Central Asian countries experience diverse intersecting influences: they feel changes in the situation in the Caucasus, in the Xinjiang autonomous territory of China, in Afghanistan and the Middle East. Militants from various terrorist groups in the region cooperate, many of them fighting in Syria and Iraq. But the biggest threat to Central Asia’s security is the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban provide organisational and logistics support to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Despite sustaining a significant blow, with its main groups squeezed out of the region, it still maintains a presence in the form of underground groups that could become active at any time, joining forces with the radical Tajik opposition and Uyghur separatists. Cells of the Islamic State (ISIS) (a terrorist organisation banned in Russia) also operate in the region.
Kazakhstan: Effective Peacekeeping Measures
The main conduits of terrorist ideology in Kazakhstan are Islamist movements and organisations. In order to minimise their effect on people’s minds, the Kazakhstan government has undertaken a number of measures to improve religious education and ensure society’s spiritual development.
A special body, the Agency for Religious Affairs, was established for this purpose in 2011. Another step was the screening of over 9,000 web portals, which led to 51 foreign sites being banned in Kazakhstan for promoting extremism and terrorism.
Terrorist activity in Kazakhstan has an important international political dimension. Members of Uyghur extremist organisations are active in the country. Some experts note the possibility of a merger between Kazakh underground forces and Uyghur separatists. Uyghur terrorist organisations are quite powerful. There is also the risk that terrorist groups established in oil-rich areas of the Caspian and northeastern Kazakhstan and the spread of jihadist ideology there could jeopardise China’s future interests in the region.
A new trend is for radical Islamists to engage increasingly in crime while ordinary criminals are themselves turning to radical Islamism, particularly in western Kazakhstan. Prisons have become breeding grounds for Islamic extremism (as in Kyrgyzstan and some Russian regions). All prisons in Kazakhstan have turned “green,” which is the term for institutions informally controlled by Islamists (as opposed to “black” prisons, which are controlled by traditional criminals, and “red” ones, where the prison administration is in full control).
The authorities are stepping up their fight against terrorism. In 2016–2017, many extremists in the country were arrested, including those with connections to criminal circles and illegal schemes (such as oil theft in western Kazakhstan).
In 2018, the National Security Committee of Kazakhstan developed a state programme for countering religious extremism and terrorism in Kazakhstan for 2018–2022. It will be funded out of the national and local budgets, as well as other funds not prohibited per Kazakhstan law. Budgetary spending on the programme will total almost 287 bn tenges (USD 747 bn).
The programme calls for border control, identification and blocking of channels used by religious extremists and terrorists for entering the Republic of Kazakhstan and importing prohibited materials into the country, including involving illegal immigration and counterfeit documents. It also provides for training law-enforcement officers and improving the facilities and infrastructure for local police inspectors.
The measures taken by Kazakhstan to counter terrorism, as well as the government’s policy of tolerance towards all religions and nationalities, is generally helping to maintain security in the country.
Tajikistan: Situation Under Control So Far
In recent years, the Tajik government has stepped up its efforts to counter extremist groups.
As in the other countries of the region, the main recruiting platform used by ISIS (a terrorist organisation banned in Russia) in Tajikistan is the Internet. There are some 3 million Internet users in Tajikistan, 80 per cent of them accessing extremist content through social media either deliberately or accidentally.
During their meeting in May 2018, President of Tajikistan Emomali Rahmon and President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko expressed their commitment to strengthening cooperation in the fight against terrorism, extremism, drug trafficking and the illegal arms trade. In October 2019, Tajikistan hosted a joint military exercise of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) member states, “Indestructible Brotherhood 2019.” One of the components of that exercise, according to Commander of the Central Military District of the Russian Federation, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin, consisted of antiterrorist operations.
Tajikistan is a tension hotspot in Central Asia in terms of religious extremism and terrorism. A particular source of danger is neighbouring Afghanistan, where about 60 per cent of the lands along the frontier are engulfed in clashes between government forces and the Taliban and other radical Islamist groups.
At the same time, there is almost no security along the Afghan-Tajik border, including the issue of drug trafficking. The local Tajik forces supporting border guards are scant, especially since the Kulob Regiment was relocated from the 201st Russian military base to Dushanbe. Yet the government has so far managed to control the situation.
Uzbekistan: Iron-Fisted Control
The Uzbek government traditionally pursues a rigorous policy in countering religious extremism and terrorism. At the same time, extremist entities in Uzbekistan (especially the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU]) are the strongest and most aggressive in the region. The IMU has proven to be a long-term threat and is currently cooperating with Al Qaeda and the Pakistani terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba. In the late 1990s, the IMU consisted of several hundred Uzbek and Tajik militants. In contrast, today it includes hundreds of thousands of militants from all the Central Asian countries, as well as China, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Chechnya.
