Central Asia: new security challenges

Kyrgyzstan’s violence underscores the instability of those former Soviet governments which are burdened by authoritarian and corrupt rule. To varying degrees, every Central Asian country faces serious threats at home and from the war in neighboring Afghanistan. They need help. The West and Russia should act, including by engaging the underutilized Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

William Courtney Denis Corboy Kenneth Yalowitz
9 April 2010

Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- is insecure. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan have ethnic kin fighting in Afghanistan who might target repressive rulers at home.  The extremist Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is becoming more threatening.  The recent cessation of U.S. support for eradicating poppy fields in Afghanistan will spur narcotics trafficking via Central Asia.

Economic challenges and rampant corruption undermine security. The area is rich in oil and gas mainly in the Caspian region and America and its companies have an important stake in the development of its huge oil reserves and diversification of world oil supplies.

That said, high unemployment and dashed expectations in impoverished Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan could provoke social explosions. Most people in Turkmenistan remain poor despite its huge natural gas reserves. In Kazakhstan oil development raises many but not all living standards. A major Central Asia security initiative – made more urgent by developments in Kyrgyzstan – could offer content worthy of a summit.

Central Asia map

Central Asia map (Wikimedia)

Regional animosities also impede development. Desiccation of the Aral Sea, shared by Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, endangers agriculture, the environment, and health.   Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan use only a small fraction of their hydroelectric potential. Uzbekistan, their stronger neighbour, demands water for irrigation but wastes a lot.

Finally, lack of respect for human rights and poor governance undermine security.  The rule of law is a distant hope. In Uzbekistan, torture is widespread. Human Rights Watch calls Turkmenistan one of the most repressive countries in the world.

Central Asians need better security. It would help stabilize northern Afghanistan, defeat violent extremists, staunch illicit trafficking, protect supplies bound for Afghanistan, and facilitate legal transportation and migration. These steps would also benefit Russia and the West.

Russia has no right to coercive “privileged interests” in Central Asia but it does have legitimate interests. Half of Russia’s many foreign migrants come from Central Asia. In Kazakhstan, Russia uses the Baikonur cosmodrome and conducts military testing. Narcotics transiting Central Asia feed crime and addiction in Russia.

Except to support operations in Afghanistan, the West largely treats Central Asia with benign neglect. The EU excludes the region from its neighbourhood policy but provides some assistance. The NATO Partnership for Peace programme offers limited training and exercises.

Threats to Central Asia justify far greater exertions. Russia might agree. Foreign Minister Lavrov has called for the OSCE to create counter-drug belts around Afghanistan.

The OSCE could indeed play a valuable role. It has unmatched skill in fostering regional cooperation.  The OSCE approach of comprehensive security - politico-military, economic and environmental, and human - is well suited to Central Asia’s woes and all five countries are members. The OSCE has significant ground presence in each country and modest but popular projects, such as border security training and a higher education academy.

The time is ripe for the West and Russia to empower the OSCE to support Central Asia as its top priority. Kazakhstan, the Chair-in-Office this year, seeks this and is pressing for an OSCE summit, the first in over a decade.

A major Central Asia security initiative could offer content worthy of a summit.

First, the initiative should help governments improve threat awareness, lessen security vulnerabilities, and enhance warning of potential conflicts. Training and transparency measures to fight security force corruption make sense.

Second, the initiative ought to facilitate regional transportation and cooperation on water use and hydroelectric generation. Development of common principles and proposals would be a good start. Establishment of an intra-Caspian freight carrier could expand trade. International support for cooperation in the region has proven its worth. The U.S. facilitated a new export pipeline across Russia for Kazakhstani oil, and a pipeline has just opened for Turkmenistan to export gas to China.

Third, the initiative should expand the OSCE’s solid leadership in fighting human trafficking, both forced labour and forced prostitution. It is a significant problem in Central Asia, as victims are exploited within the region and also recruited from within the region for exploitation in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. In a departure, the OSCE might also help mobilize support for public health campaigns, such as battling TB. Improvements in minority and religious tolerance and human rights may be harder to achieve but more likely to emerge as comprehensive security improves rather than through forced linkages.

The OSCE should begin by launching an intensive dialogue with its sometimes fractious Central Asian members. They lack a good understanding of what the OSCE can do for them as members. They tend see it as a foreign organization that only criticizes them and thus are reluctant for the OSCE to become more active in the region. To help turn this around and build support, an informal group of Friends of the Chair-in-Office should be formed – the troika (preceding, current, and subsequent Chairs-in-Office), and the EU, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Some momentum for an OSCE summit is building but hour is late. At the global nuclear security summit in Washington in early April, the Friends should begin organizing and developing a Central Asian security initiative suitable for an OSCE Summit. 


Denis Corboy is director of the Caucasus Policy Institute at Kings College London and was European Commission ambassador to Georgia and Armenia. William Courtney was U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan and Georgia. Kenneth Yalowitz is director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and was U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia.

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