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Terrorist threat in Central Asia. One problem, different approaches

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Terrorism and security have newly become one of the top priorities in post-Soviet Central Asia. States are discussing how to face the threat of a strengthening of the terrorism and, in particular, of the Islamic State. The attention to this phenomenon has been growing in relation to the Russian involvement in the Syrian war and the risk of a “contagion” that, from North Africa and Middle East, could affect Central Asia.

Both internally and regionally, during 2015 there have been discussions about anti-terrorist measures to implement and focused on the security aspects. But, actually, what is the level of the threat the states are facing? In the face of concerns expressed by national governments, sources and analyses point out a more intricate reality that needs to be examined more in depth. The possibility of a strengthening of the radical groups is concrete and different elements prove it. There are no certain figures, but it is estimated that from these countries diverse thousands of youths joined ISIS or other Islamic radical groups in Syria and Iraq. Their presence is considered to be around 1.500-2.000 militants, up to a maximum of even 4.000 people. Official numbers, in fact, could also hide governments’ strategy to underestimate or exaggerate the number of foreign fighters, in order to purse their own internal purposes in facing radical groups. Beyond these figures, what concerns is the possibility of an “expansion” of the Caliphate in the Eurasian region that could take place also with the adhesion of indigenous militias to ISIS, its ideology and its strategy. An example of such risk comes from the pledge of loyalty made by the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan last August. However, it is not only a matter of ISIS, because another factor to be considered is the evolution of the fighting in Afghanistan. Taliban, indeed, could represent a potential element of instability for bordering countries, like Turkmenistan.

In the face with this situation, the Russian Federation is trying to play its role of leading actor in the region for security issues through the definition of a common anti-terrorism policy, involving all other Central Asian states. Moscow has direct interest in limiting the expansion of islamist groups, in stabilising bordering countries and in reducing the proliferation of radical elements in its territory. In addition to Central Asians foreign fighters, what worries Moscow is the presence of 1.500-3.000 Russian citizens in war zones. Moreover, Russia itself has become a land of recruitment for jihadist movements, which acquire new militants from the emigrants resident in the large Russian cities, where tough living conditions pave the way for cultural and social marginalization and the split up between young Islamic workers from the rest of the society. This evolution has made the Russian, the third language – after Arab and English – in Islamic State’s propaganda and recruitment activities.

By its own side, Moscow has military bases and the lead of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the most important regional security structure. In the last CSTO’s summits (in Dushanbe and Moscow) it has been underlined the risk for the five Central Asian states and Russia, but the path to a common anti-terrorist initiative it’s not easy. CSTO doesn’t include two key states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Moreover, central Asians are wary over a possible return of Russian influence in the region. This concern is in part emerged with the constitution of the Eurasian Economic Union, but is much stronger in relation to the possibility of a Russian-led common defensive policy, because it could be interpreted as a blow to the sovereignty of these countries.

So, even if the issue of a coordinated policy is always on the agenda, the answers against terrorist threat have assumed different faces. Elaborated on the root of problems, prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic reminded us recently in his seminal piece ‘No more War on Terror, please’: “But, terror is a tactics, not an ideology. How can one conduct and win war on tactics? – it is an oxymoron.”

Turkmenistan, for example, has maintained his neutrality position and repeatedly underlined its will to protect the integrity of the state from any kind of intrusion. Even if it is one of those states forced to face the major threat – since reports pointed out incidents at its Afghan borders – Turkmenistan is contrary to any kind of “intrusion” in its sphere of sovereignty. Only in recent days, Ashgabat reached an agreement with Russia for security cooperation, which include the control of Turkmen-Afghan border, in order to limit eventual border crossing by Taliban forces. In other cases, instead, the menace might be used as an instrument through which governments can crack down opposition groups. Among states “suspected” of these practices there is Tajikistan. The country suffers hundreds of young in the forces of the Caliphate and recently even one of the most influential military officials, Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, abandoned institutional ranks to join ISIS. Tajik President Emomali Rahmon described the Islamic State “the 21st century plague” and started a crackdown on Islamic groups highly criticized, starting speculations about the real nature of the governmental intentions. Many suspects, in fact, that some measures – like the disbandment of the opposition movement Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, the ban of veil for women and the strong invitation for the men to shave their beard – have little to do with security issue. In Uzbekistan, where President Karimov is conducting a years-long war against terrorism, government decided to implement new anti-terrorist measures.

