Abakhon Sultonnazarov: Security and Cooperation Issues in Central Asia
“Central Asian countries have to unite in order to become a full part of the world civilization. This could guarantee the well-being of each resident of Central Asia, regardless of ethnic, civil or religious affiliation”, said Abakhon Sultonnazarov, Regional Director for Central Asia of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), in an article written for CABAR.asia.
The dynamics of cooperation between the five Central Asian states since the proclamation of sovereignty has shown that they passed the way from the friendship of the 1990s to hard pragmatic and asymmetric responses in the 2010s. As a result, Central Asia in the world is associated today with the closed borders, water and territorial disputes, resource economics, poverty and militant Islam.
People dealing with security and cooperation issues in Central Asia are seeking to answer the question of how such situation happened, and how to get out of it. There are several interpretations of the situation – from failed states to super-presidential autocracies. Also, there are a number of theories on bringing the relations between the countries of Central Asia to the new level – from promoting the most sovereign economy in a particular country to the creation of a Greater Central Asia or the Eurasian Economic Union.
It should be noted that all existing theories are entitled to existence. However, it should be understood that the basis of these theories are local and foreign doctrines and concepts developed in the 18th, 19th centuries and the first half of the 20th century. We can conclude that in spite of the radical change in the political, social and economic situation in the countries of Central Asia, nothing new has been invented for the countries of the region. As a result, solutions to the problems of security and cooperation in the 21st century are sought in the two-century old theories.
This approach seems to be dominant in the process of political and socio-economic transformation in Central Asia.
In this connection, it would be interesting to think about the following question: what is Central Asia?
Residents and leaders of one country speak Farsi, and the people and the leaders of the four other countries speak languages of the Turkic language group. However, during the negotiations, they cannot come to understanding and find an acceptable solution for all parties. The solutions taken usually annoy at least one of the parties.
The vast majority of residents of the five countries of Central Asia are Muslim. But this is also not a unifying factor: citizens of one country do not like both their countrymen and citizens of other countries. Moreover, jihadist and Takfiri ideas are more and more spread, when one group of Muslims assumes the right to declare all others, including other Muslims, the enemies of Islam.
As you know, the peoples of Central Asia for thousands of years have been living next to each other. However, today the borders of the Central Asian countries are practically closed to each other.
According to Valentin Bogatyrev, the head of the analytical consortium “Perspective”: “The people of Central Asia, figuratively speaking, mentally live simultaneously in “four countries”. “First country” is the customs of small principalities/ khanates that existed before the establishment of the power of tsarist Russia. “Second country” is the attitudes and traditions that existed in the region during the time of imperial Russia. “Third country” is the rules and regulations firmly established during the Soviet period. “The fourth country” is the parameters promoted by the theory of transition period”.
The above difficulties were reflected in attempts to position each of the countries in the region as the ancestral home of the current states of Central Asia. This methodological approach was relevant during the Soviet era. In those years, one of the conditions for the existence of national union republics was the ancient history of their territorial formations.
Such an approach was demanded in the Soviet Union and lost its relevance with its disintegration.
Today, two main approaches in the description of history of the state and the nation are used in the world practice.
The first one is connected with the description of the history of the state since its inception within the current area. Examples of this approach are France, USA, China, Japan.
The second approach springs from the creation of the national alphabet. Languages with the most ancient alphabets are Arabic, Armenian, Greek, Georgian, Persian, and Hebrew.
However, in the countries of Central Asia, the Soviet approach using some “ancient” element has not only been preserved, but also is gaining momentum. The paradox of the situation is that “the greatness of the history of” one nation is rejected by other nations. Moreover, this approach is not the object of interest of experts from other regions of the world. Exceptions are cases where foreigners have to flatter the policy or group of persons from a particular country.
We could ignore the main difficulties mentioned here, if not the following:
These difficulties are the causes of failure of almost all regional projects in Central Asia, regardless of what country and for what purpose initiated them.
Theories of development of Central Asia
In the absence of a common vision for the development of the region among the Central Asian countries, other countries, having their own interests in the region, suggest “redrawing” the existing political and socio-economic relations in the Central Asian according to their own designs. The nuances of the situation in each country and the region as a whole are not taken into account. It is enough to have a firm conviction of one’s rightness and to actively promote one’s own theory.
The focus is made on some inhabitants of a country, who have acquired a certain style of thinking and practice of conduct, and who can shape public opinion favorable to the interests of a foreign country or group of countries.
With regard to the countries of Central Asia, the following theories and practice can be observed.
America and Europe
North America and Europe, adhering to the theory of democracy and market economy, are working with the younger generation of Central Asians. This work is carried out through various educational programs and support programs. People have successfully used business skills and the skills of “packing” information into the required standards.
The problem zone begins when establishing the rules of economic activity, standards of social relations and the norms of functioning of public authorities, public administration and local self-government. The US-European approach is not working in these areas.
Islam in Central Asia experienced revival after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, if we look closely at the process of promotion of Islam, it turns out that instead of progressing Islamization, there is progressing Arabization of the region.
It is believed that the prayers read in Arabic will be heard faster than prayers in the local languages. Believers in CA increasingly wear the elements of traditional dress of Arabs and Pakistanis, considering them true Muslims. The practice of Arab Ummah is promoted as the basis of the relationship between people, and the basis of relations between the government and society is the Arab understanding of the principles of governance.
The ideas of violent Islam have taken root in the Central Asian countries, which brings the standards of prehistoric Islam to the rank of absolute truth. Especially zealous followers begin to follow the path of terror.
In the practice of the present-day Russia, two main directions can be traced. The first direction is associated with the category of inhabitants of Central Asia. They are representatives of the law enforcement unit: the Ministry of Internal Affairs and KGB of the former Soviet republics. Training, joint exercises and various cooperation programs help building informal relationships between the security forces of Russia and Central Asian countries.
The second direction is an appeal to the joint history of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union.
In relation to its nearest neighbors, China pursues a policy of “equal close partners.” Relations with all are smooth, with no apparent preference. The signing of contracts worth billions of dollars between China and each Central Asian country has become a historical fact.
However, it should be noted that the largest target group is small and medium businesses. It is known that the entrepreneurs of small and medium-sized businesses constitute the most active and enterprising part of the Central Asian societies. Politicians cannot agree with each other sometimes, but entrepreneurs can always agree on ways to meet their own interests.
On the grassroots level, people come to the understanding that the problem is not in the origin of the capital (Chinese, American, Turkish, Russian, etc), but in the people receiving and using this capital.
Threats to security in Central Asia
Speaking about the current and potential risks and safety problems, it should be noted that the countries of Central Asia face a number of common threats to security. Among them, there are poverty, unemployment, inefficient agricultural sector, development imbalances, minimizing cross-border cooperation, environmental issues, social tension, aggravation of inter-ethnic conflict, revitalization of radical religious organizations, criminalization of society and the increase in drug trafficking.
The social situation in the countries of Central Asia is a classic example of social tension in overcrowded conditions, land hunger and overabundance of low and semi-skilled labor. The main flows of labor and trade migration are illegal.
Economic situation (according to the ratings of various international organizations) in the countries of Central Asia is characterized by an extreme lack of resources (land and water), inefficiency of economic reforms, poor development of small and medium-sized enterprises, poor investment climate and the shadow economy.
A common problem is the pseudo-urbanization, when residents of depressed areas move to cities, causing a quantitative rather than qualitative growth of the cities, the aging infrastructure of which does not allow for an adequate standard of living for both indigenous citizens and newcomers.
Emerging problems are compounded by a complex ethnic situation on the ground (especially in the Ferghana Valley), where the interests of several ethnic groups (Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Uzbeks, as well as a number of other groups) are clashing. All this is happening against the background of activation of banned religious organizations and communities. Quarrels in everyday life pass into the category of ethnic confrontation and threaten to spread to the interstate level.
Options for cooperation in Central Asia
The existing difficulties and the idea of rebuilding the existing situation make three options for cooperation in Central Asia possible.
Option 1: The “buffer”
Withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan by 2014 says that Washington, London, Paris and Berlin are resigned themselves to the fact that the movement of “Taliban” and its allies will come to power in a number of provinces, if not in Kabul.
Therefore, the achievement of a 10-year war in Afghanistan is the promise of the Taliban to limit their power to the borders of their own state and to no longer give “Al Qaeda” the bases and training camps on their territory. The real threat comes from the expansion of the boundaries of the Islamic State (ISIS).
For us, it is more important to remember that, regardless of who comes to power in Kabul, the fight against terrorism, extremism and separatism retains its relevance. Special attention should be given to a problem of joint struggle against drug trafficking. Over the last decade, Afghanistan became the world’s factory for the production of hard and soft drugs.
Thus, the first option is the transformation of Central Asia into a cordon sanitaire along the border with Afghanistan.
Option 2: “Another Union”
Russia is pushing for the creation of a Eurasian Union. Currently, it is the union of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. In May 2015, Kyrgyzstan was also admitted to the EEU.
Today, Russia controls 25% of world gas reserves. When reaching agreements on energy in the framework of the Eurasian Union in 2019, Russia will theoretically be able to control 33% of the world gas reserves.
US promotes the idea of forming a Greater Central Asia. In the future, it is proposed to connect Pakistan, Afghanistan to Russia and Europe via three roads through Central Asia. There is also a project of transfer of electricity from Central Asia to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
On March 28, 2015, there was published “The vision and action plan to promote the joint construction of the “economic belt of the Silk Road” and “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century”.
The task of creating a new continental bridge has been set. International corridors of economic cooperation “China-Mongolia-Russia” and “China – Central Asia – West Asia” whose creation is being planned are of great interest for the countries of Central Asia.
Option 3: “Unity”
The above two options see the countries of Central Asia as objects of geopolitical games of other states. In addition, each country-player sees itself as a bridge between civilizations and continents.
Hence, the Central Asian countries have to unite, in order to become a full part of the world civilization. This could guarantee the well-being of each resident of Central Asia, regardless of ethnic, civil or religious affiliation.
1. Promotion of the international legal framework
Effective cooperation in the field of security depends on a strong legal framework. Therefore, special attention should be paid to clarifying and harmonization of legal acts, as well as to common understanding and application of their provisions.
It is time to exchange the experience in the preparation of legislative acts, including those acts that properly describe the economic crimes components related to terrorism, separatism, extremism, corruption and other irregularities.
Another area could be a joint study and promotion of universal agreements, conventions and protocols on combating violent extremism and terrorism.
2. Promotion of Public-Private Partnership
Governments are responsible for taking measures to prevent and combat terrorism, as well as for the elimination of the consequences of terrorist acts, but they must be able to rely on the support of the business community and civil society, acting as a single entity to successfully counter the threat of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Of key importance are the role of civil society and the media in the fight against extremism and the role of public-private partnership in the protection of critical infrastructure (hydroelectric plants, reservoirs, oil and gas pipelines, etc.).
3. Improving the security of container transport and supply chain
A key element of the economic belt of the Silk Road is the transit of goods through the territory of various countries. This area is important in the light of the Silk Road economic belt initiative, the initiative of the President of Kyrgyzstan on the construction of the railway “Russia-Kazakhstan-Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan”, the initiative of the President of Kazakhstan on the construction of roads in all directions from Astana and others.
In this direction, we can also speak about the support for promoting the efforts of specialized agencies and organizations from relevant services of Central Asian countries. First of all, we are talking about the World Customs Organization (WCO) and the use of the Framework of Standards to Secure and Facilitate Global Trade (SAFE) as a key international instrument.
4. Ensuring the reliability of passports and other travel documents
The Economic belt of the Silk Road, the Eurasian Economic Union and other initiatives require a high mobility of the population, businessmen, scientists and cultural workers, students, tourists and so on.
In this context, joint cooperation in the field of promoting the recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) safety standards for the issuance and handling of passports is another area of cooperation.
Several countries in Central Asia have already introduced biometric passports .
Also, a promising direction may be to promote the implementation by States parties of the OSCE commitments on the use of the Interpol database of lost and stolen travel documents (ASF-SLTD), aimed at identifying illegal use of travel documents, which are registered in the database of Interpol as lost or stolen.
5. International cooperation
The Central Asian countries are cooperating with more than 20 UN agencies, international, regional and sub-regional organizations and specialized agencies to support their counter-terrorism activities, share experiences and strengthen contacts between the leaders of countries and international experts.
This cooperation can be extended to further improve the cooperation with other partners and stakeholders, based on a realistic assessment of their comparative advantages and evaluating the options to fill existing gaps (legislative, technical cooperation, etc.), and avoid duplication of effort.
Abakhon Sultonnazarov, Regional Director for Central Asia, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)