Rough Year Ahead for Central Asia

Ethnic hostilities, Islamic insurgencies, nationalist rivalries, intraregional grievances, and spillover from Afghanistan threaten to reintroduce civil conflict and the possibility of regime change from below.

Political risk in Central Asia for 2013 is widespread but uneven.

Across the five post-Soviet countries, state decision-making is walled inside presidential palaces. While the heads of state range from outright dictators (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan) to façade democrats (Kyrgyzstan), institutional mechanisms for sharing and transferring power are non-existent. The strongest organized bidders for influence are rogue actors like drug cartels, provincial strongmen and scheming business elites. Environmental degradation, the propensity for natural disaster and bitter politics expose much of the population to energy and food shortages. The extraction industries dominating Central Asian economies encourage wealth concentration and exasperate nepotism and cronyism. Ethnic hostilities, Islamic insurgencies, nationalist rivalries, intraregional grievances, and spillover from the war in Afghanistan threaten to reintroduce civil conflict and the possibility of forced regime change from below.

Or 2013 could be just another status quo year, when pockets of resistance, a spasm of street protest or days of labor unrest will fail to disrupt the metronomic rhythms: weddings and harvests, short school days and long factory hours, trips to the market and worker remittances from Russia. Central Asia has a way of stalking change but reverting to its post-Soviet norms.

Hotspots most threatening Central Asian political stability include:

Divided Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan is the only working parliamentary system in the region and derives significant revenues and international interest from renting military bases to both the United States and Russia, but its weak central government is still driven by personality and the interests of a tiny business elite. Newly elected President Almazbek Atambayev has done little to make good on promises of transparency and international investors are only feeling more insecure.

Into this unstable political corpus, the potential for grievous violence in the country’s south could rip open long-festering wounds. Street clashes in 2010 between Kyrgyz and the minority Uzbek population in and around the southern city of Osh resulted in hundreds of dead Uzbeks and hundreds of thousands of Uzbek refugees. The newly elected central government has little control over the country’s south, where local officials relentlessly foment hostilities against Uzbeks remaining in the country. Last month, an investigator from the influential human rights organization International Crisis Group was detained and government security forces confiscated his materials containing names of cooperating witnesses. Feckless international agencies and the Western diplomatic community have done almost nothing to sound the alarm. Further ethnic cleansing against Uzbeks appears inevitable.

Fracturing Tajikistan

In August 2012, government forces allegedly killed a regional strongman in the eastern part of the country (the government claims he was a smuggler), setting off days of fighting between soldiers and angry local militia. A ceasefire was reached but only after dozens of casualties. Regionally based insurrection remains a constant threat to Tajikistan’s political cohesion.

Tajikistan is less a coherent nation-state than a confederation of tribal regions still traumatized from a ruinous civil war during the 1990s. Instability is rooted in the threat posed by Islamist groups, widespread poverty, and energy and food insecurity. Tajikistan has tense relations with its neighbors, especially Uzbekistan, and in the past year the export of drugs and people from Afghanistan has intensified. The drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan only increases the odds against Tajikistan limping past 2013 without encountering social or political strife.

Restive Kazakhstan

The Kazakh government is currently unleashing a crackdown on independent media outlets and opposition groups, apparently retribution for their role in publicizing deadly violence a year ago in Zhanaozen, a city in the country’s western region. Government forces killed at least 12 people and wounded dozens of others.

Labor actions and heavy-handed retaliation against an increasingly assertive civil society coincides with rising dissatisfaction from Kazakh elites. Cracking fault lines between rich and poor, impatience with president (for life) Nursultan Nazarbayev’s insatiable appetite for gobbling up the Kazakhstan economy, and his refusal to even plot a path toward relinquishing power have aroused the ire of a younger faction of political outsiders and even Nazarbayev family members. It has the potential to escalate into dangerous infighting and exposes the country to the possibility of bruising political clashes.

Regime Siege in Turkmenistan

With endemic corruption, mercurial relationships with its neighbors, an evaporating educational system, and a rapacious political class, Turkmenistan struggles to simply function. President since 2007, when he succeeded the epically egomaniacal Saparamurat Niyazov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, trained as a dentist, mostly continues his processor’s closed-door policies and appears intent on reconstituting his cult-of-personality authoritarian rule.

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