Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by Dr John Anderson, Department of International Relations, University of St Andrews



  Broadly speaking I would suggest that Britain has three broad categories of interests in the five Central Asian states, two essentially pragmatic in nature and one more idealistic.

  The first of these revolve around the question of economic ties and the potential for British companies to invest in the region and make the most from the resources of the region. Most of the discussion here has revolved around energy issues, and many British companies are already involved in the development of the oil and gas sector. One might also point to the existence of an under-employed labour force, already being utilised by German and South Korean car companies, the possibility of joint ventures in the agriculture sector, and the possible role of British companies in developing specialist tourist industries. Most of these issues will doubtless be presented by more qualified people in other evidence so I will not discuss this issue here.

  The second area on which I would like to focus relates to the question of regional security. Clearly investment and economic ties depend to a considerable degree on political stability and in this section I would like to focus on the threats to regional security, real and imagined, posed by economic change, religious extremism, ethnic violence, transnational crime, and the alienation or displacement of peoples.

  The third area relates to the issue of liberalisation. Whilst full blooded democratisation may be an unrealistic goal for the foreseeable future, this does not excuse Western governments from making efforts to soften the region's authoritarian regimes and promote further liberalisation in those with more open political orders.


  Most sources see threats to regional security coming from a number of sources:

  Firstly, one might point to the consequences of economic changes since the collapse of communism. To varying degrees all of these countries have experienced a severe economic downturn with production dropping in most sectors, and the living standards of all but a minority slashed dramatically. And to some degree the countries that have been more sympathetic to Western visions of marketisation have seen the sharpest drops in well being. Kyrgyzstan, for example, saw GDP drop every year until 1996 when there were some signs of macro-economic stabilisation. In real terms, however, both agricultural and industrial output is currently running at about 50 per cent of its 1990 level—though this is not as low in all sectors of the economy. Though the official rate of decline is lower in neighbouring Uzbekistan, whose authoritarian leadership has carried out very little reform, here as elsewhere most of the population have seen their real incomes drop over recent years. All of these problems have been exacerbated by other developments: the growth in levels of corruption and the perception that a small minority is doing well out of the changes: the inability of these states to collect all the revenue owed to them; the closure or "downsizing" of such industries as do exist leading to unemployment and social deprivation. Though the popular reaction to some of these problems has been more muted than might have been expected, in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which allow some form of protest there have been demonstrations and strikes by the "victims" of reform. And in terms of regional stability fears have been expressed that economic impoverishment may fuel some of the other threats isolated below.

  According to some Central Asian leaders a major threat to regional stability is posed by Islamic fundamentalism or religious extremism. When the five states acquired independence at the end of 1991 this fear was prevalent amongst both Western and regional commentators, and was reinforced by the civil war that broke out in Tajikistan during 1992. Though the causes of that conflict were more complex, it was used in particular by President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan to justify the repression of both secular and religious opponents in his own country. During the mid-1990s the anti-Islamic rhetoric was softened, only to resurface again from 1997 onwards. Commentators have pointed to the activities of religious radicals in the Fergana Valley region of Central Asia, in particular its Uzbek and Kyrgyz parts, and argued that they pose an increasing danger. Official sources make much of the occasional discovery of foreign missionaries from Islamicist organisations in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia who they argue are leading Central Asian youth astray. In consequence the last two years have seen frequent meetings of regional security officials and government ministers responsible for religious affairs who have sought to develop common strategies in tackling Islamicist organisations. Though such groups do exist their number is probably exaggerated and there is little evidence that they pose a real threat to regional stability at present. And though they have been blamed for the bomb attack on Karimov in February of this year, the allegations so far remain unproven. At the same time this claim has been used to justify repressive attacks on religious organisations throughout Central Asia, with four of the republic drafting or adopting more restrictive legislation regulating all aspects of religious life. Amongst the victims of this turn have been not only Muslims who dissent from official policies, but also religious minorities and ethnic communities such as the Uighurs who are often accused of both separatism and religious extremism.

  A third concern arises from the issue of ethnic and political violence. This in part relates to the question of borders, with the Soviet division of the region not always coinciding with ethnic boundaries. For example, in Kyrgyzstan over fourteen per cent of the population is Uzbek and most of these are located on territory adjacent to Uzbekistan, whilst across the border live perhaps 150,000 Kyrgyz. Indeed, at the time of writing this issue has emerged again with Kyrgyz parliamentarians claiming that over recent months Uzbekistan has been quietly shifting its borders and acquiring territory in the south of their country that was Kyrgyz throughout the post-war years. Alongside divisions amongst the indigenous peoples of Central Asia, there are the problems stemming from the presence at the time of independence of over 12 million Russian speakers brought to the region as a result of Russian and Soviet conquests and now trying to redefine their role in the new Central Asia. For many of the latter emigration has been the response, but for those remaining the situation is complicated by nation building processes which often appear to favour the indigenous population in terms of political, economic and educational advancement. In practice these ethnic issues have led to less violence than many anticipated in the early 1990s, but there remain potential flash-points. And in many of these cases the treatment of minorities ties into the international relations of the region. In dealing with Slavs the views of Russia cannot be ignored, whilst China has expressed concerns about the ability of Uighur nationalists to organise in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

  A fourth threat to regional security comes from the rise of transnational crime, in particular that associated with the narcotics business. In large part this has its origins in the Afghan conflict from which derived a regional trade in both drugs and weapons, and was further exacerbated by the civil war in Tajikistan. At the same time the trade builds on natural crops already present in parts of the region, whose farmers have for many years cultivated cannabis and wild poppies in isolated valleys. Kyrgyzstan briefly considered legalising production in the early 1990s, but since then its police and those of its neighbours have sought to stem the flow of drugs through their country en route to Russia and Europe. This task has been rendered more problematic by the impoverishment of the population that has led many to seek easy money by transporting drugs and made officials prone to corruption. Equally, influential individuals in most of these countries have made fortunes out of their involvement in the drug trade.

  Finally, one might point to the dangers posed by the movement of peoples. War in Afghanistan and Tajikistan have created numerous refugees within the region, whilst impoverishment within individual countries has increased a trend for people to move from the rural areas to the cities. The former trend has imposed additional strains on the receiving states who have to find housing, employment and education for the incoming refugees. At the same time both external and internal refugees have often revealed the limitations of both official and public tolerance. Settlers from Tajikistan in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan have been accused of taking homes and jobs from the titular nationalities, and blamed for rising crime or drug trafficking. Again one should not overstate the danger posed by this movement. Refugees are gradually beginning to return to Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and should some form of peace be maintained in these countries the recent trickle of refugees to the rest of Central Asia should not turn into a flood.

  Clearly the ability of Western states to help Central Asia deal with these problems is limited, though they have an interest in ensuring stability. For this reason small scale aid to meet specific, often technical, problems is probably all that is feasible. Short-term economic aid can limit the worst excesses of marketisation so as to prevent impoverished peoples turning to radical political alternatives, assuming such really exist. Western bankers or financial organisations quick to offer economic remedies could tie investment to welfare by ensuring some form of retraining or support for those who lose out from restructuring. Specialist advice on the detection of contraband might be made available. For example, do European drug agencies have a solution to the typical Central Asian situation where sniffer dogs cannot detect drugs half the year round because temperatures on most of the opium trail are far below zero. Whilst these are to some extent issues where practical help can be secured through international agencies, it might also be argued that political support is also required and this is dealt with below.