The ultimate reasons for the rise in extremism in Uzbekistan lie in its political, socioeconomic and inter-ethnic problems, which are especially typical of the most populated areas of the Fergana Valley. The Fergana and Karategin valleys are still convenient platforms for covert terrorist activity.
One landmark event was the signing of a joint comprehensive action plan for 2018–2019 to counter the online activities of extremist and terrorist groups (code name Clean Net) between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
Uzbek authorities and security forces have the situation in the country under control.
Kyrgyzstan: Bad Influence from Neighbours
Extremist groups traditionally threaten the southern part of Kyrgyzstan from neighbouring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. One reason is the country’s weak law enforcement. The extremists are mostly members of the Uzbek diaspora, while ethnic Kyrgyz are less involved, primarily owing to a low level of Islamisation.
Yet the Kyrgyz have begun to fall under the influence of pseudo-educational groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir (which does not formally pursue military action but is included in the lists of terrorist organisations maintained by the security services of key global states).
A new trend has emerged in recent years with Jihadist groups forced out from Kyrgyzstan starting to exert an influence on Salafi jamaats in the country. Once in prison, members of these organisations are sometimes reported to convert their cellmates into loyal supporters in a short time.
The latest terrorist operation was the suicide bombing attack near the Chinese embassy building in Bishkek.
Since then, however, the Kyrgyz authorities have stepped up their fight against religious extremism and the influence of various Salafi movements, which is a somewhat positive trend.
According to the United Nations, the number of people convicted of terrorism and religious extremism in Kyrgyzstan has increased 5.3-fold, from 79 in 2010 to 422 in 2017. One in five of these is a woman.
The Ministry of the Interior of Kyrgyzstan reports that 4,470 people, including 865 women, were convicted of extremist crimes from January to April 2018 alone.
In early October 2018, a Financial Monitoring Service was set up under the Ministry of Finance and Economics to fulfil tasks envisaged by the Law of the Republic of Kazakhstan “On Countering Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism.”
Earlier, during a visit by the President of Russia to Turkmenistan in 2017, the two countries agreed to continue exerting joint efforts in fighting terrorism and the illicit drug trade.
In mid-November 2019, consultations were held in Ashgabat on cooperation between CIS countries in countering terrorism. Representatives of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Armenia discussed possible ways of expanding joint antiterrorist activities within the framework of international organisations.
The participants also exchanged views on preventive measures against extremism, radicalisation of the population and financing of terrorism, noting the importance of engaging civil society and the media to increase the impact.
Specialised training was also considered, including on the use of modern technologies to mount a timely response against potential threats.
All this shows that Turkmenistan is adopting a more aggressive antiterrorist policy.
Central Asian countries have recently stepped up the fight against terrorism and extremism, as can be seen from the lack of overt terrorist activities in the last three years. This means they need to pursue closer cooperation with one another and with Russia, as well as with the OSCE and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) to continue the fight against extremism.
OSCE forces can already be used to resolve issues caused by the increase in terrorist activity on the periphery of Afghanistan. A Working Group on Afghanistan has been set up for this purpose under the Council of Foreign Ministers of the CSTO. It analyses the situation and elaborates proposals for promoting the post-conflict restoration of Afghanistan, including by countering the drug trafficking and terrorist threats emanating from the country.
A Coordination Council of the Heads of Competent Authorities for Countering Illicit Drug Trafficking has been established under the OSCE, with a specific mandate to eliminate drugs based on Afghan opiates. Joint work is underway to create and strengthen anti-drug and financial “security belts” around Afghanistan and to augment mechanisms for putting a stop to drug trafficking as part of operation Kanal (Channel).
Even so, the OSCE forces need to be strengthened, and a better legal framework is required for their use. The main forces available to the OSCE in the Afghan direction are the Collective Rapid Deployment Forces (CRDF) and the Collective Rapid Response Forces (CRRF). Exercises carried out by the CRDF and CRRF focus on reflecting potential invasion by the Taliban and by Taliban-supported extremist and terrorist groups from the south. Escalation of the situation around Afghanistan may require the OSCE’s military tools to be strengthened (greater numbers, more equipment, more frequent joint exercises).
A crucial decision could be to turn the OSCE into a focal point for international efforts for resolving problems related to Afghanistan. This might require creating regional coalitions between the OSCE and other international entities, both post-Soviet (SCO) and Euro-Atlantic (the EU and NATO), to counter the terrorist threat in Central Asia.
