The threat of terrorism is an excuse for political repression across central Asia. Yet without radical reform, argues Martha Brill Olcott, the region will fall prey to the extremism it has spawned

A wave of violence rippled across the former Soviet Union in 1999. Bombs exploded in both downtown Tashkent and suburban Moscow, while guerrillas took foreigners hostage in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. In central Asia, the violence was blamed on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (the IMU), whereas Chechen insurgents were held responsible for the explosions in Russia’s capital.

Links are often made between the Chechen uprising, Islamist violence in central Asia and al-Qaeda’s erstwhile operations in Afghanistan. Yet focusing on these links often obscures the crucial question of how such groups came to prominence in the region in the first place and moreover, whether governments, through their own repressive actions, are indirectly fuelling their popularity.

The situation in Russia is relatively straightforward. The government of Russia is at war with a breakaway regime in Chechnya, although the conflict had been largely static since 1996. But it wasn’t until 1999 that the war, which began five years earlier, was felt beyond Chechnya’s borders, first through a series of bombings in Moscow.

The Russian government at that time resumed its major offensive to defeat what it saw as an unlawful secessionist movement, but it did so by using brutal tactics against its civilian population. Aside from triggering strong international criticism, this also provoked a chain of terrorist attacks in Moscow, including more subway bombings, the blowing up of aircraft, and sieges in a theatre in Moscow and, more recently, in a school in Beslan, North Ossetia.

While the actions of Russian troops in Chechnya cannot excuse these acts of terrorism, they have made it easier to categorize them. Whatever role international actors might play in the funding or training of Chechen insurgents, their cause remains a local one – Chechen independence.

At the outset, Chechen victory would have resulted in a secular, albeit economically unviable, state. But now, after more than a decade of struggle, Islamic jihadists have begun to claim this struggle as their own, further complicating the process of resolving this conflict.

A different story

The story in central Asia, however, differs from that of Chechnya in an important respect. The central Asian states are not at war, and they face criticism from home-grown radical Islamic groups, whose aim is generally to transform the secular state, for the most part peacefully.

These groups began coming together in the last years of Soviet rule, when restrictions on the practice of religion were lifted. Links with the Muslim world were permitted and in some cases even encouraged after these states received independence.

A radical Islamic revivalist movement soon took hold in the Ferghana Valley, which spreads from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The movement merged local teachings with writings of other Muslim scholars, often of puritanical leaning, such as followers of the Saudi-based Wahabi sect.

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan grew out of this revival, as did Tajikistan’s Islamic Renaissance Party. The latter took part in the Tajik civil war, and later signed an agreement of national reconciliation with the government in 1997. The IMU, led by Tahir Yuldashev, and originally commanded by Juma Namangani, preaches the overthrow of the secular government of president Islam Karimov. Both men fled Uzbekistan for Tajikistan and Afghanistan in the mid-1990s when members of the movement began being arrested. Namangani was killed in Afghanistan in 2001. Yuldashev has yet to be captured.

In the mid-1990s sections of the international Islamic group Hiz’but Tahrir (HT) emerged in the region, first in Uzbekistan, then among the Uzbek population of neighbouring states, and then among Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs and even Muslims of central Russia. HT is a revolutionary organization (organized around five member-groups) that is committed to establishing an Islamic caliphate. The movement, which is banned throughout the region, initially drew its support from members in Europe and the Middle East, but its growing popularity in central Asia was largely the result of local initiative. The speed with which it spread led to a blunt response from the Uzbek state, which jailed thousands of alleged HT members amid widespread reports of torture.

Although the HT leadership in London says that its mission is peaceful, security officials in central Asia allege ties between members of HT and armed opposition groups, including those reportedly responsible for bombing attacks in Uzbekistan in 2004.

Repression in the name of security

But outside observers generally agree that central Asia’s strong-arm rulers have tended to exaggerate the threat of externally-inspired militancy in order to justify their repressive political policies, mostly in the name of national security. The defence of repression is always a hard sell to western leaders. But central Asia’s leaders have yet to offer proof that the so-called security threats posed by these groups are enough to undermine their hold on power.

What has made the appeal to the terrorist threat so difficult to accept is that much of the region is veering away from democracy, whether in countries where there is some evidence of an external threat (such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan), or where there is none (Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan).

While each of the states is evolving in unique ways, the direction of change is identical. The Kyrgyz and Kazakhs set out to develop market economies and participatory political systems, but in the mid-1990s leaders in both countries began to strengthen the power of the president in an undemocratic way, skewing economic reforms to the benefit of their own families.

Cult of personality

The Turkmen government, for instance, has yet to engage in structural economic reforms, and instead relies on the country’s natural-resource wealth to placate a population that has been denied any say in Turkmen political life. President Saparmurad Niyazov has created a cult of personality, resembling that of a self-proclaimed deity. The only real opposition has come from within the ruling elite and, even then, Niyazov defused an alleged coup attempt by the country’s former foreign minister in November 2002.

Uzbekistan also has a state-dominated resource-based economy that depends upon the export of cotton and gold, as well as gas, which is sold to its central Asian neighbours. Given the entrepreneurial bent of its population, Uzbekistan could have been a regional trading hub, but the Karimov government opted for a restricted trade regime to keep out seditious elements and to maintain price supports on key food and fuel items, long after neighbouring states had abandoned them.

These policies allowed the Uzbek government to maintain features of the Soviet era social welfare benefit system for several years after Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan began moving towards pay-as-you go pension, health-care and education systems. But they have also dramatically slowed the development of a new middle class – a fact that is partially concealed in official statistics that regard workers at communally run collective farms as members of the private sector.

The Uzbek population has almost as little ability to influence the government as that in neighbouring Turkmenistan, although the Uzbek state doesn’t interfere with the private lives of its citizens in the way that the Turkmen government does.

There is, however, reason for concern about the situation in Uzbekistan. At the time of the 1999 bombings public sympathy lay firmly with the president and the government. Many ordinary Uzbeks even backed the government in its bid to exercise a “strong hand”. The 2004 bombings, however, led to a very different reaction – heavy internal criticism of the government, but more for its economic choices than its political ones.

Many Uzbeks, while not endorsing terrorist means, started at least to express a degree of understanding for the desperation that must drive people to take violent actions in order to effect change in their country.

Extremists love a vacuum

Nearly 15 years after independence there is a growing political vacuum in Uzbekistan and virtually no organized secular groups to fill out. By contrast, radical Islamic groups, whose very cause is strengthened by having to function covertly, are turning political repression to their own advantage.

International terrorist groups may provide funding and training for those who want to overthrow secular regimes, but the recruitment pool is found among the politically disaffected from within the region in question.

At present, Islamic extremism does not pose a threat to the survival of any of the states in central Asia, but if economic mismanagement continues and populations are not given new opportunities to vent their frustrations through legal and democratic means, this may change.

One thing is clear: the states of central Asia are interconnected to such an extent that a victory for Islamic extremism, or any other form of state failure in one part of central Asia, will have negative consequences throughout the region.

Martha Brill Olcott
Martha Brill Olcott is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC.