Panel I :

Sheet of
and Reforms
in Cooperation

Potential Threats to Stability and Social Cohesion in Central Asia

Shirin Akiner

Director, Central Asia Research Forum, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

During the seventy-odd years of the Soviet era there was very little direct contact between the Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and the world beyond the borders of the USSR. Hence, there was an extremely limited flow of information in either direction. Consequently, when the Soviet Union collapsed suddenly and unexpectedly in December 1991, there was a high degree of mutual ignorance: the Central Asians knew little about the international community, and likewise, the latter (whether European or North American, Middle Eastern, Far Eastern or South Asian), had almost no reliable, first-hand knowledge of the Central Asian republics. Inevitably, this provided fertile ground for suspicions and threat perceptions on all sides. Some of these have subsequently been dispelled (though not necessarily fully eradicated from people's subconscious), while others, at first scarcely apparent, have come to assume more serious dimensions.

Initial Threat Perceptions

In Central Asia, the collapse of the Soviet Union generated an intense sense of insecurity. Many factors contributed to this state of anxiety. The most powerful, however, was the knowledge that the region was ringed around by foreign powers which either already possessed, or were on the verge of acquiring, weapons of mass destruction. The newly independent Central Asian countries, by contrast, had no national armed forces and little or no direct control over the military facilities inherited from the Soviet period (bases, research sites, armaments factories etc.) which were located on their territories. They believed that they were in real and immediate danger of foreign attack and, understandably, felt acutely vulnerable. It was only as diplomatic, trade and cultural contacts with other countries increased, and as the Central Asian states joined international organisations and became beneficiaries of various aid and development programmes that fears of external threats to national security gradually subsided. Today, there are still some mental reservations and residual concerns about the long-term intentions of their neighbours (notably Russia, China and Iran), but it is only Afghanistan, plagued by an on-going civil war and a massive drugs trade, that is currently regarded as a serious menace (1). Anxieties about the Afghan situation were heightened by the rapid territorial gains made by the Taliban (an opposition force of militant/Islamic students of an ultra-conservative persuasion) in September-October 1996.

In the West, post-Soviet Central Asia was perceived to pose two threats: one, the rapid spread of so-called 'Islamic fundamentalism', leading to the creation of new sponsors of terrorism; the other, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, specifically by the sale or theft of parts of the nuclear arsenal in Kazakhstan, but also through trafficking in nuclear-related materials from all parts of the region (for example, enriched uranium from Tadzhikistan).

However, as knowledge of the Central Asian republics increased, it became clear to most foreign observers that both these fears were exaggerated, at least as regarded the foreseeable future. Islam, although the traditional religion of the region and the basis of the indigenous culture, was not an active force in society. It seemed highly unlikely, therefore, that 'fundamentalism' would prove to be a real danger in the near future. It also emerged that fears about the fate of the nuclear arsenal in Kazakhstan had been largely founded on a misunderstanding of the situation: although significant numbers of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons were located at bases in Kazakhstan, the Kazakh government had no operational control of them and not even direct physical access. The same was true of the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk and the space centre at Baikonur. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, President Nazarbayev readily gave his support to a nuclear-free policy for Kazakhstan. There was some initial opposition from the Kazakh nationalist lobby who, realising the potential for exploiting Western concerns in this matter, began to insist that the nuclear arsenal be retained, at least until greater concessions had been won from the international community. However, they were soon overruled: all tactical weapons were withdrawn to Russia by mid-1992 and all strategic weapons by spring 1995. Kazakhstan became a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in early 1994. The Baikonur and Semipalatinsk facilities continued to be guarded and operated by Russian military personnel as part of a joint Kazakh-Russian defence programme. (2)

Emerging Domestic Threats

Once the anxieties and mutual suspicions of the immediate post-Soviet period had been dispelled (or at least diminished), their place was taken by a mood of euphoric optimism. All the Central Asian states are well endowed with deposits of valuable minerals; Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have world-class reserves of hydrocarbons (3). Moreover, compared with most other developing countries, the Central Asian states have relatively modern and efficient infrastructures. Most basic socio-economic indicators are comparable with those of developed countries; literacy levels are amongst the highest in the world. It seemed reasonable to suppose, therefore, that these states would have little difficulty in attracting the direct foreign investment that was required to develop their economic potential to the full; and that, concomitantly, they would embark on a smooth transition towards Western-style democracy and become stable, responsible members of the international community.

It is still only five years since these countries acquired political independence. It is premature, therefore, to make long-term predictions as to their future course of development. It is already clear, however, that the process of transition will be more complex, and more fraught with difficulties, than was initially anticipated. Foreign businessmen, originally enthusiastic about the prospects of developing links with the newly independent Central Asian states, are now showing a marked reluctance to become involved in large-scale ventures. There have been fact-finding missions and lengthy negotiations aplenty, resulting in the signing of highly publicised memoranda of intent, but only a very limited number of projects are actually being realised (4). There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the problems of transition (e.g. lack of stable legal structures, shortage of trained professionals in fields such as banking, accountancy and insurance, and lack of familiarity with international practice) that are found throughout the former eastern bloc are present here, too, but in more pronounced form, since in the Soviet period fewer Central Asians had direct contact with the outside world than did those from more western regions.

