Crossroads Asia | Politics | Central Asia

A Look Back at 2020 in Central Asia

How did I do on my outlook for Central Asia 2020? (Spoiler: I didn’t know there’d be a pandemic)

Catherine Putz
A Look Back at 2020 in Central Asia
Credit: Catherine Putz

Every January — for the last six years — The Diplomat’s monthly magazine cover story has featured a full cast of brilliant writers (and humble editors) trying to think ahead and offer our readers guidance on what to expect in the coming year. Since the inception of this annual tradition in January 2015, I’ve stressed that it is not an exercise in prediction. Last year in that vein, I wrote, “It’s not prognostication; we don’t pretend to be able to predict the future. It is, however, an exercise in attention and expectation.” 

No year has challenged our attention and expectations like 2020, but some things have not changed: I remain a big fan of accountability and as such will now commence my annual look back at my own efforts at foresight.

But first, a necessary caveat: The January issue of The Diplomat’s magazine is compiled in late December each year. As such, when we were putting together the January 2020 issue, the coronavirus was merely a rumble of rumors out of Wuhan about a bad new flu. We did not know quite what was coming.

So, how did I do?

For my three “things to watch” I directed attention to the politics of transition in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, dissent broadly across the Central Asian region, and the dynamics between Russia and China in Central Asia.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

On the first expectation, I urged readers to “Pay attention to the politics of transition in Central Asia” in 2020, with Tajikistan’s parliamentary and presidential elections in mind and eyes also on Kazakhstan in its pseudo-post-Nazarbayev state. Tajikistan did not, as many of us expected, undergo the political transition hinted at by the state’s machinations, namely the 2016 lowering of the age to be president to 30 and the continued rising prominence of President Emomali Rahmon’s son, Rustam Emomali. “Having watched political transitions across the region unfurl, Rahmon is likely hoping to avoid Kyrgyzstan’s complete democratic mess and the unease that Kazakhstan’s unexpected managed transition unleashed,” I wrote for the January 2020 issue and I broadly stick by that. The coronavirus, which Tajikistan was late to admit the prevalence of, dealt the country a considerable economic blow — not exactly a good moment to pass the torch of leadership. Rahmon instead has undertaken another seven-year term, buying plenty of time for a better moment. Meanwhile, Rustam Emomali’s rise has continued. In April 2020, he was elected chair of the upper chamber of the country’s parliament, putting him officially second in line for the presidency. All Rahmon has to do is pull a Nazarbayev and resign and his son becomes president. 

Kazakhstan also took an interesting turn, arguably due to the coronavirus. I’d urged readers to watch and judge how much power President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev wielded in practical terms. At the time, Dariga Nazarbayeva, Nazrabayev’s daughter, was chair of the Kazakh Senate, making her second in line to the presidency. But only a few months later, in May 2020, she left the post and the Senate — no reasons given. Indeed, in 2020 the Nazarbayevs laid relatively low. My pet theory is that in the face of a crisis like the coronavirus, distance from power is useful because it provides distance from responsibility. As we move into 2021, Nazarbayeva is on the list of candidates put forth by Kazakhstan’s ruling party, Nur Otan, headed still by Nazarbayev, for the upcoming parliamentary election slated for January 10. She could end up exactly where she was a year ago.

My second “thing to watch” was a dissenting mood I forecasted would settle across the region. In Kyrgyzstan, I optimistically believed Atambayev’s trials would be over (technically one did end and then was sent back for a do-over), and argued that sans-boogeyman Atambayev “the administration of Sooronbay Jeenbekov may find itself the target of public ire if reports continue to emerge about grand corruption and the economy remains stale.” A miss on the first, a hit on the latter — Jeenbekov resigned in October under pressure from protestors after the parliamentary elections went sideways. I did not (and I don’t know anyone who did) suggest that the parliamentary elections would trigger a revolution-of-sorts, but 2020 held many surprising turns.

In Kazakhstan, I looked at a 2019 packed with protests and surmised that in 2020 the agitation would continue. “In late 2019, Tokayev hinted at liberalizing protest rules; we’ll see that initiative tested in 2020.” The Tokayev government did, indeed, revise the country’s protest rules and regulations but to little practical effect. The pandemic certainly derailed the art of protesting, and provided an excuse for authorities to shut down critics.

With regard to Uzbekistan, I suggested against betting on the rise of a “welcomed opposition” but urged readers to keep tabs on the political space in the country. There are various lenses through which to view the state of politics in the country, some more optimistic, some more critical. “Allowing some dissent into the political arena could be the charge the reform process needs to continue apace,” I wrote, “or it could derail the whole train if Tashkent isn’t ready to hear what it’s harshest critics have to say.” An interesting illustration: Uzbek media authorities issued warnings to several outlets over critical coverage in late 2020, but didn’t shut the sites down as would have arguably happened in the past. This remains a space to watch. 

My final “thing to watch” for 2020 was China and Russia’s dance around each other in the region. Of my expectations this one fizzled most completely; I would argue largely because the politics of the pandemic dominated much of the geopolitical realm in 2020. “China and Russia are the region’s most important and most present partners, but expect some light chafing,” I wrote, with then-recent news about increased Chinese security activities in the region stepping into typically Russian spheres. Any “chafing” between Beijing and Moscow, however, was nothing compared to China’s dramatic tensions with India and the United States in 2020. The propensity for friction between China and Russia remains, but in 2020 there were overriding political reasons to continue to avoid making a big deal of them, for both countries. No reason to fight with your friends when you have plenty of foes to face.

In looking back, I don’t think I was totally off base, though I am no Nostradamus. It is interesting to see the ways in which the coronavirus pandemic influenced, but did not entirely overwhelm my expectations for 2020. As for my expectations for 2021, you’ll have to check out the soon-to-be-released January issue.