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A Guided Tour of Central Asia

02/06/2009

Hi there. I’ll be your Free Radicals guide to Central Asia, a part of the world as fascinating as it is frustrating. The year ahead may prove to be a tumultuous one for the region. Doubts abound as to how much longer the Uzbek and Tajik presidents can stay in power and whether hereditary transitions can be managed.

If Karimov or Rakhmon should falter, is political violence likely? In Kyrgyzstan, we have a presidential election in July, amidst growing fears of serious social unrest as well as uncertainty over the scope and aims of the country’s rapidly growing Hizb-ut-Tahrir movement. HT and other Islamist groups continue to pose a challenge to most states in the region: they proliferate despite official bans and repression, and it is unclear how they might mobilise should a state experience significant domestic turmoil.

Meanwhile a new wrinkle appears: Central Asian militants who have been operating in Pakistani tribal areas in recent years are now being flushed out and apparently finding their way home.

Of course, it is nearly impossible to cover Central Asia without some reference to Afghanistan (although my friend and colleague Stephen Tankel will be focusing on that particular messiness).

Much is made of the opium trafficking trails that run from Afghanistan through Central Asia and on to Russia, but less attention is paid to its dire local effects: millions of drug addicts, rampant criminality, untouchable kingpins, official corruption.

All of these contribute to a socio-political environment that makes instability and violence more likely. In addition, the past few months have seen some major shifts in US/NATO northern supply routes to Afghanistan, as Russia flexes its near-abroad muscles. These arrangements have significant repercussions on local economies and popular attitudes which, again, are often overlooked in the grand geopolitical debates.

But perhaps the largest unknown at the moment is the impact of returning migrant workers from Russia to Central Asia, and in particular to Tajikistan. In recent years, nearly one in seven Tajiks – most of them men – left the country to perform manual labour in Russia. Nearly half of Tajikistan’s GDP came from remittances.

Now, with the global recession, these workers are being sent home with few prospects for jobs or support. Can the fragile peace that has endured since the Tajik civil war survive a massive influx of poor, unemployed men? Can the population – and the regime – weather such a huge drop in income? And should Tajikistan regress into social unrest, violence and instability, what are the consequences for its neighbours, and for stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan?

The trouble with making predictions in Central Asia is that things always appear to be about to go off the rails, and yet somehow manage to teeter on the edge a while longer. (A recent headline that said it best: ‘Tajikistan Slowly Collapses. Or Not.’)

Over the coming months, I’m going to do my best to call attention to problems and potential crisis points while refraining from Chicken Little histrionics. I’m also going to resist the urge to indulge in questionable characterisations of the region: you will not see reference to the ‘New Great Game’ or ‘Pipeline-Istan’ in this space, I can assure you.

And finally, I hope to be able to post a few photos now and then. Too often, Central Asia is portrayed as some kind of remote, exotic, silk-road-hugging, tinpot-despot backwater. In reality, it’s a hugely complex, diverse, troubled and yet beautiful region that deserves to be better known, and words alone cannot do it justice.

I’m delighted that ICSR has given me this opportunity to share my strange obsessions with such a wide audience, and I hope you will contact me with any thoughts or ideas you may have.

One of the best aspects of ICSR is its emphasis on dialogue and constructive conversation – and this is just as necessary for Central Asia as it is for the Middle East, South Asia and other regions of concern. I look forward to hearing from you.