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China’s Disjointed Foreign Policies Concede Agency on Kazakhstan Discourse Control

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The most credible scenario of the cause of the January Kazakhstan unrest is an abortive attempt at a palace coup from intra-Nur Otan factional clan infighting. The ongoing political purge of the Nazarbayev clan members situated in top positions is indicative of who the victorious Tokayev faction blames. Discussing this transparently though is neither in the interest of the ruling Nur Otan party, China’s CCP or United Russia. Operating within spaces of shadow truth then has meant that each of the three state institutional actors has had to craft competing narratives of events, actors, their agency and both the real and the desired outcomes. Constructing and controlling these narratives means first establishing and defending discourse formation control. Assessing the relative success of the three state actors’ abilities to project narratives and control discourse, China has come a distant third to not even particularly convincing or strong narrative formation by the dominant Russia or the subordinate Kazakhstan.

Actual narratives on domestic Kazakh politics center on the politically falling or self-exile of members of the Nazarbayev clan. During the violence though, the Tokayev faction of Nur Otan Party maintaining rule over Kazakhstan immediately opted for a narrative of foreign militants and terrorism. This line from the Kazakhstan capital to explain both the use of violence against the government and the government’s use of violence, remains unconvincing. Defining the threat as foreign was a necessary step to legitimise CSTO deployment, with a secondary path-dependency of having to identify foreign actors. Neither the foreign designation nor the identification of terrorism are in any way convincing. However caught between a domestic audience and the pseudo-legality of the CSTO, the Tokayev discourse is limited in its imaginatory scope. Kazakhstan’s discourse has thus centred on shifting agency away from both the factional power struggle as well moving culpability away from the incensed local citizenry whose initial legitimate protests appear to have been hijacked by political opportunism.

Russia’s emerging narrative has been to position its intervention rhetorically against an overt ‘revolution’ and implied Turkic nationalist elements, a deft game, attempting to meld an entirely domestic Kazakh political event into Russia’s wider regional balance of power games with Turkey in Syria, Karabakh, Ukraine and Africa. Outside observers have tended to focus on either Russia’s potential remilitarisation of the post-Soviet space or on exploring idiosyncratic perceptions of the Sino-Russian relationship in Central Asia. Neither seem concerned with subnational institutions, their competing frictions, or evidence. While the political theatre of Central Asian authoritarian discourse control fools no one in the domestic audience forced to consume it, it does have the institutional outcome of crowding out space for late-comer discourses to form.

This leaves no space but China’s domestic media for the attempt to inject the ‘Three Evils’ policy rhetoric into the information stream or to belatedly begin to engage with the easiest of Pan-Islamist rhetoric. China’s Near-abroad policy towards ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang and Kazakhstan alike centres on the outdated Three Evils policy language formation. These Three Evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism manifest as an acute on the Uyghur and Kazakh ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, stressing the threat to the state from Islam, ethno-nationalism and the largely imagined violent pursuit of separatist causes which utilise either of these symbolic representations of power. However linking the recent Republic of Kazakhstan unrest to China’s Three Evils proxy rhetoric alienates China from either the Kazakhstan or Russian narratives. China’s current foreign policy statecraft is not deft enough to align this anti-Turkic, anti-Islamic rhetoric with its geoeconomic policy toward Republic of Turkey, a key geoeconomic hedge against Russia in the Belt and Road policy. Neither does the discourse blaming domestic Islamic separatism have the agility or grapple or to latch on to the combined Russian and Kazakh narratives. Turkey’s Pan-Turkic agenda though does takes a legitimacy hit and a relegation in discourse formation ability due to the Kazakhstan unrest.

China’s foreign policy position on the 2022 Kazakhstan unrest seems to have been much the same as with the 2020 Karabakh War, wait to see who emerges victorious, and back the winner. Such persistently reactionary foreign policy though leaves no space for China to pursue long-term geoeconomic policy. It is also at odds with China’s concomitant internal security integration policy in Central Asia as well as its Eurasian geoeconomic policy. China’s foreign affairs, internal security, and geoeconomic policy mechanisms have thus found themselves institutionally disjointed when focused on this Kazakhstan crisis. The three major sources of China’s foreign policy in Kazakhstan are the Political and Legal Affairs Commission, Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in that order. They respectively control policy formulation in near abroad internal security, geoeconomics and traditional foreign policy.

