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Central Asia: Grappling With The Future (Part 3)

  • 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 situation.

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 third of a three-part series drawn from the discussion, we look at the prospects for the future given the countries' current security problems.

Prague, 10 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The armed group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the increasing amount of narcotics transiting through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan clearly point out the existence of a security problem in the region, often blamed on neighboring Afghanistan.

The three countries have never been known for their mutual cooperation in fighting regional concerns. They have been more likely to appeal to countries outside Central Asia for help, such as Russia, the United States, and now China.

John Schoeberlein is director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and of the International Crisis Group's Central Asian Project. He says there is no real option for significant outside assistance:

"I don't think there's any outside power that can really substantially affect the security equation in the region, partly because outside powers have their own interests, which would complicate their involvement, and partly because they have only limited capacity to commit."

Russia, long a player in Central Asia, has of late been the favored target of the three countries' appeals for help, and it does command a force of some 18,000 to 20,000 border guards in Tajikistan. But Schoeberlein believes Russia does not hold the answer.

"In the case of Russia, there's been a history of security interest in the region, obviously with the history of the Soviet Union. They have many problems of their own, and they're very unlikely to commit substantial resources to the security problems in Central Asia.

Russia has sold, and in some cases even given, weapons to the three Central Asian countries, especially after the first incursion by the IMU. The Russian military consults with the Central Asian states in planning security strategy and conducts war games in coordination with the three.

The United States is a relatively new player in Central Asia. There are large American business interests in the region, mostly in oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Like Russia and China, the U.S. also is concerned about Islamic extremism in the region. Suspected Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden is believed to live in Afghanistan, from where three quarters of the world's heroin is believed to originate.

But Schoeberlein says there are considerations that prevent the U.S. from providing large amounts of aid to the three countries:

"The United States also has shown some interest in supporting Central Asian governments and their security concerns, but the support has been somewhat marginal in terms of dimensions, and it's also been hampered by problems in the area of human rights and so on, which make it difficult for the U.S. government to provide such support."

China has reasserted itself into Central Asia in the years since the appearance of the IMU. Beijing is supplying weapons and military equipment to Kyrgyzstan to help in its fight against the IMU, and is also concerned about the activities of separatist Muslim Uighurs in its western Xinjiang province, which borders Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

All three Central Asian countries, along with China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, are part of a group called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Agreements call for aiding members in times of dire need, a benefit not yet tested. In the end, China's policy toward Central Asia seems to be developing and is as yet unclear.

Significant economic and security assistance from outside nations seems doubtful, at least for the foreseeable future. It appears Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan are being largely left to their own devices as they grapple with the growing pains of their recently won independence. But Schoeberlein says the West and other regional powers need to recognize that leaving well enough alone may not be enough of a policy:

"There are important issues [which] I think need to be recognized and 10 years out from independence -- I think one of the key points is that although people sometimes argue that it takes time to develop democratic institutions, I think there's a real risk at the present time that with the solidifying of authoritarian approaches and institutionalization of authoritarianism, we may not really be on a path of democratization at all but of increasing authoritarianism, and this would be a very negative development for the region."

Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan are now 10 years old. Whether they will prosper into their second decade will depend, at least in part, on how well they can cooperate with each other.