Ten years ago, Russia invaded Georgia, burning and ethnically cleansing the villages of the Tskhinvali region and occupying and recognizing the regions Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow’s immediate objective was to limit the sovereign right of Georgia to resist the corrupt, backward, and technologically obsolete Russian political and economic system, and, instead, join the transatlantic political, military, and economic alliances of advanced economies. The invasion followed the April 2008 NATO Summit, where Georgia and Ukraine were given a commitment, but no actual mechanisms and timeframe to become members of NATO. The Russian Federation saw this as a window of opportunity to prevent the process.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has attempted to control the countries in its neighborhood at all cost and punish those countries who resist Moscow’s will. In 2008, the United States and the West did not do enough to deter Russian aggression – this mistake must not be repeated.
The Trans-Caspian East-West Trade and Transit Corridor is a regional integrator, trade facilitator and viable transit connector between Europe and Asia. Comprising of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to the west, and Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to the east of the Caspian Sea, this corridor brings together more than 200 million strong market and 400 billion in overall trade while connecting economies of the European Union and China along with access to Russia, Iran, Pakistan and India.
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute invites you to join members of Congress, Congressional Staff and the delegates from the Trans-Caspian countries, to discuss emerging geopolitical importance of the bourgeoning energy and transportation network, as well as U.S. commercial interests arising from it.
Dr. Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi - Chief Advisor of the President of Afghanistan Mr. Elmir Valizade - Deputy Minister of Transport and Communication, Azerbaijan Mr. Genadi Arveladze - Deputy Minister of Economy and Sustainable Development, Georgia Mr. Fatih Metin, Deputy Minister of Economy, Turkey Deputy Minister of Investment, Kazakhstan (name TBC)
Moderator: Fred Starr, Chairman, Central-Asia Caucasus Institute at AFPC
The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at AFPC held a book launch for their most recent work: The Long Game on the Silk Road, by S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell.
Drawing on CACI's twenty years of interaction with the region, the book takes stock of both American and European policies toward Central Asia and the Caucasus. It acknowledges the many achievements, but argues that Western policies suffer from serious and unacknowledged conceptual and structural flaws. The authors propose concrete ways to address these issues and render U.S. and European policies more effective.
Speaker: Fred Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Svante Cornell, Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Where: The Middle East Institute, 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, DC 20036
TRANSIT FORUM with the Embassies of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey
Thursday, 28 April, 2016, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Central Asia, Caspian, South Caucasus and Black Sea regions together form a strategically important transit corridor between China and Europe. Connecting trade, people and economies, the modern trans-Caspian trade and transit routes from China to Europe, envisages an extensive and integrated network of infrastructure, special economic zones, harmonized customs, and cross-border procedures along this route.
Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkey combined represent a market of more than 110 million consumers. These countries are able to offer customized and integrated solutions to companies with highly sophisticated supply chains.
On Thursday, April 28, 2016, the Embassies of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey to the U.S.A., are organizing the “Trans-Caspian East-West Trade and Transit Corridor” Forum in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the World Bank Group, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Council for International Understanding, Boeing Company, U.S.-Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce, AmCham Azerbaijan, America-Georgia Business Council, U.S.-Kazakhstan Business Association, AmCham Kazakhstan, AmCham Georgia, and Turkish-American Business Association/AmCham Turkey.
This special all-day forum, hosted by the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, will introduce projects and investments along the modern Silk Road to U.S. business leaders across a variety of multinational industries.
Speakers at this special forum include: Ambassador Elin Suleymanov, Azerbaijan; Ambassador Archil Gegeshidze, Georgia; Ambassador Kairat Umarov, Kazakhstan; Ambassador Serdar Kılıç, Turkey; Mr. Gary Litman, VP, US Chamber of Commerce; S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, JHU-SAIS; Dr. Taleh Ziyadov, Director-General, Baku International Sea and Trade Port; Mr. Rauf Valiyev, Chairman, Azerbaijan Caspian Shipping; Mr. Mamuka Bakhtadze, CEO, Georgian Railways; Ms. Ketevan Salukvadze, Head of Transport Policy Dept., Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development; Mr. Askar Mamin, President, Kazakhstan Railways; Mr. Sanzhar Yelubayev, President of KTZ Express; Mr. Osman Nuri Beyhan, Deputy Director General for EU and International Affairs, Ministry of Customs and Trade; and others TBA.
