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Mirziyoev Steps Up As COVID-19 Crisis Increases Contact Among Central Asian Leaders

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has taken steps that his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov, would likely never have considered.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev has taken steps that his autocratic predecessor, Islam Karimov, would likely never have considered.

Central Asian leaders vowed at a historic meeting two years ago in the Kazakh capital, then called Astana, to boost their level of cooperation.

It was the first summit of the region's presidents in nearly 20 years, and the leaders made the same pledge again in Tashkent in November 2019, though little collaboration among the Central Asian countries has been visible since.

And then last month came the coronavirus pandemic -- an unprecedented problem that affects the Central Asian countries in multiple ways.

To be honest, the region's five countries have no more of a common policy or response to the COVID-19 crisis than any other region on the planet.

And it is ultimately up to each individual country to assess their capabilities and level of problems to decide which measures should be taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Since the first coronavirus cases were reported in Kazakhstan on March 12, Central Asia has a new way of dividing itself: those who are recording infections from the virus and taking measures to stop its spread -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan -- and those who officially say they have no registered cases -- Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and are doing little to nothing.

The presidents of Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan showed unity at least at this 2018 summit in Astana.
The presidents of Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan showed unity at least at this 2018 summit in Astana.

And despite the pledges at the summits in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, there has not been much cooperation among the leaders, though that is slowly changing, as was seen at the end of March when Uzbekistan gave masks, protective clothing, and virus test kits to Kyrgyzstan.

Mirziyoev Takes The Lead

If there is one person responsible for actively trying to coordinate efforts within Central Asia, it is Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev.

Uzbekistan registered its first case of coronavirus infection on March 14, two days after Kazakhstan.

On March 18, Mirziyoev spoke by phone with Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev about measures the two countries were taking to contain the spread of the virus. And on March 20, Mirziyoev called Kazakhstan's first president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, which reportedly also featured discussion about battling the coronavirus.

Kazakhstan has registered the most infections thus far, with some 380 as of April 1, with three people succumbing to COVID-19. Uzbekistan -- Central Asia's most populous country with some 32 million people, follows with 173 coronavirus cases and two deaths. Kyrgyzstan has registered 111 infections and no deaths as of April 1.

Mirziyoev has also spoken recently with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at least twice -- once on March 18 and again on March 27 -- according to the Uzbek president's Twitter account, which said the two presidents talked about "effective interaction to combat pandemic" and "priority measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus infection."

Berdymukhammedov apparently can use the word "coronavirus" in discussions with other leaders, just not in front of the people of Turkmenistan.

And on March 27, Mirziyoev had a phone call with Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov about the "epidemiological situation."

The day before that, Mirziyoev has a phone conversation with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that included an exchange of "views on combating the current pandemic."

Since Uzbekistan borders the other Central Asian countries and Afghanistan, it could simply have made good sense to be in contact with all the neighbors during this crisis. But one must give Mirziyoev some credit, as he has already done far more to coordinate with regional countries than one could imagine his predecessor, Islam Karimov, having ever done.

There is, of course, one neighbor with whom Mirziyoev seems to have not spoken, but we'll get to that later.

First, it must be noted that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are cooperating better on their long-running border problem that has left cargo trucks backed up for several kilometers on the Kyrgyz side of the border.

Kyrgyzstan's ability to export and import through Kazakhstan has never been more important than now.

Kazakh Prime Minister Askar Mamin and Kyrgyz counterpart Muhammedkaly Abylgaziev spoke by phone on March 15, agreeing to ease congestion for large trucks crossing their borders and to work together to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

At that time Kyrgyzstan still had not registered any COVID-19 cases.

But when they did on March 18, Jeenbekov and Toqaev spoke the following day by phone to discuss "joint steps in combating the coronavirus."

And the Kyrgyz and Kazakh prime ministers spoke again on March 25 to review their cooperation in stemming the virus's spread.

Rahmon Left Out

The one leader in Central Asia with whom Mirziyoev has not spoken since the outbreak of coronavirus in the region is Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.

In fact, there is no record of any Central Asian leader speaking with Rahmon until March 28, when Kyrgyzstan's Jeenbekov called him.

According to the Tajik state news agency Khovar, the two presidents discussed "containing the further cross-border spread of the infectious illness [coronavirus] and the importance of even greater coordination of joint efforts at the regional level" to lessen the impact and consequences of the pandemic.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon opens a new school building in the Spitamen district on March 25.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon opens a new school building in the Spitamen district on March 25.

The part about the cross-border spread of the infectious illness is interesting since as of the last day of March, Tajikistan had not reported any cases of the coronavirus.

Turkmenistan also had not, and both countries continue to allow mass gatherings and social meetings.

Celebrations of Norouz, for example, went ahead as planned and mosques are still operating in both countries.

Nothing To See Here

That is in stark contrast to the situations in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan, where lockdowns are in effect and people are, in most instances, confined to their homes.

The authorities in Turkmenistan have been taking measures that included the rerouting of international flights to a secondary airport near the eastern city of Turkmenabat and establishing quarantine camps, as well as severely restricting internal movement in the country.

Despite such measures, the government is extremely reluctant to utter the word "coronavirus" in public, and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service correspondents have reported people being detained in the capital, Ashgabat, for discussing the pandemic.

Tajikistan has not yet taken such precautions and, in fact, officials have done very little to alter the regular activities of Tajiks, and they continue to travel freely between regions and shop in stores and bazaars as usual.

Such a lack of action seems to be a perfect recipe for spreading the coronavirus and that probably makes Tajikistan's neighbors nervous.

That may explain why only Jeenbekov has spoken with Rahmon thus far, and that was only recently.

Such contact was likely prompted by the thought of the very active border in the Ferghana Valley that Kyrgyzstan shares with Tajikistan, the most densely populated area in Central Asia and one fertile for transferring not only produce and other goods, but also the coronavirus.

Uzbekistan also shares a border with Tajikistan in the Ferghana Valley and the Uzbek president's failure thus far to contact Rahmon might be evidence of Tashkent’s displeasure with his seemingly cavalier attitude toward imposing measures to control the possible spread in Tajikistan.

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 the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change.​

The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.


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