August 5, 2020
IntelBrief: COVID-19 Compounds Economic and Security Challenges in Central Asia
Central Asian countries—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan (known collectively as the C5)—like others around the globe, have endured significant suffering due to the spread of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the region is facing both immediate and long-term challenges. Since Central Asia’s first case was reported back in mid-March, countries in the region have followed varying strategies to deal with the virus. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan moved to close borders and imposed government-mandated countrywide lockdowns—which were re-imposed in July in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan following a spike in cases in both countries. The authoritarian leaders of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan downplayed the presence of the virus in their countries, despite evidence to the contrary. But in late April, Tajikistan’s Ministry of Health reported the first 15 cases in the country and the World Health Organization (WHO) has since led several humanitarian missions to aid the country’s response. Officials in Turkmenistan, the most authoritarian of the C5, still deny an outbreak in the country, despite mounting anecdotal evidence that the virus' spread and soaring deaths—including a district mayor in the eastern part of the country--continue. In mid-July, the government instituted a mandatory mask policy, citing increased levels of ‘dust’ in the air.
Following a second wave of infections, as of early August, the C5 had reported over 165,000 infections and is approaching 3,000 deaths. Analysts, journalists, and human rights organizations have critiqued all C5 countries’ handling of the pandemic citing lack of information sharing on the virus, inaccurate data, corruption, government reluctance to create ‘panic,’ and overwhelmed healthcare systems, fearing that the number of infections and fatalities is likely much higher. Regional cooperation among the C5 historically has largely been absent and marred with bilateral disputes. Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev has, however, led efforts to coordinate and cooperate with the other post-Soviet states through multiple bilateral phone calls and dispatching humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Such acts potentially signal a growing trend toward cooperation between C5 members, with Uzbekistan emerging as a country willing to take the initiative in organizing a more coherent regional approach to certain challenges.
Beyond the immediate human toll that COVID-19 has wrought throughout Central Asia, the region faces myriad economic and security challenges as a result of the spread of the virus. Lacking diversification of its economies and the region’s overreliance on natural gas exports to China estimates from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest a negative 2020 GDP growth for three of the C5 states. Projections predict minimal GDP growth for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan at around 1.8% for each country, compared to 6% in 2019. According to the World Bank, Central Asia’s GDP may contract by 5.4% by the end of the year—half a percentage point more than the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) estimated global GDP contraction. The region has been one of the core recipients of Chinese investment since the announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Kazakhstan in 2013 and has become increasingly reliant on Chinese economic clout. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, several C5 countries, especially Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, were struggling to repay their loans to China. The economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely increase the region’s dependence on China, which threatens to translate into Beijing wielding increasing economic power in the region.
Central Asia has also proven a prime destination for Chinese surveillance and emerging technology exports, threatening to further erode the region's already weak human rights record. Through the so-called ‘Digital Silk Road,’ as part of the BRI, Beijing is looking to expand its technology footprint across the world, primarily through ‘Smart Cities,’ and Central Asia is a prime destination. China’s ‘Smart City’ technology ranges from facial recognition to 5G infrastructure developed by controversial Huawei to the Sharp Eyes policing project that requires phone users to provide critical personal data, including fingerprints and medical records. In April 2019, Huawei agreed to a $1 billion deal with Uzbekistan, which included installing over 883 cameras as part of a traffic-monitoring system. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many analysts fear that surveillance technology provided by China will be expanded and repurposed to further monitor the population in Central Asian counties under the guise of health and safety. A dire socio-economic situation, coupled with China’s increasingly heavy hand, could serve to further destabilize the region. Last year, some Central Asian countries experienced social unrest caused by anti-Chinese sentiment, stemming from both fears of debt-entrapment and infringement upon sovereignty, as well as Beijing’s repressive policies toward Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang province. The human and economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with accompanying security concerns, could portend serious upheaval and destabilization throughout Central Asian countries in the near-term.