Schedule, Thursday, 28 April 2016:
8:00 - 9:00 a.m. Continental breakfast
9:00 - 10:00 a.m. Welcome by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, the US Dept of State, Ambassadors of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, and Turkey, and representatives from the US Chamber of Commerce
10:00 - 11:00 a.m. Panel #1: "Trans-South Caucasus Customs and Trade Facilitation: What Needs to Be Done?" Moderator: S. Frederick Starr
11:00 - 11:25 a.m. Q & A
11:25 - 11:40 a.m. Break (refreshments)
11:40 - 12:40 p.m. Panel #2: "'From Sea to Sea' Integrated Regional Transit and Logistics Infrastructure." Moderator: TBD
12:40 - 1:00 p.m. Q & A
1:00 - 2:00 p.m. Lunch served in the auditorium
2:00 - 3:00 p.m. Panel #3 "Commercial and Investment Opportunities: Financing, Logistics, and Supply Chain." Moderator: Jorg Frieden, Executive Director, The World Bank Group
3:00 - 3:25 p.m. Q & A
3:25 - 4:00 p.m. Closing remarks
Please note location of this forum:
Kenney Auditorium, Nitze Building SAIS - Johns Hopkins University 1740 Massachusetts Ave., NW Washington, DC 20036
On July 18, S. Frederick Starr testified at a Subcomittee Hearing on "Current Developments in Central Asia" convened by the Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia and Emerging Threats of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The video of the event is available from the following link, with Dr. Starr's statement at 1:55.
Edited by S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell Rowman & Littlefield, 2018
1. The Center of Central Asia: Uzbekistan in Regional and International Politics Svante E. Cornell ...........................................................................................................5
2. Continuity and Change in Uzbekistan, 1991-2016 S. Frederick Starr...........................................................................................................18
3. Uzbekistan’s New Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity under New Leadership Richard Weitz................................................................................................................ 41
4. The Economic Modernization of Uzbekistan Mamuka Tsereteli ......................................................................................................... 82
5. Judicial and Governance Reform Mjusa Sever................................................................................................................. 115
6. Political Reforms: Elections, Political Parties, Civil Society Anthony Bowyer ..........................................................................................................146
7. Religion and the Secular State Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn .............................................................................193
8. Foreign Coverage and Reaction to Uzbekistan’s Reforms John C.K. Daly.............................................................................................................220
9. Looking Ahead S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell....................................................................237
For the past century, Turkey has been seen by many as always on the verge of becoming a truly Westernized liberal democracy—only to have democracy lose ground time and again to authoritarianism. Why has that been the pattern, and what role have culture, identity, and religion played in Turkey’s struggle with democracy? This book presents a clear analysis and explanation, showing how cultural prejudices about the Muslim world have informed ideological positions in a way that has ultimately disabled the left within Turkey, leaving it unable to transcend artificial cultural categories and promote broad democratic solidarity. As the populist right mounts challenges around the world, the history of “democracy” in Turkey offers instructive lessons for activists there and beyond.
Recent terrorist attacks in Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, and New York City have been committed by perpetrators with an origin in Central Asia. The CACI-SRSP Joint Center has collected resources from its publication on the topics of terrorism and Islamic radicalism in Central Asia on this page.
For press inquiries: the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute is part of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington DC (202-543-1006); the Silk Road Studies Program is part of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.(+46-734-150065) Please click here for further contact information.
At the turn of 2016 and 2017, events took place in parts of Chechnya that again challenged the triumphant statements of local pro-Moscow and federal authorities that the jihadist-inspired insurgency in this North Caucasian republic was eradicated. Aside from illustrating the latent character of armed conflict in the region in general and in Chechnya in particular, the recent upsurge of violence in Chechnya contains particularities that may have far-reaching consequences. Sporadic attacks against the Kadyrov regime will likely recur in the years to come and intensify should the regime’s grip on power weaken
Central Asia has never ranked high on U.S. priorities. That is unlikely to change under the Trump Administration. Yet recent developments in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, do offer an opportunity to advance U.S. interests through a greater economic-political presence in the region, whilst also countering growing Chinese economic dominance and Russian efforts at military hegemony at a relatively low cost. The two key countries in this possible opportunity for the U.S. are Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
China's gradually increasing economic role in Central Asia since the early 2000s is unsurprising considering the region's geographic proximity to China's dynamic economy. In this context, Beijing has carefully shaped a military strategy in the region, particularly in neighboring Tajikistan. In September 2016, Beijing offered to finance and build several outposts and other military facilities (in addition to the Gulhan post, which was opened in 2012) to beef up Tajikistan's defense capabilities along its border with Afghanistan, whereas China's and Tajikistan's militaries performed a large counter-terrorism exercise in October 2016. These unexpected actions have raised concerns in Russia over rising Chinese influence in Tajikistan.
