This week, the United Nations General Assembly played out online with the coronavirus pandemic keeping world leaders at home rather than contemplating a trip to New York City.
In 2019, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was the only Central Asian president to address the U.N. General Assembly (UNGA), with the other states of the region dispatching foreign and prime ministers. With the proceedings largely online, this year’s general debate included recorded statements from all five Central Asian leaders.
This provides us a unique opportunity to observe the interests the region has chosen to highlight to the broadest possible international audience. While all touched on the pandemic and the need for international cooperation, and most mentioned Afghanistan and the Aral Sea, each leader made clear his own state’s distinct interests and put on display their different approaches and person styles.
COVID-19: a Concern for All
It’s little surprise that each Central Asian president, early in their remarks, paid heed to the reason they were speaking remotely to begin with: the coronavirus pandemic.
“Such a global catastrophe has not been observed on our planet in the last hundred years,” Uzbek President Shvkat Mirziyoyev said in his opening. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan’s Tokayev called COVID-19 “the greatest challenge of our age.” Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon remarked that the pandemic has evolved from a healthcare crisis into a socioeconomic and financial crisis. “The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us how closely we are interlinked,” said Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov.
Jeenbekov, Tokayev and Rahmon all stressed the importance of universal access to a future COVID-19 vaccine.
Turkmenistan’s Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, however, laid it on a little thick for the leader of a country that continues to deny having found any cases of COVID-19 within its borders, despite evidence to the contrary.
“I wish to begin my statement with deep condolences to the families and loved ones of the hundreds of thousands of those who perished as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic,” Berdimuhamedov said. He went on to state that “since the very beginning of the pandemic, sir, Turkmenistan has proactively adopted all the necessary measures to counteract this threat.” (Quotes are based on the U.N. instant translation and differ slightly from the text published by Turkmen state media).
Berdimuhamedov lauded the World Health Organization (WHO) and said Ashgabat would continue to expand cooperation. It’s important to note that in early August the WHO’s European regional office, which covers Central Asia, was reportedly in talks with Turkmenistan to make a second visit to the country to specifically test suspected COVID-19 cases at WHO labs outside the country. Nothing has been said since and an inquiry earlier in September to the WHO from The Diplomat regarding the second visit went unanswered.
While concerns about Afghanistan — and staunch backing of an Afghan-led peace process — was a theme in most of the regional leader’s speech, only Uzbekistan went so far as to refer to the war-torn country as a true extension of Central Asia. “We see Afghanistan as an integral part of Central Asia,” Mirziyoyev said. He went on to propose as permanent UN commission on Afghanistan “that would address the concerns of long-suffering Afghan people.”
Berdimuhamedov went a more traditional route, stressing that “peace, security and development in Central Asia directly depend on the settlement of the situation in Afghanistan.” Rahmon noted Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan and reiterated the long-held mantra that “stabilization of the situation in this country can be achieved only through Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled peacebuilding process.”
Tokayev and Jeenbekov didn’t mention Afghanistan, but neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan share a border with the country.
Climate Change and the Aral Sea
The Aral Sea merits mention by the affected states at most international fora, the UNGA being no different. The sea’s dramatic shrinking over the last century is most often shared in a set of side-by-side images: a large body of blue water as recently as the 1980s had, by the mid-2010s, vanished into a sea of poisonous dust. With responsibility for the disaster arguably resting with the now-dead Soviet Union’s agricultural policies, the Aral Sea remains an apolitical issue for which Central Asian states have long tried to muster international support and assistance.
Climate change has become the new peg to which regional leaders have anchored the Aral Sea issue, whether it truly applies or just emotively works. For example, Tokayev stated mid-speech that “Kazakhstan is very vulnerable to the various effects of the climate change,” going on to mention the Aral Sea alongside the Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site (not exactly a climate disaster either), as well as “the rapid melting of glaciers, and desertification.”
Although climate change did not cause the Aral Sea to dry up, it certainly exacerbated conditions and the sea’s fate stands as a warning of what happens when the environment is not cared for. “I would like to once again draw your attention to the devastating effects of the drying up of the Aral Sea,” Mirziyoyev said. “The Aral Sea region became the center of an environmental tragedy.”
Both Mirziyoyev and Berdimuhamedov pointed to initiatives they’ve taken to center international attention on the Aral Sea: Uzbekistan’s U.N. Multi-Partner Human Security Trust Fund for the Aral Sea Region and a resolution put forward by Turkmenistan in 2019, “On cooperation between the United Nations and the International Fund for Saving the Aral Sea.” Jeenbekov, meanwhile, noted his nation’s clean energy ambitions and concerns about the environment.
Beyond the broad, largely pan-regional issues noted above, both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan emphasized reforms in their states. Analysts can (and will) dicker over the veracity of their claiming great strides on democratic and gender equality grounds, but it’s notable that on the world stage — which the UNGA most certainly represents — Central Asia’s most powerful states are centering talk of reform. None of this is necessarily new, but these statements provide a benchmark against which progress can be measured.
“Kazakhstan is determined to build an economically strong, democratically advanced and human-oriented ‘Listening State,’” Tokayev said. A court in that “listening state” in mid-September upheld the conviction of a Kazakh activist who criticized the government’s response to the pandemic earlier this year, but perhaps that’s not what Nur-Sultan is listening for?
Mirziyoyev once again stressed that “Today, the process of democratic transformations in our country has become irreversible.”
Kyrgyzstan highlighted rule of law and human rights reforms, too, as well as dropping mention of its upcoming parliamentary elections alongside a promise of transparency and competitiveness. (No such comments were forthcoming from Rahmon about Tajikistan’s upcoming presidential election.)