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Central Asia: Fault Lines in the New Security Map


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independent states that emerged in Central Asia had to begin almost from scratch in building both military forces and security strategies. The unified position of the USSR was soon replaced by sharply divergent security arrangements, corresponding to the different strategic interests and paths of development of these new states. As a result, there has been more confrontation than cooperation. This is particularly true of the three states that are the focus of this report: Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

There are three ongoing military confrontations in the region. First, in Afghanistan the Taliban movement controls more than 90 per cent of the country and is fighting against the United Front to control the remaining territory. Secondly, Islamist rebels based in Afghanistan have been fighting to overturn the government of Uzbekistan and their incursions have spilled over into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Thirdly, in Tajikistan although the peace process there has largely achieved an end to conflict, some armed groups continue hostilities from within poorly controlled parts of the country, including even the outskirts of the capital Dushanbe, or from the territory of Uzbekistan. These security problems suppress economic development and discourage the countries from embarking on much-needed political reforms.

The Central Asian states have made high-profile moves toward cooperative regional security structures in which outside powers most often play the leadership role, notably the CIS Collective Security Treaty led by Russia, and more recently the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation led by China and Russia. Within these frameworks, concrete steps toward security cooperation and joint action on the ground have amounted to very little. The will and the financial resources needed to implement cooperation have not been forthcoming, and in some cases may simply not exist. The stark fact remains that the Central Asian states have not cooperated well with one another, either because they have not made it a high priority or because they have perceived it to be in their interest not to do so.

Indeed, rather than cooperating, the Central Asian states in the post-Soviet decade have engaged in a series of serious violations of one another’s security interests. The list of points of contention has only grown following the increase in Islamist militancy in 1999. Uzbekistan allowed or supported armed incursions into Tajikistan and harboured dissidents whom Tajikistan accuses of treason. Tajikistan likewise permitted the presence of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) on its territory, from where it has conducted repeated incursions into Uzbekistan. While supposedly searching for IMU targets, Uzbekistan bombed Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, causing numerous civilian casualties. Uzbekistan mined undemarcated borders between it and the other two countries, resulting in dozens of fatalities. Uzbekistan also tried to force territorial concessions from some of its neighbours and unilaterally took control of territories to which it has a marginal claim. In response to Uzbekistan’s actions on the borders, Kyrgyz officials threatened to reclaim territories that were ceded to Uzbekistan in the early Soviet period.

No outside power is sufficiently interested in the region to make major investments in its security. Their interests are often very limited, focusing on the potential of this region to propagate instability in “more important” areas through the drug trade or the spread of Islamist radicalism. Each also has certain special concerns. U.S. involvement has been partially aimed at strengthening the capacity and independence of the Central Asian states, with the goal of reducing Russia’s influence, but other U.S. policies have given priority to particular countries, which has undermined regional cooperation. Russia’s policy has been oriented toward maintaining its influence in the region as a means of protecting its security interests. This has also resulted in regional divisions, where, for example, Uzbekistan resists Russian involvement and Tajikistan embraces it. China’s interests in the region focus around preventing Central Asian nations from being used as a base for Uyghur groups seeking an independent homeland in Xinjiang province. Little regard has been paid to the broader spectrum of security concerns of Central Asian states themselves. As a consequence, multilateral arrangements have generally proven ineffective, and virtually all relations — cooperative or confrontational — operate mostly on a bilateral basis.

Chronic shortages of resources and a very complex regional security environment — wedged between two major powers and sitting next to one of the most unstable countries in the world — will remain facts of life for the Central Asian states. This makes it essential that these states give priority to improving intra-regional relations and finding common ground for closer cooperation. These nations have tended to exaggerate the threats from their neighbours and from exiled militant groups while paying too little attention to issues such as human rights abuses, repression of religious freedom and poverty that all foment unrest at home. No outside actor is in a position to resolve any of the major security problems of the region, yet the engagement of outside governments and international organisations can play a vital role in facilitating the building of effective institutions and reducing some of the major risks.
To the Central Asian Governments:

1. Governments should give the highest priority to boosting regional cooperation, while avoiding unilateral measures aimed at pressuring or undermining the stability of their neighbours such as border closures or cross-border incursions.

2. Governments should reinvigorate joint border commissions and the multilateral approaches to border disputes that have been successful in solving frontier disputes with China. There should be no attempt to change borders by unilateral demarcation.

3. The Central Asian countries should form a regional security structure that includes them alone and that begins with the modest goals of information sharing, coordination of security initiatives and confidence building.

4. Tajikistan should disarm and integrate those field commanders who do not have a role in the coalition government so as to reduce the risk of its territory being used in attacks against its neighbours.

5. Uzbekistan should prevent low-level officials in the border control, police and security services from harassing and extorting bribes from people crossing borders or travelling in the country.

6. Governments should work to reduce grievances of their own minorities and avoid intensifying problems with minorities in neighbouring countries.

7. Governments should foster more professional, less corrupt armed forces by boosting civilian controls and oversight, enhancing command structures and improving training.

8. Governments should rationalise their militaries to ensure that troop numbers do not exceed what can be paid for under current budgets and should improve conditions for service personnel.

To External Governments:

9. NATO members and other donors should expand Partnership for Peace and other military exchange and education programs to foster military discipline, professionalism, and observance of conflict prevention principles.

10. European nations, the U.S. and Japan should carry the strong and consistent message that stability depends on guaranteeing human rights and religious freedom and give no security assistance to governments that undermine regional security by abusing human rights.

Brussels/Osh, 4 July 2001


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