China’s differentiated foreign policy apparatus and dialogue equivalents in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s state foreign policy apparatus is weak, but the counterpart in China is also very weak. The strongest elements of China’s Party foreign policy institutions though tend to ignore Kazakhstan as too small, while the strongest actual connection between Kazakhstan and China is through the domestic security integration framework, between the Politics and Legal Affairs Commission on the China side and the Security Council on the Kazakhstan side.

More widely, China effectively has four disparate but convergent institutional sources of foreign policy institutional sources. Great power politics, the policy weather of which emerges from the Party Leading Groups and Commissions; Near Abroad foreign policy emanating from the Politics and Legal Affairs Commission, traditional diplomacy which operates more as international political theatre, centred on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and finally the practical geoeconomic policy which is almost exclusively the foreign policy domain of the Minister of Commerce. While Republic of Kazakhstan is generally too low on China’s foreign policy priorities to warrant upper Party attention, China’s greatest strength in Eurasian policy development and deployment is in a growing institutional integration with Kazakhstan in internal security. However in traditional foreign policy and concomitant security China is weak to the point of absenteeism in Eurasia. The culmination of this disjointed foreign policy deployment is that China lacks institutional strength to develop discourse in Eurasian foreign policy.

China’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission has direct institutional integration with the Security Councils of all the Central Asian states and Russia through the Minister of Internal Affairs or its equivalent liaising directly with the Chinese counterpart. In Kazakhstan Erlan Turgumbayev is at the end of this international security communication line, perhaps suggesting why has kept his place in Tokayev’s cabinet. This domestic and foreign security integration between China and Kazakhstan is much more important than any foreign ministry statements. In China, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has very little power in setting or enacting policy. Where China did exercise agency in the Kazakh unrest though was in the very low ordinate geopolitical games of Uyghur and Kazakh detention, and in reinforcing Kazakhstan economic diplomacy subservience to Beijing.

At the executive level, General Secretary Xi did call Nur Otan Chairman Tokayev expressing support for the incumbent, but this was on January 7, two days after Tokayev requested support from the CSTO thus guaranteeing his Presidency would survive any internal challenge. When there was then no jeopardy in China’s exercise of state agency, it was both deferential and directed to the Russian Federation. State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s call to Russia’s Sergei Lavrov expressing the possibility for SCO forces to be deployed demonstrates the genuflection involved—the hollow offer on January 10 was well after Russian CSTO troops had been deployed with boots already on the ground. On the same day Wang Yi also called Kazakhstan Minister of Foreign Affairs Mukhtar Tileuberdi, where Tileuberdi was expected to pledge support for China’s crackdown on Kazakh minorities in Xinjiang. Wang later issued a statement of solidarity with Kazakhstan in an attempt at great power diplomacy, but again this high level China statement only came after both the Kazakhstan domestic power struggle was already over and after the international security order had been established through Russian leadership.

For the Foreign Affairs source of policy, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to China, Gabit Koishibayev, also spoke on the January 10 press conference on foreign affairs to assure the domestic narrative centred on China investments in Kazakhstan that the violence and political unrest was under control and that it would neither spillover to Xinjiang nor damage China’s economic interests in Kazakhstan. Wang Wenbin, China Foreign Ministry spokesperson also followed up questions on the Kazakh ambassador’s positions on 12 January, reiterating that nothing had happened, and that if it had, then it was now over, saying merely that the domestic turmoil in Kazakhstan was caused by local riots which had turned violent. The China state diplomatic apparatus stuck to the line fed to it that there was no internal power struggle in Kazakhstan, maintaining a veneer of loyalty to the Tokayev administration. Hugely unpopular in Kazakhstan, the China ambassador to Kazakhstan Zhang Xiao issued no statement through the unrest and emerged with only a characteristically unconvincing statement of hollow support for the winner in Chinese media on January 12.

This small China speaking softly with no stick is very different from the grandiose visions and statements of Eurasian geoeconomic predominance which have defined Belt and Road analysis. Liu Hui, China’s special envoy for Eurasia, with a direct counterpart on the Kazakhstan Security Council in Marat Shaikhutdinov, met with Tokayev in the Kazakh capital in only the end of December 2021, and yet has been absent from the discourse on the current Kazakhstan political turbulence and subsequent Russian stabilisation. Tokayev’s expression at that meeting of a Kazakhstan-China ‘all-weather friendly relationship’ may have proven optimistic—Kazakhstan is at the ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partner’ level in China’s foreign policy hierarchy.

