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Crackdowns, Downturns, And A Transfer Of Power: A Look Back At A Fascinating Year In Central Asia


Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Ashgabat in January 2016

This past year in Central Asia proved every bit as interesting as it was predicted to be.

The economic downturn took various tolls across the five countries; one of the region's longtime leaders died; the echoes of war in neighboring Afghanistan were increasingly heard on the Central Asian side of the border; and detentions and arrests on charges connected to terrorism increased in Central Asia.

It was also a year when most of the region's governments intensified crackdowns on political opponents, rights activists, and independent journalists, while presidents honed their cults of leadership and personality.

It would be difficult to categorize them as "winners" and "losers." More accurately, there are those that "survived" and those that are barely holding on as the year comes to a close.

The latter category comprises Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, both of which might seem to be heading toward "failing state" status.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan fell deeply into economic crisis in 2016. Natural gas is really the country's only source of revenue, and world prices for gas are half what they were less than three years ago. Turkmenistan lost Russia as a customer at the very start of 2016 and discovered that the contracts it signed with its two remaining gas customers -- Iran and China -- bring in little revenue. Iran pays in the form of goods and services for the first $3 billion of the gas it imports. The problem is that Iran will import somewhere between 8 and 9 billion cubic meters (bcm) of Turkmen gas this year, which is less than $3 billion.

That didn't stop Turkmenistan from demanding at the end of 2016 that Iran pay a roughly $2 billion gas debt that Tehran denies it owes.

China loaned Turkmenistan money to develop the giant Galkynysh gas field and to build the pipelines to carry Turkmen gas to China. Turkmenistan will (possibly) export 30 bcm to China this year. It has never been clear what China pays for gas, but it almost certainly is less than $200 per 1,000 cubic meters, and an unknown percentage of Turkmen gas goes toward paying off the multibillion-dollar debt Turkmenistan owes China.

It was clear massive layoffs in the oil-and-gas sector were taking place during 2016. Unofficial estimates claim more than 50 percent of the eligible workforce is now unemployed. Reports of wage arrears are now common and the government is said to be garnishing paychecks of those who are still employed to help pay for prestige projects that really do nothing for the population. There are shortages of basic goods -- flour, sugar, and cooking oil among them -- and photographs show long lines of people waiting outside stores to buy their rations of these basic goods.

And there are security problems along Turkmenistan's 744-kilometer frontier with Afghanistan, which the Turkmen government denies but which the Afghan media and the government confirm. Russia was so concerned, it sent Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Turkmenistan in June, the first visit by a Russian defense minister to Turkmenistan since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Turkmen government doesn't acknowledge any of these problems. According to President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and his government, Turkmenistan is still in a "Golden Age."

Turkmenistan's official policy of neutrality, the policy used to isolate the country from the rest of the world, seems to prevent the Turkmen government from requesting outside financial help. The government has built an image of being all-powerful and told the public that outside help would never be needed.

How could the Turkmen government explain to the country's people that foreign loans were now needed to keep the country afloat when the Turkmen government hasn't admitted to its people that there is any economic problem?

There's also the possibility that if Ashgabat did seek foreign loans it might not find many interested lenders. Turkmenistan has not been a player in the international community for a quarter of a century. Who would help?

Tajikistan

Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon showed in 2016 that he was not much different from his Turkmen counterparts, past or present. In December 2015, Tajikistan's parliament passed a law giving Rahmon the title "Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation." In May, voters approved amendments to the constitution that removed a term limit for Rahmon, who has already been elected president four times in votes that no Western observer missions endorsed.

Tajik authorities cracked down hard on all perceived political opponents during 2016. The country's largest opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, went from being a parliamentary party at the start of 2015 -- as it had had been for 15 years -- to dissolution as a party, then an outright ban, then its listing as an extremist group. Trials of the party's leaders started in early 2016, and eventually they were all convicted and imprisoned. Lawyers who tried to defend them were themselves charged with crimes and imprisoned.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) with his Czech counterpart, Milos Zeman, during a visit to Prague on December 1.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon (left) with his Czech counterpart, Milos Zeman, during a visit to Prague on December 1.

Campaigns against independent media outlets in Tajikistan intensified. Many journalists fled the country, at least two independent newspaper closed, and many fear it is only a matter of time before all independent media outlets are shut down.

Tajikistan's economic situation has never been good. It has been a donor-dependent nation since its birth. But much like Turkmenistan, state money is spent on bizarre projects, such as what was -- briefly -- the world's tallest flagpole. Rahmon has more recently approved a project to build a large city in a sparsely populated area of northern Tajikistan. (It is sparsely populated because there is no water there, but that has not stopped government plans for the new city.)

Tajikistan's banking system was in crisis in 2016. By year's end, after failing to attract international financial assistance, the government had to come up with some $250 million to bail out the country's second-largest lender, Tojiksodirotbank. Depositors at the bank had been experiencing difficulties all year trying to make withdrawals.

Tajikistan is the most remittance-dependent country in the world. But most of that money was sent back from Russia and, owing to Russia's economic problems, remittances are less than half of what they were in 2013.

Meanwhile, members of Rahmon's family continued taking up places in the government. Rahmon's daughter Ozoda was reportedly made chief of the presidential staff in January, but in May she was elected to a recently vacated seat in the Senate. Presidential son Rustam Emomali was still head of the anticorruption agency in 2016, but an amendment to the constitution in May lowered the age of eligibility to become president from 35 to 30. (Emomali turned 29 on December 19.) The next presidential election is scheduled for 2020.

Tajikistan probably won't fail because the government has powerful friends. Russia has a military base in Tajikistan, and China has a border with Tajikistan and fears the spread of extremism from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and into western China, where a significant proportion of the population is Muslim.

