Central Asia. Stans undelivered – The five former Soviet republics struggle to survive the new Great Game
Jul 2nd 2016 Economist
Tajikistan has the vainest ruler in Central Asia. Emomali Rahmon flies what may be the world’s largest flag atop what used to be the world’s tallest flagpole. His capital boasts that it will soon host the region’s biggest mosque, mainly paid for by Qatar. It already has the world’s largest teahouse, mainly Chinese-financed and mostly empty; and an immense national library—sadly devoid of books, according to whispering sceptics.
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, a dentist who now runs Turkmenistan, is nearly as big-headed. He calls himself Arkadag (“the Protector”). He moved the 39-foot-tall, gold-plated statue of his predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, that rotated to catch the sun, and erected a gold-plated statue of himself, bravely astride a golden horse on a majestic cliff-top (pictured).
Such absurd extravagances can only happen in a dictatorship—and indeed all five of the once-Soviet Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) suffer under repressive, cronyist governments. Their rulers fear “colour revolutions”, which toppled regimes in the former Soviet countries of Ukraine and Georgia as well as a decade ago in Kyrgyzstan (“the tulip revolution”), and they fear jihadism: all five countries are Muslim in heritage. Once the Russian and British empires vied for influence here in what was known as the “Great Game”. Today a more complex battle for power and wealth in this fractious region is under way between China, Russia and the West.
For Russia, this is something of a home game. In all five countries Russian remains the lingua franca. Two of the five leaders—Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan—were Communist Party bosses (Karimov died Sept 2, 2016 of natural causes). Mr Berdymukhammedov inherited his job from one; Mr Rahmon was a party bigwig. Only Kyrgyzstan has had multiple leaders and two revolutions, but its current president, Almazbek Atambayev, may be even more pro-Russian than his neighbours. As in Russia, power in all five countries rests with small, now obscenely wealthy, cliques close to the president. Their leaders all ruthlessly suppress dissent.
Though most Central Asians wear their religion lightly or not at all, Islamism appeals to a small but growing number of the young and disaffected. In Aktobe, a mining town in north-western Kazakhstan, 25 people (including the assailants) were killed in an Islamist attack in early June. No one knows precisely how many fighters have gone from Central Asia to fight for Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, but the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO, has put the figure at up to 4,000. The rulers tend to exaggerate it to justify repression.
Many of the fighters had migrated to Russia for work—as millions of Central Asians have—and laboured in grim conditions for low pay, when they were radicalised by Muslim fanatics with Russian citizenship from the Caucasus. With Russia’s economy slumping, many migrants lost their jobs and have been enticed by IS’s promises of higher pay, heroism and paradise to follow.
The Fergana Valley, which stretches across the eastern tip of Uzbekistan and spills into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, often seethes with discontent. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan may have contributed more than 1,000 IS fighters each. Human Rights Watch, a monitoring group, reckons Uzbekistan has up to 12,000 political prisoners, many of whom become Islamists in jail. In Tajikistan, whole families have sometimes followed young men to war. Tajikistan’s government now tars almost any group promoting Islam, however mild, with the brush of jihadist subversion. The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, with their nomadic heritage, have been less seduced by IS’s puritanical version of Islam, but each has lost several hundred men to Iraq and Syria. Turkmenistan may also be affected. Afghanistan’s Taliban are said to have attacked villages in Turkmenistan where the two countries share a border.
The big worry is what happens when these angry young men come home. Mr Nazarbayev’s foreign minister said IS had inspired the Aktobe gunmen. Violent Islamism may have limited appeal, but the more fiercely the non-violent version is repressed, the more appealing extremist jihad seems. And if social discontent rises, the Islamists will latch onto it.
Against this messy backdrop, talk of a new Great Game has been buzzing for more than a decade. The main players are a militantly nationalist Russia, a mercantile China, an initially hopeful but now bruised America and a warily interested Europe. Turkey, the Saudis, Qatar and perhaps soon Iran are competing in what a senior Kazakhstani official calls “the more dangerous Little Game”. Central Asia enjoys its many suitors: “Happiness”, says a Kazakhstani minister half-jokingly, “is a multiplicity of pipelines”.
America and Europe are more cautious. Chevron still runs the region’s most productive oilfield, and EU sanctions against Russia may have piqued European interest in Central Asian oil and gas. But few American or European companies dare enter a market with such weak legal and banking institutions and rampant corruption.
Four of the five (Turkmenistan is the odd man out) are members of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, a regional intergovernmental group promoted by China. The same quartet has joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese-led international lender, as founding members. And the region figures heavily in China’s “One Belt, One Road” project. Though many ordinary Central Asians feel nervous about Chinese economic inroads, most business leaders and politicians encourage them. “I want China to get closer to Central Asia,” says Djoomart Otorbaev, a modernising recent prime minister of Kyrgyzstan. China has the same idea: in the past decade its trade and investment have left Russia in second place.
But Russia remains the pre-eminent influence. Most people watch Russian and Russian-language television channels. With the usual programmes comes relentless anti-Americanism, which many locals seem to swallow, along with conspiracy theories claiming that the West seeks to destabilise Central Asia. Indeed, many poorer locals sound nostalgic for the Soviet Union. “We used to have jobs and factories and no goods in the shops,” is a common complaint. “Now we have goods but no jobs or factories.”
Russia has been wooing the quintet to join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), its supposed answer to the European Union (EU), and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), its longer-standing answer to NATO. The EEU, which Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have joined, may have taken a bit of trade away from China, but it is more a vehicle for Russian influence than a genuine free-trading bloc. Russia remains determined to keep the former republics as reliant as possible on its road and rail routes and pipelines.
It also dominates regional security. Russia operates a huge missile-launching base in south-western Kazakhstan and holds much sway over the country’s uranium, of which Kazakhstan is the world’s biggest producer. In Kyrgyzstan Russia has an airbase at Kant, near the capital, Bishkek, and tests torpedoes near Lake Issyk-Kul. Russia’s biggest military base abroad, hosting 7,000-odd personnel, is in Tajikistan.
The Americans and the Chinese have made some token sallies. John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, visited all five countries last year in the hope of “resetting” relations, after America lost access to the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in south-eastern Uzbekistan in 2005 and was ejected from Manas, near Bishkek, two years ago. China has sold some military stuff, including drones and anti-missile systems.
Though the five countries share a common history, their post-Soviet paths have diverged, and they are often at loggerheads with each other. A former minister from Kyrgyzstan laments: “There is zero harmonisation between us.” The Tajiks resent Uzbekistan ruling the great cities of Samarkand and Bukhara that were historically Tajik; all four of his neighbours, to varying degrees, loathe Mr Karimov. Like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is increasingly closed and inward-looking.
Kazakhstan and its leader are easily the most impressive of the five (whatever impression you may have gleaned from the film “Borat”). A few years ago Mr Nazarbayev pondered changing his country’s name to Kazakh Yeli (“Land of the Kazakhs”), considering the -stan suffix to be tainted. Its commercial capital, Almaty, is the region’s most sophisticated and vibrant city. Last year Kazakhstan’s GDP per person overtook Russia’s. Mr Nazarbayev has cannily opened up to the West while staying cosy with Russia yet bolstering economic links with China. He encourages students to learn English. A planned financial hub in Astana, the capital he boldly plonked down nearer his country’s geographical heart 19 years ago, will be conducted under English law.
But all is not well. Falling oil prices have hit Kazakhstan hard. Outside Astana and Almaty, many cities are grim: Aktobe is one of many to suffer mass lay-offs. The banking sector is ropy, the tax system a Byzantine nightmare. Contracts are insecure, and well-connected Kazakhs often skim 10% off the top of every deal. All of this deters investment.
As the economy falters, discontent is rising, and the ruling circle’s corruption is growing more irksome. In April a series of protests erupted against land-reform proposals. Mr Nazarbayev has ruthlessly restricted political space, exiling, co-opting, banning, harassing or imprisoning opponents. He turns 76 next week and has no apparent successor. A daughter is keen.
Yet things are worse elsewhere. Uzbekistan’s Mr Karimov is the nastiest and perhaps most paranoid of the five rulers. Tajikistan may be the least stable. Last month its constitution was amended by referendum—with 97% of voters said to assent— to lower the minimum age for a president to 30, paving the way for Mr Rahmon’s son Rustam to take over. He currently heads the country’s anti-corruption commission (try not to laugh).
Politically, Kyrgyzstan is the freest, but that does not seem to have made people happier. The president, mindful of the turbulence that overthrew two predecessors, sounds increasingly twitchy. Since March seven politicians have been arrested for allegedly plotting various coups. Its troops have occasionally clashed with Tajikistan’s along a disputed border, while tension in the Fergana Valley riles all three countries that embrace bits of it.
The level of popular discontent and the degree to which leaders will go to crush its expression vary. But the prospects for prosperity and stability, let alone genuine democracy and human rights, look far less rosy across Central Asia than they did 25 years ago, when the five countries gained their independence. In the past decade many people have got poorer.
Having seen the Arab spring topple rulers to their south and colour revolutions do the same to their west, the countries’ leaders are on edge. For now they seem safe. In none of the five does a coherent, competent opposition look able to stage a revolution, nor does any appear close to boiling point. But that could change.