Who China does speak with seriously on the Kazakhstan side though is not in diplomacy but precisely in the world of domestic security which Tokayev has blamed for the attempted palace coup.

For Tokayev’s Kazakhstan, a major challenge ahead of consolidating domestic power will be to keep the lifeline economy compliant with the expectations of capital-starved Kazakhstan’s international investors, particular its state planned-economy partners. However, if a radically different faction had usurped power and formed government in Kazakhstan, China would not now be in any foreign policy position to assert its economic interests. Not playing a hand and allowing Russia to assume the geopolitical risk may well have been strategic calculation. However, through inaction, China has now narrowed the institutional space to shape either this or future narratives. In an information space already crowded with Russian and Kazakhstan discourse formation there is diminishing space for China’s multi-institutional conflicting foreign policy typologies to construct themselves into the Eurasian discourse.

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Central Asia

Contesting Russia requires renewed US engagement in Central Asia

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When US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declared that Washington wanted to see Russia so “weakened” that it would no longer be able to invade a neighbouring state, he lifted the veil on US goals in Ukraine. He also held out the prospect of a long-term US-Russian contest for power and influence.

Mr. Austin’s remarks were problematic on several fronts. For one, they legitimised Russian President Vladimir Putin’s justification of the invasion of Ukraine as a defence against US-led efforts to box Russia in and potentially undermine his regime.

“US policy toward Russia continues to be plagued by lack of rhetorical discipline. First calling for regime change, now goal of weakening Russia. This only increases Putin’s case for escalating & shifts focus away from Russian actions in Ukraine & toward Russia-US/NATO showdown,” tweeted New York-based Council of Foreign Relations president and former senior State Department official Richard Haas.

Mr. Haas was referring to President Joe Biden’s remark last month, which he subsequently walked back, that Mr. Putin “cannot remain in power.”

Leaving aside that Mr. Austin’s remark was inopportune, it also suggested a lack of vision of what it will take to ensure that Mr. Putin does not repeat his Ukraine operation elsewhere in the former Soviet Union. That is an endeavour that would involve looking beyond Ukraine to foster closer ties with former Soviet republics that do not immediately border Ukraine.

One place to look is Kazakhstan, a potential future target if Russia still has the wherewithal after what has become a draining slug in Ukraine.

Mr. Putin has long set Kazakhstan up as a potential future target.

He has repeatedly used language when it comes to Kazakhstan that is similar to his rhetoric on the artificial character of the Ukrainian state.

Referring to his notion of a Russian world whose boundaries are defined by the presence of Russian speakers and adherents to Russian culture rather than its internationally recognised borders, Mr. Putin asserted last December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”

Mr. Putin first sent a chill down Kazakh spines eight years ago when a student asked him nine months after the annexation of Crimea whether Kazakhstan, with a 6,800 kilometre-long border with Russia, the world’s second-longest frontier, risked a fate similar to that of Ukraine.

In response, Mr. Putin noted that then-president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist party boss, had “performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs never had a state of their own, and he created it.”

To be sure, Russian troops invited in January by Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to help put down anti-government protests were quick to withdraw from the Central Asian nation once calm had been restored.

Mr. Putin’s remarks, coupled with distrust of China fuelled by the repression of Turkic Muslims, including ethnic Kazakhs, in the north-western province of Xinjiang, and the shutdown of Russia’s Black Sea Novorossiysk oil terminal, Kazakhstan’s main Caspian oil export route, creates an opportunity for the United States.

Last month, Kazakhstan abstained in a United Nations General Assembly vote that condemned Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Since then, its sovereign wealth fund announced that it would no longer do business in rubles in compliance with US and European sanctions against Russia. This week, Kazakhstan stopped production of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine against Covid-19.

In an apparent effort to stir the pot, Russian media accused Kazakhstan of preventing Russian nationals from expressing support for Mr. Putin’s invasion and firing Kazakhs who supported the Russian president’s actions from their jobs. At the same time, opponents of the war were allowed to stage demonstrations.

