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Central Asia – 2015: external threats, internal tension

Being part of Russia’s foreign policy and closely tied to that country both historically and economically, the Central Asian nations are facing same problems and challenges as the Russians are. So, there is no surprise that the latter are paying close attention to that region’s southern borders, where things are far from being calm. Drugs-trafficking, religious extremism, high risk of coups, illegal migration – these are just a few of the problems Central Asia will have to deal with this year.

 When border is not locked

Despite Washington’s optimism that its Operation Enduring Freedom has been successfully completed and its troops are coming back home, the situation in Afghanistan - in the very heart of Central Asia – is all but stable. And this is obvious for both the Central Asians and the Russians. So, it is not a coincidence that Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu has already advised his colleagues from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to be ready for the worst now that NATO is withdrawing from the region. Of course, withdrawal is not quite the word here as more than 10,000 foreign soldiers are still deployed in Afghanistan. But this is not a comfort. NATO’s withdrawal will become an acid test for the Ghani-Abdullah regime and will certainly affect the rest of Central Asia. Formerly the Taliban was a mostly Pushtun movement. Now it is used as just a cover by ethnic fighter groups, whose goals are far from what was declared when the Taliban first appeared in Kabul. Being well armed and trained, those groups have become a source of serious concern for Afghanistan’s neighbors.

The main question President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov raised during the visit of his Russian counterpart to Tashkent in December 2014 was security in view of the situation in Afghanistan. Vladimir Putin said that Russia shared Uzbekistan’s apprehensions and promised to continue contacts on this problem and, particularly, to develop military-technical cooperation.

Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon mentioned this problem during the December meeting of the presidents of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. He informed his colleagues that four Tajik border guards had been kidnapped on the border with Afghanistan. This matter is often discussed by the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan. And now it has become a concern for the Turkmens, who, after the incidents on the Turkmen-Afghani border, have seen that they will no longer be able to stay neutral here and should better seek help in Moscow and Beijing as from Washington and Brussels they can get only promises.

But extremism is not just an external problem. In some of the Central Asian countries, special services are registering more and more extremist parties and are detecting more and more local citizens fighting for the ISIL in Syria and Iraq. Many of them have already declared plans to go back home. Mixing up the religion of Islam with the idea of social justice, advocates of the Caliphate are especially active among those poor and unemployed and already have lots of supporters in Central Asia. While formerly a men’s business, extremism has now ceased to be their monopoly. According to the Interior Ministry of Kyrgyzstan, the share of women in extremist crimes in that country has grown by 23%. Considering active migration from Central Asia to Russia, the problems of religious extremism and drug trafficking have long become an internal problem for Russia. The coming year will hardly see these problems resolved. Now that Kyrgyzstan has joined the Customs Union, Russia will have to solve the problem of its southern regions, where some borders are not even demarcated and may well trigger local conflicts one day.

 Elections as a foreboding

This year three Central Asian nations are planning to conduct elections. On March 1 and 29, Tajikistan will elect Majlisi namoyandagon and Majlisi milli (the lower and upper chambers of its parliament); on March 29, Uzbekistan will elect a new president, while in the autumn Kyrgyzstan will elect a new Zhogorku Kenesh (the parliament).

In Tajikistan, the main question will be how many seats Emomali Rakhmon’s opponents, the opposition Party of Islamic Revival, will get in the new parliament. In foreign policy, things are much clearer. Russia continues to be Tajikistan’s strategic partner and the key employer for lots of migrant workers, who keep working there and sending money home despite the crisis.

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In Uzbekistan, the intrigue is whether Islam Karimov, the country’s unchanged leader since the Soviet times, will run for presidency again. If he does, there will be no more questions who will win. But since Karimov is old, experts are considering alternatives. To say now who will be Karimov’s successor is like to read a teacup. The only sure thing here is that Gulnara Karimov will not be the one as in a Muslim country ruled by rivaling clans a woman will hardly be able to keep things in check. In Kyrgyzstan, there was such a female president, but in Uzbekistan this is hardly possible. In any case, the Uzbeks, just like the Kazakhs (whose president has also been unchanged since the early 1990s), are not much worried about successors: they say they have a relevant mechanism and will come to terms on this.

In Kyrgyzstan, the key concern is that the parliamentary elections may end in a Maidan, especially as one more five-year cycle is coming to an end (in 2005 and 2010 public disorders ended in the ousters of Askar Akayev and Kurmanbek Bakiyev). Even now it is becoming clear that there will be fewer parties in the next parliament, so, some forces may lose their seats. In Kyrgyzstan, there are as many as 193 parties against just 8 parties Tajikistan.

All will be fair in such a war: dirt, bribes, rallies. The ruling party will be criticized for all it has done so far: from accession to the Customs Union to power outages. One and the same person will say quite different things in different venues. On the one hand, they will declare pro-Russian theses in hope for support (especially financial) from Russian politicians and businessmen, on the other, they will play on “patriotic” heartstrings so as to gain support from own people.

But why such a contrast and such “patriotism”? In the Central Asian countries “patriotism” today implies berating Russia and their common past with the Russians. As a result, more and more people are reasoning about genocide, colonization, occupation, total assimilation and are making heroes of anti-Soviet Basmachis. This year is the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, so, there will be lots of “national patriots” who will try to devaluate this date. Such forces are against any integration initiatives and are often funded by western organizations.

The economic problems of the five Central Asian nations have also much in common. Their biggest concern is to keep their national currencies from falling. The ruble fever has forced some of their migrant workers to come back home from Russia. Those people say they can no longer find well-paid jobs there, but the irony is that in their home countries the same jobs offer even lower wages.

 Between or together with Russia and China

In fact, the only choice for Central Asia for the time being is Russia or China. These two countries are the biggest investors in the region’s economy, unlike the US and the EU, who prefer funding NGOs for human rights, sexual minorities, environment protection and other projects. As for Southeast Asia and Europe, they show almost no interest in what Central Asia may offer.

Kyrgyzstan’s decision to join the Customs Union and the Common Economic Area was not a problem for Chinese businessmen, who said that now they would just have to spend a little bit more time with customs officers on the border. China continues to actively expand into the region’s economy - mostly because Russia is absent there. More and more small Chinese companies are being set up in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in line with China’s strategy to move some of its productions to neighboring countries. In Osh the Chinese have opened a factory producing washing machines and refrigerators. These products will be made in the territory of the Customs Union, and so, they will face no obstacles on local markets. The consistency China is showing in building economic contacts, lending money and implementing big projects in Central Asia is helping it to draw the local nations increasingly closer to its economic orbit, while politically and culturally, the Central Asians remain in the orbit of Russia. Both Beijing and Moscow are interested in stability in that region. That’s why for the time being they prefer supporting each other and ignoring their rivalry for it.

One way or another, in 2015 the Central Asian nations will continue moving in the wake of Russia’s policy but if we do nothing there in hope that nothing will change, we may leave the region up for grabs. Partnership requires mutual respect and mutual benefit as well as attention and consistency. And this is exactly what Russia and Central Asia expect from each other.

 Analytical Department of EAD

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