Kazakhstan, instead, has chosen another path. Recently, Astana declared to have allocated more resources for security apparatus, but there is more. Contrary to the other Central Asians republics, Astana has taken up the idea of a regional cooperation to this issue. Speaking to the 70th UN General Assembly last September, President Nursultan Nazarbayev advanced a proposal (previously presented in SCO summit in Ufa) for the creation of an “anti-terrorist global network” under the aegis of the United Nations and with the involvement of regional defense structures, like CSTO. Kazakh President underlined that global threats requires global answers, stressing the necessity to re-unite the different alliances constituted in order to coordinate them. A vision – this – that brings Russia and Kazakhstan even closer on security issue. Another element to underline about Kazakh strategy is the role conceded in its anti-terrorism law to social and cultural factors, in order to prevent the spread of religious radicalism and extremism. Only years to come will say if this particular approach will give its results.

The necessity of a common answer should start also by the consideration that the Eurasian one presents itself as an increasingly significant key region. The attention toward Central Asians states is determined by their relevance as raw materials suppliers, their strategic transit routes and importance for the political stability: single States’ instability – due to the rise of domestic radical groups or to the return of foreign fighters – can produce an impact on the whole area and even on Russia and China.

At the same time, is necessary a thought-out look about the real entity of the issue. Many reports indicate that Central Asians states are lesser in danger than other regions’ countries. According to the 2015 “Global Terrorism Index” Central Asia is less in danger than Europe. Eurasian states have “good performances” not only in respect of the most troubled nations, but even of their more influential neighbors, Russia and China. The five former Soviet Central Asian states have been included in the “lowest impact of terrorism” and “no impact” categories, ranging from 83rd rank (of 162 countries classified) of Kazakhstan to the last position of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

This standing can result exaggerated, especially in a phase in which terrorism is living a rising trend, but it can help to value the relative stability of these countries. Moreover, it can help in understanding that disproportionate reactions can lead to counterproductive effects in medium-long term. In some cases, restrictions and repressions seems to respond to necessities of internal politics. The real risk is that such measures might contribute to an increasing expansion of radicalism and dissatisfaction with the institutions. Poverty, social and cultural marginalization, ethnic discriminations, lack of efficient politics and the increasing economic difficulties in these states are among other factors able to strengthen radical groups beyond the “religious ideology”. The answer can’t include only security aspects, because fundamentalism can grow for economic, social and cultural reasons. In this regard, the aforementioned Kazakh law on anti-terrorism, with its comprehensive attitude toward the issue, could represent a viable approach in the fight against religious extremism and radicalism. Only time, however, can say if this kind of solution can work and if Central Asia can prevent the rise of terrorism and instability.

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Central Asia

Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit and Later Developments: The Politics Analyzed

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The summit’s mood was a somber one, toned down by Ukraine war, mounting global economic and environmental crises.

Important developments are:

  1. Strengthening Economic Ties

New initiatives planned to develop economic and transport corridors, tourism and services trade and expansion of the Belt and Road Initiative. Trade within SCO grew 12 percent annually. China aims $2.3 trillion trade with SCO within next 5 years.

Today, China and Russia conducted $140 billion in trade, which will reach around $200 billion by yearend. India also increased purchases of Russian oil, coal, and fertilizer and became one of its largest fuel customers since the Ukraine invasion.

Pakistan plans to import Russian gas and Putin offered building a pipeline to supply it. Pakistan desperately needs Russian gas because of its energy crisis.

Meanwhile, economic developments in Central Asian resulting from Russian and Chinese investments have exceeding $61 billion.

  •  Strengthening Collective Security Mechanisms

There has been some success in collective security cooperation. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure is functioning, and several new independent security mechanisms planned.

China and Russia had steadily built economic and strategic ties. Russia plans further strengthening them.

  • Expansion of the SCO

Iran has now become SCO’s ninth member. Belarus seeks full membership. Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia will become dialogue partners. Turkey’s received observer status. Eight countries are expected to become members.

5. Voice of Developing Nations

Joint statement on climate change called for balance between reducing carbon emissions and allowing poorer states to catch up with developed countries. SCO called for a balanced approach between emissions reduction and development.

  • Divisions within the SCO

Summit was expected to provide chance for Russia and China to make a case for new world order. However, the war sowed divisions, as no government favored Putin’s actions. Clinched in confrontation with the West, Putin denied isolation, but the summit proved otherwise.

Given the war, some Central Asian leaders worry about Russian behavior. Kazakhstan and Pakistan refuse to toe Moscow’s line. Kazakhstan has aided Ukraine. China’s refusal to condemn Russia has caused unease among some countries, hindering efforts building regional ties. Also complicating picture is India, which like China had not outrightly condemned Russia, nor participated in Western sanctions on it. India has strong military ties with Russia but is changing tone. Both China and India have mildly criticized Russia. On September 21 Putin raised the threat of nuclear response in the war and ordered reservists mobilization. He was widely condemned. America said threats were nothing new. So far, Putin seems undaunted by criticism.

Economic cooperation between China and Russia likely to grow being mutually beneficial. However, China trying to stay out of Ukraine mess and its danger. While Putin’s war has yet to spread beyond Ukraine, it could trigger larger war between Russia and NATO. Therefore, China has wisely urged Russia to de-escalate and called for a cease-fire. China continues balancing positions as the goal of Xi’s foreign policy is to put country first.

Since Biden supports India as permanent member of UNSC, it will also call Russia not to escalate conflict. Earlier, India had repeatedly called for diplomacy. Modi’s recent criticism of Russia is setback for Putin as war drives a wedge in relations.

  • Failures

Firstly, Modi did not meet Xi. The two have not met since the border conflict more than two years ago. Delhi is wary of Beijing’s growing regional influence, especially in Pakistan.

Also, the leaders of rivals Pakistan and India did not meet.

Two failed opportunities.

Secondly, the summit failed to take any meaningful action on the current global food and energy crisis linked to the war. Resultantly, the regional food supply may face even bigger challenges in the future.

Thirdly, region requires massive investment in climate resilience development. Though requested by Pakistan, climate action framework not discussed.

Fourthly, China and Russia failed committing needed financing of institutions because of their own economic weaknesses.

Fifthly, Russia’s Ukraine actions not condemned by members. Only Turkey’s President Erdogan urged Putin to return occupied territory to Ukraine.

Sixthly, there was leadership failure. For Putin, the summit was a chance to show that Russia was not isolated. For Xi it was an opportunity to shore up credentials as global political leader. Both failed.

Lastly, summit did not focus on regional challenges: war in Ukraine; rippling impact of rising regional food prices; energy crisis roiling economies; and climate emergency in Pakistan.

Today, SCO is not suitable for China to push any world order. As a multilateral organization, it is much weaker than EU or ASEAN. Fortification of SCO remains daunting challenge.

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Central Asia

Kyrgyz-Tajik Conflict: Small States Becoming Victim In Games Of The Great Powers

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Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan sign protocol on regulation of armed conflict in border areas. Photo: © AKIpress News Agency

The Military conflict on September 14th 2022, on the border of two post-soviet countries- Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan took lives of more than 90 people from both sides. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan considers that the events which took place on September 14-17, 2022 necessary to state as a pre-planned armed act of aggression by Tajikistan against the sovereign state Kyrgyzstan. As a result of the inhuman actions of the Tajik side 59 citizens of Kyrgyzstan were killed and 140 were injured, about 140,000 people were forced to evacuate. But the Tajik officials and mass media actively accusing Kyrgyzstan of aggression and violation of non-attack agreements. Both sides blame each other for the outbreak of violence. As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kyrgyzstan declared that the information of the Ministry of Foreign affairs and other authorities of Tajikistan did not correspond to reality. The Kyrgyz side has all the evidences (photo and video materials) that recorded the beginning of the aggression, as well as all the crimes committed by the Tajik military on the territory of Kyrgyzstan. If necessary, the Kyrgyz side is ready to provide this evidence.

Main Reasons.

The Kyrgyz-Tajik border 950 kilometers long. At the moment, Bishkek and Dushanbe have recognized only 520 kilometers of a common border, the rest of the sections since the collapse of the USSR are considered controversial and run along villages and roads.

The conflict has many aspects: here are territorial disputes, competition for the possession of water resources, and inter-ethnic problems. It is also associated with activities on the border of criminal structures, with smuggling, with drug trafficking. Radical religious organizations may also be involved in it. Therefore, all relations in the conflict zone between the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides are extremely aggravated. And the reason for the next clashes can be anything, any petty domestic situation.

In spring 2021 a similar bloody conflict took place on the border of two republics. As it turned out later, this escalation had domestic reasons. It was provoked by a dispute over the sharing of a water distribution point located between Kyrgyz and Tajik villages, which ended with a fight afterwards by killing each other by weapons. The state border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan is 950 kilometers, and 520 km of it has not yet passed the demarcation procedures. Despite that the Central Asian states gained independence more than thirty years ago.

The reasons of the latest invasion of Tajikistan to the territory of Kyrgyzstan still not clear. What could be the reason of breaking the Agreement of non invasion? Why it started the same day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit? Why its happening after the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict? Why Post-Soviet countries are in war with each other? Scholars and some officials have various assumptions about the latest bloody clash. “There are provocateurs and third forces.” – says the head of the government of Kyrgyzstan Akylbek Zhaparov.

The military conflict started the same date of the summit of the SCO in Samarkand. On September 14, the governments of China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a long-anticipated  agreement to push ahead with construction of a railroad linking these countries that will  establish a shorter route to Europe bypassing sanctions-hit Russia. So according to some Kyrgyz officials the clashes on Tajik and Kyrgyz borders started after the signing of the agreement about the construction of the railway-plausibly as a warning about the discontent of Russia, which throughout the history of the Central Asian countries has tried to make the region as economically dependent as possible. Moreover the President of Tadjikistan Emomali Rahmon wouldn’t invade into territory of Kyrgyzstan without Putin’s support.

