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Central Asia: Militarization Could Come At Cost Of Regional Stability

  • Antoine Blua

The international war against terrorism has resulted in the countries of Central Asia focusing more on military preparedness and increasing their military cooperation with the U.S., Russia, and China, among others. While this is viewed by many as a necessary response to immediate threats, RFE/RL examines whether this militarization could contribute to the destabilization of the region in the long term.

Prague, 3 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The states of Central Asia are modernizing their militaries as part of the global campaign against terrorism.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov was quoted by Interfax last week as telling journalists that he plans to cut the country's armed forces by up to 15,000 men by 2005 to create what he described as a more "mobile and highly professional" army.

The move followed Kyrgyzstan's plan to complete the process of forming an entirely professional army over the next two to three years.

In early August, the Kazakh Defense Ministry announced that Washington will be providing financial assistance to help modernize its military, while the U.S. ambassador to Tajikistan said Washington plans to provide training to the Tajik Army.

For the most part, this modernization is taking place with outside assistance, from the U.S., Russia, and China, in particular. These countries are investing tens of millions of dollars in the region not only as part of the war against terrorism but also to realize their own economic and geopolitical interests. But analysts say this military buildup could come at a cost to regional stability and to the resolution of long-term problems, such as poverty.

Stephen Blank is a professor of national-security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania. Blank noted the military cooperation the Central Asian governments are receiving from a variety of suitors. "You have the growing effort among Central Asian states to build larger militaries to deal with terrorism and to spend much more money as a result on militaries, and thus to get training and assistance and advice from a number of states from NATO, from the United States, in particular, [and] from China. Obviously, the Russians are also trying to build military linkages to Central Asia," Blank said.

Blank said that in many cases, the motives for providing this military assistance are as much economic as geopolitical. "Russia is selling weapons to Central Asia in a way to subsidize its own defense industry and to try to re-establish a unified defense-industrial sector throughout the entire former Soviet Union. The Russians are so desperate to sell weapons to anybody that they are selling the weapons to Central Asia at below the cost of production," Blank said.

Moscow, which maintains 20,000 troops in Tajikistan, is eager to revitalize its military ties to the region. Russia and Tajikistan are negotiating a plan to establish a military base for Russia's 201st Division near Dushanbe. Kyrgyzstan and Russia signed an agreement in June on the status of Russian military personnel, as well as a memorandum on the leasing of Kyrgyz military facilities.

The U.S., however, is challenging Russia's historical influence in the region by also nurturing close military partnerships with the Central Asian states. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan are providing military bases for use by U.S. troops supporting operations in Afghanistan, while Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have opened their airspace.

China is also providing military assistance to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan, Blank said, while also seeking to prevent them from assisting Uighur separatists in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang. Kazakhstan and China reportedly signed in March an agreement under which Beijing will provide the Kazakh armed forces with $3 million worth of assistance, including communications and special-forces equipment.

Alex Vatanka is editor of "Jane's Sentinel: Russia and the CIS," a security-assessment publication based in London. Vatanka believes the increased militarization in the region is also a result of a need by the Central Asian states to strengthen their own military forces. "There is that fundamental need [by the countries of Central Asia] to create indigenous armed forces, not necessarily so much in terms of arms production but at least in creating a coherent and effective, or at least functional, armed forces with proper doctrines," Vatanka said.

The militarization of the region comes at a cost, however. Analysts note that an emphasis on military solutions to the region's problems with terrorism, such as that posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), removes the focus from the underlying causes for the extremism. In the case of Uzbekistan, Vatanka said, "In the long term, the issue of how you spend the nation's resources is obviously going to be a problem for President [Islam] Karimov to consider because, on the one hand, he's trying to pacify the IMU and the grassroots support for the IMU on the ground, while at the same time not really tackling the issues that lead to increased support for the IMU, i.e., poverty."

Analysts say more weapons in the region could increase the likelihood that countries would resort to the military option in border or water disputes, for example. "I can't really see any of the Central Asian states having any, for instance, say, territorial ambitions that could lead to interstate conflict in the region. But you cannot discount the possibility that one day there could be issues that could lead to conflict within these Central Asian states," Vatanka said.

For example, the International Crisis Group, based in Kyrgyzstan, recently noted in a report that Uzbekistan carried out military exercises that looked to some in Kyrgyzstan like practice runs aimed at capturing its Toktogul water reservoir by force.

Blank spoke to RFE/RL about the dangers of militarization in the region. "First of all, [this is] an attempt to put a priority on military solutions to political problems, and placing the priority on military threats, which unfortunately is the case. And you see this in a variety of ways. Of course, there's the war on terrorism, which is a response to the terrorism and insurgency that you've had in Central Asia if you're going back to 1999. That's the most obvious case. But others are Iran's attempts to use gunboat diplomacy in the Caspian, and Russia's rejoinder by its massive military exercise in the Caspian, which is clearly targeted, among other things, at Iran," Blank said.

Blank also pointed to the possibility that military assistance and arm sales to Central Asian governments will be used for the purposes of domestic repression. He also said the flow of weapons and money into the region's defense sectors will only add to the so-called "Kalashnikov culture," in which many members of the region's armed forces, police, and government are believed to be involved in corruption, especially the drug trade.