This report analyses conflict potential in Central Asia, from which it derives a strategy for peacebuilding in the region. Despite widely expressed fears, and with the important exception of the war in Tajikistan in the 1990s, until recently Central Asia had remained relatively peaceful since gaining independence in 1991. However, issues that could lead to conflict have not disappeared and new challenges have emerged that are rooted in the way the Central Asian states and the region have developed politically since independence. The upheavals of 2005 in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan demonstrated that the apparent stability was deceptive. Further, the region’s geographic location indicates that its security prospects must be viewed in a wider regional context that includes Afghanistan as well as its two great neighbours Russia and China. The next few years will be crucial for how Central Asia develops.
The headline conclusion is that the central issue with potential for violent conflict in Central Asia is the relationship between the citizens and the state, elaborated in Chapters 1-3. This conclusion indicates the need for a new peacebuilding strategy (Chapter 4) with specific targeted activities, recommended in Chapter 5.
The States of Central Asia
Kazakhstanhas developed positively in terms of both economic growth and the state’s ability to provide public services. With energy wealth and a small population, economic and social development reduces popular pressure for political liberalisation. For these reasons, Kazakhstan is not a priority when assessing conflict potential.
In Kyrgyzstan, reform and civil society development successes were perhaps more shallow than earlier estimated. The turmoil in the country after the March 2005 change of power exposed the fragility of its institutions while the victors’ lack of a coherent reform agenda revealed that the aim of democratic reconstruction did not run deep and ‘clan privatisation’ followed instead. Though there remains greater openness for media and civil society than elsewhere in the region, underlying political, economic and geographic rifts in society threaten stability. Given the existing political context, there is an urgent need for a strategy to address the current political challenges without waiting for the political and social conditions that would permit the Kyrgyz government to draw up a long-term development strategy.
Tajikistanhas partially recovered from the 1992-97 civil war, which has left much of its political elite and society wary of anything that might provoke instability. Poverty, the trafficking of drugs and a fragile political system mean that the appearance of stability is misleading. Specific remedial measures addressing the potential for conflict are needed.
In Turkmenistan, energy wealth and secure, long-term contracts guaranteeing steady revenue from natural gas sales concentrated in the hands of the leadership determine the nature of the regime, which is uninterested in development assistance and unresponsive to diplomatic pressure from the international community, unless such pressure includes both the West and Russia. Political processes are closed, with complete state control over media and civil society. No change is possible under the current president, while his exit from the political scene will probably be highly destabilising. There is, therefore, a need for peacebuilding measures but no visible possibility of implementing them.
Uzbekistanis the most populous country in Central Asia. Since the 1990s it has experienced notable acts of violence, including attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the violent government crackdown on protests in May 2005 in Andijan. Growing social and political problems are being met with decreasingly effective responses, and the state is retreating into repressive measures as its only option. Further violence and even a social explosion are probable. The donor community currently sees two equally difficult options: either a complete withdrawal or engagement in areas amenable to the government, some of which may risk exacerbating tensions in society. A third way is needed to maintain a limited engagement that neither commits donors to support nor to oppose the current government but which allows dialogue and cooperation where possible. Potential areas for engagement are in education, local development, and networking and capacity-building with civil society.
Common Regional Threads
The core driver of current conflict potential (where it is significant) is the issue of power and governance. There is a gap between state and society; the degree of accountability of government to the people varies on a spectrum from none to inadequate. In these circumstances, the measures taken to address problems that give rise to conflict offer short-term stability at best, while stacking up worse problems for the future. The role and actions of security sector agencies are a recurrent source of grievance and the state comes to its citizens in police uniform more often than as a provider of goods and services. The justice and prison systems have deteriorated in many places, and the quest for social justice is a growing preoccupation of the region’s societies, in which there is widespread disillusionment. Justice in an Islamic cloak is becoming an increasingly viable alternative.
