What did Central Asian presidents talk about in their New Year's addresses?

Turkmenistan's president Serdar Berdymuhamedov delivering a New Year's address. Screenshot from Turkmenistan Novostnoy Portal YouTube video. Fair use.

Every year, on December 31, Central Asian presidents deliver a congratulatory New Year’s address moments before midnight. The year 2023 was no exception, as the political leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan kept this tradition alive, appearing on TV to congratulate their people on the New Year, highlight achievements from the past year, and share plans for the future.

This political tradition dates back to the Soviet Union, of which Central Asian countries were members until 1991. The first New Year's address appeared in 1936 when the newspaper Pravda published “Happy New Year, comrades, with new victories under the banner of Lenin and Stalin!” above a photograph of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. As technology advanced, political leaders started delivering their addresses on TV.

These addresses are not just about New Year celebrations. How they are delivered highlights each president’s unique ruling style and personality. More importantly, their contents reveal what the authorities consider important past milestones and what direction their countries are headed towards.

Kazakhstan: Rolling up the sleeves

Kazakhstan’s president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s New Year address stepped away from some long-standing traditions. First, it was recorded in a room with the national flag and books on the background. Traditionally, presidents deliver New Year’s addresses standing outside in front of a Christmas tree and their presidential palaces. This move hinted that Tokayev has a lot of work. Second, the address was mostly in Kazakh language with several bits in Russian. This was another noticeable change from previous years when addresses were recorded in two languages: Kazakh and Russian.

Here is Tokayev's New Year's address.

Tokayev highlighted the country’s biggest demographic achievement in 2023 by noting that Kazakhstan’s population reached 20 million in November. He shared that the economy recorded 4.9 percent growth. Instead of the conventional method of showing only the president, Tokayev’s address included footage of hospitals, sporting events, factories, and buildings in the capital Astana. Tokayev stated that the government and people are in the process of building a “Just Kazakhstan” and added that new schools were built using the funds that were stolen in the past and recently returned. He promised that “very soon, part of the National [Sovereign Wealth] Fund’s funds will begin to flow into children’s accounts” so that “youth look confidently into the future.”

Kyrgyzstan: Skiing down the slopes

The most creative New Year’s address belonged to Kyrgyzstan’s president Sadyr Japarov, who skied down the slopes of the Orlovka Ski Resort located near the capital Bishkek. Thus, Japarov continued his style of delivering New Year’s addresses from different regions. In 2022, he recorded his address from the Batken region in the southwest. This carried a strong symbolic meaning, since several months earlier the region had been the epicenter of deadly military clashes against neighboring Tajikistan. Wearing his white skiing costume, helmet, and goggles, Japarov encouraged his compatriots to ski and practice other sports.

Here is Japarov's New Year address.

The only noteworthy achievement Japarov listed in his address was the fact that the GDP reached KGS 1 trillion (USD 11.2 billion) for the first time in the country’s history. There was also mention of newly built schools, kindergartens, and roads. Japarov promised to address issues related to water scarcity, energy dependency, transport and logistical hurdles, and small and medium enterprises. In this regard, he shared that Kyrgyzstan will soon resume the construction of the Kambar Ata 1 hydro power plant and continue negotiations on the China–Uzbekistan–Kyrgyzstan railway project.

Japarov’s address also stood out from those of his colleagues because it was not all positive. A significant part of his speech was dedicated to the criticism of civil society and bloggers for “misinforming the public about different initiatives without first properly understanding them” and the politicization of society. Japarov called on people to focus on the economy instead “for the next 10 to 15 years” and stop obsessing over politics.

Tajikistan: Only text address

This year, Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon, the longest serving president in the region, did not record a video address. Instead, he issued a written New Year’s address published on the state news agency Khovar. The address was mostly generic and, without paying close attention to the details, it was impossible to tell from what year the events were that Rahmon was describing in his address.

The only achievement backed by numbers was the part about the completion of 10,500 out of 38,500 industrial and social objects in the country. With regards to the future plans, Rahmon noted that Tajikistan will celebrate the 35th anniversary of independence, which was odd since Tajikistan will reach that milestone in 2026.

Turkmenistan: Dictatorship on display

Turkmenistan’s president Serdar Berdymuhamedov’s New Year’s address perfectly encapsulated the dictatorial and personality cult practices that characterize the country. Berdymuhamedov delivered his speech standing in a hall with dozens of Christmas trees of different sizes placed all over the space. The biggest one stood behind the president. A large crowd consisting of children, adults, and elders wearing formal and traditional clothes stood outside watching the address on a giant LCD screen.

Here is Berdymuhamedov's New Year's address.

Among achievements, Berdymukhamedov listed the unveiling of Arkadag, the first smart city named after his father and former president Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov. He also highlighted the parliamentary reform that allowed his father to come out of retirement by appointing him the Chairman of Halk Maslahaty, a newly created supra-state legislative body. There was a promise of increasing salaries, pensions, and social payments by 10 percent. Berdymuhamedov stated that 2024 will be spent celebrating the legacy of Turkmen poet, traveler and spiritual leader Magtymguly Pyragy.

Uzbekistan: Template version

Uzbekistan’s president Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s New Year’s address was the most conventional, without any out-of-the-box elements. It featured footage of him walking inside his presidential palace in the capital Tashkent. Mirziyoyev followed the established template of delivering an address outside in front of the presidential palace and Christmas tree. Among the highlighted achievements was the constitutional referendum that turned Uzbekistan into a “social state,” annulled Mirziyoyev’s previous presidential terms and opened the door for his re-election. He boasted that the dream of “New Uzbekistan,” which is a vague political concept, is coming to reality.

Here is Mirziyoyev's New Year's address.

Mirziyoyev declared 2024 as the year of supporting youth and businesses, highlighting the country’s practice of attaching a certain theme to every year. He also dwelled upon plans to provide social support to those in need and take the system of social support to a whole new level. Mirziyoyev’s words that Uzbekistan will continue strengthening “the combat potential of the Armed Forces” also drew attention in light of the Russian politician Zakhar Prilepin’s calls to annex Uzbekistan.

These New Year's addresses provided a glimpse into Central Asian governments’ perspectives on their countries’ achievements and challenges. They also shed light on their future plans. As the year passes, people in these countries can track the promises made by their leaders on New Year.

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