Uzbekistan

The biggest news of the year from Central Asia came with the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, announced on September 2. (Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev is now the last of the region's Soviet-era leaders still in power.)

Karimov's death raised many possibilities for Uzbekistan's future. He was succeeded by his prime minister, Shavkat Mirziyaev, who was quickly, and arguably unconstitutionally, named interim president before being elected to the post by popular vote on December 4.

Then-Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev (right) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin after laying flowers at the grave of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Samarkand on September 6.
Then-Uzbek Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyaev (right) speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin after laying flowers at the grave of late Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Samarkand on September 6.

Mirziyaev's regional foreign policy aims at mending fences damaged by Karimov during his 25 years as president. Uzbekistan's Central Asian neighbors are clearly pleased with the changes so far, and Uzbekistan stands to benefit from closer regional relations as well.

The timing is good because, despite what Uzbek officials say, the country's economy needs help. It is difficult to obtain reliable economic figures from Uzbekistan, but information from inside the country indicates salaries are not being paid on time. There are shortages of cash, shortages of gasoline, and disruptions of gas and electricity supplies.

Mirziyaev has made many promises -- currency convertibility among them. On the black market, the national currency, the som, trades at twice the official rate to the U.S. dollar. Mirziyaev has said Uzbekistan is looking for foreign investors, but so far no one except Russia has shown much interest.

Mirziyaev was Karimov's prime minister for 13 years. While there are hopes for progress, social and political reforms do not seem to be on the new administration's to-do list.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan was a survivor, though during the first half of 2016 there were moments when the situation looked shaky. Kazakhstan's economy is dependent on oil exports, and in August 2015, as the price of oil on world markets was plummeting, the government allowed the national currency -- the tenge -- to float. The tenge's value fell from about 180 to $1 to 360 to $1 by mid-January 2016.

Mortgage holders who had taken out loans based on U.S. dollar rates were among the first to feel the bite. Small protests started in January, but the Kazakh government diverted attention that same month by announcing snap parliamentary elections.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev attends a Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Bishkek on September 16.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev attends a Commonwealth of Independent States summit in Bishkek on September 16.

The reason given for early elections was the need to have new deputies with fresh ideas to confront the economic crisis. In the end, the parliament that was elected comprised the same three political parties with each in control of almost the same number of seats. According to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service, known locally as Azattyq, 43 percent of deputies from the previous parliament kept their seats.

The distraction of the March elections didn't last long. By April, the issue of land reforms was causing new social discontent, especially as rumors spread that farmland available for lease would be snatched up by the Chinese. The rumors were mostly unfounded, but with buying power decreasing for most people in Kazakhstan, there were legitimate questions about who had sufficient funds to lease or buy Kazakhstan's land.

Protests broke out at the end of April, with many other complaints added to the concerns about land reforms. Despite efforts by authorities to prevent any further exhibitions of public discontent, even larger protests were held across the country on May 21.

Questions were raised about Kazakhstan's future stability. A bizarre outbreak of violence in the western city of Aqtobe in early June seemed to confirm such concerns, as a group of young men robbed a gun shop, then launched an amateurish attack on a military post. Most of the attackers were killed. Kazakh authorities called it a terrorist attack and said the men had links to Islamic extremism, although there is scant public evidence to support this.

But by year's end, the situation had stabilized. The tenge was holding steady at somewhere between 330 and 340 to the U.S. dollar. Some oil workers were finally being laid off, something the government had been careful to try to avoid, but the restart of the long-delayed Kashagan oil and gas field in Kazakhstan's sector of the Caspian Sea toward the end of 2016 brought the promise of new jobs and badly needed revenue for state coffers.

Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan was a survivor, too. At the best of times, the country has financial difficulties. But Kyrgyzstan is a net oil and gas consumer, so the fall in world prices for those commodities was a benefit. There were problems with foreign investors in Kyrgyzstan's mining industry, mainly gold mining, but that has been true for more than two decades now.

Kyrgyzstan joined the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in August 2015. Trade among the members -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia -- has fallen consistently, but EEU membership did help Kyrgyzstan's migrant laborers working in Russia. Kyrgyzstan's remittance dependence is one of the highest in the world, but while Central Asian states Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (also with large numbers of migrant laborers working in Russia) registered sharp declines in remittances in 2016, remittances to Kyrgyzstan actually increased.

Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) arrives to cast his ballot at a polling station during the referendum on constitutional changes in Bishkek on December 11.
Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambaev (right) arrives to cast his ballot at a polling station during the referendum on constitutional changes in Bishkek on December 11.

But President Almazbek Atambaev might have given himself and his former (technically) political party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, a self-inflicted wound. Atambaev backed holding a referendum on amendments to the constitution in December, although the constitution, written in 2010 after the ouster of former Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, specified no changes should be made until 2020.

The referendum proved a contentious issue. It was rushed through parliament for approval. The people had little opportunity to debate the amendments and, as RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, known locally as Azattyk, showed through its reporting, few people knew much about the changes they were being asked to approve as they went to polling stations.

Plans for the referendum split the former political allies that took power after Bakiev was chased from office in 2010. Eventually, it caused the collapse of the ruling coalition in parliament.

The referendum passed in a vote in December, but less than half of eligible voters cast ballots. With a presidential election scheduled for late 2017, it seems almost inevitable that the issue of the early referendum will come up again soon.

Central Asia made it through 2016, but the potential for trouble is still there.

Kazakhstan has some breathing room, but the other four face serious challenges in 2017. And next year might not be any better.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek services
The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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