What was 2021 like for Central Asia you ask?
It was marked by a very hot summer, both literally and figuratively. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan triggered chaotic refugee migrations, and coincided with an aggressive spread of COVID-19’s Delta variant. At the same time, weaknesses in the national grid systems were exposed in the exodus of crypto farms from China, following PRC’s crackdown on crypto mining. Yet, past the political and economic turbulences, the COP-26 ambitious pledges and international scandals of the elites, the Stans will want to remember 2021 for their celebrations of 30 Years of Independence, and the slow maturation of their economies.
Kazakhstan had its fair share of challenges in 2021, but despite it all attracting foreign investments and demonstrating a competitive edge was the name of the game. It set out ambitious environmental targets, namely quitting coal by 2050 and reaching carbon-neutrality by 2060, and set FDI targets at $30bn 2025, then went on to ramp up oil production after a green light from OPEC+ in Q1, to the drumroll of the soaring oil prices. Now, oil production levels are expected to reach 85.7m tonnes by the end of 2021 and exceed 104m by 2030.
Kazakhstan raised the bar higher at the COP-26, commiting to increase the share of renewable energy in the economy to 15% by 2030. Russia and the UAE were amongst the first to jump to the opportunity - the former by offering assistance in designing, building and operating new nuclear power stations, the latter committed $6bn to finance a 2GW PVP plant, a 2GW wind farm, and a 1GW combined cycle gas power plant.
At the regional level, Kazakhstan reinforced its economic position vis a vis its neighbours. It agreed with Uzbekistan to build a $172m road connecting Kazakhstan’s Kyzylorda to Uzbekistan’s Uchkuduk, where lies a large uranium pit, in 2025. The countries also signed over $6bn worth of business deals, including for construction projects and to set up production of Hyundai’s in Tashkent.
Kazakhstan dethroned Uzbekistan in uranium trade, while KAZ Minerals boosted competition with AMMC in copper mining by expanding the Aktogay large scale open pit mine. Kazakhstan stepped in as the middleman between Kyrgyzstan and China to import Yutong buses to neighbours. Amid food shortages in Turkmenistan, it secured a deal to exchange gas for the supply of Kazakh wheat and flour.
After China banned crypto mining at home, Kazakhstan became the second market after the US for digital currency mining, accounting for 18.1% of the world’s hash rate. Ambitious to generate up to $1.5bn from mining in the next 5 years, the government kept regulations minimal. But moods changed quickly, when in spite of selling over 2bn kWh of electricity to neighbours, the government reported complaints on power outages from intensifying mining activity.
The government decided to ration power by region and to top it off, imposed a new Anti-Money Laundering law. Now all new crypto trading providers will need to register with the Ministry of Digital Development. Whether this raised concerns about the shadow economy, or because plans for the Kazakh Digital Tenge were put on a backburner, the U-turn in policy came as a surprise. Still, the EAEU was hopeful that national digital currencies could help reduce the cost of cross-border payments and stimulate mutual trade between the members.
In fact, Kazakhstan boasted domestic innovations in 2021. First with the expansion of the OneWeb collaboration, as the government’s space ambitions became more pronounced, then with QazVac, the only Halal vaccine in the world that made sales in the Middle East. Finally, President Tokayev is also consolidating power domestically, as his predecessor Nazarbayev handed him the leadership of the ruling Nur Otan party. Or it all might just be antics…
For Uzbekistan, 2021 was a juggling act to meet self-imposed economic targets, increase investment attractiveness, and maintain regional political leadership, all while preparing to run elections in October 2021. In attracting investments, the government focused on issuing Eurobonds, like Uzbekneftegaz for $700m and UzAuto Motors for $300m, and sovereign bonds of $635m, running a state asset privatisation programme, and attracting investment into key sectors, like renewables, retail and IT.
Fuelling the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s Shanghai Electric Group opted to build a 220kW fully automated substation in the Jizzakh region by 2023, while FHT Future Technology announced the construction of a 25ha technopark in Ferghana, sustained by its own PV solar station, all worth over $350m. In addition, the Beijing-based AIIB committed to fund the construction of a 1 GW CCGT-plant in Sirdarya, to be managed by Saudi’s ACWA Power. ACWA, in turn, snatched multiple energy projects in the country, including wind energy projects of over 1 GW.
Anticipating what the US withdrawal from Afghanistan might mean for the region, Uzbekistan took on an active role in building a dialogue with the Taliban, prior to the latter taking the reins. It then continued defending its role of regional mediator, providing Afghanistan with energy and seeking to attract funding for the railway from Termez to Peshawar in Pakistan through Afghan territories, and launching the Termez FEZ on the border. Diversifying its options, Uzbekistan also joined negotiations with Iran and India, seeking to secure access to the Chabahar port.
Feeling somewhat left out, Russia ramped up competition for influence, primarily through Lukoil’s eagerness to invest in Uzbekistan, while Gazprombank, Sovkombank and Expobank made their picks in the Uzbek banking sector. Yet, the biggest mover is Alisher Usmanov’s USM Holding that brought Megafon, Digital Holdings and Metalloinvest into Uzbekistan. In turn, the Bank of Russia granted Uzbek financial instruments, like sovereign and quasi-sovereign bonds, placement at the Moscow Exchange.
Then as COP-26 kicked-off, and just after his reelection, President Mirziyoyev made bold promises that Uzbekistan would generate 8GW of renewable energy by 2026, instead of 2030 as initially planned. To achieve this, the President ordered the construction of 5 PV plants, generating 900 MW in total, and 10 additional solar and wind farms in the next 3 years, generating 2.9GW combined. All while Uzbekhydroenergo will start fundraising to keep up with the hydro power generation ambitions.