Central Asia: Crisis Conditions in Three States
Central Asia: Crisis Conditions in Three States
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 7 / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Central Asia: Crisis Conditions in Three States

Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan each face the prospect of civil unrest and large-scale violence. This is not a certain outcome and may be avoided if the governments make substantial changes in domestic policy, but the risks are high and mounting.

Executive Summary

Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan each face the prospect of civil unrest and large-scale violence. This is not a certain outcome and may be avoided if the governments make substantial changes in domestic policy, but the risks are high and mounting.  Popular expectations after 1991 for more pluralistic politics or for representative government have been seriously frustrated. The standard of living for large sections of each population has been falling now for fifteen years. And there are political forces already mobilised to exploit any outburst of popular discontent, though the aims and capacities of opposition groups in each of the three countries are quite different.

In Tajikistan, the peace settlement that ended the bloody civil war is now under threat, with the government retreating from its power-sharing commitments and proving unable to integrate all opposition militias into its armed forces. The rate of political assassinations has intensified in the first half of 2000 and the formal power structures of the state have proven to be largely irrelevant to the daily political processes. The rapidly expanding drug trade out of Afghanistan and the associated trade in guns are exacerbating an already grave situation of lawlessness.

Kyrgyzstan at the national level enjoys considerably better circumstances than Tajikistan, but most people in Kyrgyzstan feel the country is in crisis. Extreme poverty and massive unemployment in certain parts of the country raise the prospect of localised trouble, while the trade in drugs and guns is also undermining order in the more vulnerable areas. An armed incursion by Tajikistan-based terrorists in August 1999 and the consequent unsanctioned air attack by Uzbekistan on a target inside Kyrgyzstan have only served to aggravate the pervasive sense of insecurity.

Uzbekistan is stronger and wealthier than either Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan. But it too faces deterioriating social and economic conditions in important localities. The government’s draconian responses to a number of terrorist incidents and to the underground Islamist opposition are aggravating a growing sense of grievance in some communities. Uzbekistan’s greater wealth will not protect it from a new economic crisis, which looks fairly certain without significant structural reform. Uzbekistan views the relative weakness of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as justification for a robust, sometimes chauvinist conception of its leadership responsibilities in regional security. This disposition is an important risk factor for crisis in Central Asia.

The Ferghana Valley, which spreads across part of the territory of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, is of particular concern. The living standards of large numbers of people there are particularly depressed and continue to deteriorate. The Valley was the location of the August 1999 terrorist incursion into Kyrgyzstan and of an earlier bloody inter-communal incident (in 1990) between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Political or social differences between the various ethnic communities are not substantial. But the size of the Uzbek community in the parts of the Valley belonging to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan provides considerable potential for ethno-nationalist provocation.

Afghanistan, as the source of gun and drug trading, is a major risk factor for a new crisis involving Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. But concerns that the rise of Taliban has boosted the threat to Central Asia from Islamist extremists are exaggerated. The serious security problem more likely to arise from resurgent Islamist politics is that of a violent reaction against government use of force to suppress Islamist political movements with legitimate political interests.

These threats and insecurities are exacerbated by the sharp differences in relative military power between Uzbekistan on the one hand and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the other. Uzbekistan also has aspirations to regional military leadership that are sometimes viewed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan as threatening. Uzbekistan’s attacks on targets in the two countries in response to the terrorist incursion into Kyrgyzstan in August 1999 and its bombing of targets in Afghanistan in June 2000 have fueled these concerns.

Any new crisis in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Uzbekistan is more likely in the first instance to be localised and of a humanitarian nature. But there is a sufficient bedrock of grievance, insecurity, mistrust and perceived vulnerability to take seriously the prospect that some localised incident – such as a riot, border clash or terrorist incursion – could rapidly transform itself into widespread violence or civil unrest domestically, or into interstate military confrontation.

The governments of the three states have not ignored these problems. Responses have covered a range of policy areas, included welfare arrangements, education, administrative reform and language policy. After some years of ineffective efforts to expand regional cooperation or even of hostility towards regionalism, the three governments have joined with the other two Central Asian states in a renewed commitment to regionalism as another way of addressing many of the problems. But the combined policy responses are not likely to have the desired effects. All three governments at present lack the vision, the personnel and the resources to have much impact. 

The current and prospective levels of involvement of the international community in the three Central Asian states probably cannot fill the gap in vision, personnel or resources that the national governments need for effective conflict prevention.

Central Asia/Brussels, 7 August 2000

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