On December 17, 2016, a shootout in central Grozny between members of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and local security forces claimed the lives of three militants and one police officer. On December 18, a counter-terrorist operation (CTO) launched in the aftermath resulted in the death of four more insurgents, whereas four remaining members of a militant cell were arrested. Three police officers were killed and one injured. While the confrontation between militants and police in Grozny was only the fourth conflict-related incident in the republic during 2016, it demonstrates that ISIS still has the capacity to target Chechen security forces.
Abu Zar al-Burmi was one of the most prominent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) muftis and a close associate of the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda. Despite pledging loyalty to the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2015, he has recently renounced his support of ISIS and is preaching under the banner of the Imam Bukhari Brigade (IBB), which is a Syria-based IMU offshoot that is loyal to al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The case of Abu Zar shows how, since the rise of ISIS in 2014, al-Qaeda has defended its stake in Central Asian jihadism.
Recent evidence shows a gradual increase in Chinese military activity in Central Asia, particularly with Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, although China has for years denied any military interest in the region. In October, PLA and Tajik forces jointly participated in counterterrorism exercises in Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan, following earlier activity in 2016. Whereas Tajikistan was then silent, this time it publicized the exercises, which aroused a visible anxiety in the Russian media although the Russian government has hitherto been unwilling to comment on this issue. China’s initiative could imply a major new development in Chinese policy and in Central Asia’s overall security, with lasting implications for the region.
On December 4, 2016, three months after the death of Uzbekistan’s first President Islam Karimov, the country held new presidential elections. The Prime Minister and acting Interim President Shavkat Mirziyoev became president-elect by defeating three competitors in a highly asymmetric campaign characterized by the utilization of so-called administrative resources. Yet Mirziyoev’s campaign was also an explicit demonstration of new domestic and foreign political trends in post-Karimov Uzbekistan towards more liberal reforms. The campaign also revealed rising new expectations on the part of the Uzbek nation after a quarter-century of one-person rule.
Uzbekistan’s and Tajikistan’s independence in 1991 raised the Shakespearean “To be or not to be?” question concerning the ambitious construction of a dam on the mountainous Vakhsh river in Tajikistan, which would embody the Rogun Hydro Power Station. Uzbekistan – a downstream country – has permanently and vigorously rejected and resisted the project referring to numerous risks associated with Rogun for all downstream countries. Uzbekistan’s president has been the principal political antagonist of this project. Two months after his death in September 2016, Tajikistan’s president has decided to move on with the project.
Few people think about trends in the Caucasus with reference to or in the context of Russia’s Syrian intervention. But Moscow does not make this mistake. From the beginning, Moscow has highlighted its access to the Caucasus through overflight rights and deployment of its forces in regard to Syria, e.g. sending Kalibr cruise missiles from ships stationed in the Caspian Sea to bomb Syria. Therefore we should emulate Russia’s example and seriously assess military trends in the Caucasus in that Syrian context.
Since the death of Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov in early September, signs have emerged of a thaw in relations between Uzbekistan and its neighbor Tajikistan. In the years since independence, bilateral relations have been plagued by mistrust, disputes over water resources and outright hostility. Both sides have adopted a series of punitive measures against each other. Although acting President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has expressed interest in “resetting” relations with Tajikistan, any improvement will be tempered by the ongoing conflict over Tajikistan’s planned hydropower plants.
The last week of August 2016 saw two large-scale Counter-Terrorist Operations (CTOs) in the North Caucasus republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, followed by another CTO conducted in the second week of September. This relatively low-scale increase in military confrontations between militants and security forces in the region nonetheless indicates a steady recovery of non-ISIS Islamist cells, which have been in decline since the emergence of ISIS in the region. While these recent developments may not indicate a revival of the local Islamist insurgency, they indicate that local insurgent jama’ats are still present and active in the region.
