“The difference between the level of development and the perception of political pluralism in the countries of Central Asia contributes to a certain tension in their mutual relationships,” said Rashid Abdullo, an independent expert in Dushanbe, for an article written exclusively for the CABAR.
Growing Tensions in the Relationship Between Central Asian States: Causes and Consequences
In the relationship between the former Soviet states of Central Asia, there is constantly some present tension. Why is this happening? What are the causes of mutual claims between the countries in the region? I would like to speak about some observations concerning this.
It has been observed that the relationship between such states as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are not so hard. We can assume that it can be explained by the large area and relatively small population in both countries. The area of Kazakhstan is 2724 902 km², and Turkmenistan is 491,210 thousand km². In addition, the two countries are rich in raw materials which are readily available and popular in the world market, especially hydrocarbon, bringing them the greatest profits in the region. The population is 17.34 million in Kazakhstan and 5.24 million in Turkmenistan. Having such large territories, these figures exclude the concerns about the possible mutual demographic pressure as a factor that can have a negative impact on bilateral relations.
The tension is felt in a much greater degree in the relationship between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, especially on the unofficial level. Kazakh public, judging by the publications in the local and social media, is concerned about the small population of the country, especially compared with a population of not only such large neighbors as China and Russia, but also of Uzbekistan, whose population is 30.48 million people.
Kazakh society is also concerned about the fact that in the south of Kazakhstan, in the border with Uzbekistan, there are areas densely populated by ethnic Uzbeks who are characterized by strong national and civilizational (Islamic) identity, which has caused strong ethnic and civilizational solidarity, compared with the Kazakhs. In Kazakhstan, all of these circumstances, coupled with the inherent dynamism, commitment, internal organization and the ability of the Uzbeks to mobilize, can be an effective tool for projecting the interests of Uzbekistan into the neighboring country.
These phenomena occur against the background of the deepened confrontation inside Kazakhstan between “Nagyz” and “Shala” Kazakhs, according to Kazakh experts (literally, “good,” “true” Kazakhs and “semi-Kazakhs,” i.e., between Kazakhs speaking Kazakh language and Kazakhs who do not speak the native language, with their significantly different civilizational identity), which is not observed among the Uzbeks.
Relations between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan cannot be called harmonious. One of the main factors complicating the relations between the two countries is the negative perception by the Kyrgyz public of the economic growth, presence, and influence of Kazakhstan in Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz community perceives this phenomenon as an expansion of an economically more powerful neighbor, which is of danger to Kyrgyzstan’s interests.
But particularly unfavorable are the relations between Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan today.
Around the second half of 1995, the relations between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan had entered a period of growing mutual alienation. They are characterized by a constant tension with periodic bursts of exacerbation. One of these periods of exacerbation in bilateral relationships took place during the first half of 2010, when the neighboring republics virtually blocked the only rail access to the outside world for Tajikistan during a long period.
Since 2000, between the two countries, there is a visa regime, the introduction of which was initiated by the Uzbeks. Visa regime and the difficulties created by the visa regime have significantly complicated the development of bilateral, especially humanitarian relations.
On September 11, 2014, in the framework of the Council of Heads of SCO members, there was a meeting of the Presidents Emomali Rahmon and Islam Karimov. During the meeting, they noted in particular that during the period from 2007 to 2014, trade between the two countries fell from $ 300 million a year to $ 2.1 million, although it can be increased to $ 500 million without much difficulty. (IA «Asia Plus”, 12.09.2014). Difficult relationships between the two countries did not allow for solving the problem of the shortage of natural gas during all seasons and electricity during the winter period due to the transit of these goods from Turkmenistan through Uzbekistan. Tajikistan almost cannot attract international investment in hydropower projects because of the extremely negative attitude of Uzbekistan towards them. Unfortunately, in this matter, the international community, so far, tends to listen to Uzbekistan; as it is much more influential than Tajikistan.
The most recent conflict now is the relationship between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan with Kyrgyzstan. It is sad that the nature of conflict is becoming a common phenomenon. Even sadder is that such relationships are manifested at the grassroots level and regularly happen during the border incidents, accompanied by violent acts, including the use of weapons and human losses. And the change in the perception of conflict by its immediate participants is sad, too. The emerging conflict situations are often perceived as ethnic conflicts.
The stressful nature of relationships between the Central Asian states is determined by a set of general and specific causes. One of these causes is the complex and contradictory process of formation of these countries as independent states on the ruins of the Soviet superpower.
Among the factors responsible for the complexity and contradictions of this process, we should point to the fact that the emergence and existence of the states in the region within the current borders was not associated with the course of their independent historical, political, socio-economic, cultural, social, psychological and other development. Their formation was the end result of the influence of the Russian Empire, the Russian-British intensive and less intensive Russian-Chinese rivalry in the region during the 19th century, and later – the result of implementation and then the collapse of the Soviet project.
The acquisition by the former Soviet republics of the region’s independence took place against the backdrop of the collapse of the Soviet general political, ideological and economic space with the simultaneous development of the political process, ideological and economic isolation of the new post-Soviet formations from each other.
The legacy of the Soviet era included the political and economic space, which was no more than a fragment of the former integrated Soviet space. To survive in the new environment and become independent states, the former Soviet republics of Central Asia had no other choice but to reformat this residual Soviet space on the new post-Soviet bases. The solution to this problem implied the formation of their own national, political and economic space – full-fledged nationhood.
Incomplete formation of the new states of Central Asia is the cause of inter-state conflicts
Starting conditions for solving this problem were different for each of the republics of the region. Some republics got greater economic potential, while the others got much smaller economic potential, which was necessary to adapt to the new post-Soviet realities as quickly as possible and with the least cost.
