WASHINGTON, DC – Recent violence in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, following civil strife in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, has intensified international concern about Central Asia’s security as the region becomes increasingly important for delivering NATO supplies to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
Central Asian countries allow NATO members and partners to transport supplies through their territory to support military forces in Afghanistan – an essential complement to the flow of supplies to the ISAF through Pakistan, which is vulnerable to tensions with the United States.
These countries have been logical partners for NATO in Afghanistan. They share Western concerns about a revival of the Afghan Taliban and their potential support for extremist Islamist movements in other Central Asian countries. Indeed, all five of the post-Soviet Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – have been targeted by Muslim extremist organizations linked to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Moreover, Central Asian leaders are eager to maintain NATO’s presence in Eurasia as a way to balance China and Russia. Although the region’s leaders generally enjoy good relations with both countries, they fear that Russian military and Chinese economic dominance could lead to the rise a Sino-Russian condominium at their expense.
All Central Asian countries suffer from pervasive corruption, acute income inequalities, political succession problems, and transnational criminal groups that cooperate more effectively than the region’s frequently feuding governments do. Deteriorating public services contributed to the overthrow of Kyrgyzstan’s government, and could lead alienated citizens to support Islamist terrorists and other extremists.
Although Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and other Central Asian countries have resumed rapid economic growth, much of their recent progress simply correlates with surging world oil and gas prices. Growth could easily slow following the next energy-price slump or other external shock, such as proposals in Russia to limit employment and remittance opportunities for Central Asian workers there.
All five countries have yet to fully recover from the disintegration of Soviet infrastructure networks, and require urgent domestic and region-wide measures to strengthen their education, transportation, energy provision, health care, and other public services. And their myriad interdependencies increase the risks of transnational threats, such as disease outbreaks, and resource-related confrontations.
Social disorder in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab countries has invariably led observers to regard Central Asia’s autocracies as potentially vulnerable to similar upheaval. Some Central Asian leaders have been in power for many years, and only Kyrgyzstan, the most impoverished of the five, has developed a competitive multi-party political system. Elsewhere, political parties are weak or are tools of the regime.
But other factors make the Arab scenario less plausible in Central Asia. Security forces are more closely aligned with ruling elites; independent political groups and social-media networks are less well developed; economic performance remains high in some countries; and a previous wave of revolutions produced disappointing results in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.
Ensuring long-term stability will require poverty reduction, job creation, reduced income inequality, and the development of these countries’ human resources. Private-sector activity will not expand without healthy national banks subject to rigorous financial discipline and greater supervisory autonomy. Governments, facing pressure to increase spending, need to develop targeted social safety nets that protect their poorest people through cash or near-cash transfers.
The International Monetary Fund recommends additional reforms aimed at improving labor-market flexibility, strengthening national competitiveness through investment in transportation and telecommunications infrastructure, and diversification away from natural-resource exports.
Moreover, reducing trade barriers between these countries is essential for taking advantage of regional synergies and economies of scale. Central Asia’s economies need greater access to their neighbors’ markets, energy, and transportation infrastructure.
Above all, these states need to create a more favorable climate for business and foreign investment through enhanced transparency, improved governance, and more effective political, economic, and social institutions. Although some Central Asian countries have made progress, most still lag other emerging markets in accountability, rule of law, and reducing corruption. Elsewhere in the post-Soviet world, Georgia’s success shows that determined governments can reduce even entrenched venality.
In the meantime, Central Asian countries need sustained donor support, because private investment flows have not recovered to levels that preceded the global financial crisis. But foreign donors must exercise greater oversight and conditionality in their regional aid programs, as well as ensure that their assistance is better coordinated and integrated than in the past.
Central Asia’s hydrocarbon reserves, and its pivotal location, make it strategically important for many countries. Russian energy managers count on the region’s oil and gas supplies to supplement stagnating domestic production. Western governments aim to circumvent Russia’s pipelines and import some oil and gas directly. China views the region’s resources as an essential complement to its more vulnerable maritime energy imports from Africa and the Persian Gulf, and has invested billions of dollars constructing overland pipelines.
All of this serves to increase the political uncertainty that threatens the region’s stability. These countries urgently need structural reforms that can generate more inclusive economic growth and political institutions that channel, rather than suppress, legitimate popular demands. Citizens who can help to shape their country’s public policies through elections and other legal political activities are less likely to resort to extra-constitutional means.