Central Asia: Islamist Mobilisation and Regional Security
Central Asia: Islamist Mobilisation and Regional Security
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Report 14 / Europe & Central Asia

Central Asia: Islamist Mobilisation and Regional Security

The real but greatly exaggerated existence of militant Islamic movements is being cited to legitimate repressive measures by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and, especially, Uzbekistan.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

The real but greatly exaggerated existence of militant Islamic movements is being cited to legitimate repressive measures by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and, especially, Uzbekistan.  These governments, and also Russia, have used claims about those movements both to justify strong cooperative international security measures against the perceived common threat and to win the acquiescence and assistance of Western governments.  Much of this activity is misconceived and indeed counterproductive – more likely to create the very threat it seeks to counter.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each repress a range of Islamic religious practices and domestic religious groups.  Their policies are exacerbating simmering social and political tensions and increasing the risk of new outbreaks of violence.  Russia is the most actively engaged external actor due to its perception of an urgent need for a common security approach to Islamic radicalism on its southern boundary.  However, China and to a lesser extent some Western powers including the U.S. are reinforcing the instincts of the three Central Asian governments about the need to crack down on even apolitical forms of religious observance or organisation.

In the nine years since they gained independence, the three Central Asian states studied by ICG have increasingly sought to control the exercise of faith and the social and political activities of faith-based organisations.  Their motives are purely political — fear that such activities threaten the ruling elites’ hold on power – but the repression has fuelled more social discontent.

All three countries now face a variety of security problems arising from the actions of a militant Islamist group opposed to the government of Uzbekistan.  That group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), operates in all three countries, but it is not strongly supported inside or outside the region and is not powerful enough to pose a major threat to any of the governments.  Nevertheless, the reactions of the three countries to the low-level operations of the IMU in 1999 and 2000 have in themselves created tension and instability.  The governments have cited need to counter the IMU as justification for further domestic repression of unofficial Islamic activity, which in turn is driving some sections of the community toward greater militancy.  Uzbekistan has produced additional regional tensions by conducting cross-border operations against the IMU inside Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.  The southern borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were also affected by offensives in late 2000 in the Afghan civil war between the radical Islamist Taliban and its opponents.

These events have promoted greater interest in regional security cooperation not only among the Central Asian states but also between them, Russia and China.  Western officials are now giving much more attention to Central Asian security.  This is due in part to the IMU incursions, but even more to the presence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (reputedly responsible for high-profile acts of international terrorism and support of anti-Western militants), as well as to the civil war and growing opium production in that country.  Though some new regional security agreements have been concluded, there is little evidence yet of effective cooperation, and the efforts to achieve it are severely undermined by serious mistrust between the Central Asian governments.

Security problems of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will continue to be aggravated by internal and external factors associated with the increased militancy of Islamist groups and their growing opposition to the Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan.  External factors include the possibility that militant Islamists will obtain refuge and training in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the presence of civil war veterans in those two countries prepared to fight elsewhere for the Islamist cause, the drug trade, and contributions of the Taliban, bin Laden, or other governments and non-government entities to the militants.

The most powerful negative influences on the security of the three Central Asian states, however, are likely to be internal.  Public support for the governments is still relatively strong but it is declining.  The prospect is that wider segments of the population, especially in Uzbekistan, will resort to or at least support radical, even violent, opposition to the regime, if all political opposition and unofficial religious groups and activities continue to be targeted.  The challenge for the friends of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, particularly in the West, is to separate real threats from spectres and to insist that the best security measure each of these governments can take to protect itself against a militant Islamic threat is to practice greater tolerance and more democracy.

Osh/Brussels, 1 March 2001

Presidential candidate Sooronbai Jeenbekov casts his ballot at a polling station during the presidential election in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Vladimir Pirogov

Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

The inauguration of Kyrgyzstan’s new president on 24 November is a tribute to the country’s parliamentary democracy. But to overcome continued vulnerability, Sooronbai Jeenbekov must manage powerful southern elites, define the role of religion in society and spearhead reconciliation with Central Asian neighbours Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Sooronbai Jeenbekov will be inaugurated as Kyrgyzstan’s fifth president on 24 November, the victor of a tight, unpredictable, contested but ultimately legitimate election. The new leader, a loyal member of the ruling Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK), won 54 per cent of the vote and gained a majority in every province but Chui and Talas – the home territory of the defeated main opposition candidate Omurbek Babanov.

