Central Asia, beyond scratching the surface

The Central Asian region, and, especially, its borders security, recently came to the attention of a wider public due to the developments in Afghanistan. Amongst others, concerns related to regional stability, security, and potential terrorist threats, have been raised regarding this region. European authorities might have unexpectedly realised that the EU’s Central Asia strategy update, presented in 2019, remains vague as to the region’s importance to the EU. That importance lends to the region’s strategic location, its energy resources, and the EU’s interests in regional security vis-a-vis large neighbouring players such as Russia, Iran, and China.

Regarding the latter, the EU repeatedly expressed its worries that Beijing is slowly gaining control over strategic infrastructure that is important to the region’s internal security agenda. It was also discovered that Central Asia was never part of DG NEAR (Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations) interests and, consequently, was not actively inviting to or participating in the EU projects.

Central Asia is not homogeneous
Central Asia, sometimes called informally ‘The Stans’ by some Westerners, consists of five countries – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. While diplomats and politicians like to consider the region as one area with common traits, it is not very correct. Each of these countries has its own face, history, and dynamics.

Surely, there are similarities. These countries are all ex-Soviet Union republics, granted. They have not been actively looking to break with their Soviet past, as opposed to some nationalist elites of Baltic republics, Ukraine, or Belarus. These new states used to be ruled by apparatchiks (people with a bureaucrat career in the upper ranks of the communist party), and they still have significant presence of apparatchiks and their heirs in the ruling class.

Since becoming independent states, these countries have witnessed some exodus of the non-title ethnic groups (Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Germans, Polish, Greek etc), leaving the territories in significant numbers as from the 90s.

And… well, similarities seem to end here, and then the differences start.

Intra-country specifics
Central Asia is a diverse territory with many ethnic groups, languages, religions with a population of about 72 million people. Countries’ economic, demographic, and military capabilities vary significantly, as well.
Two countries of the region – Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – are very rich with natural resources and are important players as world exporters. Both countries, however, face demographic problems and depopulation.

Kazakhstan has important natural resources such as uranium, petrol, oil, metal ores etc. It has 18 million people but, since 2014, an issue with increasing number of emigrants. In 2015, c.30.000 citizens have left the country, while by the end of 2019, that number increased by c.30% to reach a little above 45.000 people.

Turkmenistan is the most mysterious and closed country of the region, seemingly a one-man dictatorship with not much activity in the international affairs. Turkmenistan possesses the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas and earns significantly by exporting it. The population of the country is about 6 million, the smallest amongst the Central Asian republics.

Kyrgyzstan has more than 6 million people and is rich with natural resources. However, the country cannot fully exploit them as many specialists either left the country in the 90s or are at the age of retirement. The country also has a significant concern with the labour emigration to Russia and Kazakhstan.

Two other countries – Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – in their turn, are not very rich in natural resources. They have very positive demographic dynamics instead.

Uzbekistan is Central Asia’s most populous country. Its 32.5 million people (2018 estimate) comprise nearly half the region’s total population. The population of Uzbekistan is very young: 34.1% of its people are younger than 14.

The total labour migration out of Tajikistan is estimated to be in the range of 500,000 to 800,000 people, which represent about 10% of the total population of 6.9 million. Many Tajiks seasonally move to Russia.
Therefore, both countries’ main export resource is their people, who work in Russia, Kazakhstan and, to a lesser extent, in the Middle East.

Intra-region specifics
Border and other ‘cross-border’ disputes have become important domestic political and intra-region issues. Politicians in all countries use them for their own political benefit.

Post-Soviet independence of the Central Asian states reopened a Pandora’s box of border disputes. Many of the current difficulties can be traced directly back to the Soviet legacy. The region lives in a complex stew of territorial claims and counterclaims since republics became independent states. It is a region where ethnic and political boundaries often do not match, to some extent, similar to the Middle East and Africa.
Ethnic populations who, during the ‘Russian’ and ‘Soviet’ times, had long enjoyed access to friends and families across borders have found themselves isolated within national frontiers and have often faced difficulties in accessing ‘each other’. Much of the population views these new restrictions with hostility as they see disruption in their traditional patterns of commerce and social (cross-border) interactions.

