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Central Asia: Trouble Moving Forward

The five Central Asian states have significant disagreements among themselves, and development trajectories have increasingly diverged since the end of the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan is a stable, relatively open middle-income country, whereas Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are impoverished, chaotic, and poised on the verge of state failure. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan—with significant human and industrial capital (Uzbekistan) and hydrocarbon resources (Turkmenistan) but leadership wary of engaging with the outside world— are somewhere in between. Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are also affected by their proximity to Afghanistan and the potential for Afghanistan’s instability to spread across the border. Kazakhstan, which does not share a border with Afghanistan, sees it as less of a threat.
Many participants noted that the Central Asian governments are particularly concerned about the consequences of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Some worried that Afghanistan’s ills—including radicalism, violence, and drugs—could take hold within Central Asia itself if more is not done to stabilize the country before the United States and its allies withdraw, whereas others questioned how relevant the Afghan example is for the largely secular, non-Pashtun Central Asian states. Recent bouts of instability in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have focused minds in the region on the dangers of negative spillover from Afghanistan. Conversely, a secure Afghanistan would represent a potential resource for Central Asia. It sits along the principal transit route between Central and South Asia and occupies part of the shortest route to the sea for landlocked Central Asian states. For this reason Central Asian governments are playing an active role in promoting economic development in Afghanistan—a role that reinforces the U.S. coalition effort.

In terms of a buffer, the purpose of Central Asia is in Indian eyes three-fold:

* To prevent the creation of an ‘Islamic belt’ allied to Pakistan,
* To forestall encirclement by either China or the USA, and finally.
* To insulate India from the narco-terrorism that now plagues its northern borders.
This security dimension has driven Indian investment in Afghanistan and military cooperation with Tajikistan.

As a bridge

* Central Asia provides a ‘near abroad’ market for India’s emerging export industries.
* It also promises overland routes to the rich resources of Russia and the Middle East.
* Perhaps most importantly for India’s short-term growth, the region possesses significant energy supplies at relatively short distance from Indian markets.

This is likely to become a defining factor as competition for resources with China intensifies. Significantly for India’s great power ambitions, some Central Asian governments support New Delhi for its candidacy for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and help foster a direct link with Russia, on whom India increasingly relies as counterweight to Chinese and US encroachments. This relationship is also important in terms of India’s historical relationship with the Soviet Union in the period of non-alignment.

The Central Asian states face a number of other common challenges:

> Encouraging economic development without political instability;

> Regional economic challenges;

> Water management and the related water–energy nexus;

> A ‘‘youth bulge’’ combined with limited economic opportunities (outside of Kazakhstan);

> Cross-border migration;

> Serious and worsening corruption;

> Potentially restive minority populations (such as the ethnic Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan at the center of the summer’s violence);

> Drug trafficking;

> Nuclear proliferation; and

> Managing succession in autocratic states without strong government or party institutions.


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