Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
In the past decade, Kazakhstan has emerged as an important player in the world of mediation of international disputes. Its role in convening the Astana talks on Syria are the most well-known example, but Kazakhstan’s activity goes far beyond this. In fact, involvement in international mediation has emerged as yet another facet of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy, alongside its high profile in multilateral organizations.
In fact, Kazakhstani mediation builds on two aspects of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy: the country’s multi-vector foreign policy and its activism in international institutions. Landlocked, surrounded by large powers and closely tied to Russia by economics and demographics, Kazakhstan’s efforts to assert its independence have always been a balancing act. Kazakhstan’s First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, established the country on the international scene in the 1990s primarily by his historic decision to renounce Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons, and his careful efforts to build independent statehood in the political realm while simultaneously working to restore economic integration among former Soviet states. Kazakhstan’s model has been to maintain close relations with Russia, but simultaneously to strive to strengthen its ties with other partners – first China, then the United States, subsequently Europe and Asian powers – to obtain a positive balance in its foreign relations. This “multi-vector” foreign policy has since become a model that has been adopted by the Central Asian region as a whole.
An active role in multilateral diplomacy was key to Kazakhstan’s foreign policy from the beginning: immediately upon independence, Nazarbayev initiated the idea of a Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia, which materialized in the decade that followed. Kazakhstan also took on an active role in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, becoming the first post-Soviet state to chair the organization in 2010. Not stopping there, Kazakhstan successfully campaigned for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, and served on the Council from 2017 to 2019.
Kazakhstan’s first initiative in the field of international mediation took place already in late 1991, when President Nazarbayev partnered with Boris Yeltsin to seek to mediate the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But it is in the past decade that these efforts have been rekindled, against the background of a gradual intensification of geopolitical competition in Eurasia writ large. Kazakhstan’s first effort took place during its OSCE Presidency, when it intervened to attenuate the crisis in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. By assisting in removing ousted President Kurmanbek Bakiyev from the country, Kazakhstan contributed to easing tensions in the country.
Kazakhstan next focused on nuclear diplomacy, an issue with which the country had considerable familiarity. After offering to host an international Low Enriched Uranium Bank, President Nazarbayev succeeded in hosting two successive summits in Almaty on the Iranian nuclear program in 2013. These efforts aimed at seeking a negotiated solution that would halt the escalation of tensions that risked a greater military conflagration. While talks in Almaty did not resolve the matter, they directly paved a way for the Geneva talks that eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program.
Over the following several years, Kazakhstan focused on alleviating tensions among its close partners – Russia, Turkey and the West. In 2014, Nazarbayev sought to bridge the divide between Russia and the West on Ukraine. Kazakhstan played an active role in facilitating dialogue among Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany that manifested in the Normandy Format. Two years later, Kazakhstan took a hands-on approach in resolving – at least for a time – the dispute between Russia and Turkey that resulted from the Turkish downing of a Russian jet over the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015. The next year, building on this initiative, Turkey and Russia agreed to President Nazarbayev’s offer to host talks on the Syrian conflict. Several rounds of “Astana Talks” have taken place since, involving the Syrian government, opposition groups, and the key external powers in the conflict – Russia, Turkey, and Iran.
What, then, has been the function and rationale of Kazakhstani mediation efforts?
Kazakhstan’s mediation has not been focused on faraway lands: it has been focused very much on those areas that affect the geopolitical stability of Eurasia, which in turn is the determinant for Kazakhstan’s own stability. Thus, it has concentrated on crises right on Kazakhstan’s doorstep, like in Nagorno-Karabakh and Kyrgyzstan, as well as on disputes that involve the regional and great powers of Eurasia. Both types of crises involved confrontations that threatened to destabilize the geopolitics of Eurasia, and thus posed a threat to Kazakhstan’s own security. Kazakhstan’s economic development and strategic stability is directly correlated to the relative harmony of the broader Eurasian geopolitical environment, and it has been in its interest to work to mitigate such threats to stability.
