The coronavirus pandemic has exposed long-standing structural problems and vulnerabilities in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. Heavy reliance on hydrocarbons, dependence on remittances from migrant workers in Russia, widespread poverty, and lack of social safety nets leave the states in the former Soviet Union’s southern belt few options for dealing with the pandemic and its economic fallout. Some, relatively better off, like Kazakhstan, can dip into their sovereign wealth funds. Others, less fortunate, like Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, have had to seek bailouts from China or the IMF. Coordinated, region-wide responses have been made impossible by foot-dragging in acknowledging the impending catastrophe in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, and by frozen conflicts in the Caucasus.
The pandemic and the resulting economic crisis are likely to aggravate many preexisting conditions in these societies: mistrust of governments, pervasive corruption, and widespread poverty. The crisis will disproportionately affect small and medium-sized businesses, which are key to diversifying these regions’ economies and expanding the role of the private sector. With the United States and the European Union (EU) struggling to deal with their own crises, and international institutions stretched thin, the role of Russia and China will likely increase.
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The vast region that stretches from Europe’s east to China’s west is no exception in that it will not escape the consequences—societal, economic, and political—of the coronavirus pandemic. Some countries, however, appear to be handling it better than others.
Georgia stands out for its success—to date—in keeping infection and mortality rates relatively low. Officials have approached the crisis responsibly, taking their cues from medical professionals, informing the public directly about the severity of the crisis, and issuing guidance about responsible behavior during the pandemic. The government was unable or unwilling to stop the powerful Georgian church from holding large Easter services, but senior officials refused to attend in person, as did many Georgians.
The country’s apparent success at handling the pandemic thus far is probably due to multiple Georgian governments’ long-standing efforts to reform and professionalize the civil service and curb corruption. Georgian border guards and medical workers acted quickly to identify, quarantine, and treat the first suspected cases of COVID-19 in late February 2020. Public trust in professionals has contributed to better compliance with emergency regulations and guidance on behavior during the pandemic. Unfortunately, Georgia’s economy is getting hit hard by the crisis, with its currency plunging, its once-burgeoning tourism sector collapsing, and key trading partners—Azerbaijan, the EU, Russia, and Turkey—reeling from the same crisis.
Information about the coronavirus in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is scarce, but their capacity to respond appears limited. Neither has taken up Tbilisi’s offer of assistance in combating the virus, preferring to depend on Moscow. Help from Russia, however, has been inadequate and Abkhazia at least is taking up offers of international assistance. Yet, deep mistrust between Tbilisi and the separatist territories will impede any region-wide public health response to a disease that does not recognize boundaries.
Armenia is getting hit hard by the pandemic. Some members of the public initially were reluctant to report symptoms of the disease to authorities or self-quarantine, leading to an early rise in community transmission. By late March 2020, the government had instituted a state of emergency to shut down nonessential businesses and activities, postponed the constitutional referendum, encouraged civil society organizations to help secure supplies, and prepared the medical system for the onslaught that came fast. Infection rates slowed in April, leading to hope that measures were working. Social cohesion among the Armenian people likely helped in this initial phase. However, under pressure to jump-start the economy, the government eased lockdown measures in early May, but infection rates suddenly began rising quickly with even Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan and his entire family testing positive. With calls to reimpose stricter lockdown measures, the government is now balancing the public health threat COVID-19 continues to pose with the urgent need to keep the economy open.
Pashinyan has tried to use the crisis to broaden his government’s powers, including restrictions on media (which were subsequently lifted) and cell phone monitoring for contact tracing. Both measures were criticized in parliament and by the general public, ultimately forcing the government to agree to use information only for public health protection and destroy all data after the state of emergency ends. As the economic and public health crises grow, Armenian politics is becoming even more polarized, with the parliamentary opposition voicing sharp criticism of the government’s response and calling for its resignation.
In Azerbaijan, with its repressive political atmosphere, the government’s first reaction to the pandemic was to accuse its critics of treason and detain opponents for spreading negative information. More focused on shoring up its hold on power than dealing with the pandemic, the regime was slow to act to contain it. Infection rates soon spiked, laying bare the government’s lack of preparedness in the public health and emergency response sectors—both notoriously corrupt.
After discovering large-scale lockdown violations and a black market in travel permits, the government imposed more rigorous quarantine measures, including the use of an SMS system to monitor the population and issue movement permits. Infection rates continue to rise rapidly. The collapse of oil prices has dealt a heavy blow to Azerbaijan’s economy, forcing the government to dip into the sovereign wealth fund. The government has also set up an emergency fund to finance rising health and social welfare spending. Private companies and wealthy Azerbaijanis, including the president’s family, have contributed funds. However, the distribution of benefits to the public has been poorly organized and, for many, difficult to access, likely feeding more discontent in a country where protests and calls for change have been rising.
In Central Asia, Kazakhstan is showing greater competence than many expected, including a surprising level of transparency about infection rates. However, the virus has spread nationwide, even reaching senior levels of government. Former president Nursultan Nazarbayev was diagnosed with the virus in June. Disproportionately high infection rates among Almaty medical workers exposed poor preparedness and shortages of protective gear in Central Asia’s wealthiest country, which could exacerbate social tensions, given the regime’s history of wasteful spending on high-profile projects. Kazakhstan is clamping down on civil society activism and deployed digital tools to monitor the population during lockdown, including drones and traffic cameras to identify unauthorized movement in cities. Yet these technologies did not stem the disease’s spread.
