Central Asia: the erupting volcano

The West turned a blind eye to the potential volatility of Central Asia because it was convenient, in Carlo Ungaro's view. Recent events in Kyrgyzstan show how dangerous this stance is. In adjacent areas of Afghanistan the discovery of mineral riches is likely further to complicate an already fraught situation.
Carlo Ungaro
23 June 2010

In a recent Open Democracy article I attempted to draw attention to a situation which, by and large, had been ignored by the mainstream media.  My contention was that the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia, far from being havens of security, were actually more like volcanoes, once dormant and now smouldering.  As a consequence, the (at that time) incipient troubles in Kyrgyzstan should be viewed not as an isolated episode, but as part of a more general, and somewhat troubling, picture.

Central Asia

Central Asia map (source: wikimedia)

The rapid and dramatic – though by no means unexpected – escalation of the violence in Kyrgyzstan is forcing other players in the area (particularly Russia and Uzbekistan) if not to take action, at least publicly to assume a position. This is something they studiously avoided at the onset of the Kyrgyz crisis.

For their part “Western” Governments, and with them the world’s mainstream media, have turned a blind eye to events – and potential developments – in Central Asia.  Even the recent anniversary of the 2005 massacre of civilians in Andijan (Uzbekistan) by government troops has been largely disregarded.

Such indifference is no longer really possible.  The timing of the disclosure of the recent “discovery” (in reality known or suspected for some time) of mineral riches in remote frontier regions of Afghanistan has added an intriguing tassle to a scenario which, never simple, is becoming ever more complex.

The increasingly dangerous situation in Central Asia can perhaps be better understood by considering some basic facts.  They should then be pieced together and properly analysed, from both a political and an historical point of view.

The formal collapse of the Soviet Union caused less turmoil and bloodshed in Central Asia than might have been expected.  With the exception of Tajikistan, which followed a more complex path, the remaining four republics remained more or less stagnant for many years.  Even the unexpected demise of Turkmenistan’s “Turkmenbashi”, the object of an absolutely ludicrous personality cult, at first viewed with some concern (or hope), caused scarcely a ripple.

In spite of growing human rights violations, these four republics are normally considered valuable and, above all, reliable allies, principally because their apparent internal calm and economic progress tend to lull outside observers into a mistaken sense of confidence and security.

When the extremely violent Andijan incidents broke out, the “West” was already reliant on Uzbekistan in its Afghan military effort.  After some hesitation and extremely mild remonstrations, the Uzbek claim that the uprising had been the work of Islamic fundamentalist extremists was accepted. The fact that there may well have been some truth in a fundamentalist presence actually enhances the potential danger of the situation and also explains Uzbekistan’s reluctance to accept the massive influx of Uzbek refugees fleeing from the violence in Kyrgyzstan.

These regimes give an illusion of ruthless strength and lasting stability. This impression, however, covers a fragile and volatile reality, a weakness enhanced by the passage of time with the ageing nomenklatura obviously on its way out. Historical reality has shown that nepotism and cronyism do not necessarily guarantee continuity: the death of one dictator (Turkmenistan) brought no change, but it is difficult to imagine what the consequences will be of, for example, Islam Karimov’s eventual departure from the Uzbek scene.

There is, therefore a potential for chaos and uncertainty on the very border with Afghanistan. In ordinary circumstances this would be a situation which all interested parties and nearby powers would try to neutralise and bring under control.  However, the timing of the announcement of the “discovery” of “a trillion USD worth” of valuable minerals in the very regions of Afghanistan closest to this potential new area of conflict could bring about a change of attitude in all the parties concerned. The existence of these mineral deposits have been an open secret, but the official disclosure  - possibly decided for an eventual justification of a prolonged Western military presence in Afghanistan -means that, from now on, “the gloves are off”.  Even Iran, which has kept its distance from the Afghan conflict, could display an understandable interest.

Of course, no exploitation or even deeper exploration of the area will be possible unless the country and the region are pacified, and this could mean an intensification of the war effort by the sides engaged in the conflict, and a hand in muddying the waters on the part of those who would prefer not to see such riches fall exclusively into Western (i.e. American) hands. The Russians, in spite of having been badly burned in Afghanistan, have always considered that country part of their sphere of influence (shades of the “Great Game”), and the Chinese have been quietly enhancing their presence in the area.

The real losers will most probably be the Afghan people.

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