As president, Jeenbekov will face a number of challenges and opportunities, both at home and in Central Asia. The state Committee for National Security (GKNB) on 4 November opened an investigation against Babanov for inciting ethnic hatred based on a speech he made on 28 September in an ethnic-Uzbek area of Osh, a city in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Ferghana Valley. Babanov called on Uzbeks to defend their rights and for any Kyrgyz police officers who harassed Uzbeks to be dismissed. Some observers see the GKNB case as politically motivated.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere. Babanov travelled abroad after the campaign, but if he returns he could be arrested at the airport, raising the possibility of protests in his stronghold of Talas, a city 300km west of Bishkek. His arrest and trial would undermine Kyrgyzstan’s international credibility, lay bare the politicisation of the security services and the judiciary, and show unwillingness to tackle deep-seated inter-ethnic issues in the south.

While tensions remain high in Osh, the epicentre of violent ethnic clashes that left 400 mostly Uzbeks dead in June 2010, unrest could also occur elsewhere.

Former President Almazbek Atambayev, also from the SDPK, was sometimes unpredictable but managed to balance competing regional and business interests inside Kyrgyzstan, key factors in the ousting of Presidents Kurmanbek Bakiev in 2010 and Askar Akayev in 2005. Jeenbekov will have to replicate this balancing act and make a strategic decision whether or not to reestablish central government control in Osh, which operates like a fiefdom. The latter risks upsetting heavy-weight figures in the south with vested interests, but in the long term, a failure to do so will perpetuate internal political tensions.

The new president will also have the opportunity to shape the debate about the role of religion in society. For too long – and much like other Central Asian states – Kyrgyzstan has overly securitised its response to those practicing non-traditional forms of Islam, creating tensions and resentments, while politicians leading a secular state make public displays of piety integral to their political personas. Kyrgyzstan is widely perceived as an easy target for terrorist activity, as the August 2016 attack on the Chinese embassy demonstrated. It will be essential to find a balance between assessing what are real risks and what are questions of religious freedoms and civil rights.

As soon as he takes office, Jeenbekov should make every effort to repair Kyrgyzstan’s relationship with Kazakhstan, which deteriorated spectacularly after President Atambayev accused Astana of meddling in the Kyrgyz presidential election to bolster Babanov. Astana responded by introducing strict customs controls on the Kyrgyz-Kazakh border citing concerns about Chinese goods being smuggled through Kyrgyzstan. The disruption on the border is negatively affecting Kyrgyzstan’s economy and Kyrgyzstan has complained to the World Trade Organization and to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, a trade bloc of which Kazakhstan is a founding member. Russia has so far failed to make any meaningful comment on the standoff.

The degree to which Kazakhstan is motivated by anger at Atambayev or genuine concerns about cross-border smuggling is unclear. Still, it will fall to Jeenbekov to spearhead a reconciliation. How open-minded Kazakhstan will be to resolving the spat will also depend on whether or not they see Jeenbekov as a strong, independent leader or merely Atambayev’s puppet.

There is now scope to improve relations with Uzbekistan in a way that was unimaginable before President Shavkat Mirziyoyev took office in December 2016. Much of the initiative is coming from the Uzbek side but the amount of progress made between the two states is remarkable. Regional cooperation, in the long term, will foster stability in Central Asia and Kyrgyzstan can play a leading role in both practicing and promoting the type of cooperation that defuses tensions in border areas and over shared resources such as water and energy. By doing so Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can provide a model of collaboration and peacebuilding in the region.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours.

Kyrgyzstan is still a young parliamentary democracy in a difficult neighbourhood. If Jeenbekov is to continue Atambayev’s program of fighting corruption, efforts need to extend beyond targeting the SDPK’s political opponents. Kyrgyzstan and its partners should begin to address how corruption in politics can be tackled. Beyond the technical success of casting votes electronically, there are many opportunities for illegal practices. Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) election observers said the presidential elections were legitimate, but local concerns focus on arrests of opposition figures, vote buying and the misuse of administrative resources.

Having been the first country in Central Asia to see a president voluntarily leave his post at the end of his constitutionally mandated term, Kyrgyzstan is in many respects light years ahead of its neighbours. Tajikistan could be facing a potentially destabilising transition in 2020, and Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 77, cannot hold power forever. Any regional stress will be quickly felt in Bishkek, another reason that Jeenbekov should focus on bolstering Kyrgyzstan’s long-term stability while the situation is calm.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.