On June 8, 2016, FSU Oil & Gas Monitor quoted former UK Energy Minister Charles Hendry as saying that gas from Turkmenistan could reach European markets by various different means, including “overland routes through Iran.” It is unlikely that Hendry would make such an announcement without having received encouraging signals from both Tehran and Ashkhabad. The prospect of gas deliveries from Turkmenistan to European markets is disconcerting for Moscow, which regards the monopolization of gas supply to Europe as one of its major geopolitical and geoeconomic goals.
The North Caucasus insurgency has weakened dramatically in recent years. While Chechnya-based jihadist groups now number a few dozen fighters, jamaats operating in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay have been nearly wrecked. In Ingushetia, a few insurgent groups remain numbering a couple of dozen members. In Dagestan, the epicenter of the regional insurgents, several jamaats have survived and number around a hundred active members. Indicative of the unprecedented weakening of the North Caucasus insurgency is the jihadists’ inability to elect an amir of the Caucasus Emirate: since the liquidation of the last amir Magomed Suleimanov in mid-August 2015, the jihadist resistance has been beheaded as it lacks a formal leadership. Yet has the regional insurgency indeed been defeated?
Many accounts allege that the terrorist organization known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has expanded to northern Afghanistan and intends to infiltrate Central Asia from there. Taking a closer look, however, it becomes apparent that virtually all such claims lack a sound foundation and that the remaining, more specific hints like reported sightings of black flags also stand on shaky ground. Consequentially, and contrary to the eastern parts of Afghanistan, there is no compelling evidence of a presence of the self-styled Caliphate in northern Afghanistan and, hence, also no immediate threat to Central Asia.
50 years ago, Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent hosted a summit ending the India-Pakistan war of 1965, resulting in the Tashkent Declaration. It was, so to speak, a Soviet “Camp David” aimed at bringing two antagonists – India and Pakistan – to peace. The SCO summit of June 2016 was, symbolically speaking, a second – multilateral – platform created in the same place, Tashkent, for the same two states to restore peace. Yet this summit did not appear to be a second Tashkent “Camp David,” but rather a challenge for the SCO itself.
Recent months have seen increased attacks on journalists and human rights activists in Chechnya. Such attacks have long become characteristic of the Moscow-backed Chechen authorities’ attitude to any form of dissent, both within and outside the North Caucasus republic. While most human rights organizations and journalists were pushed out of Chechnya in the 2000s, the recent wave of violence has been particularly aggressive and threaten to remove the last resort for complaints on human rights violations as well as the only remaining sources of data on such violations in the republic.
Kazakh experts have recently begun to call water the “liquid gold of the 21st century,” as all states in the Central Asian region face greater demand for water concurrent with a significant decline in water supply. The Aral Sea – which became a symbol of environmental mismanagement and environmental catastrophe at the end of the 20th century – shows that sustainable development policies can help to deal with even the most difficult water issues. Conversely, however, mismanagement and border conflicts over water might worsen the situation, leading to further political and economic tensions. The current question is whether Kazakhstan can collaborate with other Central Asian states in saving and perhaps reviving the Aral Sea.
On May 21, a U.S. drone attack killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour and taxi driver Mohammad Azam near Nushki in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Mansour was returning from Taftan, Iran, where he had gone for medical treatment, to his residence near the provincial capital Quetta, a 370-mile journey. Mansour and his driver had completed roughly two-thirds of the nine-hour trip. A Pakistani passport and a Computer National Identity Card (CNIC) identifying Mansur as “Wali Muhammad” were found near the wreckage. Mansour’s death, coming nine months after his contested election as “Amir al-Mu'minin” by the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, has added additional volatility to Afghanistan’s complex political landscape, effectively sidelining any possibility of renewing peace negotiations with the Afghan government as Mansour’s successor seeks to consolidate his position.
A few weeks before the April 2-5 fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a border crisis occurred between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan on March 18-26. Some observers connected these two events as links in the same chain. Indeed, both cases revolve around so-called frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space; where one of the conflicting sides is a CSTO member and the other is not; and where speculations proliferate of a hidden Russian hand in both the instigation and mediation of the clashes. The two conflicts can be seen as a by-product of the same process – the continuing divergence of the former single Soviet space.
