Grey zones and first families: the reality of everyday violence in Central Asia

Central Asia has gained a reputation for sporadic outbreaks of ethnic unrest and Islamist insurgency. But the popular depiction of the stans underestimates the most significant sort of violence – the struggle of much of its population to make ends meet under regimes that pride themselves on control, self-glorification and the latent threat of chaos.

Bruno de Cordier
13 October 2011

In the old underbelly of the Soviet Union known as Central Asia, the term ‘violence’ automatically conjures up images of ‘Islamic radicalism’, ethnic tensions and state repression. This is hardly surprising, given the events that have brought the region to the attention of the global media and international organisations.

During and immediately after the demise of the USSR, and almost simultaneously with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Algerian and Afghan civil wars, Central Asia witnessed communal riots in Uzgen, Kyrgyzstan, and the occupation by anti-government demonstrators of official buildings in Namangan, Uzbekistan. Civil war between regional clans in Tajikistan, a conflict questionably explained by some in terms of ‘Islamic extremism’, followed soon after, lasting from 1992 to 1997. A domino mechanism seemed to be at work.

Since then, ‘the stans’ have never got rid of their brand identity as a sinister, conflict-prone region. This perception has recently been reinforced by displays of the true character of the Uzbekistan regime in Andijan, last year’s vicious communal violence in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, and clashes between local insurgents and government forces in the Kamarob gorge, Tajikistan.

However, these tempestuous events, and the global headlines they generate about an otherwise forgotten region, are scarcely representative. For it is in the routines of everyday life that the people of Central Asia are confronted with much less spectacular, and yet more pervasive, forms of violence.


Uzbeck men charged with killing police officer. Demotix image/RFE/RL. All rights reserved.

Economics of submission

What I’m talking about is economic violence. For most of those who lived through it, the sudden change from the safety net of the Soviet Union to the rapacious capitalism and general impoverishment of the 1990s was extreme economic violence. Nowadays, this violence is much more structural.

The term is often used to describe a form of domestic violence where a tyrannical or jealous family head wants to keep everyone else in a state of financial dependence. In my opinion, this can also apply to societies, when regimes and other people in power exercise monopolistic control over economic resources. They try to prevent others from obtaining benefits from these resources, and use state institutions and political positions to control lucrative raw materials, foreign investment and international aid. It also includes interference in the public ‘daily economy’, targeting all economic initiative that is not under the regime’s control.

Today, the degrees and forms of economic violence differ from country to country, and between provinces and districts. But everyone who has experienced Central Asia beyond the enclaves and the façades that the regimes and elite groups want expatriates, official delegations and package tours to see, know that this is by far the single biggest source of resentment among the population.

It causes much more discontent than the lack of media freedom, rigged elections or the expulsion of foreign non-governmental organizations. Poverty and corruption repeatedly crop up when talking to people. As in other parts of the world, poverty rates vary sharply across Central Asia. Yet poverty is less a matter of statistics than of an individual’s feelings about his or her status and living conditions as compared to others. Corruption, meanwhile, goes far beyond the ‘informal fines’ exacted by the gaishniki (the traffic police).

To start with, there is the grip that elite families and other groups directly and indirectly have over key sectors of the economy that bring in external capital and a sizeable part of official gross domestic product. Examples include cotton, natural gas and the Amantaytau gold fields in Uzbekistan, and cotton, the Regar aluminium plant and more recently, the planned Rogun hydropower plant in Tajikistan.

Much of this has to do with the emergence of what some economists call “rentier states” in Central Asia. States that receive large amounts of revenues from the sale of oil, gas and other commodities on the international markets tend to become estranged from their societies, autocratic, and more oriented toward external interests and the interests of a small elite than those of the country. These states tend to have economies dominated by the profits generated by a few commodities rather than by productive enterprises.

The activities of the groups and individuals involved and their cronies have expanded to other sectors like telecommunications, real estate and construction, hotels and restaurants, banking, transport, and import monopolies on a wide range of consumer goods and petrol. In some cases, they extend into illicit trade, drug trafficking in particular.