Kazakhstan’s efforts strengthen its sovereignty in at least two ways. First, it adds another layer of goodwill and recognition to Kazakhstan’s international profile. Secondly and more importantly, it provides regional powers with a strong rationale to accept Kazakhstan’s neutrality in their mutual disputes. Kazakhstan has been able to demonstrate that it is more useful for everyone as a neutral power that does not take sides – in other words, more useful as a mediator than as a supporter. For example, while Russia would have liked Kazakhstan’s endorsement of its policy in Ukraine, Kazakhstan showed that it could, uniquely, serve as a go-between that allowed Russia a way to manage its relations with Western powers, something that would be impossible in the absence of Kazakhstan’s sovereignty and international credibility.
This strategy has pitfalls. Its success requires that the level of conflict between Eurasian regional powers remains manageable; and that these powers are, at all, interested in maintaining a dialogue. If regional powers are in mortal competition against each other, Kazakhstan’s efforts would be undermined.
Against this background, the impact of Kazakhstan’s efforts become clearer. Kazakh leaders were realistic about the limited prospects of success in resolving the thorny issues they addressed. Instead, they were focused primarily on managing the fallout of these conflicts on a geopolitical level, seeking to prevent their escalation in a way that would jeopardize the broader stability of the Eurasian continent.
Kazakhstan’s efforts in international mediation have been closely tied to the personality of its First President, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Will Kazakhstan continue to play a role in mediating the great power politics of Eurasia in the longer term? There is reason to believe it can, for two key reasons. First, Kazakhstan’s meritocratic approach to personnel policy in foreign affairs has enabled the country to develop a considerable pool of officials with experience of high-level international politics, beginning with its current president, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, who has among other served as Head of UN offices in Geneva. Second, demand for this type of efforts is not likely to abate, as strategic competition in Eurasia continues to intensify and efforts to mitigate the fallout of great power competition in Eurasia appear to be more necessary for every passing year.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
The COVID-19 crisis represents not only an unprecedented economic disruption but also an opportunity for Central Asia. A specific economic policy response may trigger either game-changing reforms that can facilitate the development of full-fledged market institutions or lead to a protracted crisis that would jeopardize almost 30-year long market economy transition progress. As it is rather unclear where the recovery pendulum will make its final swing, the current situation provides fruitful soil for various assumptions. This paper proposes and examines four scenarios of economic response strategies for the region as a whole, and for Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in particular, that result in unique development trajectories. The paper employs the foresight methodology to build four scenarios related to the situation after the lockdown is fully lifted. The scenarios serve the purpose of helping decision makers to embark on informed decisions while shaping anti-crisis measures and better understand causality mechanisms behind their policy choices.
Scenario 1 (Protectionist Autarky): Stability upheld, limited reforms, increased role of the state and protectionism.
Scenario 2 (Impactful Diversification): Increased social support, augmented role of the private sector, comprehensive diversification and enhanced regionalization.
Scenario 3 (Inertial Asymmetry): Selective support measures, inequality-conducive, restricted diversification and limited reforms, “business-as-usual” commodity market, growing regionalization.
Scenario 4 (Unleashed Bazaar): Major institutional reforms, FDI-oriented economic openness, leapfrogging from stagnant to advanced emerging markets.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
Since independence, religion has become ever more important as an identity marker in Kyrgyzstan, with increased practical relevance in the everyday lives of many citizens. This religious revival poses challenges for a state that, like the other Central Asian states, has remained secular after the fall of communism. For this Muslim-majority state, the challenge has been to sustain the secularism of the state that was instituted during Soviet times, while replacing the anti-religious prejudice that characterized the militantly atheist socialist system with tolerance and respect for all religions. How has this played out in the past three decades?