Borders, which, for all practical reasons, did not exist during the Soviet period, much more so comparing to the intra-EU borders, suddenly became international. Long-standing industrial and transportation links have been disrupted.

Customs officers and border forces are often poorly trained and frequently depend on corruption for their income. Harassment and extortion of travellers and traders has become part of the everyday reality in border regions. As cross-border travel becomes more difficult, interaction between populations that once shared many aspects of a common culture and way of life is becoming much less frequent. As new lines are drawn on the map, so new borders and new stereotypes are being created in people’s minds.

Control of territory meant control of resources and improved strategic positions. Regional relations have often already been uneasy for a variety of reasons, and tensions over borders have only made these situations more daunting. The most complicated border negotiations involve the Ferghana Valley where a myriad of enclaves co-exist. Three countries which share the valley — Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan — have raised historical claims to each other’s territory and economic interests with regards to the transport routes, rivers, reservoirs, and industries.

Water and energy
Water and energy resources have become part of weaponization in the disputes.

Water has been at the heart of recurrent disputes among the four states (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are short on water, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are short on electricity. The tension has been sharpest in the densely populated Ferghana Valley, where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan converge. The latter two states accused their larger Uzbek neighbour of guzzling river water to irrigate vast cotton fields; Uzbekistan, for its part, bitterly fought Kyrgyz and Tajik plans to build dams upstream перу Syr Darya river.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan also argued over the hydropower projects, which Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan needed to keep the lights on. At various times, shared resources have been used by these countries as a political tool – like Uzbekistan switching off the power grids, and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan by threatening to block the downstream water flow.

It is a positive sign that Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev raised to back the Rogun dam and a hydroelectric project in Tajikistan. In a meeting in Astana, Mirziyoyev and his peers, Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Sooronbai Jeenbekov of Kyrgyzstan, could reiterate and build upon these initial commitments. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan might turn helping Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in developing their hydropower capacity. To crown the effort, these four countries might reach an agreement as to the periods when the water shall be accumulated and when it should be released.

In 2018, the four states decided to coordinate efforts to improve irrigation infrastructure in border areas, where there is some risk of renewed local conflicts over water, particularly in the Ferghana Valley. Kyrgyzstan especially stands to benefit from this decision, as cross-border conflict with Uzbekistan has in the past undermined the credibility of the central government.

Presidential leadership on this issue is vital given the top-down hierarchical nature of governance in the region. For more than two decades, the ability of locals to work together at the borders has dwindled. Technicians and engineers who worked together during the Soviet era retired. Less people have a common language – it used to be Russian but now less people master it.

With political will at the top, however, it is possible to forestall future disputes. Kyrgyz, Tajik and Uzbek water management officials in border areas should convene bilaterally and multilaterally to identify potential causes of water conflicts. Their work should be framed as technical, not political, and the presidents could publicly encourage such join effort. Where possible, officials in the Ferghana Valley should pool resources and machinery. Irrigation infrastructure needs better repair and modernisation; but even what exists can be made more efficient with proper maintenance. Inspector groups are to be organised with a right to freely cross borders. The ‘upstream’ countries should plan maintenance work on reservoirs carefully and transparently, to avoid any perception of them ignoring ‘downstream’ needs or making an oblique political point.

President Mirziyoyev distances himself from his predecessor, Islam Karimov who, when visiting Astana in 2012, warned that water disputes could lead to a war. Mirziyoyev’s trip to Dushanbe suggests he has an entirely different vision. As a downstream country, Uzbekistan can secure the release of water for irrigation by buying more electricity from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Doing so would also reduce Uzbekistan’s reliance on thermal power plants and move it toward renewable sources as the domestic demand for electricity increases.

Inter-region specifics
Afghanistan and related matters are, by far, the single largest concern at the region’s borders.

The attitudes of all five states vis-a-vis the current situation in Afghanistan are rather different. Each country has its own relations with ‘new’ Afghanistan, from openly hostile Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to working relations in the case of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Three states have a physical border with Afghanistan – Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan share a 2,387-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan.

