As geopolitical tensions flared in the Middle East throughout the year, Central Asia took on a more prominent role. However, internal political and economic issues continue to hold Central Asia back from reaching its full potential.

 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, centre, tours Hazrat Sultan Mosque with Chief Imam Serikbay Orazon, centre right, on Monday Nov. 2, 2015, in Astana, Kazakhstan. Photo: Pool via AP

2016 brought Central Asia into the spotlight of global politics, given the instability in the Middle East and the growing terrorism threat.  This created opportunities for Central Asia to play a greater role on the geopolitical stage, especially as an intermediary trying to broker peace in the region.

For example, Kazakhstan, one of the key Central Asian republics, contributed to reconciling Russia-Turkey tensions that resulted from Ankara’s downing of a Russian jet near the Syrian-Turkish border. Moreover, another indication of Central Asia’s increasing importance is the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that took place in Uzbekistan.

However, to strengthen its reputation as a moderator and problem solver capable of pacifying conflicting sides, Central Asia needs to overcome its own regional and domestic challenges, which were vividly exposed in 2016. The death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov in September revealed one of the most important problems: the lack of reliable and democratic mechanisms for transferring power from one leader to another.  

Central Asia in the context of the Middle East instability

A great deal of turbulence in the Middle East and the Syrian civil war that involved regional and global stakeholders (the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia) destabilized the situation in Central Asia and created a number of security risks, including the threat emanating from the terrorist network of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). According to different estimates, radical Islamists have recruited approximately 2,000-4,000 citizens of the Central Asian countries.

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The U.S.-Russia confrontation and Russia-Turkey tensions over Syria in early 2016 aggravated the problems and made the region even more unpredictable, which cannot help having an impact on Central Asia. After all, Moscow and Ankara found themselves on the slippery slope of military confrontation that might have gone beyond the Middle East and extended to Central Asia.

Having weighed all the risks, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev became a moderator between Russia and Turkey and reconciled them. According to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet, officers from the Kazakh Embassy in Turkey helped Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan come up with an apology letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin to persuade Russia to accept the regrets from Turkey and resume dialogue. During the SCO summit in Uzbekistan, the representatives of the Turkish authorities handed the apology letter to Nazarbayev, who gave it to Russian presidential aid Yuri Ushakov.     

Putin highly appreciated the role of Kazakhstan in reconciling Moscow and Ankara and proposed conducting Syria peace talks between key players of the conflict in Astana.

At the same time, Uzbekistan hosted the 15th anniversary summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in June 2016.  As a result, the participants adopted a very important declaration to strengthen ties, take on terrorism in Afghanistan and the Middle East and provide financial and economic aid in the event of a crisis.

Moreover, during the Tashkent summit, India and Pakistan signed a memorandum on their SCO commitments, which will allow them to become full-fledged members of the Organization in 2017. At the same time, Karimov, who initially questioned the possibility of India and Pakistan – two nuclear powers - becoming SCO members, supported the expansion of the Organization.  

In 2016, the Central Asian countries continued their dialogue with the United States. In August the states of the region conducted a summit within the C5+1 format initiated by Washington. It includes the five states of the region (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan) and the United States and results in the regular meetings of the foreign ministers of these countries. Its key goal is to contribute to bringing stability to Afghanistan. The participants of the summit highlight that the C5+1 format is not intended to hamper the interests of other regional stakeholders like China and Russia.

Most importantly, the presidential victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump, who is going to decrease the U.S. involvement in regional conflicts (including the one in Afghanistan), leaves the C5+1 format in limbo.

What challenges did Central Asia face in 2016?

In 2016, the Central Asian countries had to address the problem of maintaining regional political stability and guaranteeing the peaceful succession of power. In Kazakhstan this problem was also aggravated by an economic crisis that emerged due to the fall in oil prices: In August 2015 the country’s authorities decided to make the tenge a freely floating currency, and this in turn led to a sharp devaluation and increased public discontent.

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To renew the composition of the government and return public’s trust in state institutions, the Kazakh authorities held unplanned parliamentary elections on March 22. The pro-presidential "Nur Otan" Party won the election and received the majority of seats in the parliament.

2016 also saw a number of terror attacks in Kazakhstan. The authorities attributed the responsibility for the attacks to underground Islamist groups working in the country. However, according to some experts, these attacks were also a consequence of economic problems and social discontent that the government failed to address.

The death of Uzbek president Islam Karimov on Sept. 2 and the following transfer of power to the hands of the country’s Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev raised  a question of succession of power in neighboring Kazakhstan. On Sept. 8 the country’s parliament experienced a number of dismissals. One of the most popular politicians, Prime Minister Karim Maksimov, left his post and became the head of the Committee of National Security.

The unexpected death of president Karimov caused anxiety among the Uzbek political elite and created risks not only for the country’s security but also for the whole region as well, given the fact that Tashkent was one of the key guarantors of Central Asian security.

Despite his pledges to continue Karimov’s political course, the newly elected president Mirziyoyev began his term with calls to reform the country’s state governance system, its legal and economic system as well as its social sector. The new government saw the return of those state officials who were dismissed by Karimov but who still had good relations with Mirziyoyev.

The most notable change was the appointment of Abdulla Aripov as Uzbek Prime Minister. Previously, before 2012 he was vice president in Karimov’s government, but following a corruption scandal, he was forced to resign. At the same time, Rustam Azimov, a long time favorite of Karimov who served as minister of finance, was dismissed.

In foreign policy, the new president of Uzbekistan plans to improve ties with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. For a long time, the lack of strong ties to these two nations remained a major stumbling block for the development of the country’s ties within the region.

Tajikistan, in turn, also went through a process of political reform. The current president, Emomali Rahmon, has been leading the country for 22 years and as a result of the spring referendum, he now can be elected president for an unlimited number of times. Another adjustment made to the country’s Constitution included a decrease in the age limit for presidential candidates (from 35 to 30 years) that will allow Rahmon’s son Rustam Emomali to run for president in 2020, if his father decides to step down.

Looking forward to 2017

The beginning of construction of the Rogunskaya Hydro Power Plant on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan was one of the most significant events that will have implications for the region in 2017.

It’s worth noting that Uzbekistan that has been criticizing the construction of the plant for many years has not yet reacted to this development. Furthermore, a month after the construction began, Uzbekistani representatives visited Dushanbe and the sides agreed to restore air connection between the countries that has been cancelled in 1992. Starting January 2017 it will resume.

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Creating a more stable mechanism for power transfer was also one of the key questions raised in the Kyrgyz Republic this year. On one hand, the Dec. 11 referendum in the country expanded the powers of its prime minister and on the other hand, limited the role of the parliament, president and the country’s legal system.

These changes were met with criticism from the Kyrgyz opposition parties: They accused President Almazbek Atambayev of planning to take the post of prime minister after his presidential term ends in 2017. Atambayev, though, repeatedly stated that he plans to leave politics after he completes his duty as the country’s leader.

Turkmenistan, the most closed country in Central Asia, experienced an intensification of its financial crisis in December. The crisis started due to the fall in prices for energy products that account for the majority of the country’s exports.

Overall, 2016 has been a period of political transformation in Central Asia. Next year will mark the beginning of a new period that will show whether this transformation brings positive results.