Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Will US Policy Backfire in Central Asia?
American engagement with the Central Asian states – key allies in the “war on terror” - is being misrepresented and exploited by regional governments, whose actions are fuelling instability in the region, local and international analysts believe.
Authoritarian leaders especially in Uzbekistan, the main player, continue to ignore pleas for change in their human rights practices. They are misreading – sometimes wilfully – the signals sent by the United States that political reform is important, too, and continuing in the belief that as valued partners they can do pretty much as they like.
America continues to be a major donor of programmes to promote democracy and civil rights in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and to a limited extent Turkmenistan. Officials argue they are doing a lot to encourage change in places like Uzbekistan.
But many analysts argue that these positive initiatives have now been so overshadowed by the military agenda, where a readiness to provide air bases and other facilities is key to improving relations, that regional governments feel empowered to ignore them and continue with poor policies that threaten to alienate their populations.
“The most important thing [for the West] is to maintain stability in Central Asia. And this stability is linked to the authoritarian regimes," said Alexei Malashenko, a regional expert at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “The West has exerted pressure [for reform], but the interests of stability and economics will always prevail."
Failing to convince Central Asian leaders of the need for change could result in them acting in ways that sow the seeds for future unrest and possibly conflict in this majority Muslim region.
Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour told IWPR that the US was well aware of the causal links between poverty, repression and militancy, "We know that while there is no justification for terrorism, repressive societies without economic development and where there is social exclusion have been breeding-grounds for terrorists. That is a simple fact. We don't want to see that continue. We want to see things advanced for both of those reasons."
The vulnerability of Central Asian states was underscored on March 28-29 this year, when a series of attacks on police across the Uzbek capital Tashkent left several people dead. Ten people were also reported dead in an explosion in Bukhara in the west of the country, which the authorities linked to the Tashkent attacks. Chief prosecutor Rashid Qadirov blamed Islamic militants, and Foreign Minister Sadyk Safaev said the attacks bore “the hallmark of the terrorist acts we have already witnessed abroad”. At the time this report was printed, on March 30, a shoot-out on the outskirts of the city was continuing
The consensus among experts canvassed by IWPR is that while there is no immediate threat of a wide-scale violent uprising by existing Islamic radical organisations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, IMU, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, these groups – or new ones – could play a critical role if disturbances, sparked by social and economic causes, escalate into violence.
And when young people drift towards these radical groups for lack of an alternative channel to express dissatisfaction, their view that the West is backing corrupt and unrepresentative leaderships will reinforce the belief of Islamists that democracy – as proclaimed by Central Asian leaders – isn't working and cannot work. Local and international analysts argue that this could exacerbate problems such as impoverishment due to the lack of economic reform, increased anger about social conditions and – because there are no alternative channels for expressing these views — play into hands of extremist groups, the very ones whose activities the US is hoping to reduce rather than encourage.
Malik Qadirov, a spokesman for Uzbekistan’s prime minister, rejected claims that Islamic radicals gained support from a worsening economic situation coupled with the lack of opportunities to make one’s voice heard. “Yes, our critics hold that opinion,” he told IWPR. “But we don’t agree.”
Regional tensions manifest themselves in a number of different ways – sometimes over artificially inflated problems such as trade barriers and border disputes, but at other times to do with matters of survival such as access to water and energy. Instability would also have a wider impact on Central Asia’s neighbours.
As US policy began to take shape, IWPR released a report in 2002, suggesting that regional governments were using their new external alliances as cover to attack political opponents and civil society in general across Central Asia.
Two years on, there are few signs things have changed significantly.
In this report, IWPR focuses less on the substance and subtleties of American policy than on the way it is being read – and often misread – by governments in the region.
We have attempted to reflect the varying views that our interviewees in Central Asia – officials, political analysts, journalists and others from various walks of life – expressed about the consequences of US engagement. We asked them what they thought US policy was, how they thought it was playing out in terms of local government responses, and what they thought the implications were. We also spoke to international Central Asia-watchers with insight into these same issues.
A GROWING RELATIONSHIP
When US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited Uzbekistan towards the end of February 2004 he was full of praise for the support the country had given the US in the war on terror. “Our relationship is strong and has been growing stronger,” he told a press conference after talks with Uzbek leaders.
Rumsfeld's visit underscored the consolidation of what began as a temporary arrangement, to allow the US and its coalition allies access to air bases in Uzbekistan and neighbouring Kyrgyzstan to pursue the "war on terror" in Afghanistan.
On February, the day following his remarks, another branch of US government issued a report criticising the Uzbeks and their Central Asia neighbours for abuses of political and civil rights. In the State Department's annual review of human rights around the world, the gravity of the concerns outlined in Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was mitigated only by the fact that things appeared even worse in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Not for the first time, Uzbekistan’s report card made dismal reading. Human rights observance remained “very poor” and the government continued to commit “numerous serious abuses”. More specifically, the report said, “Security force mistreatment likely resulted in the deaths of at least four citizens in custody. Police and NSS [National Security Service] forces tortured, beat, and harassed persons…. Serious abuses occurred in pretrial detention. Those responsible for documented abuses were rarely punished.”
If there seems to be a contradiction here, that is not in itself revelatory – the US is by no means the only country to engage with a foreign partner on security or commercial matters while retaining reservations about the nature of the regime there.
What sets the Central Asian case apart is that the relationship, with states whose foundations are still fragile, is framed within the wider "war on terror".
The military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were accompanied by policy messages from both the US and Britain about increasing stability within countries and across regions not only by curbing extremist groups, but also addressing ways of removing the conditions that give rise to them. The creation of sustainable and representative institutions is seen as a key instrument for achieving this – in both the Afghan and Iraqi examples, elections have been scheduled as a priority despite the high levels of instability in these countries.
On the basis of the opinions which IWPR canvassed in Central Asia, the signs are that these messages have not been received in the region. Instead, the perception among some of the people we interviewed was often that US policy was inconsistent – even hypocritical – depending on their particular view of the world.
Many saw a clear split between the State Department and Pentagon agendas. “US current policy in Central Asia clearly shows that two sides of US foreign policy – pursuing their geopolitical interests and supporting democracy around the world – have clashed,” Moscow News correspondent Sanobar Shermatova told IWPR.
Some drew parallels between their own governments and the one-party states that the West views as sources of instability. "I'm surprised that the Americans destroy Saddam's regime but tolerate [Uzbek president Islam] Karimov and [Turkmen president] Saparmurat Niazov," said Sabit Sarsenov, an unemployed man from Shymkent in the south of Kazakstan.
Other views commonly heard were that the Americans' main interest was oil, or that they had embarked on a long-term strategy of containing Russia's century-old influence in Central Asia and preventing China moving in to replace it. Still other interviewees came up with a range of conspiracy theories, reflecting the dearth of publicly available information in the region.
But not all were negative. Edil Baisalov, head of Kyrgyzstan’s NGO Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, was among the interviewees who welcomed the US relationship with his country, saying, "I regard the presence of the US in our region, in Kyrgyzstan as very positive. There will be no end to terrorism. It's hard to say the US will leave the region in the next 10 years." Baisalov believed that one of the positive outcomes of the post-September 11 period was that funding for democracy programmes in Kyrgyzstan has been sustained. "That's been good for the country, not just for [Kyrgyz president] Akaev or Karimov."
In the case of Kyrgyzstan, as well as Kazakstan and Tajikistan, it was apparent from interviewees that they still had a sense of Russia as their country’s primary strategic partner, and that this would balance or even constrain the extent of US influence, including when it came to discussions about political and human rights.
Across the region, interviewees kept coming back to Uzbekistan and its apparent emergence as the Americans’ primary partner in the region. As a Kyrgyz diplomat who asked to remain anonymous put it, “Washington has appointed Tashkent as number-one wife in the Central Asian harem.”
Uzbekistan is one of two countries (with Kyrgyzstan) that hosts a US air base. The others have offered rights to overfly their territory as a minimum (Turkmenistan), while the Kazaks and Tajiks have provided standing offers to use air base facilities and a range of other forms of security-sector cooperation. Many voiced concern that the Uzbek leadership would use this role to repress its own people, leading to unrest in some form; and also to behave more aggressively towards its regional neighbours – again a potential source of instability.
THE US IN CENTRAL ASIA POST-SEPTEMBER 11
The September 11 attacks on New York and Washington led to a seismic shift in America’s relationship with Central Asia. Immediately after the outrages and the announcement of the start of US operations in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan were the first countries in the region to offer the use of faculties to Coalition forces. In the end the Americans chose two bases, one on the edge of the civilian airport at Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan, and one at Khanabad, near the town of Karshi in southern Uzbekistan. Together with Coalition allies such as France and the Netherlands, they flew combat and other planes out of both bases to Afghanistan. All five Central Asia states granted the coalition rights to overfly their territory.
It was a dramatic move for these countries, as they suddenly moved centre stage after decades of being on the periphery of world events.
They had several reasons for entertaining a new western presence. First, there was genuine concern among at least four Central Asia states (Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) about the presence of the radical Taleban movement in Afghanistan – a country with which Central Asia has deep historical, ethnic and cultural ties and a long and porous border. Second, given their past it was natural that all these countries – despite their largely Muslim populations – should take broadly the same line as Russia in the "war on terror".
In the case of one country – Uzbekistan – there was also a longer-standing desire to actively pursue relations with other countries as a counterbalance to Moscow.
Finally, as with Russia and its war in Chechnya, there was clearly a recognition among Central Asian leaders that it would help them internationally if they were able to identify their own Islamic militancy problems with the global "war on terror". They were assisted in this by the US administration's designation of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan as a terrorist organisation in summer 2001 – before the attack on New York.
American involvement in the region was not new in itself. Following the end of the Soviet Union, Kazakstan's oil wealth began enticing the oil majors in as partners in joint ventures, and there were investments on a smaller scale across the region, mainly in mineral extraction and processing rather than manufacturing industries.
There had also been a dialogue on security issues, with regional countries joining NATO's Partnership for Peace programme and even hosting joint exercises. The US also funded a wide range of aid programmes, ranging from humanitarian aid in Tajikistan to technical assistance for government ministries and support for non-government organisations, NGOs.
Finally, the US pursued an ongoing critical discussion about the poor performance of these countries in ensuring basic human rights, and encouraging them to move away from a one-party – or one-man – system of rule. In practical terms, it spent more than any other country on programmes to bolster pluralism, free media and human rights.
In the field of media support, the State Department has given generous support to IWPR’s Central Asia Reporting project (http://www.iwpr.net/centasia_index1.html), which combines journalist training in the field with reporting by a team of staff and contributors spread across the region.
US POLICY MESSAGES
With the “war on terror”, the emphasis of public policy statements on Central Asia shifted to the pressing issues of the day rather than longer-term strategies. As in Afghanistan, US policy appeared to be driven by the Pentagon rather than the State Department.
That apparent shift had two further outcomes, in the way US policy was perceived on the ground. First, while the US and its western partners have continued to talk to Central Asian governments about the need for liberalisation and political reform, there is a sense in the region – among rulers and the ruled alike — that these things are really of secondary importance.
Second, while economic partnerships are likely to prove more durable than security ties in the long term, there is a sense that the former (in the shape of Kazakstan) have been temporarily nudged aside in favour of the latter, embodied by the region's other big state, Uzbekistan. And the more intense but selective engagement with these countries has tended to reinforce differences, inadvertently encouraging isolationism and animosities between these naturally suspicious regimes.
Some of the local analysts interviewed by IWPR recognised that the pragmatic and urgent nature of the security partnership meant that the Americans could not and did not have to sort out the region's problems on other fronts before entering into this relationship. Others took the more cynical view that given the choice, the US would opt to have the current elites in power rather than encouraging a transition to a more pluralist – but untested – system.
A number of analysts believed there had been a cardinal shift in US policy. “They have got engaged in Central Asia for the first time since the Cold War but this engagement has been very disappointing,” journalist Ahmed Rashid, who has written books on radical Islam in Central Asia and Afghanistan, told IWPR. “The approach has been very one-dimensional, just trying to engage the regimes in the war on terror without pushing for reform.”
US CONTINUING TO SEND REFORM MESSAGES
Public statements by US officials have tended to stress military cooperation rather than political and human rights concerns. This leads many regional experts to believe that human rights have been downgraded in the list of US priorities.
"There are a number of conflicting policy concerns. The US has formally adopted a position on democracy and human rights and the last State Department report was critical of the human rights situation in Central Asia. But the need to maintain strong bilateral relations, especially military, tends to override this policy requirement," said Roy Allison, an expert on the region and its security concerns at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
US officials deny that there has been any volte face on the reforms and improvements they have been pushing for over the past decade. The view from the State Department is that despite the need to ensure security in this sensitive part of the world, the US is constantly and pointedly pressing Central Asian leaders to accept the need for change. In fact, Assistant Secretary of State Craner told IWPR these issues have now come to the fore. "Because of September 1 our focus on democracy and human rights in Central Asia is much more intense…," he said. "Central Asia was put to the centre of our thinking; certainly in the security sense, but also because we are not a country which is concerned only with leaders…. It has put the issues of democracy and human rights at the centre of our thinking."
"When we talk with leaders of Central Asian countries, we always remind them of the need to do a better job of living up to their own promises as well as international commitments to democratic pluralism and economic openness. We emphasise the centrality of such reforms to long-term stability,” Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, wrote in a prepared statement for a Congressional hearing on Central Asia on October 29 last year. “Our vision is simple: namely, that these countries remain independent and become democratic, stable and prosperous partners of the United States who respect human rights, are increasingly integrated into the global economy, and avoid the poverty, isolation, and intolerance that breed terrorism and fundamentalism.”
IWPR understands that in Uzbekistan, considerable US diplomatic pressure has been applied behind closed doors on a range of concerns relating to human rights and freedom of association and information.
MESSAGE NOT RECEIVED
The problem is that the message that Central Asian governments relay to their peoples through state-controlled media is that all is well, and that there is no impetus to change their existing policy course. For the Central Asian governments – particularly Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan which hosted Coalition air bases – the message is clear: the West has signalled that it is prepared to deal with them on their own terms, and concerns about human rights and democracy will not cloud the growing relationship. That may be a misreading of the US message on their part, perhaps a deliberate one, but as things stand they are likely to resist quiet diplomacy in areas they regard very much as their own business.
For Kyrgyz and especially Uzbek leaders, the presence of US bases on their soil is a coup –something to be trumpeted domestically as proof of their success on the international stage. The willingness of the Tajiks and Kazaks to help in the “war on terror” has earned them considerable credit internationally. Turkmenistan remains somewhat out of the equation, remaining as isolated from its Central Asian neighbours as it was before September 11, and with little sign that its cooperation with the “war on terror” has had much domestic impact.
The Central Asian states inherited their political traditions from the Soviet Union. In many cases it is the same people in charge, simply rebranding themselves from communist to nationalist and using privatisation as cover to help themselves to key assets. That makes them highly resistant to political change, and in the case of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan and to a lesser extent the rest, extremely cautious about economic reform.
What is at issue is not a few lapses in electoral procedure or heavy-handed treatment of government critics – in the two worst cases, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, there have been no independent political parties or media for a decade. In the other three, political rights are strictly curtailed and the presidents and their entourages wield immense power.
“Silencing of critics by all the governments of Central Asia continues in varying degrees. The centuries-long tradition of autocratic rule, capped by Soviet totalitarianism, still informs the thinking of many. The propensity of political elites to perpetuate their rule should not be underestimated, and none of the governments in the region can be considered tolerant of dissent,” said Assistant Secretary Jones in her statement to the Congressional hearing.
Jones went on to describe the situation in each country, ranging from Kazakstan where "a number of high-profile cases… have marred its overall record", and Tajikistan which had shown "considerable progress" on human rights but then disappointed by holding a referendum last year that could enable the president to serve further terms in office. Uzbekistan had "moved itself toward the negative end of the spectrum with the widespread arrest, torture, and imprisonment of political opponents". Worst of all was Turkmenistan, which fell down in most areas of civil rights.
The record over the two and a half years since September 11 is especially disappointing. Kazakstan jailed both leaders of Democratic Choice of Kazakstan as it emerged as a potent opposition force, and then charged journalist Sergei Duvanov with rape – a charge invented, human rights activists say, because of Duvanov's investigations into corruption among senior government officials.
Uzbekistan held trial after trial of alleged Islamic subversives – and came in for criticism for almost every aspect of judicial process. The country's highest-profile conviction involved Ruslan Sharipov, once again a journalist locked up on sexual charges calculated to blacken his name. Under international pressure, Sharipov and Duvanov were both let out of jail (in March and late December respectively) but kept under a form of house arrest – and the convictions still hang over them. Harassment and intimidation of human rights activists and political opposition activists continued across the region.
In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmonov came in for criticism last year when he organised a referendum that could allow him to stand for election again, since his present mandate should be his last. In January 2002, Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov had his term in office extended by two years in a similarly problematic referendum.
Where there were improvements, they were often cosmetic, or negated by deterioration in other areas. For example the Tajik authorities showed some flexibility in allowing independent media outlets and ending capital punishment, but at the same time opposition parties complained they were being squeezed in a deliberate attempt to marginalise them.
The Uzbek government officially banned state censorship of the media and signalled it might be prepared to allow civil-society groups and even opposition parties a limited amount of space in which to operate. But the media continued to be tightly controlled, NGOs involved in human rights and media development faced harassment and numerous bureaucratic obstacles, and opposition parties found their way to legalisation blocked – instead, the authorities sanctioned the creation of yet another “official” party.
In Uzbekistan, and increasingly Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, one of the central concerns raised by human rights activists in recent years is the arrest and jailing of people alleged to be members of the IMU, a violent force based outside the country, or the outlawed fundamentalist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir - or just for being too overtly Islamic in behaviour or appearance.
Whatever the threat posed by these groups, many of the cases brought against alleged members are gravely flawed. Human rights groups report the persistent use of torture to extract confessions, and family members are pressured or even detained in lieu of a missing suspect.
The “war on terror” has afforded the whole anti-Islamic campaign a veneer of respectability it previously lacked. If in the mid- to late Nineties, the US administration would question the arrest and reported ill-treatment of Islamic figures, this became much harder after a sequence of events which brought the US and Uzbek positions on radical Islam closer together: the Tashkent bombings of 1999, attributed to the IMU; the group’s annual raids on Uzbek and Tajik territory in 1999-2001; and finally its appearance as a Taleban ally during the Coalition’s assault on Afghanistan. To its credit, the State Department continues to voice concern at mistreatment of Islamic suspects in police custody.
The view of many analysts interviewed by IWPR is that the repressive instincts of the Uzbek and other governments have been confirmed – and that this is likely to make things worse rather than eliminate Islamic opposition.
Analysts believe that by marginalising radical Islamists and allowing few other channels through which dissent at worsening social and economic conditions can be expressed will actually encourage these groups to take up a more extreme stance – or even give rise to new, more violent versions. The International Crisis Group, an international think-tank with substantial knowledge of the situation on the ground, has reported that within Hizb-ut-Tahrir there are groupings which want to abandon the rhetoric of peaceful opposition and take up arms.
"In assessing the impact of the war on terrorism in Central Asia at this juncture, it has to be concluded that it has given an added impetus to government repression,” Fiona Hill, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and a member of IWPR’s board of trustees, said in written testimony to Congress. “The war on terrorism, and America's embrace of states like Uzbekistan as allies in this effort, have provided further justification for eliminating political dissent and social protest, and for clamping down on unsanctioned forms of religious expression and observance. This is extremely unfortunate.”
Vitaly Ponomarev, director of the human rights monitoring programme at the Memorial Centre in Moscow, told IWPR, “Despite certain efforts that have been made to support democracy and human rights, US policy in this area has in the main not led to democratisation of the region's political systems. Moreover, in recent years there has been a marked rise in authoritarian trends…. I think the authoritarian rulers of Central Asia are less receptive to western criticism than in the mid-Nineties."
For local governments it was exactly what they always wanted – that the West should accept their version of democracy (generally meaning little or none in practice) and understand that critical remarks about poor human rights observance should not affect strong and growing political partnerships.
"In terms of Uzbekistan, there has definitely been a manipulation of US support. Tashkent sees US regional cooperation as giving it legitimacy. Certainly, key groups in opposition to the Uzbek government feel that the US has been complicit in giving Karimov a free hand in dealing with the opposition," Fiona Hill told IWPR.
Part of the problem for Central Asians is that their governments only tell them about the positive side of the dialogue with the Americans, omitting the trickier parts where their poor human rights records are raised. That makes it hard for sophisticated messages – saying that security is important but so are basic human rights – to get through to the public.
"In their dealings with the Central Asian states, US policymakers must be careful not to inadvertently buy into local agendas,” Martha Brill Olcott, a Central Asia expert and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs, warned in her written statement to the Congressional hearing. “It is not the place of the US to help them enhance their repressive capacities.”
US PRESSURE FOR CHANGE
The continuing human rights abuses outlined above were not caused by western involvement in Central Asia. But the persistence of local governments in repressing their peoples looked out of place in the context of promises to improve the situation. The Declaration on the Strategic Partnership and Cooperation Framework which Uzbekistan signed with the US in March 2002 envisaged moves towards a more open and democratic society, while the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, EBRD, set a number of benchmarks for improvements in the country’s human rights performance in May 2003.
The failure to live up to these ambitions shows the mismatch between Central Asian readings of what is expected of them and the desire of their western partners to see some real changes.
The US – as the major national donor to the region – has been one of the biggest sources of pressure, direct and indirect, for political liberalisation over the last decade. But the huge scale of Central Asia's problems – economic as well as political – coupled with the intransigence of local leaderships has necessarily limited the impact of such interventions.