  Though the rhetoric of democratisation is evident in the publications of many international organisations dealing with the region, the underlying assumption of most is that most are a long way from making series steps in this direction. Here it is important to be aware of the differing political orders that co-exist within Central Asia. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are highly authoritarian states, the former characterised by a personality cult that contrasts radically with the actual achievements of its leader. And in Uzbekistan Islam Karimov has used the Islamic bogey to justify his repression of all opposition. In regard to both of these states an ethical foreign policy should clearly focus on a critique of human rights abuses and press for change, whilst recognising the limitations of Western rhetoric on these matters. Softening of the regimes appears the best we can hope for in the short term. In Tajikistan, the emphasis is on rebuilding both economically, politically and psychologically. Again the pressure should be for liberalisation, with both regime and Islamic dominated opposition needing to be reminded of the virtues of pluralism. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, there is some degree of social pluralism but no real opportunity to overthrow the government through the ballot box. In these cases the emphasis should be on encouraging steps to maintain and extend such liberalisation as has taken place, and to halt the current trend to more restrictive political practices.

  Yest whilst it is easy to offer pious declarations about human rights and democratisation it is difficult to find practical ways of making a difference. The general assumption that in some sense these countries are "not ready" for democracy has some validity, if all too often used an excuse by both Central Asia leaders and realists in the West. Two areas where some difference might be made relate to the question of civic education and the rule of law, areas with no immediate financial benefits for Britain but areas where investment may reap benefits for both the West and the citizens of Central Asia.

  In the area of civil education the aim should be to provide educational and practical measures that reinforce pluralistic values whilst not seeking to impose Western models of development in an inappropriate context. Providing politicians with information and training in party formation, public debate, administrative skills and so forth can be a two way process rooted in shared experience. Encouraging NGOs and even the GONGOs (Government Organised Non-Governmental Organisations) which are typical of the region can be valuable, again if this is a process taking into account local sensibilities. A practical example of such activity might be the various attempts to create shelters for women subject to domestic violence in Kyrgyzstan. Sensitive to the charge that Western feminist agendas are being imposed, activists involved in these projects have tried to tie in their work to local customs relating to respect for women and given their activities a specifically Kyrgyz gloss. And whilst many of these programmes focus on the capital cities and the political elite, it is important to ensure that civic education is extended to the countryside and through the educational system. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan there are civic organisations that are carrying out such work or are capable of doing so, but most need further financial support. Even in the authoritarian countries it may be possible to promote such activities through official organisations which though committed to the retention of centralised political control, are also keen to be seen utilising civil society discourse. Though the impact may be unintentional, such activities may also give the first post-Soviet generation an awareness of alternative ways of managing political life.

  Perhaps even more important, Western or British agencies could provide support for the rule of law in all spheres. This might entail sharing the experience of different societies in creating law-governed states, but it also means finding ways or reconciling proper regulatory frameworks with the traditions and customs of the region. In many respects this may be the most important sphere because a proper rule of law relates has consequences not just to the sphere of politics and society, but also to the creation of a reformed economic system, whichever model of development is preferred. A recent survey of "experts" in Kyrgyzstan revealed that whilst most believed that human rights provisions were adequate in the country, only 10 per cent thought that there existed true equality before the law. Without the evolution of proper legal systems where courts and judges act independently of political elites in interpreting the law, the position of the Central Asian citizen seeking justice and the foreign investor doing business must remain insecure. So here again the role of European nations must probably primarily of offering expertise and demonstrating the experience of other states in developing the functioning of law governed. This might entail bringing Central Asian judges and lawyers to Britain, but probably just as importantly it entails the education of politicians and powerful economic actors in respect for the law as it is they as much as the court systems which are at fault here.

  In pursuing economic and political programmes in Central Asia two things are of central importance. Firstly, sensitivity to the local context, something lacking in many Western interventions in the region. And secondly, it is important to find the "right" people with whom "to do business" in the region. Here it is essential to find people from the region to brief the committee, people like the Kyrgyz ambassador to London Roza Otunbaeva who are capable of promoting their countries' interests and yet standing back and place the region's needs in a wider context. And I would also suggest if our interests are in part ethical and idealistic then we should not neglect those countries that lack rich energy resources such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

March 1999

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