Analytical materials / Kyrgyzstan

Christopher Schwartz:  The major powers prefer establishing overlapping spheres of influence rather than competing in a zero-sum game


“Contrary to the ‘grand Chess table’ image of the Great Game paradigm, the major powers at work in Central Asia appear to prefer accommodating each other and establishing overlapping spheres of influence rather than competing in a zero-sum game”, – notes Christopher Schwartz, a journalist and academic with the American University of Central Asia, in an exclusive interview for Which country in the region would you distinguish as the most successful in carrying out democratic reforms?

Christopher Schwartz: I think it is unquestionable that Kyrgyzstan has been the most successful in carrying out democratic reforms since the end of the Soviet Union. Of course, there are many concerns and questions about the intent behind these reforms, as well as their quality. For instance, it would probably be more accurate to describe Kyrgyzstan as an illiberal democracy rather than a liberal one and that its democratic reforms have had more to do with managing internal power dynamics than a genuine faith in democracy per se. Yet, even this implies a very important and ultimately healthy degree of modernization and decentralization, not to mention a degree of courage to confront difficult realities and make difficult choices. How do you assess the situation with media in Central Asia? Can we say that freedom of the media in the region is increasingly limited? Does Kyrgyzstan lose its achievements in the world community “as an island of democracy” after the last court cases against journalists and opposition, after the results of the presidential elections?

Christopher Schwartz: To begin with, I hate to say it but I really should: the notion that Kyrgyzstan was Central Asia’s “island of democracy” was always more hyperbole than reality.

In the broader Eurasian/post-communist context, Kyrgyzstan is certainly not alone, there are several other ”islands”, notably Georgia, Mongolia, perhaps Ukraine. Again, they are not without their serious challenges, but to stretch the already tired metaphor, there really exists an “archipelago of democracy”.

This should not be taken to diminish Kyrgyzstan’s accomplishments, which are real, but it is to highlight that there may be deeper dynamics shared between these societies that must continue to be studied in a comparative framework.

With respect to freedom of media in Central Asia in general and Kyrgyzstan in particular, we are undoubtedly entering a dark period. We are seeing systematic crackdowns in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Quite surprisingly, the Central Asian republic bucking the trend is Uzbekistan. The “Tashkent Spring” has seen a small efflorescence of independent journalistic activity. How this fits into the new president’s strategy for the country, much less how long it will last, are open questions.

I would not describe the situation in Kyrgyzstan as a “crackdown” because it is more personalized and corruption-driven. Certainly, the situation in Kyrgyzstan does share with Kazakhstan the characteristic of “lawfare”, i.e., the de-impartialization of legal systems and instrumentalizing them to silence criticism. However, let’s look at some of the key incidents to discern any kind of pattern.

The critical mass of lawsuits allege defamation or “provocation”. Of these, a core group originate in the previous presidential administration’s concerns about media coverage of the Turkish Airlines Flight 6491 crash. State security is investigating for its reporting on the use of a government server to host a private voter-information collection website in the recent presidential election (I do not know the current status of this investigation). Parliament is considering a law that would make it illegal for anyone, including everyday citizens and non-journalists, to publish so-called ”slanderous” content about state officials in public Facebook status updates and comments. NTS, a television owned by former presidential candidate Omurbek Babanov, has been raided by police. On the positive side, Jeenbekov has agreed to drop his lawsuits against Kabai Karabekov and

Censorship and strong-arming though all this may be, in my eyes these behaviors resemble more what one would expect to see in Philadelphia or Chicago than what one would expect to see in Astana or Tashkent: namely, corrupt politicians trying to cover their tracks, rather than a systemic attempt to silence criticism and consolidate power. Truth be told, I am probably splitting hairs. Illicit wealth and political power are intertwined, and when political tools are used to protect illicit wealth, then for sure, the problem is in fact systemic. Nonetheless, I feel that personal avarice is ultimately a different driver of oppression than, say, what we see in Kazakhstan, wherein the driver of oppression seems to be the insecurity of the state itself in the face of multiple crises and an imminent leadership transition. To put it another way, the oppression seems to me to be primarily personalized in Bishkek, while primarily politicized in Astana. The problem of Islamic radicalization is urgent for all countries of the region today. Is it possible to predict whether this phenomenon will increase? Has the significance of the region been reconsidered by the West against the background of the increasing radicalization risk possibility in Central Asia?