“As Washington policymakers look for ways to counter Russian influence and complicate Mr. Putin’s life, helping Kazakhstan reduce its dependence on Moscow-controlled pipelines, reform its economy, and coordinate with neighbouring Central Asian states to limit the influence of both China and Russia might be a good place to start,” said Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead.

Last month, Mr. Tokayev, the Kazakh president, promised sweeping reforms in response to the January protests.

A high-level Kazakh delegation visited Washington this week to discuss closer cooperation and ways to mitigate the impact on Kazakhstan of potentially crippling sanctions against Russia.

Supporting Kazakhstan would involve a renewed US engagement in Central Asia, a key region that constitutes Russia as well as China’s backyard. The United States is perceived to have abandoned the region with its withdrawal from Afghanistan last August.

It would also mean enlarging the figurative battlefield to include not only military and financial support for Ukraine and sanctions against Russia but also the strengthening of political and economic ties with former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are, alongside Kazakhstan, members of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Mr. Putin, referring to Kazakhstan, described as a bulwark that “helps them stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization.”

The invasion of Ukraine has given Uzbekistan second thoughts. Uzbekistan failed to vote on the UN resolution, but Uzbek officials have since condemned the war and expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

As a result, Uzbekistan appears to have reversed its ambition to join the EEU and forge closer ties to the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), the region’s Russian-led military alliance.

“The way Central Asia thinks about Russia has changed. While before, Russia was seen as a source of stability, it now seems that its presence in a very sensitive security dimension has become a weakness for regional stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” said Carnegie Endowment Central Asia scholar Temur Umarov.

“I think that Central Asian governments will seek to minimise the influence of Russia, which will be difficult to do, but they have no choice since it has become an unpredictable power.” Mr. Umarov predicted.

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Turkmenistan’s Presidential Elections: What to Expect from the New Head of State?

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Image source: Wikipedia

Not much is known about Turkmenistan – it is a rather closed-off country. While fairly credible information on the nation’s foreign policy can be found, there is no opportunity whatsoever to glean credible information on its economy, society and domestic policy. This article is an attempt to forecast the new president’s agenda by looking back to the presidential elections of the past.

Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s Rise to Office

Serdar’s father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, was in power since 2006. He won the latest election of 2017, securing 97% of the votes. The Constitution of Turkmenistan stipulated that the next election was to be held in 2024, but Berdimuhamedow announced an early vote in February 2022, marking the end of his 15 years in office. He specifically emphasized that he did not intend to run for president, instead remaining head of the Halk Maslahaty, the upper chamber of Turkmenistan’s parliament: “I support the idea that young leaders who have been brought up in a spiritual environment and in accordance with the high requirements of our time should be given an opportunity to lead our country,” he said on the occasion. “As the Chairman of the Halk Maslakhaty, I now intend to direct my vast life and political experience to this area.”

Political pundits and the media rushed to declare that Berdimuhamedow was preparing for a transfer of power. Special emphasis was laid on the fact that Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the president’s son, recently turned 40, which is the minimum age to become president under Turkmenistan’s Constitution. One of the possible reasons for the president’s retirement was his health, which can neither be confirmed nor disproved on the basis of the available information.

Two days into the statement by Berdimuhamedow Senior, on February 14, 2022, Serdar Berdimuhamedow’s candidacy was indeed proposed at the meeting of the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan.

Two more days after, the Agrarian Party of Turkmenistan proposed the candidacy of Agajan Bekmyradov, deputy head of the Mary Region. On February 18, 2022, it was announced that at least six other candidates would compete for Turkmenistan’s presidency if they collected enough signatures. Then, two candidates emerged on February 19 – Berdymammet Gurmanov (a doctor from the Balkan Region) and Perhat Begenjov (a school principal from the Lebap Region). On February 22, more candidates were registered, most prominently Hydyr Nunnayev, Vice Rector for Research at the Turkmen State Institute of Physical Culture and Sports. The registration ended soon after, and the electoral campaign began on February 23.

As expected by observers, Serdar Berdimuhamedow took the election in a landslide. It should be noted, however, that the share of his supporters (72.97%) looked more realistic than the last result of his father.

Who is Serdar Berdimuhamedow: How He Prepared for His Presidency and What to Expect

On March 19, 2022, Serdar Berdimuhamedow officially became Turkmenistan’s third president.

Serdar Berdimuhamedow was born on September 22, 1981, in Ashgabat. He graduated from the Turkmen Agricultural University as an engineering technologist in 2001, at about the same time when his father, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, started his political career. Berdimuhamedow Senior provided his son with plenty of opportunities to explore the many levels and dimensions of civil service.

The first step was to acquire some experience in foreign policy. In 2008–2011, Serdar Berdimuhamedow held the post of minister-counsellor in the Embassy of Turkmenistan to the Russian Federation. During that period, he graduated from the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia with a degree in International Relations. In 2011–2013, Serdar Berdimuhamedow worked as an adviser in the Permanent Mission of Turkmenistan to the United Nations in Geneva, where he studied European and International Security at the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). On returning from Switzerland, he became Head of the European Department at Turkmenistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, overseeing the country’s relations with the entirety of Europe. In 2016–2017, he held the position of Head of International Information of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan. Finally, in 2018, he became Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan.

It should be noted that Turkmenistan’s permanent neutrality status—officially confirmed at a United Nations General Assembly meeting on December 12, 1995, during the rule of Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenbashy), but largely thanks to the efforts of Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vice Prime Minister Boris Shikhmuradov—is a key trait of the country’s identity in foreign policy. Serdar Berdimuhamedow has picked up the baton of this tradition. Since 1995, Turkmenistan has not been part of any bloc or integration, even opting to be an associated member rather than a full member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. This allows the country to pursue a pragmatic multi-vector foreign policy based on engaging with all interested countries in hydrocarbon trade. In his inauguration speech, Serdar Berdimuhamedow declared that he would be committed to the “principles of neutrality and good neighbourhood.”

Oil and gas remain the most important dimension of Turkmenistan’s economy: gas accounts for the majority of the country’s GDP. The new president has dabbled in this as well: in 2013, he was appointed Director of the State Agency for Management and Use of Hydrocarbon Resources.

Turkmenistan’s notable feature is that the president is often perceived as a “leader” in science and the arts. Saparmurat Niyazov actively contributed to history, religion and literature, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow published works on a wide range of topics, most of all medicine and healthy living. In Turkmenistan’s political culture, the subject taken up by the president becomes the key focus of the country’s ideology. Having obtained degrees of Candidate of Technical Sciences (roughly equivalent to a PhD) in 2014 and Doctor of Technical Sciences (a still more advanced degree) in 2015, it is quite possible that Serdar Berdimuhamedow will start publishing on technical and economic issues, technological innovation, etc.

In 2016, the future president started his career in domestic policy: in November, he was elected member of the Mejlis (lower chamber of parliament) of Turkmenistan. The following year, he became Chairman of the Legislative Committee.

In 2019, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed head of the Ahal Region, a key province where the capital is located as well as where the politically dominant Teke tribe lives. In 2020, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed Turkmenistan’s Minister of Industry. After a year in this capacity, he was appointed Vice Prime Minister, which equates to being the “second in command” in the country, since the president and the prime minister are one and the same person. It is from this office that Berdimuhamedow Senior had risen to the rank of president once Saparmurat Niyazov passed away. At the same time, Serdar Berdimuhamedow was appointed to the State Security Council of Turkmenistan.

What Should We Expect from Turkmenistan’s Third President?

Serdar Berdimuhamedow started his presidential term by dismissing the government, which was entirely in accordance with the Turkmenistan’s Constitution. With this, he’s set about forming new government and elaborating new policy. Experts are still out as to what his rule will be like. Some say that Berdimuhamedow Junior will maintain the system his father had erected. Others, including the author, expect that he may carry out some reforms, albeit at a limited scale.

The first reason why we could expect reforms from Serdar Berdimuhamedow is tradition. Serdar’s father likely advises his son to make the same political steps he made himself when he rose to power.

In this context, we may recall that Berdimuhamedow Senior’s presidential term started with moderate reforms. In large part, it was due to his background: unlike most heads of post-Soviet states, who came from business, military, security or intelligence agencies, or from the Soviet political establishment, Berdimuhamedow Senior was a representative of intelligentsia, just like Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the current President of Uzbekistan. Before his political career, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow was quite a successful dentist.

Berdimuhamedow Senior did away with some of Saparmurat Niyazov’s most notorious policies governing culture and everyday life, like the ban of opera and ballet as “contrary to national traditions.” In the social and economic domains, the second president made every effort to redress the utter breakdown of education and healthcare that occurred under Niyazov.

