Letter From the Editors

In an April 2020 article for The Diplomat, Stanislav Pritchin wrote that the countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus have been striving to develop political and economic autonomy by integrating into world production chains. Most of these nations have shown success in the last several years, judging by the World Bank’s annual Doing Business rankings. For example, Azerbaijan jumped from 63rd place in 2016 to 25th in 2019. However, the ranking of its neighbor Armenia dropped from 35th to 47th during the same period.

These contrasting economic trajectories seem to be reflected in military capabilities, as Baku seized the advantage in the latest outbreak of conflict in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. In an Izvestia interview, deputy speaker of the Armenian parliament Alen Simonyan vividly expressed the disparity between the conflicting parties: “What can you say when a republic with a population of 150,000 is attacked by a country with a population of 10 million [i.e., Azerbaijan]?”

These two warring neighbors are only part of the picture: Turkey is helping the Azerbaijani side by supplying arms and equipment, and (as Marianna Belenkaya writes), “Syrian men – pawns in the power politics of outside forces – have had little choice but to eke out their living as mercenary soldiers,” most recently in Karabakh.

Meanwhile, Simonyan comments, countries outside the region are merely calling for peace without taking active steps to halt the aggression. “Naturally, it will be impossible to resolve the conflict without third-party intervention.”

Then, lo and behold: Russia stepped in as a mediator, and after a 10-hour negotiating session in Moscow, Baku agreed to a ceasefire. But why? Aleksandr Artamonov surmises: “If fighting continues, Azerbaijan has a chance to seize Nagorno-Karabakh. But that victory would come at a huge cost. So now is the perfect time for Azerbaijan to engage in talks: On the one hand, its army has demonstrated its superiority; on the other, it is not yet bogged down in the thick of Armenia’s defense forces.” But some experts question whether the ceasefire will hold.

Another country whose Doing Business ranking has dipped in recent years is Kyrgyzstan, possibly due to its continuing political instability and corruption. This month’s parliamentary elections revealed sharply divided public sentiments, sparking a new wave of unrest.

The two parties that garnered the most votes – Birimdik [Unity] and Mekenim Kyrgyzstan – got just under 25% apiece, while only two other parties even made it into parliament. However, 12 other parties that failed to clear the 7% threshold (all of them opposed to current President Sooronbai Zheenbekov) together got a third of all votes. These parties agreed to join forces to demand a second vote, and mobilized thousands of supporters to march in Bishkek the night that preliminary results were announced.

By the next morning, protesters had seized the buildings of the Internal Affairs Ministry, the State Security Committee and Bishkek City Hall. Zheenbekov’s response was conciliatory; at his prompting, the Central Electoral Commission annulled the voting results and called for a new election, as yet unscheduled.

The Carnegie Moscow Center’s Temur Umarov describes the situation as chaotic, with various clans fighting over every government post. On the other hand, Central Asia expert Arkady Dubnov stops short of calling the upheaval a coup: “What happened . . . could be considered a sub-coup. The real problem is that the protesters don’t have a political leader who can express the general opinion. . . . Of course, there are elements of a coup. But the president hasn’t given up power yet.”

This problematic transition of political power resembles what’s happening in another post-Soviet state, Belarus (whose Doing Business rating, incidentally, has dropped from 37th to 49th since 2016). Unlike his Kyrgyz counterpart, long-time Belarussian leader Aleksandr Lukashenko is using violence to suppress opposition. We wonder if his approach will pay off, as Western leaders Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron seem to be banking on fugitive opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.