By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
The countries of Central Asia have been tested as never since independence by the Covid19 that confronted them all with decades old national, regional and international questions. It also exposed their poor sanitary conditions and the huge gaps in health services between poor, especially in rural area, and the millionaires who have access to modern institutions. At least, this time, they could not go abroad for treatment.
As in other countries hit by the virus, social problems pose the major risk to the governments in place and to the public confidence towards the institutions. But they have also their specificities, especially when their national budgets depend for up to 50% from remittances of workers abroad.
Many of those were stranded abroad, often without salaries and documents, obliging their governments to answer to public pressure and organise their repatriation. For instance, by early April, Uzbekistan had officially evacuated some 20,000 of its citizens on charter flights, half of them from Russia, others from Turkey or the United Arab Emirates. Others, coming back home by land, found themselves stranded on the borders with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, raising diplomatic tensions. Those three countries were themselves confronted with the same cross borders’ obstacles.
Their return is not only a question of logistics or management of diplomatic tensions. It is also a double loss – for national budgets and for thousands of impoverished families. Those returnees have few chances to find another job at home as it was the lack of opportunities that pushed them to work abroad. The massive return of young men without prospects is made more sensitive because the economies have been demolished by the Covid epidemic and the growth of pay arrears. Private companies short of funds stopped paying salaries months ago. Only the public sector guarantees regular salaries, but this cannot go on forever if national budgets are crumbling.
The most serious case is that of Tajikistan, already one of the poorest cases in Central Asia. Official figures show that wage arrears, including those accumulated over previous years, exceeded $5.1m dollars on 1 April and continue increasing. It affects mostly construction workers and workers in industrial enterprises and state institutions related to land, irrigation and aviation. It means that the lives of tens of thousands of people are affected inside the country, on top of those who lost jobs and sometimes their savings abroad.
In these circumstances, for all five governments, internal problems got an interregional dimension. The border closures for sanitary reasons, and the consequent tit for that if implemented differently, affect the free circulation of people and goods, as well as the rentability of infrastructures recently built for interconnecting all Central Asia both between themselves and with the outside world. This free circulation was also an important political tool for creating new spaces in a post-Soviet world.
At the same time, those borders are terribly porous, especially in mountainous areas where state institutions are unable to prevent cross border traffic of drugs, arms, and armed militants. Officials, state agencies, the police and the military have been building fortunes on that – and in any case, Covid ignores borders.
Finally, those situations encourage ethnic resentment in a region where national borders split clans and national groups. The financial crisis caused by the epidemic can only put oil on the fire, as “nationals” and “outsiders” compete for jobs, housing and irrigated lands, especially in already tense, poor and overpopulated regions such as Osh or the Fergana Valley. Some serious incidents have already been recorded – and the epidemic is not away.
On international levels, the virus crisis already had repercussions on the foreign relations of the 5 republics, putting in jeopardy years of attempts to diversify their economies and their external relations without antagonising Russia.
This not the first time that the situation of Central Asian workers in Russia have raised diplomatic tensions with Moscow. But now China is a bigger problem. Central Asians were happy to see Chinese investments offering an alternative to Russia ones. But the relations with Russians are easier, due to people’s capacity to understand each other and to past experience of living side by side. Chinese are outsiders, and want to be so. There have been numerous demonstrations in different republics against their perceived “colonial” behaviour and racism at work. The virus crisis paved the way for other grievances and hostility as Chinese production and infrastructure work closed down, leaving thousands without jobs and often without pay.
The governments have a certain levy on Russia, at bilateral level or through their adhesion to the Eurasiatic Economic Union; but they have less on China. And they have even less on other countries whose companies are competing for investments in the economy, mainly in natural resources (mining and energy) as well as for the construction of infrastructures.