Certainly, when it comes to the political part, it is unlikely that Berdimuhamedow Senior will advise his son to repeat his history of reforms to the letter. The cult of Saparmurat Niyazov, who had declared himself a “prophet equal to Mohammed,” was quietly laid to rest. Berdimuhamedow Senior also replaced all the officials installed by Niyazov, with the most active “cleansing” taking place from mid-2007 to early 2008. Among those who lost their posts were key security and military officials, the Minister of Energy, Minister of Automobile Industry and Construction, Prosecutor General and Supreme Court leadership, as well as a number of other key figures. A significant number of political prisoners convicted under Niyazov were set free through the work of extrajudicial commissions. This time, however, the only political change we can expect is to see more younger faces, but even that would likely happen gradually.

Second, when speculating about possible reforms, we need to remember that Turkmenistan is undergoing a deep socio-economic crisis caused by an ineffective state bureaucracy and a less than advantageous gas contract with China.

Reports about the country’s progress in the fight against COVID-19 are also contradictory. According to the official sources, Turkmenistan’s healthcare system was well prepared for the pandemic: Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow said that healthcare facilities are receiving all the resources they need. It is important to note that Berdimuhamedow served as the minister of healthcare under Niyazov, so effective medicine is one of the pillars of his legitimacy in his post. At the same time, opposition sources paint a different picture: a dire need of beds, qualified doctors, testing facilities and personal protective equipment. Furthermore, opposition sources report that mass gatherings were held in Turkmenistan from March to April 2020 because political celebrations were not cancelled out of ideological considerations.

Crisis in the neighbouring Kazakhstan, another post-Soviet commodity exporter, is an important circumstance that reflects on risk assessment of the Turkmen leaders. During the civil unrest of January 2022, Turkmen security forces were put on high alert, and it was then that the decision to convene the upper chamber of parliament was made, which the president used to announce extraordinary elections.

Reforms may not only help to resolve difficult domestic situations, but also to successfully overcome challenges in foreign policy. If the civil war in Afghanistan escalates, hostilities might spill over the Turkmen-Afghan border. Other foreign policy risks include the consequences of mass migration into Turkey. Many of the Turkmen migrants have fought in Syria, and their return may create certain risks for the government.

Given the current reality of Turkmenistan, an important factor in maintaining the stability of the existing regime could be Berdimuhamedow Senior, who is apparently going to follow the Singapore/China model by gradually transferring power to his heir—much as Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping did in their time. On the whole, a gradual transfer of supreme power from father to son is not new on the post-Soviet soil. This has been done by Heydar and Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, and a similar process is currently unfolding in Tajikistan.

Speaking about reforms in Turkmenistan, we should understand that they will be rather limited, mostly aiming at economic aspects – specifically, expanding foreign investment opportunities and modernizing the country’s economy. Far-reaching political reforms, however, do not appear to be on the agenda. The Turkmen government’s main focus seems to be maintaining stability in a difficult international situation. It may find a possible model for economic reform in the experience of the neighboring Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, both far ahead of Turkmenistan when it comes to modernization.

Russia may benefit from enhancing its economic ties with Turkmenistan, especially given the current foreign economic environment. Export items likely to be in demand on the Russian market include Turkmen vegetables, fruit and cotton textiles. The experience of quickly expanding trade with Uzbekistan after Mirziyoyev began his reforms may prove useful in this regard.

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Iran capitalises on Central Asian vacuum created by the Ukraine war

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Anti-Iranian protests in Afghanistan and the stabbing of three clerics in Iran threaten to cast a shadow over Iranian efforts to capitalise on the fallout in Central Asia of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The protests at Iran’s diplomatic representations in Kabul and Herat erupted after videos went viral on social media allegedly showing police beating Afghan refugees in Iran.

Shouting “Mag bar Iran” (Death to Iran), protesters set the Herat consulate’s door on fire and destroyed security cameras.

Iranian and Taliban officials sought to downplay the incident. They said ‘rogue elements’ and forces seeking to stoke unrest had staged the protests.

The protests erupted almost a week after two Iranian Shiite clerics were killed and a third injured in the conservative religious stronghold of Mashhad in a knife attack by an allegedly Afghan Salafi immigrant. The attack occurred at the shrine of Ali Al-Ridha, the eighth Shiite imam.

