Central Asia facing turmoil

Late Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov
The death of President Islam Karimov brings with it the risk of a power struggle in Uzbekistan and greater instability in Central Asia (source: dpa)

Central Asia is commonly understood as consisting of five former Soviet Republics, sometimes called the “Stans”: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Although Afghanistan was never part of the Soviet Union, it is nearby geographically, as well as ethnically linked to the other five “Stans.”

It is an arid region, stretching from the Caspian Sea at slightly below sea level, to the Pamir Mountains with elevations of up to 7,500 meters. Over this vast territory, the total population of the five countries put together amounts to about 69 million. Uzbekistan has a population of some 31.5 million, Kazakhstan 17.7 million and the three others between 5 and 9 million.

The two largest ethnic groups in the region are the Uzbeks and the Tajiks, both numbering about 25-30 million people – but differentiating them can be tricky. Though officially the Tajik population in Uzbekistan is some 4 percent, the true figure is estimated at between 20 and 40 percent. In the past, many Tajiks in Uzbekistan registered as Uzbeks to avoid resettlement to Tajikistan. Uzbeks and Tajiks also form large minorities in Afghanistan.

The other major ethnic groups in the region are Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmens and Russians. The countries’ borders were designed rather arbitrarily by the Soviets, who ignored the various ethnic dividing lines. The Tajiks are of Iranian origin, whereas the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmens are of Turkic origin.

Faltering stability

With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, the countries have been fairly politically stable over the past 20 years, despite bordering Afghanistan and forming an area where tensions between China, India, Iran and Russia meet. This has partly been due to their authoritarian regimes.

However, that stability now seems to be faltering. In Tajikistan, President Imomali Rahmon’s regime has been both politically and economically restrictive. While spectacular buildings went up in the capital, other infrastructure throughout the country has mostly been neglected. Late last year, the country’s parliament passed a law designating President Rahmon as the “Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation.”

Moreover, Mr. Rahmon had a very bad relationship with Uzbekistani President Islam Karimov. The tension between the two led Tajikistan to make crossing the border with Uzbekistan more difficult. (As Uzbekistan is Tajikistan’s most important neighbor, this was very much to Tajikistan’s detriment.) Lately, opposition from Islamic groups within the country seems to have grown.

A map of Central Asia
Central Asia is vast, stretching from the Caspian Sea, slightly below sea level, to the Pamir Mountains, some as high as 7,500 meters (source: macpixxel for GIS)

From the time it gained independence from the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan had been governed by President Islam Karimov, who had pushed his country’s economic and infrastructural development forward. President Karimov suffered a stroke in late August and died. So far, there is no agreement on who the successor will be, but the infighting is sure to begin.

Kazakhstan is in a similar situation. President Nursultan Nazarbayev is approaching 80 years of age and his succession also may not be as smooth as might be hoped for.

Turkmenistan lies east of the Caspian Sea and is very dry, but derives huge riches from the sale of natural gas. President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov assumed office at the end of 2006 and repealed some of his predecessor’s more idiosyncratic and egomaniacal measures. He also reformed Turkmenistan’s education, health care and pension systems. However, he is rigidly authoritarian and uses the title “Arkadag,” meaning protector.

Necessity of intervention

With the death of Uzbekistan’s president, growing unrest in Tajikistan and an unclear succession plan in Kazakhstan – not to mention recent terror attacks in Kyrgyzstan – instability across the region has now become a distinct possibility. The geographical proximity of still-unstable Afghanistan and all of the various overlapping ethnic groupings make the situation more difficult, as do the intersecting interests of foreign powers in the region.

This is Russia’s backyard, and it may feel obligated to intervene if turmoil erupts

This is Russia’s backyard, and it may feel obligated to intervene if turmoil erupts. Instability could cause a number of concerns for Moscow, including an Islamic insurgence spilling over into Muslim areas of Russia, a further weakening of the Eurasian Union, and the need to protect large Russian minorities. In Kazakhstan alone, Russians make up about one third of the population.

Instability in Central Asia would also hinder Beijing’s ambitions for a new silk road, and could fuel Islamic extremism in Western China.

Last but not least, it could threaten the political and strategic balance of the continent, attracting a number of interventions. It would extend the belt of instability reaching from West Africa, across the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan, to the heart of Russia and the Chinese border.

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