Secondly, the dislocation that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union had a greater effect in the Central Asian republics, owing to the more critically balanced economic, demographic and environmental conditions.

Thirdly, there is the awkward geopolitical situation of these republics, located as they are in the heart of the Eurasian landmass, far from an open sea, surrounded by highly problematic neighbours: transportation to and from the region is inevitably costly and not always easy to organise (5).

Finally, there is concern over the political risk represented by the growing domestic problems. These constitute a major challenge to social cohesion and could jeopardise the prospects for economic and political reform, thereby triggering a downward spiral of deteriorating conditions, popular discontent and hence chronic instability. The balance of risk factors differs from one state to another. However, it is still possible to identify common trends - the result of a shared Soviet legacy, as well as of similar pre-Soviet social and cultural traditions - and to make some valid generalisations. The issues discussed below seem likely to represent the greatest dangers to regional stability (6).

Growth of organised crime. Organised crime has long been entrenched in Central Asia. The Moscow-driven anti-corruption campaigns of the 1980s were largely ineffective in rooting out abuses of the system, but they did reveal something of the labyrinthine complexity of the criminal organisations that existed in each of the republics. These networks, commonly known as 'mafias', spanned the whole of society, from senior Party officials and members of the law enforcement agencies down to lowly foremen on the shop-floor and brigade leaders in collective farms (7). The opportunities for organised crime have rapidly proliferated since independence. The lack of a proper regulatory framework, underpinned by legal safeguards, has opened the way to fraud on a massive scale, particularly in the grey area between state control and the free market. The not infrequent involvement of senior government figures in such transactions means that little is being done to remedy the situation. The new private wealth has led to a mushrooming of protection rackets and a consequent rise in physical violence. Bribe-taking has also escalated out of control (8).

Another area in which the growing power of 'mafia' networks is reflected is that of drug-related crimes. Mild narcotics have traditionally been manufactured and ingested in Central Asia. Over the last few years, however, there has been a sudden expansion of the cultivation of hemp and opium poppies (9). There has also been a sharp rise in drug abuse (10). The most serious aspect of the problem is the ever-increasing volume of drug smuggling. Some opium is produced locally and there are rumours that facilities to manufacture heroin also exist. The main source of hard drugs, however, is Afghanistan. It is impossible to seal this long, porous border, especially the Tadzhik stretch. The economy of Badakhshan, the poorest and most isolated region of Tadzhikistan, is now wholly dependent on the opium trade. Consignments of drugs are also flooding into Kyrgyzstan. From there they are despatched to neighbouring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, then on to the Middle East, via Iran and Turkey, or to Europe via the Baltic ports (11). The 'mafia' barons have strengthened their transnational links and are coordinating their activities with partners abroad, including, it is suspected, with cartels in Hong Kong and Latin America.

Arms smuggling also appears to be on the increase. The main destination is Tadzhikistan, where a variety of weapons of Israeli, Chinese, US and Soviet manufacture have been in circulation for some years (12). There is as yet little evidence of a sustained flow of military hardware into the other Central Asian republics. There is also little to substantiate claims that arms are being sold or stolen from military bases within these republics. Such installations are guarded by professional soldiers and it is unlikely that criminal groups could have access to these facilities. However, if conditions of service continue to deteriorate and morale is weakened still further, eventually lapses of security may occur. If this were to happen, the 'mafia' might acquire highly sophisticated arms; even if these were non-operational, they could be dismantled and cannibalised for the construction of simpler (though highly destructive) weapons, or used as models for future production. The possibility of strategic materials from military-industrial plants in Central Asia finding their way into the hands of terrorist organisations, or governments that are seeking to develop illicit nuclear weapons, is another source of grave concern, although to date there do not appear to have been any such cases (13).

As elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, the law enforcement agencies are chronically under-manned and under-resourced, thus ill-prepared to cope with these problems. All the Central Asian governments have appealed for international help to combat smuggling, particularly narcotics. Training programmes in the prevention of such crimes are now being provided by several Western countries; Interpol, too, is giving some assistance. There is also close cooperation with neighbouring countries, especially Iran and Pakistan (14). However, the power of the criminal networks is so great, and the rewards they offer so tempting, especially in these times of acute economic hardship, that there is a real possibility that, far from being vanquished, the 'mafia' barons will continue to increase their hold on society and become regional king-makers.

Regional and ethnic rivalries. The Central Asian states are all multi-racial. However, the proportional balance between the titular group and members of other groups differs greatly. In Kazakhstan, for example, the Kazakhs constitute less than fifty per cent of the total population, whereas in Uzbekistan, the Uzbeks account for over seventy per cent. The non-titular groups fall into two categories: immigrant groups from other parts of the Soviet Union (15); and indigenous Central Asians from neighbouring republics who were divided from their kin when the republican borders were delimited in 1924. The former are more numerous than the latter. The largest of the minority groups is that of the Russians. They are most heavily represented in Kazakhstan (some 6 million), Uzbekistan (over 1.5 million) and Kyrgyzstan (approximately 900,000).

