If the end of a year is a reason to sum up, the beginning is an opportunity to try to understand what might happen in the near future. Making any predictions is always a risk, but they allow to outline the range of key events that require close attention. Moreover, at the end of 2019, it will be possible to easily assess what really determined the year and what was only an exaggeration. Hence, this material is an attempt to determine the geopolitical risks in 2019 for Eurasia. The key factor in choosing the risks is whether this or that event would affect Kazakhstan. It should be noted that the event listing order does not matter as each of them is equally important.
The first risk is the U.S.-China relations. These countries have probably entered the period of the most difficult relationship since the establishment of diplomatic connections in 1978. A bipartisan consensus has formed in the United States that China needs to be contained, particularly in the military and technological spheres, and that the dependence of the American economy on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) should be reduced. In turn, the Chinese leadership is now in such a situation that it cannot afford to make serious concessions and probably does not want to. Consequently, contradictions will not go anywhere, therefore 2019 will be no less difficult for the relations of the two present-day key powers.
In 2018, Washington undertook decisive steps declaring a trade war on Beijing. It is also worth highlighting the speech of U.S. Vice President Michael Pence, who made a number of serious complaints against China [White House, 2018], and this was done for the first time at such a high political level. The disagreements and contentious issues in such areas as mutual trade, high-tech industries, the armed forces, and foreign policy form the basis for the confrontation between Washington and Beijing.
Firstly, the PRC becomes more confident and tougher in the international arena. This is not surprising that China has become a global player, after all, as it is second only to the United States in aggregate power. Beijing’s rigidity can be seen in its actions in the South China Sea and the opening of its first foreign military base in Djibouti, not to mention the most important factor of unprecedentedly large investments within the Belt and Road initiative.
Second, there is a mutual competition for technological leadership, which has led to changing attitudes towards China in the United States. While China was developing without challenging the American leadership, Washington believed that the integration of the PRC into the world system would contribute to strengthening the liberal economy rules. Moreover, China’s economic growth brought enormous profits to U.S. companies. However, the Chinese economic power is now displacing the American one. In general, if Washington is to be believed, the United States is not afraid of the competition as such. It is not satisfied with the fact that China uses dishonest methods in this competition, such as cyber espionage, limited access to its domestic market, as well as large-scale state support programs for technology companies.
As a result, the current status quo is such that the United States is increasing pressure, while China is trying to moderate Washington’s attitudes. However, Xi Jinping will not make endless concessions. The Chinese leader does not intend to abandon the policy of turning the country into a superpower. This idea is the basis for consolidating the political elite around him, and they changed the country’s political system to achieve this goal. If Xi Jinping wants to keep power, he must meet the expectations of the Chinese establishment. Considering all this, it can be said that 2019 may be even more difficult for the U.S.-China relations.
The trade war can have a negative impact on the entire global economy. Moreover, the unpredictability in the U.S.-Chinese relationship can jeopardize the security of the entire Asia-Pacific region. For Kazakhstan, the aggravation of the geopolitical struggle between the two powers may affect the ability of China to implement the BRI projects. It is important to note that today Beijing does not only build infrastructure, but also subsidizes its use. Furthermore, China has not yet faced the global competition to its initiative, therefore any breakdowns were associated only with the domestic agenda in a particular country. At the same time, the United States is gradually preparing to start competing with the BRI. Most likely, this will occur in the Asia-Pacific region, consequently Central Asia could face with a reduction of Chinese investments.
The second risk is the situation in Afghanistan. The reason for concern was the statement of Donald Trump about his desire to withdraw U.S. troops from this country [CNN, 2018]. The U.S. President plans at first to cut the number of troops in half – from 14,000 to 7,000 [New York Times, 2018a]. Moreover, 2018 was one of the most difficult years for the Afghan administration. Throughout the year, Kabul lost control over much of the country’s territory, and today approximately half of Afghanistan is not controlled by the central government [Aljazeera, 2018]. Another characteristic feature of the situation in Afghanistan in 2018 was the understanding that without the Taliban movement it would be impossible to achieve stability in the country. In the end of February 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani invited the Taliban to “unconditional” peace talks while offering to recognize the movement as a legitimate political force in the country’s future [Deutsche Welle, 2018]. Later in the year, the United States joined the process and appointed its representative Zalmay Khalilzad, who is a very experienced diplomat with a deep understanding of the Afghan issue, to arrange peace talks.
