Central Asia - the smouldering volcano

As the recent popular violence in Kyrgyzstan reminded us, Central Asia is strategically vital. The West needs to work with Russia, and China, to put in place a programme of pre-emptive damage control
Carlo Ungaro
27 April 2010

Events in Kyrgyzstan seem to have crept up unexpectedly.   Public opinion was apparently unaware or inattentive: it was principally, and understandably, focused on other theatres, albeit in areas not all that distant, such as Afghanistan.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former Central Asian Soviet Republics   - with perhaps the exception of Tajikistan – have been rather superficially viewed as essentially calm. Occasional unrest has always seemed to be short-lived, and their very distance – both geographic and cultural – has kept them out of the western world’s attention.

Long after the bygone days of the “Great Game”, however, these republics continue to have significant strategic importance, either as producers of oil or natural gas, or for their geographic position, which makes them essential partners in conveying these products to the West. They also have strategic military importance, especially in view of the Afghan conflict and the tensions between the West and Iran.  All these circumstances have been contributory factors to endeavours by interested foreign governments to avoid a hectoring attitude on delicate issues such as democracy or respect for human rights and political freedom.

The result of this rather cynical combination of indifference and covert encouragement has been to create an area which owes its stability principally to the inflexibility and virtual immovability of a leadership left over from the Soviet empire.

The only signs of movement have taken place in two of the smaller republics, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan.  Here the sudden death of a dictator whose behaviour could even have seemed comical in its extreme use of the personality cult, had given rise to some hope of change.  This, however, has so far failed to materialise.  My feeling is that the very fact that their populations are relatively small makes it unlikely for events there to have immediate far-reaching consequences.  Unless, of course, they might generate a spillover effect in nearby Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. At this time this is unlikely, because these two republics, particularly the former, are very tightly run by a “nomenklatura”, which has survived Soviet times and has flourished ever since.  This creates a sense of “Imperium in Imperio” which, as things stand, appears totally secure, intangible and therefore, by our Western standards, “dependable”.

Questions have arisen as to whether the events in Bishkek were inspired, encouraged or even financed by outside influence. It is unlikely, though not impossible, and some have seen the hand of Russia in the events. It must be clear, however that Russia, just like all the other nearby states, has no interest in destabilising Kyrgyzstan.  If there was any Russian involvement, it was probably an operation aimed more simply at regime change which got slightly out of control. Political turmoil and instability in those republics which some – with typical Eurocentric arrogance – insist on calling “the Stans”, is, at present in no one’s interest. Not China, who has already a number of difficult and delicate border situations.  Certainly not Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan and, therefore, not even Russia. Unless, of course, there are splinter groups in the Russian services who still nurture imperial nostalgia.

This basically realistic overview, however, fails to take into account an inevitable process: the passage of time, and the resulting disappearance of these leaders from the scene.  The nomenklatura is numerous and powerful, which has been the key to the survival of these regimes, but it is also fast ageing and has now been in power for a couple of decades. It is true that the wide, unscrupulous practice of nepotism enables them to feel they have a reliable second generation waiting in the wings.  But history tends to show that an inordinate trust in the products of nepotism can have disappointing results.

There are further reasons to fear a less than comforting future for these republics. On the one hand, of course, there is a growing population of political dissidents, who have shown their power in Kyrgyzstan and been ruthlessly suppressed elsewhere.  But in some of the republics there are also signs of a growing and unyielding hostility on the part of Islamic “extremists”. Their presence, paradoxically, has actually been beneficial, mainly because of the West’s instinctive reaction to this kind of threat: the presence of these pockets of Islamic resistance has strengthened the case for the support and encouragement of repressive regimes in each of the former Soviet Central Asian republics.

My experience in this part of the world makes me fear that we are dealing with a smouldering volcano, due to erupt in the not too distant future.

The uncertainty prevailing in Afghanistan and, in spite of continuing official optimism, in Pakistan should induce all interested parties to give careful consideration to potentially violent and destabilising scenarios in the area under discussion.  It is unrealistic to believe that the more or less benevolent neutrality of the Central Asian Republics can be counted on indefinitely.

This inevitably raises the question of how the Powers involved in the area can avoid being reduced to passive spectators, should events such as these take place.  Even twenty years after the end of the Soviet Union, Russian interests and presence remain paramount, as, indeed, they were even in the days of the Tsarist Empire. But it could be a grave mistake to think that, should the situation change radically, the defence of all the existing economic, political and strategic interests in any of the republics could be entrusted to Russia alone. There is a danger that the Russians would end up creating a false impression of “Law and Order” by using military force to place their own trusted allies at the head of governments which would be, in every sense, puppet regimes. We cannot rule out the possibility that such plans already exist and that a new nomenklatura is waiting to come out of the wings in the event of severe trouble.

This, of course, would not be an acceptable solution and could actually be the forerunner to greater tension and violence. It is my belief that  - perhaps, for now, secretly and informally –the ground should be tested to ascertain to what extent Russian and “Western” interests coincide or diverge, and leverage should be put in place to persuade the Chinese to play a more visible role in the area. Perhaps consideration should be given to  “pre-emptive damage limitation”, rather than to “pre-emptive strikes”.

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