The outcome of the "security summit" held on January 5 in Almaty indicates that Central Asian presidents are increasingly intent on working collectively against terrorism, despite the leaders' many disagreements on economic and political issues.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov said following the meeting that the governments of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan would redouble efforts to promote strategic military cooperation. Karimov added that Russia would provide technical assistance to reduce the threat to regional stability posed by Islamic insurgents.
"Today, the stability of Tajikistan is the stability of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan," Karimov said in comments broadcast by Uzbek television. "In its turn, the stability of Kazakhstan is the stability of all remaining member countries [of the Central Asian Economic Community]."
Some Central Asian analysts say the growing willingness to cooperate on counter-terrorism may be an instance of "too much and too late." There are growing indications that Central Asian counterinsurgency policies, including crackdowns on political activity and Islamic proselytizing, are exacerbating popular dissatisfaction that is rooted in economic distress.
There is concern that the ongoing crackdown will serve as a catalyst for instability by steeling the resolve of the governments' opponents. Already, the intensification of counterinsurgency measures during the past two years has seriously eroded the limited gains in the development of civil society in the region, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Now, a confluence of potent ideologies and economic interests in Central Asia is fueling growing opposition to the secular, post-communist governments. The three legs of this triangle are nationalist-based separatism, Islamic anti-secularism, and the drive to control markets in Central Asia, particularly the high-stakes drug trade.
To a certain extent, the upheaval in Central Asia, especially the insurgency led by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), can be seen as the continuation of a process that began with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. That is because independence in Central Asia did not come about as a result of the contest between empire and nationalist movements. It was essentially a revolution from above and within. The party apparat simply reoriented itself to assume control without revolution and genuine reform.
A challenge to the control of the Soviet-era rulers was probably inevitable. Few people would have believed in 1990 that four of the independent countries of Central Asia would still be ruled, after a decade of independence, by the communist party first secretaries of the Soviet period. It is this graying generation of Soviet-trained leaders that now is being challenged by young, committed and ruthless true believers who are willing to seek political gain at any expense.
At the same time, instability in Central Asia can be seen as an extension of the conflicts of the Afghanistan civil war. In addition, over the past few years the cultural confrontations that emerged from the war have become intertwined with the Chechnya imbroglio and, more recently, with the separatist movement in Xinjiang-Uigur Autonomous Republic of China.
Among Central Asian nations, Uzbekistan has been the foremost advocate of a hard-line stance on political-religious opposition. The policies of Karimov's government have generally succeeded so far in maintaining tenuous stability. However, success has come at a steep cost. Individual rights have been severely curtailed. International human rights organizations have reported numerous cases of violations of human rights and Uzbek civil law at the hands of Uzbekistan law enforcement authorities. [For background see EurasiaNet's Human Rights archive].
The IMU is perhaps the clearest manifestation of a popular backlash to the Uzbek crackdown. The opposition movement has broadened its popular support because it has appealed to a wide spectrum of Central Asia's disenfranchised, from the downtrodden and economically dispossessed, to Central Asia's regional mafia kingpins and drug traffickers.
It now appears that a continued reliance on force will bring diminishing returns for Uzbek authorities. The challenge before the Uzbekistan government, and to a lesser extent the other governments of Central Asia, is to reinforce the rule of law while building a broad popular constituency for economic modernization and peace. Unless the benefits of prosperity and peace can be spread broadly throughout Central Asian societies, the post-Soviet leadership runs the risk of being identified with a past it is attempting to discredit. The Central Asian leaders' appeals for patriotism and vigilance risk being drowned out amid the din of revolutionary rhetoric.
Gregory Gleason is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico and a Fellow-in-Residence at the Oppenheimer Institute for Science and International Cooperation.