Throughout 2015, Kazakhstan celebrated the 450th anniversary of what it regards as the beginning of its statehood as a major national event. This extraordinary interest in a seemingly academic subject had clear political undertones: Kazakhstan is not an “artificial” state, as sometimes proclaimed by representatives of the Kremlin. The country’s continuous process of distancing itself from Russia has been coupled with repression against suspected proponents of separatism in Northern Kazakhstan, populated by considerable numbers of ethnic Russians or Russian-speakers. Despite the existence of clearly pro-Russian attitudes in this region, Moscow has not supported them out of fear that it could raise extremist forms of nationalism in Russia, which would be highly problematic for the Kremlin.
For more than a decade after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was the “bogeyman” of Central Asian militancy. It was the most well-known militant group in Central Asia and abroad, even though it was in exile in Afghanistan and Pakistan under the protection of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Years of drone strikes and counter-insurgency operations failed to eliminate the IMU. Ironically, however, it was neither the U.S. nor coalition forces that destroyed the IMU. Rather, it was the Taliban who liquidated the IMU in late 2015 as punishment for its “betrayal” of the Taliban (and al-Qaeda) by pledging loyalty to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). This will change the nature of the militant threat to Central Asia and force a reconsideration of Uzbekistan’s counter-extremism measures.
Russia’s and Tajikistan’s joint antiterrorist exercise on March 15-20 involved five Tajik training ranges, and showcased bilateral security cooperation. The exercise seemed routine, consistent with each country’s national security concerns; however a number of factors coalesced on Moscow’s planning and deployment side to make it both unique and potentially revealing. Buoyed by its recent experience of military conflict in Ukraine and Syria, Russia’s Armed Forces display increased confidence in supporting a more pro-active Russian foreign policy posture. The elements it deployed in Tajikistan for the exercise contain strategic messages for the benefit of other actors and Russia’s potential adversaries in Central Asia: for regional governments, the message is one of reassurance and renewed confidence.
The states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus are in for a rough ride if recent Russian national security documents and speeches genuinely represent the Kremlin’s worldview. Not only do these texts veto their membership in NATO, but they exclude mutually profitable partnerships for these countries with the European Union and other Western institutions, constrain their domestic development, and encourage the suppression of civil liberties by warning of fictitious Western plots to change their regimes under the guise of democracy promotion and human rights.
Moscow has stated that among its defense and security priorities for 2016, Central Asia and the South Caucasus will top its agenda. Kavkaz 2016, the main strategic military exercise of the year, will take place in the Southern Military District (MD), while Tsentr 2015 occurred in Central MD with among its vignettes a rehearsal of intervention in Central Asia. Surprisingly in this context, the Defense Ministry plans to restructure the 201st Base in Tajikistan from divisional to brigade status. This initiative is driven by Moscow’s growing concerns about the future of Central Asian security as it faces multiple potential threats stemming from Afghanistan and Islamic State (ISIS). But paradoxically, Moscow’s latest moves to strengthen the basing of its forces in Tajikistan serves as an indicator of official perceptions that the region could suffer a serious security challenge.
On November 25-26, Azerbaijani law enforcement carried out a special operation in Nardaran, a township on the northern edge of the Absheron peninsula located 25 kilometers northeast of the capital’s center. The purpose of the special operation was to break the backbone of the Muslim Unity group, a purportedly militant Shiite organization. The context and implications of the Nardaran events have received little attention in Western media, despite the concerns raised both within and outside the region about Azerbaijan finding itself on the brink of religiously inspired civil unrest.
In early November, John Kerry made a long overdue trip to Central Asia, becoming the first Secretary of State to visit all five Central Asian countries in one diplomatic tour. His agenda focused on reassuring the regional governments that the United States cares about their concerns, specifically Afghanistan and religious extremism. Kerry also highlighted U.S. support for region-wide economic integration, ecological protection, and cultural and humanitarian cooperation. He further developed bilateral cooperation with each Central Asian government. However, there were no major agreements or blockbuster initiatives announced during Kerry’s visit. It will require sustained follow-through by the current and next U.S. administrations to achieve enduringly positive results.
