Vienna, January 28 – Some Central Asian leaders believe that the best way to suppress the challenges posed by Islamist groups is to deploy the full powers of the state against them, but others have concluded that doing so may be counterproductive, provoking the Islamists to more attacks and allowing them to present themselves as the only serious opposition to those in power.
In a two-part article this week in the Kazakh online newspaper “Gazeta.kz,” Akram Asrorov both surveys this diversity and seeks to provide an explanation for why the powers that be there vary so widely in their assessments of Islamist groups and their actions against them (articles.gazeta.kz/art.asp?aid=142310 and articles.gazeta.kz/art.asp?aid=142376).
Uzbekistan is a place where “the difference between genuine Islamic extremists and people who have no relation to them” has largely been forgotten, Asrorov says, because President Islam Karimov uses charges of “Islamic extremism in his unending fight with those who disagree with him.”
Karimov’s approach, the Kazakh analyst says, reflects both the history of politics in Uzbekistan since 1985, a politics in which Karimov had to come up with ways to justify “more or less” his persecution of the opposition, and the Uzbek president’s efforts to present himself to the West as a key partner in the war on terrorism.
While no one doubts that there are some Islamist extremists in Uzbekistan, Asrorov continues, “a large segment of the expert community considers their appearance to be a natural response to the terror initiated by the Uzbek president,” just one of the ways in which terrorism and counter-terrorism can interact.
And such experts dismiss the arguments that Karimov and his supporters make that the Islamist terrorists have targeted his regime because an Islamicized Uzbekistan could become “a buffer” for Afghanistan given that it would be far easier for the extremists to take over Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan, which have far weaker force structures.
The approach of Kazakhstan has been entirely different. President Nursultan Nazarbayev in the first instance has insisted that “the Islamic factor cannot put down roots in a country where the titular nation never was distinguished by a high degree of religiosity. Therefore, his personal war with Islamist radicals does not recall a struggle for survival.”
Moreover, unlike Karimov, Nazarbayev has not confused or mixed the struggle with terrorism and the campaign against his opponents. As a result, Kazakhstan was “one of the last in the region” to join the struggle against radical Islam and did so only in the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
As a result, Astana has never made “the struggle with Islamist radicals a political priority.” That has meant that Kazakh jails are not filled with people accused of Islamist extremism, and what Islamic radicals there are have not sought to target the Kazakhstan government.
Underlying all this is Kazakhstan’s distance “from the most unstable zone of the Central Asian region, the Ferghana valley.” And Nazarbayev has no interest in getting involved with that area, a major reason why he has shown little or no interest in Uzbek hints about the possibility of dividing Kyrgyzstan into two parts.
Kyrgyzstan, in contrast, has a significant part of the Ferghana valley within its borders and thus might be expected to be obsessed with the dangers presented by Islamist radicalism. But President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, like his predecessor Askar Akayev, gives the impression that “the struggle with extremists is not his struggle” and that they are not targeting him.
And while many view the turbulence of 1999 as a reflection of the power of the Islamists and the weakness of the Kyrgyzstan state, the Bishkek authorities have shown themselves to be tolerant of the radicals, even allowing a representative office of Hizb ut-Tahrir to “legally” operate in the country’s capital.
Like the Kazakhs, the Kyrgyz who are historically nomadic have never been as religious as many others in Central Asia, and the Kyrgyz powers that be, in the view of most experts in neighboring countries, “do not conceive the domestic political struggle [in that country] as having a religious aspect.”
Sometimes, Asrorov says, the Kyrgyz appear in general “not to want any power at all, for any power with time becomes the power of one clan over another. Thus, as people say, there is nothing personal [in the political struggle], and there is no radical Islam either.” Even suggesting Kyrgyzstan could become a caliphate is “a bad joke.”
In Tajikistan too, the powers that be are not focused on Islamic fundamentalism. Tajik President Emomali Rakhmon has never viewed the threat of radical Islam as a factor of instability” there, and the civil war of the 1990s, “never bore the character of a struggle of religious power against the secular.”
That history and those attitudes have exacerbated tensions between Dushanbe and Tashkent, because the Tajik authorities have not been willing to crack down on the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan within Tajikistan’s borders. Indeed, that group’s militants “feel themselves at home” there.
Turkmenistan, the last of the countries of the region, “is not at the center of the interests of Islamist radicalism,” Asrorov says. Part of the reason for that is Ashgabat’s standing policy of neutrality, but “the main cause is the inhospitable attitude of Turkmens to the ideas of radical Islam,” an attitude that reflects the superficial Islamic quality of life there.
No Turkmen leader has “conducted a broad-gauge war against Islamist radicals both because “Turkmenistan does not feel itself threatened from them” and because “in this country there is not and never will be favorable soil for the growth of radical ideas.” In short, “Turkmenistan lives its own life, the region of Central Asia and the rest of the world, theirs.”
During the 1990s, the approach of Uzbekistan’s Karimov seemed the most successful in attracting Western support for his bid to become a regional leader. But after Andizhan in 2005 when he crushed what he said was an Islamist uprising, something others denied, the West backed away as people saw that “not only Islamists” opposed Karimov.
As a result of this loss of faith in Karimov, the European Union introduced sanctions, but in some ways, they “only made the situation worse: Karimov, armed with the support of Russia and China, only increased pressure on dissidents inside Uzbekistan” and portrayed them all as Islamist.
But the West did not continue that approach for long, Asrorov says. Both the US and the EU view Central Asia as a source of radical Islam and a collection of authoritarian regimes. Feeling they have no choice, both Western centers “finance the authoritarian regimes in order to stop the Islamists.
Unfortunately, as Andizhan showed, “repression from the side in particular of Uzbek powers that be has created fertile ground for radical Islam.” Uzbeks outside of the government have no clear idea of what they want, but it appears that “they are prepared to support anyone who struggles against Karimov, including the radical Islamists.”
In dealing with Central Asia, the Kazakh analyst continues, “the Western community has simply forgotten that alongside radical Islam and authoritarian regimes are also simple people who may attach themselves to the first in order to escape the second,” even if they have no particular love for the ideology of the radicals.
“If the West had recognized this truth,” Asrorov argues, then chances for the better would be irreversible.”
What is surprising in all this, Asrorov notes, is that “Russia which is vitally interested in the stability of its southern frontiers, has not played, is not playing and to all appearances will not play a large role in the struggle against radical Islam in Central Asia,” even though it had the chance to do so, especially after Andizhan.
But Moscow did not take that chance. Instead, Russia focused on economic expansion in the region. The only foundation for a political effort is military base, but that may not be enough. And as a result, Asrorov concludes, “Russia will remain at the margins, and its influence in Central Asia will weaken.”