Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 23

The political and military leaderships of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are awaiting the approaching spring with some trepidation. They brace for a possible resumption of activities by militant Islamic groups which are known to be wintering in Afghanistan, are believed to have returned in small numbers to northern Tajikistan and are suspected of recruiting and propagandizing clandestinely in several countries of the region. The Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik leaders are particularly marked by the experience of last year’s terrorist bombings in Tashkent, the armed raid in Yangiabad (Uzbekistan) and the insurgency staged in Kyrgyzstan by Uzbek Islamists from Tajikistan (see the Monitor, October 20, 27, November 9, 1999; the Fortnight in Review, October 8, November 5). Those events exposed the countries’ vulnerability to hostile subversion and penetration by poorly armed but highly motivated militants. The governments concerned are currently taking some elaborate precautionary measures before the onset of spring.

In Kazakhstan, under the chairmanship of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the Security Council issued in mid-January a set of guidelines to the military, along with a presidential message to the country on the “Stability and Security of Kazakhstan into a new century.” The main thrust of the decisions has since been publicly expounded by the Security Council’s Secretary, Marat Tazhin, and the defense minister, Lieutenant-General Sat Tokpakbaev. Both officials were recently appointed to their posts with a mandate to launch military reform and overhaul the state security apparatus.

The political and military leadership has identified a set of possible threats to national security in the short and medium term. Those threats include: local conflicts or instability in neighbor countries affecting Kazakhstan’s internal situation and posing the risk of spillover, infiltration of “religious extremist” or “criminal” armed groups into Kazakhstan, and dissemination of inflammatory religious or nationalist propaganda from abroad which is aimed at “activating destructive forces” within Kazakhstan.

To deal with these potential challenges, Nazarbaev supports the military’s request for an immediate increase in the defense budget to 1 percent of the gross domestic product in 2000, compared to 0.86 percent in 1999. The political and military leadership also agree on the urgent need for legislation to create a national arms procurement system.

Effective this spring, the army will substantially increase the forces stationed in border areas of southern Kazakhstan, opposite Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. With Kazakhstan’s overall military manpower slated for net cuts this year, some army garrisons across the country are being selected for transfer to the southern region. Some border guard units are likewise being relocated to the same area. Air reconnaissance and fighter-bomber units will also be deployed there to monitor possible rebel movements in Kyrgyzstan and to support Kyrgyz troops in the event of renewed conflict there (Habar, January 14, 19, 28-29).

In Kyrgyzstan, under the chairmanship of President Askar Akaev, the Defense Council adopted a program on January 20 to upgrade military preparedness, reinforce army troops along the country’s border with Tajikistan, accelerate the formation of border troops, identify additional sources of funding for the military, and involve local administrative bodies in defense and security measures, particularly in the Osh and Batken regions. According to the defense minister, Lieutenant-General Esen Topoev, the government is bracing for another attempt by Islamic rebels to force their way from Afghanistan or Tajikistan, via Kyrgyzstan, in the direction of Uzbekistan. The military counts on some donations of Russian, Turkish and German equipment this year. From the second two countries, the Kyrgyz army expects to receive communications systems and night-vision devices.

In a parallel action, civilian and security authorities are cracking down on perceived “religious extremism” in the traditionally devout southern region. Two group trials against members of banned Islamic organizations were held in the city of Osh last month, resulting in prison terms for “incitement of religious strife,” “dissemination of religious propaganda of an unlawful content” and “recruitment of members into illegal groups.” And last week, a special government session “on the religious situation in the country,” chaired by First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Silayev, approved a “plan of measures against religious extremism.” Drafted by the State Commission on Religious Affairs–a Soviet-era relict, rather dormant until last year–the plan envisages “properly training” school children and youth, as well as enlightening the populace about the “inhuman essence of religious extremism” and “the extremists’ aims.” “Progressive clergymen”–another nearly forgotten creation of the Soviet era–will be summoned to help in this work. Silayev called, moreover, for improving “analytical work”–apparently a euphemism for internal intelligence–on the extremist groups (KyrgyzKabar, Vecherniy Bishkek, January 19, 20, 25, 28, February 1; see the Monitor, January 7).

In Uzbekistan, whose military forces are Central Asia’s strongest, the authorities are conducting a political campaign for vigilance against “religious extremism.” President Islam Karimov has set the tone of this campaign in his January 22 address to the Supreme Assembly [parliament] at the inauguration of his new presidential term. Drawing a distinction between legitimate religious expression and the use of Islam for “mercenary political goals,” Karimov spoke of the “growing danger caused by creeping expansion and penetration of religious fanaticism and international terrorism into the region. Our most pressing task today is to take measures, in cooperation with the neighboring countries, against this threat to peace and stability.” Karimov emphasized the value of Russian support to Uzbekistan in resisting “international terrorism”–a marked shift in the Uzbek president’s perception of Russia’s role in Central Asia. Karimov has several times recently underscored his full agreement with Russia’s acting president, Vladimir Putin, on that score (see the Fortnight in Review, December 17; the Monitor, December 16, 1999, January 6).

A “vigilance” meeting in Tashkent last week, broadcast live on television, conveys the flavor of such meetings. Internal Affairs Minister Zakirjon Almatov told those assembled that clandestine groups of young Islamic militants are disseminating leaflets in the city’s bazaars and public transport as well as in residential neighborhoods and mailboxes. Because “they have declared war on us,” he said, we are forced to choose between clemency to some of these “misguided youth” and “declaring war” on the recidivists among them. The minister expressed discontent with the passivity of local imams, elders and ward leaders and the reluctance of senior clergy to speak out against the extremist groups. The head of the government’s Department for Religious Affairs termed the senior clergy in toto “cowards” for their attitude; the government, he said, can only count on “five or six” religious leaders to get involved in this campaign (Uzbek Television, January 22, 24, 27; see the Monitor, January 13).

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan plan to participate in two joint military exercises this year on their territories. The annual CentrasBat exercise, planned and financed mainly by the United States under NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, will also include units of several NATO countries and probably a token Russian presence. The other exercise, to be held in the framework of the CIS Collective Security Treaty, will feature Russia in a prominent role and is expected to include also Tajik units, as well as some symbolic participation by CIS countries from outside Central Asia. Plans for the latter exercise were discussed last week by Karimov, Nazarbaev and Akaev with Putin at the CIS summit in Moscow (Itar-Tass, Habar, KyrgyzKabar, Tashkent Radio, January 25, 27, 29; see the Monitor, January 26, 28).

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