EurasiaChat: Doing business with the Taliban
Also, the danger from glaciers is here now, and growing number of Central Asian labor migrants face the risk of becoming undocumented in Russia.
In this week’s EurasiaChat podcast, co-presenters Peter Leonard and Alisher Khamidov turned their attention to the question of the recent visit of a Taliban business delegation to Kazakhstan.
When the militant group seized power in Kabul in 2021, it caused palpable alarm across Central Asia. But that anxiety quickly dissipated, as the continued emphasis on economic ties has shown.
Bilateral trade between Afghanistan and Kazakhstan last year rose to $1 billion, twice as much as in 2021. Astana says it wants that figure to rise to $3 billion.
As Alisher noted, this normalization approach is something that is being seen among across the whole region. Uzbekistan is trying to play the role of the main negotiator with Kabul, Turkmenistan is pushing its trans-Afghan TAPI pipeline, and Kyrgyzstan has made a foray into this area too with former president Roza Otunbayeva serving as the the UN's chief representative for negotiations with the Taliban government.
The question is: why such eagerness?
Peter argued that despite the distaste the international community may have for the Taliban, Central Asian nations are still interested in pursuing a broader and longer-term agenda of exploring how Afghanistan can help the region pivot away from its historic overreliance on partners like Russia and, increasingly of late, China.
A far more dangerous and potentially imminent threat than anything Afghanistan could pose is lingering over Kyrgyzstan in the form of melting glaciers. Alisher spoke specifically about the situation with Ak-Sai Lake, a body of water that is fed by the Uchitel glacier and looms over the Ala-Archa River, which runs through Bishkek. The concern is that the hot weather could cause the lake to overfill, causing the natural dam holding in the water to break, in turn flooding parts of Kyrgyzstan’s capital.
This is no isolated problem either. As Alisher pointed out, there are more than 300 glacial lakes around Bishkek, and around 22 of them pose a potential threat to densely populated areas.
What is troubling is that the authorities – not just in Kyrgyzstan, but also in other countries facing similar threats – appear unfocused about the urgency of the problem.
One relatively affordable mitigation strategy would be to improve early warning mechanisms, but doing that is no easy feat in the logistically complicated realities of Central Asia, Alisher concluded.
To end with, Peter focused on recent reporting from Russia about how anywhere up to 100,000 Central Asian expat laborers are in danger of becoming undocumented as soon as next year due to their mounting debts to microcredit organizations. The high-interest rates on these loans often make repayment difficult for the already financially vulnerable migrants. Moreover, as these migrants are limited in the time they can spend in Russia, returning to their home countries becomes challenging when microcredit organizations resort to filing lawsuits to compel repayment. According to a report in Moscow-based Vedomosti business daily, around 300,000 lawsuits were filed between March and July alone, resulting in travel restrictions, and a presumably concomitant undocumented status, for many labor migrants.
Alisher suggests, however, that this situation may not be accidental. In the past, Moscow has used labor migrants as bargaining chips with which to influence policy in Central Asian governments. There is a scenario in which Russia exploits a debt crisis to press Central Asian countries into supporting Russia's interests, including in its invasion of Ukraine.
This episode was produced and edited by Aigerim Toleukhanova.
Aigerim Toleukhanova is a journalist and researcher from Kazakhstan.
Peter Leonard is Eurasianet’s Central Asia editor.
Alisher Khamidov is a writer based in Bishkek.