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Youth in Central Asia: Losing the New Generation
Youth in Central Asia: Losing the New Generation
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack
Report 66 / Europe & Central Asia

Youth in Central Asia: Losing the New Generation

More international involvement is needed in all spheres of youth activity in Central Asia, where around half the population is under 30.

Executive Summary

More international involvement is needed in all spheres of youth activity in Central Asia, where around half the population is under 30. In a world where many people expect progress with each generation, most of the young in this region are worse off than their parents. They have higher rates of illiteracy, unemployment, poor health, and drug use and are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of violence. Few regions have seen such sharp declines in the welfare of their youth, and the combination of declining living standards with a demographic bulge brings increased risks of political instability and conflict. Current trends must be reversed if the region is to avoid more serious economic and political problems.

Central Asian states inherited widespread literacy and relatively high educational standards from the USSR. But education systems are in serious financial crisis. Teachers are underpaid, and their social status has plummeted. Few schools are maintained, and many lack basic facilities. Corruption has devalued qualifications, and economic pressures mean that families are better off allowing children to work than attend school. In some areas of Tajikistan, secondary school attendance has dropped from nearly 100 per cent to below 50 per cent. Young girls are increasingly likely to receive little education.

Most young people with limited schooling end up in casual labour or subsistence agriculture. Work is hard to find even for the educated, while Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have stifled entrepreneurial development. Parents are left supporting their children well into their twenties. Youth organisations are run by remote elder officials, and most leisure and sports facilities are either closed or affordable only to a privileged few.

It is not surprising that young people increasingly seek solutions outside mainstream society through alternative options of religion, violence, extremism or migration.

Religion serves both as an escape from everyday problems and a channel through which to criticise the present system. Radical Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir have been successful in recruiting the disillusioned, providing simplistic answers to questions about the grim reality of their lives. Equal numbers have moved away from Islam to new Christian churches that offer a Western-oriented alternative.

Crime, whether in the forms of drug abuse, prostitution or gang membership, is affecting the health and life expectancy of young people. The number injecting drugs has been growing rapidly, accompanied by a sharp rise in HIV infection. Governments have been slow to react, and often do not fully acknowledge the risks.

Two thirds of young people say they want to leave the region, and a growing number do migrate, mostly to Russia or Kazakhstan. While this provides an immediate solution to frustrations, it is not without problems. Illegal migrants are easy targets for human trafficking, forced drug-smuggling and prostitution, deadly work accidents, racist harassment, extortion and kidnapping.

Responding to the demands of young people means giving them a say in how things are run and understanding that they will challenge the present generation of leaders. But most Central Asian governments regard young people as a group to be controlled rather than included. Their views are neglected in decisions on education, employment and crime. The most extreme response has come in Turkmenistan, where the government has introduced an education system designed to produce a generation of automatons who know nothing but state propaganda. Ideology also dominates education in Uzbekistan, and critical thinking is discouraged.

Quality bilingual education is essential to promote integration of ethnic minorities and access to political and economic power. Greater efforts to reduce obstacles to business development and the economic exploitation of young people are needed, particularly in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Efforts by Central Asian governments to eradicate religious extremism through heavy-handed security policies have failed, and there is a danger that state restrictions on religious expression will only increase the attractiveness of underground and fringe movements. Governments should adopt a policy of greater openness by allowing wider and better Islamic education and should also improve knowledge of Islam among religious and government officials.

Governments must recognise the extent of drug consumption and allow an open discussion on the issue, include parents in the debate and promote needle exchange and methadone use. Likewise, the HIV/AIDS pandemic must be publicly acknowledged, and education prioritised.

Given the contribution migrants make to the GDP of most Central Asian states, it would be only fair that governments enhance their protection through risk awareness campaigns and provide better support in Kazakhstan and Russia via diplomatic representations and cooperation with NGOs.

Donors have too often been happy to propose quick fixes such as school reconstruction and new computers without the necessary follow-up and conditioning of aid to changes in teaching standards, real access to decision-making for youth, a greater will to fight discrimination and introduction of open discourse on religion. Considerable financial and political commitments are needed to improve the situation of young people, but the pay-off in future stability would be in the interests not just of Central Asia, but of the international community as well.

Osh/Brussels, 31 October 2003

A New Jersey police officer stands guard in front of the Omar Mosque in Paterson, U.S., on 1 November 2017. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP

Today’s Uzbekistan and Manhattan’s Deadly Truck Attack

An immigrant from Central Asia has admitted to carrying out the 31 October truck attack in New York on behalf of the Islamic State. Sayfullo Saipov left his native Uzbekistan seven years ago and U.S. and Uzbek authorities say he was radicalised in the U.S.

What do we know about the Uzbek links of the New York attacker?

Sayfullo Saipov left Uzbekistan in 2010, aged 21 or 22, and entered the U.S. legally on a Diversity Visa Lottery Program. We cannot say with certainty yet when he was radicalised, but both U.S. and Uzbek authorities say it was in the U.S. Others, including Saipov’s Uzbek wife and another Uzbek man, are being questioned by the FBI. It is not clear whether Saipov had any direct contact with the Islamic State (ISIS) or other Central Asians linked to the group, but ISIS, after some delay, claimed responsibility for the attack on 3 November. There is no evidence of any connection to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, a jihadist group that has operated for much of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What do we know about Saipov’s relationship with the broader Uzbek migrant community in the U.S.?

