Analysts have long observed that Central Asian countries are not seriously tackling the growing backlog of problems plaguing the region, and recent events give cause for a gloomy outlook. Indeed, the accumulated problems in the region threaten to boil over, opening up a new phase in the region.
Last week a shootout at the Uzbek and Kyrgyz border resulted in casualties on both sides. It began as a simple argument with workers who were repairing a section of road on disputed territory. The cause of the incident is less important than how ready the border guards of the two neighboring countries were to open fire on each other. In Tajikistan, an anti-terrorist operation in the Pamir area undertaken by the authorities following the murder of a state security forces general, Abdullo Nazarov, escalated into a serious engagement with dozens of dead.
Such events are unprecedented. But the impending changes in Afghanistan and the incipient power struggle are making such events in neighboring countries look even more sinister.
Afghanistan remains a major factor contributing to uncertainty throughout the region. Despite repeated statements by American leaders committing to a 2014 withdrawal, there is no clear understanding of U.S. strategy. First, will the U.S. withdrawal be complete or will Washington leave a stabilizing force in the country as insurance? Second, will it redeploy major units to neighboring countries of Central Asia? Third, can post-U.S. Afghanistan establish a stable government and, if so, what will it look like?
For the time being, there are no clear-cut answers to these questions, and all interested parties both inside and outside Afghanistan are charting out possible scenarios. The actions of minority factions in Afghanistan (those who were part of the Northern Alliance before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001) will decide how these events play out in Central Asia. The influential Tajik and Uzbek leaders from northern Afghanistan do not believe that the current regime of Hamid Karzai will last long. Naturally, they oppose the Taliban’s likely return after the U.S. withdrawal.
There were periods in recent Afghan history when central power was held by the minorities (the Mujahidin regime in 1992-1995) and the Pashtun majority (the Taliban regime in 1995-2001). The former was marked by incessant warfare between clans and groups, while the latter was an Islamic dictatorship in a divided country.
A repeat of either scenario is fraught with repercussions, but the first would probably be worse, especially considering that each factions would have its own foreign sponsor – Islamabad, Delhi, Beijing, Tehran or Tashkent, to name a few.
If the Taliban comes to power, it will have to decide what to do with the unruly minorities, and how to incorporate Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazarians and others into government. It would be logical to try and redirect their focus from an internal to an external struggle northward, but this is hardly possible on a large scale because Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks are primarily interested in getting a piece of the pie at home. Meanwhile, even the minor turbulence typical of Afghanistan is enough to destabilize its neighbors in Central Asia. In any event, the invigoration of different ethnic, religious and social groups in Afghanistan is bound to cause repercussions in Central Asia.
Under the circumstances, the situation with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which just marked its 20th anniversary, is a real disaster. Regrettably, Moscow’s efforts to turn it into a more or less effective military-political alliance since the late 2000s have failed to produce the desired result. In June, Uzbekistan once more announced its decision to withdraw from the CSTO. There are constant disputes with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan over Russian military installations on their territory. As I’ve already mentioned, the conflict between Tashkent and Dushanbe is very deep, bordering on a cold war. Moreover, Central Asian capitals are all looking to milk the U.S.-Russian rivalry for economic and security benefits.
The CSTO’s problems are rooted in the limited trust between the majority of its participants. Belarus and Armenia are not even considered here because they have completely different security agendas.
The events in Kyrgyzstan in 2010 were alarming because the alliance failed to adopt a common approach to overcoming one of the worst crises in a member country. In general, CSTO participants seem unable to clearly identify and distinguish external and internal threats and come to terms on how to overcome them. During the unrest in Kyrgyzstan, all the CSTO members were horrified at the prospect of creating a precedent for Russian interference in the affairs of member countries. This scared them even more than the unrest itself.
Due to the nature of the threats in the region, it is practically impossible to separate internal processes from external ones. Infiltration by extremists from the outside will exacerbate internal tensions and vice versa. It is unclear how to formulate criteria for intervention in this context. The CSTO is just going round in circles.
Many complaints from Russia’s partners in the alliance are justified. Moscow finds it difficult to see its partners as equitable participants in the process. But in analyzing their prospects, the Central Asian capitals should not forget one thing: the geopolitical struggle for influence over post-Soviet countries, which they have taken as a given, has its limits.
Many states are relegated to the background, even those that were of interest just recently, in the agendas of the leading players (the United States, China and the European Union). In case of a real emergency, it may happen that nobody wants to intervene and assume responsibility.
Needless to say, Russia will find it more difficult to shirk this responsibility than others because of its vulnerability to the potential consequences. But Russia is increasingly losing the desire to prove that it is running the show somewhere. Now Moscow is more inclined to carefully weigh the risks before it acts.