A number of initiatives have combined to make the development of continental transport and trade across the heartland of Eurasia a reality rather than a mere vision. Some of these have been external, while many have been internal to the region. Yet Europe, which launched the visionary TRACECA program in the early 1990s, is largely absent from the scene today. Yet if Europe works with Central Asian states, it stands to benefit greatly from this process. This would involve work to make the transport corridors more attuned to market logic; to promote the development of soft infrastructure; to pay attention to the geopolitics of transport and support the Caucasus and Caspian corridor; and not least, to look ahead to the potential of linking Europe through Central Asia not just to China, but also to the Indian subcontinent.
In early October, Russia's Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu announced that Russian navy warships based in the Caspian Sea had fired a total of 26 missiles at the positions of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. The minister claimed that all the 11 targets, located around 1,500 kilometers from the warships, were destroyed over two days. Russian authorities and pro-regime media have considered the strikes a big success. While information soon resurfaced that some cruise missiles had landed on Iranian soil, the fact that the October strike is definite proof of the failed attempts to turn the landlocked water basin into a demilitarized zone has received less attention.
During the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2015 in New York, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kazakhstan’s, Kyrgyzstan’s, Tajikistan’s, Turkmenistan’s and Uzbekistan’s Ministers of Foreign Affairs to set up the new C5+1 format for dialogue between the U.S. and Central Asian states. As a first manifestation of this dialogue platform, Kerry made a Central Asian tour in early November. The C5+1 meeting in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, took place in the context of global geopolitical turbulence that has raised Central Asia’s profile in U.S. global strategy
Moscow has recently undertaken several actions aiming to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East and Central Asia. On August 23-28, 2015, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which includes several members from Central Asia, undertook military exercises in Russia. Russian authorities stated that the maneuvers aimed to help CSTO members develop means to effectively move airborne forces and other troops to conflict zones, including in Central Asia. The exercises partly served to address a real concern on the part of Russia as well as other CSTO members over the rise of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). However, Russia sees ISIS not only as a threat but also as an opportunity for both increasing Russia’s influence in Central Asia and providing a pretext for its venture in the Middle East.
The deepening of Russia’s military presence in Syria and its direct involvement in aiding the Assad regime during the Syrian crisis is a game changing step in the geostrategic context of the Middle East. This is Russia’s third move during the last eight years to change the strategic status quo in the greater Middle East by means of military force. Russia’s new step in Syria aims to influence the geopolitical makeup of the Middle East following the collapse of the Sykes-Picot order. Russia aims to establish itself as a key player from the Caspian Basin in the east, via the Black Sea, to the Eastern Mediterranean.
On October 4, Kyrgyzstan held parliamentary elections marked by significant improvements in the country’s democratic development. The elections have demonstrated the viability of Kyrgyzstan’s 2010 constitution, which delegates more powers to the parliament and aims to prevent the emergence of autocratic political center. Fourteen political parties competed, and six were able to pass the national and regional thresholds to win seats.
Russia’s recent military engagement in Syria and calls for the establishment of an international coalition against the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has produced renewed interest in Moscow’s policies toward the jihadist quasi-state. Against this background, while many have speculated about Moscow’s true intentions in the Middle East, relatively little attention has been paid to Moscow’s interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus in the context of its increasingly vocal rhetoric of fighting ISIS. Moscow is actively utilizing the risks and threats stemming from the ISIS to boost its clout in the near and far abroad.
Rather than resulting from external factors, as the regime has argued, the recent violence in Tajikistan erupted from within the state itself. Elites within the Tajik state continually compete for political influence and economic gain. These struggles occasionally break out into violence. Ironically, such conflicts are actually useful for the regime. They allow it to legitimize a purge of potentially disloyal members and a crackdown on other opponents. By blaming the latest conflict on the country’s leading opposition party, the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), the regime legitimized its move to ban the party and arrest its leading members.
Recent months have seen North Caucasian amirs pledging allegiance to the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). Many have pointed to this process as a sign of the changing paradigm of the regional resistance, which is being transformed into – or absorbed by – the global jihadist insurgency. But these assumptions can be challenged by a look at the internal dynamics, the distance from key hotbeds of jihadist violence, and the limits of the North Caucasian insurgency. While ISIS may have some impact on the North Caucasian jamaats, it is likely to be rather limited and indirect.