If the first group of people considering that two countries are in this battle because of Russian tactics, the second group of people like the Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation Alexei Chepa noting that the cause of this conflict lies not only in unresolved disputes between the two countries. They suppose the external forces, primarily enemies of Russia, have decided to take advantage of the situation and create conflicts in the region. As they use the internal problems of Tajikistan and the conflict situation with Afghanistan, where the United States left a huge amount of weapons and a certain contingent of troops. And all this are aimed at using conflicts to further discredit Russia. We see this in the example of conflicts arising in Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan and in some countries of the Caucasus.

This conflict would repeatedly escalate and next time would lead more death of civilians until the demarcation and delimitation of Kyrgyz-Tajik borders process would be finished and signed. This kind of military battles can lead to the unleashing of a large-scale interstate conflict, as well as to the destabilization of the situation in the Central Asian region as well.

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Central Asia

Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

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On September 15 and 16, 2022, the extended format of participants of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are scheduled to meet in Samarkand, the ancient Silk Road Karavansarai in Uzbekistan. SCO —founded in 2001— is the first international organization founded by Beijing. It started as the Shanghai Five with the task of demarcating borders between China and its Central Asian neighbors: Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Russia, and Tajikistan, following the breakup of the Soviet Union. The meeting in Samarkand marks the 21st Head of State summit of this organization, which is growing in international importance. All Heads of member states have confirmed their attendance.

SCO came to the attention of Washington policy makers, when Vladimir Putin used it as a vehicle to set a timeline on U.S. bases in Central Asia there to support operations in Afghanistan. Through direct engagement of President Bush with Chinese President Hu Jintao, this deadline was not repeated in the communique of the following year. This demonstrated Beijing’s unwillingness to have an open rift with Washington and made clear China’s leadership of the organization. Beijing’s interest in preventing anti-American statements has changed in the last 17 years. With the return of Great Power Competition in the Washington-Beijing relationship, who leads the SCO and what is on its agenda should be of considerable interest in Washington.

The SCO is no longer just a talk-shop between Russia and China with its Central Asian neighbors, but is now expanding to the Gulf, South Asia, South East Asia, and the Caucasus. The expanded membership of the SCO makes up 24% of the global GDP, more than half that of the G7 and more than that of the European Union in 2020. SCO’s expanded participant list accounts for 44% of the global population.

If those seeking membership status at the upcoming meeting in Samarkand achieve their goal, the SCO will include in its ranks: Azerbaijan and Armenia who recently fought a war in Nagorno-Karabakh; Saudi Arabia and Iran, competitors over the direction of the Gulf; and current members India and Pakistan, historic adversaries. Afghanistan and Mongolia are currently observer states in the organization. Partner countries of the organization are Azerbaijan, Armenia, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkey, and Sri Lanka. The status of dialogue partner state will likely be granted to Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in September. Bahrain and Maldives are next in line for the latter status.

In 2005, the US had an opportunity to pursue observer status with the SCO. Those who supported it, saw it as opportunity for the US to shape this organization and for Afghanistan to reconnect with its neighbors with American support. Others thought our being an observer of the SCO would lend legitimacy to this nascent organization. Yet, overtime, flaws in the latter stance surfaced and was repeated by the Obama Administration’s failed attempt to isolate China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

In a vote on April 7 for the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, Turkey was the only participant in the expanded SCO out of 18 countries that voted in favor of the resolution. Of the member states, all voted against the resolution, with India and Pakistan abstaining.

For members of the SCO, energy highlights their importance on the global stage and is a tool used in their foreign policy. Following the 2022 summit, SCO states, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, among others, will account for over half of the world’s oil production annually.

Until 2020, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization played a largely regional role for China, the heart of which was Central Asia. Initially reluctant, the recent rapid expansion of the SCO shows that China realigned the organization from a regional one, to one capable of implementing its global ambitions.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gained greater significance with the outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine, where an economically weaker Russia can turn to China, a partner with no limits and its leadership over the SCO.

At the 2022 Boao Forum, President Xi restated the goal of the 2021 SCO Dushanbe Declaration, where he articulated a world order not directed by the West. At this same summit, SCO members approved Iran’s membership despite international sanctions after a 15 year waiting period. Xi articulated in a flourish, calling it a community of a common destiny of mankind.

This has echoes of Chairman Mao’s vision of world relations, dating back to the 1970s. In meetings with Dr. Kissinger, Mao posited that imperialism and hegemony violate the world order. Instead, China should expand into what is now known as the Global South, including countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia. China’s mission lives on and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is becoming its vehicle.

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