New statistics show migrant labor remittances are now equivalent to over half Tajikistan's GDP, crossing an important psychological threshold and emphasizing the Central Asian country's vulnerability to external shocks.
The impoverished country has long been the most remittance-dependent in the world, with cash transfers accounting for approximately half of the economy. Migrant transfers totaled more than $4 billion in 2013, the equivalent of 52 percent of GDP, the World Bank said in its most recent migration and development brief. That figure was 45.5 percent in 2010 and 48 percent in 2012. In neighboring Kyrgyzstan, the second-most dependent on remittances globally, remittances stayed level at the equivalent of 31 percent of GDP.
Both formerly Soviet countries are believed to have sent over one million migrants abroad, mostly to Russia and, to a lesser extent, to Kazakhstan. Remittances are also critical in neighboring Uzbekistan, which receives about one-third of all Russian wire transfers sent to former Soviet republics, accounting for the equivalent of about 16 percent of GDP last year.
Officials in Tajikistan do not like to acknowledge migrants’ importance to their economy. Last year the National Bank said it would stop reporting remittance data, claiming the information could be “politicized.” (The World Bank’s numbers come partially from Russia’s Central Bank.) Other officials have downplayed the role and number of migrants, apparently attempting to deny Tajikistan’s utter dependence on Russia.
While Tajiks were suffering through daily electricity blackouts this winter, their government was exporting electricity to Afghanistan, official statistics show.
Electricity exports are a hot topic in Central Asia lately. Only last week the World Bank announced it had earmarked $526.5 million in credit and grants for an ambitious project to help Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan export electricity to South Asia starting in 2018: CASA-1000. But that project is designed, World Bank officials insist, to export “surplus” electricity in the summer months only.
In a region where it’s hard to take officials at their word, could CASA-1000 be abused?
Extended, rolling blackouts are standard in mountainous Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each winter, when reservoirs are exhausted and waiting for the spring thaw to refill. In recent weeks, the problem became acute in Tajikistan, with some areas only receiving 30 minutes of electricity per day, or even none at all, RFE/RL reported on March 27. Widespread outages started last October and normally continue until March. But this year blackouts are expected to continue a month longer than normal.
Protestors in Kyrgyzstan’s northwest have clashed with police and blocked a major road, alleging a Kazakh project to survey for gold is polluting the local environment. It’s the latest in a string of violent, mining-related clashes in the Central Asian state. Once again, mining experts in Bishkek are skeptical about the protestors’ motivations.
Early on April 3, several hundred protestors blocked the road leading from Talas, the largest town in Kyrgyzstan’s northwestern Talas Province, to Taraz, in Kazakhstan. By evening, the number had swollen to 500 and some reports circulated that two officials had been kidnapped. At least 19 police were wounded in a confrontation with stone-throwing residents, 24.kg reported, citing an Interior Ministry official.
The protestors are demanding Kazakh mining concern Altyn Kumushtak, which has been exploring the Shiraldjin gold deposit since 2005, stop. In an interview with Radio Liberty’s Kyrgyz Service, a self-identified participant in the riots, Nurlan Muzurov, said he and others “don’t want deformed children, pollution of the water and the air.”
In 2009, Altyn Kumushtak’s license had been annulled and given to a Chinese company in one of many murky exchanges during the presidency of Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who was ousted amid bloody street protests in 2010. In 2013 the Kazakh company successfully appealed and won back the rights to the deposit.
The ruling coalition in Kyrgyzstan’s five-party parliament that collapsed on March 18 has reunited, comprising the same three parties.
“Unity Before Happiness,” as the last coalition was known, fell apart when Ata-Meken party leader Omurbek Tekebayev led his party out of the alliance after fighting for months with Prime Minister Jantoro Satybaldiyev over the fate of a Canadian-owned gold mine. Satybaldiyev spent much of his time in office battling accusations of corruption. But such recriminations are so frequently leveled within Kyrgyzstan’s parliament that its members are widely seen as more concerned with personal enrichment than tackling Kyrgyzstan’s urgent economic problems. (A poll of 1,500 Kyrgyz conducted in February found 75 percent believed parliament was either “very corrupt” or “somewhat corrupt.”)
Nevertheless, on March 31 the Social Democrats, members of Ata-Meken and Ar-Namys came together to form the lofty-sounding “For Strengthening Statehood” coalition.
The voting table for the Ukraine resolution at the UN on March 27, tweeted by John W. Ashe of Antigua and Barbuda, president of the 68th Session of the General Assembly.
This week Russia told its former vassals in Central Asia to fall in line and support its position on Ukraine at the United Nations—or else. That’s the claim of a Reuters report looking at the behind-the-scenes maneuvers ahead of the March 27 UN General Assembly resolution declaring Crimea’s secession from Ukraine invalid.
Allegations that Moscow bullies its neighbors will be unsurprising in Central Asia, where Russia’s economic and military clout still reign supreme, and stories abound of Russian special services manipulating the levers of power, especially in poorer places like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
One hundred countries voted in favor of the resolution, 11 – mostly Russian allies – against. Fifty-eight abstained and 24 didn’t show up for the vote. None of the Central Asian countries voted for the resolution. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were among the no-shows.
Russia condemned the vote, and criticized the "deep interference of a number of Western countries in Ukraine's affairs."
For certain, major powers often use carrots and sticks to buy votes at the UN. But Russia, according to the Reuters report, resorted to “political blackmail and economic threats.”