The crisis has also put the spotlight on the dynamics within the country’s top leadership. Nazarbayev, who reportedly still controls many levers of power, has retreated into the background even before announcing his illness. Nazarbayev’s absence has empowered his successor President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev to take on a greater leadership role and thus enhance his independent stature. He even dismissed Nazarbayev’s daughter from her powerful position as chairwoman of the Senate. Tokayev has pledged to boost salaries for frontline medical staff and to reform the healthcare system. However, this could prove to be a risky move if he fails to deliver on his promises.
In its first major crisis under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, the government of Uzbekistan has also demonstrated unusual transparency and published information about infection rates. The Uzbek government put in place draconian measures to limit movement within and between cities, with harsh punishments for violators and those who fail to wear masks in public. It solicited help from China to learn about curbing population movement and preventing the disease from spreading. However, it has struggled to contain the disease, including among medical staff. The government received emergency loans from both the IMF and the World Bank as it deals with growing economic problems as remittances fall, tourists and investors stay away, and demand for its exports remains limited. Mirziyoyev has shown leadership in coordinating his government’s response to the crisis with other Central Asian leaders, which could improve his standing at home and abroad. Coordination with neighbors is very important as the virus spreads to the densely populated Fergana Valley, where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan meet and capacity to respond to a public health crisis is limited.
At first glance, Kyrgyzstan appears to be coping with the pandemic better than expected. The number of infections remained relatively low for the region as of early July. However, with Kyrgyzstan’s history of instability, widespread poverty, and poor governance, the crisis has become a major challenge to the country. Kyrgyzstan is dependent on the international community for essential medical supplies and protective gear. The Health Ministry admitted that more than half of the country’s ventilators are inoperable. Infections are rising among medical staff, large-scale testing started late, and its efficacy is uncertain, which means that infections could be far more widespread than official numbers suggest. Poor public awareness and police corruption have undercut the effectiveness of quarantine measures.
In addition to the pandemic, the government is having to deal with rising poverty as remittances from Russia have been falling, and unemployment and wage arrears rising. The government has promised relief for hard-hit citizens and businesses, but it lacks the money, and has to seek help from China and other international partners. Keenly aware of the country’s history of social discontent and unrest, Kyrgyz President Sooronbay Jeenbekov has fired his deputy prime minister, health minister, and two senior aides in the middle of the crisis, evidently in an effort to pin the blame on them for the government’s failure to prevent the spread of the disease. However, these public relations moves can do little to contain the pandemic or help the economy.
Information about the situation with COVID-19 in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is limited. Both governments for a long time denied the presence of the disease within their borders, and refused to follow World Health Organization recommendations on social distancing. They held mass public gatherings in late March and early April 2020 designed to show support for their autocratic leaders, while their neighbors mobilized to deal with the pandemic. Not surprisingly, Tajikistan soon began experiencing a rise in respiratory illnesses and deaths, which its government implausibly attributed to pneumonia, swine flu, or complications from tuberculosis. Finally, faced with the impending arrival of WHO specialists in the country, it closed schools in late April, banned large gatherings, stopped grain exports, and announced it too had COVID-19 cases. Infection rates have since spiked. Remittances are down significantly in Tajikistan—a major problem for a country where they accounted for the equivalent of about 30 percent of GDP in 2018 and where basic human security (vaccines, healthcare, and education) are not guaranteed even when times are good.
Exiled Turkmenistani journalists report that coronavirus cases are rising in that country, even though the government has denied it. Reports of food shortages and runs on banks belie the government’s claim that everything is under control. Collapsing oil prices and falling gas demand in China—Turkmenistan’s main export market—have been devastating to Turkmenistan’s economy, but its unwillingness to admit the presence of COVID-19 cases in the country has kept it from requesting and receiving EU and other financial assistance.
Neither the Tajikistani nor the Turkmenistani government has demonstrated the capacity or the will to mobilize to respond to the health and economic crises before it. COVID-19 spells trouble for both, as well as for their impoverished citizens.
The countries of Central Asia and the South Caucasus are facing an unprecedented challenge that will test every aspect of their political systems, economies, societies, and foreign relations. Their traditional partners in the West that have for the past three decades supported their state-building and economic and political reforms are distracted. Normally, Russia might be eager to capitalize on the West’s distraction and the region’s need for assistance, but it has limited resources to do so at best, and is struggling to deal with the pandemic. The economic downturn that the coronavirus has caused across the region will likely have long-term impacts for Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) as well. In the midst of the pandemic, Kazakhstan pushed back at Moscow’s draft vision for Eurasian integration through 2025. With global gas demand down, Moscow and Yerevan have started squabbling again over gas prices, while closed borders and the growing economic problems have caused migrant labor opportunities to dry up in Russia, reducing a key lever of influence Moscow holds over weaker EAEU and prospective EAEU members states.
That leaves China as the sole remaining potential source of help to the struggling region. Beijing has been trying to whitewash its COVID-19 record and has targeted the leaders and the general publics of the South Caucasus and Central Asia. It has used the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to promote its narrative about its response to the pandemic. In its effort to make inroads in both regions, China has been sending high-profile humanitarian and medical aid missions and promoting its digital technologies as the means to keep the virus from spreading.
Finally, as COVID-19 spreads across Eurasia, no clear pattern is emerging as to whether the region’s autocracies are doing better than its democracies in responding to the pandemic. All are struggling to manage the economic fallout, but authoritarian leaders—in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, where governments would not admit the severity or even presence of the disease at first—appear nervous. The region’s autocrats are using lockdowns to control not just the spread of the disease, but also the flow of information about it; clamp down on any potential dissent; and strengthen their hold on power. Governments that are more open with their citizens seem to perform better. However, no country in the vast region has all three—adequate resources, the ability to deploy them effectively, and a record of public trust and good governance. With luck, some may emerge from this crisis with better governance and enhanced public trust, but its consequences will be felt throughout the region for a long time.