The New Year’s attack on the upscale Reina nightclub in central Istanbul that killed 39 and injured some 70 people is still under intense investigation. The gunman took advantage of the confusion and managed to escape with the fleeing crowd. As the world awoke to news of yet another terror attack in Turkey, speculation began to grip the media about the possible identity and motive of the gunman.
The so-called Islamic State claimed responsibility the following day describing the attacker as “a heroic soldier of the caliphate [who] struck one of the most famous nightclubs where the Christians celebrate their apostate holiday.” The Turkish Hurriyet Daily News first reported that the perpetrator of the terror attack arrived in Turkey via Syria and that the Turkish police was detaining Uzbek and Kyrgyz citizens living in the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul, providing an indication to the attacker’s national origin.
Conflicting reports have emerged since then regarding the nationality of the attacker, but the possibility that he was of Central Asian descent raises questions about the region’s contribution to filling the so-called Islamic State’s ranks. Figures indicate that at least a thousand fighters from the former Soviet Central Asian Republics have joined the terrorist organization in recent years.
Central Asia does not have a history of being a hotbed for Islamic Radicalism. Despite sharing a border with Afghanistan, the Central Asian republics, at least at the state level, do not promote Islamist agendas and remain secular. Their state bodies are stable and fairly effective, if not heavily restrained by corruption. This region has seen relatively few longstanding armed conflicts and respectable HDI (Human Development Index) scores for emerging economies. Statistically, from 2001-2013, there have been three terror attacks in the entire region which claimed a total of 11 lives. These characteristics ultimately beg the question: why has ISIS been so successful at recruiting fighters from this part of the world?
A Brief History
Radical Islamism in Central Asia first grew into a movement which loosely resembles modern extremism during the Soviet era. Naturally, the state religion of the Soviet Union was Atheism; a policy which was not received well in the majority Sunni Muslim people of what was then called Russian Turkestan. Islam, being well ingrained in the region’s fabric of daily life, began to be summarily repressed by Soviet authorities. While the often brutal religious repression was not unique to followers of Islam, it did have unintended consequences for the future of the region.
With mosques being either shut or destroyed throughout the region, worship had to be adapted to a system where that physical act was prohibited. Figures show that the number of functioning mosques in the region declined from approximately 26,000 in 1912 to about 1,000 by 1941. While these places were being shuttered, well established moderate Muslim leaders were also first to be silenced by being barred from holding political office or any position of power. Particularly influential leaders were also jailed by the security forces. This created a unique dynamic where the most radical Imams and preachers continued to spread their beliefs through makeshift underground mosques, while moderate voices were suppressed.
The end of Soviet rule in the region did not necessarily bring an end to this system. Although Islam was finally allowed to be practiced in the open, the respective governments of Central Asia continued to operate with Soviet style secularism. Many of the new presidents held leadership posts in their respective nations’ communist parties. Instead of using atheism as a reason to suppress dissent, it became common to label any legitimate political opposition as Islamic radicals and terrorists, particularly after the global war on terror commenced in the early 2000s. This was best demonstrated during the events in Andijan, Uzbekistan, where hundreds of protesters were indiscriminately shot at and killed by Uzbek security forces. The protests started in part due to the Government’s arrest of 23 local businessmen on trumped up charges of extremism. The government also blamed the tragedy itself on a nefarious network of extremists known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Ultimately, the threat of extremism is currently being used as justification to keep repressive regimes in power.
As far as actual extremism in the region is concerned, there has been little evidence of extensive well-coordinated terror cells capable of large attacks within Central Asia. However, the widespread availability and use of the internet coupled with the proclamation of the so-called Islamic State as a caliphate by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in 2014 created an outlet for Central Asian extremists to achieve abroad what they could not at home. The terror group’s strong online presence made it possible for loosely coordinated groups and even individuals with jihadi ambitions to coordinate and fall in line under a single banner of extremism.
