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Central Asia: United And Divided By Common Problems (Part 2)

  • Bruce Pannier

The Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan (31 August), Tajikistan (9 September), and Uzbekistan (1 September) have just ended celebrations marking 10 years of independence. The three former Soviet republics traveled different paths during their first years of freedom but now find themselves facing many of the same obstacles and sharing some of the same strategies to try to improve their situations.

RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier spoke recently with John Schoeberlein, the director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asian Project, about the anniversaries and their significance. Schoeberlein talked at length about the major events of the past 10 years and where the countries of the region are heading. In this second of a three-part series drawn from the discussion, we look at the problems the countries are facing today.

Prague, 10 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For most of its 10 years of independence, Uzbekistan was seen as the most secure of the Central Asian states. But while it may have been safe to walk the streets of the capital Tashkent, the iron fist wielded by Uzbek President Islam Karimov failed to move the country forward economically and contributed to political unrest.

John Schoeberlein is the director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and of the International Crisis Group's Central Asian Project. He recently spoke with RFE/RL about the situation in Uzbekistan:

"Uzbekistan is still struggling with the matter of establishing a convertible currency, which has very much hampered investment from foreign business interests. And as a result, the economy is on a rocky road as well. And with this we have a situation where a very large segment of the population is living through very difficult times and some of them are becoming impatient, and this has led to increasing unrest and some degree of support for militant approaches toward changing the government."

The political climate today in Kyrgyzstan, Schoeberlein says, is better -- but not by much. He says Kyrgyzstan is battling the effects of political corruption, a weak economy, and a lack of natural resources:

"The situation in Kyrgyzstan is very difficult as well, and this includes the basic problem that there are very few economic resources on which to develop the country's economy. And so, if corruption is a difficult problem in every country of the region, the effect of corruption on an economy which is so terribly weak anyway [as Kyrgyzstan's] is a serious effect. There are few things we can see that would help alleviate the economic problems of the country. They've been so dependent on international assistance. There's a question of whether that assistance will continue."

In Tajikistan, Schoeberlein says, the biggest problem is battling a negative image formed when the country was involved in its civil war. Of all the Central Asian countries, Tajikistan has attracted the smallest amount of foreign investment.

Schoeberlein says: "One result of the civil war was that the economy was essentially divided up between various warlords, people who derive their power from the fact that they were leading groups of armed men. And the economy remains in basically the same condition, and it makes it very difficult for economic development to proceed, even though the government has been relatively friendly towards reform and market development. It remains a very dubious target for international investment."

Tajikistan's economic problems, however, pale beside two problems connected with the country's civil war: drug trafficking and Islamic extremism.

The Tajik peace accord of 1997 provided for power-sharing in the governing of the country. The mainly Islamic opposition that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan sent troops into Tajikistan to keep out, eventually returned with amnesties and took up positions in the government, while its fighters merged with the national army.

Schoeberlein credits this power-sharing agreement for putting Tajikistan ahead of its neighbors:

"That [the peace agreement] led to a power-sharing government in which the opposition was incorporated, and this in itself was rather a positive development -- not only as a resolution of the hostilities that existed, but it meant that for the first time in Central Asia there was an Islamist opposition that was both recognized as legitimate and also allowed a political role in the government. This is important because many people feel that Islam is an important element of the society and is an appropriate participant in the political arena. But they have not been allowed any such role in any of the other countries."

But Schoeberlein says the 1997 peace accord also succeeded in rewarding the aggressors in the civil war.

"One of the basic problems is that the people who came out as participants in the government as a result of the peace accord were the combatants. It also means the people who were most peaceful during these [civil war] years are not participating, and those who were engaged in the hostilities are the ones that, in a sense, came out the winners."

The war years in Tajikistan created sufficient chaos to allow narcotics traffickers to find and develop export routes for opium and heroin from Afghanistan. Efforts at border security during the civil war focused on keeping the Tajik opposition from re-entering Tajikistan from bases in Afghanistan. Only after the end of the war did drug interdiction become a priority. According to Schoeberlein, it is now too late to find a quick solution to the problem:

"There are some problems in the region which there is very little the governments can do to address. For example, the flow of narcotics is something that even if the governments were completely uncorrupted and even if they devoted what resources they have to efficiently fighting this problem, the force behind the flow of narcotics through the region is so strong -- because it's such an economically powerful interest -- that there really is very little that they can do."

Along with the drug trade came what is now called "narco-Islam" -- Islamic groups that fund terrorism at least in part with drug money. One such group is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which aims to overthrow the Uzbek government but which for the past two summers has fought more with the Kyrgyz army than against Uzbek government forces. The IMU is believed to have bases in Afghanistan, and the Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments claim the IMU also has bases in Tajikistan's eastern mountains. The Tajik government denies this.

Schoeberlein says the IMU problem demonstrates how intertwined are the fates of the three Central Asian nations:

"There are certainly connections in the security of these regions all around and Afghanistan should be mentioned as well because the IMU, of course, have their bases in Afghanistan. They've also been operating from the territory of Tajikistan."

And while the IMU and their alleged bases in Tajikistan are cause for tension in Tajikistan's relations with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, relations between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have also suffered.

"Unfortunately, there's been much more tension than cooperation until now. And even in the case of the IMU incursion into southern Kyrgyzstan, the relationship between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan -- [which] in principle should be allies in the struggle because, of course, they're both affected by these attacks by the IMU -- they've actually been complicated and made somewhat tense at times, sometimes very severely tense."

Although they face many common problems, the three former Soviet republics are as often as not divided by efforts to grapple with these problems.

In part three of our look at Central Asian independence, we look at what the future may hold for these republics.