There have been major shifts in the global geopolitical order in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the flaws of globalisation. Additionally, the Taliban’s rise to power as a result of the American exit from Afghanistan posed several challenges, particularly for the neighboring countries. The Russia-Ukraine Crisis has further destabilised the world order. The Central Asian region, surrounded by Russia, China, and Afghanistan, could not have avoided the impacts of these developments.

Against this context, the year 2022 was challenging for the Central Asian region. The external influence of the Ukrainian crisis has exacerbated previously existing problems in these nations. Public dissatisfaction is evident from the widespread anti-government demonstrations brought on by the uneven domestic socioeconomic and political conditions. On the one hand, these demonstrations have brought attention to the domestic vulnerabilities of these countries. Nevertheless, on the positive side, they have forced the Central Asian governments to pay attention to popular dissatisfaction and to put up real initiatives to solve important issues and grievances.

Kazakhstan saw a brutal protest in early 2022, which resulted in the government’s suspension and the end of the Nazarbayev era. Given the complexities of the situation, Kazakh President Kassym Jomart Tokayev initiated wide-ranging reforms. Similarly, in July 2022, protests erupted in Nukus, Karakalpakstan’s capital city, against proposed constitutional reforms in Uzbekistan. Official Uzbek sources claim that the protests were sparked by a misunderstanding of constitutional amendments proposed by the Uzbek government. During the confrontation between the government and the locals, 18 individuals were killed, and almost 200 were injured. However, in order to stabilize the situation, President Mirziyoyev reinstated the suggested changes. There have also been anti-government protests in Tajikistan’s Pamir region.

While Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have made significant efforts to implement socioeconomic and political reforms to secure human rights, a responsible government, the abolition of corruption and poverty, and so on, Tajikistan’s position remains a major concern for two reasons. Tajikistan’s economy is mostly based on remittances. As a result, a crisis such as a coronavirus pandemic or the Russia-Ukraine conflict is likely to worsen the already strained relationship between the administration and the local population in the Pamir region. Second, there is the possibility of a transfer of power in the country during the coming elections in 2025. Thus, President Rahmon will suppress any dissent in order to achieve a smooth power transition. As a result, it is essential to keep a watchful eye on Central Asia’s domestic security situation, particularly in Tajikistan.

In this context, it is vital to assess Central Asian countries’ ability to adapt to changing environment. If Moscow’s Ukraine agenda is overstated, relations with Central Asia must also pass a litmus test. These countries will continue to strive to diversify their logistics and transit networks in order to lessen their reliance on Russia. The partnership with the West will expand. However, trade, economics, investment, and trans-continental transit will dominate Central Asia’s interactions with the West. Despite the fact that China’s loans are concerning for these countries, Beijing’s influence in this region is expanding, and it does not only remain economic. China is now attempting to expand its defence and military cooperation with these countries. Beijing is doing everything it can to strengthen its position in the region, from maintaining a military facility in Tajikistan to selling weapons to Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Russia has been Central Asia’s most reliable ally. However, after Moscow initiated military operations in Ukraine in February 2022, concerns about Moscow’s diminishing influence in Central Asia have circulated, owing mostly to these nations’ attempts to find a balance in their positions on the conflict. But considering that Moscow is not only the region’s largest economic partner but also that these countries have a long history of affinity with Russia, this cannot be true. China’s influence in the region is expanding beyond trade and economy. In addition to China, other external players, including Turkey, India, and Pakistan, have been pushing to expand their relations with the Central Asian region.

In conclusion, it would be fair to argue that Turkey’s influence in Central Asia is growing exponentially. Ankara is attempting to increase military cooperation with Central Asian republics in addition to promoting its ethnic and cultural links to the region. The post- Soviet nations of Central Asia cannot be taken for granted by Moscow anymore. Therefore, Russia will regularly engage with regional leaders to strengthen its position and exert more control over the region. Additionally, there will be an improvement in ties between India and Central Asia. India will prioritise regional connectivity because it is the major obstacle to bilateral trade and economic cooperation. New Delhi will also host the SCO this year, which might be leveraged to strengthen ties between India and Central Asia in many ways.

Author:
Dr. Pravesh Kumar Gupta
Senior Research Associate,
Vivekananda International Foundation