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Central Asia : Islamist Mobilisation and Regional Security

 PDF version of Central Asia : Islamist Mobilisation and Regional Security Click here to view the full report as a PDF file in A4 format.
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The real but greatly exaggerated existence of militant Islamic movements is being cited to legitimate repressive measures by the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and, especially, Uzbekistan. These governments, and also Russia, have used claims about those movements both to justify strong cooperative international security measures against the perceived common threat and to win the acquiescence and assistance of Western governments. Much of this activity is misconceived and indeed counterproductive � more likely to create the very threat it seeks to counter.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan each repress a range of Islamic religious practices and domestic religious groups. Their policies are exacerbating simmering social and political tensions and increasing the risk of new outbreaks of violence. Russia is the most actively engaged external actor due to its perception of an urgent need for a common security approach to Islamic radicalism on its southern boundary. However, China and to a lesser extent some Western powers including the U.S. are reinforcing the instincts of the three Central Asian governments about the need to crack down on even apolitical forms of religious observance or organisation.

In the nine years since they gained independence, the three Central Asian states studied by ICG have increasingly sought to control the exercise of faith and the social and political activities of faith-based organisations. Their motives are purely political � fear that such activities threaten the ruling elites� hold on power � but the repression has fuelled more social discontent.

All three countries now face a variety of security problems arising from the actions of a militant Islamist group opposed to the government of Uzbekistan. That group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), operates in all three countries, but it is not strongly supported inside or outside the region and is not powerful enough to pose a major threat to any of the governments. Nevertheless, the reactions of the three countries to the low-level operations of the IMU in 1999 and 2000 have in themselves created tension and instability. The governments have cited need to counter the IMU as justification for further domestic repression of unofficial Islamic activity, which in turn is driving some sections of the community toward greater militancy. Uzbekistan has produced additional regional tensions by conducting cross-border operations against the IMU inside Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The southern borders of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were also affected by offensives in late 2000 in the Afghan civil war between the radical Islamist Taliban and its opponents.

These events have promoted greater interest in regional security cooperation not only among the Central Asian states but also between them, Russia and China. Western officials are now giving much more attention to Central Asian security. This is due in part to the IMU incursions, but even more to the presence of Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan (reputedly responsible for high-profile acts of international terrorism and support of anti-Western militants), as well as to the civil war and growing opium production in that country. Though some new regional security agreements have been concluded, there is little evidence yet of effective cooperation, and the efforts to achieve it are severely undermined by serious mistrust between the Central Asian governments.

Security problems of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan will continue to be aggravated by internal and external factors associated with the increased militancy of Islamist groups and their growing opposition to the Central Asian governments, particularly Uzbekistan. External factors include the possibility that militant Islamists will obtain refuge and training in Afghanistan and Tajikistan, the presence of civil war veterans in those two countries prepared to fight elsewhere for the Islamist cause, the drug trade, and contributions of the Taliban, bin Laden, or other governments and non-government entities to the militants.

The most powerful negative influences on the security of the three Central Asian states, however, are likely to be internal. Public support for the governments is still relatively strong but it is declining. The prospect is that wider segments of the population, especially in Uzbekistan, will resort to or at least support radical, even violent, opposition to the regime, if all political opposition and unofficial religious groups and activities continue to be targeted. The challenge for the friends of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, particularly in the West, is to separate real threats from spectres and to insist that the best security measure each of these governments can take to protect itself against a militant Islamic threat is to practice greater tolerance and more democracy.


To Central Asian Governments

1. Reorient internal security policies to emphasise the positive values of civil society institutions, including a vigorous free press, and of religious toleration.

2. Restore regime credibility by clearly articulating and demonstrating commitment to protecting the rights of all citizens, including practising Muslims.

3. Transfer control of policy toward Islam and Islamic institutions from KGB-successor agencies to agencies whose expertise is in social and cultural matters.

4. Issue and monitor observance of clear, well-reasoned regulations on what constitutes anti-state Islamic activity.

5. Exercise oversight of how policy directives are implemented to ensure that local law enforcement officials do not target innocent people to fill a �quota�.

To External Powers and International Organisations

6. Treat religious freedom as a security issue, not just a human rights issue, and advocate unequivocally that regional security can only be assured if religious freedom is guaranteed and legitimate activities of groups and individuals are not suppressed.

7. Ensure that donor assistance is not misused to strengthen or legitimate suppression of religious observance or non-violent religion-based groups.

8. Coordinate and integrate security assistance among donor nations according to a comprehensive approach and ensure that such assistance is not represented by Central Asian governments as endorsing views that unofficial religious activities and organisations are security threats. 9. Review policy toward Afghanistan, working towards a more comprehensive, less single issue driven (e.g., drugs, terrorism) view of the security problems that takes account of efforts by the regional governments to reach an accommodation with the Taliban.

10. (For Western states) Consult more often with China and, especially, Russia, which have important security interests in and special knowledge of the region, when offering support to Central Asian states for countering violent manifestations of radical Islamist politics.

11. (For China and Russia) Look more to economic and social than military measures to help Central Asian states reduce the appeal of radical Islamist groups.

Osh/Brussels, 1 March 2001

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