Christopher Schwartz: What I have been concerned about for several years now is less the incursion of genuine Islamic radical groups and more the possibility state security forces will exploit the specter of terrorism for their own purposes, whether that be simply to gain more resources and power for themselves, to increase the state’s overall control over society, to exact vengeance on personal rivals, etc. As Franco Galdini and Zukhra Iakupbaeva explore in their article, ”The Strange Case of Jaysh al-Mahdi and Mr. Isis: How Kyrgyzstan’s Elites Manipulate the Threat of Terrorism to their Own Benefit” (2016), at a minimum the manufacture of false attacks, if not false terrorist cells, is not beyond the realm of possibility. Who is to say that false attacks against civilians is out of bounds?

As to whether Islamic radicalization is an urgent problem in Central Asia today, the truth is I am skeptical about regional governments’ claims about the scale and intensity of the problem. The phenomenon undeniably exists. There are quite frightening independent assessments about the scale of Russian and “Turkish” (most likely not only Turkish itself, but also Central Asian languages) being spoken within ISIS cells, suggesting that at the terrorist organization’s peak these were its second and third highest languages, respectively. Again, though, it is precisely information such as this, troubling but by no means conclusive, that I fear may eventually be used as a pretext by state security services for far fouler things.

As to whether Islamic radicalization in Central Asia will increase, it needs to be said that society here has been remarkably resilient in the face of massive social-ideological-economic upheavals. To wit, Central Asians have already been starved by radical change; they are waiting for their turn at the dinner table of stability. Consequently, the vast majority of Muslims within Central Asian societies – I would argue, at a proportion for greater than other predominantly Islamic societies – are deeply repulsed by Islamic radicalism.

There are many “concrete” reasons we could point to as to why Islamic radicalism has failed to allure more than a fringe number of Central Asians, ranging from the strength of informal social safety networks to the valorization of discretion, persistence and family, to the partial success of Soviet modernization and secularization, to even collective traumatization and a deep yearning for calm.

I also want to be careful not to sound overly skeptical. Despite its Soviet past, Central Asia is not radically dissimilar in its values and political history than many other Islamic societies. That is why it would be as foolish to discount the possibility of Islamism’s rise here as it would be to anxiously await it.

Ultimately, though, I feel it is fundamentally impossible to predict whether Islamic radicalization is “coming for” Central Asia, if for no other reason than social scientists, journalists and security professionals have not yet been able to provide a predictive account of the drivers of radicalization.

Materialistic and psychological explanations fail to account for spiritual motivations, but likewise spiritual motivations do not simply appear in a vacuum devoid of socio-economic and political conditions. The importance of individual biography and choice also remains ill-understood. In theory, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri simply should not have become the men they became. What could possibly explain their choices if not some matrix of influences and personal volition that would be extremely difficult to untangle, let alone model?

Whether Central Asia is now or will be “reconsidered” by the West against the background of the seeming threat of Islamic radicalization, the only honest answer is: maybe. The fact of the matter is that the West for the time being would rather not think about Central Asia very much, for a plethora of reasons good and bad. Western governments, militaries and donors are committing some resources to deal with the issue, but without a full-blown crisis – essentially, the threat of a Syria-scale collapse and civil war in a Central Asian republic – the West will continue what appears to be more or less its present strategy for this region: calculated, minimal investment for maximum, if often ambiguous, returns. Based on the activity of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in foreign policy, can we say that these countries are the drivers for formatting the entire region? Kazakhstan and Tajikistan are on the verge of power transit, what do you think how the transit will be carried out there?