In general, relations between the different groups have been exceptionally harmonious. The only serious clashes occurred in 1989-91. The most violent of these were in the densely populated Ferghana Valley, involving Uzbeks and Meskhetian (Georgian) Turks, and subsequently Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, thus groups of similar ethnic (Turkic) and religious (Muslim) backgrounds (16). In both cases the primary cause appears to have been competition over land, employment and access to positions of local power. There has been no repetition of these incidents. Several thousand of the Meskhetian Turks were airlifted to safe havens outside the region in 1989; very few have since returned to the Ferghana Valley. There is, however, still tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and it is not inconceivable that this could again erupt into armed conflict. In other areas where there are large concentrations of indigenous Central Asian minorities there is also discontent, notably in Samarkand and Bukhara (Uzbekistan), where there are sizeable Tadzhik communities. Such situations could readily be manipulated by political opportunists in order to further their own ambitions. This could eventually lead to demands for a redrawing of state borders so as to reunite such ethnic minorities with their majority kin. The present Central Asian leaders have all committed themselves to preserving the borders that were inherited from the Soviet period, but in the longer term territorial questions could become a matter of serious contention.

The minorities have not been subjected to any form of institutionalised discrimination. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union many of the immigrants have come to feel that they are being treated as second-class citizens. In some places they have found themselves gradually excluded from senior government and managerial positions. The language laws have exacerbated their unease. These laws, which were passed in all the republics at the end of the Soviet period but only seriously implemented after independence, stipulate that the 'national' language, i.e. the language of the titular people, will become the official medium of communication in public life within the next five to ten years (the precise period differs from one state to another). Since very few of the immigrants speak the national language, and the majority doubt their ability to learn it to the necessary standard within the required period, they believe that the law will be used in such way as to limit their participation in public life.

These anxieties, coupled with the continuing economic crisis, have prompted large numbers of Russians, Germans, Tatars and other immigrants to emigrate (17). This sudden exodus, which has included many highly qualified professionals, has had a severe effect on the still fragile economies of the new states. Some efforts have been made by the respective governments to allay the concerns of the immigrant communities. These have met with some success and over the past eighteen months the outflow seems to have slowed down; moreover, some of those who left in 1992-4 are beginning to return, having found it difficult to re-adapt to conditions in their original homeland. Nevertheless, even if they have elected to remain in Central Asia for the present, the immigrant communities are nervous about their future prospects. Resentment over what is perceived to be the officially sanctioned ethnocracy of the titular people is felt most strongly in Kazakhstan; here, in the Slav-dominated regions of the north and north-east, some militant Russians (supported by like-minded Russian nationalists in Russia) are demanding territorial autonomy. Unless real efforts are made on all sides to integrate the Russians and other non-titular peoples into these new states, there are likely to be serious ethnic confrontations in the future.

Another, and perhaps more immediate source of possible conflict is the rivalry between the different regional factions amongst the titular population of each republic. These so-called 'clan' networks have long been involved in power struggles to gain control of local political and administrative structures. In the past, these rivalries were to some extent kept in check by Moscow. Now that there is no longer an external adjudicator, different groupings are seeking to challenge the existing balance of power. The goal is the acquisition of wealth and influence, mainly through control of the administrative apparatus, but increasingly, through extended business interests (often of a criminal or semi-criminal nature). In most cases, the struggle is played out with little resort to physical violence. The case of Tadzhikistan, however, illustrates all too well how rapidly such rivalries can escalate into civil war when the stakes are high and weapons are freely available.

The most artificial of the Soviet state creations, Tadzhikistan was always highly susceptible to factional in-fighting (18). In the immediate aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Rakhmon Nabiyev, a member of the powerful Leninabad/Khodzhent 'clan' (which had dominated Tadzhik political life for over half a century), was elected President. At first, he appeared to be firmly in control. Precipitate moves against his opponents, however, soon destroyed the delicate coalition of regional interests that had existed previously, and triggered a bitter internecine struggle. The ideological labels that the various factions acquired (neo-Communist, Islamic fundamentalist, democratic) have little more than superficial significance. The real contestants are the Khodzhentis of the north, the Kulyabis of the south, and the Badakhshanis of the east; the smaller 'clans' of the central corridor and of Kurgan-Tyube in the south-west constantly switch their allegiance from one to the other of the main players, depending on the fortunes of war (19). No one grouping is strong enough to win control of the entire republic. They therefore need, and are receiving, support from external sponsors, who seek to manipulate the situation to their own advantage.

Although the Tadzhik experience will probably not be repeated on the same scale elsewhere, no republic is free of the potential for such regional confrontations. In Kyrgyzstan, the tension between the northern clans and those of the poorer south are so strong that many Kyrgyz fear they will render the republic ungovernable, possibly leading to partition (20). In Kazakhstan, there is no serious threat to the incumbent government. Regional sub-factions are, however, manoeuvring to secure greater autonomy (21). In Uzbekistan there has always been a rotation of power between the traditional bases of Ferghana, Samarkand and Tashkent; today, although the incumbent President has secured the support of all the main factions, there are rivalries within the administration, and some signs of regional disaffection. In Turkmenistan, much of the territory is the traditional domain of the Ahal-Tekke tribe. They remain the most powerful group; however, within this group there are many sub-divisions and there appears to be competition amongst them for control of key positions (22).

Ecological problems. There are a number of serious ecological problems in Central Asia. However, the best known and possibly most dangerous is the dessication of the Aral Sea. A result of decades of huge, wasteful irrigation schemes, it has caused water shortages, widespread desertification, and the pollution of valuable productive land. International aid is currently being mobilised to help prevent a further deterioration in the situation. However, any long-term solution must address the question of water management in the Aral Sea basin as a whole. This will require the active cooperation of all the Central Asian states, but it is already clear that it will be difficult to translate formal expressions of commitment to the common good into positive action. One problem is that of the equitable distribution of the heavy cost of maintenance of the dams and sluices that regulate the water flow; in the past, this was the responsibility of the central government but it now falls to the state on whose territory such installations are located. This is a cause of great resentment. Another problem is that upstream states believe they have a natural entitlement to the waters that flow across their territories; they are strongly opposed to any limitation on the amount they draw off, for fear of jeopardising future plans for development. Moreover, they are reluctant to accept curbs on the amount of toxic waste that they discharge into the rivers, since they see this as an infringement of their economic liberty. The result is a continuing decline in the quantity and quality of water available to the region. Such matters are of crucial importance in an arid region such as Central Asia. If they are not resolved, they could well become a casus belli.

Paradoxically, international aid for the Aral Sea has aggravated the situation: the poorer mountain republics (Kyrgyzstan and Tadzhikistan) resent the fact that their richer downstream neighbours are to receive assistance; government representatives from these republics have been known to hint at the possibility that the mountain dwellers will use the water supply as a bargaining counter to force the people of the plains to agree to share these funds (which have not, in fact, amounted to very much as yet). Tadzhik nationalists also speak of using water as an offensive weapon in any territorial dispute with Uzbekistan. Three ways are suggested: poisoning the rivers; restricting the flow; opening the sluices (or bursting the dams) to flood the plains. It is unlikely that these threats will be realised in the foreseeable future, not least because they would cause almost as much damage upstream as downstream. However, it is a sobering thought that, with minimal technology, water could be used to inflict almost as much devastation as a nuclear bomb (23).

At the domestic level water is also likely to become an explosive issue, especially in the desert regions of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as the privatisation of land proceeds. At present, the irrigation systems are centrally controlled by the regional authorities. It will be extremely difficult to reorganise these systems so as to cater for individual needs. The situation is complicated by the fact that innumerable illegal private pumps have been set up on the banks of irrigation canals; there is at present no cost-effective way of monitoring the amount of water that is thus drawn off. When the system is privatised, feuds between neighbours will inevitably arise, with the risk of violent attacks on people and property (24).

Demographic trends. The Central Asian republics are still in the 'expanding stage' of demographic transition, with high birth rates and low death rates. The crude rate of natural increase is higher amongst the main indigenous groups than amongst the immigrant population, and highest of all in rural areas, where the majority (and poorest sector) of the indigenous population lives. The average rate of natural increase is lowest in Kazakhstan (which has the largest non-indigenous population), at under 20 per 1,000 per annum; and highest in Turkmenistan, where it is almost 35 per 1,000. Such factors as the large numbers of people in the fertile age range, the shortage of contraceptive devices, and cultural preferences for big families, mean that it will be difficult to bring about a significant change in demographic trends. It is estimated that the populations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will double in 25 years' time, Kyrgyzstan in 30 years, Kazakhstan in 45 years; but for the civil war, Tadzhikistan's population would probably have doubled in 22 years' time. A family planning programme has recently been introduced in Uzbekistan, but it will be some time before the effects of this become evident.

The natural resources of the region are already under severe strain, especially water and productive land. If there is no alleviation of this relentless demographic pressure the quality of life will eventually diminish to the point where large-scale population movements, accompanied by social unrest, become inevitable. Young people are already moving to cities in search of work. Conditions here, too, are deteriorating. There is rising urban unemployment, an acute shortage of accommodation (the construction industry has been severely affected by the recession), and increasing malfunction of essential social and municipal services, leading to health hazards. The rate of demographic growth was becoming a major burden towards the end of the Soviet period, requiring ever greater investments in education, medical facilities and basic infrastructure. If republican economies can be revitalised, the manpower surplus might yet be turned to advantage. If, however, the decline continues, it will soon become a dangerous liability.

Economic inequality. During the Soviet period there was marked inequality between the income of 'white-collar' elites (i.e. those in political, cultural and professional spheres) and 'blue-collar' workers. However, these differences were accepted by society at large. This was, firstly, because the system was a meritocracy in which high achievers were rewarded with benefits in kind and money; in theory, and to quite a large extent in practice, anyone, whatever their background, could join the ranks of these elites. Secondly, the most privileged members of society led segregated lives, their wealth hidden from public gaze; consequently, there was little conscious awareness of the differentials in standards of living. Today, the ostentatious lifestyles of the new super-rich are on view to all, presenting a jarring contrast to the falling living standards of the great majority of the population. There is an increasing sense of alienation as more and more people feel marginalised, unable to share in, or even to comprehend, the economic transformation of society. Since, in popular estimation, wealth is associated with crime, this generates a sense of moral outrage (25).

