For many corporations and governments, Central Asia has often been overlooked. Known for its five former Soviet Union “Stan” countries, with Kazakhstan leading as the region’s largest economy, the area has been treated like a “forgotten child.” However, that perception is changing due to two main factors: shifting geopolitical realities and China’s increasing interests.
In October 2022, Kazakhstan’s government hosted a high-level technology and innovation conference in its capital, Astana. One keynote speaker, Theo Bertram, the Vice President for Government Relations and Public Policy for Europe at TikTok, flew almost half a day from London to attend. He asserted that it was time for TikTok to focus on Central Asia. During the visit, Bertram informed the Kazakh officials that TikTok had decided to establish its new Central Asia regional headquarters in Kazakhstan.
By the end of 2022, TikTok had already registered in Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC), Kazakhstan’s ambitious tech and financial hub. The company also promoted Tokyo-based senior policy executive Takuya Yamaguchi to Vice President and added Central Asia to his portfolio.
Before the conflict in Ukraine broke out, TikTok’s Moscow team remotely managed operations in the five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. Moscow was effectively the regional headquarters for both Central Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Many companies similarly tasked their Central Eastern Europe teams with covering Central Asia, jokingly treating it as a part-time responsibility.
However, the new geopolitical and economic realities prompted TikTok to relocate its Central Asian headquarters to Kazakhstan. Other businesses are also considering similar moves from Russia to neighboring Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
With nearly 40% of Central Asia’s 77 million population comprising young people, new demographic trends highlight a growing e-consumer market. The younger generation is increasingly influenced by global capital, trends, brands, and ideas, rather than their Soviet heritage.
By June 2023, almost 2,000 IT professionals had relocated from Russia and Belarus to Uzbekistan, contributing to the rapid growth of Tashkent’s IT Park. This innovation hub, supported by Uzbekistan’s IT Ministry, has facilitated special IT visas to attract global talent, primarily from Russia.
Amid geopolitical challenges, Central Asian countries are working to diversify their political and economic ties, coordinating within the established C5+1 format that includes Japan, the European Union, South Korea, India, and the U.S. Resource-rich Kazakhstan is also exploring alternative routes, such as the Middle Corridor through the Caspian Sea, connecting with Georgia, Azerbaijan, Türkiye and European partners.China has also gradually increased its investments in Central Asia through its signature Belt and Road initiative, which has entered its eighth year since the launch. Chinese brands like Huawei and Xiaomi are also seen everywhere across the vast region, making them popular brands for the local youth.
Kazakhstan recently hosted the 2023 Central Asian Security and Cooperation Forum in Astana, marking the first in-person regional policy conference since the pandemic. Attendees from 25 countries concurred that Central Asia’s time has come. Some suggest that the region’s countries should consider forming an alliance similar to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The motto “Stronger, Together” is increasingly relevant in Central Asia’s evolving geopolitical landscape.
The authors are George Chen, Managing Director of The Asia Group, a Washington-based business and policy consultancy, and a visiting scholar at National Chengchi University in Taipei, and Iskander Akylbayev, Chief Research Fellow at the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies.