Tuesday, 22 December 2015 00:00

Kazakhstan: An Island of Stability in a Turbulent Region

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By Vladimir Socor

ISDP Policy Brief no. 191

December 22, 2015

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The year now ending marked a milestone in Kazakhstan’s rapprochement with the European Union. On December 21, 2015 in Astana, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and Kazakhstan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yerlan Idrissov, signed the EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. This new-generation Agreement replaces and upgrades an earlier, less ambitious document. Kazakhstan is the first Central Asian country to achieve this status vis-a-vis the European Union. This status puts Kazakhstan ahead of Russia in terms of official relations with the EU; moreover, the Kazakhstan-EU relationship is trouble-free.

The Enhanced Partnership is designed to strengthen political dialogue between the EU and Kazakhstan, advance mutual trade and investments, and reinforce cooperation in such policy areas as energy, environment, agriculture and rural development, finance and banking, rule of law and trans-border law enforcement, higher education and research. The agreement reflects the shared economic interests and prioritizes their further advancement. The European Union collectively holds the first place among Kazakhstan’s foreign trade partners and is also the largest foreign direct investor in Kazakhstan (see below).
Prefacing the enhanced agreement’s signing, the chief of the EU’s mission in Astana, Ambassador Traian Hristea, remarked that “Kazakhstan’s stability and predictability was an all-important prerequisite” to this achievement (Eurasia & World, December 8, 2015). Key to that stability and predictability is Kazakhstan’s executive power centered in the presidential institution. This has provided a durable basis for planning and implementing Kazakhstan’s modernizing reforms. Those efforts can only be assessed properly in relation to Kazakhstan’s historical legacies, current level of societal development, and the low base and late start of modernization processes in this country.


Kazakhstan’s Model of Centralized Reforms
The concepts of evolution, organic development, deference to the constituted authority of the state, and the politics of national consensus define the context of Kazakhstan’s modernization, its scope and its pace. Those features of Kazakhstan’s political culture not only cannot be ignored or circumvented, but can be capitalized on, in the process of modernization. Those features are major assets to stability and orderly development.
Kazakhstan’s reforms (as in other successfully modernizing non-Western countries) are necessarily elite-driven from above, under a recognized national leader. The development of representative political institutions follows an evolutionary process, correlated with the gradual spread of education and civic responsibility among voters and political parties. Kazakhstan’s elective institutions are developing organically with the state itself, rather than as a counterweight to executive power, at this stage. Decentralization of political power, if introduced prematurely, can incapacitate the state and paralyze reform efforts.
The national consensus, as personified by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, has developed based on the president’s performance in office, steady economic growth under his tenure, and the confidence he generates in the continuing stability and modernization of Kazakhstan, against an international backdrop of mounting disorders. Ultimately, however, that national consensus is premised on expectations of growing prosperity; thus, the consensus is not unconditional.
In April 2015, Kazakhstan held its fifth presidential election in a quarter-century of independent statehood, reelecting Nazarbayev to another five-year term of office, which is generally assumed to be his final one. The reelection has bolstered Nazarbayev’s mandate to deal with the consequences of global and regional economic instability now affecting Kazakhstan. Nazarbayev went on to announce some policy initiatives with potentially transformative socio-economic impact, discussed below, while retaining the cabinet of ministers in its existing composition to implement those initiatives. This approach reflects the leadership’s pursuit of modern transformation of the country in conditions of political stability.
Observers commonly tend to focus on the political transition to a post-Nazarbayev era. As the president and governing circles see it, however, this final presidential term should also usher in a second stage of Kazakhstan’s structural economic changes and political reforms. Moreover, those carefully paced reforms will have to be combined with emergency anti-crisis programs.
Voters’ expectations are high from the President Nazarbayev and government in the current circumstances. The president is expected to ensure, as before, the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its protection from transnational terrorism and other forms of political violence, resumption of economic growth powered by international investment, equitable allocation of the national income, an accelerated development of infrastructure across the vast country, and the transition to younger generations of the administrative, managerial, and political elites in the state and private sectors. Those expectations are likely to be transferred in due course to the next leadership, be it personalized (something difficult to emulate after Nazarbayev) or be it a more collegial one.


Managing an Unstable Region and World
Kazakhstan’s leadership discusses such issues candidly with its population and its international partners. It is a measure of Kazakhstan’s openness to the world that this country’s leadership must constantly evaluate the impact of global and regional processes on Kazakhstan, and how to adjust policies for a more effective participation in those processes. For it is an increasingly unstable world to which Kazakhstan is open and exposed.
The most serious challenges in that world are of recent date and unaccustomed, singly and in combination, to Kazakhstan. They include the economic slowdown or downturn in Kazakhstan’s main trading partners (the EU, Russia, China), declining global prices for oil and other export commodities of Kazakhstan, unpredictable turns in Russia’s foreign policies under President Vladimir Putin, economic and political risks of membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, and relative disinterest of the United States toward Central Asia in strategic terms.
Kazakhstan’s “multi-vector” policy is designed to promote stability in the international environment on issues directly affecting Kazakhstan. The basic goal is to multiply the sources of international support for Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and its secure development. This policy represents, to some extent, a creative adaptation of the age-old practice of small and medium powers to balance between great powers and power blocs. In Kazakhstan’s case, however, multi-vectorism is not limited to reactive maneuvering between Russia (the main, if undeclared, source of concerns), China and the West (as undeclared balancers). Rather, Kazakhstan’s multi-vectorism involves pro-active initiatives to influence big players’ policies in the Central Asian region and the relevant decisions of international organizations.
The policy operates by diversifying Kazakhstan’s affiliations to international organizations and maximizing its diplomatic initiatives relevant to Central Asia there. It aims for stability and predictability in the region and beyond through the adjustment and balancing of the multiple interests involved. The multi-vector policy expresses Kazakhstan’s sense of its own identity as a bridge between Asia and Europe, a cultural crossroads, and almost pre-destined in these ways as an international diplomatic platform, its reach out cross-continental in scope (see Johan Engvall, Svante E. Cornell: “Asserting Statehood: Kazakhstan’s Role in International Organizations,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center Silk Road Paper, December 2015).
Kazakhstan’s stability rests on harmonizing the country’s multiple internal and external identities. Multi-vectorism is both a considered strategy and an outgrowth of those multiple identities, which Kazakhstan is bringing to bear in its balanced foreign policy. This is a Muslim-majority, multi-confessional country, and a firmly secular state; a nation of the Turkic-speaking family, albeit with Russian still a lingua franca, though slowly receding as such; a part of the Muslim World and of the Turkic World, but not of the “Russian World;” a post-Soviet country, though more open to globalization than any in that category; an Asian country that views itself as bridging Asia with Europe, increasingly becoming an extension of the European economy, albeit in the mineral-extractive sector mainly.


The Russia Factor
Russia regards Kazakhstan, by definition, as part of a Russia-led Eurasian economic and security system through the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union (CSTO, EAEU). In that sense, Moscow’s view of Kazakhstan’s independence and sovereignty is a restrictive view, contingent on Kazakhstan’s remaining a member in good standing of those organizations.
Within the Eurasian Economic Union (officially launched on January 1, 2015), Kazakhstan aims to capitalize on that single market which promises free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor and common transport tariffs. However, Moscow’s suggestions to create EAEU supranational bodies and delegate sovereign powers to them, introduce a single currency, or institutionalize the EAEU politically are all viewed by Kazakhstan (along with other member states) as contrary to its interests. Kazakhstan (again, along with others) has refused to join Russia’s counter-sanctions on the EU in connection with the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the World Trade Organization and Kazakhstan completed their long-running negotiations and Kazakhstan became a full WTO member in November 2015.
As a post-Soviet country with a sizeable ethnic Russian minority population (currently some 23 percent of Kazakhstan’s total population, but concentrated in the country’s north and north-east), Kazakhstan proactively cultivates an atmosphere of harmony in inter-ethnic relations. It is to the advantage of Kazakhstan’s stability that the political culture of deference to state authority is shared across ethnic lines in the country. Recently, however, Kazakhstan has seen Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine, and must consider the potential wider implications of the expansionist “Russian World” doctrine.
In an oft-quoted remark, Russian President Vladimir Putin has credited Nazarbayev with having “created a state on a territory where no state had existed previously.” Some observers have interpreted Putin’s remark as an insinuation that Kazakhstan is an artificial state susceptible to partition, by analogy with Putin’s earlier comments about Ukraine. This reading is almost certainly mistaken or unduly alarmist, however. Overall the Kremlin’s message is that CSTO and EAEU member states can count on preserving their territorial integrity with Russia’s support, while those choosing a Western orientation (as “single vector”) risk losing their territorial integrity at Russia’s hands or with its connivance (Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine). In Kazakhstan’s case, the state leadership has successfully avoided a split in society along ethnic and regional lines over the country’s strategic orientation. President Nazarbayev’s personal rapport with Putin can be viewed as a guarantee of stability in inter-state relations for the duration of Nazarbayev’s lifetime.
China’s massive economic interests in and with Kazakhstan constitute, in effect, a factor of geopolitical stability in the region. These have turned Kazakhstan into China’s top investment destination in Eurasia, with $ 26 billion as of 2014 (Xinhua, May 7, 2015), and more planned at similar levels of magnitude. These interests make China a stakeholder in Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and security, providing Kazakhstan with wider political and economic leeway vis-a-vis Russia.
Chinese interests in Kazakhstan advance in two stages, planned for the decades ahead. The first stage focuses on oil and gas pipelines connecting Kazakhstan (as well as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan via Kazakhstan) with China. These have been built during the last 10 years as Chinese-led projects, partly reversing the direction of Central Asian energy export flows from Russia toward China, with Kazakhstan providing the main transit route for deliveries from third countries to China. The second stage in Chinese planning focuses on land transportation connecting China to Europe via Central Asia, with Kazakhstan again to provide the main transit routes. In this context the two countries intend to align China’s Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative with Kazakhstan’s Bright Path stimulus program. The common intention is to build and/or upgrade rail and road cargo routes between China and the European Union via Kazakhstan.


Kazakhstan and the West
While Russia and China pursue coherent strategies toward Kazakhstan and the wider region, the United States currently seems bent on disengagement or, occasionally, groping to define some elements of a strategy. Viewing the region through the prism of Afghanistan or Islamist terrorist threats from outside the region are narrow, ad hoc approaches that cannot substitute for a U.S. strategy and fall short of expectations in the region. Those expectations are still focused, basically, on maintaining a stable triangular balance between Russian, Chinese, and U.S. (seconded by the EU) power, influence and engagement (S. Frederick Starr et al., “Looking Forward: Kazakhstan and the United States,” Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center Silk Road Paper).
The European Union collectively holds the first place among Kazakhstan’s foreign trade partners, with a turnover of some $ 54 billion in 2014, or slightly more than 50 percent of Kazakhstan’s total foreign trade turnover (Trend, December 22, 2015). The EU is the final destination of nearly 70 percent of Kazakhstan’s oil-sector exports (which represent some 90 percent of the total value of Kazakhstan’s exports to the EU). The bulk of Kazakhstan’s oil and petrochemicals deliveries, however, reach Europe via Russia, which is a sub-optimal situation for both Kazakhstan and the EU in terms of security of transit and supply. The EU is also the largest foreign direct investor in Kazakhstan, representing over 50% of FDI in Kazakhstan as of 2014 (European Union External Action Service, “New EU-Kazakhstan Enhanced Partnership and Cooperation Agreement,” December 21, 2015.)


While external challenges accumulate, Nazarbayev---who turns 76 this year---is expected to steer the domestic transition of power during his current term of office. When embarking on this term (Kazinform, April 29, 2015), Nazarbayev listed the main sources of international instability surrounding Kazakhstan that subsequent events continually bear out: a) Disorders of the international state system, with new types of conflicts conducted by states and non-state actors motivated by radical ideologies; b) Global economic turbulence, economic sanctions and counter-sanctions, and divisions among trade blocs; and c) Growing dysfunctions in the established international security institutions and economic institutions. Such an external context generates new types of potential vulnerabilities for Kazakhstan.
To forestall a spillover of these negative trends into the country, Kazakhstan’s leadership seeks new means to consolidate the basis of domestic stability. This includes state-encouraged development of a middle class. Stimulating the formation of a property-owning middle class has long been on the country’s economic agenda, but is now acquiring additional significance as a source of social and political stability. Kazakhstan’s government is developing privatization programs to auction state-owned small and medium sized enterprises, shares in large state enterprises, and agricultural land. Assets of the national holdings Samruk Kazyna, Baiterek, and KazAgro could be included in the privatization program. In his recent state-of-the-nation address (Kazinform, December 1, 2015), ruling out tax hikes on private business, Nazarbayev also hinted at fiscal amnesty, encouraging “wealthy Kazakhs and all Kazakh businessmen, with capital in the country or abroad … to legalize your capital and participate in privatization bids.”
Nazarbayev went on to suggest: “Enrich yourselves, create jobs, pay taxes … The state provides unprecedented measures for privatization and economic liberalization. We want to create a state where prosperous citizens live well and do well, for themselves and for the country.” Nazarbayev, however, coupled such encouragements with a strong warning against conspicuous consumption that excites social envy (Kazinform, December 1, 2015).
That “enrich yourselves” remark brings an echo from the long evolution of modern Europe. Some 180 years ago, French Prime Minister Francois Guizot famously urged the bourgeois, “enrichissez-vous” through productive investments of their capital. Kazakhstan may now be approaching an “enrichissez-vous” moment in its own social development. Not coincidentally, Guizot’s financial liberalization overlapped with the country’s move from royal absolutism to a constitutional monarchy. And it took France another half-century before it became a parliamentary republic, unstable even then.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Fellow with the Jamestown Foundation, Washington D.C.

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    List of Analytic Resources

    Svante E. Cornell and Michael Jonsson, eds. Conflict, Crime, and the State in Postcommunist Eurasia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. (Includes chapters on Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and the North Caucasus)

    Svante E. Cornell, “Russia: an Enabler of Jihad?Op-Ed, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, January 16, 2017

    Jeffry W. Hartman “The May 2005 Andijan Uprising: What We Know” Silk Road Paper, May, 2016, pp. 68

    John C.K. Daly “Rush to Judgment: Western Media and the 2005 Andijan Violence” Silk Road Paper, May, 2016, pp. 85

    Shirin Akiner “Kyrgyzstan 2010: Conflict and ContextSilk Road Paper, July, 2016, pp. 146

    S. Frederick Starr, ”Moderate Islam: Look to Central AsiaNew York Times, 26 February 2014.

    Peter Sinnott, “Peeling the Waziristan Onion: Central Asians in Armed Islamist Movements in Afghanistan and Pakistan” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly, Volume 7, No. 4 (2009) pp. 33-53

    Didier Chaudet, “When the Bear Confronts the Crescent: Russia and the Jihadist Issue” China & Eurasia Forum Quarterly. Vol. 7 Issue 2, 2009, pp.37-58.

    Svante E. Cornell, Narcotics, Radicalism, and Armed Conflict in Central Asia: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Terrorism and Political Violence, 17:4, 2007, 619-639, 2007

    Galina M. Yemelianova “The Rise of Islam in Muslim Eurasia: Internal Determinants and Potential Consequences.” China & Eurasia Forum Quarterly. 2007, Vol. 5 Issue 2, pp 73-91.

    Svante E. Cornell, Narcotics and Armed Conflict: Interaction and Implications, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 30:3 ,2007, 207-227, DOI: 10.1080/10576100601148449

    Michael Scheuer “Central Asia in Al-Qaeda's Vision of the Anti-American Jihad, 1979-2006” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: Terrorism, Volume 4, No. 2,2006, pp. 5-10

    Saule Mukhametrakhimova “Perception and Treatment of the "Extremist" Islamic Group Hizb ut-Tahrir by Central Asian Governments” The China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly: Terrorism, Volume 4, No. 2,2006, pp. 49-54

    Svante E. Cornell & Regine A. Spector, Central Asia: More than Islamic extremists, The Washington Quarterly, 25:1, 2002, 193-206, 2002



    CACI Analyst Articles, 2014-2017, on Islamism, Central Asia and Syria

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    Stephen Blank “Central Asia: An Opportunity for the Trump Administration” The CACI Analyst, March 22, 2017

    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.

    Fuad Shahbazov “China’s Long March into Central Asia: How Beijing Expands Military Influence in Tajikistan” The CACI Analyst, February 21, 2017

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    Huseyn Aliyev “Islamic State-inspired attacks continue in ChechnyaThe CACI Analyst,  February 7, 2017

    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.

