By local standards, 2013 proved quite successful for the people and leaders of the five Central Asian republics. There were no major wars, natural disasters, or coups d’etat. The governments continued to muddle through the usual raft of problems, and ordinary citizens remained largely quiescent; there was a distinct lack of an Arab Spring-like atmosphere.
Tajikistan provided a typical example of a Central Asian authoritarian regime untroubled by democratic opposition. On 6 November 2013 the incumbent president, Emomali Rahmon, comfortably won an election that gave him his fourth consecutive term as head of state. The poll may have suffered from irregularities but Rahmon’s 83.6 per cent of the vote victory accurately reflected his popularity — one based on his carefully maintained image as the father of the nation and the country’s onlyguarantor of peace and prosperity.
Five other candidates in the race merely made up the numbers, and a true opposition alternative put forward at the last moment by the Islamic Renaissance Party and the Social Democratic Party failed to collect the required number of signatures to participate. One of Rahmon’s first official acts upon inauguration was the appointment of his 26-year-old son, Rustam, as the head of the State Customs Committee, which many in the country interpreted as a move to pave the way for adynastic succession after 2020 when the president’s current term in office is served.
Kyrgyzstan’s president Almazbek Atambaev has continued to strengthen his rule. His drive to subdue powerful regional bosses in the country’s south culminated in the removal of the city of Osh mayor on 4 December 2013. This victory may turn out Pyrrhic and lead to a renewed alliance among the southern sub-ethnic factions that had successfully overthrown a northerner-dominated central government in 2005.
At the regional level, a kind of cold war continued between Uzbekistan on the one hand and Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan on the other. Disputes over water and territory underlie these tensions, which led to periodic exchange of fire on the borders and an energy and transport blockade enforced by Uzbekistan. In July 2013, an article published in a semi-official media outlet staked Tashkent’s territorial claims against all of its neighbours (plus Russia) and called for Uzbekistan’s speedy accession to NATO to become the region’s hegemon. This provocative piece caused consternation in regional capitals which regarded it as Karimov’s attempt to ‘test the waters’ before a more aggressive action.
The apprehension about Uzbekistan’s intentions and its close relations with the United States compelled some Central Asian republics to seek tighter links with Moscow. At the summit of the Collective Security Treaty Organization held in May 2013 in Bishkek, a proposal was discussed to construct a railroad line linking Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan that would bypass Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan is set to join the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in 2014, and Tajikistan is likely to follow suit.
Strategic indeterminacy surrounding Afghanistan remains an issue for all Central Asian republics. They have not elaborated concise strategies of how to deal with the challenges their southern neighbor will present after the withdrawal of NATO troops this year. Uzbekistan appears to follow Washington’s optimistic scenario that seeks to stabilize Afghanistan through greater economic engagement with Central Asia under the aegis of the New Silk Road project. Other Central Asian republics tend to agree with Moscow’s negative prognosis on Afghanistan and endeavor to isolate it behind a defense perimeter. In the meantime, China has come up with its own New Silk Road initiative which is at loggerheads with both US and Russian plans for the region.
This year promises to be particularly interesting for geopolitical pundits observing the maneuvers of three international behemoths and their interaction with regional actors in Central Asia.
Dr Kirill Nourzhanov is Deputy Director at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, The Australian National University.
This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.