As regards cooperation with Euro-Atlantic actors, this should be based on the “selective partnership” principle, i.e., it should not compromise Russia’s interests in other areas where it has disagreements with the West. It would be reasonable to establish coalitions not between individual states but between regional organisations, using a network model (i.e., with cooperation primarily along the lines of individual programmes), which could provide for more flexible threat responses.
As for the SCO, it would make sense to strengthen its Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) based in Tashkent. Another step to consider might consist of dedicating standing units under the SCO to counter drug trafficking and extremism. Also worth researching is the feasibility of a joint police force and its potential organisational structure.
Antiterrorist efforts should address the financing of terrorism in particular. Terrorists trade drugs to get their hands on considerable funds so the “anti-drug belt” around Afghanistan (the leading global source of opiates) must be strengthened.
Other financing channels used by terrorists and extremists must also be blocked. For example, a recent trend is the financing of terrorist organisations through ordinary shops selling groceries and household goods and passing on the profits to terrorists. It is often quite challenging to track the use of a shop’s profits.
To summarise, the scenario unfolding in Central Asia is not a critical one, the governments of the region are in control of the situation, and the region will remain stable in the coming years.
From our partner RIAC
COVID-19 Pandemic May Result in a Long-term Human Development Crisis in Central Asia
The COVID-19 pandemic can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on education and human capital, economic and social development in Central Asian countries, where schoolchildren and students make up nearly half of the overall population, warned World Bank experts at an online briefing held today for regional media, experts, academia, and development community in the region. The crisis threatens to deprive this generation of future earnings, as it pushes a large share of Central Asian students into functional illiteracy – inability to read, write, and do math at a level necessary to be productive, World Bank estimates.
Before the pandemic, education across Central Asia was already suffering from low learning levels, as the countries struggled to eliminate learning poverty, distribute equal opportunities to poor learners, and promote inclusion. Students across the region performed 1.5 years below the average of Europe, i.e. an average student in Central Asia was a year and a half behind their peer in Europe. Many students in the region also performed significantly below functional literacy, according to the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Learning inequality is of particular concern, with the gap between students from various income levels widening due to a number of factors, including differential access to distance learning for teachers and students, teaching support, access to teaching and learning materials at home, and household contribution to home schooling. According to PISA, in Kazakhstan, children from the poorest families were one year behind their peers, while in the Kyrgyz Republic poor students were 2.5 years behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the learning deficiencies, with school closures impacting already marginalized groups, including students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds, learners with disabilities and minorities.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is dealing a blow to education and learning so destructive we will feel its negative effects for decades to come, including $44 billion in economic loss in Central Asia alone, and this is not our most pessimistic scenario,” said Ayesha Vawda, Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank in Central Asia during the event. “Central Asian countries took swift action to deliver emergency learning via multiple channels and modes. Now is the time for governments to respond in a way that lays the foundation of the new education system – one that is high quality, resilient and equitable”.
During the briefing, the World Bank stressed that education needs to be at the forefront of the national recovery plans in Central Asia. The countries need to protect education budgets, improve the quality of distance learning, allow flexibility in the curricula to focus on competencies and skills instead of knowledge, empower teachers with effective remediation strategies and with diagnostic and formative assessments and increased instruction time to allow recovery of learning losses.
As teachers become more aware of the learning, and learning loss of each child, remedial education plans will need to be developed. Special attention will need to be given to those students who have suffered the most during the school closures. The countries also need to develop digital skills amongst students, youth and teachers and increase teacher-student interaction on different distance learning platforms to better respond to the needs of the continuing crises.
“The World Bank in Central Asia and globally has always put special focus on education and building human capital, understanding too well that these investments bring the highest dividends,” said Lilia Burunciuc, World Bank Regional Director for Central Asia. “Currently, we have adapted three education projects in the region to respond to COVID: in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Uzbekistan. Through these projects, we were able to mobilize some support for emergency and remote learning. For instance, in Kazakhstan this includes monitoring distance learning and provision of digital equipment for rural teachers”.
Tajik opposition movement
Once fractured Tajik opposition has joined forces in Warsaw to challenge the regime in Dushanbe. Early September 2018, an opposition coalition of four Tajik dissident parties and organisations (the Forum of Tajik Freethinkers, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), the Association of Central Asian Migrants, and the People’s Movement “Reforms and Development in Tajikistan) formed an alliance to fight the regime from the outside.
But is the political mobilization strong enough to resonate in their native Tajikistan?