The US continues to spend large sums of money on democracy programmes –18 per cent of about 290 million US dollars assigned to the five states in 2003, compared with 31 per cent budgeted for security and law-enforcement assistance. US assistance has kept afloat many non-government groups which would otherwise have disappeared – together with the ideas they espouse. American embassies have also scored many successes in raising individual human rights cases.
"We are not engaged exclusively with the governments," said Assistant Secretary of State Craner, noting that the US works with – and supports – diverse parts of society groups such as the political opposition, media and civil society groups. "I think, given that we are working with the governments and also with the people in these countries, that is the beginning of showing what we really want to see happen in Central Asia and in the Middle East."
And, said Craner, the US puts across its message whenever it talks to Central Asian leaders. "When we meet with government officials, yes, we talk about security. We also talk — in definite and very particular terms – about things that we want to see improved in these countries," he said.
While the EBRD has not publicly marked the progress Uzbekistan has made in living up to its pledges, the US has shown signs of acting. In January the State Department refused to "certify" an aid programme, saying the required action on human rights abuses set out in the strategic partnership document had not been adequately met. The programme – involving technical assistance programme to help control and destroy stocks of nuclear, biological and chemical materials – went through anyway, because it was subject to a special waiver. "There was really no bite to this declaration," said Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch.
In April the State Department will go through the same certification exercise for the bulk of the US government's assistance programmes including military aid as well as civilian projects. Uzbekistan received this certification – requiring substantive improvements in human rights – in both years since the "strategic partnership" deal was struck with the US, but the denial on the same grounds for the non-proliferation programme could be a sign that patience is wearing thin.
PROSPECTS FOR CONFLICT AND THE THREAT OF ISLAMIC RADICALISM
Few of the experts whom IWPR interviewed would rule out the possibility of unrest somewhere in the region. The differences of opinion were about its extent, when it would happen, and what the role of Islamic groups would be.
Some analysts saw a clear and fairly imminent danger of unrest driven by Islamic radicals. "The threat of Islamic terrorism on Central Asian territory is quite real, and it has not diminished. It’s another matter that it is hard to predict where specifically a conflict might happen," said Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a political scientist based in Kazakstan.
“Complacency would be misplaced: the underlying currents of economic discontent and social upheaval, and the influence of radical Islamist groups are very real if not always visible," the ICG warned in its report Central Asia: Last Chance for Change, in April 2003. "Lack of political and economic reform threatens not just prosperity and economic freedom for the peoples of the region, but long-term security in Central Asia."
The State Department sees a continued threat from the IMU. Assistant Secretary Jones told Congressmen, “the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan… is active in the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and reportedly Kazakstan. No longer capable of meaningful military action, the IMU continues to threaten the states of the region as well as American interests as a terrorist organisation.”
In the case of Hizb-ut-Tahrir there is no clear link to violent activities, however objectionable its views may seem, and while it has been banned in the region it is not designated a terrorist organisation by the US. "Hizb-ut-Tahrir is not a bellicose organisation so we will not seek to destabilise the situation,” IWPR was told by Kurmanbek, a member of the banned group in Kyrgyzstan. “We will wage a struggle by convincing people and putting them on the path of righteousness."
Some see Hizb-ut-Tahrir - or future groups that may emerge from its ranks - as a potential threat nevertheless, and question whether the group - or a successor - will remain non-violent. “Hizb-ut-Tahrir is now seen as the new threat to Central Asian security if its members choose to turn to violence under pressure from the Uzbek government," Fiona Hill told IWPR.
A university lecturer in Tajikistan agreed with this view, telling IWPR that, “Government persecution may [further] radicalise the party. It has won the support of thousands of young people, who are committed to an idea of overthrowing the region’s governments and establishing an Islamic system…. So far they have not yielded to calls to engage in armed struggle, but I wouldn’t rule it out when one sees how the government persecutes them using ever tougher measures.”
Sherzod Qudrathojaev, deputy head of the Uzbek president’s press office, believes the group presents a serious threat as it stands. “Who can give you a guarantee that they won’t take up arms?” he said in a phone interview, citing Hizb-ut-Tahrir’s radical agenda and its anti-semitic views. “Hizb-ut-Tahrir is like a mote in the eye – it must be cast out, even if it is painful.”
According to a paper issued by a US think tank, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, in February this year, “Further radicalisation and militarisation of Islamic militants within Central Asia would only deepen the strategic conundrum Washington already confronts: Partnerships with regimes needed for base access to combat terrorism diminishes perceptions of the united States as liberal minded and benevolent superpower, potentially lending credence to Islamic extremist characterisations of the United states as a cynical, self-serving power.”
The IMU engaged in guerrilla raids on Uzbek and Kyrgyz territory in 1999-2001, and although it appeared to be smashed along with its Taleban allies during the Coalition assault on north-east Afghanistan in late 2001, it is still viewed as a threat by all regional governments. International media reports that IMU men were part of the Taleban/al-Qaeda forces encircled in north-west Pakistan in March 2004 will have done nothing to assuage such fears.
“President Karimov is not letting his vigilance drop," said Moscow-based analyst Malashenko. “ He understands that [he is in trouble] if a leader emerges within an Islamic group. That is why Karimov immediately eradicates anyone whom he perceives as a potential strong opponent. “ The West supports Karimov in this policy, as the Uzbek president convinces them that this is a potential danger.”
