Analysis: Central Asian countries need to remain focused on reforms despite new security threats

Heads of Central Asia countries on summit August 2021

The dust from the sudden Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has not settled yet, and it is likely that new turmoil is just round the corner. But the fallout of the crisis on neighbouring countries can already be felt, and much more can be anticipated.

Foremost caught in this process are the countries of Central Asia who this year celebrate their 30th anniversary of independence, thrust upon them with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. They are likely to be impacted by an influx of refugees, including by those with shared ethnicity. Even more serious is the prospect that radical Islamist groups who have been active in the region for a while, will be empowered by the events in neighbouring Afghanistan, and their ranks bolstered. All this may have an impact on both the political and economic situation of the region, as well as its relations with the outside world.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are landlocked countries spanning from the Caspian region to the borders of China. Apart from some turbulent experimentation with pluralist politics in Kyrgyzstan, they have been ruled for most of the last three decades with a firm hand by rulers whose priority has been to protect the newly gained but fragile state-hood. All five have had to manage Russian and Chinese pressure. Petty squabbles between the five have also featured prominently in the last three decades and made regional co-operation difficult.

But change appears to be taking place. A peaceful and orderly change of leadership in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in recent years has brought in new leaders who have embraced the concept of reforms and who have declared a willingness to engage with the world in a different way than before. Some are concerned that the very real security threats following the Taliban takeover in Kabul may result in this reform agenda being derailed. The leaders of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have made it clear that it will not, and it is important that the international community, and particularly the EU, engages with the two countries intensively and efficiently, accompanying their journey to change.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world, and has a huge land area of 2,724,900 square kilometres. It is the world's largest landlocked country. However, it has only a small population of just over 19 million, including a large ethnic Russian community.

From the time of independence until two years ago Kazakhstan’s leader was Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev is credited to have forged, what some dismissed as an artificial construct, into a proud nation. In 2019 he decided to step aside and make way for a younger leader, and was succeeded by Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

Tokayev has been able to move out of the shadow of his predecessor, without alienating him. In doing so he had also to keep an eye on the Russians, who continue to be wary of reforms in Central Asia and remain more comfortable dealing with the old dinosaurs left from Soviet times. Tokayev has introduced the concept of a “listening state” and has promised to allow some space for opposition to operate without fear. The process has started, although the pandemic has added to the difficulty of appraising its effectiveness. In January Tokayev, proposed to the newly elected parliament a third package of political reforms aimed at further modernising Kazakhstan’s political and human rights system. One of the main proposals was to reduce the threshold for political parties to gain seats in the lower house of parliament from 7 percent to 5 percent. The President noted that this will contribute to the development of political competition in the country. In future the president proposed to introduce the option “against all” on the ballots saying that it gives more power to the people to express their opinion on the political situation in the country, or voice their disapproval. Kazakhstan has also this year abolished the death penalty. Some say these measures are not enough, and things are moving too slowly. But overall the process of reform, including in the government bureaucracy, in the economic sphere, and in social life, is going on in earnest.

Uzbekistan

The processes going on in Uzbekistan are even more unprecedented, given that until recently the country had got for itself the unpleasant reputation of being one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.

With a population of around 35 million, and with a rich history, Uzbekistan considers itself one of the leading countries of the region but its image was tarnished by its reputation for disregard of human rights. When Uzbekistan’s strongman, Islam Karimov died in 2016, his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev moved quickly to set out a new course, and set for the country a clear and ambitious reform agenda.