One of the main contradictions of the preliminary negotiations is the Taliban’s distrust of the United States and the central Afghan government. The movement leaders demand a clear plan for the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, but this requirement does not suit some local warlords and central authorities. Therefore, perhaps Trump’s statement is an attempt to get the negotiations off the ground. However, it is difficult to predict the reaction of local Afghan elites. It cannot be ruled out that Kabul and some provincial warlords will take steps that will force the United States to change its plans, including attempts to break the negotiation process and destabilize the situation in the country. Against this backdrop, the Islamic State can come back to the Afghan agenda. As we know, the Taliban is primarily the Pashtun movement [Akimbekov, 2016], whereas the Islamic State’s ideology is appealing to the ethnic minorities inhabiting the north of Afghanistan – Uzbeks, Turkmens and Tajiks. Furthermore, some of them who fought in Syria are gradually returning to northern Afghanistan. Actually, reports about the clashes between the Taliban and the Islamic State in Afghanistan should be regarded as the clashes between the Pashtun tribes and the ethnic minorities [New York Times, 2018b].
As a result, in 2019, there is a threat of the destabilization of the situation in Afghanistan, where militants from Central Asia can take an active part in the hostilities. Moreover, there is a risk that these groups will use the ideology of the Islamic State, which represents a larger threat to Central Asia due to its expansionist nature. If the situation in Afghanistan again destabilizes, Kazakhstan would again face a risk that southern trade routes will not open, and getting access in this direction is necessary to avoid China’s monopolization of trade routes. The degradation of the situation in Afghanistan could also strengthen Russia’s influence in Central Asia. Moscow would again exploit the security topic since the Kremlin believes that it is the only power that can secure the region from threats coming from Afghanistan. Moreover, it is hard to predict how the Afghanistan issue will affect the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). On the one hand, the SCO could help resolve contradictions between the external actors in Afghanistan, but, on other hand, this issue could paralyze the organization’s work because its member countries pursue different interests.
The third risk is the situation in Armenia. In 2018, there was a “velvet revolution” in the country, and eventually Nikol Pashinyan was propelled to the top. As the transit of power in Armenia lasted for almost the entire year, 2019 will basically be the first year in power for Pashinyan. After the revolution, he was not able to immediately dissolve the parliament, which was dominated by the Republican Party of Armenia headed by ex-president Serzh Sargsyan, and new prime minister was forced to work with it. Toward the end of the year, Pashinyan finally managed to dissolve the parliament and hold an early election. The victory in this election made him the legitimate leader of Armenia, since he received a mandate to govern the country directly from citizens.
The new leader of Armenia needs to demonstrate at least some results as soon as possible. People took to the streets because they were tired of the complex socio-economic problems. They believed in Nikol Pashinyan, and now have high expectations to him. But, as history shows, often people quickly become disillusioned with new leaders and are soon ready to change power again, especially when they have already had such experience. The first problem that needs to be solved by the new prime minister is to establish contact with his own party. Now it is just a diverse mass of people ranging from activists of the “velvet revolution” to supporters of the former government who switched sides. In addition, representatives of the old elite remain in the parliament, while the entire bureaucratic body of the country is associated with the previous government. Both of these factors may be enough to undermine the actions of the new Armenian leader, thus depriving him of support from the population.
Therefore, it is possible that Armenia’s foreign policy will be subordinated to internal developments to support Pashinyan’s popularity inside the country. In this regard, it is interesting that once prime-minister expressed an opinion that Armenia had been forced to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) [lragir.am, 2017]. In general, any volatility in an EEU member is a negative development for Kazakhstan’s economy. Moreover, the relations between Armenia and Russia could be soured. As a result, this would complicate the work of the EEU, as well as of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and Kazakhstan is a member of both organizations. Eventually, an instability in Armenia could negatively affect the situation in Nagorno-Karabakh, thus putting Kazakhstan in a position of choosing sides.
