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COMMENTARY: US-Central Asia talks only a small part of complex regional picture
04 August 2016

This is a commentary prepared by the editorial team of commonspace.eu

US Secretary of State John Kerry invited the foreign ministers of Central Asia’s five ‘Stans’ to Washington on Wednesday for a high level summit, but the US faces an uphill struggle deepening ties in the region. Central Asia is still in the orbit of Moscow and increasingly Beijing, and is facing the twin threats of economic stangation and violent extremism.

Kerry pledged cash to boost clean energy projects, and deepen security and economic ties with the leaders of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan at the second meeting of the group dubbed the “C5+1”.

The group [...] agreed to launch five joint projects that were developed by the C5+1 working groups that met after the first ministerial in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, which was last November 2015,” said Mark Toner, Kerry’s spokesman. “The United States is excited to be continuing the C5+1 format as we broaden and deepen our relationship with the Central Asian states.”

However the US will not find it easy to define a role in the region. Although the Soviet Union is a quarter-century dead, Russia is still the predominant power. The Russian language is the regional lingua franca, and many in the Stans consume solely Russian media.

Kazakhstan and Kyrgzstan belong to the Eurasian Economic Union, Moscow’s answer to the EU and NATO. Russia has major military bases in the region, as well as significant control over natural resources.

China is rapidly growing as a regional power on the back of its astonishing economic expansion over the past two decades. All five Stans bar Turkmenistan belong to the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a counterbalance to the EEU, while the region is being changed rapidly by trade and investment funnelled through China’s ambitious ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy. 

Democracy and human rights, ostensibly among the US’s foreign policy priorities, have been thin on the ground since the five Stans gained independence in 1991. While America played a role in funding and abetting the democratic transition of the 1990s, its approach was largely supperficial, and after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 US policy towards the region narrowed to security concerns, particularly related to neighbouring Afghanistan. 

Only Kyrgyzstan resembles a democracy at present. President Almazbek Atambayev has pursued close ties with to Russia – the US military base at Manas was closed down in 2014 under Russian influence – but he has repeatedly pledged to stand down when his term expires next year. However the country is still seething with discontent after revolutions in 2005 and 2010.

The other four Stans have not developed democratic norms at all. Both Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and his Uzbek counterpart Islam Karidov served as the last First Secretary of the Communist Party in their republic, before becoming the first, and so-far only, president of the modern nation state. Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan has been in power for nearly as long, while Turkmenistan’s president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov presides over a personality cult.

The leaders of the five Stans feel threatened from three different directions, meaning the region is higher than ever before on the United States’ concerns. 

Firstly, they are threatened by the ongoing distinctive regional politics of clientelism and clans. When the Soviet Union collapsed, local and clan identities predominated over the ethnic and economic divisions that shaped the post-Soviet political scene in other countries.  There was little mobilisation to challenge old elites, and indeed many of the old guard are still in charge .

For instance, in Uzbekistan, President Karimov belongs to the Samarkand clan, while the security services come from the Tashkent clan, resulting in a combustible equilibrium. These clan identities undermine institutions and accountability.  Rulers feel threatened by other clans as well as upstarts within their own clans, sometimes including their own relatives – Karimov imprisoned his own daughter, Gulnara, in 2014 for reasons which are opaque.

In all countries, wealth – there is a huge amount of natural gas and oil in the region – is accrued in the hands of a tiny elite, a formula ripe for volatility. Millions of Central Asians moved to Russia to work in the boom years after the millennium, but many have now returned home to bleak prospects in the past couple of years as the Russian economy has slumped. The economies of the Stans have barely improved since the Soviet collapse, and nostalgia is rife.

The second major threat leaders worry about is the kind of bottom-up ‘colour revolution’ which toppled the governments of Georgia and Ukraine in the mid-2000s. These ruptures were heavily motivated by economic concerns, as well as the perception the ruling elite is out of touch, like the Arab Spring movement which came some years later.

Kyrgyzstan’s 2005 ‘Tulip Revolution’ was thought at the time to be analogous to Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, but it did not change the fundamental basis of Kyrgyz politics, with clientelism still predominating. China and Russia are, for obvious reasons, seen as more reliable allies for local elites against this concern than the USA.

All five Stans are highly repressive, with low rankings on Freedom House’s ‘Freedom in the World 2016’ index, with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan ranking as the third and sixth least free countries in the world. 

This level of repression is also explained by the third major threat facing the region – radical Islam. All five states restrict religious freedoms to varying extents, with Uzbekistan long on the US State Department’s religious freedom ‘country of particular concern’ list, and Turkmenistan and Tajikistan being recent additions.

In Tajikistan the Islamic Renaissance Party was banned last year, and hundreds of its supporters and activists have been persecuted. Some estimate as many as 12,000 have been locked up for their religious views in Uzbekistan. Yet the ideals of religious freedom come up against hard-headed realpolitik, in a region which was used as the US’s launching pad for the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Since the formation of the so-called Islamic State in 2014, the group’s influence in Central Asia has been growing. Worryingly, the group is tailoring its messages to the distinctive local cultures, languages and politics of each country, according to research by Harvard’s Noah Tucker. Thousands from the Stans have joined the Islamic State, and some have featured in viral videos rallying others to action. 

If this flow continues and some fighters start returning home, it could create deep problems for the Central Asian states, as religious persecution and religious extremism feed off each other in a vicious circle.

The Fergana Valley, spanning Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan, is frequently cited as a regional tinderbox. Violent unrest in Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and 2010 came out of the valley, with the city of Osh a particular flashpoint, but the problem is not just there. Islamist militants killed six in June at Aktobe in northwestern Kazakhstan, close to the Russian border.

The United States’s deepening ties in Central Asia are welcome, but in reality are just a drop in a complex and volatile ocean. A multitude of forces are at work pulling the region in different directions – resource wealth, Chinese and Russian foreign policy, American counterterrorism, economic stagnation, Islamic extremism, clan divisions – and any could trigger a sudden change in the rules of the Great Game. In some ways the C5 + 1 initiative is a recognition on the part of the United States that it understands the limits of its influence in the region, although it is also a statement that the American government is not ready to have no influence at all in such a strategically important part of the world. It is also a message to Central Asians that when they are ready for change, the US will be there for them. That moment may yet be much closer than most think.

Commentary prepared by the editorial team at Commonspace.eu

PHOTO: John Kerry with the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian countries, after their meeting in Washington on 3 August (picture courtesy of the US State Department).

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