of understanding on military-technical cooperation, the Agreement on cooperation in training of the military personnel, and also Intergovernmental Memorandum of fighting organized crime and drug trafficking. In addition, the Iranian-Tajik intergovernmental commission on defense was created and conducted regular meetings.

 In 2005, Tajikistan began to cooperate with IRGC. The leadership of the IRGC declared its readiness to cooperate in training Tajik military personnel on the basis of two Iranian military universities in the fields of engineering and military medicine, communications and electronics. Iran also expressed readiness to send its military advisers to Tajikistan to train 500 Tajik soldiers to participate in maneuvers and to work out attacks in mountainous areas. Tehran was willing to take on the costs of their training.

 In 2010, the Ministry of Defense of Iran launched an initiative to develop military cooperation in the framework of the Union of Persian-Speaking Nations between Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Iran. According to the Iranian side, such cooperation can be effective in the fight against drugs and international terrorism and will ensure security in the region. 

 However, Iran failed to fulfill its intentions to expand cooperation with Central Asia in the military-technical sphere for several reasons. First, Russia was and remains the main military partner of Tajikistan, which did not allow the expansion of Iran’s military influence in the post-Soviet space. Tehran’s recognition of Moscow’s special interests in Central Asia forced Iran to hold its horses in the region, and such deft diplomatic maneuvering has been appreciated by the Kremlin. Tehran’s diplomatic courtesy in Central Asia allowed it to create a tactical alliance with Russia in the Middle East. According to Reuters, it was Soleimani who personally persuaded Putin to intervene in the Syrian war during an unofficial visit to Moscow in July 2015.

Secondly, the problematic state of Iran’s economy, the low potential of its national military industry, and outdated military equipment were an inhibiting factor of Iran’s ambitions.  

Thirdly, the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran played an important role to curb Iran’s military influence in Central Asia.

In conclusion, Iran’s strategy in Central Asia after the assassination of Qassem Soleimani is unlikely to change. It is to be expected that Tehran will continue to pursue its policy in the region taking into account Russian interests. The tactical alliance of Moscow and Tehran, and their strategic interests today are directed against the expansion of US influence in Central Asia and the Middle East.

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Central Asia

In Tajikistan, a Digital Future as an Alternative to Unemployment or Migration

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The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified development challenges and sharpened the view on opportunities to overcome them. Evidently, policymakers were confronted with the healthcare system’s limitations, and the socio-economic impacts from the crisis directed the focus on social assistance, agriculture and food processing, and the need for accelerating reforms necessary to develop more of a partnership with the private sector.

As a country with a young and growing, largely rural population, with legacy challenges of considerable connectivity constraints, Tajikistan has felt acutely institutional and infrastructure constraints during the partial lockdown and strict travel restrictions, with a growing sense of translating these weaknesses into sources of post-crisis recovery and resilience.

Central to this effort is the prospect of digital transformation, with a view to increasing the quality of public service delivery and crowding in private-sector activities, including in the country’s rural and remote regions.

With a view to “leapfrogging” into a digital future, Tajikistan has the potential to respond to the pandemic’s detrimental development impacts substantively—as a critical element of an economic policy package with which to strengthen the foundation for a dynamic, sustainable, and inclusive recovery over the longer term.

The digital agenda was of global strategic significance well before the pandemic, and it has grown exponentially as a result of the crisis. Indeed, COVID-19 has unleashed an unprecedented dynamism in digital innovations. Throughout the world, digital technologies have provided governments, businesses, and individuals with the means to cope with social distancing, ensure business continuity, and enable remote learning.

Reliable, high-speed internet has helped to prevent service interruptions that would otherwise have contributed to welfare, revenue, and employment losses. Governments and businesses across the globe have negotiated virtually, while families have benefited from access to online education and e-health services.

Tajikistan has already seen the benefits of an advanced ICT industry. During 2000–15, it was one of the country’s fastest growing sectors, contributing to socio-economic development and, indirectly, to state budget revenues.

