Central Asia in 2023: 10 Things to Watch for

by Luke James, Thijs Korsten, Abhijeet Shrivastava, Chris Fitzgerald, Maria Sole Brigati, Perri Grace, Ayesha Asim and Sabrina Lavrut

1. Increasing EU engagement in Central Asia 

Against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the European Union is capitalising on a re-balancing of relations between Central Asia and Moscow. October 2022 marked the first joint meeting of the President of the European Council and the Central Asian heads of state in thirty years of diplomatic relations. The region’s fossil fuel resources and geographical proximity to both Russia and Afghanistan are interests that Europe is highly likely to continue prioritising during 2023.

2. Subtle tensions between Central Asia and the Kremlin 

Partly resulting from the influx of Russian emigres, the cost of living in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan has sharply increased by the end of 2022. Tajikistan’s economy, highly dependent on remittances from Russia, has also been hit hard. The following year will likely place further strain on relations between Central Asia and Russia, as Central Asia’s governments are ill prepared to absorb the indirect socio-economic consequences of the war in Ukraine. Turkey and China are likely to be the winners in 2023, as some of Central Asia’s leaders will likely adopt a firmer tone vis-à-vis Russia. Yet, while they are solidifying their multi-vector foreign policy, Central Asia’s political elites are unlikely to risk thoroughly alienating the Kremlin.

3. Central Asia takes tentative steps to thaw diplomatic ties with the Taliban 

Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan – have taken different positions on whether to recognise the legitimacy of the Taliban since August 2021. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have already made tentative steps in 2022 to restore relations with the Taliban and this looks to continue, due to the lure of lucrative economic projects. Tajikistan is the outlier, having dealt with tense border clashes with the Taliban throughout 2022, and has retained its traditionally hostile position on the movement. Diplomatic ties look likely to thaw further, but slowly, and only if the Taliban meets the demands of its neighbours, including political and economic stabilisation and the containment of Islamist extremism.

4. Can Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan solve their ongoing deadly border clashes? 

A revival of deadly border clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in 2022 ended with military and civilian casualties that threatened the stability of the region. With both countries accusing the other of using artillery and drones on civilian populations, the issue threatens to bubble over in 2023 to a wider conflict and has attracted international attention. It’s vital that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe pressure both countries, which are member states, to ensure that civilians are protected, human rights violations are investigated, and a long-term solution to end the violence is reached.

5. Rapid deterioration of freedoms of expression and association in Kyrgyzstan 

In Kyrgyzstan, President Japarov and security chief Tashiyev have shored up attempts to stifle dissent. In 2022, Bolot Temirov, a high-profile investigative journalist, was arrested, and 28 activists protesting water deals struck with Uzbekistan, were arbitrarily detained. Human rights defenders Clara Sooronkulova and Rita Karasartova remain in pre-trial detention. A draft law entitled ‘On non-profit non-governmental associations’, introduced in November 2022, is likely to compromise the freedom of association in Kyrgyzstan. 2023 may likely see draft laws on control of the media and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), further compounding freedom of expression.

6. Constitutional reform in Mirziyoyev’s Uzbekistan

President Mirziyoyev announced plans to reform Uzbekistan’s constitution at the end of 2021, but the process was delayed by violent turmoil in Karakalpakstan in July 2022, sparked by proposals to abolish the region’s autonomous status. Mirziyoyev was wise to scrap these constitutional amendments, but Karakalpaks hold higher expectations for meaningful autonomy, political inclusion and fair investigations. A referendum on a new constitution, which will also include a worrisome extension of presidential term limits, is now expected to be held in late March/early April 2023. EU, US, and UK observers have been invited to supervise the vote.

7. Systematic repression of Pamiri community in Gorno-Badakhshan 

Repression of informal leaders, human rights defenders and civil society activists has reached new levels in Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region. After Tajikistani security forces violently suppressed protesters in May 2022, the 15- and 30-year prison terms given to journalist Ulfatkhonim Mamadshoyeva and lawyer Faromuz Irgashev in December 2022 dealt another heavy blow to the Pamiris of eastern Tajikistan. UN Special Rapporteur Lawlor described the current situation as a “climate of fear.” Although the state’s crackdown has stamped out the potential for mass protests, further deterioration of the human rights situation is to be expected in 2023.

8. The return of a Constitutional Court to Kazakhstan

Through the June 2022 referendum, Kazakhstan saw the restoration of a Constitutional Court to which individuals can appeal directly, challenging any ‘normative legal act’. This Court, set to begin functioning from 1 January 2023, is portrayed as a step towards the effective protection of human rights. However, observers highlight concerns about the Court’s independence. Four out of eleven judges will be appointed by the president and six by the parliamentary chambers. In light of the state violence against protesters in January 2022, the working of the Court in 2023 will be a key indicator to assess the Kazakhstani state’s wishes to improve its human rights reputation.

9. Repercussions of global energy market shifts in Central Asia

Central Asia stands to gain from the ongoing global recalibration of energy strategies and partnerships. Anticipating the EU and UK ban on seaborne imports of crude oil from Russia, which started on 5 December 2022, Kazakhstan is planning to boost oil shipments to Germany in the next year via the Druzhba pipeline. Russia, in turn, has proposed schemes for trilateral gas cooperation with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, which would see the establishment of a joint mechanism to ship natural gas between the three parties and to other countries, including China. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have thus far responded with scepticism and reluctance. 2023 will prove to be a key juncture for Central Asian states’ energy policies.

10. Next consultative meeting of the Central Asian leaders

Meeting for the fourth iteration of their regional consultative meeting of Central Asian leaders, the heads of state of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in July 2022 signed a treaty covering a variety of regional interests. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan refrained from signing the document. The states have recently met in regional capacities with China, the EU and Russia. Given the continuation of border conflicts and water disputes, as well as risks of a resurgent pandemic, the sustainability of a regional approach in Central Asia remains to be seen. Their potential fifth consultative meeting in 2023 will be a key site for understanding the region’s future.

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