Much concern has been raised since the Soviet breakup over the possible Balkanization of parts of Central Asia and the Caucasus. This threat was the most plausible of the many suspect reasons cited by Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev when he shifted the country's capital from Almaty to Astana.
One of the latest versions of the Balkanization theory is that southern Kazakhstan is going to break off and be swallowed up by Uzbekistan. The republics' recent sparring over border demarcation has offered some facts on which to hang concerns. Uzbekistan's increasingly aggressive cross-border behavior toward almost all its neighbors also helps to fuel stability concerns.
Territorial issues have been a source of concern since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when some in Western circles predicted that Russia might attempt to annex parts of northern Kazakhstan. The speculative nature of the issue makes it difficult to refute rumors of potential land-grabs and territorial ambitions.
It is probably not an exaggeration, however, to characterize the newest annexation predictions as far-fetched, even alarmist. That's because a border change would most likely provoke a conflict. And there simply is no reason to believe that Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov, Nazarbayev, or the residents of southern Kazakhstan are prepared to go to war. Likewise, times have changed in Moscow and hard-line Russian elements should not be expected, as they did earlier in the Caucasus and Tajikistan, to offer support to one side or the other.
This is not to say there is no room for worry regarding Central Asia's equilibrium. The growing problem, however, is not territorial annexation. Instead, it is self-inflicted destabilization -- within the current borders. The situation -- one that itself may be justifiably described as a crisis -- was dramatized during the recent three-nation tour of the region by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.
The United States walks a fine line in Central Asia -- although policy may change in a new Administration, Washington cannot adopt too stern an attitude, since it is simultaneously trying to persuade Central Asian leaders to embrace its East-West pipeline plans. Unlike political leaders in the Caucasus, none of the Central Asian presidents has unconditionally endorsed the pipeline.
Despite clear US economic interests, Albright spent much of her five-day trip lecturing Nazarbayev, Karimov and Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akaev about their appalling human and political rights records. Specifically, Albright overtly challenged Karimov's stabilization strategy, which all the presidents have recently adopted. Since the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent that killed 13 people, Karimov has intensified his long-standing policy of crushing real and perceived opponents. For example, his forces have routinely arrested men with beards, as facial hair has come to be considered sufficient evidence of religious extremism.
Apart from Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov, who must be considered separately, Karimov's neighbors have been comparatively less harsh. Yet all have embraced the role of strongman, and all have routinely spoken out on the perils of Islamization, terrorism and arms smuggling.
At the same time, they have exploited these issues to dispose of opponents. Hence Nazarbayev's regime has put bodyguards of former premier Akezhan Kazhegeldin on trial on charges of illegal arms possession. And, in an even more brazen action, Akaev startled his long-standing Western champions by outright arresting his most influential political rival, Felix Kulov.
With some justification, Niyazov was characterized during a recent Congressional hearing in Washington as the most flagrant human and political rights violator in the region. In recent months, he has had himself declared president for life, and his forces have destroyed churches of unregistered faiths.
As their centralization of power becomes more and more irrational, the Central Asian presidents risk provoking a more dangerous form of opposition. As Albright said in Tashkent during her visit in April, "It's necessary that the government of Uzbekistan distinguishes very carefully between peaceful devout believers and those who advocate terrorism. An unwillingness to make such distinctions actually undermines security by strengthening those who favor extremism and terrorism."
This is the genuine threat in Central Asia -- radicalizing hard-line politics that render the talk of territorial acquisition a rhetorical distraction.
Steve LeVine writes for The New York Times and Newsweek. The longest-serving foreign correspondent in the Caspian Sea region, he has covered the Caucasus and Central Asia for most of the post-Soviet era, and before that covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for three years from a base in Pakistan. He works out of offices in Baku and Almaty.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.