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Wednesday, 12 February 2003

ARE CENTRAL ASIA\'S WEAK STATES GETTING WEAKER?

Published in Analytical Articles
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By Abraham Cohen (2/12/2003 issue of the CACI Analyst)

BACKGROUND: The post-9/11 era brought a great reduction of the external threats to Central Asia posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and contributed to stability and an increased geopolitical significance of the region in world affairs. However, the picture is not necessarily rosy. The economic situation is deteriorating, due partly to low world markets prices for the region\'s major export commodities, but also because of the absence of or mistakes in reforms, and the increased involvement of clan-based politics in the struggles for power in the regional states.
BACKGROUND: The post-9/11 era brought a great reduction of the external threats to Central Asia posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and contributed to stability and an increased geopolitical significance of the region in world affairs. However, the picture is not necessarily rosy. The economic situation is deteriorating, due partly to low world markets prices for the region\'s major export commodities, but also because of the absence of or mistakes in reforms, and the increased involvement of clan-based politics in the struggles for power in the regional states. Created on the basis of arbitrary drawing of state-borders by Stalin in 1924, all states of the region have been undergoing painful and complex nation-building processes for the last 80 years, which are far from completed. Citizens\' loyalty rests not primarily with national identities, instead loyalties, and political parties, are based almost entirely on regional or tribal clan identities. In this context, however, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are better placed to overcome these difficulties with relative success, and are likely to further strengthen their positions as leading regional powers of Central Asia, whereas the situation in the three smaller states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan is less hopeful. This is not to state that either of them is devoid of problems. Kazakhstan\'s political system is dominated by the Senior Zhus, or Horde, of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, while the Middle and Junior Zhus feel unjustly unrepresented in government. Yet despite having one of the most divided tribal and clan-based political systems, Kazakhstan has launched promising economic reforms in the 1990s and earned wealth on high oil prices. This is increasing the wellbeing of its population, limiting causes for dissent. Experts such as Oliver Roy believe that Uzbekistan, home to almost half of Central Asia\'s population, is the most advanced in terms of a strong national consciousness, despite the very strong clan-based system in every branch of the Uzbek government and economy. Unlikely all other presidents, President Islam Karimov put himself largely above all clans, and has heavy-handedly suppressed efforts by regional clans to draw lines in domestics politics based on regional identity. Moreover, Karimov has been cultivating a young, western-minded Uzbekistani elite, that is already stepping into the shoes of the older generation in mid-level managerial positions. The success in building a stronger national identity in Uzbekistan is also attributed to the settled lifestyle of Uzbeks, whereas Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmens still value tribal loyalties, stronger among nomads, and Tajikistan still carries the psychological trauma of the civil war. In the smaller states, the clan and regional struggles for power are increasingly violent in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, putting in doubt the survivability of these countries, unless governments address the issue seriously. IMPLICATIONS: After the killing of 7 protesters in the southern Kyrgyz town of Aksy last March, Kyrgyzstan has been undergoing its worst crisis independence. Kyrgyzstan has a ruined economy with nearly $1.7 billion in debt (and an annual GDP of $1.1bln), rising protests with violent potential, and growing divisions between the \"southern Kyrgyz\" and \"northern Kyrgyz\", as northerners rule the country\'s government and hold most of the country\'s remaining economic wealth. For nearly a year, southerners have struggled for representation, and voiced intentions to create an autonomous entity in Southern Kyrgyzstan unless President Akaev addresses their demands. Tajikistan is nearly bankrupt, with an annual budget of less than $250 millions, of which 100 million is aid. Almost a million Tajiks seasonally travel to Russia, providing cheap labor in order to feed their families. The country lacks any comprehensive political or economic strategy to find long-term solutions for existing problems. The power-sharing agreement of 1997 between president Rahmonov and the United Tajik Opposition virtually excluded the northern region of Sogd, home to 40% of the country\'s population and 70% of its industry. The population of the region is increasingly alienated, and the present power-sharing deal is not viable in the longer term. Even the UTO has mentioned the possibility of a resumption of civil war, as stated by its leader Sayed Abdullo Nuri. Once considered the most promising among Central Asian states, Turkmenistan is now increasingly isolated and closed. President Niyazov\'s erratic personality cult, including mostly recently a calendar reform naming January after himself, is well known. More seriously, the country\'s educational system is being destroyed, and economic problems are huge in spite of natural gas wealth. The country has a large number of drug addicts, according to moderate estimates reaching double digits of the male adult population. Increasing opposition to Niyazov\'s mismanagement is turning violent, as displayed by the November 25th failed assassination attempt on Niyazov. Domestically unstable, Turkmenistan\'s foreign relations could hardly be worse, as Niyazov blamed most neighbors for involvement in the attempt on his life, even breaking into the Uzbek embassy. The Turkmen opposition, foreseeing the near end of Niyazov\'s rule, is experiencing a boom of new opposition movements and parties, mostly based on regional clan or tribal loyalties. Niyazov\'s possible fall from power could therefore bring violent regional and tribal confrontations in Turkmenistan, threatening the unity and stability of the country. CONCLUSION: These bleak situations in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan provide for some grueling worst-case scenarios for the coming two- to three-year period. In coming years, the best case scenario is the current status quo with minor changes in personalities and the character of the regimes. With the renewed role of the U.S. and the presence of American troops in Central Asia, the region has the best possible circumstances to solve their problems jointly. Washington is uniquely placed to press for regional cooperation and monitor regional states\' commitment to the real improvement of social conditions and the rule of law. High-ranking U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that the Central Asian region represent a much larger value for U.S. foreign policy as a region, and only after this, as particular countries. Solutions for the growing political, economic, environmental and social problems of the region could be sought in strong U.S. encouragement for regional cooperation, with U.S. technical assistance in the elaboration of promising projects for economic and technological cooperation. AUTHOR\'S BIO: Abraham Cohen is a freelance journalist based in Bloomington, Indiana, specializing in Central Asian and Middle Eastern affairs.
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