As political restructuring and socio-economic problems intensify across Central Asia, key foreign players are looking to strengthen their influence and uphold stability in the region, writes Eugene Chausovsky
Central Asia is not known for major political change. Since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have maintained centralised political systems, and in that time, only Kyrgyzstan has had more than two presidents. Yet this year has brought important political shifts to the region. In early September, for instance, longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov died, raising speculation over .
Well before Karimov’s death, significant structural adjustments were already under way in Central Asia’s political systems. At the beginning of the year, Turkmenistan revealed plans to amend its constitution to extend presidential terms from five to seven years and to abolish term limits, changes that were approved in September. In Tajikistan, voters authorised similar constitutional amendments in a May referendum. Even Kyrgyzstan – which underwent two revolutions in the first decade of this century, and transitioned to a parliamentary system in 2010 – is in the process of changing its constitution in the ruling party’s favour. Though the leaders of these countries have different reasons for undertaking their restructuring projects, they are all attempting to protect their grip on power in the face of growing instability.
Central Asia’s leaders are under mounting pressure. The drop in global oil prices has hurt the economies of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and Russia’s prolonged recession has constricted trade and remittance flows. As a result the social environment has grown more volatile. Jobs and salaries across the region are being cut, while dwindling work opportunities have driven thousands of migrants back home from Russia. Combined with the enduring threat of militancy – whether from Islamist groups or from ordinary citizens who feel disenfranchised – unrest and instability are pressing concerns for governments throughout the region. Mass protests and violent attacks against security personnel have rocked Kazakhstan this year, and in August, a suicide bomber (reportedly a Uighur militant) struck the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The countries that share a border with Afghanistan, meanwhile, have seen increased attacks by the Taliban or the Islamic State on or near their border posts.
In response, many Central Asian leaders have scrambled to consolidate their political power. By abolishing term limits, the presidents of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are working to ensure their places in office indefinitely. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, by contrast, is limited to a single term, but the adjustments to his country’s constitution could allow him to maintain his influence after the next president assumes office in 2017. Kazakhstan’s president oversaw a major Cabinet reshuffle in September – including changes to the premier and defence minister posts – to enhance security in preparation for his eventual succession process. In Uzbekistan, interim leader Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has already undertaken some reshuffles of his own, making changes to the Cabinet and regional governorships to consolidate his power ahead of the December presidential election.
Personnel shifts and term extensions will not be enough, however, to resolve the region’s increasingly untenable security situation. As long as low energy prices and Russia’s financial troubles keep straining Central Asian economies, political changes will not yield socio-economic relief, so leaders are also cracking down on opposition groups. Central Asian authorities often target and arrest members of political or religious movements deemed a threat to their governments, and then portray the detainees as Islamist radicals or militants plotting attacks. In reality, they are usually political dissidents or disaffected youths.
This is not to say that Islamist militancy is an imaginary threat, considering Central Asia’s proximity to Afghanistan, and the number of Central Asian citizens fighting with jihadist organisations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a wave of attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan tore through Central Asia, and a handful of incidents in the years since, including the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, have been tied to Islamist groups. Any power vacuums left in the region – for instance, in the wake of Karimov’s death or in the event of a leadership transition in Kazakhstan – could enable militant groups to flourish. But clamping down on opposition and militancy, real or imagined, could exacerbate instability rather than quell it.
The prospect of unrest and instability will alarm not only Central Asia’s leaders, but foreign powers. Because of its strategic location and abundant natural resources, Central Asia has attracted the attention of numerous external players over the years. The United States, for example, conducts joint counterterrorism and counternarcotics programmes with security forces in the region, and Turkey shares cultural and economic ties with Central Asia. Still, Russia and China are by far the most influential countries in the region, and will be most active in shaping Central Asia’s political and security dynamics to suit their needs.
In response to the growing security challenges facing the region, Russia has been reorganising its military presence at its bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan while pushing for greater counterterrorism cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Russia is likely to use the political transition in Uzbekistan – which has traditionally kept its distance from Moscow – as an opportunity to increase political and security ties with Tashkent. In fact, in the short time since Karimov’s death, Russian officials have held consultations with Mirziyoyev, anticipating his victory in the upcoming election. Furthermore, as Central Asia’s leaders work to centralise their power, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the middle of a similar process, suggesting that the Kremlin could be influencing or even coordinating the restructurings taking place throughout the region.
China’s top priority, meanwhile, is to preserve stability. The country has emerged over the past decade as a major economic player in the region, overtaking Russia as Central Asia’s largest trade partner. Beijing is most concerned about power vacuums and weak leadership, which could further compound the region’s socio-economic problems and jeopardise China – either by undermining its economic interests in Central Asia or by encouraging Uighur militancy. The recent volatility has prompted China to boost its security commitments throughout the region. In the aftermath of the embassy attack, China has assisted Kyrgyzstan with the investigation, and in September Beijing announced plans to finance and build 11 outposts on Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan.
As the security situation in Central Asia grows more precarious, Russia and China are expected to redouble their efforts to secure the region. Increasing instability could foster co-operation between the two powers, since both are acting to stop the spread of Islamist militancy. The more China expands its activities in the region beyond trade, however, the more Russia will try to maintain its primacy. Intensifying competition between the two could add to the mounting pressures in Central Asia.
Eugene Chausovsky is the Eurasia Analyst at Stratfor Global Intelligence, with a focus on political, economic and security issues pertaining to the former Soviet Union, Europe and Latin America