The DOC Research Institute, together with the French Institute for Central Asian Studies held a webinar on 14 May at 1pm CEST on the topic “Central Asia during the pandemic: Probable consequences for the region”.
Regional and cultural specifics of these societies (including large families and inter-clan relations) make the introduction of effective self-isolation measures difficult, meaning that stricter measures are required in order to contain the mobility of the population. This could inevitably have a lasting impact on the contemporary way of living. Another complicating factor is the return en masse of labour migrants, as well as local religious practices. While the total number may have declined, many Muslims continue to visit mosques, especially for Friday prayers. Representatives of the Islamist opposition are calling for this.
The situation is challenging, and volatile. If we consider the consequences (particularly socio-political) for the region, we see two major scenarios. The first scenario, in which it will be possible to contain the situation and to move towards easing the restrictive measures in the short-term, will likely not bring any fundamental changes to the societies, and local political elites might try to strengthen their positions by declaring victory.
The second scenario, in which the spread of the virus continues, will see huge casualties and an economic catastrophe, which in turn will lead to a social explosion. This will play into the hands of the radical opposition.
Questions for discussion: 1. How did the measures taken by local governments, religious authorities and organisations influence the religious life of the region: visits to mosques, fasting, burial, hajj, etc.?
2. What will be the impact on networks for Islamic solidarity (especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan associated with Islamic entrepreneurs), as well as on charitable Islamic organisations and associations? How are they continuing to operate during the pandemic?
3. Can the massive return of work migrants from Russia who inevitably find themselves unemployed in their homeland lead to serious social consequences?
4. Will the closing of borders affect the rise of radical Islam in the region, and if so, to what extent? Will there be a possible transformation of radical Islam after the pandemic?
5. What political consequences will the pandemic have on the region? Will we see a social explosion, as many experts are predicting?
6. What will be the possible changes in the inter-state relations of Central Asian countries and their neighbours?
We were joined by the following speakers: Satpaev Dosym, Professor, Co-founder of the Alliance of Analytical Organizations of Kazakhstan, Member of the Presidium of Kazakhstan Council on International Relations; Malikov Kadir, Member of the Presidential Council of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan, Director of the Center “Religion, Law and Politics”; Ergashev Bakhtier, Director of the Center for Research Initiatives “MA’NO”, the Republic Uzbekistan; Abdukhamitov Valijon, Director of the Center Research – and – development center of struggle against terrorism and extremism at the Russian-Tajik Slavonic University; and co-moderators Catherine Poujol, Director of IFEAC; and Alexey Malashenko, Chief Researcher at the DOC Research Institute.
Our co-moderator Ms Poujol, launched the discussion with the assertion that the key words to bear in mind when considering how states will emerge out of the uncertainty of this crisis are “mistrust and trust”. She highlighted the need to restore confidence in all aspects of state and social relations, including the economy, so as to avoid “post-traumatic syndrome”. She pointed to the fact that while mistrust towards China is increasing, “it is evident that Central Asia relies very heavily on China in terms of economy and trade… so we must recognise it and develop it”.
Mr Bakhtier Ergashev discussed the upheaval caused by COVID-19, particularly with regard to the reforms in Uzbekistan, “investment from abroad stopped, the model of economic development proposed by President Mirziyoyev and input substitution were abandoned.” He stressed the need for “anti-crisis measures in Uzbekistan to soften the challenges posed to the country by the pandemic”.
Mr Malikov Kadir, speaking on the impacts of COVID-19 on religious issues, and on security in Kyrgyzstan, said his country “is hit hard by the virus; about one million have lost their jobs, 15,000 have lost their properties”, and social tension rises, he added, as the young people who cannot find employment aim their criticism at the government. Furthermore, “anti-Islamic sentiment is high”, since people believe that the Hajj has brought the virus to the country. The fragmentation in Kyrgyzstan is not only confined to North and South, but extends to fragmentation on religious grounds too.
Mr Satpaev Dosym touched on the political consequences of COVID-19 and the implications for international relations. He said “when there is a national emergency, everyone is for themselves… There was no cooperation between Spain and Italy, and what was happening in Kazakhstan put Kazakhstan first, there was no cooperation with the Uzbeks”. The crisis will cause a “new class of new social poverty, and that will create a negative impact for the possibilities of progressive development,” he added.
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