Nov 28

Event Report: Completion of Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia project (London, 13-14 July 2016)

On 13-14 July, 2016, we held closing events in London for the ESRC research project ‘Rising Powers and Conflict Management in Central Asia’.A one-day workshop at Chatham House entitled ‘Illiberal conflict management in Central Asia’ was held on 13 July, hosted by the Russia and Eurasia Programme with James Nixey and Lubica Pollakova.  A report is appended below.

On 14 July, we held our team de-briefing at Quaker House, facilitated superbly by Dr Sarah Amsler.

Among the colleagues involved and in attendance were Nick Megoran, David Lewis, Alisher Khamidov, Igor Savin and Catherine Owen.

Thanks to all those persons, named and unnamed, who contributed to the research over the four years of the project from 2012-2016.  We will continue to work with them and others on the analysis and publication of our findings for several years to come.

—John Heathershaw

Event details: Dealing with Illiberalism: Lessons from Central Asia? | Chatham House

Illiberal Conflict Management in Central Asia: Succeeding Where Western Policy Failed?

In the immediate aftermath of post-Soviet Central Asian independence, western policy advanced liberal norms of conflict management. These assumed that conflicts could be de-escalated or prevented by the adoption of democratic forms of governance, strong civil society, and the protection of human rights. However this approach has largely been rejected in the region, in favour of illiberal or authoritarian conflict management. This seeks to reduce the space for conflict by strong vertical control of space, discourse, the economy, and the means of violence.

Conflict in the region is often discussed in the context of Afghanistan, yet incidences of violence in Central Asia have been few and far between. External actors do not have direct effect on conflict management in Central Asia but they do have indirect effect on sovereignty. Ethnicity is often seen as a source of conflict, but e.g. the Tajik civil war was not an ethnic conflict, and neither was Andijan.

The Central Asian regimes range from authoritarian to semi-authoritarian, with weak civil societies. Despite apparent weakness, the states have shown remarkable endurance. Authoritarian conflict management aims to end armed conflict by preventing rebels from influencing public discourse, controlling or shaping space, or accessing economic resources. The Tajik system of internal conflict management is increasingly effective as the economy is more and more subordinate to President Rakhmon. However, it has proven impossible to close down all places of dissent completely, e.g. the Tajik opposition remains active in Turkey.

Since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, state ideologies in Central Asia have been based on the historical right of each titular ethnos over a territory. Key features are revival of the past, emphasis on super-level nationalism, priority development of the titular nation, and legalization of titular language as state language. Minorities are acknowledged as part of the cultural landscape, but their rights are not taken into consideration.

Illiberal conflict managers may, however, seek protection of minorities for the sake of state stability.  There are around 750,000 Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan and 300,000 Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan. During the 2010 violence in Osh, up to 100,000 Uzbeks took temporary shelter in Uzbekistan. Yet there was no armed intervention by Tashkent and the border was closed. President Karimov called Acting President Otunbayeva to request protection of minorities, investigation into the violence and prosecution of the guilty parties in return for sealing the border. In addition, Karimov issued a statement that the Kyrgyz minority in Uzbekistan will be protected. Unlike in Kyrgyzstan, there was no racial polemic against minorities in the Uzbek press, which was significant in preventing violence.

Police presence in the Kyrgyz villages in Uzbekistan’s part of the Ferghana valley increased shortly after the violence in Osh occurred. As the majority of Uzbekistan’s Kyrgyz population live in rural areas, it was easy to seal the travel routes and provide police protection. Also, the Kyrgyz in Uzbekistan are generally poorer, so they are not obvious targets (in contrast to the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, who live mostly in cities and are active in commerce). The Uzbek approach could be considered an example of illiberal conflict management. Authoritarian conflict management is indicative of the wider process of authoritarian consolidation. Karimov probably saw ethnic conflict as a challenge to his authority. But, as the events in Andijan in 2005 demonstrated, it is not a better model in the long run.

Uzbeks were accused of separatism by the Kyrgyz when asking for their political rights to be respected. The conflict dynamics in cities was different from that in smaller towns like Aravan and Uzgen. Osh and Jalalabad are larger, with big bazaars, and attract migrants from across the region – China, Turkey, Kazakhstan etc. Many international peacebuilding efforts focused on the western parts of Kyrgyzstan and neglected the east, which is where most of the attackers came from. More attention should be paid to the east-west dynamic, not just north-south.

