Incubators of Conflict: Central Asia’s Localised Poverty and Social Unrest
Incubators of Conflict: Central Asia’s Localised Poverty and Social Unrest
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President
Opportunities and Challenges Await Kyrgyzstan’s Incoming President

Incubators of Conflict: Central Asia’s Localised Poverty and Social Unrest

All the new Central Asian republics have weathered a catastrophic economic storm with the collapse of the Soviet economy and a subsequent array of shocks including exclusion from the rouble zone, disruptive privatisation processes, the drought of 2000 and tumbling world cotton prices.

Executive Summary

All the new Central Asian republics have weathered a catastrophic economic storm with the collapse of the Soviet economy and a subsequent array of shocks including exclusion from the rouble zone, disruptive privatisation processes, the drought of 2000 and tumbling world cotton prices.  Each shows some signs of being able to improve its national economy, at least in some sectors, but one development clearly has the capacity to render all progress meaningless: in each country which is the focus of the ICG Central Asia Project — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — there is a sharply growing disparity between the narrow elite, which benefits appreciably from privatisation and other market economic reforms, and the larger part of the population, which is being driven toward economic desperation. 

Even more worrying, there are significant sub-regions and localities in each of these three countries where the situation is so dire for the vast majority of the population that patience is beginning to evaporate and unrest to grow sharply.  While most Central Asians have been steadfastly passive in the face of post-Soviet upheaval, indications are increasing in some localities that a breaking point is near.  If it is reached, spontaneous uprisings or organised underground political activity, increasing militancy, and a readiness to seek the overthrow of current regimes can all be anticipated.  The most dangerous social force is a desperate population that has little to lose.

This report examines the deteriorating conditions affecting significant populations in specific localities across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  One manifestation of the neglect of these localities by governments and international donors alike is the fact that it is hard to acquire adequate information about the severity of problems below the level of aggregate national statistics.  ICG has culled from field research and available open sources a clear picture of just how bad things have become on a geographic scale that generally is beneath the radar of national and international policy makers.

The report links conditions in some of the worst affected localities and the likelihood that dire poverty — combined with despair and outrage over rampant corruption, repressive policies, and governments’ failure to address local needs — could lead to outbreaks of localised unrest with the potential to spread into a wider regional conflict.  Many parts of Central Asia are waiting for a spark to ignite them, thanks to a complex array of problems including the spread of underground Islamist activism, rebel incursions, tense ethnic relations, border frictions, geopolitical ambitions, and simmering disputes over land and water.

Four localities receive particular focus because of the severity of their problems: in Kyrgyzstan, Batken Province (the locus of recent militant incursions); in Tajikistan, the Gharm Region and Badakhshan Province (remote mountain areas devastated by the Civil War and situated on one of the world’s most significant drug trafficking routes); and in Uzbekistan, the Ferghana Valley region and particularly Namangan Province (one of the country’s poorest regions despite a strong agricultural base and increasingly the focus of serious unrest).

The problems of such localities should take precedence for both national governments and international donors but they been virtually absent from policy planning.  Urgent measures are needed to combat the increasing probability that violent conflict will grow out of these localities.

Osh/Brussels, 8 June 2001

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