Christopher Schwartz: We can indeed say that Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are, as you put it, the drivers for formatting the entire region. Indeed, any good student of history, both pre-Soviet and Soviet, will tell you that this should come as no surprise. Kazakhstan embraces the critical mass of the Eurasian Steppe, which has been a veritable engine of historical change globally, not just regionally, and the area occupied by Uzbekistan today in many ways has served as a mediating space between this engine and the world. As such, whichever states would have coalesced over these two areas would inevitably exert significant influence over their neighbors.

In post-Soviet history, they have certainly represented very different philosophical poles regarding how Central Asian societies should position themselves in the world, with Kazakhstan under Nazarbayev offering a multi-vectorist vision, Uzbekistan under Karimov an isolationist vision. (Of course, Uzbekistan has played the ”multi-vector game”, but in a fashion much more cutthroat and avowedly self-centered than Kazakhstan, which has excelled at many of the fine arts – and some of the dark arts – of diplomacy.)

One could perhaps speculate that Turkmenistan is in the cut of Uzbekistan, albeit more extremely, and Kyrgyzstan in the cut of Kazakhstan, albeit more ineptly, with Tajikistan in between. Uzbekistan under Mirziyoyev seems to be flirting with a more Kazakhstan-style approach, while Kazakhstan, as it prepares for a time after Nazarbayev, is flirting with a more Uzbekistan-style approach.

As for the imminent power transitions in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, it would be intellectually dishonest for me to claim that I have a strong sense of how these will play out. I have dabbled in such thought experiments before and have always been left with some feeling of dissatisfaction. Ah well, let me try anyway, here are my few tenge and somoni on the matter.

My sense, for what it is worth, is that Nazarbayev probably does not have a transition “plan” in the strictest sense. He continues to tinker with his government. Consider the recent move to strengthen the National Security Council, upgrading it to being responsible for foreign policy and national security matters while expanding its composition. Anna Gussarova of the Jamestown Foundation recently remarked that his eventual successor is likely to come from this body, and I see why she thinks that. But for equally solid reasons, people have thought the very same about his Cabinet, as well. My impression is that observers do not fully recognize how much of a master improviser Nazarbayev really is. This much, though, is for certain: whatever he ultimately decides, or whatever backup systems he is engineering if he is incapacitated, Nazarbaeyv’s clear priorities are to protect his family’s wealth and to ensure the continuity of the system he has engineered for a continually evolving geopolitical and economic situation.

Tajikistan is a much more troubling case. Whereas Nazarbayev does seem to have an eye toward a future after himself, I am not really clear on what Rakhmon has in mind other than settling scores and rapidly elevating his family to explicit power. In general, the situation inside Tajikistan is much more mafia-like than in Kazakhstan, which has made real strides toward formalizing and cleaning up many aspects of its governance. Mafias prize order as much as they prize profit, which is why they are resilient. However, they are notoriously prone to in-fighting and even schism precisely because they use the nuclear family as their model of governance and resource-distribution. One of the key changes wrought by Modernity has been to separate as much as possible the private from the public, the domestic from the political – and for good, practical reasons. A family unit may be resilient in the face of great historical change because of its emotional bonds, but it is woefully inefficient and even self-destructive as a government precisely because of those bonds. Hence, I expect a post-Rakhmon Tajikistan to be a volatile place. What is the role of Central Asia in the world geopolitics? If to speak about foreign policy in the region, what external forces would you single out, whose positions have a significant impact on the development of Central Asian countries and why?

Christopher Schwartz: Let me answer your second question first. Of course, the external forces at work on Central Asia are the “usual suspects” of Russia and China, with the European Union, Turkey and South Korea also getting involved in significant ways. Afghanistan plays an important role in the sense of it threatening to become once more a yawning maw. From what I can see Iran would be ecstatic at expanding its influence into the region, but it simply lacks the means and avenues. Who is missing from this picture? The United States.

The truth is that America’s strategic interests in Central Asia have only ever been conceivable in the grandest possible terms. In 1991, it was to ensure a peaceful transition immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. For a while, there was the idealistic goal of spreading liberal democracy and human rights, which after 2001 overlapped – and contradicted – the military goal of sustaining operations in Afghanistan. With the closure of the Manas Air Transit Center in Bishkek and the subsequent cancellation of the 1993 bilateral treaty between America and Kyrgyzstan, there really is no pressing reason beyond a purely humanitarian one for Washington to be involved in the region. Indeed, speaking frankly as an American citizen, I certainly find this very troubling on a personal and professional level, as there is little to no receptivity back home for my hard work. Americans like me are, in a way, exiles, curiosities at best; our government and our society for the most part does not understand why someone like me has bothered to come out here. But such is the harsh reality.

Contrary to the “grand Chess table” image of the Great Game paradigm, the major powers at work in Central Asia appear to prefer accommodating each other and establishing overlapping spheres of influence rather than competing in a zero-sum game.

Russia in particular seems to be content if it can maintain its position as the preeminent force in military and political matters. Of course, it desires Central Asian markets – as well as Central Asian laborers – but it is willing to let China make many key investments. For its part, China is content to let Russia play the role of ”top dog” while it quietly indebts the region. Turkey does not seem to have as much leverage as it imagines itself to have, although time will tell. The European Union and South Korea do not seem to have coherent strategies beyond achieving highly specific goals in terms of human and natural resources. In general, it is in no one’s best interests to ever let Central Asia destabilize, much less to ”Ukrainize”, “Balkanize” or “Syrianize”. Stability is the name of the game.

However, beneath the surface, Central Asia is anything but stable – and that is where things get very interesting and very important. When I studied Judo, my master taught me to never pay attention to the eyes of my opponent – eyes lie; one must pay attention to his waist and hips, these will reveal his next move. In many ways, great powers like America, Russia and China are the eyes, and countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the waist and hips. Neo-liberalism’s hidden weakness for prestige-driven economics and aristocracy, if not oligarchy, were first revealed in Central Asia to those wise or brave enough to look; the disenchantment of globalization and the recidivism it arouses, while weaponized by radicals like Osama bin Laden, were transformed into tools of statecraft by Central Asia’s leaders; so too the possibility to selectively globalize and reap in the economic benefits for elites while successfully keeping entire populations intellectually isolated, spiritually stunted and materially fragile.

The waist and hips are moving again. With the important exception of the remarkably nimble Kazakhstan, political systems in Central Asia are growing as brittle as the Soviet-era apartment blocs that still fill their cities, and the elites – previously quite masterful at managing the expectations of their populations while aligning and merging the state with their own interests – appear to be reaching the limits of power without genuine reform. There are reasons to believe that the ongoing reforms of Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan and Atambayev and Jeenbekov in Kyrgyzstan are really nothing more than calculations to defeat rivals and entrench their own position, but I can equally see how these may also be recognitions of the inevitable and calculations to preserve a status quo by adapting it and liberalizing it, ironic and paradoxical though that might be.

As the waist and hips go, so too goes the world. Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, the Five Star Movement – I remember first hearing about the Five Star Movement in the streets of Naples a few years ago among angry young ex-Marxist activists, and now look at them! they are a force to be reckoned with in Italy – these are all signs that the status quo in the West cannot persist without serious revision. However, I am not convinced that leaders in the West are getting the message. In the European Union, austerity and protectionism remain the contradictory dogma; in the United States, the rapid concentration of wealth in the hands of the few – and the bizarre cult of the ”job creator” that attends it – speeds up; in China and Russia, I am not sure what exactly Xi and Putin are trying to accomplish by falling back upon antiquated Maoist and Imperial archetypes, respectively. Thus, while in more established societies we see a turn inward and a reliance upon failing ideas, in countries like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan we may be seeing leaders – horribly corrupt, utterly amoral – quite surprisingly trying to embrace the unknown. If history proves this assessment right, then hats’ off to Central Asia.

Christopher Schwartz is an American journalist based in Kyrgyzstan and a PhD student at the Institute of Philosophy at KU Leuven in Belgium. Holding Master’s degrees in Islamic history and philosophy, his doctoral research concerns the phenomenology of news-writing. He teaches journalism at the American University of Central Asia. He has also worked as an independent consultant for the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) and the analytical unit of the presidential campaign of Temir Sariyev.

The interview was prepared by Nargiza Muratalieva, editor of