Central Asia, the desertless highlands of Inner Asia, is bounded by the Altaj, Sajan and Jablonov mountains in the north, Transhimalaya in the south and Karakorum, Pamir and Tian Shan in the west. The definition of the region can be somewhat variable. It is common, for example in international statistics, to count the former Soviet states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan as belonging to Central Asia in an economic and political sense. According to Countryaah, the region extends over the territories of other countries.
Over the millennia, Central Asia has attracted conquerors and empire builders, from shooters and Mongols to Russians and British. Whoever mastered this geostrategic region could impose his will on large surrounding areas. In the 19th century, the battle for Central Asia was between Britain and Russia ; what is called The Great Game – ‘ The Great Game ‘. After the Soviet Union disintegrated, a major political game resumed.
This time, too, it is a strategic region between Europe and China, Russia and Iran. In addition, natural resources – not least heavy deposits of oil and gas. After the turn of the millennium, the “war on terror” came in as a new essential momentum. For Russia, Central Asia has always been important as a buffer zone to the south. After September 11, 2001, it was imperative for the United States to gain a foothold here in the fight against Islamic extremists; especially in Afghanistan. China is concerned about militant Muslims in the border province of Xinjiang and neighboring countries further west. Turkey, Iran and Pakistan also seeks influence from various Central Asian peoples groups, with their own financial interests and regional superpower aspirations as targets.
At the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Central Asian Republics became politically and security homeless. After September 11, 2001, the five new independent states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – came into serious political focus. The balance of power in the region seemed to change, with several of the states now in a temporary role as US supporters. Strictly authoritarian regimes, in turn, received financial assistance and, apparently, exemptions from criticism of human rights violations.
The region has since the turn of the millennium offered a broken picture. The five “stops” are among the world’s newest and currently poorest nations, neighbors, and sometimes bitter enemies. Boundaries had previously been drawn without regard to where the different peoples – a total of approx. 60 million people – belonged. The five bear on the legacy of a century and a half Russian and Stalinist regime. This has been continued by a corrupt power elite with roots in the old Soviet hierarchy. Several of the leaders have been elected to the head of state in their lifetime and seem to be building family dynasties with often dominant positions in business.
After the war against the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001, the United States obviously aimed to build a permanent military presence in ancient enemy land; in what used to be Soviet territory and later Russian interest. Washington focused especially on air bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with access to military operations from their territory. By contrast, Turkmenistan maintained a demonstrative neutrality. Central Asian regimes have felt threatened by Islamic fundamentalists since the mid-1990s. After relying on US security guarantees, from 2005 it became noticeable that the region was once more oriented towards Russia. In 2001, Moscow agreed, albeit reluctantly, that US troops moved into Russia’s Central Asian backyard, but maintained the definition of Central Asia as a Russian area of interest. Russia seemed to accept US bases on the condition that the Americans returned home after the end of the new Afghan war. With its push to rebuild old positions, Moscow in 2003-04 established new air bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In 2005, the United States suffered a setback when Uzbekistan demanded that the Americans leave the important Khanabad base; this came in response to American criticism of a massacre in the city of Andizhan. In 2006, Kyrgyzstan raised demand for multiple rent for US base Manas at Bishkek. China is also stepping up its diplomatic and economic activities to strengthen its foothold in the region, especially with a view to Kazakh oil resources.
Central Asian regimes have primarily wanted to have the superpowers as allies in the fight against militant extremists. Except for Tajikistan, where after a bloody civil war (1992-97) a government coalition between religious and secular movements has emerged, there is a hostile and high-spirited relationship between Islamic fundamentalism and state power. The rulers have been hard at work on radical Islamic movements. Russia, the United States and China have used terrorist terror as a basis for positioning themselves in the region. Until 2001 joined the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan(IMU) considered a serious threat. Its thousands of “holy warriors” drove guerrillas both in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but in the fall of 2001 the IMU’s main force retreated to bases in Afghanistan. Here it was virtually destroyed by American bombs. Only occasional IMU actions have since been reported.
China is waging its own fight against Muslim separatists in the western border province of Xianjiang. Militant groups from Uighur -minoriteten want secession from China, while a quarter of a million Uighurs require extended autonomy in eastern Kazakhstan.
Central Asian rulers approve a popular version of Islam, with elements of Sufi mysticism. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, will “purify” Islam and return to its roots. On the outside, the presidents appear to be believers and are happy to make use of Islamic ceremonies. However, with their Soviet background, they see with concern the greater religious glow as a potential threat to the state. A religious revival that spread through the region in the 1990s was met with ever stricter control. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan hold Islam in particularly tight bridges. Fundamentalism is often used as a pretext to knock down both religious and other dissent.
The new superpower also revolves around some of the world’s most significant oil and gas resources on the Caspian Sea. Russia has wanted to maintain some control over these energy resources, which have long been mostly transported in pipelines over Russian territory. However, since the 1990s Western companies have come up with alternative projects that will carry more of the oil outside Russia.
Independent Central Asia faces security policy challenges. Although the Taliban is no longer on the ground, Afghanistan is expected to remain a source of turmoil. The United States, Russia and China have all been eager to strengthen the region’s security system, which collapsed with the Soviet Union. Bilateral and regional security agreements have been established, but with dubious effect. Statements are not followed up with grants. The Commonwealth of Independent States Collective Security Pact (SUS) only partially covers the region, and has not shown much leverage. However, since the turn of the millennium, the Shanghai Security Organization (SCO) has become increasingly important, also as an economic cooperation body; especially in the energy sector.