The Ferghana Valley, situated in the nexus of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and inhabited by a patchwork of peoples of different ethnicity has been the centre of a great deal of peacebuilding interventions by the donor community due to fears of ethnic violence stimulated by resource competition. The conflict potential in these issues (of ethnicity and resources) is significant insofar as they can be exploited as part of a conflict over power in each country. Action taken by Uzbekistan has focused on border controls and stronger security measures, leading to reciprocal action by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This has increased tension and generated resentment. Throughout Central Asia, borders established since independence are a serious source of frustration, with harsh border regimes negatively affecting the lives of ordinary people and feeding corruption.
There is a widespread concern among governments in the region about the risk of terrorism from militant Islamism, with governments increasingly blaming real or imagined jihadists for popular protest. Islamism is increasingly merging with wider economic, social and political discontent. By themselves, cells of jihadists are capable of sporadic acts of violence but are not powerful enough to ignite a larger popular uprising. Continued repression, however, may strengthen their hand and in the future they could be part of and able to benefit from a broader protest movement.
Drug trafficking has an increasing impact on the politics and security of the region. Given fragile political institutions and the lack of transparency, a future marriage of crime and politics is possible. The problem of drugs can either be a source of continued deficiency in development, governance and human security; cooperative cross-border solutions, on the other hand, could be the starting point for a major improvement in the region’s prospects.
The Wider Regional Environment and the Major Powers
Afghanistan– from Problem to Opportunity?
The state-building process in Afghanistan is critical to the prospects for Central Asia. At worst, Afghanistan could be a continuing problem for development in Central Asia because of drugs and the threat of persistent instability overflowing into its neighbours. In the longer term, however, there could be a mutually beneficial interaction between Afghanistan and its northern neighbours that could strengthen development prospects all round.
Engaging with Russia
Stability in Central Asia has been perceived in Moscow as a crucial precondition for expanding its influence across the region. In September 2001, President Putin accepted US military deployment to the region and a consequent decline in Russian influence, knowing there would be other benefits for Russian policy and believing that a re-emergence of Russian influence would be possible. Events have borne this belief out. In 2004 and 2005 Russia has strengthened economic ties, primarily through the oil and gas industry backed by personalised political networking at the senior level. Following events in Kyrgyzstan, Moscow impressed upon other Central Asian leaders that their survival required firmness and determination. Russia approved of President Karimov’s decision to use force in Andijan and put the blame for the violence on Islamic militants allegedly trained in Afghanistan. It joined in with criticism of international nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) for fostering instability. Russia is fundamentally not interested in fanning confrontation with the West, but its will and capacity to play an influential role in Central Asia should not be underestimated. Constructive engagement on a case-by-case basis is possible as long as the donor community respects Russia’s role.
The United States and the Limits of Engagement
USpolicy towards Central Asia has been characterised by inconsistency and is responsive to its changing global foreign policy objectives. Post-9/11 security concerns elevated the Bush administration’s interest in Central Asia but in the long term Washington’s capacity and even interest in Central Asia are limited. The US is geographically distant from Central Asia and has a full foreign policy agenda.
China’s Increasing Role and Influence
The role of China has often been neglected in discourse on Central Asia. It is no longer possible to do so. Current developments indicate that China’s future regional role will be crucial. From Beijing’s perspective, Central Asia is seen as a source both of potential security threats and of raw materials. Its main security concerns are instability, turbulent regime change, the potential for popular unrest and Islamic radicalisation. There is also a lingering Chinese concern about US influence in the region. China’s relationship with Russia is as good as it has ever been. Like Russia, China is a major player in Central Asia and its influence will only grow. The policies of the donor community need to accommodate that basic premise.
Risks, Potential and Prospects: Regional Overview
The headline conclusion of the analysis is that the potential for conflict lies in internal power dynamics rather than in ethnic division or competition for natural resources. The central issue is the relationship between the citizens and the state. The experience of Kyrgyzstan in 2005 has shown that the absence of a strategy to deal with the issue of succession can wreak havoc on a political system. The authorities in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are unable to adopt constructive problem-solving approaches to political or developmental issues; the governments therefore have become increasingly dependent on the security sector for their longevity. This is resulting in the alienation between the population and the law-enforcement agencies and, as the system of power is closed and unaccountable, corruption further increases popular resentment. In developing a strategic approach to peacebuilding in the region, there seems little point in focusing on Kazakhstan because of the strength of its current situation and its generally fair prospects, and there seem to be no possibilities in relation to Turkmenistan. A peacebuilding strategy should therefore focus on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with the aim of contributing to peace and stability in those countries and more widely in the region. The particular goal of the strategy should be to find ways to create linkages between the state and society as a necessary precondition for good governance.
