Since internal problems present the greatest risk, the main way to maintain security and stability in Central Asia should be the elimination of internal problems, even if the barrier to external dangers should be built first and foremost at home. In fact, the Central Asian countries have become increasingly aware of it, and the reforms underway in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are aimed at this end, writes Zhao Huasheng.
Over the past several years, a common feature of the Central Asian states has been their special emphasis on external threats as the main danger; this has emerged as their main perspective and explanatory framework for viewing national security issues.
There are reasons for this.
Since the very beginning of independence, the security issue had always been the “sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of the Central Asian countries. The possibility that it may suddenly fall one day has made the Central Asian countries nervous. Terrorism, extremism and separatism are the three key dangers they face
The early 1990s, when Central Asian countries became independent, was a time when the three forces were in full swing. Central Asia is located in the “new moon” volatile zone. It had not been established for a long time, its economy was fragile and its society was unstable. The three forces were infiltrating into Central Asia through various means and coordinate with each other.
The threat to national and even regime security was not only very real, but also dangerous.
Religious extremist forces were active in Central Asia. They were advocating for the establishment of Islamic religious states in Central Asia and the rejection of secular authority. They sought to overthrow the current state system and governments, even by means of violence and terror. In February 1999, extremist forces organised an assassination attempt on Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov. Six bombs exploded separately along the route of president Karimov’s motorcade, but he survived. In the summer of 1999 and the spring of 2000, several groups of armed forces launched attacks on Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, leaving the Central Asian countries in shock. In March 2004, terrorist groups created explosions in Tashkent and Bukhara in Uzbekistan, while smaller scale terrorist incidents were more common in Central Asia. Terrorist, separatist and extremist forces had become a major concern for Central Asian countries.
After Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the country fell into a brutal civil war. Central Asia and Afghanistan are geographically linked by mountains and rivers, with three of the countries bordering Afghanistan, which means that there is a zone of instability stretching 2,300 km along the southern perimeter of Central Asia, which is a natural channel for its spill over.
When the Taliban seized power in 1996, the security situation for Central Asia became even more severe. Central Asia now faces not only a chaotic region, but an extraordinary state as well. Rumours that the Taliban may be heading south had unsettled Central Asian countries. Many terrorist organisations in and outside the region had found sanctuaries in Afghanistan, such as al Qaeda, the Uzbekistan Islamic Movement, Hizb-ul Tahrir and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement. Afghanistan had become a hub for the three forces, and local terrorist organisations had set up camp under the eyes of Central Asian countries.
After the overthrow of the Taliban regime by the United States in 2001, Afghanistan continued to be tortured by a seemingly endless civil war, rampant terrorist attacks and increasing cross-border crimes. The security threat to Central Asia remained severe. In 2003, the US invaded Iraq, and the Arab Spring followed in the early 2010s, plunging the Middle East into chaos and leading to the rise of the Islamic State, which sought to dominate the Muslim world. A large number of people from Central Asia who are influenced by extremist ideology sought to join them. According to research, people from Central Asia account for about 20% the fighters of terrorist organisations in the Middle East. They returned back home to Central Asia to present dangers to their countries.
At the same time, the “colour revolution” suddenly arrived. The “colour revolution”, driven by foreign forces, spread from Serbia to Georgia and Ukraine, and then into the Middle East and Central Asia. The “Tulip revolution” in Kyrgyzstan in 2005, which led to the overnight downfall of President Askar Akayev after 15 years in power, was so big a shock that the Central Asian countries could not but take the imported “revolution” as a new security threat.
To this day, external threats are still considered a major security risk. Assessing the causes of the riots in Almaty in January 2022, outside forces are still thought to be the main culprits by the government of Kazakhstan. Despite the changing circumstances in Afghanistan, Central Asian countries still have doubts about the country’s future and see it as the biggest security uncertainty in the region.
For a long time to come, external factors will remain a major security threat to the Central Asian countries. There is no doubt about it. However, in assessing security risks, more attention should be paid to internal factors as well as external threats. In fact, judging from the experience of Central Asian countries after their independence, especially in the past decade or so, internal factors played a far greater role than external factors in the security and stability of Central Asia.
Both terrorist activities and “colour revolutions” are mainly caused by domestic factors, and mainly carried out by domestic forces. Even foreign terrorist groups targeting Central Asian states are mostly comprised of those states’ own citizens. Of course, internal and external factors are intertwined and difficult to separate, but internal factors are fundamental.
Terrorism, separatism and extremism will continue to exist for a long time and will be difficult to eradicate, and will expand rapidly when the environment permits. However, compared with a decade or so ago, the momentum of international terrorist organisations has weakened. The biggest threats to Central Asia, such as Al Qaeda, IS, the Uzbek Islamic Movement, East Turkistan Islamic Movement and Hizb-ul Tahrir are no longer as threatening as they were a decade ago. After retaking power in 2021, the Taliban promised not to allow terrorist groups from Afghan soil to conduct terrorist activities against neighbouring countries, although whether it can actually do so remains to be tested.
