asiaNet Q & A
CEP: How serious a threat is the Batken hostage crisis to regional stability?
BR: The Batken crisis is acting as what scholars of conflict prevention call an "accelerator" of crises in the region, that is, it is speeding up escalation. It is provoking in particular what scholars call "horizontal" escalation, the expansion of conflict to new areas and new actors. The Batken hostage crisis is linking more closely a variety of conflicts in the region into a larger conflict. The main fighters are Uzbek Islamists from Ferghana (in particular Namangan) who fled when the government repressed their movement in 1992. They have been training and fighting with groups in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan, and there are said to be a few Tajiks, Afghans, and even Arabs with them. They also may have picked up new recruits among the refugees who fled to Tajikistan from the latest round of repression in the Ferghana Valley. Their best known leader, Tahir Yuldash (Tohirjon Yuldashev) is in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, and some members of this movement are studying and being trained in the same madrasas in Pakistan that gave birth to the Taliban. The changes in the military and political situation in Afghanistan and Tajikistan have pushed these fighters out of their bases, and they appear to be trying to fight their way back to the Uzbekistan part of the valley, across southern Kyrgyzstan, to stage an uprising in the Ferghana Valley. (I don't think such an uprising would succeed, because even though the population is suffering from both impoverishment and repression, I don't think they regard this group as their savior.) The result is the expansion of military violence, with the Kyrgyzstan army mobilizing and recruiting volunteers and Uzbekistan bombing areas of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. To many Kyrgyz as well the guerrillas appear as what they perceive as an "Uzbek threat" that, ironically, includes both the Islamic radicals and the Karimov regime. They fear being caught in the middle, and I am sure this is increasing ethnic tensions in southern Kyrgyzstan. Hence the crisis is connecting a network of conflict from Pakistan through Afghanistan to the southern tier of Central Asia, involving new actors, and raising the level of violence and ethnic tension.
CEP: If "all prevention is political," are the governments of the region demonstrating sufficient flexibility in responding to social and economic tension, or is there a danger that governmental rigidity, especially in Uzbekistan, might foster a "self-fulfilling prophesy" of upheaval?
BR: Uzbekistan is in a very difficult and contradictory position. On the one hand, any government in the world is naturally going to respond with police or even military actions against armed terrorists or insurgencies, and they have a right to do so. But one must also ask why movements resort to such means. Of course there are a lot of weapons in the region, extremist movements, as well as the drug trade, weak border controls, and so on, all of which increase what we might call the potential "supply" of insurgency or terrorism, but we should also think why there is a "demand." Undoubtedly the reason that there is more organized violence rearing its head against the state in Uzbekistan than in, say, Kyrgyzstan, where people may be even poorer, is that there are no alternative means of protest in Uzbekistan. The government of President Karimov enjoyed enough good will from the people of Uzbekistan, who did indeed appreciate a degree of stability, that it could have survived and even strengthened itself by permitting legitimate debate and opposition. Instead, the government became quite repressive, with the result of radicalizing opposition in this dangerous neighborhood. Uzbekistan needs a genuine open debate about many issues, not the least of them being the place of Islam in the country's social and political life. It is now much more difficult to open up the political space for more democracy in Uzbekistan, because of the atmosphere of threat and fear that has resulted from terrorism and repression, but such a process is the only way to prevent the growth of violent movements.
CEP: What is the role of Islam in contemporary societies in the Ferghana Valley? Is there such a thing as Islamic fundamentalism in the Ferghana Valley?
BR: The Ferghana Valley, especially the Uzbek part, has for centuries been one of the major centers of Islamic learning and piety in Central Asia, and it also led the Islamic resistance to Soviet power (along with the areas of southern Tajikistan that also supported the Islamists in 1991-92). Throughout the former Soviet Union, the lifting of former strictures led to a revival of interest in cultural traditions and values, including national, ethnic, and religious traditions. Hence there is a revival of Islam in Central Asia as there is a revival of Christianity in the Western parts of the former USSR, as well as of Buddhism, Judaism, and so on. People are suffering great instability not just in the political sense but in their personal lives, and they are seeking beliefs that will help guide them and their families and give meaning to their struggles. At the same time, the USSR was very effective in eradicating knowledge of Islam in Central Asia, and people do not know much about it. They are hungry to reconnect with their own traditions. This reconnection can mean many different things. But especially when political authority appears ineffective, corrupt, or illegitimate, people will seek alternatives. Some may turn to religious belief and practice as an escape from intolerable reality and try to make their society more moral or upright in their view through preaching, example, or, at times, pressure or even coercion, just like religious movements in this country that consider the mainstream corrupt. Others may seek new ways to organize their collective life. Some political ideologies make use of an Islamic framework to propose a different way to organize political authority. These ideologies may not seem attractive to people living in Western democracies, but the people of the Ferghana Valley are not living in prosperous Western democracies, and to some of them such ideologies seem to promise something better than what they have now. So there is indeed a basis for the numerous phenomena labeled "Islamic fundamentalism" -- religious revival, pressure for social change, political radicalism -- in the Ferghana Valley. But it is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon. It is not synonymous with terrorism. Unfortunately repression of opposition and suppression of free discussion and religious practice does push some frustrated people toward terrorism, and in this region it is not difficult to obtain the training and equipment you need to carry it out.
CEP: What are the potential consequences of inaction vis a vis the simmering tensions in the Ferghana Valley?
BR: There is no such thing as inaction. All the people of the region are already acting in various ways, and the international community and the US in particular are already engaged in Central Asia and the Ferghana Valley, looking for oil and gas, planning pipeline routes, pressuring governments on their economic policies, trying to establish a security structure, trying to cooperate with or displace Russia in many fields including the military one, and so on. The question is whether this action will remain guided by immediate interests and reactions to immediate events or whether it will be farsighted and proactive. I am afraid that the former is usually the case, and it leads to ignoring problems until they are far more difficult to handle. This is already the case with the Ferghana Valley. How to act is a delicate question, mainly, again, because of Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan does not welcome outside attention to the area, except in the form of military support for the government. But without the cooperation of the Uzbek authorities not much can be done. So a very concentrated and tactful but forceful diplomatic effort is needed to convince Tashkent that the world is ready to help promote stability and development in the region while respecting sovereignty, but that in return they have to allow the people of the Ferghana Valley more of a voice themselves in defining their future. It would also help if there were more sustained international attention to some of the regional factors that frighten the governments in the region, and in particular the continuing war in Afghanistan and the radicalization of the Taliban. This is, of course, easier to post on a website than to accomplish. I am afraid that the alternative is that the region from Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan will become a zone of perpetual violence and conflict like the Great Lakes region of Central Africa, with several ongoing wars that keep spreading and that make development impossible. And in this region there are also nuclear weapons and materials, unlike in Central and East Africa. So the threat may seem obscure, but it is very serious.
Mr. Rubin is the Director of the Center for Preventative Action at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He is the co-author, along with Nancy Lubin, of an upcoming Preventative Action Report entitled: "Calming the Ferghana Valley: Development and Dialogue in the Heart of Central Asia." The report, the fourth in a series published by CFR's Center for Preventative Action, examines current trends in the Ferghana Valley within the context of recent social, economic and political developments. It also explores potential conflict scenarios and offers recommendations for prevention. The report is being co-published by The Century Foundation, formerly the Twentieth Century Fund. Mr. Rubin also serves on the supervisory board of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute.