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A year of relative stability for Central Asian regimes

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Uzbekistan Islam Karimov inspect an honor guard before their meeting at the Kuksaroi Presidential Residence in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, 10 December 2014. (Photo: AAP)

In Brief

By local standards, 2014 was a reasonably successful year for the leaders of Central Asian countries. There were no revolutions, insurgencies or mass protests threatening their grip on power. Incumbent heads of state carried out regime maintenance in their customary manner: focusing primarily on managing the inner circle of the ruling elite.


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In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov continued to dismantle the corrupt business empire of his eldest daughter (and one-time heir apparent) Gulnara, whose financial transgressions and flamboyant lifestyle had become a liability to her father’s 25-year rule. Kazakhstan’s prime minister was demoted in April 2014, then charged with graft and put under house arrest in November, in what many experts interpreted as a move by President Nursultan Nazarbaev to maintain balance among regional power clans.

Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymuhammedov was preoccupied with raising the efficiency of his security apparatus. He reprimanded its chief twice for the sub-par performance of the military and law enforcement agencies. The Turkmen leader’s growing personality cult reached new heights in January 2014 when books written by or about him were made compulsory reading for all secondary school pupils. Meanwhile, Emomali Rahmon, the President of Tajikistan, promoted his daughter to the post of first deputy foreign minister, adding to his family’s already significant presence at the summit of administrative and economic power.

Kyrgyzstan was the only Central Asian republic to have experienced a degree of domestic turbulence. The government of President Almazbek Atambaev faced a series of mass protests that periodically cut off roads connecting the national capital with the regions. The protests were organised by regional strongmen, particularly from the south, who mobilised ordinary citizens to seek greater autonomy and access to economic resources. Atambaev, while not as powerful and experienced as his authoritarian colleagues in Central Asia, used their tried-and-true techniques of resource nationalism, rigged elections, and judicial persecution of dangerous rivals to deal with the problem with some efficiency.

International politics presented greater challenges to Central Asian leaders. The Ukrainian crisis and the situation in Afghanistan following NATO’s withdrawal had a considerable impact on their policy choices.

The regime change in Kiev which took place in February 2014, the absorption of Crimea into Russia and the insurgency in the east of Ukraine that followed caused concern in Central Asia. The Kremlin’s demonstrated will and ability to project power into a former Soviet republic in the name of protecting ethnic Russians and foiling containment by the West made local ruling elites feel uneasy.

The extent of this anxiety was grossly exaggerated by Western politicians and commentators who glibly prophesied Russia’s definitive loss of allies in Central Asia due to Putin’s alleged imperialism. In reality, the region’s authoritarian leaders were much more alarmed by the prospect of the Ukrainian model of civil dissent being exported to Central Asia. They interpreted the ousting of Ukraine’s President Yanukovich as a geopolitical ploy by the US and its allies, and grew wary about Washington’s plans ‘to create new trouble zones’ in their region next. The Central Asian regimes continued to view Russia as a reliable partner with a stake in their stability and prosperity. The clearest indication of this was the advancement of Moscow’s flagship integration initiative — the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Defying gloomy predictions, it was launched by the presidents of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan in May, with Kyrgyzstan joining in several months later. Even Uzbekistan, which had a strained relationship with Moscow since 2012, showed interest in forming a free trade zone with the EEU.

Russia’s rising stock in Central Asia was helped by a strategic indeterminacy associated with Afghanistan. The region’s states had growing doubts about stability in their southern neighbour as the US and NATO forces continued their withdrawal. Security threats emanating from unstable Afghanistan were complex and manifold, but armed clashes on the border and Islamic militancy embodied by both traditional jihadi groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and freshly returned Islamic State fighters of Central Asian origin were particularly salient in the official security discourse in 2014. Once again, for local leaders it appeared that Moscow rather than Washington would protect them from such threats, and even President Karimov asked for the former’s greater involvement on the ground.

Russia readily obliged, mostly in the form of increased military assistance to frontline states, upgrading its forward bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and conducting military drills under the aegis of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation.

This year will be crucial in determining whether Central Asia’s geopolitical tilt towards Russia is only a temporary phenomenon. A lot will depend on the performance of the EEU: the struggling Russian economy may destroy the bloc before it can provide tangible benefits to all members. At present, large-scale Russian and Chinese trans-Eurasian infrastructure projects seem to be reasonably well-aligned, primarily because both parties are interested in laying to rest the competing US ‘New Silk Road’ initiative. The next twelve months may indicate whether a functional division of labour is possible in an emerging Sino–Russian condominium in Central Asia, with Beijing underwriting the region’s developmental needs (particularly in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and Moscow ensuring its security.

Dr Kirill Nourzhanov is Deputy Director at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, The Australian National University.

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