Crossroads Asia

Central Asia’s Year of Great Distractions

Plus rumors on the Tajik border and Russia’s crisis; weekend reads.

Central Asia’s Year of Great Distractions
Credit: Public Domain

Weekend reads:

First 40 Days: The Romans had bread and circuses; Central Asia has elections, referendums, and alleged terrorists. Bruce Pannier, of RFE/RL, put out a series of articles looking at the first 40 days in each of the Central Asian states this week. They are an absolute must-read. With 2016 already off to a difficult start economically, as Pannier notes, the big question for the region is “how bad can it get?”

Fully aware of the challenges they face, nearly every regional regime has engineered a “great distraction” or two (with Kyrgyzstan, perhaps, as an exception), plus the natural distractions planned for later this year as each regional state marks 25 years of independence. In Kazakhstan, early parliamentary elections scheduled for March 20 have kicked off Astana’s brief version of election frenzy. The argument in favor of the early election is that they will give parliament a “fresh mandate to confront the economic problems coming Kazakhstan’s way.” (Also chech out Joanna Lillis’ article on this very theme). How they’ll accomplish that is anyone’s guess. Tajikistan’s great distractions have been many, though a referendum on constitutional changes set for May 22 is likely to be the most impactful. The amendments get rid of term limits, lower the eligibility age for president to 30, and bans religiously-based parties. Another Tajik distraction worth watching for will be the outcome of the IRPT trial. Turkmenistan is also using constitutional changes as a distraction, with similar aims to alter term limits. In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov himself was the distraction. He fired the Tashkent provincial governor–who had earned the nickname “Hitler” during his previous tenure as governor of Andijan Province–ostensibly on behalf of the people whose trust the governor had lost. And this covers events in just the first 40 days of 2016, with 325 more to go…

Rumors on the Border: I wrote earlier this week about a clash on the Tajik-Afghan border, highlighting the possibility of the recent events stemming not from militants but from drug smugglers (though the two categories are not so easily distinguished). Eurasianet has a fantastic exploration of the dovetailing of the events with local rumors. “Rumors that Russia wishes to revert to the pre-2005 arrangement, whereby it was responsible for border security, surface on a regular basis,” and in this case, cast Russia as somehow the instigator of last weekend’s skirmish. Though decidedly without basis, such rumors are a fundamental part of political discourse in the region.

Russia’s Crisis and Central Asia’s Migrant Workers: The Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) detailed the continued effects of Russia’s economic crisis on migrant workers this week. One of the (only?) good things about Kyrgyzstan joining the Eurasian Economic Union is that membership has “softened the blow.” At the very least, Kyrgyz seem more willing to hold out while thousands of Uzbeks and Tajiks return home. Per IWPR, “[t]he number of Uzbek and Tajik workers in Russia fell by 22.2 per cent and 15.6 percent respectively over the last two years.” In that same period, the number of Kyrgyz rose 5.4 percent. At the same time, the value of remittances wired back to Central Asia have fallen across the board–down 51 percent for Uzbekistan, 47 percent for Tajikistan, and 37 percent for Kyrgyzstan.