“Islamic groups could [gain support] if all channels of free expression will be cut off. They [regimes] should let off the steam,” said Malashenko.
Some analysts say that the policies pursued by Central Asian governments are creating the foundations on which Islamic movements can grow in strength. This is not in America’s interests, they argue.
“Despite the existence of real threats to the security of the Uzbek state and to the rule of President Islam Karimov over the past 12 years, the response of the regime must be judged as excessive,” Olcott said in her statement to last October’s Congressional hearing. “And through their own excesses, the state has contributed to the severity of the threats that they and future regimes are likely to face.
“The Central Asian elites are exaggerating the threat to the state that is posed by those advocating radical Islamic ideologies, and US policymakers will be making a great mistake if they allow shared goals in the war on terror to blind us to the short-sighted and potentially dangerous policies that are being pursued in the region with regards to religion.”
Rustem Jangushin, a Central Asia analyst based in Kiev, put it in more direct terms, “The main threat to stability in Central Asia is its current leaders. They are turning people into Islamists."
Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch told IWPR that “brutality will pressure those who already have militant leanings or have links to violent organisations. It’s only going to harden their position both against the abuser government and also against its allies”.
Others see the threat as more distant, and less clearly “Islamic” in focus. "I don’t see political unrest [in Central Asia], but I do see enormous social and economic unrest which might lead to political unrest,” said Ahmed Rashid.
While all five countries have shown positive growth figures in recent years following the disastrous period of decline which followed independence, they are all dependent on just one or two commodity-based industries, whose benefits have failed to feed through to other parts of the economy, and which are vulnerable to changes in world markets.
Although the market operates to a greater or lesser extent depending on which country is involved, all governments tend to intervene to control prices, put up trade barriers, and maintain monopolies. Their critics say they often do so to preserve their personal business interests, and this perception of injustice coupled with the fact of pervasive corruption leads to many people feeling ill-served by their rulers. Large numbers of people live below the poverty line, and even low-paid employment is hard to find across most of the region.
Presidential spokesman Qudrathojaev defended his government, saying, “Uzbekistan doesn’t have a magic pill that will make everything happen overnight… the government is doing everything it can to improve people’s lives.”
In its policy paper, the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis was clear about the danger posed by economic problems, “The combination of economic hardship and political repression provides ample breeding ground for extremist Islamic movements.”
Fiona Hill thinks that unrest could be sparked by a serious upset to economic situations that are already faltering, “The Islamists don't have a nationwide movement. They have been so clamped down on that we don't know how many of them there really are. But there are real risks [of them gaining ground]... if there's a natural disaster such as an earthquake, or the failure of cash crops.”
Even many who dismissed the immediate threat from IMU or Hizb-ut-Tahrir could see that Islam would be the most likely vehicle for mounting anger to be expressed. A Central Asia analyst, who asked not to be named because he has played an advisory role to the British government, told IWPR that “the Islamic threat is certainly there but it can be exaggerated”. At the same time, he noted that “the threat of unrest is very much there”, and in the case of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, “the failure to adopt sensible economic policies will be the cause of unrest”.
This unrest might take appear under the banner of Islam “but even if that banner is raised there are enough people to put up resistance”, he said.
Some interviewees downplayed the possibility that unrest could happen, or said that if it did, it could be contained.
“For years, people have predicted social unrest and explosion in Uzbekistan. This is irresponsible… It attempts to imply the realities of other countries to Uzbekistan,” said Steve Levine, a Stanford University scholar who was a correspondent in Central Asia for 11 years. “I don’t say it will not happen. The major dynamic in Central Asia is that the people in the Turkic republics have demonstrated a pattern now, and in Soviet times, that they are willing to suffer and not rise up. Not like in Azerbaijan and Georgia…. So far Central Asia has been different.”
"The Uzbek regime has been able to create an immense security system that in numbers of police and secret servicemen it outstrips all other countries in the region,” said Ulughbek Ergashev, an independent journalist in Uzbekistan. “These structures are capable of strangling at birth any sign of discontent…so there won’t be popular unrest in Uzbekistan."
There is also a danger that the concept of democracy will be discredited among the wider population – to the extent that people buy into it at the moment.
It is of course easy to generalise, and IWPR's selection of interviewees was not representative. There are clearly groups – often associated with the ruling elite – who strongly support their governments, and others who don’t care either way. At the other end of society, the poorest have little access to information even about how decisions are taken in their capital let alone on the international scene, and no time to think about these things as they struggle to make a daily living.
If there is one thing that Central Asians see clearest of all, it is the behaviour of those who rule them. And the West does itself no favours in the eyes of these people by appearing to stand by while local governments spout empty words about democracy and flout basic rights. “The danger is that public disappointment with democratic notions will lead to resentment towards western values,” said Rustem Jangushin. “The public is reassessing the values attributed to democracy.”
In Uzbekistan, said Jangushin, “The secular opposition has been persecuted and exiled, and protest voices are being channelled into Islamic radicalism.”
Bahodir Musaev, an independent sociologist in Tashkent, said, “The US is not cooperating with the people of Uzbekistan, but only with the political nomenklatura. The people of Uzbekistan see nothing good out coming of this cooperation, and can only watch the Karimov regime growing stronger – a regime that long ago lost its connection with the people and now does nothing for their benefit."
And in Tajikistan, journalist Pavel Geyvandov said western talk of human rights and democracy is "entirely for show". Saying they had brought "chaos and disorder to Iraq", he said, "Talk that they are trying to nurture democracy all over the world is utter nonsense."