The risk of “colour revolution” remains, but its model is already well known and the prevention methods are more effective. There have been no new successes with “colour revolution” since Ukraine’s “revolution of dignity” in 2013-2014; the Belarusian “colour revolution” in 2020 failed. Moreover, with the presence of China, Russia and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Central Asia, it is not so easy for foreign forces to carry out a “colour revolution” in Central Asia.
Central Asia is now less likely to suffer a large-scale attack by an outside terrorist group, and dealing with such an attack is relatively simple. Foreign terrorist groups are usually small armed groups, and if they are operating openly, they are not so terrible. Moreover, with the CSTO as a military security guarantee, with China as a security cooperation partner, and with the SCO as a political backer, Central Asia is fully capable of responding to armed attacks by terrorist organisations.
Responding to domestic events is far more difficult and complex. Group demonstrations triggered by internal factors are often mixed with various elements. In the face of domestic mass demonstrations, the country will face a dilemma in choosing the means to deal with it. It may be difficult for peaceful means to stop the development of events, and an armed response may intensify contradictions, leading to much more serious negative consequences. Even law enforcement forces may be shaken and divided, which was also clearly shown in the unrest in Kazakhstan.
According to the past experience, once large-scale public demonstrations occur in Central Asian countries, it is very difficult to maintain peace for a long time. Instigators unleash violence with relative ease, which quickly leads to riots: from street vandalism and looting to the attacking and occupation of government institutions; ultimately, state governments are overthrown. This makes the prospective of such demonstrations in Central Asian countries particularly destructive and dangerous.
All this shows that internal incidents pose greater risks to Central Asian security and stability. They cause deeper harm, are more difficult to deal with and often have more serious consequences.
Given that internal factors present the biggest risks, where do they mainly emerge from? Usually it does not involve a single factor, but rather a mixture of factors. Disorderly power struggles, political divisions in society, the encroachment of extremist religious forces, regional estrangement, ethnic contradictions — all of these factors can contribute. The most common cause, however, is popular discontent, which in turn stems from poverty, unemployment, inequality, corruption, nepotism and social injustice. These are common problems in Central Asian countries.
Over the past 30 years, the Central Asian countries have made great efforts in economic development and social construction and scored notable achievements and progress. At the same time, not everything is satisfactory. Some Central Asian countries are still backward economically; their people are still poor. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are all low-and-middle-income countries with large numbers of poor people. About a quarter of Kyrgyz and Tajik residents are still below the poverty line. Uzbekistan’s per capita national annual income has more than tripled in 30 years from $600 in 1992 to $1,983 in 2021. Kyrgyzstan has more than doubled, from 520 dollars to 1,276 dollars. Tajikistan increased from $280 to $897, a nearly threefold increase. Despite these increases, they were modest in absolute terms and lower in real terms, adjusted for inflation. In 2022, the average monthly wage in Tajikistan was only about $160, and in Uzbekistan it was about $340. Every year, hundreds of thousands or even millions of people leave their homes to work in countries such as Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey, making their livelihood an important source of income for their families.
The popular discontent comes not only from poverty, but from the unfair distribution of social wealth, polarisation between the rich and the poor, the corruption of officials, excessive wealth accumulation among powerful families, and so on. Kazakhstan, where riots broke out last year, is not a poor country. Thanks to oil and gas, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are the richest countries in Central Asia; Turkmenistan’s per capita income reached $7,344 in 2019 and Kazakhstan’s was $10,373 in 2021, having peaked at $12,080 in 2014. Both countries are classified as upper-middle income countries by the World Bank. But just because a country is not poor does not mean its people are not poor. In fact, although Kazakhstan is much richer, its ordinary citizens receive a disproportionately small share of the country’s wealth, so the sense of gain is even lower. President Tokayev said after the Almaty riots that half of Kazakhstan’s residents earn no more than 50,000 tenge a year, or a little more than $1,300, and just over $110 a month. At the same time, a new breed of super-rich has emerged, with the richest 162 individuals owning half of the country’s wealth. As a result, people in Kazakhstan are more even disgruntled and resentful.
Since internal problems present the greatest risk, the main way to maintain security and stability in Central Asia should be the elimination of internal problems, even if the barrier to external dangers should be built first and foremost at home. In fact, the Central Asian countries have become increasingly aware of it, and the reforms underway in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are aimed at this end. The key elements of the reforms are economic development, poverty eradication, the fight against corruption, social justice, the improvement of the living standards of the population, and increasing the satisfaction of the people in order to ensure national development and social stability. Of course, it will be a long and tortuous process, which will not happen overnight.