Through transparent licensing procedures and low licensing fees, Tajikistan translated effectively its economy’s relative weakness—low penetration rates—into an ability to attract reputable international operators. In early 2015, the telecom regulator reported ICT revenue growth rates of close to 15 percent. Since then, however, gross revenues in the ICT sector have started to fall gradually, with the number of new subscribers having begun to decelerate.

This has affected the present situation. Today, Tajikistan is suffering from limited access to, and high prices for, internet services, especially in rural areas, where more than 70 percent of the population lives. In 2019, far less than one in a hundred households had broadband internet access (primarily in urban areas), and only 35 percent had mobile internet access.

Similarly, only a handful of enterprises have broadband access and fewer than one percent offer digital services. This limited use of the internet has hindered economic development, including the transformation of the country’s industrial sectors. The situation is aggravated by high prices for international connectivity, the high cost of public services, limited local connections, and weak content development.

The principal question is whether the changing regulatory environment and the lack of a level playing field in the market (given the dominance of the state-owned telecom company) have contributed to the worsening sector performance. Similarly, critical are the potential links between high tax margins and the ability to reinvest funds in 3G/4G infrastructure and general industry development.

It is understood that, without the expansion of high-speed internet, digital transformation will not be possible in Tajikistan, and e-government services and mobile financial applications cannot be advanced. Without a focus on the required reforms, prices will remain among the highest in the world, even in face of limited access and low speeds.  

The Government of Tajikistan has expressed interest in fostering the development of a digital economy and, in this context, joining the World Bank-financed Digital CASA project. The project aims at increasing access to more affordable internet, crowding in private investment in the ICT sector, and improving the Government’s capacity to deliver digitally public services.

Related interventions are embedded in related infrastructure investments in Central Asia and parts of South Asia, through which a regionally integrated digital infrastructure is to be developed and an enabling environment supported. Tajikistan’s central location in the region—it shares borders with Afghanistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan—positions it as a strategic linchpin in the regional network infrastructure as envisioned by broad Digital CASA design.

For this intervention to provide the envisaged COVID-19 response potential, Tajikistan will be collaborating with World Bank experts in implementing less restrictive regulatory policies, ensuring better connectivity, and improving the sector’s operational and financial performance. These reforms and interventions would help to generate additional resources that could be re-invested in more innovative, affordable, and accessible services.

If successful, this kind of ICT strategy—with forward-looking, dynamic, and profitable firms employing (young) people countrywide—would stimulate significant socio-economic development and yield additional revenues for the state budget.

By removing entry barriers and implementing a modern regulatory framework, Tajikistan could attract more private investment, thereby creating a virtuous cycle as newly established, profitable private enterprises would co-finance the deployment of broadband infrastructure and improved network capacity, including last-mile investments.

There is considerable interest in, and potential for, the full digital transformation of Tajikistan’s economy, from new tech firms to e-government, cashless payments, and smart city solutions. For this to work, however, removing the existing constraints to a more favorable business environment would have to be a policy priority

If given the right support, Tajikistan’s digital transformation could help the country to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis stronger, more competitive, and ready to support efforts in addressing development challenges and creating new opportunities. Notwithstanding the inflationary use of transformational objectives, for young Tajiks it is clear: a digital future is the most promising alternative to unemployment or migration.

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Win-Win or Zero-Sum Game: Relationship of China and Kyrgyzstan

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In the context of the economic relationship between China and Central Asian countries, mostly Chinese officials emphasize relations as a win-win cooperation. In the context of the win-win cooperation, Central Asian countries export their products and raw materials to China and attract investment and financial assistance from China for improving their infrastructure. In return, China exports its products to these countries, gain new market, diversify its export-import and energy routes and expand its economic influence through Central Asia. With regard to the Sino-Kyrgyz relations, we analyze their economic relations in order to see whether the two countries’ relations bases on win-win cooperation or zero-sum cooperation. If both of them relation basis on win-win cooperation, we may see that in the long term, two countries benefit from economic relations, increase their interdependency and improve their economy. In contrast to win-win, if the basis of the relations on zero-sum cooperation, we see that one side benefits from economic relations in the long term and increase its economic influence, but other side increase its dependency to another side and only benefit economic relation in the short term rather than the long term.