Ulughbek Ergashev, an independent journalist in Uzbekistan, shares this disillusionment. "If the US really wanted democratic reforms in Uzbekistan, would it have been so hard for them to fund opposition parties, help them with [current attempts] at registration and open they way for them to take part in the parliamentary election this December. But they haven’t raised a finger because it doesn’t suit them to have elections in Uzbekistan — Karimov suits them."
The Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis has called for democracy to be placed back on the agenda for Central Asia. “The decision to begin publicly calling on key Middle Eastern states… to pursue true democratic reform is a welcome development in US policy,” said its report.
“That said, US silence on democracy in Central Asia stands in obvious contrast to this approach and risks promulgating the view held in the Muslim world of a hypocritical United States willing to forsake its principles in exchange for economic or military advantage.”
In Kyrgyzstan, IWPR met with many positive views of the US and its calls for democracy. Nikolai Bailo, a communist deputy of parliament, said, "It doesn't suit the Americans for there to be political regimes of an undemocratic nature in Central Asia."
But he says they "realise that it would create an additional headache for them to change the political hue of the regimes in these republics". Both he and Bektur Asanov, another opposition member of parliament, were extremely upbeat about the support the US was giving to non-government groups
RISING REGIONAL ANIMOSITY
One of the side effects of the period since September 11 is that regional states appear to have become less co-operative with one another. This is another example of the security agenda appearing to be at cross purposes with the State Department's desire to see more open borders and free trade.
Once again many accuse Uzbekistan of being the source of these problems, partly because of its long-standing assertiveness, partly because of its new sense of empowerment as a US ally, and also simply because it lies at the centre of the region, bordering on all the others. When – for reasons that had more to do with running a fixed exchange rate in a controlled economy than with hostility to its neighbours – Uzbekistan imposed swinging taxes on imported goods the regional effects were dramatic. Uzbeks immediately headed over the border to buy goods – and the locals obliged by setting up huge wholesale markets close to the border.
The Uzbeks responded by making it much harder to cross the frontier, at times virtually sealing it. Movement of people was severely curbed, cross-border trade was disrupted and tensions rose. And occasionally civilians get shot by Uzbek border guards.
“Uzbekistan has closed its border,” said presidential spokesman Qudrathojaev. “That was done in the interests of food security. Yes, it’s become tougher in economic terms for people [living] in frontier areas, but that’s just a few hundred people…. After that, domestic productivity increased.”
This only added to a host of border issues. After the IMU incursions of 1999 and 2000 the Uzbeks sowed mines on their southern borders, often without marking their location, and Tajik and Kyrgyz shepherds were regularly killed when they strayed. “How can you talk about friendship between the Central Asian countries when – despite all the urgent requests from the Kyrgyz authorities – they [Uzbekistan] still haven’t provided a map of the minefields on which peaceful civilians periodically get blown up?” said Yrysbek Omurzakov, a human rights activist and editor of the Tribuna newspaper in Kyrgyzstan.
Uzbek-Tajik border problems have also been aggravated. Landlocked Tajikistan depends heavily on Uzbekistan as the transit route for trade and for the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who travel to work in Russia. Uzbekistan’s relations with Kazakstan have also run into problems, centring on a border demarcation which – even after it was resolved – leaves the frontier running though people's gardens. Again, one Kazak has been shot. And last year, there were local disturbances in a Kyrgyz-Tajik dispute over land.
There are also constant difficulties over Central Asia most precious asset – water. Tensions here are between the source countries – small Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and the three larger users which are totally dependent on just a few major rivers.
Added to that are charges of active interference – Tashkent blames Tajikistan for tolerating the IMU, and Kyrgyz for failing to stop its incursions. Turkmenistan accused Uzbekistan of helping plan an assassination attempt against President Niazov in November 0202
And all the neighbours believes Uzbekistan “exports” its problems by driving Islamic activists so hard that they leave the country and set up shop elsewhere.
Fiona Hill told IWPR, “What's causing tensions and frictions at present is that Uzbekistan's neighbours feel they're having to deal with the consequences of Karimov's policies. So, for instance, the Kazaks complain about Hizb-ut-Tahrir operating in Shymkent. And the Kyrgz complain that Uzbekistan is exporting its [Islamic] problems to Osh.”
Finally, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan are more than usually annoyed when they find themselves criticised for their human rights records – which are admittedly bad and going backwards – but they sense that the Uzbeks get off more lightly. “Lately Kyrgyzstan has been subjected to criticism on its human rights record even though the situation there is better than in Uzbekistan. As for Uzbekistan, although its human rights situation is criticised by Congress, the actions of the [US] administration cancel this criticism out," said Sanobar Shermatova, A Moscow News journalist.
As a result of these tensions, the rivalries between Central Asia presidents are getting worse, analysts say. According to Tolekan Ismailova, head of the Civil Society Against Corruption NGO in Kyrgyzstan, "Since the United States arrived in the region, relations between the Central Asia presidents have deteriorated…. They are competing with one another and don’t think about the people at all "
“There’s a firm belief in official circles in Kyrgyzstan that Islam Karimov’s position has significantly strengthened since the Americans arrived in the region. The authorities and the opposition are articulating great concern that Tashkent is taking tougher measures towards Kyrgyzstan,” said Chinara Jakypova, IWPR’s programme director in Kyrgyzstan. “There is a view that the Uzbek authorities believe that – as Washington’s main partner – they can portray the pressure they exert on their neighbours as part of the war on terror.”