Another possible avenue for the radicalization of Central Asians by extremists is through the targeting of migrant workers. Twenty percent of the Uzbek population works abroad, mostly in Russia, sending remittances to their families back home. While not uniform across all of Central Asia, it is safe to say that the numbers of migrant workers are proportionally similar across the region. Russia has experienced Islamic extremism in many forms. It fought two wars in Chechnya as well as faced an extremist insurgency in several regions of the Caucasus. Russia has seen about 2,700 fighters leave to fight with ISIS, arguably the largest contributor in Europe. There is clearly a well-developed extremist network operating in Russia. It is not inconceivable to see Central Asian extremists taking advantage of these networks. There have not been many studies looking into this potential dynamic, but it could serve as an important source of additional fighters for the caliphate.
ISIS has even started to crack the surface of government bodies in the region. Colonel Gulmurod Khalimov, the Tajikistan Interior Ministry’s head of police special forces defected to ISIS in 2015. Mr. Khalimov’s radicalization came as a shock to Tajik authorities who ordered an immediate investigation into his department. This event perhaps came as a bigger shock to the United States State Department, which sponsored Mr. Khalimov in five combat training courses in the US and in Tajikistan, all the while passing the State Department’s vetting procedures. Appearing in an ISIS propaganda video, Khalimov addressed the Tajik authorities, speaking in Russian: “Listen, you dogs, the president and ministers, if only you knew how many boys, our brothers are here, waiting and yearning to return to reestablish sharia law there.”
Beyond the Caliphate
Despite a sophisticated recruitment network, ISIS is currently fighting an increasingly defensive war. The terrorist group is losing territory on all fronts to Turkish backed Syrian rebels, to Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah backed Syrian government forces, and to coalition backed Iraqi government forces and militias. Its once plentiful source of oil wealth has recently started to dry up and thus, the appeal to join arms with the terror organization from extremists worldwide has decreased. Should the situation on the ground continue to deteriorate for ISIS, the world should prepare for what may come after the group’s likely defeat.
The group’s strategy is already changing and adapting. Like the abovementioned attack on Istanbul and attacks on European cities like Paris, Nice, and Berlin, it seems that the group appears to be encouraging attacks against softer targets. These attacks are usually either done by naturalized extremists in their respective countries or by taking advantage of mass refugee migration to send fighters across borders. Not only does this present a challenge to European security forces, but it also points to what may happen should defeated fighters return home.
Despite the propaganda nature of Gulmurod Khalimov’s video, his threats are not empty. Central Asia must prepare for a reality where thousands of battle hardened extremists return home radicalized with a violent version of Islam. The region must decide how to treat returning extremists. Should they treat them with typical Soviet style heavy-handedness or find a way to reintegrate them into society? Should Central Asian nations cooperate with each other to attempt to prevent their return altogether? Either way, decisions have to be made because it is clear that the region’s current attitude towards radicalism is not adequate considering what may be on the horizon.
Greater Eurasia: New Great Game formulate abundant possibilities for Central Asia
The title “New Great Game” became the most conversed topic in the contemporary realm of global politics. The heart of the Eurasian continent, the Central Asian region, already witnessed a colonial battle between Russian and Britain. The position of Geopolitical status more fueled up the conflict. The Great Game furnished an unpleasant impact on the entire Central Asian region; it grasps by the Russian empire. Russia’s century-long predominance over the Central Asia region concluded with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, it nevertheless has a massive impact over the countries of Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Following centuries, they were preceding reappeared different New Grete Game, where the foremost global power countries have engaged. The internal scenario of central Asian states is struggling over hegemonic power. Subsequently, the central Asian nations are well equipped with natural resources like oil, gas like Kazakhstan’s largest uranium producer, that attracts all major countries to penetrate in Central Asia.
