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Incubators of Conflict: Central Asia’s Localised Poverty and Social Unrest


All the new Central Asian republics have weathered a catastrophic economic storm with the collapse of the Soviet economy and a subsequent array of shocks including exclusion from the rouble zone, disruptive privatisation processes, the drought of 2000 and tumbling world cotton prices. Each shows some signs of being able to improve its national economy, at least in some sectors, but one development clearly has the capacity to render all progress meaningless: in each country which is the focus of the ICG Central Asia Project — Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — there is a sharply growing disparity between the narrow elite, which benefits appreciably from privatisation and other market economic reforms, and the larger part of the population, which is being driven toward economic desperation.

Even more worrying, there are significant sub-regions and localities in each of these three countries where the situation is so dire for the vast majority of the population that patience is beginning to evaporate and unrest to grow sharply. While most Central Asians have been steadfastly passive in the face of post-Soviet upheaval, indications are increasing in some localities that a breaking point is near. If it is reached, spontaneous uprisings or organised underground political activity, increasing militancy, and a readiness to seek the overthrow of current regimes can all be anticipated. The most dangerous social force is a desperate population that has little to lose.

This report examines the deteriorating conditions affecting significant populations in specific localities across Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. One manifestation of the neglect of these localities by governments and international donors alike is the fact that it is hard to acquire adequate information about the severity of problems below the level of aggregate national statistics. ICG has culled from field research and available open sources a clear picture of just how bad things have become on a geographic scale that generally is beneath the radar of national and international policy makers.

The report links conditions in some of the worst affected localities and the likelihood that dire poverty — combined with despair and outrage over rampant corruption, repressive policies, and governments’ failure to address local needs — could lead to outbreaks of localised unrest with the potential to spread into a wider regional conflict. Many parts of Central Asia are waiting for a spark to ignite them, thanks to a complex array of problems including the spread of underground Islamist activism, rebel incursions, tense ethnic relations, border frictions, geopolitical ambitions, and simmering disputes over land and water.

Four localities receive particular focus because of the severity of their problems: in Kyrgyzstan, Batken Province (the locus of recent militant incursions); in Tajikistan, the Gharm Region and Badakhshan Province (remote mountain areas devastated by the Civil War and situated on one of the world’s most significant drug trafficking routes); and in Uzbekistan, the Ferghana Valley region and particularly Namangan Province (one of the country’s poorest regions despite a strong agricultural base and increasingly the focus of serious unrest).

The problems of such localities should take precedence for both national governments and international donors but they been virtually absent from policy planning. Urgent measures are needed to combat the increasing probability that violent conflict will grow out of these localities.


To the National Governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

1. Quickly formulate a coherent strategy for regional and local development with respect to the localities at risk and move just as quickly to fund and implement it.

2. Give local authorities the autonomy and resources to design, implement and seek international assistance for development initiatives tailored to the needs of localities at risk.

3. Cooperate closely with neighbouring governments to address the problems of transnational sub-regions, especially concerning drug trafficking, transportation routes and markets.

4. End restrictions on freedom of speech, political opposition, and the media, all of which are necessary vehicles for calling attention to local needs and building the social consensus required to solve local problems.

5. Support the efforts of civil society to generate healthy debate on social and economic policies to address the problems of localities at risk.

To Governments in Localities at Risk in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

6. Don’t wait for national policy mechanisms to address social and economic needs but rather be proactive and entrepreneurial.

7. Seize the initiative to guide international assistance to the projects which can best address the needs of localities at risk, taking advantage of emerging interest among donors in providing more funds for conflict prevention programs.

8. Create the conditions which allow communities to address their own needs, including by allowing development of self help organisations and facilitating access by local residents to credit and other resources needed to implement their own initiatives.

To Donors and International Organisations

9. Be constantly aware of the need to look beyond the perspective of the national capitals when devising assistance programs in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

10. When supporting a stronger regional security environment, make reduction of social pressures in localities prone to violent conflict a top priority.

11. Coordinate with each other and with national governments and regional institutions to develop consistent strategies targeted at the economic and social needs of localities at risk.

12. Shift funds from programs favouring the national capitals toward ones focused on localities at risk of violent conflict and seek implementation partners less in national governments and more in local governments, NGOs and community organisations.

13. Build links across borders to address regional problems, in the manner of the Central Asian University planned by the Aga Khan Development Network.

14. Establish and adhere to standards of transparency and accountability to ensure that aid does not feed corruption, thereby increasing economic disparities and social tension and leading to support for militancy.

15. Expand the UNDP conflict prevention project beyond the four pilot communities in Batken Province to localities most at risk elsewhere in southern Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

16. Recognise the important role of Islam in Central Asian society and consider Islamic institutions, including local Islamic social institutions that have largely been shunned by the post-Soviet governments, as appropriate implementation partners.

Osh/Brussels, 8 June 2001


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