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Central Asia: Decay and Decline
Central Asia: Decay and Decline
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Islamic State Threatens Central Asia
Islamic State Threatens Central Asia
Report 201 / Europe & Central Asia

Central Asia: Decay and Decline

Only a concerted effort from national governments, donors and the international community to modernise Central Asia’s infrastructure can avert the region’s decline into chaos.

Executive Summary

Quietly but steadily Central Asia’s basic human and physical infrastructure – the roads, power plants, hospitals and schools and the last generation of Soviet-trained specialists who have kept this all running – is disappearing. The equipment is wearing out, the personnel retiring or dying. Post-independence regimes made little effort to maintain or replace either, and funds allocated for this purpose have largely been eaten up by corruption. This collapse has already sparked protests and contributed to the overthrow of a government.

All countries in the region are to some degree affected, but the two poorest, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, are already in dire straits. Their own specialists say that in the next few years, they will have no teachers for their children and no doctors to treat their sick. Power cuts in Tajikistan each winter – twelve hours a day in the countryside, if not more – are already a tradition. Power failures in Kyrgyzstan are becoming increasingly common. Experts in both countries are haunted by the increasingly likely prospect of catastrophic systemic collapse, especially in the energy sector. Barring a turnaround in policies, they face a future of decaying roads, schools and medical institutions staffed by pensioners, or a new generation of teachers, doctors or engineers whose qualifications were purchased rather than earned. These problems will be exacerbated by other deep political vulnerabilities in both countries – the gradual increase of an insurgency and an aging autocrat in Tajikistan, and a dangerously weakened Kyrgyz state.

Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are heading in the same direction. Exactly how far they have gone is hard to say as reliable data either does not exist or is secret, while extravagantly upbeat public statements bear no resemblance to reality. But Turkmenistan’s marble-faced model hospitals and Uzbekistan’s mendacious claims of prosperity are no answer to their countries’ problems. Even Kazakhstan, the region’s only functioning state, will be severely tested by infrastructure deficiencies, particularly in transportation and training of technical cadre. Any dreams of economic diversification and modernisation will have to be put on hold for the indefinite future.

The current predicament has many causes. As part of the Soviet Union, the five countries were tightly woven into a single system, especially in energy and transport. These interdependencies have proven difficult to unravel, and have produced serious imbalances. During the Soviet era, the countries were obliged to work together. Now they no longer have to get along, and usually do not, especially as far as energy is concerned. Education and healthcare suffered with the end of the social safety net. Most importantly, governments across the region seemed to feel their Soviet inheritance would last forever, and the funds earmarked for reforms, education, training and maintenance were often misused and insufficient.

The consequences of this neglect are too dire to ignore. The rapid deterioration of infrastructure will deepen poverty and alienation from the state. The disappearance of basic services will provide Islamic radicals, already a serious force in many Central Asian states, with further ammunition against regional leaders and openings to establish influential support networks. Economic development and poverty reduction will become a distant dream; the poorest states will become ever more dependent on the export of labour. Anger over a sharp decline in basic services played a significant role in the unrest that led to the overthrow of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in April 2010. It could well play a similar role in other countries, notably Tajikistan, in the not too distant future.

Events in one state can quickly have a deleterious effect on its neighbours. A polio outbreak in Tajikistan in 2010 required large-scale immunisation campaigns in neigh­bouring Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and triggered reports of infection as far away as Russia. Central Asia may also be negatively affected by its neighbours: a further decline in infrastructure is likely to coincide with increasing instability in Afghanistan, and a possible spillover of the insurgency there.

The needs are clear, and solutions to the decline in infrastructure are available. The fundamental problem is that the vital prerequisites are steps that Central Asia’s ruling elites are unwilling to take. These amount to nothing less than a total repudiation of regional leaders’ values and behaviour. They would need to purge their governments of top-to-bottom systemic corruption; cease using their countries’ resources as a source of fabulous wealth for themselves and their families; and create a meritocracy with decent pay that would free officials from the need to depend on corruption to make ends meet. All these changes are so far from current realities that foreign governments and donors may dismiss them as hopelessly idealistic. Yet without organised change from above, there is a growing risk of chaotic change from below.