In the early years of independence, the government took a liberal approach to religion, and the number of mosques and religious schools expanded rapidly. Foreign sources of religious influences, including ideological and financial, met few restrictions and could flow into the country from Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Indian Subcontinent. By its fifth anniversary of independence, the number of mosques in Kyrgyzstan had already grown to more than 1,000, and the burst of mosque-building has continued unabated since then, standing at 2,669 officially registered mosques by 2016. Kyrgyzstan counts far more Islamic educational institutions than its larger neighbors Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Meanwhile, many Evangelical missionaries arrived in Kyrgyzstan in the 1990s in order to attract converts to various Christian churches. Protestant denominations from Europe, North America and South Korea played a particularly active role and thrived under the liberal religious environment of the 1990s. Since the beginning of the 2000s, however, foreign missionaries became subject of stricter controls effectively halting their expansion.
While Kyrgyzstan’s first decade of independence was characterized by a liberal approach to the sphere of religion, measures have thereafter been taken to strengthen the government’s regulatory powers and take a less neutral and more proactive approach to religious matters. First, Kyrgyzstani laws and policies separate between what is referred to as traditional faiths, on the one hand, and non-traditional faiths on the other. The former – Hanafi Islam and the Russian Orthodox Church – are prioritized and given preferential treatment due to their historical influence on the development of Kyrgyz statehood. In particular, support of official Hanafism has attracted increasing policy attention. The government has taken upon itself the task to promote and safeguard the traditions and principles of Hanafism in order to stem the influence of international Salafist movements in the country and to ensure the cohesion of society. The distinction between beneficial religious traditions and allegedly harmful versions of religion has become an increasingly central part of the relationship between the secular state and religious communities.
Second, the government has instructed the chief religious institutions – the nominally independent Muftiate and the State Commission for Religious Affairs – to provide better control and monitoring of religious organizations, but also to engage in closer cooperation with them. State intervention into the activities of religious institutions is mainly justified on the grounds of preventing religious extremism. For example, the hardened legislation introduced in the religious sphere in 2008 was intended to restrict the activities of extremist foreign religious organizations, such as the banned global Islamist movement Hizb-ut-Tahrir.
The Islamic extremist threat first emerged on Kyrgyzstan’s political agenda in the late 1990s among growing fears that radical Islamic groups had established a presence in the religiously more conscious southern part of Kyrgyzstan. The threat became real in the summers of 1999 and 2000 when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan carried out armed incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan. Isolated terrorist incidents inside the country as well as radicalized citizens from Kyrgyzstan travelling to fight for the Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria have ensured that religious extremism and terrorism remain central factors in forming government policy in the religious field.
Kyrgyzstan’s political project of secularism has had to confront and adjust to an increasingly diversified religious situation. The country’s first president, Askar Akayev, initially took a rather laissez-faire approach to religion, while eventually driving state policy more in the direction of sheltering state and society from unwanted religious influences. His successor, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, continued and strengthened these policies as he mostly paid attention to Islam as a potential threat. While the third president, Almazbek Atambayev, was highly suspicious of foreign Islamic traditions, he endorsed traditional Kyrgyz Islam in public in a much more pronounced manner than his predecessors. Current president Sooronbai Jeenbekov appears intent on taking this rapprochement further by fostering a partnership between political and religious leaders.
In simple terms, three main attitudes can be identified in contemporary Kyrgyz society. First, there is the predominantly secular political, economic and intellectual elite in Bishkek. This once dominant group is gradually losing its position in a less secular society. Second, there is a large group of nationalist-minded Kyrgyz citizens who increasingly embrace moderate Hanafi Islam as part of that identity. Third, there are Islamic currents whose representatives try to convert existing Muslims to more conservative versions of Islam. It can be assumed that the relatively strong support for Sharia in Kyrgyzstan, reported in certain survey data, is located chiefly among this group.
Despite the fact that religious organizations are prohibited from interfering in the government of the state, Islam has become an increasingly potent factor in politics. As society has become more religious, Islam has become an important source of legitimization for politicians and a resource for the mobilization of voters. In the early years of independence, the rapid increase of mosques was largely the result of foreign investments, the continued proliferation is now mainly secured through the financial prowess of local sponsors, including members of parliament. This is a reciprocal relationship. Clerics use their political connections to build up their own power bases. Politicians, in turn, enjoying clerical support strengthen their local electoral base.
In this light, Kyrgyzstan stands at a crossroads; sooner or later there will be a power shift away from the Soviet generation that has governed the country since independence. The question is, what comes with a new generation in power, and whether a post-Soviet generation of leaders will maintain the separation between politics and religion. Much depends on which of the three above-mentioned groups will constitute the backbone of future decision-makers.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
Since gaining its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Turkmenistan has seen an increased presence of religion in everyday life. Islam has been a continuous cornerstone of Turkmen identity for centuries and is even more so in the post-Soviet period. Turkmeniçilik (Turkmen identity) and Musulmançilik (Muslim identity) are correlated.
Similar to what is found in several Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan distinguishes between traditional and non-traditional religious practices. In Turkmenistan, the state actively privileges a form of traditional Islam. That is, the leadership mobilizes the faith in its construction of a post-Soviet, national Turkmen identity. Yet, Turkmenistan is an officially secular country with constitutional provisions for the separation of state from religion. What does this mean for religious practice in that Muslim-majority country? What is the role of the state in mobilizing religious practices even as it curtails others? And why are there so few external influences on worship in Turkmenistan?
Turkmen were historically a nomadic people that began to adopt Islam as they migrated westward in the 9th and 10th centuries. Yet Islam is a religion that has tended to flourish in urbanized societies that could establish formal institutions like mosques and madrasas. Turkmen created intensive and rich religious practices, but those were often mixed with pre-Islamic practices or honed to suit the nomadic lifestyle. Nevertheless, this did not diminish the importance of religion in Turkmen culture and Islam came to be a key marker of Turkmen identity.
Today, that culture, including Islam as a key facet, contributes to the Turkmen national identity. The state encourages the conceptualization of “Turkmen Islam,” or worship infused with veneration of elders and saints, life-cycle rituals, and Sufi practices. Yet, it discourages external influences in most spheres of life, resulting in a limited foreign religious presence. TheConstitution’s claims to uphold a secular system in which religious and state institutions are separate. Nevertheless, examples of state interference in religious matters abound.
While Turkmenistan’s initial years of independence saw an increase in religious practices and the development of institutions like the Muftiate and the building of mosques, today it is more regulated. Still, the government leadership uses Islam to legitimize its role by sponsoring holiday celebrations such as iftar dinners during Ramadan or presidential pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This sponsorship has validated the country’s two presidents (Nyýazow and Berdimuhamedow) as pious Turkmen, giving them an aura of cultural authority. In these ways, the government promotes a singular form of “Turkmen Islam” that is tightly bound to national identity and makes use of religious symbols to reinforce the concept of the nation-state.
In light of this, this study aims to shed light on the relationship between state, religion, and society in Turkmenistan, highlighting the model of secular governance the state observes even as it embraces Islam as part of national identity project.
Stockholm Institute European Policy Studies
Svante E. Cornell and Niklas Swantström
One step in China’s global outlook is the comprehensive infrastructure project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), opening a clear set of crossroads for the EU. The BRI project was presented by the Chinese government in 2013 as a series of trade corridors by land and sea. One major part of the project aims to connect Europe and China through Central Asia.
In this report, Svante Cornell and Niklas Swanström deliver a thorough account of the BRI’s planned infrastructure and financial setup. The authors also analyse how these trade routes affect the EU’s Eastern neighbourhood and Central Asia in relation to the rule of law and the regional political-economic development. Finally, they consider what pressure the BRI exerts on the EU system and whether the interests of China and the EU are compatible.
One conclusion is that the EU has not payed enough attention to the geopolitical dimension of their relations to the countries on the Eurasian continent. Therefore, the authors suggest that the EU should focus more on European interests, and not only on norms and values.