An anti-terrorist center and some kind of emergency force have been set up, and joint military exercises are being held. For example, both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have had annual joint exercises with the Chinese at the border with Xinjiang. But regional tensions, different military capacities and different security and foreign policy positions have undermined attempts at a broader defense alliance.
A split Central Asia
Although the five republics share some common history to some extent, the differences are striking. Early there was a cultural divide between the nomads from the mountains and the steppes, mostly Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen, and the resident, more urban Uzbek and Tajiks, who settled on the wide river plains. Cultural, religious and political characteristics cross national borders. Each country is struggling with large ethnic minorities.
Much of today’s problem complex is traced back to Stalin’s split-and-rule policy. The division of the Soviet republics took place in part across natural ethnic, religious and cultural divides. Some strokes on the map, regardless of the peoples, became Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. These come together in the Fergana Valley – a constant source of conflict to this day. After the Soviet era, ethnic and economic pressure expired in national and religious revivals.
Regional cooperation has been described as a failure since the 1990s. In their interrelationships, nations are often characterized by confrontations rather than collaborations. The relationship between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan / Kyrgyzstan has been particularly strained. New barriers to trade have been raised. A particular threat to the good neighborhood is the dispute over the region’s scarce water resources. New authority for national borders and sovereignty breaks up a market of approx. 60 million people and make Central Asia less attractive for foreign investment – except for the oil and gas sector. An underdeveloped legal system and corruption at every level has proved to be a brake on trade.
From the West, moderate pressure on human rights is exerted, something the Central Asian leaders reject. Like former Soviet party leaders, they obviously share the belief that security and stability can best be ensured through control. Control exists in various variants, from brutal repression in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to a more moderate suppression of opposition in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In every “stop” electoral fraud is set in the system. Until the “tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan in the spring of 2004, when President Aliyev was overthrown, all five heads of state had extended their terms of office, or had parliaments elected president for life. National assemblies have been gradually undermined as leaders have gathered more and more of the power in their hands.
Since 1991, the regimes have embarked on somewhat different political courses. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have gone the longest when it comes to economic and political reforms. With its large Russian minority and more developed economy, Kazakhstan is considered significantly more European than its neighbors. Kyrgyzstan was the first country to introduce its own currency in 1993 and became a member of the WTO in 1998. In Uzbekistan, the reform process has been much in the way. With its rich gas fields, Turkmenistan has abandoned the drive for reform. Tajikistan had not yet recovered in 2006 after the civil war (1992-97), which killed at least 50,000 people, made 700,000 homeless and destroyed much of the infrastructure.
In terms of resources, the oil countries of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are in a completely different class than the poor mountain kingdoms of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But crushing poverty also characterizes the majority of the people in the potentially rich countries, which seems to provide the basis for religious and other extremism. The drug problem seems to be growing dramatically. While Afghanistan produced 87% of all opium / heroin in the world in 2005, according to the UN Drugs Agency, Central Asia has become increasingly important as a smuggling route to Europe, with Tajikistan as the main year. Central Asia is among the regions in the world where the number of heroin addicts is rising most rapidly, figures from the drug agency show. A similar increase is recorded for the spread of HIV and AIDS.
Central Asia organizations
|Shanghai Group (SCO). Shanghai Cooperation Organization.||Collaborative organization aimed at combating militant Islamic expulsion in Central Asia. Originally included five countries (China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan), which have common borders. In 2001, Uzbekistan became a full member and several other countries gained observer status. Annual Summits.|
|Commonwealth of Independent States (SUS)||The five Central Asian republics are members of the USSR, formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and also include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine. With the exception of Uzbekistan, the five participate in a collective security agreement. Military joint exercises with Russia.|
|The Islamic Liberation Party Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami||Fundamentalist pan-Islamic movement, which from its starting point in the Middle East has gained a significant and increasing spread in Central Asia. Claims himself that the fight against the regimes in the Central Asian republics is waged only by peaceful means, but signs suggest radicalization of the methods. Must be the fundamentalist movement with the greatest popular support despite the ban in the entire region.|
|Uzbek Islamic Movement (IMU)||Militant Islamic organization, founded in 1999 with the stated goal of making Uzbekistan an Islamic state. Declared jihad against President Karimov. Expanded operating area to large parts of Central Asia; during a period of guerrillas also in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where the IMU had training camps under the Taliban. The main force almost wiped out US bombs during the Afghanistan war in 2001.|
|East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)||Formed by militant Uighurs, a Turkish-speaking minority in the Chinese Xinjiang Province. Has carried out terrorist attacks and sabotage, with subsequent powerful countermeasures by the Chinese authorities. ETIM groups have also been active in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. China claims ETIM is in alliance with al-Qaeda.|
|Turkestan Islamic Movement Hizb-i-Islami Turkestan||Coordinating body with participation of IMU and Uighur separatists in China. Has as its stated goal, through militant actions, to carry on an Islamic revolution beyond Central Asia and Xinjiang Province.|
|Erk (“Freedom”) and Birlik (“Unity”)||Opposition parties in Uzbekistan, both banned in 1992, have since operated in exile.|
|Islamic Renewal Party (IRP)||Islamic political organization, founded in the Soviet Union in 1990 with independent branches in the Central Asian republics. Today a legal party only in Tajikistan.|