In 2010, local elites managed to quell the violence through close control of space and law enforcement agencies, as Bishkek’s influence was limited. The local narratives often present the events of June 2010 as a deterrent to future conflict; Kyrgyz have now established the upper hand, Uzbeks have started to learn the Kyrgyz language. There are cases of inter-ethnic brawls in Kyrgyzstan but local actors have so far managed to prevent them from escalating; violence would only attract unwanted attention from Bishkek, most probably leading to the firing of local officials.

Russian and Chinese Policies towards Central Asia: In Parallel or in Conflict?

Russia and China model and advance illiberal norms of conflict management and, unlike western powers, do not expect Central Asian republics to adopt liberal approaches.

Moscow’s strategy is primarily concerned with global governance and increasing Russia’s status through regional and international cooperation – that is the main reason behind the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). Russia has recently pledged USD 1 billion to a development fund for Kyrgyzstan. This fund is intended to compensate Bishkek for any loss of Chinese trade and to help the country through its first year in the EAEU. It is not clear, however, whether Bishkek will be able to get the full amount of compensation from Russia and use it effectively.

The steady growth of China’s economic interests and significance in Central Asia is likely to continue. The majority of One Belt One Road (OBOR) projects involve new infrastructure built by Chinese workers with Chinese financing. It was noted that exogenous infrastructure building will not solve micro-level issues. There had been high hopes for the Northern Distribution Network but it never became more than a procurement chain.

The local benefits of Chinese infrastructure projects are limited to the elites. Beijing will need to make sure their positive impact is felt by the wider population if it wants to avoid resistance from local communities. At the same time, Chinese companies face a lack of qualified local manpower – an issue familiar to many international companies operating in the region. The recent protests in Kazakhstan included voices against Chinese citizens buying up land and assets in the country. Kazakhstan is a young country, so the sale of land has emotional significance; there is often an effort to block media stories of these deals going ahead.

China shares bilateral security concerns over terrorist networks etc. with several countries in the region. Cooperation on this issue is not explicitly addressed in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), but often happens on the fringes of SCO summits. The Central Asian states prefer to solve domestic problems without outside interference, but assistance in the form of exchanging information about individuals is appreciated.

Central Asia has become an arena for ‘counter-norms’, which allows local actors to pick and choose what suits them best. There is a lot of selective social construction on the part of the Central Asian states, but they pay close attention to one another. Connectivity within the region is limited, for instance, there is no direct flight between Dushanbe and Tashkent. It was suggested that connectivity is seen as a silver bullet for development in Central Asia; yet kleptocracy and capital flight are the real challenges.

China and Russia do not always agree, and their disagreements over Central Asia may appear more acute than they are in reality as that the region sits between the two states. However, for both Moscow and Beijing the priority is to have a constant ally in the UN Security Council and a major power in their corner. The EAEU and OBOR are fundamentally incompatible, but that does not matter in the current environment. Russia and China will focus on projects that are attractive to both. China’s engagement is not necessarily a cause for conflict, unless Beijing becomes more involved in security issues.

Washington’s Central Asia policy was primarily an instrument of the campaign in Afghanistan. US credibility has taken a hit due to their lack of engagement on values and rights. Also, Washington’s selective interpretation of and response to the Ukraine crisis was seen as hypocritical in Central Asia. US policy-makers downplayed the Maidan protests and emphasised the dangers of Russian intervention – but both are important for Central Asian states. Similarly, Washington sees Chinese involvement in Central Asia as strengthening the independence of the Central Asian states – although in East Asia, Washington is lobbying against Chinese initiatives.

The US is perceived to be withdrawing from Central Asia. Regional actors had positioned themselves in anticipation of the 2014 US withdrawal from Afghanistan. US left the Manas base in Kyrgyzstan and now conducts operations out of Romania. The ‘New Silk Road’ slogan lacks substance, serving as a place-holder for a strategy. In contrast, there is massive investment behind the OBOR. The current US approach emphasises broad-based engagement, people-to-people ties, and technical assistance, but these are secondary issues – there is no real US will to be in Central Asia.

The Central Asian elites are globally connected through international deals, e.g. telecommunications, US procurement contracts, and Chinese oil concessions in Kazakhstan. The recent settlement with VimpelCom precipitated a statement from the Uzbek Ministry of Justice asking for Uzbek assets to be unfrozen. These are matters of high politics and the US is likely to be recurrently entangled in these issues. The Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission are not on the same geopolitical plane as the Department of State and Department of Defense.