According to interviews with U.N. diplomats, most of whom preferred to speak on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Moscow, the targets of Russian threats included Moldova, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as a number of African countries.
Russia has hastened to assure its Central Asian allies that they will not be involved in any military moves in Ukraine, a sign that Moscow is aware of the growing worry about its new assertiveness.
The issue is the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Russia-led post-Soviet security bloc that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. The group thus far has seen a lot more talk than action, and plenty of questions remain about what it will actually do. On Monday, Kyrgyzstani MP Tursunbai Bakir Uulu expressed concern that the CSTO might embroil Kyrgyzstan in the conflict in Ukraine:
"The agreement was ratified, but before the events in Ukraine. I don't want to be a hostage to these agreements. You know, that the [Russian] Federation Council took a decision that, if the need arose, they could intervene militarily in Ukraine. If tomorrow war breaks out between Russia and Ukraine, we would be obliged to fight on Russia's side. We need to withdraw from these agreements so we don't get drawn into a war in Ukraine."
The collapse of the Soviet Union left industry scattered across the Fergana Valley regardless of modern borders. This oil field stands near Jany Jer, Kyrgyzstan, on the Uzbek border.
Last October, according to Kyrgyz accounts, Tajik soldiers crossed into disputed territory to repair an oil and gas well that a Tajik company had used since independence—pumping, by some estimates, 5 tons of oil a day. Kyrgyz border guards took notice, shut down the operation, and told the Tajiks to get lost.
Could that episode have led to a shootout between Tajik and Kyrgyz border guards near Ak-Sai on January 11? Both countries are starved for energy resources, so the idea they could fight over an oilfield seems plausible.
When Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were all Soviet republics, their winding, undefined borders mattered little. But when Moscow’s rule evaporated, the Soviets left an industrial legacy overlying the Fergana Valley’s new borders: crisscrossing pipelines and derelict derricks in no man’s land.
Since the 1970s, Soviet Tajikistan and then the Republic of Tajikistan had been pumping oil from the field, Katta-Tuz, which the Kyrgyz say is on disputed territory. “In August 2013 I told them to stop,” recalls Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Tokun Mamytov. “It’s a big problem. […] The first problem is not the road, but oil and gas.” (Mamytov’s counterparts in Tajikistan refused to comment.)
The post-Soviet states of Central Asia have been generally cautious in their response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, likely concerned that an aggressive Russia could have unpredictable designs on its “near abroad.” Just as we saw before Crimea held a vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia on March 16, statements from Central Asian governments continue to mix support for their powerful neighbor with wariness about developments.
After Bishkek blasted “all acts aimed at destabilization of the situation in Ukraine” on March 11, the Kyrgyz – who are dependent on Russian economic aid and migrant remittances – came around to see Moscow’s point of view. In a March 20 statement, Kyrgyzstan’s Foreign Ministry recognized Crimean secession as “the will of an absolute majority.”
Uzbekistan, which is a tad less dependent on Russia and generally takes as independent a point of view as it can muster, issued a statement March 25 respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, calling for negotiations and the respect for international law. This is Uzbekistan’s
"firm and invariable" stance, the Foreign Ministry said, without mentioning Russian authorities.
Tajikistan – which would appear to have plenty in common with the corrupt dictatorship of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – has been silent. So has gas-rich, totalitarian Turkmenistan.
The Russian government has proposed legislation that would grant citizenship to anyone who speaks fluent Russian and had once lived, or who had relatives who lived, on the territory of the Soviet Union.
The draft law would apply to millions of people throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as Ukraine, Moldova and other parts of Europe. So, amid the crisis in Crimea, where one Russian justification for military intervention has been to “protect” ethnic Russians, the timing should increase anxieties in presidential palaces across the region that Moscow is also using a soft weapon in its arsenal to rebuild its empire.
In theory, ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in formerly Soviet states have long had the right to acquire Russian passports, but the process in recent years has become more difficult and protracted. Applicants must move to Russia and live there for three years, while jumping through a ruthless sequence of bureaucratic hoops. Nevertheless, since independence, according to official Kyrgyz statistics cited by Radio Azattyk, about a tenth of Kyrgyzstan’s population has received Russian citizenship.
Now, too, the process won’t be without sacrifices. Under the proposed law, applicants would have to wave their existing citizenship. But as the bill is written, it does not require the new Russian citizens to immigrate.
While foreign military aid to the countries of Central Asia is unlikely to have a large impact on security in the region, it's unclear whether the positive effects will outweigh the negative ones. That's according to a comprehensive new report (pdf), "External Support for Central Asian Military and Security Forces," written by Dmitry Gorenburg for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (and supported by the Open Society Foundations, which also funds EurasiaNet).
The 90-page paper is the most exhaustive accounting of military aid given to the Central Asian countries. While "Russia remains the main source of military and security assistance for most Central Asian states" the report also looks at American and other countries' military aid, Both the U.S. and Russian aid is based primarily on quid pro quos, Gorenburg argues: for Russia it is for the sake of "basing rights and a certain level of acquiescence on Russian foreign policy priorities" while for the U.S. it's been "assuring continued access for transferring supplies and personnel to Afghanistan."'
Gorenburg notes that the possibility of Central Asian militaries receiving excess U.S. military equipment from Afghanistan is insignificant relative to the amount of attention it gets: