As Russia reasserts itself in its former Soviet backyard, the summit of an obscure Asian bloc in China offered a timely reminder that Beijing also has regional leadership aspirations—and, unlike sanctions-hit Moscow, can boast deep pockets too.
The summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) gathered a motley crew of Asian leaders in Shanghai on May 21st, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and presidents from post-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus as well as leaders from diverse countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Mongolia.
Central Asia was well represented, with four of its five leaders attending. Neutral Turkmenistan stayed away: It is not a member of CICA, a talking shop set up in 1999 at the initiative of Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev—who used this summit to propose rebranding CICA into the Organization for Security and Development in Asia.
The summit took place against a backdrop of heightened Russo-US tensions over the Ukraine crisis and Sino-US sparring over a military-hacking affair and, more broadly, over China’s geopolitical aspirations in Southeast Asia. All that fueled expectations that mutual antagonism with Washington would cement closer Sino-Russian ties.
“For Russia, China is today a natural geopolitical ally in the formation of a world order in line with China’s interests,” Aydar Amrebayev of the Almaty-based Institute of World Economy and Politics told EurasiaNet.org.
Activists in Kyrgyzstan say they lost another battle against creeping authoritarianism this weekend when President Almazbek Atambayev signed a so-called “False Accusation Law.” The US Embassy says the law could “suppress legitimate news stories, as well as intimidate or punish journalists reporting on matters of public interest."
The new law, which Atambayev signed on May 17, makes intentional defamation a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in prison. Kyrgyzstan decriminalized libel in 2011.
The author says the law – which passed parliament on April 16 with a vote of 85-8 – does not violate freedom of speech, but will stop the publication of slanderous reports.
“Freedom of speech [does not include] making false reports about a crime. The key word here is a crime … there is the presumption of innocence. No one can be accused of a crime unless his guilt is proven in a lawful manner,” Deputy Eristina Kochkarova told EurasiaNet.org. If a journalist has published a report incorrectly charging someone with a crime, she argues, it’s not the journalist who would be punished, but his source. “The rights of a person end where the rights of others’ begin. Freedom of speech is not the only part of democracy,” said Kochkarova.
But the law is vague enough, civil society activists fear, for it to be selectively enforced should, for example, a politician not like the work of a muckraking journalist.
Turkmenistan, China’s largest foreign supplier of natural gas, has further expanded production destined for the Asian giant with the launch of a processing plant in Turkmenistan’s eastern desert on May 7.
Seated on a gilded throne, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov – who has built an adoring personality cult around himself – launched the Chinese-built, $600-million facility at the Bagtyyarlyk gas field with a scan of his palm print, Reuters reported.
Turkmenistan already accounts for over half of China's gas imports, exporting 21.3 billion cubic meters (bcm) to China in 2012. Alone the new plant’s capacity is 8.7 bcm annually, which is also slated for China, the state-run TDH news agency reported.
Turkmenistan and China opened the first plant at Bagtyyarlyk in December 2009, when they also launched the first pipeline carrying Turkmen gas to the east, helping the Central Asian nation break its dependence on Russian export routes. Gas at the new plant will also feed the 1,833-kilometer Turkmenistan-Uzbekistan-Kazakhstan-China pipeline, TDH said. Chinese investment at Bagtyyarlyk has totaled $4 billion to date, Berdymukhamedov said.
TDH also reported that Berdymukhamedov would launch the construction of a second processing plant at Galkynysh, the world’s second-largest gas field, on May 8. That will add another 30 bcm annually to Turkmenistan’s production capacity.
Altogether, Turkmenistan is expected to export 65 bcm to China annually by 2020.
An alarmingly high number of people have reportedly been injured in another interethnic clash on the undemarcated Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border overnight. As usual, media and officials in both countries are pointing fingers at the other.
According to the Kyrgyz Border Service, a clash involving 1,500 local residents started late on May 7 in Jaka-Oruk (by the Tajik village of Hoja-Alo), when Tajiks began throwing stones at Kyrgyz cars. Tajiks also burned a Kyrgyz gas station, a shop and two cars, the Border Service said in a statement. Nine people have been hospitalized, one in intensive care. Kyrgyz sources put the total injured at about 30.
Tajik officials say the Kyrgyz started it. “Clashes broke out after a group of young, drunk Kyrgyz men threw stones at a car belonging to a resident of the Tajik village of Vorukh,” an unnamed Sughd Province official told Dushanbe’s Asia-Plus news agency. He said seven Tajiks were hospitalized with head injuries and one received an injury from a hunting rifle.
Kyrgyz villagers are still blocking the only road connecting the Tajik exclave of Vorukh with the Tajik mainland, says Asia-Plus, reporting up to 60 injured total. That road runs through de facto Kyrgyz territory. Last night Tajik villagers blocked the road connecting Batken, the largest nearby Kyrgyz city, with Kyrgyz territory to the west. Vechernii Bishkek, citing Kyrgyz officials, reports that road is now open again.
When Russian state energy giant Gazprom took control of Kyrgyzstan’s gas network last month, the prime minister called the transfer a “historic event.” Gazprom chairman Aleksey Miller promised his company "guarantees a stable gas supply.”
Neither seems very reliable to residents of southern Kyrgyzstan today, the 24th day the region has been without gas.
