Central Asia's Increasing Volatility

7 MINS READJul 27, 2012 | 10:30 GMT
Central Asia's Increasing Volatility
Riot police in Aktau, Kazakhstan, during a protest in December 2011

In Stratfor's annual and quarterly forecasts, we noted that numerous factors will undermine the stability of Central Asia this year, including protests over worsening economic conditions, escalating militancy and growing tensions between countries in the region. Halfway through 2012, signs of destabilization have become visible in most Central Asian countries.

Although tensions in Central Asia are growing, most of the region's incidents this year have been isolated from one another. Moreover, several factors, such as Russian involvement, would make a broad regional conflagration unlikely. Tensions and security incidents primarily within — not among — regional countries pose the greatest risk to further destabilize Central Asia.

As Central Asia remains in flux, it is important to identify and examine the incidents that have occurred this year.


In 2011, Kazakhstan experienced numerous militant attacks and bombings unprecedented in its modern history. No suicide bombings or attacks by Islamist militants have occurred in 2012, but other signs of instability and causes for concern have emerged.

Border guards have been attacked and sometimes killed in several anomalous border incidents. The largest such attack occurred near the Chinese border May 30, when 14 border guards and a civilian forest ranger were shot, killed and burned. Only one border guard survived; authorities accused him of the killings, but responsibility for the attack remains unclear. Similar incidents include a June 25 attack on a post near the Uzbek border and a July 12 attack on eight people in a house in Almaty.

In addition, protests that began in 2011 over low pay and poor conditions, including violent demonstrations in the western oil city of Zhanaozen in December, have continued in 2012. Most protests have been nonviolent, and the government has acknowledged and pledged to address the grievances of striking workers. But the unrest has spread to other, non-energy producing regions, as demonstrated by a May 4 copper miner strike at the Annenskiy mine near Zhezkazgan in central Kazakhstan. Kazakh Secretary of State Mukhtar Kul-Mukhammed publicly acknowledged July 23 that the number of labor disputes and conflicts in the country is growing.

These trends could be related to an ongoing power struggle in the country surrounding the future of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. The border incidents might have been attempts by members of the Kazakh security services to position themselves for a post-Nazarbayev political environment or to derail Nazarbayev's succession plans. Kazakh workers have become more inclined to air their grievances through strikes and protests. Neither the attacks nor the protests seem to be nearing a tipping point, but the government will have to deal with the building pressures eventually.


Tajikistan too is experiencing significant instability. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon's brother-in-law Holmumin Safarov was assassinated June 15. Although unclear, the motive for the killing could be related to organized crime or power struggles (the former is more likely).

On July 24, the military launched an operation in eastern Tajikistan's Gorno-Badakhshan province after forces loyal to an opposition warlord allegedly killed the region's top security official. Low-level violence and shootouts in the region are reportedly ongoing, but government officials are reportedly in cease-fire negotiations with regional elders. The fighting is the most serious Tajikistan has seen since its civil war in the 1990s, and the country risks resurrecting unaddressed grievances from the war. The military operation has also sparked protests and threats of larger demonstrations in the future.

A new civil war could result from the fighting in Gorno-Badakhshan. Given Tajikistan's location in the heart of Central Asia, conflict there could eventually involve other countries such as Uzbekistan and Russia, as happened in the previous Tajik civil war. Also, given rumors that the opposition warlord has fled to nearby Afghanistan, additional militant elements could become involved. The incident also exposes lingering clan divisions in the country that could ignite at any time.


Uzbekistan is typically seen as one of the quietest countries in the region (second only to Turkmenistan), but this view is largely influenced by media restrictions and tight government control over internal information. Indeed, the country has seen multiple security incidents this year.

Protests are relatively rare (or rarely reported) in Uzbekistan, but some 2,000 people reportedly protested in the city of Andijan on July 23 in demand of compensation for homes lost in 2011 to reconstruction projects. Andijan was the site of a harsh crackdown on thousands of protesters in 2005, resulting in Uzbekistan severing ties with the United States and European Union.

On July 12, a skirmish between Uzbek and Kyrgyz border guards resulted in a guard from each side killed and two civilians injured. While the border skirmish with Kyrgyzstan is not unprecedented (at least three such incidents were reported in 2011), the most recent clash comes at a time when Uzbekistan may be re-evaluating its security position after leaving the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

This environment raises the risk of a larger conflict with Kyrgyzstan, which Russia would attempt to prevent. Although the recent Andijan protest does not appear to be as significant or volatile as the 2005 unrest (which involved higher-level figures, who may have been attempting to undermine the power of Uzbek President Islam Karimov), the risk of protest escalation is high. With Karimov advanced in age and a succession struggle occurring (albeit much more quietly than in Kazakhstan), even minor developments could spark more instability than Uzbekistan has seen in years.


In 2010, Kyrgyzstan experienced a revolution and, months later, large-scale ethnic violence in its southern provinces. The country has calmed down considerably since then, and the political transition resulting from the revolution has been relatively smooth. Although protests regarding a broad range of issues have continued, the likelihood of protest-related violence is much lower in Kyrgyzstan than in other Central Asian countries.

Still, some recent developments, including the aforementioned border skirmishes with Uzbekistan, threaten stability in the country. Furthermore, there has been discussion in the Kyrgyz parliament about nationalizing the Canadian-run Kumtor gold mine, Kyrgyzstan's largest and the contributor of 60 percent of the country's industrial output. On June 27, lawmakers decided against nationalization, but the government likely will seek a larger stake in the mine, potentially jeopardizing the country's already weak economy.

Due to the many significant differences between its north and south, Kyrgyzstan has been the most volatile Central Asian country, and another revolution is not impossible. However, the appetite for such a revolution has diminished, partially due to a strengthened parliament that has thus far contained Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev. Russia's security presence in the country also diminishes the likelihood of a full-scale armed conflict with Uzbekistan.


Turkmenistan has not produced many notable incidents in 2012, and it remains the quietest country in Central Asia (its population is also the farthest removed geographically from the Fergana Valley, the region's core). However, external developments could affect the country; any security-related moves Uzbekistan undertakes after leaving the Collective Security Treaty Organization are especially important to watch in this regard.

Future Risks

Taken together, the regional dynamics and recent incidents could continue to destabilize Central Asia. However, most of the incidents from the past year are disconnected, and significant constraints — particularly Russia's involvement in the region — would prevent a major region-wide conflict. In 2010, Russia prevented a military conflict between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan by deploying its own security personnel. Moscow also has prevented major hostilities from erupting between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. As in the Caucasus, Russia's security involvement is the most important factor maintaining Central Asia's status quo.

However, Russia might not be in a position to control tensions and security incidents within each Central Asian country. Recent hostilities in Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been related to domestic power struggles. Russia certainly has some clout in these issues, but it cannot manipulate them as it pleases. If domestic tensions spiraled out of control as they did in Kyrgyzstan in 2010, the entire region would be affected. The effects would not necessarily be direct — the Kyrgyz revolution did not spark revolutions in other Central Asian countries, just as the Tajik civil war did not spur violence elsewhere in the region. But Central Asian states will have to adjust to new political and security realities within the region, which could be significantly more unstable than in previous years.

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