Foundation for Defense of Democracies
January 27, 2020
Svante E. Cornell and Brenda Shaffer
Setting policies toward territories involved in protracted conflicts poses an ongoing challenge for governments, companies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Since there are multiple zones of disputed territories and occupation around the globe, setting policy toward one conflict raises the question of whether similar policies will be enacted toward others. Where different policies are implemented, the question arises: On what principle or toward what goal are the differences based?
Recently, for example, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) decided goods entering the European Union that are produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank must be clearly designated as such. At the same time, however, neither the ECJ nor the European Union have enacted similar policies on goods from other zones of occupation, such as Nagorno-Karabakh or Abkhazia. The U.S. administration swiftly criticized the ECJ decision as discriminatory since it only applies to Israel. Yet, at the same time, U.S. customs policy on goods imports from other territories is also inconsistent: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has explicit guidelines that goods imported from the West Bank must be labelled as such, while goods that enter the United States from other occupied zones, such as Nagorno-Karabakh, encounter no customs interference.
Territorial conflicts have existed throughout history. But the establishment of the United Nations, whose core principles include the inviolability of borders and the inadmissibility of the use of force to change them, led to the proliferation of protracted conflicts. Previously, sustained control over territory led to eventual acceptance of the prevailing power’s claims to sovereignty. Today, the United Nations prevents recognition of such claims but remains largely incapable of influencing the status quo, leaving territories in an enduring twilight zone. Such territories include, but are not limited to: Crimea, Donbas, Northern Cyprus, the West Bank, Kashmir, The Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, and Western Sahara.
The problem is not simply that the United Nations, United States, European Union, private corporations, and NGOs act in a highly inconsistent manner. It is that their policies are selective and often reveal biases that underscore deeper problems in the international system. For example, Russia occupies territories the United States and European Union recognize as parts of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, yet Crimea is the only Russian-occupied territory subject to Western sanctions. By contrast, products from Russian-controlled Transnistria enter the United States as products of Moldova, and the European Union allows Transnistria to enjoy the benefits of a trade agreement with Moldova. The United States and European Union demand specific labeling of goods produced in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and prohibit them from being labeled Israeli products. Yet products from Nagorno-Karabakh – which the United States and European Union recognize as part of Azerbaijan – freely enter Western markets labeled as products of Armenia.
Today, several occupying powers try to mask their control by setting up proxy regimes, such as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) or similar entities in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. While these proxies do not secure international recognition, the fiction of their autonomy benefits the occupier. By contrast, countries that acknowledge their direct role in a territorial dispute tend to face greater external pressure than those that exercise control by proxy.
Some territorial disputes have prompted the forced expulsion or wartime flight of the pre-conflict population. A related issue is the extent to which the occupier has allowed or encouraged its own citizens to become settlers. While one might expect the international system to hold less favorable policies toward occupiers that drive out residents and build settlements, this is not the case. Armenia expelled the Azerbaijani population of Nagorno-Karabakh, yet the United States and European Union have been very lenient toward Armenia. They have also been lenient toward Morocco, which built a 1,700-mile long barrier to protect settled areas of Western Sahara and imported hundreds of thousands of settlers there. Against this backdrop, the constant pressure to limit Israeli settlement in the West Bank is the exception, not the rule.
This pressure is even more difficult to grasp given that Israel’s settlement projects in the West Bank consist of newly built houses. In most other conflict zones, such as Northern Cyprus and Nagorno-Karabakh, settlers gained access to the homes of former residents.
This study aims to provide decision makers in government as well as in the private sector with the means to recognize double standards. Such standards not only create confusion and reveal biases, but also constitute a business and legal risk. New guidelines for making consistent policy choices are therefore sorely needed.