With the collapse of the USSR and the development of a comprehensive process of separation of the former Soviet republics, functioning of their economies within the former Soviet model became impossible. In the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, only the industries tied to the production, processing and export of raw materials could survive and develop, as well as the industries tied to the production, processing and export of agricultural products.
There were more of these opportunities in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It took them relatively little time to adapt the existing industrial enterprises of extracting and processing hydrocarbon and ore raw materials and establish self-produced exports products to foreign markets. Revenues from exports of these products in this category have become the financial basis for the formation of the national economic space and development of all types of infrastructure for these countries. That ultimately determined the achievement of better economic performance, compared with Kyrgyzstan and, especially, with Tajikistan.
Economic opportunities of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have allowed the leadership of these countries to consistently implement the course that was initially taken – the construction of a new national state, the supporting structure of which was a strong, nationally-oriented and all-determining Institute of presidential power.
It should be noted that the foundations of such a statehood are almost completely developed in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and then to a large extent, in Kazakhstan, on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, through the efforts of the then leaders- heads of republics – Saparmurat Niyazov, Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev. At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were quite experienced and independent political and public figures. This fact allowed them to correctly assess the situation, to become spokesmen of national aspirations and to provide politically smooth independence, without excessive shocks.
In contrast, Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has not had a great experience of a politician and statesman at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Maybe that is the reason he chose the principles of Western democracy.
The President of Tajikistan Kahhar Mahkamov had not enough political intuition, and, perhaps, determination to follow the example of his Turkmen, Uzbek and Kazakh colleagues and to become the spokesman of the national aspirations of the Tajik society.
The result is that Kyrgyzstan is still in a state of finding an adequate model for construction of national statehood. Tajikistan came to an active model of building its statehood, similar to, but not the same as the Turkmen, Uzbek and Kazakh, having passed through the political chaos in 1991-1992 and survived the civil war in 1992-1997.
The formation of independent states on the ruins of the old larger state formation is almost impossible without the mobilization of their internal capabilities and resources.
One way to implement this mobilization is the opposition to external challenges – real or imaginary. In different forms and types, this mobilization is observed throughout the period of their independent existence. This fact is one of the factors causing, for example, rigid rejection by Uzbekistan of Tajikistan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s plans to optimize their large hydropower resources. Uzbekistan does not accept the options for resolving the problem offered by Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Naturally, the reaction of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to such a tough stance is fairly negative.
In Kyrgyzstan, the need to confront external challenges in the form of border problems with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan is regarded as an effective tool to mobilize and support the various forces of the political struggle that is being waged today in the country, including about what should be the form of Kyrgyz statehood. Incompleteness of the formation of post-Soviet statehood of Kyrgyzstan, whether it should be presidential, parliamentary republic, a presidential-parliamentary or some other, is an important factor, directly contributing to the formation of conflicts both within the country and in its relations with its immediate post-Soviet neighbors. The situation is aggravated by the fact that any agreement with the neighbors at the highest level on border issues is practically questioned by opponents of President Almazbek Atambaev, the opponents who have the ability to influence the course of events on the ground. As a result, the tension in the relationships between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which were fairly even under President Akayev, is continuously increasing.
For the Central Asian countries with an established strong presidential system of government, as they develop, the need for some modification and upgrading of the existing system of economic and political administration is becoming relevant. But the implementation of appropriate reforms and transformations is objectively a challenge for both the ruling elites and for the whole society.
In Kazakhstan, they are coping with the economic modernization quite successfully. A somewhat different situation is observed in Uzbekistan.
As for Tajikistan, objective circumstances have developed so that the problems in economic life are often related to a mismatch between the market nature of the economy development and the ineffective methods of administration, based on the processes and approaches inherited from the previous era.
The need for development of real political pluralism is gradually growing in the political sphere, as the next step is not so much in the formation of, but more in the improvement of post-Soviet statehood. In different countries of the region, with a strong well-established statehood, the development of this process is realized in different ways. In some countries, the idea of real political pluralism is rejected right away as it is believed to provoke instability. In other countries, for example, in Tajikistan, political pluralism still exists, albeit with certain restrictions.
In Kyrgyzstan, pluralism exists with virtually no restrictions, although it may be derived from the incompleteness of the formation of a strong state power, rather than the result of achieving a high level of comprehensive development, when real political pluralism is its natural and appropriate reflection.
The difference between the level of development and the perception of political pluralism in the countries of Central Asia contributes to a certain tension in their mutual relations.
For example, even the possibility of the IRP functioning – the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan – and its active participation in the political life of the country is perceived with concern in other countries in the region. There is only one step from this concern to a desire to dissociate oneself from Tajikistan by all sorts of barriers, including visas.
Internal contradictions in the countries of the region and the existing problems in the relations between them, along with the inability of the political elites of the Central Asian states to find acceptable solutions to the existing problems in its relationships with each other may contribute to the transformation of the region into a field of conflict of interests of major powers, including in the form of conflict between the countries of the region. The incompleteness of the processes of formation of the post-Soviet state in the region, the differences in levels of economic development and in the opportunities of entry to the outside world, and the differences in the levels of development of political and ideological pluralism fully contribute to the above-mentioned scenario. Political elites of the region, both ruling and opposition, should always bear in mind the possibility of such development of events, at least, in order to avoid the involvement of their countries into conflicts unpredictable by their negative consequences.
Rashid Abdullo, an independent expert
The opinion of the author may not necessarily represent the opinion of CABAR