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Central Asia in Focus: Cold Reception in Russia for Kazakh President

Kazakh President visits Russia, expanding the Middle Corridor, investigating the violence in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpak Republic, and more.

An image of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev addressing the participants of a session of the Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum from Russia in November 28, 2022.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev address the participants of a session of the Russia-Kazakhstan Interregional Cooperation Forum via a video link in Moscow, Russia November 28, 2022.

What’s Happening in the Region

Cold Reception in Russia for Kazakh President

Fresh from being inaugurated for his second term in office, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev arrived in Moscow on an official visit late November 27.

The reception he received was underwhelming and bordered on insulting.

Waiting for Tokayev on the tarmac at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport was a Russian guard of honor and a military band that played the Kazakh national anthem.

Absent from reports was mention of any high-ranking Russian officials at the airport to greet the Kazakh president.

Kazakhstan and Russia have been close allies since the Soviet Union collapsed, at least until recently.

Kazakhstan has said publicly several times it would not follow Russia’s lead and recognize the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states.

Toqaev even referred to Donetsk and Luhansk as “quasi states” while sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg last June.

When Toqaev and Putin finally met the conversation was apparently cordial.

There was no mention of Ukraine. Talk instead seemed to focus on trade with Toqaev noting Kazakh-Russian bilateral trade “despite all the difficulties associated with the pandemic, reached $24.5 billion.

Why It’s Important: Toqaev’s choice of Russia for his first official visit after re-election shows he values relations with Russia, even if his government might not approve of Russia’s moves in Ukraine.

There is little doubt though that Kazakh-Russian relations are strained.

The low-key reception for Toqaev at the airport could be interpreted as a diplomatic snub.

Toqaev has not only rejected supporting Russia’s action in Ukraine, he is also heading from Russia to the West, to France, for his second official visit since re-election and his cold welcome in Moscow might have something to do with that also.

Meetings in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan on Expanding the Middle Corridor

Shipping cargo through Russia has become increasingly complicated since Russia launched its war on Ukraine in February. Officials from Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey just met in Kazakhstan to discuss an alternative route.

The foreign ministers of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, and the deputy foreign minister of Georgia, along with officials from other ministries of the four countries met in the Kazakh Caspian port city of Aqtau on November 25.

The group discussed the Trans-Caspian International Transport (TITR) route, also called the “Middle Corridor,” that connects China to Europe through Central Asia and the Caucasus.

The route has existed for nearly 10 years, but the current infrastructure cannot support the volume of goods necessary to accept additional shipments that, until now, have been sent through Russian routes.

The group signed agreements that aim to boost the Middle Corridor’s shipping capacity to 10 million metric tons by 2025 annually.

Kazakhstan’s Minister of Industry and Infrastructure Development Kairbek Uskenbaev pointed out the existence of bottlenecks in railways and ports of the Middle Corridor that need to be expanded.

On the same day on the other side of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hosted an international conference on the Middle Corridor.

Aliyev said, according to his information, transportation of goods through the Middle Corridor would increase by 70 percent this year compared to 2021.

Why It’s Important: For 20 years, work has been done on road, rail, and maritime connections from China to Europe, but the existing infrastructure is already strained.

There was no reported mention at the meetings in Aktau or Baku of the cost of expanding infrastructure to accommodate a large increase in cargo, but it is certainly billions of dollars.

While that is a lot of money, the countries involved in the Middle Corridor will benefit from the renewed interest in China and Europe in seeing the Middle Corridor opened wider.

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s Majlis podcast looks at the investigation into the violence in Uzbekistan’s Karakalpak Republic in July.

That investigation seems to be focusing on the protesters, despite evidence that police mis-used riot control weapons and inflicted horrific injuries on demonstrators.

The role of police in the Karakalpakstan tragedy was the topic of a recent report from Human Rights Watch.

This week’s guests are Mihra Rittmann, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, and Steve Swerdlow, a rights lawyer who has spent many years focusing on Central Asia.

What I’m Following

Trials Open in Case of Karakalpakstan Violence

The first trials in the Karakalpakstan violence opened on November 28 .

Twenty-two people accused of organizing the unrest appeared in court.

The announcement of the trials came from the Uzbek ombudsman’s office on November 26 and it was only on November 27 that the venue of the trials, Bukhara, was named.

The trials are open to the media, but the short notice and the location are bound to prevent many journalists from attending the opening sessions.

Which Central Asian Media are Covering Chinese protests

The protests over COVID restrictions that started in China on November 26 are receiving wide international coverage, but not so much, so far, in Central Asia.

Central Asian governments have received huge investments and loans from China, which has helped keep the mouths of Central Asian officials closed about a number of Chinese matters — the repression against Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region and now this.

The Central Asian governments can be expected to instruct state media to avoid the topic of the protests in China.

So credit to the independent outlet Kaktus Media in Kyrgyzstan for reporting about the protests on November 26, the independent outlet Vlast in Kazakhstan for reporting about it on November 27, and privately-owned Kazakh outlet Tengri News on November 28.

Will any more Central Asian media outlets join in covering the widespread protests in China?

Fact of the Week

There are protests in all the countries bordering Central Asia – Iran, China, and Afghanistan – except in Russia, where security forces and police have been working hard to prevent protests when they start.

Thanks for Reading

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See you next week for more on what’s happening in Central Asia.

Until next time,