Since gaining independence in the 1990s, economic relations with China play an important role in the Kyrgyzstan economy. Kyrgyzstan was the first country among Central Asian countries that it was a member of WTO. Membership of WTO created a range of opportunities to country improve its economic relations with China. When China became a member of WTO in 2001, two countries’ trade flows increased quickly (Omuralieva, 2014: 81). Kyrgyzstan located strategic geography for China because it plays an important role in diversifying China’s export-import routes and provide a wholesale market for Chinese goods. Chinese officials always argue that Sino-Kyrgyz relations are mutually beneficial and base on win-win cooperation. In this essay, we especially pay attention to China-Kyrgyz economic relations in the context of trade, investment, and aid policy in order to explain the relations between two countries whether base on win-win or zero-sum cooperation.

Trade

Trade and economic cooperation play important role for the development of Kyrgyz-Chinese relations. Cooperation in this direction is carried out in the framework of the signed intergovernmental Agreements on trade and economic cooperation in 1998 and the establishment of the Kyrgyz-Chinese intergovernmental Commission on trade and economic cooperation in 1994.  China is the main trade and investment partner of Kyrgyzstan. China took the first place in trade and investment in the economy of Kyrgyzstan at the end of the 2016 and 2017. Trade between China and Kyrgyzstan is inherently unbalanced. Trade turnover between China and Kyrgyzstan was accounted for 1.597 billion US dollars in 2017. Export was 97.5 million US dollars, import – 1.500 billion US dollars(Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic in the People’s Republic of China, 2018).Chinese exports to Kyrgyzstan consist of cloths, agricultural products, and light machinery while Kyrgyzstan’s exports toChina agriculture products and natural resources(Reeves, 2015: 122).

Besides, Chinese merchants play a dominant role with the trade network of Kyrgyzstan. Both Dordoi and Kara Suu bazaar are the large wholesale and retail market in Bishkek. Both bazaars due the low taxes and location plays key role for Chinese merchants. 75% of the goods of Dordoi bazaar and 85% of goods of Kara Suu bazaar come from China. Kyrgyzstan import China’s goods and re-export these goods to other regional countries. The monthly turnover of both Dordoi and Kara Suu bazaars were 331 million US dollars and 90 million US dollars respectively in 2012. We may say that these bazaars are the main motor of the Kyrgyzstan’s economy (Omuralieva, 2014: 86-87). Furthermore, China’s import of Kyrgyz products and raw materials also help to Kyrgyzstan to alleviate the impact of inflation (Tian, 2018).

In the context of the trade between two countries, despite the Kyrgyzstan’s gains as an importer and transporter of goods, Sino-Kyrgyz relations consist of the asymmetrical trade relationship. Firstly, last years, Kyrgyzstan textile and apparel sectors grow so fast and China play a key role in these sectors (Reeves, 2015: 122). Because cotton and wool are produced in Kyrgyzstan and export mainly China. In addition, due the lack of modern standards low quality clusters, Kyrgyzstan do not export these goods to developed countries or cannot compete other regional exporters such as China, Turkey and Korea but export to less developed western China’s cities, predominantly (Birkman, 2012: 24-25). Secondly and more importantly, Kyrgyzstan relies on China’s good for its commercial service sector because Kyrgyz traders has developed its commercial sector around the China’s imports which they re-export these goods to other regional countries, that is why, without Chinese imports, country’s service sector would collapse or lose its main sources for economic growths (Reeves, 2015: 122-123). According to Marlène Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse, Beijing has transformed Kyrgyzstan into a China-dependent economy that can survive mainly by re-exporting Chinese products (Omonkulov, 2020: 76).

Investment and Finance

China also play dominant role in Kyrgyztan economy in terms of investment and finance. Since 2001, China was the main source of the all FDI investment (Reeves, 2015: 123). Between 2006-2017, cumulative gross of Chinese FDI flow as equal to 2.3 billion US dollar and for this period China provided 25-50% of total FDI of Kyrgyztan, which is equivalen to 2-7% of the country’s GDP (Mogilevskii, 2019: 09).

