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Central Asia: New Report Shoots Down Assumptions About Arms Proliferation

A new report finds that while the proliferation of small arms may pose serious threats in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, the same cannot be said of Central Asia as a whole.

Prague, 27 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A new report counters preconceptions that Central Asia is a "hotbed of gun proliferation and misuse." The study uses Kyrgyzstan as a case study and finds that, despite suffering from socio-economic problems and ethnic tensions, there is little evidence that this has led to increasing violence and gun proliferation.

"Some states are better than others at controlling small arms. But they are nonetheless vulnerable in key issues such as border control. The Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is still open to smuggling despite years of efforts to control [it]."
Neil MacFarlane is a professor of international relations at Oxford University in Britain and the co-author of the report, titled "Kyrgyzstan: A Small Arms Anomaly in Central Asia."

"If you look at most of the literature on regional security in Central Asia, you get the impression that the region is awash with guns, drugs, people-trafficking and so on, and that it is a very insecure place at the human level. We wanted to test this general impression of insecurity against one specific state. And what we found in Kyrgyzstan was quite low levels of guns possession, relatively little evidence of significant trafficking of small arms and rather low levels of injuries and deaths from small arms," MacFarlane said.

The report was published by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project located at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. It is based on interviews with government officials and nongovernmental workers. The effort was complemented by a survey of households in southern Kyrgyzstan, reportedly the region most threatened by small arms proliferation.

There are about eight licensed gun shops in Kyrgyzstan. Ivan Ardamin, who owns one of the three gun shops in Bishkek, says illegal weapons are most often used in mountainous areas to hunt wild animals.

"[Public] order in Kyrgyzstan is [strict]. I don't know the situation in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, or Kazakhstan. However, in practice, there is no illegal trafficking of guns in Kyrgyzstan. This is my opinion. There is no illegal selling of even simple hunting guns. I don't think there is. And it's impossible to use these licensed hunting guns for crimes," Ardamin said.

Civilian possession of guns is strictly legislated in Kyrgyzstan. The report notes that the country has a relatively low rate of gun-related crime, with just 325 incidents recorded from 2001 to 2003.

Lieutenant-Colonel Turdugul Kurmanbayev works in the department that licenses guns at the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry.

"There are only 16,068 licensed hunters [in Kyrgyzstan]. They use about 18,912 pieces of very different hunting rifles, including 1,543 rifled guns and 17,369 smoothbore guns. There was not a single crime reported using these licensed rifles," Kurmanbayev said.

The report notes that a combination of cultural, economic, political, and institutional factors has helped Kyrgyzstan keep control of the possession of small arms. First, the country has not experienced any armed conflict.

"Unlike Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan never experienced a civil war, the kind of total breakdown of the institutions of law and order that Tajikistan did,” MacFarlane says. “The government appears to have maintained reasonably good control over official stocks of small arms. This is in dramatic contrast to Tajikistan."

MacFarlane says programs to confiscate illegal arms in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan prove the point. Over the last eight years, Tajikistan has collected 23,000 guns and Kyrgyzstan only 5,000.

Secondly, the report notes that the numbers of weapons that could be stolen from Kyrgyzstan's military storehouses is lower than in other former Soviet republics. It says withdrawing Soviet troops took much of the equipment with them in 1991. Kyrgyzstan also did not serve as a weapons depot during the Soviet Union's 10-year occupation of Afghanistan.

Third, the information gathered through the household survey shows that guns have very little cultural value in Kyrgyzstan. The vast majority of Kyrgyz surveyed do not believe a weapon is a wise purchase.

"Guns were not associated with identity in the way that it might be in the Caucasus, where having a weapon is part of your identity as a person or as a man," says MacFarlane.

He says small arms are also not a critical security issue in Kyrgyzstan despite the country's serious economic, social, and political challenges. But he adds that the large numbers of small arms in neighboring states might easily flow into Kyrgyzstan if a crisis did develop.

"Some states are better than others at controlling small arms. But they are nonetheless vulnerable in key issues such as border control. The Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border is still open to smuggling despite years of efforts to control [it]," MacFarlane said.

MacFarlane says it is important for the international community to help Central Asian states manage the threat of small arms proliferation.

The full report is available at

(Tyntchtykbek Tchoroev, director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service, contributed to this report.)