The New Great Game impacted both as constraint and opportunity in Central Asia. The central Asian states are adopted the multi-vector approach to the foreign policy due to landlocked country. So, the developed countries are offered various development schemes in the region. Currently, three major powers are Russia, US and China compete with each other to become a prominent player in Central Asia. Every nation is looking for their interest through the region. Nowadays, Washington mostly engaged in the New Great Game, after the US entered in Afghanistan, and it required Central Asian states cooperation to expand the authority of NATO in Eurasian land. Although, following the attack on 9/11, the US mostly keep eyes on terrorism activities and central Asian states are becoming significant for security purpose. Moscow always indeed to the presence in Central Asian internal politics and seems to maintain its status quo. Russia always considered the Central Asian states as his campaign, with the significant military, economic and political influence. Moscow consistently rated Central Asian nations as “soft underbelly”. Russian culture, music, food highly incorporated with Central Asian states, but Moscow seems fallen the economic competition with Beijing. China is somewhat successful in pushing Russian influence in Central Asia.
China expands its control over in the pecuniary sector, Dragon becoming larger trade partner and investor in that region. China’s visionary project ‘Belt and Road initiative’ and China’s strategy to influence and grow its economic power over the Eurasian continent required Central Asian states linear involvement. China shared more than 3000 k.m of the direct border with CA, this is an opportunity for China to enhance its strength and became more dominant rather than other countries. Central Asia is a crucial component in the Geopolitical puzzle. The abundant of natural resource in CA is the primary purpose behind for more intense of New Great Game. The Caspian Sea contains a large amount of natural resource. The superpower countries followed up the pathway of the dependency model, and they create opportunity with precisely inside their acquisition. The new Great Game change the notion of Geopolitics on a broader level. China is steadily expanding its influence over the Eurasian mainland with hegemonic expansion over the south china sea. There is an appearance of another cold war (economic domain) between China and the US; both countries headed for intense competition for global supremacy. That’s why central Asia states played an essential function to determine immense superiority over the Eurasian landmass. All these countries participated in New Great Game implemented the soft power and made an effort to pull Central Asian nations through proffering opportunities. The central Asian States compensated relishes the possibility, although faced reluctance from significant players. The potential development of the Central Asian Region endures the growth of the Eurasian continent.
Territorial Disputes in Central Asia: Myths and Reality
One of the focal points of any state foreign policy is the issue of territorial disputes, irrespective of its geographical size, economic opportunities or geopolitical ambitions. At the same time, in the modern world, the scenario of the use of force as a possible option for China to resolve territorial disputes in Central Asia is hardly probable. None of the parties, including neighboring countries, are interested in intensifying territorial claims and initiating a real conflict. Despite the apparent advantages, a guaranteed response from the international community jeopardizes all benefits for the potential aggressor (for example, Beijing) from possible territorial acquisitions. In addition, the system of control and monitoring has been formed in the region with the direct participation of Russia. The guarantors of the system are, in particular, the SCO and the CSTO; the latter one has a sufficiently deterrent effect on the capacity of regional players to demonstrate invasive intentions.
Meanwhile, the international community developed a civilized way to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic means such as long-term leasing of land, the creation of joint jurisdictions, etc. China has experience of transferring territories, for example, the 99-year lease of Hong Kong by the United Kingdom or the recognition of Macao as “Chinese territory under Portuguese administration” followed by the signing of the joint Declaration on the question of Macao. Since China became a successful economic power, Beijing has preferred to resolve territorial disputes through diplomatic instruments, rather than from a position of strength.
It should be pointed out that implementing its Belt and Road Initiative, China has never presented it as a charity project. Moreover, the initial goal was the development of the Central and Western regions of China. All foreign countries participating in the initiative expressed their desire to join it on the terms of mutually beneficial development. By accepting China’s offers and agreeing to its loans and investment projects, any of the countries had the opportunity to assess the risks and not participate in them, or to make a choice and develop their own economy on the terms of other financial institutions, such as Western ones. In this case, China acts in the Central Asian region like most major powers interested in strengthening their positions and promoting their political, economic and humanitarian agenda.
