Monday, May 9, 2011

Window on Eurasia: Central Asia on Brink of ‘Inter-Ethnic Explosion,’ Moscow Scholar Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 9 – An” inter-ethnic explosion” in Central Asia and Kazakhstan is increasingly likely given both the impact of gastarbeiters flowing from the southern part of that region to the north and the increasingly widespread idea of a ‘Greater Uzbekistan,” according to a Moscow ethnographer.

Georgy Sitnyansky, a researcher on Central Asia at the Center of Asian and Pacific Research at the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, argues in addition that Russia is interested in particular in stability in Kazakhstan and Northern Kyrgyzstan, the only “potential subjects of Eurasian integration” (

The author of a new monograph, “Ethnic Conflicts in Central Asia and the National Interests of Russia,” told Regnum in an interview posted online on Friday that while Kazakhstan stands somewhat apart from the problems of the other Central Asian countries because of the ethnic composition of its population, that may change.

At present, Sityansky noted, only about 40 percent of the population of Kazakhstan is ethnically Kazakh, something that makes the slogan “Kazakhstan for the Kazakhs” relatively unimportant. But 20 years from now, that could change, both because of the outflow of European nationalities and because of the influx of migrants from the south.

For the time being, he continued, Kazakhstan has been able to “block the influx of Uzbeks by inviting Kazakhs from Mongolia, the Oralmans.” But the question arises, “for how long will this work? For how long will Kazakhstan be able to avoid the problems that gastarbeiters from the south have already caused in the Russian Federation and Kyrgyzstan?

But the region may not have to wait that long for inter-ethnic explosions in other places, Sityansky argued. Kyrgyzstan was “the first bell” in that regard. But “as far as the activity of Uzbekistan is concerned,” the notion of a “Greater Uzbekistan” could trigger conflicts in Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan as well.

Events like those which shook Osh last year could push Uzbekistan to take more dramatic action. That is all the more likely because it would have the effect of allowing Tashkent to displace Astana as the regional leader. But at the same time, “in Uzbekistan itself, the situation for economic regions is not as stable as it appears.”

Thus, these domestic Uzbek problems might drive Tashkent to behave aggressively toward its neighbors, but such actions in turn could “end badly for itself.” It is of course possible that “namely the dislike of Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan for the Karimov regime [in Uzbekistan] may restrain this process.”

“But,” Sityansky continued, “that regime can be changed – the last events in the Arab countries show that any dictatorship may be overthrown, and then a different attitude of the Osh Uzbeks toward Tashkent would be possible.”

Moscow has an interest in stability in Central Asia in general and “in the first instance on the territories of Kazakhstan and Northern Kyrgyzstan,” two places which have potential for “Eurasian integration.” But a change in Tashkent could bring to power an Islamist regime and that would threaten Russian interests immediately.

Asked whether NATO’s military campaign in Libya is a precedent for a possible Russian response in Central Asia, the Moscow scholar says that such a precedent could be invokved only in the most extreme cases. “For the time being, [Moscow will use] all possible levers of pressure on Karimov” to prompt him to liberalize.

Sityansky concluded his article by saying that “if ‘the flow [of gastarbeiters] from south to north] is not stopped, then in the mid to long term, one cannot exclude even the fall of Kazakhstan into the orbit of radical Islamization.” That seemed improbable to many in Kyrgyzstan a decade ago, but now, the ethnologist says, it is happening.

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