Mirrakhmat Muminov, an ethnic Uzbek religious activist, blogger and human rights activist based in Ohio, told Crisis Group on 1 November that he met Saipov, who is from the Uzbek capital Tashkent, in 2011. Saipov married a fellow Uzbek and had children, but Muminov described him as “a very aggressive, depressive and unstable guy … he couldn’t find a job for a long time, he couldn’t go back to Uzbekistan to see his parents”. Like the U.S. and Uzbek authorities, Muminov argues that whatever motivated him to perpetrate the attacks in New York happened while he was in the U.S. He said that communities of Uzbeks (in 2015 the official number of Uzbek migrants in the U.S. was 55,000, though the real number is widely thought to be much higher) and those of other Central Asians now fear they will become targets of extra scrutiny.

What is the background to ISIS recruitment among Central Asians?

In 2015, Crisis Group estimated that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 Central Asians fighting in Syria and Iraq. ISIS – unlike, for example, al-Qaeda – has been able to create compelling recruitment material and propaganda for the post-Soviet space in not only Russian but local languages. It has attracted a broad range of people from Central Asia from teenage girls following their boyfriends who were recruited in Russia to one high-ranking U.S. trained Tajik security official.

ISIS has had some success in attracting Uzbek citizens and ethnic Uzbeks from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan. Uzbek citizens form the largest contingent of Central Asians in Iraq and Syria (though Uzbekistan also has the largest population in the region). Saipov joins two other Uzbek citizens who are known to be responsible for ISIS-linked terror attacks. Abdulgadir Masharipov carried out the New Year’s Eve attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul and Rakhat Akilov was responsible for the truck attack in Stockholm in April 2017. Turkish authorities also say citizens of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were among those responsible for the attack on Istanbul airport in June 2016, and an ethnic Uzbek originally from Kyrgyzstan carried out an attack on the St. Petersburg metro in April 2017. An Uzbek in the U.S. was found guilty of supporting ISIS in October 2017. In the case of Akilov, the Uzbek government says they warned European security services about him.

Radicalisation, however, does not always happen in the country of origin. Saipov, like the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 (who were ethnic Chechens originally from Kyrgyzstan), appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. This suggests that any well-tailored policy response should focus on a variety of factors that led to this outcome, among them in all likelihood the wide availability of ISIS-inspired materials on the internet. Addressing the accessibility of such materials in a manner that respects the right to free expression has been and will remain a significant challenge for Western governments.

What is likely to happen next in the Saipov case, and what could be done to prevent a recurrence?

The Uzbek authorities say they will cooperate with the U.S. and that they are investigating Saipov’s history. This likely will involve rounding up family and acquaintances still in Uzbekistan for questioning. Although the new Uzbek president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, appears committed to reform, Uzbek security services are notorious for their use of torture.

With respect to criminal process inside the U.S., in deciding to try Saipov through civilian rather than military courts, the U.S. government chose a more effective and more legitimate forum.

Those in the U.S. who support restricting immigration in general already are seizing on the fact that Saipov came into the country on a so-called “diversity visa” in order to reinforce their campaign to limit both legal and illegal immigration. That he appears to have been radicalised in the U.S. is unlikely to be persuasive in pushing back against this trend. Yet to restrict immigration in arbitrary fashion would be to misdiagnose the problem, turning foreigners into scapegoats. In particular, Crisis Group in the past has called into question the U.S. administration’s policy of preventing citizens from certain countries travelling to the U.S.

Are there any implications in terms of U.S. policy toward Uzbekistan?

U.S. interests in Uzbekistan currently chiefly are linked to Afghanistan, with which Uzbekistan shares a heavily guarded 137km long border. The country has also been the recipient of U.S. military and technical aid.

It is not clear that the attack in and of itself will lead to refocused U.S. attention on Uzbekistan or Central Asia more broadly, since for now nothing links the attacks to that region beyond Saipov’s nationality. That said, and independently of the attack, there is good reason for the U.S. to pay more attention to the need for political reform and socio-economic development as much as counter-terrorism. An opportunity exists. Uzbekistan has been opening up under President Mirziyoyev, who took office in September 2017 after the death of President Islam Karimov, whose rule was characterised by violent political and religious repression. The country appears to be seeking to embark on important reforms, although that inevitably will take time and require international support.

Some early signs are encouraging. This year the government removed some 16,000 people from a long-standing list of 17,000 alleged extremists, a categorisation that previously had served as a convenient way to target Karimov’s political opponents. Mirziyoyev also has pledged support for Uzbek migrants, typically to Russia, in contrast to his predecessor’s description of them as “lazy”.

Finally, Mirziyoyev has broken with Uzbekistan’s formerly isolationist foreign policy and is seeking to mend relations with Central Asian neighbours, including Turkey as well as troubled states such as Tajikistan. This potentially could present an opportunity to resolve deep-seated disagreements among regional states, including competition over water resources and border demarcation.