Central Asia: Region in Decline
6 June 2012:
Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group's Deputy Asia Director, discusses the deep crisis facing the Central Asian states of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan and analyzes the region's relationship with neighboring powers Russia and China. 9:24
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Welcome to this podcast from the International Crisis Group. I’m Kimberly Abbott, and I’m here today with Paul Quinn Judge, Crisis Group’s Deputy Director for Asia, and we’re talking today about the deep crisis facing the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
Paul, you’ve said that Central Asia is “surviving on luck”. What does that mean?
It means that in most of these countries the level of functional government is at an absolute minimum. In most cases, this is because of corruption, which has made the regime incompetent, inefficient, unwilling to share resources with its population, with a result that somewhere like Tajikistan, for example, people are basically subsisting with very little assistance from a government which nonetheless lives itself extremely well.
So describe what the social services are. What does exist? What is the infrastructure?
Take electricity in Tajikistan. Electricity, heating and light in the winter goes down to one hour, half an hour a day in villages and smaller towns. It’ll be more in larger towns. It’ll be relatively uninterrupted in the capital because the government clearly does not want to have an angry population at the capital on its hands. Education, health systems are essentially viewed as being near total collapse.
Teachers will leave schools early in the school year to go to Russia to work as migrant laborers, in some cases, because they cannot make due on their own salaries. Again, in Tajikistan--it’s the most glaring, but it’s not necessarily an exception--the most glaring example, Tajikistan, has enormous unemployment. Most people who are employed are not living in Tajikistan. They are doing very menial, low-paid work in Russia, which for them is an immense improvement of anything they can get in their own country.
What does this vacuum of any sort of governmental services mean for these countries? Where are they headed?
At the moment, they’re in a state of stagnation and slow decline. But they have reached the point that they have very little resilience left. We are not just talking about weak social structures, we are talking about weak control of the countryside by a central government in Tajikistan, for example, or Kyrgyzstan. In both places, we are seeing hunks of the country no longer really paying attention to the central government. We are seeing regimes that have very few security forces who could be used to protect the country in the event of any external challenges. What security forces they have there are usually kept on hand in case popular unrest needs to be handled.
Tell me a little bit about the forces that you are seeing cropping up in the countryside. Who are they and what do they want?
At the moment ,what we are seeing is a process of alienation. People feel that the state gives them nothing; therefore, they are drawing away from the state. Any contact the ordinary person, whatever that person is in Kyrgyzstan, say, or Tajikistan, probably Uzbekistan as well, has with the state is likely to be painful and unpleasant. You don’t go to the state to get redress of your grievances. You go to the state and you find yourself under a lot of pressure or paying a bribe or something else. So we’re slowly seeing the collapse of any interest on the part of the population that have dealings with the state.
So, we are seeing the creation of a vacuum, as you said. At the moment, nobody is moving into it in any coherent way. We are seeing that observant Islam of a relatively more disciplined variety than has usually been the case in Central Asia is taking hold in a number of countries. That quite clearly is in many cases because people feel that the secular regimes are so corrupt, they are going to look to the religious authorities for justice, for support, and for guidance.
In the long term, Central Asia’s big problem is it borders on Afghanistan. And that’s where trouble could come in the next few years if Central Asian fighters decide to come back from Afghanistan, where they’ve been with the Taliban, and come back to Central Asia itself.
And that’s largely where outside interests lie, with the U.S. in particular, because of potential troubles that could come with the collapse of any of these countries and with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.
The U.S. has a more pressing, immediate interest in Central Asia. It’s not a very noble or long term one: it’s they’re worried about their supply routes. Central Asia has become one of the key supply routes for supplies into, and now much more importantly, out of Afghanistan. The northern distribution network, it’s called--it’s air, train, land--it’s going to play the major role in getting people out between now and 2014. This means the U.S. government is showing great attention to the region at the moment. It’s very short term. I think after 2014 we’ll see a very sharp drop in U.S. interests.
What about other countries, like Russia or China?
China is extremely interested in Central Asia’s natural resources. Russia would like to be interested in Central Asia’s natural resources, but it doesn’t have the money to outbid China. The Russians still view themselves as the colonial patrons of Central Asia. This view is not reciprocated by Central Asians anymore. They speak Russian. That doesn’t mean they like the Russians. In the long run, China is likely to emerge as the major external power in the region, when the U.S. has lost interest and has gone on to something else, and the Russians have finally realized that they are not very popular or influential. At that point, China may have to find itself also picking up some security issues, which could be a surprise for Beijing.
You’ve painted a rather bleak picture here. What is your best policy advice for the governments and other groups that are looking into this region, for the U.S. and Russia and China, in particular?
As far as the U.S. is concerned, Central Asia is a textbook example of the damage that corruption does to a state. It’s not just a question of a few unpleasant ministers stealing bits of the budget. It’s of groups of people who are comprehensively destroying their own countries. Sooner or later, if the U.S. government is indeed interested in the region, they have to address this. They have to address the fact that their main allies are causing immense harm and behaving incredibly unethically in the pursuance of their own personal ends. At the moment, unfortunately, the U.S. government feels that the Northern Distribution Network and the post-Afghanistan scenario is more important.
The Russians, I don’t see them having a long term policy. The Chinese have to do a number of things, and it’s rather a long story, but essentially they’re moving into the region in terms of developing natural resources. Their labor policies and their environmental policies are catastrophically bad. Sooner or later, this is going to be not only bad for those countries, but for China’s reputation. China also has to start looking in the long run at whether it’s going to continue to prop up these corrupt and not very efficient governments when it is faced possibly with a spread of radical Islam from Afghanistan, not just to Central Asia, but to Xinjiang and other places much closer to home.
In addition to the vacuum of leadership, there’s also an intelligence vacuum in the region. Can you talk a little bit about that?
To me, it means there’s an absence of people from the international community--from the United States, from NATO countries, from other countries--which are interested in the region for security reasons or economic reasons or development reasons, of on ground, in-depth analysis aimed at underpinning strategic policy decisions. There’s a lot of improvisation, and there’s very little work being done on the ground. And this means that there’s no underpinning for any strategic decision made in the region.
So what are the risks that lie there?
The risks are that nobody knows what’s going on. We say Central Asian countries are surviving on luck; the U.S. government’s policy is also surviving on luck. And they may be lucky--nothing may happen. On the other hand, if something does go badly wrong in one of the frontline states, that’s called, in one of the states that does abut Afghanistan or is very close to the Afghan border, I think we are going to find people scrambling to find a response other than the obvious one maybe of sending guns.
We’re slowly moving towards some sort of endgame in Central Asia. The leaders are old; they don’t have a succession scenario. They prefer to appoint members of their family who, frankly, are no better and usually much, much worse than the older generation. So, we don’t know what the endgame is going to be, it could be something dramatic and headline grabbing. Or it could be very slow, tragic death of countries in the region.
Edited for print