Monopolies on consumer goods and petrol, in particular, keep societies vulnerable to artificial shortages and speculation. The system benefits a caste in which status is determined by the proximity of one’s relationships with the president and the ‘first families’: this represents perhaps one-thousandth of the population. This is a murky world of interpersonal networks that go from the top-down, operating through front companies and strawmen both within the country and abroad. As such, it is not easy to put on the map, especially since one mainly has to rely on incidental evidence, ‘public secrets’, and information that is not easy to separate from planted rumours and hearsay.

The independence hijacking

This phenomenon is rooted in two legacies. One is that of the Soviet Union, in which Central Asia – with the exception of Tashkent and the northern half of Kazakhstan – was primarily a supplier of raw materials to manufacturing centres in the industrial core areas of the USSR. These resource economies were reinforced by ruling elites who came (or, more often, stayed) in power after the Soviet meltdown between 1989 and 1991.

Initially, this was understandable: the Soviet legacy was impossible to rectify in the short term. Yet later on, it became too lucrative for them even to try. The current rulers and elites in Central Asia are the Soviet version of the compradores, the europeanised native elites, middlemen and nobility in European colonies and protectorates in Africa and India who came to power after independence. Despite the remarkable achievements of the Soviet Union in the fields of education, health care, social security and infrastructure (much of which has deteriorated), this is perhaps one of its most harmful legacies.

Another legacy is that of post-independence integration into the world economy through these raw materials, as well as through international financial aid. This aid came with conditions that attached overriding importance to privatisation. In practice, it sealed the collapse of the social sector, and encouraged a process of pseudo-privatisations in which ruling elites savvily reorganised control over state property and aid through clientelism and cronyism.

Sometimes, the seizure process was facilitated by armed conflict, as in Tajikistan. International donors or, more correctly, some of their wined, dined and guess-what-else representatives, eventually came to play the role of what Lenin allegedly called “useful idiots.” But this is not unique to the region. It happens elsewhere. 

The cotton club 


Demotix image/RFE/RL. All rights reserved.

How did all this affect Central Asian societies?  Elites want to protect and expand their positions and monopolies, partly out of self-preservation and partly out of greed. And in societies where clientelism and cronyism are the norm, and formal laws and courts subordinate to them, positions in public administration, law enforcement, the judicial system and national as well as local government are often granted as personal favours, or bribed into, or both. The favours and financial investments have to be returned by looking after the patron’s interests and by earning back expenses that cannot be covered through the nominal salaries for these positions. The outcome is massive ‘informal taxation’ (bribery, that is) at all levels, and the use of official positions to enforce, or get involved in, economic interests to the detriment of the population and independent business.

One example of how this can affect society all the way down to the village level is cotton production in Uzbekistan. While cotton exports are in the hands of a state-owned company and the political elite in the capital, and most of the cotton farm land is state-owned, crop production is overseen by provincial and district governors who are left with a great deal of discretion and autonomy as to how they deliver the requested harvest quota. Since both the income and political survival of these provincial strongmen depend on the delivery of the quota, crass exploitation, eviction threats against farmers from land that they lease from the state, and the forced replacement of staple crops like wheat and rice with cotton, are all common. Similar practices exist in other cotton areas, like the Vakhsh valley in Tajikistan.

Matters are different with sectors such as natural gas or aluminium, which involve much less menial labour and agricultural land, and many more multinational corporations. Despite the slogans and declarations that international organisations and donors want to hear, the huge personal interests of metropolitan elites, and the loathing and fear that these tend to have for the provincial population, offer little incentive to invest profits in the revitalisation of social services like education and health care.

In some parts of Central Asia, investment in these sectors has largely been left to foreign donors and aid organisations. My observations indicate that this feeds not a little popular resentment over the elites’ unwillingness to behave like just and legitimate rulers.

A battle over bazaars 


Trade market. Demtix image/David Vilder. All rights reserved. 

The daily economy in which Central Asian people live is not to be found in the sterile boutiques and glass shopping malls of the capitals. It consists instead of the bazaars, the scores of small and medium-sized enterprises and the remittances from seasonal labour migration to Russia, Kazakhstan and, to a much lesser extent, Ukraine, the EU and the Gulf.