Uzbekistan increasingly views foreign development aid and Western involvement with suspicion. To a lesser extent, similar suspicions in Tajikistan will remain an obstacle for donor engagement there. In resolving these difficulties, the approach of a peacebuilding strategy must be to address the reality of each country separately and not to treat Central Asia as a homogeneous regional entity. However, there are important issues that need to be addressed on a cross-border basis.
The role and influence of China and Russia in Central Asia must be factored into analysis, policy and strategic planning. It is pointless and counter-productive to attempt to marginalise either; rather they should be recognised by the donor community as major players, treated with respect and where possible, engaged in cooperation.
To summarise these broad strategic ideas:
- the key conflict potential in Central Asia lies in the nature and use of internal power;
- the focus of strategy should be on Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with the aim of contributing to self-sustaining stable peace;
- the region is not a homogeneous entity and its interdependency should not be overestimated;
- regional cooperation will be valuable on various issues;
- Chinaand Russia must be taken seriously as key regional actors with whom case-by-case cooperation should be possible.
Approach and Means for Peacebuilding in Central Asia
With an analysis of the country-specific and regional issues impacting on security and the potential for conflict in Central Asia, this report tackles the question of what can and should be done to make a positive contribution to the development of self-sustaining peace in the region. First, a general look at peacebuilding is needed and then, through this lens, an outline produced of the evolution of the donor community’s policy thinking and its resulting actions to date in order to suggest an adjusted approach and means appropriate to it for future engagement.
This report uses the concept of the ‘Strategic Peacebuilding Palette’, introduced in the Overview Report of the Joint Utstein Study of Peacebuilding,1 which conceives of peacebuilding as a wide range of interdependent activities that, depending on circumstances, contribute to the development of the structural conditions, attitudes and modes of political behaviour that are necessary for self-sustaining peaceful development. These activities can be organised as a set of four categories of intervention that are interdependent: security, socio-economic foundations, good governance, and justice and reconciliation.
The donor community’s approach has arguably been burdened by categories of analysis and policy that currently do not quite work in Central Asia. Early analysis of conflict potential may initially have made too much of ethnicity and nationalism as the primary drivers of conflict. Our analysis identifies the relationship between the citizens and the state as the central conflict issue in the region. This suggests that there is a need for a new and thorough look at the donor community’s engagement.
While not changing the overall goals, a changed analysis of the potential lines of conflict in the region means that the objectives of programmes with government, private sector and civil society actors may need to be revised. The challenge now is to recognise key conflict risks that were not previously central to analysis and policy and to adjust policy and activities to suit. The resulting strategy will draw on programmes that are already being implemented – whether with or without explicit peacebuilding or conflict prevention goals – as well as on new programmes.
The record of donor community engagement contains a mixture of successes, such as in relation to the Ferghana Valley in terms of analysis, early warning and conflict prevention on a community level, community-based dispute resolution, relations between minorities, thepromotion of civil society and the anti-narcotics effort with other less certain achievements, such as in security sector reform (SSR) and border management, and others where the record is frankly deficient, such as regional cooperation.
Two different advocacy approaches have been used in Central Asia: open advocacy, publicly exposing wrongs and non-confrontational advocacy, using a quieter networking approach. In recent years, open advocacy is becoming increasingly difficult in Central Asia and is losing its audience. In much of Central Asia, work first needs to be done to ensure an audience before effective advocacy can be undertaken.
Conflict sensitivity is a relatively new concept in the development sector and has only recently been introduced into programme design and implementation, sometimes as a direct objective and at other times indirectly through mainstreaming. In Central Asia, activities of the donor community have, rightly, included the effort to mainstream conflict prevention into development interventions.
