The Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB) proposal put forward by Chinese President Xi Jinping is considered a new model for regional and South-South cooperation. It is also the priority area for China’s all-round opening up and neighbourly diplomacy. While SREB potentially involves over 40 Asian and European countries, Central Asia occupies the centerpiece of the Belt.
The Russia-Ukraine crisis is having a profoundly unsettling effect on authoritarian-minded governments in Central Asia. On the one hand, they are keen to keep the forces unleashed by the Euromaidan movement at bay; on the other, they appear unnerved by the Kremlin’s power play.
State-controlled media outlets in Central Asian states are reticent when it comes to covering developments in Kyiv, Crimea and elsewhere in Ukraine. The parallels between the ousted and allegedly corrupt president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, and leading members of Central Asian elites are obvious to many in the region, so it’s not surprising that the Euromaidan Revolution has received little play in Central Asia’s press.
On 11 May the first direct railway connection in history between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan was opened in the presence of the Kazakh and Turkmen presidents. The inaugurated railway line is part of the North-South project which links Central Asia (and China and Russia) with the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The last section of the line will be completed by the end of this year and will ensure Iran and Turkmenistan are connected. The current capacity of the railway line is 3-5 million tonnes annually and estimations predict that in the medium term this figure will increase to 10 million tonnes annually. The construction of the new railway line has been financed by the countries involved in this project and the Asian Development Bank (as part of the CAREC programme). This route will be used above all for exports of Kazakh wheat and oil as well as for the transit of goods to and from Afghanistan, including oil products which are now transported mainly through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Nigerians finally cast their votes for a new national assembly last Saturday, in the first of three successive elections. It did not start quite as imagined. A week earlier, polling had to be abandoned after election materials failed to arrive in many parts of the country. A bomb blast at an electoral office on the eve of the election killed several people, and polling itself was marred by sporadic violence.
But compared to the 2007 elections, which were characterized by violence, organized vote-rigging and fraud, Nigeria might do pretty well this time. A well respected academic and civil society activist presides over the Independent National Election Commission, and incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan has made repeated commitments to respect the rules of democracy. His main challengers include a former military ruler, who is now taking his chances at the polls. And even the estimated 10 to 15 percent ghost voters do not seem so bad after all. Progress is relative. According to one of Crisis Group’s Senior Analysts, “The polls could mark a turning point for Nigeria”.
The same cannot be said for Kazakhstan. In a sham election earlier this month, President Nursultan Nazarbayev won 95.5% of the votes in a turnout of 89.5%. Nazarbayev’s three challengers all expressed support for his candidacy and, bizarrely, one of them even admitted having voted for him. The way in which the elections took place not only embarrasses Western diplomats, whose praise for the call for elections now seems somewhat premature.