The incidents cast a shadow over efforts by Iran to exploit geopolitical opportunity that initially emerged with the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August of last year and has potentially been significantly enhanced by Russia becoming bogged down in the Ukraine war.

The Ukraine conflict means that Russia is less focused on Central Asia. It also casts a shadow over Russian security guarantees for Central Asian states, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, that are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

And it casts a different light on past statements about Kazakhstan by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In January, the Kazakh government asked the CSTO to help end mass anti-government protests.

Russian and other CSTO troops have since left the Central Asian state, but statements by Mr. Putin made weeks before the intervention linger.

Using language reminiscent of his pre-war references to Ukraine designed to lay the groundwork for an invasion, Mr. Putin told a news conference in December that “Kazakhstan is a Russian-speaking country in the full sense of the word.”

At the time of the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Mr. Putin asserted that then Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s Soviet-era Communist party boss, had “performed a unique feat: he has created a state on a territory where there has never been a state. The Kazakhs never had a state of their own, and he created it.”

Mr. Putin went on to say that Kazakh membership of the five-nation, post-Soviet Eurasian Economic Union “helps them stay within the so-called ‘greater Russian world,’ which is part of world civilization.”

Central Asian states have been careful not to condemn the Russian invasion. Still, they have reportedly rebuffed Mr. Putin’s request that they recognize Donetsk and Luhansk, the two breakaway Russian-backed Ukrainian regions.

Beyond geography and Russia’s security presence in the region, Central Asians need to consider close economic ties with Russia, including the flow of remittances by Central Asian migrant workers that have taken a significant hit because of the Ukraine conflict.

In that environment, Iran, particularly if a revival of the 2015 international nuclear agreement lifts US sanctions, has much to offer landlocked Central Asia.

US and Iranian negotiators are near a make-or-break point on resurrecting the agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program but was thrown into disarray after former US President Donald J. Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.

Iran believes that its opportunity in Central Asia is enhanced because it offers one of the few alternatives to a full embrace by China in the absence of Russia and the United States.

Like much of the rest of the world, Iran has refused to formally recognise the Taliban government as long as it does not demonstrate inclusivity.

Nevertheless, trade with Afghanistan, which hosts multiple land routes to landlocked Central Asia, remains brisk at approximately USD$2.9 billion a year.

Moreover, Iran is discussing with the Taliban the revival of an ambitious rail project that would initially connect Herat to Khaf in north-eastern Iran but ultimately be extended to connect five Central Asian countries.

“This rail line can also link Afghanistan with Iran’s southern ports,” said an Iranian transport official.

The project is part of a proposed US $2bn Five Nations Railway Corridor (FNRC) which would run 2,000 kilometres from China through Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

The project takes on added significance as US and European sanctions against Russia dash Russian, Iranian and Indian hopes for a North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) that would link India to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia, and Europe through Iranian ports.

Iranian and Indian were touting the corridor before the Ukraine

invasion as a viable alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal and an addition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

In the past year, Iran has also increased military and security cooperation with Central Asian states. Last year, Iran and Tajikistan established a joint military committee that will focus on counterterrorism.

Afghanistan’s neighbours – China, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – gathered in Tehran in October to discuss containing the security fallout of the Taliban takeover in Kabul.

Despite taking advantage of Russia’s self-inflicted predicament, Iran will want to retain good relations with Moscow even if the nuclear agreement is resurrected and US sanctions are lifted.

Iran has no guarantee that the accord will remain in place if US President Joe Biden loses control of Congress in this year’s mid-term elections or a Republican, possibly Mr. Trump, wins the 2024 presidential election.

“Manoeuvring in Central Asia makes eminent sense for Iran. However, that will not please multiple players. Iran, therefore, needs to ensure that it doesn’t close any doors as it fiddles in backyards that everyone is interested in,” said a Western official.

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World’s richest countries damaging child health worldwide

Over-consumption in the world’s richest countries is creating unhealthy, dangerous, and toxic conditions for children globally, according to a new...

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Today we are seeing the largest nations in the world pushing their limits. Open societies are pushing the limits of...

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UNICEF urges leaders to keep schools safe following deadly Texas shooting

Governments must take greater action to ensure school remains a safe place for boys and girls, the head of the...

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