Since 1990s, China mostly has been preferring to invest Kyrgyztan’s mining and oil sector. For example, in 2011, a Chinese company namely Zijin Mining purchased mine, which is located in Talas province in Taldy- Burak region and Chinese Full Gold Mine Company operated Ishtamberdy mine in Jalalabad province in the south part of Kyrgyzstan in the summer of 2011(Omuralieva, 2014: 90-91). In 2012, Chinese company purchased old paper factor and 20 hectares of land in order to construct oil refinery. The company will invest 70 million US dollars for constructing factories.  Furthermore, Chinese companies operate some 10 medium-sized mines producing gold-copper concentrate which is exported for refining to China(Mogilevskii, 2019: 10). In addition to mining sector, China also invests oil sector in Kyrgyzstan. For example, China financed two refineries in Kyrgyzstan, namely Kara-Balta and Tomok oil refineries. These refineries are supplied by CNPC-operated oil fields in neighboring Kazakhstan and produce 1.35 million refined products per year (Pradhan, 2018: 10). Moreover, China announced that it would provide $1.4 billion in FDI for constructing Kyrgyzstan-China oil pipeline (Reeves, 2015: 123).

In the context of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China also prefers to invest infrastructure and energy project in Kyrgyzstan. In terms of infrastructure projects,the planned China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway and the North-South Highway, for which China’s Exim Bank has lent 400 million dollars for the construction of its first phase, are considered as one of the most ambitious transportation projects in Beijing’s Kyrgyzstan (Omonkulov, 2020: 72; Toktomushev, 2016: 02). By the help of the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, China has a chance to diversify its export and imports routes and also secure its energy routes. For Kyrgyzstan side, officials in the country hope that attract Chinese investment. In addition, Kyrgyzstan will gain 261 million US dollars per year as a transit country. However, the project has been postponed for years due to government debt and domestic political concerns in Kyrgyzstan. That is why, China and Uzbekistan introduced combined road-rail corridor – freight from China will be unloaded in Kyrgyzstan to reach the Uzbek section of the railway by road (CHOICE, 2021).Apart from railway project, China gave 60 million Yuan unreturned credit to Kyrgyzstan for the construction of China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan highway in 2011(Omuralieva, 2014: 83-85).

With regard to the energy projects, China has financed the construction of the Datka electricity substation and the 405-kilometer Datka-Kemin transmission line. These projects help to improve country’s energy system and reduce its dependence from regional countries (Toktomushev, 2016: 02; Mogilevskii, 2019: 09). For securing its energy security, China also try to diversify its energy routes. From this perspective, Kyrgyzstan play a strategic role for China. In the context of the China-Central Asia gas pipeline energy project, China decided to construct one of the routes, namely gas line D, through theKyrgyzstan. Construction of the gas line started in 2018. By the way of the this project, Kyrgyzstan take a benefit as a transit country (Akıncı, 2019: 88; Omuralieva, 2014: 88).

China’s investment in Kyrgyzstan have both positive and negative effects to country’s economy. From the positive sides, firstly, some of the Chinese project is under the construction and some of the is completed recently, that is why we cannot expect major impact on the countries production capacity but  we see these projects effects via comparison of the average annual GDP growth rates. A comparison of the average annual GDP growth rates in 2011-2017 and in 2000-2010 shows some increase from 4.2% per annum (2000-2010) to 4.8% per annum (2011-2017)(Mogilevskii, 2019: 12).There is no doubt that other factors also contribute the GDP growth but most Chinese investment increases share gross domestic products in Kyrgyzstan and affect positively to GDP. Secondly, improving the relationship with China contribute to Kyrgyzstan’s developing country’s total factor productivity (TFP) and help to country to develop an export-oriented economy, better market linkages. Moreover, China’s investment creates new jobs for local people.Furthermore, China’s investment inindustry of Kyrgyzstan inject energy to landlocked country’s economy and promote flexible and innovative entrepreneurial development in Kyrgzystan. One of the example is emerging sewing industry in Bishkek (Tian, 2018).Finally, Chinese investment contribute to improve Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure.