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program
Silk Road Paper
The launch of a new EU Strategy for Central Asia in June 2019 marked a milestone in the gradual development of relations between the EU and the region. The Strategy’s launch coincides with considerable change in and around the region. Internally, Central Asia has experienced a renewed commitment to reform and regionalism; meanwhile, the region has seen a greater engagement by neighboring powers, most immediately through large-scale Chinese and Russian initiatives, but also in the shape of a growing interest on the part of Asian powers as well as the United States.
A closer analysis of the EU’s engagement with Central Asia paradoxically indicates a sort of parallel evolution: both the EU and the Central Asian states are products of the post-cold war era, and their relations have intensified along with their own internal evolution into ever more solid entities on the international scene. Whereas the EU and Central Asia in the early 1990s were weakly institutionalized and had little to do with each other, that has changed. The EU has gone through deep internal processes through which it emerged with a Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the institutions, like the European External Action Service, to implement it.
Similarly, the development of statehood in Central Asia has allowed the regional states to develop relations not just with their immediate neighbors, but with the wider world. From a Central Asian perspective, the EU is a valuable partner as it is not, inherently, a traditional great power with designs on the region’s sovereignties; but an important trading partner as well as a source of technology and assistance. Conversely, as the EU has developed a global posture, Central Asia has acquired greater importance. Several factors have contributed to this: growing European attention to Eurasia following the conflict in Afghanistan; the EU expansion into Eastern Europe; mounting troubles in EU-Russia relations, including energy security concerns; and the emergence of China on the world stage, including through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The gradual intensification of EU-Central Asia relations is traceable in the series of EU documents on the region that have been issued since a first assistance strategy was drafted in 2002. A formal EU-wide strategy followed in 2007, which was subsequently revised several times, culminating in its replacement by the newly promulgated 2019 document. What started as a roadmap for foreign assistance has, over time, morphed into a complex document seeking to balance a wide array of interests, ranging from the promotion of trade and energy ties to enhanced dialogue in security matters as well as a focus on human rights and good governance.
The overview of EU policy in this study suggests that from relatively modest beginnings two decades ago, the EU has devoted considerable attention and resources to its relationship with Central Asia – with a very organized approach, involving the production of concrete strategies, reviews of these strategies, and European Council conclusions on the region on a bi-yearly basis. This approach compares favorably to the more disorganized policy of the United States toward Central Asia. The EU’s systematic approach has allowed it to avoid the pitfall of U.S. policy, namely to risk treating Central Asia as a corollary to policies on other issues or powers rather than as a goal in itself. This EU has defined its relations with Central Asia on the basis of its interests in the region itself, and not as an appendix to something else. That said, a series of issues continue to confront EU policy in Central Asia.
First among these is scope. The EU is active on numerous fronts and needs to take into account the interests of 28 member states, different EU institutions, civil non-government and activist organizations, and Central Asian governments. Navigating the different priorities advanced by different actors raises the risk of the EU trying to do too much with too little, instead of focusing its energies on several specific matters. The 2019 strategy’s structure suggests a conscious effort to narrow down the scope of the strategy. Still, many of the existing priorities remain in force, only being relegated to subordinate priorities under the respective key rubrics. Indeed, few of the priorities expressed in the past have been dropped from the new strategy; but the EU has made it more clear where it is intending to invest most of its resources and has indicated concrete priorities.
Second is the regional question: the EU is frequently criticized for taking a regional approach to countries that have distinct differences. Is the EU right to frame its interactions with Central Asia on a regional rather than bilateral basis? While this was a frequent criticism in the past decade, the growing enthusiasm for regionalism across the region must now be said to vindicate the EU’s regional approach. Central Asian states themselves have made clear they consider themselves part of a distinct Central Asian region – something most plainly stated in the official foreign policy doctrines of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which both make “Central Asia” the priority of their foreign relations. In addition, the alternative – viewing Central Asia from the perspective of its neighbors – has the direct implication of removing the focus from Central Asia itself, and seeing its states as loose appendages to other great powers or conflict zones, thus strengthening centrifugal tendencies that run counter to long-term interests of both the EU and Central Asian states.
