If any single mood was common to all of Central Asia in 2004, it was one of gradually rising unease. No cataclysms darkened the skies; but where stability endured, it did so at a price.
President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan with apparent disregard for all but himself even as his country's isolation deepened and the outside world nervously eyed reports of a society in perpetual crisis and potential collapse.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov found himself in a familiar standoff with critics of his iron-fisted approach to ensuring stability, as terrorist attacks and outbursts of civil unrest suggested that the seemingly still waters of Uzbekistan may run dangerously deep.
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev oversaw a petroleum-fueled economic upturn and shepherded a comfortably pro-presidential majority into parliament, yet his very domination of the political arena and the looming uncertainty of succession conspired to cast a pall over the future.
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev stressed his resolve to become the first regional leader to leave power voluntarily, but spoke darkly of election-related storm clouds gathering on the horizon in 2005.
And Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov shored up his hold on power as Tajikistan soldiered on with a halting recovery from the dual blows of post-Soviet transition and a devastating 1992-1997 civil war.
Unease marked the region's economic fortunes and geopolitical alignments. Kazakhstan stood out as the economic leader, with plentiful oil to sell amid high world prices and a rapidly developing financial system to move the money around, but the hydrocarbon-heavy mix promises the country an uphill battle if it is to avoid the fate of an oil-dependent rentier state and arrive at a more diversified economy. Gas-rich Turkmenistan, already a rentier state by some assessments, moved in an economic fog, with official statistics trumpeting triumphs and international financial institutions insinuating otherwise. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan experienced varieties of the post-Soviet doldrums, with pervasive corruption, lingering socialist-era inefficiencies, and lagging foreign investment hampering growth and allowing poverty to keep a vise-grip on swaths of the population.
Kazakh President Nazarbaev, who pioneered the "multivector" approach to foreign policy in the region, no doubt relished the sight of his broadening legacy, as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan attempted to replicate Kazakhstan's feat of maintaining cordial relations with such regional and global heavyweights as Russia, the United States, and China while getting something for themselves in the bargain. The basic rules of the "multivector" game, as played in the southeastern arc of Central Asia, have now emerged: cooperation with Russia and China premised on a common acceptance of authoritarian political practice and driven by economic interests, often in the energy sector; cooperation with the West, primarily the United States, premised on the primacy of security concerns and driven by common opposition to Islamic extremism; and just enough tension between the big outside players to let the smaller Central Asian players extract concessions with the occasional move to and fro.
Security threats continued to provide the prism through which much of the outside world viewed Central Asia. Here too, unease abounded. Uzbekistan's government pointed to terrorist attacks as proof of a dire threat, but critics saw the violence as evidence of repression begetting resistance, and the government's warnings as a convenient pretext to crack down on domestic dissent. The debate seems poised to encompass Uzbekistan's neighbors, as officials in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and even Kazakhstan warned of increasing activity by such extremist groups as Hizb ut-Tahrir, which officially eschews violence yet pursues the radical goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in the region.
Labor migration, narcotics trafficking, and the spread of HIV/AIDS were region-wide problems. Poverty has driven approximately 1 million Tajiks to seek better fortunes abroad, primarily in Russia, where they often face legal uncertainties and exploitative conditions; lesser, but still substantial, numbers of Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens have followed a similar path. As the UN warned that Afghanistan is turning into a heroin-producing "narcostate," the allure of markets in Russia and Europe sucked vast quantities of drugs through Central Asia, and especially Tajikistan. Drug trafficking has brought with it drug use, and the needle has acted as a conduit for HIV/AIDS. Though the numbers of HIV-infected individuals remain relatively small, a World Bank official warned in March that Central Asia could face a devastating epidemic over the next 10 years if governments fail to take vigorous efforts to contain the spread of the disease.
Regional cooperation efforts made for many meetings, but no breakthroughs. Russia joined the Central Asian Cooperation Organization, which now brings together Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The leaders of member states in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) met in Tashkent on 17 June for a security-focused summit leavened by China's offer of $900 million in loans and credits to stimulate regional trade. Leaders of the Eurasian Economic Community (Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) and the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan) met in Astana on 18 June. CIS leaders met in Astana on 15-16 September for a summit with an antiterrorism agenda. Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Uzbek President Islam Karimov ended several years of strained ties with a summit in Bukhara, Uzbekistan on 19 November. Finally, an agreement to finalize the legal status of the Caspian Sea continued to elude representatives of the littoral states.
Within each country, Central Asia's unease assumed a particular form. In Kazakhstan, the long-term political perspective is murky. President Nazarbaev and his ruling Otan party retained a strong majority in the Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) after 19 September elections that elicited howls of protest from opposition parties and a politely negative assessment from the OSCE. Some members of the president's own team, such as former Mazhilis speaker Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, joined the opposition, which found itself at year's end contemplating the wisdom of a move toward greater confrontation with the authorities. Meanwhile, speculation centered on the date of future presidential elections -- likely to take place in 2006, but theoretically possible in 2005 -- and the thorny issue of succession, especially after presidential daughter Darigha Nazarbaeva lost some of her luster as a potential successor when her Asar party put in an uninspired showing in parliamentary elections. The perpetually fractured opposition does not seem capable of mobilizing mass support, and the president and his team have the deck stacked very much in their favor, but the gradual hollowing out of the political process under President Nazarbaev makes any real forecasting problematic at best.
