Key developments in Central Asia and the Caucasus last week include: ongoing ceasefire talks in Afghanistan; protests over a large-scale Chinese investment in Kyrgyzstan; and panic fueling unrest over coronavirus in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, ceasefire violations continued along the Azerbaijan-Armenia-Artsakh Lines of Contact.
In Afghanistan, fighting continued at similar levels compared to the previous week, as US-Taliban peace talks stagnated over a potential ceasefire and definitions over a reduction in violence. The Taliban’s offer to reduce violence for ten days has not yet been accepted, with US negotiators reportedly demanding a long-term decline in violence. Further complicating the situation is disagreement among Afghan government leaders: President Ashraf Ghani – whose government is not a party to the peace talks – continues to insist on a comprehensive ceasefire before intra-Afghan negotiations commence. However, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah has criticized Ghani, arguing that no such preconditions should be set for intra-Afghan talks (TOLO News, 3 February 2020). It is unlikely that the Taliban leadership will agree to a complete ceasefire, as this would reduce their leverage in any future negotiations with the Afghan government. Furthermore, this could lead to divisions in the Taliban’s ranks and make it more difficult for them to reorganize fighters if peace talks fail (VOA, 22 January 2020). As a result, violence is likely to continue as negotiators attempt to hammer out an agreement acceptable to all sides.
In Kyrgyzstan, protests broke out in the eastern Naryn region against a China-funded logistics hub project. On 28 January, hundreds of people gathered at the At-Bashi town of the Ak-Bashy district neighboring China, expressing concern that the project would allow Chinese companies to extend their influence and dominate the local job sector in the region (Turmush.kg, 28 January 2020). Notably, the protest took place several days after Kyrgyz officials held a meeting with residents of At-Bashi to assure them that jobs would be created for members of the local community. China’s economic expansion is mostly unwelcome in Kyrgyzstan, and anti-Chinese sentiments have been on the rise, leading to multiple violent events in the Naryn region over the past year: in August 2019, for example, dozens of Chinese workers were injured during riots at a gold mine (RFERL, 7 August 2019).
Meanwhile, news of the coronavirus outbreak in China sparked unrest in Kazakhstan. On 31 January, activists gathered in the City Administration Office of Shymkent demanding Kazakh authorities close the country’s border with China. Like in many other Central Asian countries, the government has imposed travel restrictions, but panic spread uncontrollably through social media. Following this, the authorities detained at least two Kazakh citizens for spreading false information via WhatsApp (Vanguard, 30 January 2019).
In the Caucasus, ceasefire violations in Azerbaijan and Armenia continued at a slightly lower level compared to previous weeks, according to Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence. Fifty-nine armed engagements took place along the Artsakh-Azerbaijan Line of Contact and 10 armed engagements were reported along the Armenia-Azerbaijan Line of Contact. However, the Artsakh Republic’s Defence Ministry noted a rise in violations conducted by Azerbaijan’s military and reported 350 shootings on the Artsakh-Azerbaijan-Armenia Lines of Contact during the past week. In a separate report, Armenia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs documented 138 armed engagements between Azerbaijan and Armenia in December 2019, similar to the levels reported in November 2019.