In 2001 Uzbekistan helped the USA. Consequently, Taliban threaten it to seize Samarkand and make it a religious centre.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have close view, support, and partnership in dealing with Afghanistan as regional partners.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has refused to recognize the Taliban-led government and condemned the militant group for alleged human rights abuses in the Panjshir Valley. Ethnic Tajiks make up more than one-quarter of Afghanistan’s 38 million people, but the Taliban is predominately Pashtun, the largest ethnic group in the war-torn country.

Tajikistan is particularly tense about the resurgence of the Tajik terrorist group Jamaat Ansarullah, known in Afghanistan as the “Tajik Taliban”, who were given charge of the strategically important northern border by the Taliban. Taliban has also revealed that tens of thousands of fighters have been deployed in the north-eastern province of Takhar, which borders Tajikistan.

In August, Tajikistan urged the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization’s member states to help strengthen security along the Tajik-Afghan border. Since then, the alliance has staged military drills in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

At the same time, Russia has urged Tajikistan and Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to take “mutually acceptable measures” to resolve tensions along the Tajik-Afghan border amid reports of an increased military build-up on both sides.

Distance (from the Afghan border) has its benefits, and since neither Kazakhstan nor Kyrgyzstan directly borders Afghanistan, the governments in Nur-Sultan and Bishkek could react slower and with more restrain to events, compared to Afghanistan’s three immediate neighbours.

Representatives of both the Kazakh and Kyrgyz governments have met with Taliban officials, and so far, the policies of each of those Central Asian governments seem to be engagement aimed at keeping Afghanistan at arm’s length.

At the start of September, with nearly all Afghan territory in Taliban hands, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev warned that Kazakhstan needed to brace for “external shocks and a worst-case scenario.” “The situation in Afghanistan…presents us with the task of rebooting the military-industrial complex and military doctrine…”, Toqaev said.

In Central Asia, it is the Taliban’s contacts with Turkmenistan that have been most notable. Ashgabat has a deepening economic stake in Afghanistan, which it views as an important transit for electricity projects and the long-stalled TAPI gas pipeline linking Turkmenistan’s gas fields to major markets in India and Pakistan.

Internal situation in Afghanistan influences security in Central Asia
Armed with sophisticated weaponry left behind by the withdrawing US troops, Taliban and the terrorist groups who might potentially find a safe harbour in Afghanistan, are expected to add to the complexities and diffusion of the regional landscape. Besides borders, issue of minorities plays a significant role as well; there are ethnic Tadjik, Turkmen and Uzbek people historically living in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has its own history in dealing with other Islamic and terrorist organizations and movements, and that history is not one of success when it comes to fully controlling its own territory. Therefore, the question is whether the Taliban can maintain full control of the territory this time, to prevent terrorist groups such as ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan Province), Al-Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Jamaat Ansarullah from using the territory of Afghanistan for attacking neighbouring Central Asian states.
With covid pandemic and improved terrorist attack prevention in Europe and USA, one can see the Al-Qaeda and other groups’ interests settling on Asia and Africa. It could be a change of focus for Uighur, Uzbek, and other Central Asians in their ranks, to concentrate on their own countries. The IS limited capability suggest a potential paradigm shift in the drivers and expanding geography of political violence to South and Central Asia. The shift could be boosted by the perceived defeat of the US, the second superpower to bite the dust in Afghanistan in a war against Islamic militants. The American withdrawal means the US no longer is a prime actor and a primary target in the region.

Beyond the terrorist threat, another important concern is the potential Central Asian migration pathway to the EU through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan and creation the new routes to the West. Such routes do not look feasible yet, but the risk should be considered.

The efforts coordinated by the five Central Asian countries with other regional players could create a chance to control the existing and new risks arising from inside or outside of the Central Asian region, and to largely improve regional stability and security, as well as economic development.

by Lina Kolesnikova, Security Expert at Experts Advisory Committee at European Forum for Urban Security (Efus)