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Oct 5, 2016 | 09:31 GMT

7 mins read

Central Asia's Leaders Scramble to Secure Power

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Across Central Asia, leadership changes and attempts to centralize power will likely intensify.
  • Instead of alleviating the region's economic and security problems, political restructurings and crackdowns could exacerbate instability.
  • Russia and China will become more active in their attempts to mitigate these threats and shape the region's political evolution according to their respective strategic interests. 

Central Asia is not known for major political change. Since gaining their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have maintained centralized political systems, and in that time, only Kyrgyzstan has had more than two presidents. Yet this year has brought important political shifts to the region. In early September, for instance, longtime Uzbek President Islam Karimov died, raising speculation over who would succeed him.

Well before Karimov's death, significant structural adjustments were already underway in Central Asia's political systems. At the beginning of the year, Turkmenistan revealed plans to amend its constitution to extend presidential terms from five to seven years and to abolish term limits, changes that were approved on Sept. 14. In Tajikistan, voters authorized similar constitutional amendments in a May referendum. Even Kyrgyzstan — which underwent two revolutions in the first decade of the 2000s and transitioned to a parliamentary system in 2010 — is in the process of changing its constitution in the ruling party's favor. Though the leaders of these countries have different reasons for undertaking their restructuring projects, they are all attempting to protect their grip on power in the face of growing instability.

Consolidate Power, Quash Dissent

Central Asia's leaders are under mounting pressure. The drop in global oil prices has hurt the economies of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and Russia's prolonged recession has constricted trade and remittance flows into Central Asia. As the economic situation in these countries has deteriorated, the social environment, in turn, has grown more volatile. Jobs and salaries across the region are being cut while dwindling work opportunities have driven thousands of migrants back home to Central Asia from Russia. Combined with the enduring threat of militancy — whether from Islamist groups or from ordinary citizens who feel disenfranchised — unrest and instability are pressing concerns for governments throughout the region. Mass protests and violent attacks against security personnel have rocked Kazakhstan this year, and in August, a suicide bomber (reportedly a Uighur militant) struck the Chinese Embassy in Kyrgyzstan. The countries that share a border with Afghanistan, meanwhile, have seen increased attacks by the Taliban or the Islamic State on or near their border posts.

In response to their challenging circumstances, many Central Asian leaders have scrambled to consolidate their political power. By abolishing term limits, the presidents of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are working to ensure their places in office indefinitely. Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, by contrast, is limited to a single term, but the adjustments to his country's constitution could allow him to maintain his influence after the next president assumes office in 2017. Kazakhstan's president oversaw a major Cabinet reshuffle in September — including changes to the premier and defense minister posts — to enhance security in preparation for his eventual succession process. In Uzbekistan, interim leader Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev has already undertaken some reshuffles of his own, making changes to the Cabinet and regional governorships to consolidate his power ahead of the December presidential election.

Despite these leaders' efforts, personnel shifts and term extensions will not be enough to resolve the region's increasingly untenable security situation. As long as low energy prices and Russia's financial troubles keep straining Central Asian economies, political changes will not yield socio-economic relief. Understanding this reality, leaders are also cracking down on opposition groups across the region. Central Asian authorities often target and arrest members of political or religious movements deemed a threat to their governments, which then portray the detainees as Islamist radicals or militants plotting attacks. (In reality, the people arrested are usually political dissidents or disaffected youths.)

This is not to say that Islamist militancy is an imaginary threat in Central Asia. Considering its proximity to Afghanistan and the number of Central Asian citizens fighting with jihadist organizations in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, the region is certainly susceptible to attack. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a wave of attacks by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan tore through Central Asia, and a handful of incidents in the years since, including the attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek, have been tied to Islamist groups. Any power vacuums left in the region — for instance, in the wake of Karimov's death or in the event of a leadership transition in Kazakhstan — could enable militant groups to flourish. But clamping down on opposition and militancy, real or imagined, could also exacerbate instability rather than quell it.

Securing Central Asia

The prospect of unrest and instability is alarming, not only for Central Asia's leaders but also for foreign powers with interests in the region. Because of its strategic location and abundant natural resources, Central Asia has attracted the attention of numerous external players over the years. The United States, for example, conducts joint counterterrorism and counternarcotics programs with security forces in the region, and Turkey shares cultural and economic ties with Central Asia. Still, Russia and China are by far the most influential countries in the region, and they will be most active in shaping Central Asia's political and security dynamics to suit their needs.

In response to the growing security challenges facing the region, Russia has been reorganizing its military presence at its bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan while pushing for greater counterterrorism cooperation with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Russia will likely use the political transition in Uzbekistan — which has traditionally kept its distance from Moscow — as an opportunity to increase political and security ties with Tashkent. In fact, in the short time since Karimov's death, Russian officials have held consultations with Mirziyoyev, anticipating his victory in the upcoming election. Furthermore, as Central Asia's leaders work to centralize their power, Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the middle of a similar process, suggesting that the Kremlin could be influencing or even coordinating the restructurings taking place throughout the region.

China's top priority, meanwhile, is to preserve stability in Central Asia. The country emerged over the past decade as a major economic player in the region, overtaking Russia as Central Asia's largest trade partner. Beijing is most concerned about power vacuums and weak leadership, which could further compound the region's socio-economic problems and jeopardize China — either by undermining its economic interests in Central Asia or by encouraging Uighur militancy. The recent volatility has prompted China to boost its security commitments throughout the region. In the aftermath of the embassy attack, China has assisted Kyrgyzstan with the investigation, and on Sept. 27, Beijing announced plans to finance and build 11 outposts on Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan.

As the security situation in Central Asia grows more precarious, Russia and China will likely redouble their efforts to secure the region. Increasing instability in Central Asia could foster cooperation between Russia and China, since both countries are invested in stopping the spread of Islamist militancy. The more China expands its activities in the region beyond trade, however, the more Russia will try to maintain its primacy there. Intensifying competition between the two countries could add to the mounting pressures in Central Asia as the security crackdowns, power grabs and socio-economic problems continue.

Lead Analyst: Eugene Chausovsky

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