Politicised Islam. Under Soviet rule, knowledge and practice of Islam was reduced to such a low level that, for the great majority, it became a cultural identity rather than an active religious allegiance. Today, there is general agreement among Central Asians that Islam is an integral part of the national culture and that some elements of it should be revived. However, most of the adult population are still unfamiliar with Islamic precepts. This will probably change: thousands of mosques and hundreds of Muslim schools and colleges have been opened over the past few years and religious literature is now widely available (26). Many of the younger generation receive Muslim instruction and attend the mosque regularly. Some girls have voluntarily taken to wearing the hejab (headscarf) and a very few, the entire paranja (head-to-toe veil). However, there are great regional variations. Pockets of devout believers are to be found in the Ferghana Valley. Elsewhere in Central Asia, active adherence to Islam is much less in evidence. In most areas mosque attendance rose sharply in the immediate aftermath of independence, but has decreased markedly since.

Although Islam still plays a relatively restricted role in public life, the speed with which it has re-asserted its influence over society, particularly amongst the young, has aroused fears that it might soon become a political force. Russified Central Asian elites, as well as the immigrant communities, are deeply perturbed by this possibility. They are particularly concerned by the appearance of politicised Islamic movements. The first and still the strongest of these was the Islamic Revival Party (IRP). Founded in Astrakhan in 1990, its original aim was to forge a united Muslim opposition to Soviet rule throughout the Union. It did not succeed in this, but has functioned instead as a symbolic umbrella organisation for a number of independent regional groupings. There are currently two centres in Central Asia, one in the Ferghana Valley (mostly in Uzbekistan, but with branches in southern Kyrgyzstan), the other in Tadzhikistan. It is difficult to gauge how much popular support the IRP enjoys, but it would appear to be very limited, mostly confined to the south-west of Tadzhikistan and to the Andidzhan-Namangan area of Uzbekistan. A smaller group named Adolat (Justice) has been attracting a following in the Ferghana Valley over the past few years, but it does not appear to differ significantly from the IRP.

The state authorities have responded with suspicion and hostility to these nascent signs of independent Islamic political awareness. Both the IRP and Adolat are banned throughout the region. The strictest measures of control have been introduced in Uzbekistan. Suspect religious groups are kept under close surveillance by the security services. Several Adolat and IRP members have been arrested, some to be given long prison sentences.

However, while the possibility of a 'fundamentalist' movement engulfing Central Asia cannot be entirely excluded, it should not be forgotten that historically Islam in this region has never been fanatical in character. Rather, it has shown a considerable capacity for adaptation and accommodation to different regimes. Yet there are conditions under which it could become a political force. One would be if the leadership in any (or all) of these states were to come under threat, from either internal stresses (for example, arising out of economic collapse) or from external pressures (possibly a threat to the integrity of the state): they might well try to promote religion as a means of bolstering their position by establishing an alternative source of legitimacy.

Another possibility is that opposition groups within the region might try to use Islam as a vehicle through which to voice their anger and frustration. There are two factors which could provide the impetus for such a development. One is the authoritarian, repressive nature of the present regimes. Those who hold views that differ from the officially endorsed line are regarded as subversive elements, and even, as in Tadzhikistan, as rebels. The other is the deepening economic crisis which is causing large sectors of the population to feel marginalised and betrayed. There is a growing tendency to identify the causes of their distress as Western imperialism. This is fuelling a wave of xenophobia, accompanied by a search for Islamic solutions to the ills of society. These two groups, urban intellectuals with political aspirations and the disaffected casualties of economic and social transition, are beginning to make common cause. If this trend continues, Algerian- and Egyptian-style government-radical Muslim confrontations could develop (27).

Social tensions. The Central Asian states, Tadzhikistan excepted, have negotiated the political and economic upheavals of recent years with fewer external signs of social tension than might have been expected, given the magnitude of the changes. The chief reason for this is the highly conservative structure of Central Asian society which, especially in the face of external threats, favours consolidation rather than fragmentation. This conservatism is underpinned by absolute respect for seniority of age, social standing and administrative power. Traditionally, the younger generation have treated their elders, who were usually also their superiors in power and prestige, with unquestioning deference. Today, however, this is beginning to change. There has been something of an age revolution as increasing numbers of young people (35 years and younger) assume senior positions owing to their more 'modern' skills. Consequently, respect for the experience of older age groups is beginning to be eroded. The erosion of traditional norms is also being triggered by the spread of the so-called 'Coca-Cola culture'. Newly-available Western consumer products, films and advertisements are changing the aspirations of the young, especially in urban areas. The increased presence of foreigners confronts them daily with examples of a very different lifestyle. The activities of missionaries from abroad, not only Muslim, but evangelical Christian, Hare Krishna and others, as well as of political pressure groups working to raise awareness of human rights and democratisation issues, are also gradually having an effect. Thus, while the opening up of Central Asia is introducing new ideas and broadening people's horizons, it is also undermining the very characteristics which have, in the past, helped to maintain social cohesion, and thus stability.

Western Aid: a Stabilising Factor?

The Central Asian states are receiving various forms of aid (e.g. credits and loans, technical assistance, training and humanitarian aid) from Western governments, Western-backed international economic organisations, and Western-based non-governmental organisations. The aim is to help these new states to carry through the political and economic restructuring that will enable them to be integrated into the global community, and will generate prosperity, stability and a friendly (i.e. pro-Western) environment. However, the results have not always been as beneficial as had been hoped. Firstly, there is frequently a lack of meaningful dialogue between donors and recipients. Western donors rarely have any knowledge of the region's historical and cultural background, or the current social climate. The aid they offer is thus conceived in a vacuum. Equally, the potential recipients know almost nothing of the terms of reference within which their interlocutors are operating. Inevitably, the two sides frequently talk past each other, failing to engage in a constructive dialogue. The end result is mutual frustration and disappointment. On the side of the recipients, this is aggravated by astonishment and anger at the vast fees paid to foreign consultants, who present recommendations that are often felt to be ill-suited to local conditions, and virtually impossible to implement.

Secondly, there is often a lack of coordination between donor agencies. This leads to an inefficient use of resources, with efforts in some sectors being reduplicated, while other, equally important, areas are neglected. Also, there is a tendency to indulge in 'profligate and irresponsible lending' (28). The republic that has suffered most in this respect is Kyrgyzstan. Identified by a succession of Western countries as the most deserving Central Asian state because of its apparent commitment to democratic ideals, Kyrgyzstan was offered, and accepted, so many foreign loans and credits that, after only two years of independence, its external debt was already equivalent to 100% of its GNP (29). Kazakhstan, another country favoured by the West, was also soon deeply mired in debt (30). Even those Central Asian economists who were originally in favour of market-oriented reforms and integration into the international economy have begun to look on the process as a new and more tyrannical form of neo-colonial subjugation.

There is undoubtedly a need for Western aid in Central Asia. However, if it is to be used effectively, and to contribute to long-term stabilisation and adjustment, then far greater cultural sensitivity is required and more effort should be devoted to the design and implementation of aid programmes. If this is not done, there is a danger that such assistance will come to be seen, as it has in some other parts of the developing world, as a means of furthering Western interests; resentment at being enmeshed in a new, deeper trap of debt and dependence will lead to the rise of anti-Western xenophobia and the very destabilisation that donor countries hope to prevent.


The future of the Central Asian states is still in the balance. All have the potential to become prosperous, well-adjusted societies (31). However, it would be foolish to underestimate the risks. The threats to stability and social cohesion that are outlined above are real, though still at a stage at which they could be resolved, or at least contained. Much will depend on the ability of the incumbent leaders to exercise good governance and to implement sound economic policies. It is encouraging that to date the transition from Soviet to post-Soviet rule has been accomplished with remarkably few social disorders. This gives grounds for some degree of optimism. However, perhaps the best guide to the future is summed up in an Uzbek proverb: 'While there is food on the table and the wife and children are safe in the back yard all will be well; when either is threatened all hell will break loose.'


  1. There have been several regional conferences and seminars devoted to the Afghan question. The most high-level of these was the Conference on Security in Central Asia, held in Tashkent 15-16 September 1995, attended by senior ministers from the Central Asian states, as well as from Afghanistan, India, Iran and Pakistan. It was presided over by Uzbek President Karimov.

  2. See further Shirin Akiner, 'Soviet Military Legacy in Kazakhstan', Jane's Intelligence Review, December 1994, pp. 552-4. For an up-to-date review of political, military and security issues in these five republics, see James Green (ed.), Sentinel: Russia and the CIS, Jane's, Coulsdon, forthcoming in December 1996.

  3. BP estimates of Central Asian hydrocarbon reserves in 1995 are somewhat lower than those suggested previously by various sources. Nevertheless, they remain substantial; estimated reserves of oil in Kazakhstan are set at 700 million tonnes, in Uzbekistan at 500 million tonnes, in Turkmenistan at 200 million tonnes. Turkmenistan's gas reserves are estimated to be 2,610 million tonnes of oil equivalent, Uzbekistan's 1,710 million tonnes of oil equivalent, Kazakhstan's 1,620 million tonnes of oil equivalent. There are, amongst other valuable minerals, large reserves of gold, particularly in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and of uranium (in January 1996 Uzbekistan was the world's fifth largest producer).

  4. Kazakhstan has to date received the lion's share of foreign investment, mostly in the hydrocarbons sector. Cumulative foreign direct investment inflows 1989-95 amounted to US$ 719 million, compared with US$ 250 million into Uzbekistan (World Bank report, From Plan to Market: World Development Report 1996, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, p. 64).

  5. The problems of transportation are amply illustrated by the on-going difficulties relating to the choice of oil pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea. An excellent study of the political, geographic and economic constraints is presented by John Roberts, Caspian Pipelines, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1996.

  6. These and other potential threats to regional stability are discussed at greater length in Shirin Akiner, 'Conflict, Stability and Development in Central Asia', in Luc van der Goor, Kumar Rupesinghe and Paul Sciarone (ed.), Between Development and Destruction: An Enquiry into the Causes of Conflict in Post-Colonial States, Macmillan, London, pp. 257-97.

  7. There has been no full-length study devoted to this subject as yet. Many writers have, however, commented in passing on such malpractices as 'nepotism, bribery, embezzlement, abuse of office and padding of production figures' (Martin McCauley, 'Agriculture in Central Asia and Kazakhstan in the 1980s', in Shirin Akiner (ed.), Political and Economic Trends in Central Asia, British Academic Press, London, 1994, p. 96). It was not only Central Asians who were involved in cases of serious fraud, but also senior establishment figures in Moscow, including Leonid Brezhnev's son-in-law, Yurij Churbanov.