Donors are doing nothing to prevent such a scenario. Their cautious approach seems driven by the desire not to upset regional leaders, rather than using the financial levers at their disposal to effect real change. Aid is often disbursed to fulfil annual plans or advance broader geopolitical aims. Donors have made no effort to form a united front to push for real reform. Without their involvement, the status quo can stumble along for a few more years, perhaps, but not much longer. Collapsing infrastructure could bring down with it enfeebled regimes, creating enormous uncertainty in one of the most fragile parts of the world.

Bishkek/Brussels, 3 February 2011

 

Tajikistan commander Gulmurod Khalimov, chief of Tajikistan’s paramilitary police unit (OMON), appeared on an ISIS propaganda video released on 27 May 2015.

Islamic State Threatens Central Asia

The appearance of Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov in an Islamic State (IS) propaganda video on 27 May has sent a chill across Central Asia. The head of Tajikistan’s Special Assignment Police Unit (OMON), a key element in President Emomali Rahmon’s security apparatus, had disappeared shortly before. In the video he promised to return to wage violent jihad.

A trained-in-Russia-and-America veteran of brutal Tajik government operations, Khalimov has the qualifications. And Tajikistan, a desperately poor country ruled by a venal elite, is a vulnerable target. As I drove to its capital, Dushanbe, last summer through the ancient city of Khujand and the rickety, fume-filled, Iranian-built Shariston tunnel, I saw poverty and isolation that eclipses the worst pockets of deprivation in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Khalimov has been an intimate of that elite, but at 40 years old he is relatively young and forceful, unlike the elderly, usually corrupt figures who have previously promoted themselves as Islamist guerrilla leaders in Tajikistan. His defection is a blow to Rahmon’s regime on many levels. He speaks to the parts of the elite not yet bought off and to the alienation of a substantial segment of society.

His message may be draped in Islamic fundamentalist rhetoric, but it is based on some of the potent, more worldly aspects of IS appeal. “Going out to work every morning, look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself: Are you ready to die for this state or not”, he said directly to the underpaid, overstretched Tajik security forces. “I am ready to die for the Caliphate – are you?”

More than one million Tajik migrants work low-paid jobs in Russia. The remittances they send back make up more than 40 per cent of its GDP. But the value of the remittances is plummeting as Russia veers toward economic crisis. Nearly 200,000 of the migrants went home to bleak prospects in the second half of 2014 alone.

To Tajiks still in Russia, the police commander’s message was “you have become the slaves of non-believers. Why do you humiliate yourself working for non-believers while they must work for you? Join us, brothers … there are no nationalities or states in the Islamic State and our nationality is Islam”.

The eight million people of Tajikistan have known much violence already in their quarter-century of independence since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Rahmon, the only president the country has had, consolidated his power in a civil war against Islamists that ended in 1997. By side-lining the relatively moderate Islamic Renaissance Party earlier this year, he further alienated the devout and gave plausibility to those who argue that with other options closed, extremism is only the politics of last resort.

IS and other foreign fighters, probably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, are already operating on Tajikistan’s southern border, but that is not the only fault line. Gorno-Badakhshan, high in the Pamirs – a twelve- to fifteen-hour drive when roads are passable – is inhabited by ethnically distinct Pamiris, who were with the rebels in the civil war and barely accept central power today.

Badakhshan has a long, open border with Afghanistan to the south, Kyrgyzstan to the north and China to the east. The Taliban are already active on the immediate Afghan side of that border. It may only be a matter of time before IS is there too.

The Tajik-Afghan border already attracts Russian attention. Even two years ago, an official of the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) of a half-dozen ex-Soviet republics told me it was uncontrollable and deadly. This year a Russian diplomat said privately that if the Tajik government requested it, Russia would return troops to it.

The apprehension does not stop there. Neighbouring Uzbekistan – Central Asia’s most populated and most authoritarian state – and chaotic, coup-prone Kyrgyzstan, would be deeply troubled by serious unrest in Tajikistan.

International Crisis Group has been in Central Asia for fifteen years, arguing that the West, particularly the U.S., is building a dangerous debit sheet here. To gain logistical help for war in Afghanistan, it has partnered with dictators like Rahmon and Uzbekistan’s Karimov, accepting excesses excused as counter-terrorism, including repression of peaceful Islamic manifestations.

If other security figures follow Khalimov’s lead, the bill to pay could be steep, and there will not be credit left to pay it with.