Central Asia Entering a Minefield – Report
A new report issued by the Asia Society should set off alarm bells for Western policymakers. The odds are good that the region will experience multiple brushfires in the coming years, it suggests, and there may be a shortage of water and equipment to douse the flames.
Titled Central Asia’s Crisis in Governance, the report describes the region’s political landscape as bleak: “Corruption is rampant, human rights are routinely ignored, economic opportunity is limited, mass media are sanitized in the best Soviet tradition, civil society is neutered and even artistic expression is restricted – particularly in Uzbekistan,” the report says.
While Central Asia’s present seems grim, the foreseeable future is combustible. The report cites a political geographer, Ralph S. Clem of Florida International University, who has analysed available data and sees a “very close fit” between social and economic conditions in North African nations that experienced the Arab Spring, and those that currently exist in Central Asian states. “This comparison portends turbulence ahead, particularly for Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan,” the report quotes Clem as saying.
Several factors would seem to lower the chances of a full-blown Central Asian Spring occurring. Most significantly, citizens in the five Central Asian states tend to be “depoliticized,” the report notes. Labor migration also acts as a safety valve, with hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz working in Russia, instead of seething at home.
But even if Central Asian states can dodge popular upheaval, they still face multiple threats to stability. For one, governmental efforts to keep a tight lid on individual liberties are reaching a point where they may become counterproductive, the report hints. “In the absence of a secular opposition, religious groups may enter the fray,” it asserts.
Another flashpoint is water resources. Calling attention to the Uzbek-Tajik rivalry over access to water, the report suggests that poor judgment on the part of regional political leaders is significantly heightening the risk of trouble. “In a healthier political environment, such disputes could be tackled more amicably,” the report says.
If leadership changes occur, it seems more likely they would come about via a palace coup than by a popular uprising, according to the report. “In the years to come, political change in Central Asia will likely be driven by inter-elite tussles, particularly during succession struggles following the death, retirement or incapacitation of longtime rulers,” it states.
The bulk of the report is devoted to examining political, social and economic condition in the individual Central Asian republics. Each is unhappy in its own way, it notes.
The report singles out Tajikistan, which it portrays as a failing state with an inept government, as the Central Asian state most at risk of trouble. “Now more than ever, the country needs a government that is less concerned about its own political survival and focused more on holding the country together,” it states.
The lack of clarity concerning political succession is a cause for concern in a couple of states with septuagenarian leaders, namely Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The report suggests destabilizing power struggles could occur in both countries, once the incumbents – Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan – pass from the scene. “Absent a broadly acceptable successor, a degree of competition among the various power constituencies – including the National Security Service – is to be expected,” says the report, referring specifically to Uzbekistan.
The report concludes by examining the role of the United States, Russia and China in Central Asia. All three “appear to focus on relatively short-term transactional results, an approach that deepens the region’s crisis of governance,” the report says.
In an extended discussion of US policy, the report notes that the conflict in Afghanistan, and, more broadly, regional security concerns, are shaping the way Washington views Central Asia. The report goes on to say that the United States “may be deliberately underselling” its ability to exert pressure on Central Asian leaders to improve their rights records out of a desire not to disrupt the US war effort.
Central Asian leaders need the United States to act as “a counterbalance” to Russian and Chinese influence in the region. “The challenge for the United States is to craft a foreign policy that utilizes Washington’s diminished, but still significant influence to extract concessions from Central Asian regimes,” the report says.
Change is desperately needed in Central Asia. But democratization is just one part of a complex puzzle that must be pieced together if the region is to avoid trouble. “There are no simple solutions in the region,” the report says. “A rush toward democracy and elections, by itself, will not solve Central Asia’s many crises, and, in fact, may exacerbate them in the short term. But the status quo is equally fraught with risks.”