A New Peacebuilding Approach
This report argues that the strengths in the donor community’s work so far can and should be harnessed into a revised peacebuilding approach that addresses the conflict potential around how power is organised and used and that focuses on three countries – Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Such an approach needs to recognise the realities and limitations of the situation. These considerations include the limits to the absorptive capacity in the region, especially in the apparatus of governments, and the donor community’s limited economic and political leverage. A peacebuilding strategy should be organised around the four parts of the peacebuilding palette – security, socio-economic issues, governance, and justice and reconciliation.
Security Issues: Four priorities in security issues have emerged from the analysis in the report: SSR, border management, a variety of measures against crime and enhanced analysis. In relation to Uzbekistan, only the last is suggested. Cooperation with the Chinese and Russian authorities on border management and anti-crime activities would be beneficial. SSR and security assistance need to be compatible with each other. Analytical efforts should be refocused to include the central issue of power alongside inter-ethnic and resource-related issues. On anti-terrorism, a non-ideological enquiry into the sources and causes of terrorism, with the participation of civil society actors would be beneficial. This could be done regionally, enabling participation of civil society from Uzbekistan, which is otherwise increasingly isolated.
Socio-economic Foundations: Alongside social and economic development programmes aimed at improving the lot of ordinary people through poverty eradication, education, infrastructure and resource management, three further issues arise from the analysis above – economic freedoms, corporate standards and anti-corruption measures. Particular attention should be paid to the question of incentives, when change requires the active engagement of authorities whose position seems viable without economic reforms. The only viable approach here is to emphasise the importance of a process of discussion and dialogue in which participants can start to recognise the benefits of new alternatives.
Governance: There is no reason to hide a preference for programmes that ensure full accountability, good governance at every level and democratic participation by all. But it is not the most effective approach to insist at all times on that full agenda, especially when some parties with which donor governments want to work, including governments in Central Asia, find profound cause for concern in a ‘democratisation’ agenda. The suggestion here is to focus on local-level transparency, some long-term aspects of state building and the development of national discussions about the future in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Medium-term achievements in governance will depend on the availability of trained cadre. Training courses and schools of government based primarily in the region could meet this need, while maintaining engagement with governments.
The most important single avenue to explore, because it addresses the key problems of shrinking space for democratisation and potential succession crisis, is the possibility of wideranging discussions about the national future in each of the three focus countries.
Justice and Reconciliation: Training programmes in dispute resolution would be a way to address the culture of conflict and generate a capacity to manage crisis peacefully. A systematic approach could include not only NGO staff at the local level, but also aim at empowering state institutions to adopt a problem-solving approach to crisis and conflict. Establishing locally-owned centres for dispute resolution – offering training courses and practical mediation in actual disputes – would be worthwhile in all three countries, albeit presumably less realistic in Uzbekistan. To avoid the possibility of development assistance becoming a source of tension, donors could increase their own and their partners’ capacities to implement conflict-sensitive programmes, monitor implementation and, in the case of tensions, develop the capacity to quickly respond. Capacity in these areas could also be built among national officials, civil society and in academia.
A strategic reconsideration of the peacebuilding approach and revising means of implementation offers the occasion for bringing the donor community together with local stakeholders – possibly in a variety of formats to ensure that the process encompasses diverse actors and opinions – both to enrich the strategy and in order to enhance donor coordination.
The donor community has a limited capacity to exert influence in Central Asia. This is because of a variety of factors discussed in this report – the nature of power, the sensitivities of the leaderships to infringement of sovereignty, the clan basis of political organisation, and the regional involvement of Russia and China, who offer alternative points of reference should relations with Western donors go cold. In most conceivable instances it will be more effective for the donor community to work in coordination and with the aid of quiet conversations and persistent engagement. It is not easy to fix on an alternative option between silence and sanctions, but since neither is likely to alter the recipient state’s behaviour, it is worth at least attempting quiet persuasion.
The situation in Central Asia demands a number of interlocking and interdependent actions if the risk of violent conflict is to be averted and a decisive turn is to be taken towards sustainable peace. These actions will be carried out, if at all, by Central Asian actors with friendly external support. In order for timely action to be taken there is a need for wider knowledge and understanding than currently exist about what needs to be done. That knowledge and understanding can be generated – and can only be generated – by a process of discussion and dialogue. The donor community is well placed to facilitate that process.