BACKGROUND: Since achieving independence in 1991 after nearly 100 years in the Russia-dominated USSR, all Central Asian countries have sought to chart their own course in the post-Cold War world order. However, the current state of affairs has forced these countries to evolve to deal with emerging threats in the “post-post-Cold War” world order.
Kazakhstan – Central Asia’s largest country (and the world’s 9th largest) – pioneered a “multi-vector” foreign policy focused on diverse international partnerships to reinforce its stability and freedom to maneuver geopolitically in difficult times. The country maintains friendly relations with Russia in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which Kazakhstan joined in 2014, but it also maintains close ties with China in the Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and Asia more generally through the Kazakhstan-led initiative called Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). At the same the country maintains close relations with the West through strategic partnerships with countries like the U.S. and Germany.
Moreover, rather than relying on Russia and China for trade, Kazakhstan developed its domestic infrastructure to serve as a “land-link” nation connecting trade from East Asia to Europe. In currying international favor and prestige and to distinguish it from other nuclear powers in the region, Kazakhstan fully abolished its nuclear weapons program and used that credibility to host dialogue between Iran and the U.S in 2014, which opened a gateway for the deal reached between the U.S. and Iran in April 2015. Most notably, however, Kazakhstan also has taken steps since 2014 to open up space for civil society, which established the country’s credentials among democratic nations, according to statements from international election observers from the U.S, European Union and South Korea.
Uzbekistan, the most populous nation in Central Asia, has adopted a different approach in recent years. It has sought to balance major powers by upgrading relations with Russia, the U.S., or China to secure concessions from the others. For example, Uzbekistan hosted a U.S. military base near the Afghan border until relations soured in 2005 due to perceived U.S. interference in Uzbek internal affairs. Then Uzbekistan joined the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) until abandoning it in 2012. In February 2015, Uzbekistan renewed military cooperation with the U.S. and received 300 armored vehicles from the U.S. to patrol the Afghan border.
As for Kyrgyzstan, despite its transition to a presidential and parliamentary system, its two coups in 2005 and 2010, high level of unemployment, ethnic tensions, and small territory limit its ability to develop an independent foreign policy similar to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan allows Russia extensive basing rights on its territory, which grants Russia a degree of influence in both countries’ affairs.
Turkmenistan, for its part, has maintained a foreign policy of strict neutrality, but its disengagement from the international community has also led to a degree of economic, political and cultural stagnation.
IMPLICATIONS: While Central Asian countries have all solidified statehood since independence, the challenge for them in 2015 is to navigate an increasingly multi-polar and unpredictable international system with multiple state and non-state actors vying for influence in the region. Central Asian governments see tensions between the U.S and Russia with Ukraine as the boiling point, the flow of nearly 1,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq (and dozens who have returned to the region), and Central Asian jihadists and Taliban factions pledging allegiance to Islamic State (IS).
Economically, the depreciating Russian ruble means economic hardships for millions of Central Asian laborers in Russia and decreased exports from Central Asia to Russia and Europe. It is not a coincidence that many of the Central Asian foreign fighters for IS were radicalized and recruited while in Russia, struggling to earn decent wages to remit home and to deal with xenophobia.
To avoid external factors from undermining the country’s internal stability, Kazakhstan has taken the most cautious approach in the region, possibly due to the fact that it shares Central Asia’s longest borders with Russia and China and has seen a surprising 200 to 300 of its citizens “migrate” to Syria for jihad. The most immediate decision the country took was to hold presidential elections one year earlier than expected on April 26, 2015. This was in order to prevent political matters from coinciding with pressing security and economic matters, such as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and falling global oil prices, which could trigger a recession in Central Asia. In addition, Kazakhstan was forced to recalibrate its budget to avoid falling into debt, which likely means sacrificing construction of some infrastructure projects to allow for the continuation of social welfare programs.
In terms of strategic affairs, despite Russia’s economic crisis President Nazarbayev announced that Kazakhstan will honor its commitment to remaining in the EEU. But he simultaneously distanced the country from Moscow by calling for respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, largely in alignment with the West. The country’s leading think-tanks have also conducted analyses of the drivers of recruitment of foreign fighters to Syria and concluded that Kazakh citizens join ISIS for three main reasons: the desire to escape debt or unemployment; the false belief that “jihad” in Syria is a religious duty; and fanaticism for combat. While promotion of martial arts and coordination with muftis who promote tolerance between Sunni and Shia Muslims and Jews and Christians responds to the latter two categories of recruits, dealing with the first category will be a challenge so long as the region faces an economic downturn.
Uzbekistan appears to be preparing for potential instability as a result of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan not only by tightening military cooperation with the U.S., but also by allowing NATO to hold an office in Tashkent, which is at the very least a symbolic rebuff to Russia. It is also expanding economic ties with the U.S. by allowing companies such as General Motors to have a factory in the country. But it is also facing a currency crisis and has not been particularly transparent about the budgetary adjustments to deal with the possible recession in the region. Another issue for Uzbekistan is that although its security services are tracking foreign fighters and extremist groups and the government promotes religious tolerance, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) appears to have long-term sustainability. The IMU’s affiliation with ISIS will likely provide a reliable source of funding and recruits to the IMU.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rely on their security services to prevent or detain IS recruits in their countries and have thwarted several operations. But their economic reliance on Russia, particularly through laborers, will not offset jobs that Chinese or other countries’ companies provide. Thus, these two countries remain vulnerable. Turkmenistan, which in recent years has been relatively immune to extremism and terrorist attacks, has come under increasing pressure from the Taliban and also reportedly IS affiliates on its borders. This is a security threat that the country is unprepared to manage, given its isolation and lack of strategic military alliances.
CONCLUSIONS: Although Central Asia has experienced relative stability and prosperity compared to the state of the region in 1991, economic and security crises may stymie this growth. Kazakhstan has attempted to counter emerging threats with policies, research and measures to prepare for worst-case scenarios. The rest of the region, however, sees negative trend lines, but has not articulated strategies to manage threats. As such, the near-term prospectus for Central Asia will remain volatile until there is greater coordination between Kazakhstan and its neighbors and the international community and the region to assess threats and develop crisis management strategies.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an analyst of Eurasian and African Affairs for the Jamestown Foundation and non-resident research fellow of the Center of Shanghai Cooperation Studies (COSCOS) in Shanghai. He testified before the U.S. Congress on Islamist Militant Threats to Central Asia in February 2013.
Image Attribution: Kremlin.ru