Nur Omarov, a political scientist in Kyrgyzstan, voiced particular concern at US development assistance for armies in the region, “In a situation where there is a marked trend towards authoritarianism, and definite friction between the states, this could easily lead to a point where the United States is arming the various armies against each other. That could provoke conflict.”
IMPLICATIONS FOR CENTRAL ASIA'S NEIGHBOURS
In a region where one power – in the shape of the Soviet Union and Russia – has been the dominant influence for more than a century, the arrival of a new foreign power must have an unsettling effect on regional dynamics. The Central Asian governments have had to consider how far to go in the relationship with a powerful but distant state, and how to maintain the longstanding relationship with Russia.
Kazakstan – the country which over the years has best managed maintaining good relations with Russia while attracting western investment – signalled a swing back towards Moscow last year. It was concerned about what it saw as disproportionate US criticism of its human rights record, western concerns about changes in oil-related commercial legislation, and investigations into the “Kazakgate” scandal which appears to implicate senior officials in receiving illegal commissions from oil deals.
In Tajikistan – because there is no US military presence – people interviewed by IWPR still had a strong sense of Russia as the main ally, both in supporting the weak economy and in maintaining a military presence in the country. And most were in favour of continuing this relationship, given the choice of that or America. Similar views were heard in Kyrgyzstan, where Russia last year set up an air base of its own as a visible counterweight to the Coalition presence.
Neither Tajik nor other interviewees appeared greatly concerned about their most unstable neighbour, Afghanistan, which is also the source of the drugs trade that runs through the region.
China’s intentions in Central Asia was – judging by the interviews IWPR conducted – more of a source of concern, although they remained something of an enigma. Beijing discusses security issues with its Central Asia neighbours in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, of which Russia is also a member.
Responses to IWPR’s questioning about its plans varied widely. “Modern China’s policy is very aggressive and is tending towards expansionism,” said Bolotbek Shamshiev, a former Kyrgyz diplomat. “They are very worried by the United States’ appearance in Central Asia, since they think the Americans have moved into their patch. So the US presence is a deterrent to Chinese expansion.”
Konstantin Syroyezhkin, a Kazakstan-based specialist on Chinese politics, agrees that Beijing is concerned but he takes a cooler view of its intentions. “China’s whole strategy relating to its geopolitical position is collapsing,” he said. “But at the same time China and the States are cooperating on the threat of terrorism [which] is one of the points that unites them.”
As well as commercial and other interests, China’s concern in Central Asia has been to press local governments to curb émigré groups of ethnic Uighurs, who it says are helping foment separatism in Xinjiang province, an Uighur-inhabited area bordering on Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and also Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As Syroyezhkin pointed out, “Everything is interconnected – if something happens in Central Asia it is capable of destabilising the situation not only in China or Afghanistan but also in more stable countries such as Turkey, Iran or even Russia. And vice versa, if there is some internecine flare-up in Xinjiang, that will be reflected in the Central Asian region, too."
A FUTURE US PRESENCE
Few of the people interviewed by IWPR could see the US leaving the region once the Afghan phase of the “war on terror” is scaled down.
The word now from US officials is that they will seek long term security relationships in Central Asia and access to military bases. After he discussed the idea with President Karimov, Donald Rumsfeld told journalists, "We have no plans to put permanent bases in this part of the world. We have been discussing with various friends and allies the issue of – I guess you call them ‘operating sites’ – that would not be permanent… but would be a place where the United States and the Coalition countries could periodically and intermittently have access and support.”
And according to Lorne Craner, democracy and human rights remain a central part of State Department concerns. “The region I have been to most in this job is Central Asia. I have visited no country more often… than Uzbekistan,” he said. “I am bringing a message to the governments and I hope to the people of how much we care about advancing human rights and democracy in Central Asia. And I am also bringing a lot of help, material help , to actually be able to do that. People in the region should understand that.”
The question is whether the Central Asian governments are working to the same agenda – that the political and legal reform is not subservient to security matters. In addition, if they do not articulate both messages to their people – and do not allow local media to do so – they will be transmitting a distorted version of US intentions. In practical terms, many of the people interviewed by IWPR fear that continued repression and the persistent failure to address issues of poverty and regional cooperation threaten to create the kind of instability that US policy sets out to avert.
“I think that interest [in Central Asia] is going to hold for at least the medium long-term,” said Acacia Shields of Human Rights Watch. “But I think it’s going to be an increasingly uncomfortable relationship for the US, because these governments have shown themselves to be recalcitrant.”
This report and the interviews conducted for it were a joint effort by a team
of IWPR staff and contributors in Central Asia including:
Rashid Abdullo, a political analyst in Dushanbe (Tajikistan);
Ainagul Adilbaeva, an independent journalist in Almaty (Kazakstan);
Gulnora Amirshoeva, an independent journalist in Dushanbe;
Galima Bukharbaeva, IWPR’s director for Uzbekistan;
Natalia Domogalskaya, an independent journalist in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan);
Daur Dosybiev, editor of Rabat newspaper in Shymkent (Kazakstan);
Lidia Isamova, IWPR director in Tajikistan;
Chinara Jakypova, IWPR director in Kyrgyzstan;
Eduard Poletaev, IWPR director in Kazakstan;
Leila Saralaeva, an independent journalist in Bishkek.
Yigal Chazan, IWPR Managing Editor, Mike Farquhar, an IWPR intern working as
an editor, and Alison Freebairn, an IWPR editor in London, carried out additional
Saule Mukhametrakhimova, IWPR’s Central Asia Project Co-ordinator, managed the
editorial process, and John MacLeod, Senior Editor, compiled the material.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
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