That said, this regional approach should avoid being mired in a Soviet-era definition of the region. Across the region, in fact, the growing acceptance of a larger definition of Central Asia as extending to the south and east is unmistakable. While maintaining its focus on the five post-Soviet states of Central Asia, the EU has for far too long treated Central Asia as entirely separate from Afghanistan, thus missing opportunities to develop synergies between its activities in both areas. Similarly, Central Asian states are strongly affected by developments in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Province, while the links between Central Asia and the South Caucasus across the Caspian Sea are crucial to the region’s economic development, and not least to its links to Europe. The EU has considerable potential to function as an engine for boosting Central Asian cooperation with both Afghanistan and the South Caucasus.
A third perennial challenge has been to balance the normative elements of the EU’s agenda – advancing human rights and democracy – with the pursuit of European interests in the spheres of trade, energy or security. The apparent tension between these EU objectives has led to considerable criticism of EU double standards. This issue affects the very legitimacy and internal consistency of the EU’s policies in Central Asia. But the activists’ charge that the EU ignores normative matters for the sake of self-interest does not hold up to scrutiny and stems largely from unrealistic expectations. For one, the EU has made the determination that the promotion of human rights and democracy is a long-term endeavor and emphasized a measured and cautious long-term promotion of the prerequisites for sustainable democracy. Therefore, EU efforts have centered on the promotion of poverty reduction, education, and good governance in Central Asia rather than an aggressive promotion of immediate political change.
Viewed in this light, the EU has actually invested considerably more in the promotion of domestic development in Central Asia compared to strategic interests such as energy and security. In sum, the EU has correctly adopted an approach that focuses on good governance and economic development, criteria that are necessary for long-term democratic development, and which require cooperation with governments rather than efforts to circumvent or undermine them.
Fourth, how should the EU approach security affairs in a region dominated by hard security actors? Central Asia is a region where states face hard security questions that touch directly on their sovereignty. The EU, as an entity, has only reluctantly been forced to accept the continued primacy of geopolitics. Its challenge in Central Asia is to simultaneously adapt to this hard power reality, while carving out a niche on the basis of how it differs from hard power actors. To do so, it must adjust its policies to take into consideration a reality where concerns of sovereignty, statehood and security are at the center of its Central Asian counterparts’ mind. The EU can no longer rely solely on the power of its normative values, but must act more as a power rather than an integration project. This applies very directly to the EU’s approach to the Central Asian states’ efforts to balance China and Russia, a situation where the EU now finds itself, for most practical purposes, the Western power most engaged in Central Asia. Key in this regard is the facilitation of Central Asian regional cooperation, a matter raised as a cross-cutting priority by the EU.
Fifth, the EU puts strong emphasis on supporting education in Central Asia. However, like Central Asian states themselves, the EU has tended to focus too much on higher education at the expense of K-12 education, and the development of practical skills in the Central Asian labor force.
Sixth, while the EU is correct in highlighting the struggle against violent extremism in its 2019 Strategy, that struggle should not be limited to a fight against armed groups, as it is also a struggle against the ideologies underpinning violent acts. Against this background, it is unfortunate that the 2019 Strategy omits the emphasis put in the 2007 document on the domestic religious traditions of Central Asia, and their acceptance of secular governance – something that makes Central Asian states stand out in the Muslim world, providing a unique point of commonality with Europe. The EU should support the further development of secular governance, seeking to work with Central Asian states to reform and improve their implementation of secularism in a more positive and constructive direction.
Finally, the EU’s success in developing relations with Central Asia is to a considerable degree a function of the fact that the most senior EU officials – unlike their predecessors – have taken Central Asia seriously, and have devoted time and energy to meeting their Central Asian colleagues and not least, to listen to their concerns. Against this background, the task of keeping EU-Central Asia relations at the current level, and ideally to intensify them further, requires the incoming leadership of the EU – particularly the incoming Vice President and High Representative Josep Borrell – to take a similar level of interest in Central Asia and visit the region as soon as possible.
By Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
Silk Road Paper
Major political and economic reforms have been initiated since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became the country’s President in fall 2016. The interaction between state and religion has been part and parcel of this reform process.
This area is a contentious one, rife with confusion. Many consider Central Asia peripheral to the Muslim world, but in fact the territory of present-day Uzbekistan occupies a central position in the history and development of the religion. The intellectual effervescence of the region a millennium ago, which has recently been dubbed the “Lost Enlightenment,” included advances in both science, philosophy and theology, as well as the rise of Islamic mysticism. The Soviet period had more pernicious effects than only an onslaught against religion: in keeping with the tradition of dividing and ruling, Soviet authorities repressed traditional Central Asian Islam, particularly its Sufi variety, but actively encouraged more orthodox practices imported from the Middle East, including Salafi ideas. These took root in parts of Uzbekistan the Soviet period, and help explain the explosion of extremist jihadism in the Ferghana valley in the late 1980s.
Against this complex background, the independent state of Uzbekistan established a secular form of government in 1992. So did its Central Asian neighbors and Azerbaijan, but Tashkent took a considerably harder line against religious influences from abroad. On one hand, the state struck up cordial relations with the leaders of traditional religious communities – whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish. While seeking to guarantee religious pluralism, the Uzbek state worked to protect the state and society from novel, intolerant religious ideologies, which were rife in the civil wars in nearby Afghanistan and Tajikistan, and imposed sometimes draconian punishments for individuals and groups deemed extremist in nature.
These policies became among the most contentious issues in Uzbekistan’s relationship with Western countries and international organizations, which criticized Tashkent for human rights abuses and restricting religious freedom, and feared these policies would only strengthen the appeal of radical ideologies. Yet Uzbek officials were not content to target only the violent manifestations of extremist ideology: they opposed the ideology itself, viewing it as particularly dangerous in at a time of wide-ranging transition involving the consolidation of national identity.
When Mirziyoyev took over the reins of power, Uzbekistan – unlike several of its neighbors – had not experienced a terrorist incident on its soil for over a decade. From this position of relative strength, Mirziyoyev recalibrated religious policies, shifting from a defensive to an offensive strategy. He maintained the secular nature of the state, its laws, and its education system. But he also put increasing emphasis on promoting the tolerant Islamic tradition indigenous to Central Asia, something he dubbed “Enlightened Islam.”
Beyond steps to encourage public expressions of religion, Mirziyoyev has announced the creation of several new institutions. This includes an Islamic Academy of Uzbekistan, as well as an Islamic Culture Center designed to “fight religious ignorance and promote Islam’s true values.” In addition, he announced the creation of the Imam Bukhari International Scientific Research Center, headquartered at the Imam Al-Bukhari Academy in Samarkand. Remarkably, this latter initiative will focus equally on religious and secular knowledge.
Among other measures, the government has now removed 95 percent of individuals registered as “religious radicals” from a government list, encouraged the return of religious dissidents to the country, and engaged with international bodies promoting the freedom of religion.
In sum, for a quarter century, Uzbekistan adopted a defensive approach in the religious realm, which focused on thwarting radicalization and safeguarding its secular governance. Today, the country’s leadership is confidently presenting an Uzbek model of Islam to the world: a secular state in which the moderate Hanafi tradition of the region is able to flourish.
The longer-term question goes beyond the confines of Uzbekistan or even Central Asia: will this model be relevant to countries in the Islamic heartland? The negative experience of mixing religion and politics across the Muslim world may yet lead to a quest for a better solution to the age-old problem of negotiating the state’s relationship to religion. If Uzbekistan, and its neighbors, succeed in safeguarding secularism while promoting tolerant and traditional religious institutions, other Muslim countries may well take notice. That would carry global significance, and suggests Western states and organizations take an active and constructive role in supporting the ongoing reform process.