  8. Available statistics are sparse and not always reliable, hence it is not possible to make an objective analysis of the situation. Bribe-taking, embezzlement and violent crime seem to be highest in Kazakhstan and lowest in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Recent crime statistics for Kazakhstan are to be found in Kazakhstanskaja Pravda, 16, 23 and 29 February 1996. The former Kyrgyz Prime Minister Chyngyshev (resigned December 1993) is reported to have commented that 'in Kyrgyzstan you have to be either lazy or stupid not to be a thief' (Central Asia Newsfile, Vol. 1, no. 14, December 1993, p. 2).

  9. For a guide to the main areas of drug production and consumption in the former USSR, see the map compiled by Yurij Shchekochikhin, a journalist who has been investigating the subject since the early 1970s, in Literaturnaja gazeta, no. 5, 6 February 1991, p. 8. Since then, however, there appears to have been a proliferation in the cultivation of illegal drugs. In Uzbekistan, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that in the course of its annual anti-narcotics campaign in June 1994 (code-named 'Operation Poppy') it destroyed 60 hectares of high-grade opium. Over 3,000 people were arrested. (See the report by E. Denisenko in Nezavisimaja gazeta, 21 July 1994; also articles in Panorama, 11 June 1994, no. 23; Nezavisimaja gazeta, 22 June 1994.)

  10. Estimates as to the size of this problem vary enormously. Some of those who have had direct dealings with young people (e.g. as youth leaders) say that it has been widespread since the mid-1980s; others, however, claim that they are not aware of it being a problem. (Personal communications to the author, 1993-96.) In Kazakhstan it has been reported that narcotics have been confiscated from children of eight to nine years old (Peter Conradi, 'Drug Pushers Find a Paradise Harvest', The European, 17-20 September 1992).

  11. The Kyrgyz State Commission for Drug Control announced an increase of six to seven times in the amounts of opium smuggled into the republic in the period April to July 1994. The report presented under the aegis of the Deputy Prime Minister of Kyrgyzstan, A. S. Moiseev, at the Central Asian Conference on Regional Cooperation, Lake Issyk-Kul, June 1995, spoke of 'the avalanche-type growth in the use and production of narcotics' in the region; one in twelve of the crimes committed in Kyrgyzstan was said to be drug-related (Conference Proceedings, UNDP, Bishkek, 1995, p. 169). In southern Kazakhstan alone, some 5,000 tonnes of marijuana are now produced annually. For a report on the latest operations see Panorama, 7 June 1996, p. 6. Moskovskie Novosti, 12 September 1993, describes routes and prices.

  12. See, for example, G. Khaidarov and M. Inomov, Tajikistan: tragedy and anguish of the nation, LINKO, no place of publication, 1993, p. 42.

  13. There have been several reports in Western newspapers of Kazakhs involved in such operations but the names are not Kazakh and the details that are given are usually very vague.

  14. Pravda Vostoka, 13 October 1992, p. 3; ibid., 24 October 1992, p. 2.

  15. Some of the immigrants went voluntarily, on professional assignments or as part of the workforce. In the late 1930s and during the war years, however, many ethnic groups were deported to Central Asia en masse from other parts of the USSR for alleged treason. These included Koreans, Volga Germans, Chechens, Meskhetian Turks, Crimean Tatars and Greeks; the first and to date only full-length study of this subject is A. Nekrich, The Punished Peoples, trans. G. Saunders, Norton, New York, 1978.

  16. Other such clashes, though on a much smaller scale, occurred between Azerbaidzhanis and Turkmen in Ashghabat, and between Armenians and Tadzhiks in Dushanbe. The ostensible causes were quite trivial, e.g. a dispute over the price of ice-creams sold by Azerbaidzhani vendors in Ashghabat. There were undoubtedly deeper tensions, but these have never been discussed in public.

  17. The exodus began somewhat earlier, during the 1980s, but increased greatly after 1991. The republic from which there has been the greatest outflow, percentage-wise, is Tadzhikistan (the Russian population has been reduced by an estimated seventy per cent, to approximately 100,000). Large numbers of Slavs have also left Kyrgyzstan (some 100,000 in 1994, out of a total Russian population in 1989 of 916,500). There has likewise been a steady exodus from Uzbekistan, and, to a lesser extent, from Turkmenistan. In 1994, over 400,000 people emigrated from Kazakhstan, nearly twice as many as in 1993. This figure included 250,000 Russians, nearly 90,000 Germans (the German population has been reduced by almost a half since 1989, when it numbered 958,000), over 30,000 Ukrainians and almost 11,000 Tatars (Kazakhstanskaja pravda, 8 July 1995). See Rustem Kadyrzhanov ('Inter-Ethnic Processes in Kazakhstan and their Impact on State Building and Security', in Uwe Halbach (ed.), The Development of the Soviet Successor States in Central Asia, Bundesinstitut für ostwissenschaftliche und internationale Studien, Cologne, 1995, pp. 28-35) for a discussion of some of the reasons for this emigration process.

