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Central Asia in Focus: November 1, 2022

Russians fleeing to Central Asia, bad Turkmen choices, Uzbek President’s visit to Kyrgyzstan, possible Tajik Connection to Iranian Drones in Ukraine, and more.

RUSSIA – People walk next to their cars queuing to cross the border into Kazakhstan at Mariinsky border crossing, 250 miles south of Chelyabinsk, Russia on Sept. 27, 2022 after President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization of reservists to fight in Ukraine. (AP Photo)

What’s Happening in the Region

Counting the Russians Coming to Central Asia Since the War in Ukraine Started

Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have fled their homeland since February 24 when Russia started its war in Ukraine.

Visa requirements for Russian citizens in many countries limit destinations for Russians escaping their country. So, they have gone where they could. Looking at the latest figures, many chose to at least start their journeys from Russia by coming to Central Asia.

According to Russia’s Federal Statistics Agency (EMISS), in the first quarter of this year, 204,907 Russian citizens crossed into Kazakhstan, and in the second quarter 568,285.The agency does not yet have figures for the third quarter but according to Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee, starting September 21, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the “partial mobilization,” until October 3, Kazakh authorities registered the arrival of 281,548 Russian citizens.

EMISS reported 47,573 Russian citizens went to Kyrgyzstan and 53,084 to Uzbekistan in quarter one, and 123,352 to Kyrgyzstan and 96,473 to Uzbekistan in quarter two.

Kyrgyzstan’s Border Service reported in late October that 479,960 Russian citizens had entered Kyrgyzstan in the first nine months of 2022.

Uzbekistan’s State Statistics Committee reported on October 10 that some 395,100 Russian “tourists” had arrived in Uzbekistan in the first nine months of 2022.

It is unclear how many of these Russian citizens have stayed in Central Asia but most appear to have used Central Asia as a transfer stop, and have already left for other countries.

Why It’s Important: There have been numerous reports about rents increasing in major cities of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan as apartment owners try to cash in on the arrival Russians who are willing to pay extra. Locals are not happy about this.

More importantly in the long term, the sight of possibly more than one million Russians fleeing their country in nine months destroys the image many Central Asians have of Russia as a great power.

The once mighty Russia doesn’t look so powerful now in the eyes of Central Asia’s people and that will affect Central Asia’s ties with Russia for many years to come.

Bad Turkmen Choices

The Turkmen government is known for making bad decisions. Among them, the government cut off natural gas supplies to Iran in 2017 over a controversial debt, which cost Turkmenistan about $3 billion annually.

Admittedly, this was in barter, not cash, but there have been shortages of basic goods in Turkmenistan since 2015 and anything would have helped.

Turkmen authorities’ denial there has ever been COVID-19 has cost the country probably thousands of lives. How many will probably never be clear since authorities have hushed up any mention of COVID. The government’s assertion there has never been COVID in the country has certainly cost millions of dollars in international aid and equipment that organizations were sending to countries around the world to help treat COVID patients.

Add to the list of bad decisions the current unfortunate foreign policy of Turkmenistan.

Serdar Berdymukhammedov is Turkmenistan’s president. He took over the job from his father, Gurbanguly, in March when Serdar won the snap presidential election his father called.

There has never been anything remotely resembling a free and fair election in Turkmenistan and the March election was no exception.

Serdar’s first state visits to foreign countries, not counting the pilgrimage to Mecca at the start of June, were to Russia on June 10, then to Iran on June 15.

The visits to Moscow and Tehran sent a message that under Serdar, Russia and Iran (which are Caspian littoral countries as is Turkmenistan) would be Turkmenistan’s primary foreign partners.

Russia has become an international pariah since it launched the war on Ukraine in late February, and the war is weakening Russia economically and militarily.

Iran was already shunned by many countries, but the regime’s reaction to ongoing widespread protests since the September 13 death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini has created additional backlash. Amini was arrested by morality police for not wearing a hijab and died in custody.

Why It’s Important: Turkmenistan needs international partners. The country is in its seventh year of an economic crisis.

Betting on the Russian and Iranian governments as allies seems risky these days.

If Russia and Iran cannot help to support the Turkmen government, to whom will Serdar turn as his country continues it spiral into socio-economic despair?

The Latest Majlis Podcast

This week’s ​Majlis podcast looks at the Kyrgyz government’s response to mounting opposition to a proposed land swap agreement with Uzbekistan by arresting nearly two dozen politicians, activists, and journalists.There was also a decision to block the websites of RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz service.

The stand-off over freedom of the press in Kyrgyzstan has begun and the country has already seen three revolutions since 2005.

This week’s guests are Leila Nazgul Seiitbek, a lawyer and chairwoman of the NGO Freedom for Eurasia and Saniia Toktogazieva, a constitutional lawyer, and associate professor teaching international law at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek.

What I’m Following

The Uzbek President’s Visit to Kyrgyzstan

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev was expected to visit Kyrgyzstan.

The date was never clear and now it is even less clear when Mirziyoev might arrive.

The Russian newspaper “Kommersant” cited Kyrgyz “diplomatic sources” as saying the visit was postponed.A border agreement was expected to be signed during Mirziyoev’s visit, but that proposed agreement has caused problems in Kyrgyzstan. Listen to this week’s Majlis podcast to find out more.

Tajik Connection to Iranian Drones in Ukraine?

Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry hasdenied comments from Ukrainian journalist Dmitri Gordon that Iranian drones that are being used by the Russian military in Ukraine came from Tajikistan.Gordon said Iranian drones that “are killing Ukrainians” were produced in Tajikistan.

Though Tajikistan’s Foreign Ministry says Gordon’s claims are untrue, it is true that Iran is producing military drones in Tajikistan.

Fact of the Week

There are still no genuine opposition parties registered in Kazakhstan.

Representatives of the opposition party Alga Kazakhstan, or Forward Kazakhstan,

handed in the party’s registration documents to the Justice Ministry on October 26.

The party hopes to be registered in time for snap parliamentary elections next year.

It was the fifth time this year the party has tried to register.

Thanks for Reading

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

Until next time,