Central Asia’s Season of Unrest

| Updated: 15 July, 2022 6:20 am IST


Central Asia has been witnessing a flurry of demonstrations, agitations, and mass protests since the beginning of 2022. The resultant deaths, detentions, and injuries have focussed the spotlight on the different governments of the region in a manner that has the potential to undermine their legitimacy in the medium run.

In January, Kazakhstan witnessed a major unrest over rising fuel prices; one that started as random demonstrations and quickly morphed into armed groups robbing ATMs, setting buildings on fire, and trying to take over pockets of Almaty. That further escalated into the declaration of emergency, and a brief Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) troop intervention to bring it under control. President Tokayev maintains that these were mostly foreign elements – ISKP Afghans and Middle Easterns – that were smuggled and released to cause mayhem. This is of particular interest, since Kazakhstan shares boundaries (quite a bit of it is porous) with Russia and China, other than Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, which makes it quite an important piece of real estate on the map of central Asia. Any disturbances, especially of the orchestrated kind can and will seek to spill over to as many territories as they can.

Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan erupted in May which led to violence, killings, detention and force deployment. GBAO (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast) is an autonomous region and is of immense geostrategic importance to the region, especially in China (details tracked in a New Indian article). Tajikistan is already facing issues with a latent rise in Islamist sentiments. The ISKP is very active in Tajikistan. From recruitment and indoctrination run through different social media channels to organising fundraisers through programs like Devotion and Loyalty (a Telegram channel), the influence is growing at an alarming rate – one that the government seems unable to control so far.

Uzbekistan, which already has a simmering issue with Fergana Valley now witnesses violent unrest in its northwestern autonomous province Karakalpakstan, one that has led to several dead and hundreds injured. Karakalpakstan demands secession – nothing less; that led to the protestors raiding police buildings and National Guard Departments in Nukus to seize weapons and use them for the same. The Uzbek government maintains that this is complete ‘foreign influence’; that these people were supplied with money, drugs and alcohol and were instigated to cause violence. While the government is yet to provide evidence about foreign interference, the post-mortem reports have indeed confirmed the remains of alcohol in a number of these protestors.

There have been efforts on the part of the governments to counter the genuine discontent. After the GBAO unrest settled down a bit, China resumed its road-building project in that region. This project promises not only better connectivity between Dushanbe and Beijing but also has the potential to create employment in the region. That might even lead to a reduction in the income that comes from drug trafficking – which is a significant source of livelihood for the locals.

President Putin visited Tajikistan recently, his first stop abroad since the Russian operation in Ukraine. There has been a significant drop in Tajik remittances since the Ukraine crisis (Russia hosts a large number of Tajik workers), and there is the burning issue of ISKP in Afghanistan – both apparently need specific focus, and that was the reason for the visit as mentioned by the Kremlin. While both these issues are of immediate focus, Russia is also providing long-term support in the shape of building schools or facilitating bilateral trade.

As for the genuine discontent, it can still be addressed as long as the different governments of central Asia manage to deliver growth and overall development. But how they manage to handle the inorganic, orchestrated ones remain to be seen.

Afghanistan – though technically not central Asia – is witnessing a weak Taliban government that is quite helpless with rival ISKP controlling different pockets and using the country as a launchpad to provoke radical Islamism in Central Asia. Islamism has time and again demonstrated its potential to undermine genuine development and economic prosperity – Libya and Syria can be two recent examples of how it uncovered enough armed subscribers to its appeal for a medieval idea of a religion-based empire even among relatively well-off economies and their beneficiaries.

ISKP or future expansionist entities like them that aim to create a religion-based medieval order across the map remain the principal threat to central Asia (and the adjacent regional powers China, India or Russia remain susceptible as a result). It doesn’t help that the landmass finds itself surrounded by countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Turkey that already subscribe to similar shades of political ideology, with a portion of the central Asian population standing a chance of being swayed by the same. It also doesn’t help that central Asian states’ interdependence, long porous borders, and common religion makes it easy for such ideas to cover significant stretches seeking traction, and finding it quite easily.

The only way central Asia can counter this in the medium-run and consolidate itself on the path to stability and prosperity is by providing meaningful employment – making its population the active beneficiary of the states’ economic development, and by delivering modern education to its future generations. Also, since it looks like The Great Game (of the 19-20th century) is still on, the region needs to remain vigilant about radical ideas with the potential, and actors (both state and non-state) with the reasons that can destabilize the landscape. 

(Arindam Mukherjee is a geopolitical enthusiast and the author of JourneyDog Tales, The Puppeteer, and A Matter of Greed. He tweets at heartland_ari.)

(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own.)

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