Aid and Loan policy

Most of China’s assistance to Central Asian countries mostly consist of the soft loans (i.e. concessional or low-interest loans below market rates, which do not contain grant elements – and government- backed or subsidized investments in infrastructure and natural resources). Compare to the Western assistance, China’s assistance gives a great advantage to donor such asincreased access to energy resources and lucrative contracts for Chinese companies. Due the bad governance, poverty and instability, Kyrgyzstan is one the country that receive largest share of Chinese assistance. China is the one of the most important for Kyrgyzstan in terms of concessional loans and grant aid. China is the largest concessional loans provider to Kyrgyzstan which is account for more than 60% of the country’s planned funding between 2013 and 2016. Most of China’s loans and aid design to improve infrastructure projects, such as North-South highway or China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway. For example, China pledged 3 billion US dollar loans for infrastructure development. China is also main sources for the Kyrgyzstan in the context of the aid. For instance, China gives 16 million US dollar to Kyrgyzstan between 2000-2007 (Reeves, 2015: 123-124). In addition to the assistance for improving infrastructure, China also sends aid for building school and hospital, as a result of which, new and existing schools and hospitals benefit from improvement and upgrading of specialist equipment, technology and logistics. Finally, China also sends aid to Kyrgyzstan for reconstructing of the residential areas of Southern Kyrgyzstan which were affected violent ethnic riot in 2010 (Bossuyt, 2019). 

Firstly, China’s aid to Kyrgyzstan help to country improve its infrastructure and break landlocked geography. Furthermore, improving of infrastructure also create a chance to Kyrgyzstan diversifies its export and import routes. Secondly, sending aid for modernizing or building new hospital and school may increase people’s lifestyle and contribute to education of younger people. Finally, China’s aid also helps to country upgrade its electricity generation plants and transmission line. Developing electricity system contribute to the energy independence of Kyrgyzstan.

The fast development of Kyrgyz infrastructure by the way of the massive inflow of resources resulted in the growth of Kyrgyzstan’s debt burden. China also main creditor of Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China reached 1.7 billion dollars or 44% of its total foreign debt (3.8 billion dollars) as of February 2018. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan borrowed a total of $ 4.5 billion from China’s credit line under the Belt-Road Project (Omonkulov, 2020: 75). Despite the positive impact of aid on Kyrgyzeconomy, growing debt also increase country’s dependency on China and lead vulnerable position versus China.

Conclusion

In the context of the Sino-Kyrgyz trade relations, despite Kyrgyzstan’s gains as an importer and transporter of Chinese goods, Sino-Kyrgyz relations consist of an asymmetrical trade relationship. Kyrgyzstan export mainly textiles and raw materials to China and import technological and manufactured products. Maybe Kyrgyzstan benefits from trade relations in the short term but, in the long term, Kyrgyzstan’s dependence on China increases. In addition, exporting mostly export raw materials to China, Kyrgyzstan does not improve its human capital and high skilled labor force. With regard to the trade relations, Sino-Kyrgyz relations seem to bases on zero-sum cooperation in the long term rather than win-win cooperation.

With regards to the investment, despite the contribution of Kyrgyzstan’s annual GDP growth rates and improve the total factor productivity and export-oriented economy, Chinese investment has different negative effects on the Kyrgyz economy. One of the main purposes of the Chinese investment in the mining, oil, and infrastructure sector is to increase the country’s extraction and export of natural resources. This creates a range of problems for the Kyrgyz economy. Firstly, these sectors provide fewer employment opportunities to the local population and increase short-term employment in the country, and most of the time Chinese companies prefer to use their own people for working compared to the local people.  Besides, the job creation of China’s companies is limited and they mostly avoid technology transfer to the country. This situation also prevents the improvement of domestic industry. Secondly, extraction of the natural resource improves the certain sector and contribute corruption and unequal distribution of the wealth in the country. Furthermore, Chinese companies also violate the environmental standard. Finally, these sectors vulnerable the external shocks and increase the state’s dependency on China. As trade relations, in the long term, China’s investment affects Kyrgyzstan negatively and only let to improve the specific sector, especially mining and oil sectors, and this situation prevent the country to diversify its industry. With regard to the investment, as a trade relation, Sino-Kyrgyz relations seem to the basis of zero-sum cooperation rather than win-win cooperation. 