After the events in Libya, Yemen and Kyrgyzstan, when many Chinese workers had to be evacuated, Beijing has started paying increasing attention to the safety of its ex-patriate workers. That is one of the reasons for China’s increasing security presence. China is trying to engage local security forces by selling non-lethal military hardware and building barracks. Military sales are limited to wealthier Central Asian countries – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, but reportedly also Turkmenistan. China’s main interest is stability; it wants to make sure to engage with all local actors in a fragmented situation. China is reviewing its military doctrine, and is now able to participate in anti-terror operations abroad under the SCO framework. The likelihood of such operations is low, but the framework has been established. It is not clear if and when Beijing will switch to a heavier security presence in Central Asia.

Britain’s policy record in Central Asia: Effective, Ethical, Counterproductive or Irrelevant?

In contrast to Russia and China, the key issue for UK policy towards Central Asia is how a broadly liberal state deals with illiberal states. The potential contradictions and tensions over human rights, democracy, and governance are now becoming more acute. The values agenda is seen as contradicting the security agenda.

The UK government has tried sanctions against Uzbekistan, and it has tried to supporting civil society. The Department for International Development has found it difficult to transfer skills to this region. The government has made some advances on the anti-corruption agenda, but it needs to understand the dark underbelly of UK involvement, e.g. in offshore investment. However, there is general appreciation that one can no longer keep business and security separate as they are often two sides of the same coin. There is a degree of ministerial interest in and engagement with Central Asia, but little attention is paid to cultivating high level relationships with Central Asian leaders (except for Kazakhstan’s president Nazarbayev).

On security issues, such as counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics, shared rhetoric is undermined by fundamental contradictions, e.g. on the use of intelligence obtained under torture. Counter-narcotics initiatives have failed due to the local economy that has developed around drugs. Conflict prevention is also an important area, but there is no agreement on which country or organization should be devoting resources to it. More thinking is needed on what to do differently should a rupture similar to the events in Andijan in 2005 or Osh in 2010 occur again.

According to the ‘Osborne doctrine’, China is almost an ally due to its economic growth, increasing connectivity etc., whereas Russia is viewed through the prism of its actions in Europe. There needs to be some rethinking about the role UK wishes to play in Central Asia once it exits the EU, whether to increase its involvement or retrench.

It was argued that the volume of aid is not always the main indicator of its impact. The UK Know-How Fund, active in the 1990s, focused on transferring skills and expertise. The overall allocation to Central Asia was around USD 275 million and it was spent on a large number of small projects; the USA and Germany spent much more on aid, but the Know-How Fund made an impression in the region and the projects are still remembered. The perception was that the money was spent on local projects, not on foreign consultants. At the same time, this type of projects should be run in parallel with other, high-impact initiatives. Collaboration with e.g. the World Bank, IMF, TACIS has a more lasting impact. It was also noted that development programmes need more realistic timetables.

The Central Asian elites are skilful in exploiting different interests. At the same time, Russian and Chinese companies also lost a lot of money in Central Asia at various times, so conversations with Russia and China on issues of common interests are possible. It is important to have an embassy on the ground; the local elites acknowledge the commitment of time and resources that represents. The elites want to have a relationship with the West, want to send promising students for training in the West etc., which is why they do not always turn away if human rights are brought up in discussions. There are other areas where the UK has influence; e.g. the City of London serves as model for banking policies, which has helped change perceptions of lending practices.

Understanding the local culture is important – it is impossible to push for reform without local buy-in. Democracy has been discredited but promoting good governance is still important. Likewise, perceptions play an important role. The UK government used to be important in the region and many think it still is. The perception of a great name is still there but there is no ‘great game’ anymore: there are many different interests and influences – Russia, China, US. For example, Tajikistan hosts the biggest Russian military base outside the Russian Federation, and China feels no need to cross Russia in the military sphere. Central Asia is not a top concern and the UK has to prioritize; it has only so much money and so many levers to pull. It can have influence through working with partners, though. Brexit will mean a lot of work for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Energy-rich states like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will not lose out, but the smaller countries may. If the multilateral aspect of UK’s foreign policy is not re-energized, it may lead to too much focus on trade and investment, and less on human rights.