Numerous countries continue to face instability and unrest amid fragile global economic conditions, failing political systems and inadequate responses to socio-economic challenges. In Central Asia, local autocracies will grapple with pressures for political change, Islamic militancy, social unrest and ethnic tensions. They also face the potential for inter-state conflict and risks stemming from great power antagonisms, regional rivalries, and complex developments in neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.
Pressures for change are growing across Central Asia. In 2010, Kyrgyzstan witnessed the emergence of the only parliamentary system of government in Central Asia after popular protests toppled former President Kurmanbek Bakiev’s regime. Last year, it experienced the first peaceful transfer of power from President Roza Otunbayeva, the first female leader in the post-Soviet space. However, Kyrgyzstan is yet to consolidate its shaky parliamentary system marked by political infighting and assert central authority over its periphery, where semi-autonomous positions of officials in Osh province will continue to be a powerful drag on the country’s consolidation following the clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the south in 2010.
In Kazakhstan, political conditions will be hostage to its oil wealth and authoritarian rule. But even here authorities increasingly feel compelled to initiate political reforms, as a decision to transition to a multi-party system starting with January 15 parliamentary elections has shown. In the elections, the pro-business Ak Zhol and the Communist People’s party both received the minimum of 7 percent of the vote needed to enter the parliament. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s Nur Otan party, which gained 80.1 percent of the vote, currently dominates in the parliament. However, the Nationwide Social Democratic Party, viewed as the genuine opposition party, received only 1.6 percent. On January 17, the party protested the alleged electoral fraud, saying it would stage another demonstration on January 28 (www.toptj.com, January 17). Certainly, the authorities will continue stifling the opposition, but they are also increasingly forced to open up the political stage for new actors.
Uzbekistan has also seen cosmetic changes. Uzbek authorities have shortened presidential terms from seven to five years last December in what were likely President Islam Karimov’s efforts to lay the foundation for an orderly leadership succession or to run for presidency before the expiration of his current term (www.centrasia.ru, December 7, 2011). Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan both face potentially unstable leadership successions for their long-standing, aging presidents.
In Turkmenistan, where the new “old regime” has pursued some reforms after President Saparmurat Niyazov’s (Turkmenbashi) death, authorities will hold presidential elections on February 12. The tightly-controlled elections will almost certainly guarantee a victory for the incumbent Burganbuly Berdimuhamedov, who was nominated by the only official Democratic Party and is running against three candidates. Disturbances are not expected as the regime is in firm control over the slowly opening political system in the post-Turkmenbashi era.
In Tajikistan, Islamist currents and opposition will challenge President Emomali Rahmon’s rule with renewed force, but are unlikely to overthrow it. During the past year, there have been reports of mounting pressure against the regime (www.centrasia.ru, September 21, 2010; www.mk.ru, January 14). Authorities will confront difficulties in easing tensions between Islamist and secular forces, which culminated in the Civil War between a coalition of pro-democracy and Islamists supporters and the government forces in the 1990s.
For Tajikistan, which has seen a surge in terrorist activity recently, Islamic militancy is therefore of particular concern. But the region as a whole is growing vulnerable as well. The Fergana Valley, comprising parts of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, risks becoming a safe haven for Islamist groups. Even Kazakhstan, touted as the most stable Central Asian country, faces the prospects of becoming a regular target of Islamic militancy following a series of attacks last year by Jund al-Khilafa group, whose leadership is based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas (EDM, December 15, 2011). Regional countries fear that the US’s withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 will only increase the risks of instability. Militants are nevertheless unlikely to overthrow local regimes supported by Russia, China, India and the US, which are interested in preventing the emergence of an Islamic caliphate in the region.
The collapse of local regimes would, however, be more likely due to social unrest aggravated by fragile global economic conditions, unemployment, corruption, poor food security conditions and spikes in energy prices. Popular protests in Kyrgyzstan triggered by government abuse have already forced two presidents from power in the last six years. In other countries, poor socio-economic conditions have prompted instances of unrest. In Uzbekistan, police recently dispersed residents angered by severe gas shortages, after they attempted to storm a local administration. In Kazakhstan, police quelled the recent unrest by striking oil workers in Zhanaozen, leaving 17 people killed and at least 100 injured. Possible increases in food and fuel prices and high inflation levels could increase the risk of social unrest across the region. Last February, the World Bank warned that spikes in food and fuel prices would have potentially negative consequences for Central Asia. This year, the IMF forecasts stabilization in food and fuel markets, but predicts an increase in inflation and heightening security concerns (EDM, January 17; March 15, 2011; IMF, October 31, 2011).
No one, however, has forecast the stabilization of regional ethnic tensions, which may yet inflame Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, signs of tensions between Russians and Kazakhs risk undermining the social harmony promoted by Kazakh authorities, fearful of undermining ties with Russia yet cognizant of the need to promote Kazakh identity. In Kyrgyzstan, fragile ties between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, broken following the violence between the two groups in 2010, remain a source of potential conflagration. In Uzbekistan, the vigorous “Uzbekization” pursued since independence has increased inter-ethnic tensions and resulted in restricted freedoms and rights for minorities. Inter-ethnic tensions across the borders and rising tides of nationalism in each regional country may yet put neighbors on a collision course (www.russianskz.info, March 30 and May 7, 2011; www.fergananews.com, October 23, 2011; www.centrasia.ru, July 24, 2003).
Such a collision is easy to conceive in the case of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whose water and land conflicts have grown considerably. Uzbekistan insists that Tajikistan’s plans to construct the Rogun dam will deprive it of water. Tajikistan, in turn, claims it relies on its hydro potential to alleviate its energy crisis and economic dependency on Uzbekistan, which occasionally cuts off gas and rail supplies to the country. On January 4, Uzbekistan cut off gas supplies to Tajikistan. It has also repeatedly delayed rail cargo bound for Tajikistan. Last month, media reports alleged that Uzbekistan was deploying tanks close to border regions with Tajikistan following a skirmish between Tajik and Uzbek border guards. These developments escalate the already tense situation in the region. The mining of border areas at undisclosed locations by Uzbekistan further exacerbates fragile security conditions in Central Asia (en.rian.ru, January 4; www.avesta.tj, December 23, 2011; www.news.tj, December 17, 2011; www.fergananews.com, March 1, 2010).
International actors have helped keep regional tensions in check, but their agendas can carry their own complications for Central Asian countries faced with the often conflicting regional policies of the US, Russia and China. The regional states are also increasingly pressured to balance Russia’s imperial nostalgia and China’s grand vision for the region. Moscow is pushing hard for regional economic integration. Beijing is rapidly expanding its cross-regional economic links as part of its Silk Road strategy. Uncertain futures of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran further keep local regimes on edge. The stability of Afghanistan is not yet assured. The energy crisis, civil-military standoff and surge in domestic terrorism point to protracted instability in Pakistan. And the growing risk of military action by Israel and/or the US against Iran, believed to be pursuing a nuclear weapons program, is a factor weighing heavily on security in Central Asia.
Managing internally and externally-derived risks will prove difficult in 2012. Uncertainty in global markets, unresolved regional tensions, and mounting domestic challenges will require forward-looking and compromising solutions on the part of local regimes to mitigate them. The level of commitment seems incomprehensible: but so is failure and its consequences.