Finally, in terms of the aid and loan policy, despite China’s aid and loans help to improve Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure and develop its industry, it used to try to secure access to mining sites such as gold, ore deposits, and rare earth elements. Furthermore, it tries to involve in the exploration and development of gold deposits in the country. Despite the high unemployment rate in Kyrgyzstan, Chinese loans also promote Chinese firms for using Chinese equipment and laborers. Besides, China’s cheap and handy loans increase Kyrgyzstan’s dependency and vulnerabilities on China. This situation also causes to enhance China’s political and economic influence.

To sum up, in the context of the trade, investment, and aid and loan policy, despite the different positive impacts, Sino-Kyrgyz economic relations basis on asymmetrical economic relations and in the long term give the advantage of China over Kyrgyzstan in the context of the economic influence. As a result, take the example of the trade, investment, and aid and loan policy, we think that two countries’ economic relationship basis on zero-sum cooperation in the long term, rather than win-win cooperation, in contrast to China’s officials’ claims.

Reference

  • Birkman, Laura. (2012), “Textile and Apparel Cluster in Kyrgyzstan”, Boston: Harvard Business School.
  • Embassy of the Kyrgyz Republic in the People’s Republic of China. (2020), Trade and Economic Cooperation, https://mfa.gov.kg/en/dm/Embassy-of-the-Kyrgyz-Republic-in-the-Peoples-Republic-of-China/Menu—Foreign-/–uslugi/Trade-and-Economic-Cooperation/RC
  • Mogilevskii, Roman. (2019), “Kyrgyzstan and the Belt and Road Initiative”, University of Central Asia Institute of Public Policy and Administration, No. 1, p. 1-25.
  • Omonkulov, Otabek. (2020), “China-Central Asia Relation in the Context of the Belt and Road Initiative”, BölgeselAraştırmalarDergisi, Vol. 4, No. 1, p. 45-115.
  • Omuralieva, Alia. (2014), China-Kyrgyzstan Relations, Hacettepe University Institute of Social Sciences, Master’s Thesis, Ankara.
  • Pradhan, R. (2018). The Rise of China in Central Asia: The New Silk Road Diplomacy. Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 11(1), 9-29. doi:10.1007/s40647-017-0210-y
  • Reeves, Jeffrey. (2015), “Economic Statecraft, Structural Power, and Structural Violence in Sino- Kyrgyz Relations”, Asian Security, Vol.11, p. 116-135.
  • Toktomushev, Kemel. (2016), “Central Asia and the Silk Road Economic Belt”, University of Central Asia Institute of Public Policy and Administration, No. 1, p. 1-5.
  • Emil Avdaliani. (2021, January 20). How China is Breaking Central Asia’s “Geographic Prison”. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from https://chinaobservers.eu/how-china-is-breaking-central-asias-geographic-prison/
  • Tian, Hao. (2018). “China’s Conditional Aid and Its Impact in Central Asia”, (Laruelle, M.), China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its impact in Central Asia. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Central Asia Program, p. 21-34.
  • Bossuyt, Fabienne. (2019). The EU’s and China’s development assistance towards Central Asia: Low versus contested impact. (n.d.). Retrieved January 30, 2021, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15387216.2019.1581635

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Central Asia

Turkmenistan’s Permanent Neutrality: A Key Foreign Policy Tenant

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Turkmenistan is a country in Central Asia which got independence on 27 October 1991 from the Soviet Union after its disintegration. After independence, Turkmenistan adopted and promoted a neutral position because it wants to live peacefully with its neighbours, to improve its relations with all countries and develop mutually beneficial economic relations with them. It also adopts neutral policy on almost all domestic and international issues. It did not join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and maintained cordial relations with the Taliban and their opponents, the northern alliance to remain neutral. It provided northern alliance very limited support against the Taliban after 9/11attacks on world trade centre because of its neutrality and peaceful approach to resolve all international issues.