Together, these form a mass of economic initiatives, and a social dynamic to be reckoned with. The regimes and other elite groups know that, and recognize the ambiguities of the situation. On one hand, the daily economy and seasonal labour migration are safety valves. Touch these too forcefully, and things might get nasty. On the other hand, they involve a lot of economic activity and movement that is not easy to control, as well as socially mobile groups who will sooner or later question the order of things, especially now that living standards at the grassroots are rising with the influx of remittances.

The bulk of small and medium enterprises operate in an economic grey zone, which was handed down from the large informal sector in the Soviet Union that allowed people to cope with the flaws of the command economy, and has continued and expanded by including many post-Soviet entrepreneurs who had different professions before – in collective farms, in the social sector or as civil servants.

Legal and bureaucratic hurdles, as well as heavy taxation, make it extremely hard to keep businesses in the open. Existing in a grey zone, however, makes entrepreneurs vulnerable to extortion, or to seizure of their businesses by anyone higher up who considers their existence threatening to vested interests. Sometimes, businessmen are also pressured to buy shares in big projects – like the Rogun hydropower plant in Tajikistan – or to bankroll all sorts of social events, national celebrations and grandiose monuments.

The same goes for bazaars or markets. These can be anything from a collection of makeshift stalls to clusters of shops and companies in permanent brick compounds. They are not a romantic relic of the past, but an economic space that is vital in many people’s daily lives. Markets like Korvon in Dushanbe and Karasuu in Kyrgyzstan, for example, directly or indirectly employ thousands of people and have monthly turnovers worth millions of dollars.

Not suprisingly, control over these bazaars is a major issue for ruling elites. They also view bazaars with suspicion, since they concentrate large numbers of people – sometimes close to government buildings – and involve competing interest groups that could become political. In 1970s Iran, for example, bazaars and their networks of traders played an active role in opposition to the monarchy and economic policies favoring well-connected monopolists and foreign companies.

In Central Asia, the authorities’ response has at times been to relocate bazaars to the outskirts of the city in new structures controlled by one group, like the planned relocation of the market of Kurgan-Tyube in Tajikistan to the new Hajji Sharif compound. At other times, bazaars were closed and razed, as happened with several markets in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The move, officially justified as part of a plan of “urban beautification” aiming to give a “civilised, European” image to the city, disrupted the livelihoods of scores of small traders and menial workers.

Ignition point? 

The condescending behaviour and decadent ostentation of part of the privileged elite and their spawn are felt to be humiliating, and the uncertainties that come with the arbitrariness of power are psychologically difficult to bear.

It is here that economic and physical violence interact. In Uzbekistan, the demonstrations that ended in the Andijan massacre were not an “Islamist uprising”, but an expression of popular anger towards the sort of economic violence that has just been described. Furthermore, control over economic assets continues to have a stake in armed violence too. Last year’s communal violence in southern Kyrgyzstan was as much about control over property as “ethnic tensions”. Another example is the little-exposed ownership dispute over anthracite mines that may have stood behind the Kamarob clashes in Tajikistan last fall. The opposition fighters who resisted the government troops sent into the area were likely not so much driven by greed or rational financial considerations as they were by weariness with humiliation.

And indeed, one may rightly wonder why people continue to accept the order of things. Part of this has to do with a culture of subtle intimidation and lingering servility. But there is also fear over a violent alternative, or a repetition of past violence.

Some of the regimes in the region understand this very well. In Tajikistan, for instance, the regime capitalizes on the deep traumas left by the brutal civil war during the country’s first years of independence. War-and-peace images are often shown on state television. This has not only ensured the ruling regime’s legitimacy as a guarantor of peace and stability, it is also its unofficial ideology. Whether it will continue to work among the generations that did not live through the war is hard to predict. But so far, it has served its purpose.

In Uzbekistan, the regime is keen to play on threats and fears that any change would be for the worse. Nothing shows this line better than a clip recently broadcast on Uzbekistan’s state television on the occasion of the country’s twentieth independence anniversary. It perniciously showed alternating images of happy people in a prosperous Uzbekistan, and chaos and bloodshed in Afghanistan, Iraq and on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Its covert message is clear: oppose us, and we’ll make sure that you reap what we sow. Perhaps it works. But since both people and part of the elites are starting to know better, it might not last the way it is intended. 

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