Four days after the formal transfer ceremony, Uzbekistan cut gas supplies to southern Kyrgyzstan. Residents of Osh, Kyrgyzstan’s second-largest city, complain they have been forced to use expensive electricity or cook over wood or dung stoves. Fortunately, the weather is warm. One resident describes a previous cut-off, during winter, when he used seven candles to boil water to make tea for his children.
Gazprom was meant to end such outages. Under the deal, which the Kyrgyz parliament approved in December, for a symbolic $1 Gazprom snapped up Kyrgyzgaz and its property and gained rent-free use of land any facilities stand on. In exchange it took on Kyrgyzgaz’s estimated $38 million debt and pledged some $600 million to improve Kyrgyzstan’s crumbling gas grid. In the long-term, the Kyrgyz hope Gazprom can streamline energy supplies and ease the dire power shortages the country experiences every winter.
The U.S. State Department is skeptical about how Central Asian governments perceive the threat of terrorism in their countries, according to the department's annual review of terrorism around the globe.
In language similar to last year's report, the State Department said that "The effectiveness of some Central Asian countries’ efforts to reduce their vulnerability to perceived terrorist threats was difficult to discern in some cases, however, due to failure to distinguish clearly between terrorism and violent extremism on one hand and political opposition, or non-traditional religious practices, on the other." But this year it added a bit of texture with a mention of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan: "[T]errorist groups with ties to Central Asia – notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union – continued to be an issue even as they operated outside of the Central Asian states." (For some serious analysis of what threat the IMU poses, see this post at the Afghan Analysts Network.)
New statistics show migrant labor remittances are now equivalent to over half Tajikistan's GDP, crossing an important psychological threshold and emphasizing the Central Asian country's vulnerability to external shocks.
The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-dependent in the world, with cash transfers accounting for approximately half of the economy. Migrant transfers totaled more than $4 billion in 2013, the equivalent of 52 percent of GDP, the World Bank said in its most recent migration and development brief. That figure was 45.5 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the second-most dependent on remittances globally, remittances stayed level at the equivalent of 31 percent of GDP.
Both formerly Soviet countries are believed to have sent over one million migrants abroad, mostly to Russia and, to a lesser extent, to Kazakhstan. Remittances are also critical in neighboring Uzbekistan, which receives about one-third of all Russian wire transfers sent to former Soviet republics, accounting for the equivalent of about 16 percent of GDP last year.
Officials in Tajikistan do not like to acknowledge migrants’ importance to their economy. Last year the National Bank said it would stop reporting remittance data, claiming the information could be “politicized.” (The World Bank’s numbers come partially from Russia’s Central Bank.) Other officials have downplayed the role and number of migrants, apparently attempting to deny Tajikistan’s utter dependence on Russia.
While Tajiks were suffering through daily electricity blackouts this winter, their government was exporting electricity to Afghanistan, official statistics show.
Electricity exports are a hot topic in Central Asia lately. Only last week the World Bank announced it had earmarked $526.5 million in credit and grants for an ambitious project to help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan export electricity to South Asia starting in 2018: CASA-1000. But that project is designed, World Bank officials insist, to export “surplus” electricity in the summer months only.
In a region where it’s hard to take officials at their word, could CASA-1000 be abused?
Extended, rolling blackouts are standard in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each winter, when reservoirs are exhausted and waiting for the spring thaw to refill. In recent weeks, the problem became acute in Tajikistan, with some areas only receiving 30 minutes of electricity per day, or even none at all, RFE/RL reported on March 27. Widespread outages started last October and normally continue until March. But this year blackouts are expected to continue a month longer than normal.
Protestors in Kyrgyzstan’s northwest have clashed with police and blocked a major road, alleging a Kazakh project to survey for gold is polluting the local environment. It’s the latest in a string of violent, mining-related clashes in the Central Asian state. Once again, mining experts in Bishkek are skeptical about the protestors’ motivations.
Early on April 3, several hundred protestors blocked the road leading from Talas, the largest town in Kyrgyzstan’s northwestern Talas Province, to Taraz, in Kazakhstan. By evening, the number had swollen to 500 and some reports circulated that two officials had been kidnapped. At least 19 police were wounded in a confrontation with stone-throwing residents, 24.kg reported, citing an Interior Ministry official.
The protestors are demanding Kazakh mining concern Altyn Kumushtak, which has been exploring the Shiraldjin gold deposit since 2005, stop. In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, a self-identified participant in the riots, Nurlan Muzurov, said he and others “don’t want deformed children, pollution of the water and the air.”
In 2009, Altyn Kumushtak’s license had been annulled and given to a Chinese company in one of many murky exchanges during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted amid bloody street protests in 2010. In 2013 the Kazakh company successfully appealed and won back the rights to the deposit.
The ruling coalition in Kyrgyzstan’s five-party parliament that collapsed on March 18 has reunited, comprising the same three parties.
“Unity Before Happiness,” as the last coalition was known, fell apart when Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev led his party out of the alliance after fighting for months with Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev over the fate of a Canadian-owned gold mine. Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. But such recriminations are so frequently leveled within Kyrgyzstan’s parliament that its members are widely seen as more concerned with personal enrichment than tackling Kyrgyzstan’s urgent economic problems. (A poll of 1,500 Kyrgyz conducted in February found 75 percent believed parliament was either “very corrupt” or “somewhat corrupt.”)
Nevertheless, on March 31 the Social Democrats, members of Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys came together to form the lofty-sounding “For Strengthening Statehood” coalition.