Outside of this geographically challenging and historically conflict-ridden state (ed. from 1992 to 1997, Tajikistan was shattered by a deadly civil war), the stories of dissidents rarely receive international attention. The regime, already shaken by the 2012 Uprising in Khorog and the Islamic State threat, is determined to silence dissenting voices outside the country, and to overthrow foes as fast as they show up.
In Russia, several members of the dissident movement Group 24 had been detained, kidnapped or extradited to Tajikistan. In Turkey, a founder of the group was killed and his family poisoned.
Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch said that the level of surveillance and activity of security services in post-Soviet republics is very high.
This case dramatizes the issue of human rights abuse in Tajikistan.
The disappearance of a young political activist Ehson Odinayev, 24, has become a symbol of a long harrowing nightmare. For several months, the Tajik KGB was on a Kafkaesque hunt after Odinayev for his ‘extremist’ social media posts. He was charged with ‘cyberterrorism’. Odinayev vanished without a trace on May 19, 2015.
The regime visited vengeance on the dissidents also outside of Russia.
In March 2015 in Istanbul, the leader of Group 24 Umarali Quvvatov was gunned down, and his family members poisoned. Shabnam Khudaidodova suffered brutal torture after she was detained in Belarus. Only enormous pressure from human rights organizations- including appeals from Human Rights Watch- saved her from extradition. Or from disappearance.
International organizations, admittedly, have few appealing options for stopping the repressions. Denunciations from Human Rights, Freedom House or Amnesty International have failed to affect the government’s position on dissidents. And placing economic sanctions would only aggravate an already charged situation, and drive the authoritarian ruler further in the arms of Russia and/ or China.
So far there is not much sign of the fresh dawn for any major change for the downfall of the out-of-touch autocrats.
Kazakhstan: How to Invent a Successful Foreign Policy
When country after country became an independent state in the five decades after the end of the Second World War, its leaders discovered that in addition to all the other urgent needs pressing on them, economic, social, organizational, they were also supposed to have a foreign policy. Any government could purchase some buildings in the capitals of the foreign countries that seemed most important and install ambassadors in them, but a foreign policy cannot be made by ambassadors each going his own way. There have to be non-contradictory guidelines that all can follow derived from the government’s definition of a foreign policy, which should itself reflect the national interest: very hard to do in any way case but more so in those states that comprised different nations.
For quite a few independent states that was just too much effort amidst their many internal difficulties.
The result was the emergence of “blocs” that shared common foreign policies with bloc-voting at the United Nations: one included most sub-Saharan African states, another the members of the Arab league, a third formed by the countries converging in the European Union, and for a while there was also a much bigger Afro-Asian bloc that gathered in Bandung. The Soviet Union of course had its own bloc which even included China for a while.
Membership in a bloc allowed governments to concentrate on more pressing internal problems while putting their foreign policy on the bloc’s autopilot, and that worked well enough until it did not: over the years, country after country found itself with unwanted enemies and uncomfortable allies, and so the blocs started dissolving. That cast many states in the cold water of world politics, in which it is easy to make costly mistakes, and hard to make choices that are advantageous.
Kazakhstan’s fate was different.
In the first place, unlike many other newly independent states, it was not suddenly cut loose on the world scene with no defined national identity, no institutional preparations, and untrained leaders.
Instead its emergence was gradual and organic. The Kazakh nation itself reached self-awareness from narrower loyalties over some four centuries, which included a calamitous struggle for survival in the eighteenth century that did much to sharpen its identity.
As for the state structure, it too emerged gradually from the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic formed at Moscow’s ordersin December 1936 , whose slow acquisition of the administrative elements of a state was not accompanied by any advance towards any form of autonomy until very much later, with the turning point only coming in December 1986 in the widespread demonstrations over the principle that the Kazakh Soviet Republic should be lead by a local Kazakh party leader. In spite of their violent repression, the principle was affirmed by the elevation of Nursultan Nazarbayev as Party leader in June 1989 and de facto head of state (Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Council) in February 1990.
By then Nazarbayev had served in administrative roles of increasing scope for many years up to the highest level as de facto prime minister (Chairman of the Council of Ministers, so that he had both the political authority and a thorough knowledge of the state apparatus by the time he asserted that Kazakhstan until then formally the Kazakh SSR was a sovereign state on October 25, 1990.
Again this was very different from the fate of other newly independent states, whose leaders went straight from the political or even violent struggle for independence to the control of the state, with little or no administrative experience—and it was the population at large that paid the price of the resulting mismanagement or worse.
Subsequent events show that Nazarbayev was able to dedicate serious thought to the country’s foreign policy, in spite of the dramatic urgency of the economic situation, and all the other pressing problems .
