The Opacity of Central Asia
A region that has always defied predictions is becoming more confusing than ever.
Central Asia has not been kind to predictions.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Western scholars liked to talk about the rupture in the USSR’s Central Asia region between the “Soviet Man” and the “Islamic Man”—with the Soviet Man, perhaps galvanized by dormant nationalist feelings, coming out on top. In the mid-1990s, the popular—and wrong—bet on the economic rivalry between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan was on Uzbekistan’s future vitality. After the death of Turkmenistan’s uniquely bizarre president in 2006, his equally strange dentist took charge and managed to stay in charge, ratifying the predictions of very few.
In Central Asia, sickly presidents stay alive, and geopolitical preferences swivel, Janus-like, into new “multivector” foreign policies. Over the years, the oft-repeated prognosis of disaster or significant transformation ends up being just a parlor game, while Central Asia plods on in gloomy stagnation. The region confounds analysts just about all the time.
To be sure, political forecasting is a dicey business anywhere, and for any region in the world hindsight is always the great corrective. Indeed, Central Asia has never yielded a lot of visibility into the future—and for good reasons.
Political trajectories are difficult to predict in a region where so much hinges on the health of individual heads of state or the fickle preferences of shadowy governing elites. The authoritarian landscape shields analysis from the insight gained from knowing true public opinion. For example, few experts saw any potential for democracy in Central Asia during the past decade without regime change and many years of institutional maturation, and they urged a development policy of very long-term goals. They failed to anticipate, as happened in Kyrgyzstan, how local civil-society organizations would channel grievances into a democratic transition. But how to know the reach of local civil-society organizations when so much of what they do is hidden from view?
In short, what happens next in Central Asia has been long difficult to predict. But recently, the region has become especially opaque. Why is this so?
Since the independence of the Central Asian states from the Soviet Union in 1991, the biggest guessing game has been leadership succession, which apart from Kyrgyzstan has been contingent on a president finally dying. None are now young. False but widely circulated rumors of imminent death, especially for seventy-four-year-old Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, have been frequent. By now it is clear there is no chance of any political observer leaping the presidential moat and reading the medical charts of a Central Asian leader. But beyond this, the ramifications of succession remain stubbornly hard to discern, especially in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and above all Uzbekistan, where governments are hermetically sealed against prying outsider eyes.
Divining the mortality of the presidents has always eluded forecasters, now exhausted by a decade of unfulfilled guesses. Regional geopolitics is often a similar blind spot. There is nothing new in analysts of Central Asia taking stock and drawing conclusions about shifting global allegiances. Great Game prediction is, after all, a respectable preoccupation if not the first order of business for experts in this part of the world. The emergence of China’s soft power, the durability of Russian national interests and the ephemeral influence of the United States have become mainstays of Central Asian analysis in the past decade.
But more recently, these geopolitical assumptions have seemed far more slippery than in the past. More than ever, Central Asia seems an unknowable muddle largely because of the anticipated end of large-scale American engagement in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, at least for the United States Armed Forces. Some of the Central Asian nations also seem poised to experience a transition into something different, and possibly into real tumult—if only anyone knew what kind. In a summary of recent analytical and academic literature on Central Asia, Murat Laumulin writes in the current issue of the journal Central Asia and the Caucuses:
There is more or less unanimous agreement that the region’s relatively comfortable existence in the system of international relations, which coincided with the end of George W. Bush’s presidency and Barack Obama’s first term as U.S. president, is coming to an end. Today, when the West has successfully destabilized Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab East, it will turn its attention to Iran and Pakistan. In this context, neither the U.S nor Russia needs a neutral Central Asia.
While Turkmenistan is largely languishing on the margins, the rest of post-Soviet Central Asia is deeply etched by political risk. So it has been, but what are now the more likely scenarios and how will it play out? There is little to go on.
Tajikistan remains beset by political, social and economic problems from every direction, and these should only increase when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan with almost nothing in the way of leading indicators to suggest what may result in the country. The new federal government in Kyrgyzstan has halting control over the south of the country, and many observers express increasing concern that the country will face further economic and ethnic jeopardy. Right now, forecasting the future in Uzbekistan is nothing short of useless. And in Kazakhstan, the richest nation in Central Asia and its most politically stable, a January 2012 report from the Carnegie Endowment underscored the difficulty ahead, saying “there is already a growing sense of nervousness, in all sectors of society, over the political uncertainties that lie ahead.”
Depending on who wins the American election, triangulating Russian power in Central Asia may become a key foreign-policy objective of the United States. Meanwhile, the majoritarian view that Russia owns the ultimate ascendency in the region, usually assumed by Central Asian analysts, has come in for criticism, as in a well-researched January 2012 white paper on Central Asia’s future for The Asia Society:
There are significant limits to Russian influence, however. Despite having troops stationed in Central Asia, Russia has been reluctant to get involved in even limited peacekeeping operations. When a desperate Kyrgyzstan asked for Moscow’s help in stopping the ethnic violence that erupted after the 2010 revolution, Moscow demurred, sending a powerful signal that local governments should not count on Russian security assistance. And despite investment by Russian companies across the region, it seems likely that Russian economic influence will continue to decline relative to that of China.
The research paper also notices an emerging Sino-Russian tactical alliance, an “axis of convenience” between Beijing and Moscow. On the other hand, Kyrgyzstan is noted to be drifting ever more firmly into a Russian embrace. Meanwhile, the United States has both failed to pay attention to Central Asia and “in recent months, Central Asia has gained even more stature among American military planners because U.S. relations with Pakistan, always difficult, nosedived in the political fallout over the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden in his home near Islamabad.” There was nothing confused in the thinking or analysis of the paper; rather, the region is covered with fog and has become consumed with more significant contradiction than usual.
The situation across the region has become much more difficult to parse.
Ilan Greenberg is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington DC.