    Jacob Zenn “Abu Zar and Al Qaeda’s presence in Central AsiaThe CACI Analyst, January 16, 2017

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    Stephen Blank “New signs of Chinese military interest in Central AsiaThe CACI Analyst , January 16th, 2017

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    Farkhod Tolipov “Uzbekistan between a new president and the same nation: is it perestroika?The CACI Analyst, January 10, 2017

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    Farkhod Tolipov “Uzbekistan-Tajikistan: game over, but what is the score?” The CACI Analyst, December 15th, 2016,

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    Stephen Blank “Russian intervention in Syria and the CaucasusThe CACI Analyst,  November 27, 2016

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    Edward Lemon “Signs of improving relations between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but tensions remainThe CACI Analyst,  October 19, 2016

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    Huseyn Aliyev “Revival of Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus?” The CACI Analyst, October 14, 2016

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    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “The North Caucasus insurgency: weakened but not eradicated” The CACI Analyst, October 6 th,  2016

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    Farkhod Tolipov “The Tashkent summit and the expanded SCO” The CACI Analyst, July 27th, 2016

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    Emil Souleimanov “Chechen authorities raise pressure on human rights organizations” The CACI Analyst, July 23rd, 2016

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    Rafis Abazov  “Fixing the Aral Sea disaster: towards environmental cooperation in Central Asia?The CACI Analyst,  June 28th, 2016

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    John C.K. Daly “The death of Mullah Mansour and the future of the Taliban” The CACI Analyst, June 7th, 2016

    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.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Ad-hoc peace or ad-hoc war: micro-geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus” The CACI Analyst, June 2nd, 2016

    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.

    Dmitry Shlapentokh “Kazakhstan's history as a geopolitical battlefield” The CACI Analyst, May 27th, 2016

    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.

    Jacob Zenn “The IMU is extinct: what next for Central Asia's jihadis?The CACI Analyst,  May 3rd, 2016

    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.

    Roger N. McDermott “Russia-Tajikistan antiterrorist exercises: strategic messagingThe CACI Analyst, March 28th, 2016

    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.

    Richard Weitz “Moscow's agenda in Central Asia and the Caucasus: it is officialThe CACI Analyst, March 18th, 2016

    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.

    Roger N. McDermott “Russia recalibrates 201st base in Tajikistan” The CACI Analyst February 25th, 2016

    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.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “Azerbaijan, islamism, and unrest in NardaranThe CACI Analyst, December 27th, 2015

    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.

    Richard Weitz  “Building on Kerry's Central Asian tourThe CACI Analyst, December 22nd, 2015

    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.

    S. Frederick Starr and Svante E. Cornell “The EU and Central Asia: Developing Transport and TradeThe CACI Analyst December 10th, 2015

    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.

    Huseyn Aliyev, Emil A. Souleimanov “Russia's missile launches and the militarization of the Caspian SeaThe CACI Analyst, November 23rd, 2015

    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.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Pluses and minuses of the C5+1 formatThe CACI Analyst, November 13th, 2015

    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

    Dmitry Shlapentokh “The ISIS threat and Moscow's influence in Central Asia and the Middle EastThe CACI Analyst, November 6, 2015

    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.

    Avinoam Idan “Russia in Syria and Putin's geopolitical strategy” The CACI Analyst, October 22nd, 2015

    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.

    Erica Marat “Kyrgyzstan: beyond democratic elections” The CACI Analyst, October 12th, 2015

    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.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “Russia's Syria initiative and the exaggerated ISIS threat to Central Asia” The CACI Analyst, September 25th, 2015

    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.

    Edward Lemon “Violence in Tajikistan emerges from within the state” The CACI Analyst, September 23rd, 2015

    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.

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “A weakened insurgency precludes IS inroads to the North Caucasus” 09/02/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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.

    Farkhod Tolipov “Uzbekistan concerned over SCO expansion” 05/08/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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.

    George Voloshin “The Uzbek-Tajik détente: can it last?” 08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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.

    Charlie Smith “Islamic State in Central Asia: threat or opportunity” 08/07/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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?

    Kevin Daniel Leahy “Existing Paradigms for Resistance in the North Caucasus Challenged by Kadyrov, ISIS” 06/24/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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?

    Nurzhan Zhambekov “Russia’s Regulation of Labor Migration Set to Hurt Central Asian Economies” 04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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. 

    Emil Aslan Souleimanov “Caucasus Emirate Faces Further Decline after the Death of Its Leader” 04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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.

    Emil Souleimanov “Dagestan’s Insurgents Split over Loyalties to Caucasus Emirate and IS” 04/15/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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.

    Huseyn Aliyev “Conflict-related Violence Decreases in the North Caucasus as Fighters go to Syria” 04/01/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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. 

    Emil Souleimanov “Dagestan’s Jihadists and Haram Targeting” 02/18/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst

    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.