Possible allegations of Beijing concluding economic contracts on bonded terms should also be addressed to officials of the “affected” countries who agreed to these proposals from the Chinese side. At the same time, if it appears that one of the parties has not acted in its national interests, this is more a problem of the internal state structure of a particular country and its attitude to the work of its own officials, and to a much lesser extent – a claim to the development of bilateral relations with China.
It is also necessary to distinguish the official position of the state from the statements of individuals who often act in their own interests. For example, an article with the title “Why Kazakhstan seeks to return to China,” which is given as an example in the publication “Land leases and territorial claims of China in Central Asia and the South Caucasus,” was written by an anonymous blogger with just over 80 thousand subscribers (insignificant number according to the Chinese standards). An analysis of how the news was spread geographically by international media, as well as the contents of official statements, confirms the opinion of experts-sinologists that it was an attempt to gain popularity and “collect likes,” and has nothing in common with the official position of Beijing.
Another example of using the foreign policy agenda in the internal political struggle is the statement of the leader of the opposition party of Tajikistan, R. Zoirov, who accused China of moving the borderline 20 kilometers deeper into the territory of Tajikistan.
On the eve of the presidential elections in 2013, Tajikistan’s opposition once again tried to “accuse authorities of surrendering land to China” in the framework of the 2002 border demarcation agreement. China claimed 28 thousand square kilometers of Tajikistan’s territory, but as a result of the negotiations, it received just over 1 thousand square kilometers of high-altitude land unsuitable for life, without proven volumes of large deposits. The results of negotiations can be evaluated in different ways, but each country has the right to seek convenient forms of dispute resolution and debt repayment. In addition, this agreement was ratified by the government of Tajikistan only in 2011. The official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Tajikistan described the statement of the opposition as a provocation, due to the fact that the author acts in his own interest. Later, it was revealed that Zoirov’s statement refers to 2011 and was “made two years ago and published just now.” According to R. Zoirov, he determined the distance to the border based on the statements of local residents. The official authorities of Tajikistan, China, Russia and other regional powers ignored information about China’s occupation of Tajikistan’s territory as unreliable.
Recognizing the high public sensitivity of transferring land from one state to repay credit obligations to another, it is necessary to proceed from the analysis of the contents of specific international agreements, the motives for signing them by current authorities, and the national interests of the parties involved. Otherwise, one is likely to discover a distorted interpretation of key events in line with the populist rhetoric of an unknown blogger or to be the recipient of information propaganda carried out by major powers competing for regional influence.
From our partner RIAC
From Central Asia to the Black Sea
In early June, China unveiled a new transportation corridor when a rail cargo of 230 tons of electrical appliances worth some $2,6 million arrived in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Though distant from the South Caucasus, the development nevertheless has a direct impact on the geopolitics of the South Caucasus energy and transport corridor.
For centuries, Central Asia has been notorious for the lack of connectivity. Highways, railroads and pipelines were solely directed northwards towards Russian heartland. Geography also constrained the development of alternatives, but the problem is that other routes were also purposefully neglected during the Soviet times. Therefore, nowadays breaking these geographical boundaries equals to decreasing Russian influence in Central Asia.
Indeed, over the past 30 years, crucial changes have taken place where newly developed east-west transport links (from China to Central Asia, then South Caucasus) allow the region to be more integrated with the outside world. The primary motivator for this is China. The country strives to involve itself into the region’s economics and politics and, specifically, build ties with arguably the region’s most important geopolitical player – Uzbekistan. Beijing has already taken several important steps. For instance, China has become Uzbekistan’s top economic partner through growing trade and direct investment. Take the most recent example, Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) will lend $100 million to Uzbekistan to help deal with the coronavirus pandemic and future public health disasters.
The new China-Uzbekistan corridor is some 295 km shorter and cuts five days off the standard 15 days-corridor which goes through Kazakhstan and Russia to reach Europe. As different forecasts indicate, the Kazakhstan-Russia corridor could lose some 10-15% of Chinese freight per year to the new China-Uzbekistan route – a significant number considering the massive amount of goods that move between between Europe and China.
