Crossroads Asia

Assessing Expectations: 2017 in Central Asia

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Crossroads Asia

Assessing Expectations: 2017 in Central Asia

How did my 2017 outlook measure up to reality?

Assessing Expectations: 2017 in Central Asia
Credit: Catherine Putz

Each January, our digital magazine features a cover focused on our expectations for the coming year. Here, at the end of 2018, I’ll take the opportunity to do some self-reflection on my own expectations for Central Asia.

“As economic hardships linger, Central Asia totters on the precipice of great change,” the tagline of my section read. As 2017 dawned, the region was still clawing its way out of the economic hole that followed 2014’s oil market crash and appeared to be approaching some serious pivot political points.

“On the political front, change is most assuredly in the cards and regional observers will be watching Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan most closely,” I wrote. Uzbekistan was starting the year with its first new president in more than 25 years and Kyrgyzstan was approaching an election, with the potential for a change in president not precipitated by a revolution.

And indeed, these two countries captured regional watchers’ attention.

I warned that while Uzbekistan’s Mirziyoyev “may be the reformer Tashkent has needed” he would “draw praise for the simplest and easiest of reforms.” I drew a cautious potential parallel to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who also had the look of a reformer when he took over the helm in Turkmenistan in 2007. That shine faded fast. He won, as everyone knew he would, a third term in February 2017 and his country remains as closed-off and opaque as ever.

Both of my statements hold true: Mirziyoyev still may be the reformer Tashkent has needed — his initiatives on reconnecting Uzbekistan to the neighborhood have made progress as have some of his economic reforms — but as Bruce Pannier put it recently, “he inherited a stagnant country. Any movement would be considered progress.” The road of reform has not been entirely smooth, nor, as Pannier notes, comprehensive: social and political arenas remain largely untouched. At the same time, there’s a sense of hope about Uzbekistan that has not been crushed by 2017 and that is remarkable.

On Kyrgyzstan’s election, I wrote that it would be competitive and that much of the year would be devoted to “deciphering the unofficial campaign.” The election was competitive, but the unofficial campaign turned out to be merely watching then-President Almazbek Atambayev sue local media outlets and jail opposition members. It was a dirtier campaign than many had hoped for, and none of us predicted the bizarre role that Kazakhstan ultimately played.

On the economic front, I wrote, “The autocrat-knows-best method of economic policymaking will not measurably change, but the surrounding economic climate may release some of the present pressure.” Stabilizing oil prices — averaging around $53 per barrel — certainly helped. Kazakhstan broke its production cut commitments to OPEC this year, but no one seemed to care very much — Astana is a drop in bucket next to Saudi Arabia and Russia. So, while regional economies have recovered some, another oil crash would bring the houses of cards back down again.

After 2016’s surprising protests in Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan’s first (and rather botched) suicide bombing, 2017 was placid. We shouldn’t take this calm as a necessarily good sign: self-censorship and dissent driven underground or abroad are not ideal circumstances. The region may have been calm, but Central Asians hit the news several times in 2017 committing terrorist attacks elsewhere (Istanbul, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, New York).

So what did I miss? With only 600-or-so words there’s plenty that gets left out. I did not write about my expectations regarding regional media (always under threat but more so in Kyrgyzstan this past year). I barely mentioned Turkmenistan in my 2017 expectations — if only because they were so low; sadly, Ashgabat delivered exactly as expected.

What about 2018? Well, you’ll have to read the January 2018 issue of The Diplomat‘s Magazine or wait until next December to find out what I expect in Central Asia in the coming year.