In a recent interview, Mirziyoyev, who is up for re-election in October, described today's Uzbekistan as "a country of democratic transformations, big opportunities and practical deeds”, adding:

for me, this process is the greatest result of our reforms. After all, the clarity of the goal is the most important criterion that ensures the effectiveness of actions. If we briefly describe the true essence and idea of the Action Strategy adopted by us five years ago, then in this unique document we have set ourselves the strategic goal of building a New Uzbekistan and laying the foundations for the Third Renaissance. It should be noted that the building a New Uzbekistan is not a whim, not a subjective phenomenon, but an objective necessity, which has its own fundamental historical foundations, due to the current political, legal, socio-economic, spiritual and educational situation, based on the centuries-long aspirations of our people and fully conforming to their national interests. The New Uzbekistan is a state, developing in strict compliance with the universally recognized norms in the field of democracy, human rights and freedoms, on the basis of the principles of friendship and cooperation with the international community, the ultimate aim of which is to create a free, comfortable and prosperous life for our people.

Mirziyoyev means business, and even if the delivery of this reform agenda is not as swift as some would wish, as comprehensive as the president suggests it is, or as yet, as successful as everyone hopes, no one can deny that there is a very changed situation in the country and things are going in the right direction.

A word about Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan

The three smaller Central Asian countries all have their own specifities, but are part of the same region due to common and shared history and geography. Politically they have followed somewhat different trajectories. Turkmenistan has declared itself strictly neutral and has kept aloof from regional integration processes. It appears however to have found a new vocation in working with other Central Asian partners, as the recent summit of Central Asian leaders hosted in the country has shown. Tajikistan was shaken by a bloody civil war soon after independence. It continues to face a serious jihadist threat – one that is likely to increase after the recent events in Afghanistan. Since many of those opposing the Taliban in Afghanistan are ethnic Tajiks, Tajikistan may become a focal point for anti-Taliban opposition. Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have a long border with Afghanistan and they are likely to experience a deteriorating security situation. This is likely to be used as an excuse to delay further any political or economic reforms, even though both countries are in dire need of change unless they want to be left behind in an increasingly competitive world. Kyrgyzstan’s problems are somewhat different. The smallest of the Central Asians it has prided itself with an open and dynamic political processes, but this has not saved it from severe political turbulence, which at times appeared to be spiraling out of control. Whilst it flirted with the west at some point in its post-independence era, it is now firmly embedded as a member of both the EAEU and the CSTO. Kyrgyzstan is likely to be less affected by the events in Afghanistan than the others, but many of the other challenges are the same.

Recent Central Asia summit

Relations between the Central Asian countries has not always been ideal. There have been tensions in the Ferghana Valley where the borders of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan meet; recently there have been incidents on the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan; and relations between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have sometimes been described as being “too competitive”. This, when co-operation is very necessary. The recent summit of Central Asian countries, held in Turkmenistan in early August, is in this regard was very welcome news. One could sense that the Afghan crisis brought a new sense of urgency to the need for regional co-operation.

During the summit the five presidents appeared to have found some sort of common language and there were calls for co-operation at various levels. That was before the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. The need for regional co-operation has since become more acute.

Russia and China will act as spoilers for the reform agenda

Russia and China compete in Central Asia, but they both want stability and neither have an interest in the spread of radicalisation. However the way they have gone about doing this so far is not by supporting change, but by supporting stagnation under the guise that they are supporting stability. The new situation emerging as a result of the Afghan situation means that they both will need to reassess their tactics in the region. Putin’s Russia hankers for the times of the Soviet Union. It has sought to keep the Central Asian republics within its tight embrace. Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are part of both the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). Tajikistan is a member of the CSTO. Turkmenistan has consistently stayed aloof from both, and Uzbekistan has toyed with the idea of joining but has up to now decided not to, and this is unlikely to change in the immediate future.

President Putin and other Russian officials have in the last days expressed concern at the problems in Afghanistan spilling over into Central Asia. For the Russians Central Asia is a buffer, and if they plunge into turmoil, a spread into Russia itself will be inevitable. Russia will try to work with the Central Asian states to achieve this, but it also has one other priority which appears to be no less important, and that is to keep the west out of Central Asia. It will use the security threat from the Afghan crisis to to frighten the Central Asian republics into closer links with its own political and military regional process. The Central Asian governments of 2021 are however different in their thinking from those of 1991, or even or 2011. They want to balance Russian and Chinese influence with EU and US relations. Moscow may well find that trying to obstruct this will be counter-productive.

