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 / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

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.

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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

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