The fourth risk is the upcoming presidential election in Ukraine, which will take place on March 31, 2019, as well as the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in the fall. In November 2018, Russia seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait [BBC, 2018], and this incident re-activated the crisis around Ukraine.
Obviously, Russia will actively intervene in the elections in Ukraine. Certainly, Moscow is not expecting the victory of a pro-Russian candidate. However, Russia will try to protect itself from the most radical candidates by supporting those who will not threaten the Russian business interests in Ukraine. Against that backdrop, the further separation of the two Orthodox churches will continue, which means that the fight for the church property will intensify. Again, bearing in mind the role of the church in Russian politics, Moscow may try to interfere in the church conflict in Ukraine. This will further increase the likelihood that the conflict in the east of Ukraine will become frozen.
For Ukraine, the worst election outcome would be to end up with a weak government that will not be able to carry out reforms. The current leadership of Ukraine is likely to receive support from a minimal share of voters. Recent polls show that the current president can expect to receive only 6-7% of votes [24tv.ua, 2018]. In the meantime, the leader in the polls is Yulia Tymoshenko, who can count on the support of 12%, followed by well-known showman and actor Vladimir Zelensky, who has 7.6% [24tv.ua, 2018]. Such a fragmentation in the domestic political field of Ukraine opens up tremendous opportunities for the Kremlin. All this could become another reason for the European Union and the United States to toughen their sanctions against Russia, and this would have a direct impact on Kazakhstan’s economy. More importantly, Russia’s behavior will be difficult to predict if a candidate with an extremely aggressive mindset towards Moscow comes to power in Ukraine.
1. Akimbekov, Sultan (2016). The History of Afghanistan. Almaty-Astana. 2016.
2. Aljazeera (2018). Afghanistan: Who controls what. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2016/08/afghanistan-controls-160823083528213.html. Accessed on 09.01.2019.
3. BBC (2018). Tension escalates after Russia seizes Ukraine naval ships. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46338671. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
4. CNN (2018). US military ordered to begin planning to withdraw about half the troops in Afghanistan. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2018/12/20/politics/afghanistan-withdrawal/index.html. Accessed on 08.01.2019.
5. Deutsche Welle (2018). Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offers Taliban peace talks and political recognition. Retrieved from https://p.dw.com/p/2tR4L. Accessed on 12.01.2019.
6. lragir.am (2017). Armenia was forced to enter the EAEU – Nikol Pashinyan. Retrieved from https://www.lragir.am/ru/2017/10/09/58607/. Accessed on 09.01.2019.
7. New York Times (2018a). Taliban Surge Routs ISIS in Northern Afghanistan. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/01/world/asia/afghanistan-taliban-isis.html. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
8. New York Times (2018b). U.S. to Withdraw About 7,000 Troops From Afghanistan, Officials Say. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/us/politics/afghanistan-troop-withdrawal.html. Accessed on 09.01.2019.
9. White House (2018). Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/. Accessed on 09.01.2019.
10. 24tv.ua (2018). The election of the President of Ukraine-2019: who will participate and what their chances are. Retrieved from https://24tv.ua/ru/vybory_prezidenta_ukrainy_2019_prognoz_kandidatov_na_vybory_ukrainy_n1007247. Accessed on 10.01.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Asset Ordabayev is a junior research fellow at the Eurasian Institute of the International H.A Yassawi Kazakh-Turkish University. He holds a BA in International Relations from the KarSU (Karahanda) from 2012. In 2014, he earned his Masters degree in International Relations the Kazak National University (Almaty). From 2014 to 2017 he worked at the Institute of World Economy and Politics as a foreign policy expert. The main research interests are the geopolitical processes on the Eurasian continent within the framework of the development of transport infrastructure, as well as the ongoing proces