#16 - JRL 7266
July 26-August 1, 2003
The best hope of a stable Central Asia lies with the leaders of the region itself
Central Asia has come a long way since independence, but it is still facing serious security problems. This is partly because it lives in a tough neighbourhood. Even with the Taliban gone, Afghanistan is likely to remain a source of worry and a destabilising force in the region for the foreseeable future.
The Soviet heritage is also partly to blame. The dislocation created by a difficult transition from socialism to a market economy has swelled the ranks of the poor; and arbitrary borders, the destruction of a common identity and unbalanced water management have fostered regional divisions.
America, Russia and China have all been keen to boost the region's security system, which collapsed with the Soviet Union and has not been replaced. Regional security treaties have been signed, but none seems to offer much comfort. The Central Asian countries have failed to back their promises with resources. The collective security treaty of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) covers only part of the region and has proved fairly ineffective. Still, an anti-terrorist centre and a rapid-deployment force of sorts have been set up, and joint military exercises are conducted regularly. In April, members met in Dushanbe to strengthen the treaty, but not much is likely to happen. The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, made up of China, Russia and the Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan, was set up to deal with border issues, but has recently concentrated on anti-terrorist measures.
Regional tensions, uneven military capabilities and different perceptions of security threats--and how to deal with them--have undermined attempts to rebuild collective security. Nor does it help that Central Asian foreign-policy priorities are at odds. Uzbekistan has been wary of what it sees as Russia's attempts to regain lost ground in the region, and is firmly putting itself on America's side. Turkmenistan has chosen neutrality and isolation. Uzbekistan quit the CIS collective security treaty in 1999, and Turkmenistan refused to join in the first place. The others have been keen to be friends with America, Russia and China all at once.
Kirgizstan has been particularly good at covering its back. It has an American military base on its territory and will soon host a Russian one, and has conducted military exercises with the Chinese. Two regional anti-terrorist centres are based in Bishkek. "Our army is multinational," jokes Chinara Jakypova of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Bishkek. "It receives clothes from Russia, food from China and communication equipment from the United States."
Throughout the region, security relies mainly on bilateral arrangements. Since the war in Afghanistan, America has been maintaining military bases in Kirgizstan and Uzbekistan. It also provides non-lethal military assistance and training to most of the Central Asian countries and is supporting anti-drugs programmes and anti-terrorist measures.
The Russians have been eager to gain more of a presence in their traditional back yard, and some analysts think their influence is bound to increase, not only for geographical reasons but also because of historical and cultural links. Tajikistan's borders are still guarded by Russian units, and a new Russian military base is to open in Kirgizstan this autumn. China's security interest in the region is influenced by the problems with its own Uighur separatists in western China, and is focused on border control and anti-terrorism. Don't overdo it
All this interest from big powers, however, has sparked fears that they might one day compete with each other in the region. In a speech at the annual meeting of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Uzbekistan's President Karimov pleaded that: "Central Asia should not become the place for geopolitical competition and the formation of military-political blocks."
This is a particular worry for the smaller countries such as Kirgizstan, which is surrounded by giants. So far, says Muratbek Imanaliev, a former Kirgiz foreign minister, America's and Russia's interests in the region have been closely aligned because they are both committed to fighting terrorism. And for the moment, the international interest in the region, besides resulting in military assistance, has helpfully translated into more aid money and debt rescheduling for its poorer countries. But if this were to change, the region could once again find itself at the centre of a new Great Game.
The main responsibility for continued stability in Central Asia, however, lies with its own leaders. Hence the pressure from the West to improve human rights and promote the development of civil society and a free press. All this amounts to a cultural revolution for regional leaders who, true to their Soviet training, continue to believe that stability is achieved through control. Such control comes in varying shades, from blunt repression in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to more subtle legal guerrilla warfare in Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan, but everywhere the mix includes rigged elections. Some of the methods may differ, but the philosophy is the same. By refusing to modernise, the region's leaders are undermining the very stability they are so anxious to maintain.
So what are the prospects for Central Asia? The best hope is that the next generation of leaders will be compromise candidates acceptable to both the outgoing presidents and to the opposition. Such a gradual transition would allow time for the system to be genuinely reformed and for the opposition to get into shape before democratic elections are held. This could well happen in Kazakhstan, and possibly in Kirgizstan too. Both countries have introduced useful economic reforms, but to make these fully effective they also need to separate political power and business interests, free their press and make their courts more independent.
In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, this sort of gradual change could be a long time coming, and require another interim generation of leaders. Alternatively, change could come much more abruptly, perhaps violently, as foreshadowed by an alleged assassination attempt on Turkmenistan's president last November. And in Tajikistan the civil war is likely to take a while longer to get over before the country feels it can afford a real opposition.
Governments in the region often complain that the West expects too much, too fast. But if they move too slowly, frustration among their own people could play havoc with their leisurely timetable.