China's primary immediate concern is the Uighur region of Xingiang. It borders not only Afghanistan, but also Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. China was quite happy to see the Central Asian countries under Russian influence, where it could compete with Moscow for economic and cultural influence, leaving Moscow to deal with the political and security dimensions. The Taliban are another matter.

The Chinese would prefer not to see any westerners in Central Asia. They have in the past thirty years used their economic muscle to edge themselves into the region, challenging the Russian monopoly at least in the economic sphere. Moscow is not happy but its relations with Beijing are too sensitive for it to be seen belligerent. As tensions between the west and China increase, Central Asia may well become one of the theatres were adversarial competition will play out

The EU’s Central Asia strategy

The EU’s engagement with Central Asia has been somewhat patchy. There was a flurry of enthusiasm in the 1990s with programs like TACIS and TRASECA trailblazing through the old silk road. The response of the Central Asian states at the time was somewhat lukewarm. Europe was too far from their reality, and they remained for sometime very much part of the Russian world. The EU remained engaged in one form or other, and at one point appointed a Special Representative for Central Asia. That helped a lot because Brussels now had a point of reference for the political agenda with the Central Asian states. A new EUSR has just taken over – Terhi Hakkala from Finland. After the fall of Kabul her agenda has just become much busier.

The eighth High-Level Political and Security Dialogue between the European Union and the countries of Central Asia took place on Thursday (1 July) in the capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent. The meeting provided an opportunity to discuss regional dynamics and advance region-to-region co-operation on a broad spectrum of issues, including border management, security and the promotion of sustainable connectivity. Ironically perhaps, Afghanistan attended the meeting as special guest. It is unlikely that the Taliban government will be invited to attend the 9th meeting, scheduled to be held in Dushambe at the end of the year. But Afghanistan will in that meeting be the elephant in the room in any case.

Reform and connectivity

In June 2019, overshadowed by the pandemic, the EU adopted its strategy towards Central Asia (read more here).

It said,

Recognising the strategic role of Central Asia in global efforts to promote Euro-Asian connectivity and stressing that these efforts should bring benefits to the region, the Council states that it looks forward to increased cooperation with Central Asian countries to promote sustainable, comprehensive and rules-based connectivity. The Council also emphasises the joint interest of the EU and of Central Asian states to intensify cooperation to promote peace in Afghanistan."

In the last EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting, held on line on 17 November 2020, the EU further set up its stall as to what it sees its agenda with Central Asia. As the final communique state, “the EU reaffirmed its wish to strengthen its role as a partner for the Central Asian countries in their reform processes, as a supporter of their integration in the world trading system and of their efforts to work closely together. The EU commended initiatives aimed at promoting closer regional cooperation in Central Asia, including on border management, trade facilitation, people-to-people contacts and water management.”

This reform and connectivity agenda is very suitable for the Central Asian states too at this point. There is therefore a common ground and a common vision. This now needs to be exploited, and the events in Afghanistan should not be the cause for delay, but rather a reason to engage and deliver more quickly and more robustly. EU engagement must however be sensitive to the complexity of the region and its geo-politics, and lessons from mistakes in other areas learnt.

Central Asia at the crossroads

The countries of Central Asia are at an important crossroads. The events in Afghanistan are not going to make their choices either more simple or more easy. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have taken very important steps in the last few years on the path to reform. It is important that they stay the course, and it is important for the EU and other western countries to help them in this task. If possible this should be done without adversarial engagement with either Russia or China, even though are likely to put obstacles in the way. Central Asia does not need another "great game". It needs support so it can develop and evolve for the benefit of its people, and so that the radical elements that have been successful in Afghanistan can be stopped in their stride.

source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS Europe and Managing Editor of commonspace.eu
photo: The leaders of the five Central Asia countries at their recent meeting in Turkmenistan (picture courtesy of the press service of the president of Uzbekistan)

Original source:   COMMONSPACE.EU

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