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) held its annual summit on June 9-10, 2015, in the Russian town of Ufa, which was an historical turning point in the organization’s evolution. It adopted a Development Strategy towards 2025 and admitted India and Pakistan as full members. Uzbekistan has taken over the Chairmanship of the SCO from Russia for the next one year period. During the summit, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov expressed concerns revealing Tashkent’s reluctant acknowledgement of the fact that from now on the SCO will be more than just a Central Asia-focused structure.
On June 22-24, Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, hosted a third meeting of the Uzbek-Tajik intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. Unlike the two previous sessions, which were organized in Dushanbe in August 2002 and February 2009, this year’s bilateral trade talks took place against the backdrop of an emerging détente between the two Central Asian neighbors. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are currently confronted with a host of shared challenges ranging from the threat of radical Islam to socioeconomic instability, while their bilateral relationship is still constrained by unsettled disputes from the past.
Central Asia is a key region that many believe has fallen into the crosshairs of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS). Local governments are gravely concerned about returning fighters and possible ISIS infiltration in the region, and foreign powers, especially neighboring Russia and China, have expressed their deep concerns. This grim picture, however, obscures a more complex, and perhaps more accurate, story. Might the specter of ISIS have less to do with its on-the-ground ability to destabilize the region and more to do with the geopolitical concerns of those who are stating these threats?
With the recent death of its leader and the decisions by numerous field commanders in Dagestan and Chechnya to disassociate themselves with the organization, analysts are wondering if the Caucasus Emirate can endure. The terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIS) has emerged as the latest paradigm for resistance to Russian rule in the Caucasus. It is, however, only the latest in a long line of such paradigms to take root in the region, competing with the Caucasus Emirate, Chechen nationalism and other forms of ethnic separatism. What is the outlook for ISIS as a paradigm for resistance in the North Caucasus?
The slowing Russian economy suffered a triple shock in the form of Western economic sanctions, falling oil prices, and the plummeting Russian ruble in 2014, resulting in a negative impact on Central Asian states. In addition, tighter migration regulations in Russia, in force since early 2015, are having an effect on the flow of migration from Central Asia, particularly from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These three countries rely heavily on remittances from their migrant workers in Russia. The drop in remittances could increase socioeconomic disaffection in parts of Central Asia that are dependent on labor migrants’ earnings.
On April 19, 2015, the Caucasus Emirate’s leader Aliaskhab Kebekov, nom de guerre Ali Abu Mukhammad, was killed in a special operation carried out by Russian elite forces in Dagestan’s Buynaksk district. His death came at a time of profound decline of the North Caucasian jihadists, coupled with the ongoing split in their ranks as an increasing number of fighters and insurgent leaders turn to the Islamic State (IS). Upcoming months will show whether the North Caucasus insurgency, and particularly its Dagestani branch, will become dominated by IS sympathizers and ink up with the global jihad, or remain a largely local endeavor.
Recent months have been hectic for Dagestani jihadists. Since mid-2014, this hotbed of the North Caucasian insurgency has witnessed a gradual split, with numerous Dagestan-based jihadist commanders pledging oath (bayat) to the leader of the Islamic State, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. In response, the Caucasus Emirate’s formal leader, Aliaskhab Kebekov, himself a Dagestani, criticized the disloyal commanders for splitting the ranks of the local insurgency. In mid-February, the newly appointed amir of the Dagestani Vilayat, Kamil Saidov, joined Kebekov in his condemnation of those submitting to Baghdadi’s authority. Given the North Caucasian and Dagestani jamaats' weakening capacity, the ongoing developments in Dagestan could break the unity in this last bastion of the regional insurgency.
The end of 2014 and early 2015 have witnessed a notable reduction in conflict-related violence across the North Caucasus. With the continuous departure of Islamist volunteers from that Russian region to the Middle East, in 2014 the number of casualties, among both militants and security forces, have decreased by more than half, compared to the previous year. While observers associate the current de-escalation of violence with the outflow of large numbers of North Caucasian youth to join Islamic State (IS) and with internal conflicts within the North Caucasus Islamist underground (Caucasus Emirate), reasons behind the recent decline of insurgency-related activities are likely to be more complex.
The recent attacks in Paris against the studio of satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, known for its caricatures of Muhammad, have sparked heated debates in Dagestan. While Dagestanis have primarily focused on evaluating the implications of this single case of lethal violence, their debates have unfolded against the background of increasingly frequent attacks carried out by members of local jihadi groups – jamaats – against targets deemed anti-Islamic according to Salafi dogma.