Unease was more palpable in Kyrgyzstan, where a considerably less vibrant economy provides less room for low-risk political maneuvering. Boris Poluektov, deputy chairman of the National Security Service, warned in June that Hizb ut-Tahrir has 3,000 members in Kyrgyzstan, a statement echoed by other security officials as the year wore on. But opposition figures charged that Kyrgyz authorities are laying the groundwork for the adoption of a hard-line "Uzbek approach" that would exploit the threat of terrorism as a pretext to crush dissent. Meanwhile, the opposition showed some signs of consolidation, and former Prime Minister Kurmanbek Bakiev, currently leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, has already announced his intention to run in the October 2005 presidential election.
With election-sparked changes afoot elsewhere in the former USSR, the prospect of a presidential ballot in Kyrgyzstan has begun to fuel speculation. But Kyrgyz President Akaev, who has said that he does not plan to seek another term, is a strong opponent of political change a la Georgia in 2003 or Ukraine in 2004. Writing in Russia's official "Rossiiskaya gazeta" in June, he likened the export of democracy to the Bolshevik export of communism. Speaking in Moscow in September, Akaev said, "I think that the further spread of the Rose Revolution technique is intended to weaken the CIS." And addressing Kyrgyzstan's Defense Council in December, he warned that "the social and political situation will sharply deteriorate as a result of  parliamentary and presidential elections." The opposition now fears, with some reason, that Akaev and his allies may be readying decisive measures to preserve the status quo.
A number of Tajik President Rakhmonov's old comrades-in-arms found themselves behind bars in 2004. Russia deported former Interior Minister Yaqub Salimov in February for trial on treason and coup charges. Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev was arrested in August on corruption and weapons possession charges. In October, President Rakhmonov tied up loose ends with Russia, which received a permanent military base for its 201st Motor Rifle Division in Tajikistan, the use of the space-surveillance facility in Nurek, and a share in Tajikistan's Sangtuda hydropower plant. In return, Russia wrote off $300 million in Tajik debt, and Russian Aluminum pledged over $1 billion in investments into Tajikistan's aluminum industry. Meanwhile, Russian troops completed the handover of the Pamir section of the Tajik-Afghan border to Tajik jurisdiction on 1 December.
But the unease in Tajikistan centered less on purely political concerns, although parliamentary elections are nearing in February 2005 amid traditional tensions between the authorities and the opposition, than on the country's overall ability to overcome the depredations of the 1990s, withstand the avalanche of heroin from neighboring Afghanistan, and carve out a place for itself in a hard corner of the world. Tajikistan faces daunting difficulties, but it has weathered tougher times and now has reason to entertain higher hopes than some of its neighbors, and with that greater cause to fear failure.
Turkmenistan's ruler-for-life kept himself busy for the official record with periodic firings and appointments, the completion of a new volume of the "Ruhnama," plans to enliven his arid realm with an ice palace, and the reburial of his parents in a specially constructed shrine. At one point, he complained that "I am being praised so much that I cannot even leave my home." Considerably less given to praise and more to unease was the international community, which pointed to the wholesale replacement of medical personnel with military conscripts, the invalidation of foreign diplomas, rumors of a plague outbreak, the closure of Russia's Radio Mayak, myriad human-rights violations and a near-total lack of openness and civic freedoms as evidence of a country on the brink. In a 4 November report titled "Repression and Regression in Turkmenistan," the International Crisis Group described Niyazov's Turkmenistan as an "unfolding catastrophe" and contemplated various international responses to the regime's eventual demise.
Manipulating The Terror Threat
The threat of instability prompted unease in Uzbekistan. The country suffered two bouts of terrorist violence in 2004, one in late March-early April and another on 31 July, leaving over 50 people dead, almost all of them either attackers or police. Pointing to the involvement of suicide bombers, Uzbek officials spoke of ideological inspiration from Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, as well as operational links to Al-Qaeda through training camps outside of Uzbekistan. But skeptics noted that the attackers primarily targeted police and "regime targets," suggesting an anti-government insurgency more than a classic Al-Qaeda-style terrorism campaign. The critics included Craig Murray, Great Britain's former envoy to Uzbekistan, who said in a speech in November that "despair caused by the deepening poverty and lack of religious and political freedoms, worsened by the lack of any democratic means to express that despair, is what creates the violence."
A bout of civil unrest in early November, when irate traders took to the streets in several cities to protest new regulations, heightened fears of rising tension in a society with limited political outlets. Parliamentary elections on 26 December took place without opposition participation in a ballot the OSCE said fell "significantly short of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections." These danger signs in Central Asia's most populous country, a U.S. ally in the war on terror, and an indispensable part of any stable and prosperous future for the region, suggest that the unease of 2004 will not simply fade away with the advent of a new year.