What is crucial here is that the only viable route to ship freight to Europe from Uzbekistan is across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, Georgia and the Black Sea. Another possibility would be sending goods via the Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, then Iran and Turkey. However general insecurity along this route makes the Caspian option more promising.
These infrastructure changes in distant Central Asia as well as steady growth of shipments from China will further boost the fragile South Caucasus transport and energy corridor, which struggles to compete with enormous trade routes which go through Russia and elsewhere.
What makes the Caspian routes more interesting is the progress made in port development in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The ports of Baku and a small city of Alat have notably improved their infrastructure over the past several years. Located to the south of Baku, Alat is particularly promising as an estimated transshipment of the new port complex is potentially up to 25 million tons of cargo and 1 million TEU per year.
Similar trends of improving infrastructure take place along the rest of the South Caucasus corridor. In March, the Georgian government granted the APM Terminals a permit to start the expansion of Potin port. Essentially the project, which will add more than 1000 local jobs, involves the construction of a separate new deep-water multifunctional port (officially still a part of Poti port).
The project consists of two major phases: first stage of $250 million will take nearly 2-2,5 years to complete and will involve the development of a 1 700-meter-long breakwater and a quay with a depth of 13.5 meters. A 400-meter-long multifunctional quay for processing dry bulk cargo and further 150 000 TEUs will be added; the second stage envisages a 300-meter-long container quay. If all goes as planned, 1 million TEU yearly container capacity could be expected. What is more important for the infrastructure of the eastern Black Sea region and the geopolitics of transcontinental transshipment, the expanded Poti port would have the capacity to receive Panamax vessels.
Expansion of Poti will have regional implications. The port already enjoys the role of the largest gateway in the country and a major outlet for Azerbaijan’s and Armenia’s trade with Europe. For instance, liquids, passenger ferries, dry bulk and container traffic go through Poti. Moreover, Poti port also serves as an alternative route for exporting wheat from Central Asia to the Black Sea and elsewhere.
As the work on the Poti expansion speeds up similar developments are taking place in Batumi. In 2019 Wondernet Express, Trammo and the government of Georgia announced plans to build a new terminal with total investment cap of 17,5 million euros. More importantly, the new facility will store up to 60 000 tons of mineral fertilizers coming from Central Asia through Azerbaijan.
From a wider geopolitical perspective, both port expansions enjoy US government support as American business interests are deeply intertwined. PACE terminals, a company which operates in the port of Poti for almost 30 years, is partially owned by a US-based company. This connection raises a possible longer-term vision of Poti’s and Batumi’s development as gateways not only for Georgia, but generally for the South Caucasus and Central Asia.
Overall, these connectivity trends will reinvigorate Trans-Caspian shipping. Moreover, though considered by many as unrealistic, the dormant Trans-Caspian Pipeline (TCP), could gain traction. There is more to the story. I have mentioned the US support for the Georgian ports. Europe and Turkey share an identical position. All parties are interested in breaking Russia’s grip on gas export routes from Central Asia. Support for the east-west corridor across the South Caucasus has been present since the break-up of the Soviet Union, but rarely there have been such promising trends as there are now: steadily increasing China-Europe shipping; Chinese Belt and Road Initiative’s expansion into Central Asia; gradually improving rail-road and ports infrastructure in Georgia and Azerbaijan.
On a negative side, much still remains to be done. For instance, in Kyrgyzstan, through which the new China-Uzbekistan route goes, Chinese cargo has to be shipped by road which complicates shipment operations. Nearly the entire 400 km of the Kyrgyz section of the railway still needs to be built. So far, no solution is in sight as difficult mountainous landscape and Russian opposition complicate the issue. But the overall picture, nevertheless, is clear. Central Asia is gradually opening up, shipment across the Caspian increases and the expansion of the Georgian ports takes place creating a line of connectivity.
Author’s note: first published in Caucasuswatch
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