Paradoxically this is most clearly proven by the most important component of his domestic policy: the language question. Under the Soviet system, Russian was the language of “Soviet man” and all other languages were essentially folkloric, even if widely spoken, written and read.
Obviously that had to change but instead of simply imposing Kazakh on a multi-lingual population which would have caused enormous inconvenience, and before that acute anxieties which might in turn have destabilized society even in violent ways, Nazarbayev lead a careful progression to a language law that –crucially- was enacted in September 1989, more than a year before independence.
In retrospect, it can be seen that it was a very clever law, which, in effect, outmaneuvered the problem: it affirmed that Kazakh was the national language whose use for all purposes would be vigorously promoted, but at the same time, Russian was defined as a second official language, immediately relieving the anxieties of the substantial minority of Russian-speaking Kazakhs as well as Russians and many other Russian speakers.
That was a good compromise but it was the next component of the language law that presaged the country’s foreign policy: Nazarbayev promised that the other languages spoken in Kazakhstan would also be promoted and supported educationally, including German, Korean, Polish and several others , ranging from Lithuanian to Greek.
This message of inclusion was reinforced by an equally early opening to the country’s religions, previously repressed and then tolerated at best, but which the new Kazakhstan would not only recognize but support.
Again, Nazarbayev acted very early: on September 25 ,1989 while still nominally a Soviet leader, and concurrently with the law that guaranteed linguistic inclusion , he met with the most prominent Muslim, Orthodox, Baptist, and other religions to affirm religious inclusion as well.
The message was heard near and far: independent Kazakhstan was joining inherently pluralist international society not as a monolithic national state whether natural or made so by repression, but rather as a consciously pluralist state inherently open to the world.
This are all fine words easily proclaimed to make a good impression but in Kazakhstan’s case it was all real: the promises of inclusion were kept, and the result was that Kazakhstan was spared the inter-ethnic tensions and even violence of many if not most newly independent states.
For this the good character of the Kazakhs could claim some of the credit –it emerged in generosity in the worst of times– but Nazarbayev himself provided the leadership.
For this he could draw from his own personal experience: this author has spoken to a person who was in high school with Nazarbayev in Karaganda, in a class whose composition reflected the city’s population of Kazakhs, Germans, Poles, Jews and Russians. Nazarbayev, he says, was already a leader, not because he asserted himself, but because others wanted to follow his example.
Because Kazakhstan’s independence was preceded by its convincing message of inclusion, it evoked some goodwill from attentive foreign countries as well Russia itself emerging as a new state.
But independence must also be actively protected by a balance of power, and that is not easily achieved in any case but was an especially difficult requirement for Kazakhstan given its geographic positioning, far from the open ocean and extending between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China.
It was a heroic undertaking to overcome those truly difficult circumstances, but again Nazarbayev rose to the challenge in a manner that reflects very accurately the always paradoxical logic of strategy: Kazakhstan inherited some of the most powerful nuclear weapon systems of the USSR, and could have started off as a major nuclear power from the day of its birth. That might even have been useful to pressure other countries, initiating a cycle of conflict.
But instead Kazakhstan gained much more because Nazarbayev chose to eliminate all nuclear weapons : he wanted to build Kazakhstan as a successful state for its inhabitants, not as an aggressive nuclear power.
By unilaterally and freely giving up its nuclear weapons, Kazakhstan attracted the immediate diplomatic support of its neighbors large and small , and equally of the United States, Japan, India, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, Canada and other states large and small attentive to world affairs.
That was of crucial importance: it meant that from the start Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was not captive to its geography, and could instead develop as a multi-vector effort to reach out to the world—an effort that was duly reciprocated.
With that, Kazakhstan became an axiom of world politics, with many other countries large and small invested in its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
All that remained to complete the invention of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy was the administrative part: the selection of the most competent people available to serve as ministers, high officials and ambassadors.
That was a task which was accomplished with the particular aptitude that Nazarbayev had demonstrated even in Soviet times –when it was risky to do so– to resist nepotism, cronyism, and mediocrity , to instead choose the best.
Whatever else Nazarbayev may have accomplished, it is Kazakhstan’s successful foreign policy that reveals the quality of his leadership most clearly, as governments around the world have duly recognized, not just verbally but also substantively by eagerly participating in his peacemaking and other international initiatives. Nazarbayev’s authority, his impartiality and substantive goodwill gave birth to the “Astana format” whereby rival powers can meet in Kazakhstan with its Founding President in the chair to moderate and mitigate not only tensions but also active conflicts underway. That too enhances Kazakhstan’s role in world affairs to the benefit of its entire population.
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