The neutrality of Turkmenistan was deep-rooted in its constitution; therefore, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) recognized its neutrality on 12 December 1995 in its special resolution. After the resolution, it became the only state whose permanent neutrality was recognized by the UN. 185 countries voted in favour of the resolution which portrays that it is playing a very efficient role in the peaceful development of world affairs, ensuring communal security and unbiased progress. On 3 June 2015, UNGA passed another resolution to support Turkmenistan neutral and legal status which was the accreditation of better direction of its foreign policy. It was the success of Turkmenistan’s active foreign policy that UNGA declared 12 December as International Day of Neutrality. In 2020, Turkmenistan is celebrating 25th anniversary of its neutrality. According to the neutrality of Turkmenistan, international law is the law of peace and neutral states should act upon that in both situations of peace and war. Turkmenistan with permanent neutrality status always adheres to its constitution, UN charter and international obligations.

After permanent neutral status, Turkmenistan got international recognition and became a member of 44 international, regional and multinational organizations, established diplomatic relations with 44 countries and became a member of United Nations and its specialized agencies like UNDP, WHO, UNICEF, UNRCCA, UNHCR and Management for drugs and crime. It has now got such importance that whenever it decided to join any organization or group of states, it can demand changes according to its neutral status and join as a full member after those changes. Turkmenistan’s neutrality has provided a new concept of world peace and cooperation. It has offered its neutral space for different countries to host several meetings and conferences to find the solution of complicated issues like intra-Tajikistan and intra-Afghan dialogues. The permanent neutral status of Turkmenistan had remained very productive for its economic development, its promotion as an active player and strengthening security and stability in the region and the world.

Turkmenistan is a very responsible country and it always believes on respecting the sovereignty and development of every state and adheres to these points even in a difficult situation even at the time of tension with Uzbekistan in 2002 to 2004 on some bilateral disputes.

Turkmenistan is using its positive neutrality status for the betterment and promotion of world cooperation, sustainable development and international peace. Turkmenistan with its world’s fourth-largest energy resources and permanent neutrality is initiating a plan to provide stable and reliable energy to the world. It also nominated a constructive proposal in the field of transit and trade which was well responded by the international community and acknowledge by UNGA with the adoption of a resolution on “The role of transport and transit corridors in ensuring international cooperation for sustainable development” on 19 December 2014.Turkmenistan is a proponent of permanent neutrality, therefore, with its support the UN has established a group of friends of neutrality for peace, security and development and Turkmenistan have the chairmanship of that eighteen member group. The main purpose of the group is to promote and achieve regional stability, safety and shared prosperity. The United Nations also opened an Ashgabat based United Nations Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia on Turkmenistan’s initiative.

The international community and the UN have accepted that permanent neutrality of Turkmenistan is unbreakable and it will stick to it in every situation so now they are giving it different responsibilities as an international liable player. It was elected as the Vice-Chair of UN General Assembly in 58th, 62nd, 64th, 68thand 71stsession, in 2012; it was elected first time to the United Nation Economic and Social Council between 2013 and 2015, the member of United Nations Commission on Population and Development and was elected to UNESCO’s Executive Committee from 2013 to 2017.

Turkmenistan as a prominent, positive and neutral country is in a good position to guide the world in a better way. Turkmenistan’s neutrality potential has a lot of demand in the world at this time to solve outstanding issues like Afghan matter, the process of disarmament and weapon reduction, reasonable solution of water, energy problem and ecological issues. The main point is that it has the potential to play a constructive role in resolving the issues which had become a danger for world peace.

Turkmenistan is getting benefits from its neutral policy and has chosen the approach which is constructive and flawless. Every country adopts a policy to achieve its goal but the most important thing about Turkmenistan’s neutral policy is no harm to others which is the most important approach every state must adopt. In the current environment where every country has historical issues with other countries, Turkmenistan with its neutral policy has set standards which other countries should adopt to minimize their problems and differences. If the world will adopt this approach then it will be easy to achieve sustainable development and to the prosperity of their population which the sole purpose of every state.

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