Central Asia Conflict Fears

Speakers at an IWPR conference in Almaty warn that outbreaks of violence across Central Asia could escalate into a regional conflict.

Central Asia Conflict Fears

Speakers at an IWPR conference in Almaty warn that outbreaks of violence across Central Asia could escalate into a regional conflict.

Monday, 21 February, 2005

There are mounting fears of a regional war in Central Asia following renewed fighting in Afghanistan, Islamic rebel incursions into Kyrgyzstan, and continuing tension in Uzbekistan.

Yet while Central Asian states focus on security responses to the outbreaks of violence, independent and opposition analysts warn that the problems are deeper.

They predict a wider conflict could be triggered unless the trend towards centralised political control is reversed. "The instability is caused by authoritarian regimes," argues political analyst Nurbolat Masanov. "All the states in the region have seen a gradual decrease in democratic values and a concentration of power in one set of hands. It is an approach which breeds violent confrontation."

Masanov's remarks came at a major conference on the regional crisis in Almaty, organised by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. The event, which attracted a range of journalists, academics, human rights activists and other experts, marked a breakthrough in public debate.

"For the first time, the conference brought together people from around the region with radically different views, from a member of the Security Council to a mountain climber who had been held as a hostage by the rebels," said Chinara Jakypova, IWPR director in Kyrgyzstan.

"And for the first time, people spoke openly about the internal causes of the conflicts in the region," she said. "Most participants agreed that if opposition in Central Asia cannot press its case through legal and legitimate ways, it will turn to other means."

The official view is that violence in the region is the result of Islamic fundamentalists, supported by the Taliban. Government ministers argue that the militants aim to destabilise Central Asia to enable them to smuggle heroin from Afghanistan through the region.

Officials also point to statements from militants calling for the secession of the fertile Fergana Valley region - which crosses Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan - and the creation of an independent Islamic state.

"This is not some local conflict, we are talking about international terrorism," General Bolot Djanuzakov, Secretary of the Kyrgyz Security Council told the conference. His comments were echoed by a representative from the Kazak defence ministry.

In response states in the region are stepping up security measures and proposing joint anti-terrorism measures.

Government ministers in the region believe the Central Asian fighters are linked to Osama bin Laden, who has been blamed by Washington for attacks on US embassies and other alleged "terrorist" activity.

The United States has formally listed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, which is widely blamed for much of the violence, as a "terrorist" organisation. Russia has said attacks by the IMU illustrate the "far-reaching ambitions of Muslim extremists" to "destroy . . . the very foundations of the state system in Central Asia."

Experts argued that the primary cause of conflict is the lack of democracy, particularly but not exclusively in Uzbekistan.

Vitaliy Ponomariov, Central Asia specialist with the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, spoke of the lack of civil liberties and judicial rights in Uzbekistan, especially large numbers of what he referred to as "political prisoners".

He raised serious doubts over the government' s conviction of IMU members for the February 1999 bombing in the capital, Tashkent.

"More than 70 per cent of the mosques in the country have been shut down, but the Wahabbis [a purist Muslim sect widely seen as the core of the IMU] only make up 1 per cent of the population," he noted.

Ponomariov warned that such repression will result in large-scale emigration from Uzbekistan, increasing infiltration of radicalised fighters into neighbouring countries, and possible civil war in Uzbekistan itself.

But many Uzbek participants vigorously rejected the suggestion that Tashkent is the primary cause of the region's problems. They pointed out that violent religious organisations existed in the early nineties before the introduction of repression policies, and stressed that funding for militant Islamic forces comes from outside the region.

Galima Bukharbaeva, IWPR project editor in Tashkent, said poor education and the dismal economy leave people susceptible to radical forces, reputed to pay up to $100 per day in cash for their services. "Once they have joined the IMU, we have evidence that recruits face intimidation if they want to leave," she said.

Another Uzbek participant argued that Tajikistan is not doing enough to crack-down on armed groups taking refuge within its borders. But Rashid Abdullaev, an analyst from Tajikistan, warned that the tendency amongst Central Asian states to blame their neighbours for local conflicts may lead to larger regional disputes, and even open conflict.

All non-governmental representatives agreed that the region has in recent years wasted an opportunity to develop democracy and the economy. "In the decade since independence, the countries of the region have failed to take advantage of international goodwill," said Natalia Ablova of the Kygyz Human Rights Bureau. "Now we have terrible poverty and social unrest."

Other participants noted the dismal level of information about the conflict and the simplistic picture of Islamic fighters as "bandits" and "idiots". Bakhytjamal Bekturganova, president of Kazak Association of Sociologists and Analysts, warned that the authorities' obsession with "terrorists" enables them to justify further domestic repression, however counterproductive.

Tursynbai Bakir uuly, a Kyrgyz member of parliament who maintains regular communications with various Islamic factions, warned against crude efforts to brand all Muslim groups as criminals.

He supported recent moves by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to open formal relations with the Taliban, following its recent military success. Unless there's an attempt to promote dialogue with Islamic groups in the region, he warned, "[violent] activities will continue but on a larger scale".

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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