  18. When the Soviet national delimitation of Central Asia was carried out in 1924, Tadzhikistan was given the status of an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within Uzbekistan; it was enlarged and upgraded to full Union republic status in 1929. It encompasses parts of the former Khanates of Bukhara and Kokand, as well as of the smaller, semi-independent khanates of the foothills. The historic Tadzhik-dominated centres of Bukhara and Samarkand, however, remained under Uzbek jurisdiction.

  19. As in Afghanistan, alliances are highly fluid and it is impossible to analyse the situation from a rational point of view. The report by Igor' Rotar', in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaja gazeta, 16 April 1994, describes the kaleidoscopic nature of the situation. It is impossible to be certain how many deaths and displaced persons have resulted from this conflict. The number of dead is probably over 100,000; the total number of refugees has been estimated at between 100,000 and 350,000. For a recent study of the civil war see Mohammad-Reza Djalili and Frédéric Grare (eds), Le Tadjikistan à l'épreuve de l'indépendance, Institut Universitaire de Hautes Études Internationales, Geneva, 1995 (enlarged and updated English version, Tajikistan: The Challenges of Independence, Curzon Press, London, forthcoming in 1997).

  20. The subject is often raised in discussion, but rarely mentioned in print. One of the few references to it is the article in Kyrgyzstan Chronicle, no. 4, 21 December 1993, p. 4, which, under the provocative title, 'The North-South Axis: What is Shattering It?' presents the results of a recent survey of public opinion on the subject.

  21. Some commentators believe that rivalry between the threee traditional tribal confederations of the Kazakhs (the Big, Little and Middle Hordes) are a potential source of danger. This view is not shared by the present writer. See further Shirin Akiner, The Formation of Kazakh Identity: From Tribe to Nation State, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, 1995, especially pp. 75-7.

  22. Turkmen, however, deny this. The question of rivalry between the Yomut and Ahal Tekke tribes was raised in articles in Izvestija (20 May 1994) and Segodnja (12 May); they evoked an angry rebuttal from a group of eminent Turkmen in Izvestija, 9 June.

  23. These and other environmental risks are discussed at greater length in Shirin Akiner, 'Environmental Degradation in Central Asia', in R. Weichhardt (ed.), Economic Developments in Partner Countries from a Sectoral Perspective, NATO, Brussels, 1994, pp. 255-63. Much has been written on the Aral Sea, some of it characterised more by emotion than by an attempt to analyse the factual evidence. An informative study of the subject, set in the wider context of Soviet economic policies in Central Asia, is provided by Boris Z. Rumer, Soviet Central Asia: 'a tragic experiment', Unwin and Hyman, Boston, 1989.

  24. Some intra-regional negotiations are underway to seek solutions to these problems, especially through the exchange of commodities, e.g. Uzbek gas for Kyrgyz water (see Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 14-15 and 16 December 1995). See also Bryan Roberts ('Central Asian Water Allocation: Change through Crisis', Central Asia Newsfile, Vol. 4, no. 4, April 1996, p. 8) who, having worked on these issues for some time, sees signs of progress but concludes that the outlook for 'the near future is pessimistic'; World Bank and USAID initiatives have helped to bring about some change in thinking but 'these efforts are simply opposed by too many entrenched interests'.

  25. This reaction has been most marked in Kyrgyzstan, where it has enabled the Communist Party to make a significant comeback. On specific accusations see, for example, Res Publica, 13 February 1996, p. 1.

  26. In Turkmenistan, for example, there were only four mosques open for worship in the 1980s; today, there are some 200. In Uzbekistan there were 300 in 1989 but by 1993 over 5,000. There has been a similar growth in mosque-building in the other republics. Azija, 11 June 1994, p. 24; Nezavisimaja gazeta, 6 January 1994, p. 3.

  27. For several different views on the subject of Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia, see the collection of articles by various authors in Religion, State and Society, Vol. 24, nos 2-3, 1996.

  28. M. Williams, International Economic Organisations, Harvester Wheatsheaf, New York, 1994, p. 83, speaking of the debt crisis in Third World countries; many of the problems he describes are already appearing in Central Asia.

  29. The sum that was owed by the end of 1995 was US$ 487.7 million; this is not large by international standards, but given that a large proportion of the loans appears to have been frittered away on imports of consumer goods and foreign travel for officials, also that debt repayments are set to rise sharply over the next couple of years, the anxiety of many Kyrgyz economists and policy advisers is understandable (Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 22 April 1994, p. 3).

  30. Panorama, 30 April 1994, p. 3.

  31. Official statistics are often unreliable. However, Uzbekistan appears to be making significant progress with its economic reforms. In January 1996 the International Monetary Fund showed its satisfaction by agreeing to provide Uzbekistan with a fifteen-month standby credit of Special Drawing Rights equivalent to approximately US$ 185 million, in addition to the second tranche of a systemic transformation loan facility amounting to some US$ 74 million. Kyrgyzstan's economic performance also appears to be improving, according to the assessment provided by the Prime Minister at the beginning of this year. (For full details, see Slovo Kyrgyzstana, 18-19 January 1996).

 [ Go to Index ]  [ Go to Homepage ]