Central Asia: Security vs. Modernization
Security dominates the agenda in Central Asia. The region and its place in the world have always been viewed through the lens of security, given its proximity to various conflicts. Central Asia is also regarded as an outpost or a barrier that prevents instability and radicalism from spilling over from Afghanistan into neighboring countries. It is the security paradigm that shapes the foreign and domestic policies of Central Asian nations.
Foreign powers also use regional security as a pretext for justifying the pursuit of their own interests in the region. Initiatives allegedly aimed at enhancing regional security and stability are frequently used to conceal their vested interests, with both regional and foreign powers playing along in this charade. Efforts by foreign powers to lure Central Asian countries into joining various alliances and organizations to jointly counter one threat or another have elevated the role of Central Asian countries in global politics due to the urgency of certain threats.
For a long time, the situation in Afghanistan has been used as an all-purpose bogeyman. Central Asian countries were eager to terrify their foreign partners with the prospect of armed groups from Afghanistan infiltrating the region and drawing it into the vortex of the Afghan conflict. Foreign powers, for their part, often seized on this story of radicals from Afghanistan preparing to invade other countries. In other words, shared security has always dominated the agenda for Central Asia.
There was, however, an attempt to reset the regional agenda when China came forward with its One Belt, One Road initiative. Even though it has yet to translate into specific projects, it has provided a different perspective on the region, emphasizing its potential in terms of transportation and logistics and its role as a hub for new transcontinental routes. Central Asia is viewed as the most promising region in terms of shaping a new network of regional and continental linkages between East and West and North and South. With the Chinese initiative, Central Asia’s strategic importance has expanded beyond security.
Central Asia is now viewed as a promising market for investment and new infrastructure projects, not merely a supplier of raw materials. Nevertheless, security has taken center stage once again amid the deepening crisis in the Middle East, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the emergence of new threats to domestic development. These challenges have become especially pronounced in Kazakhstan.
From the first days of its independence, Kazakhstan has put forward and attempted to follow its own comprehensive agenda for social and economic modernization. The country has enacted various reforms in a whole host of spheres, including the financial industry, the social sphere, education, the economy, politics, governance, etc. In line with this objective, Kazakhstan spearheaded, in 2015, a large-scale modernization program known as the Plan of the Nation – Five Institutional Reforms. This initiative featured specific and realistic reforms in a number of new areas, such as public service, e-government, the creation of an international financial center, transitioning to a multilingual educational model, introducing mandatory health insurance, and other innovations. These were new qualitative reforms aimed at raising the country to a new level, guided by OECD standards.
However, the launch of this modernization effort coincided with a number of other events: growing protest sentiment and land reforms, which provided people with a pretext to express their frustration, while the protests themselves were underpinned by a number of other factors. Against this backdrop, the government had to adjust its reform plan. Kazakhstan was targeted by terrorist attacks in June 2016 in Aktobe and July 2016 in Almaty, bringing the country face to face with a new threat of radicalism and terrorism. As these threats have grown, security has returned to the agenda.
Similar processes are unfolding in a number of other Central Asian countries, including Kyrgyzstan, where a presidential election is scheduled to take place in 2017. With the election date approaching, tensions are running high between the government and the opposition, forcing the authorities to adjust their domestic policy priorities. At the same time, the social and economic situation in the country is dire, with growing unemployment, poverty, and pervasive corruption, all of which fuel religious extremism.
Responding to these developments, Central Asian elites have to refocus on security issues, while relegating modernization plans to the background. These countries face two main dilemmas when it comes to responding to new threats: should they take swift and resolute action right now or try to understand the factors behind radicalization so as to devise a flexible strategy for neutralizing them? Of course, the geopolitical context also matters with tension and conflicts escalating across the world and the growing threat of terrorism. Against this backdrop, the two priorities of security and modernization run counter to each other. In other words, the paradigms or agendas of modernization and security are in conflict, and Central Asian countries face something of a moment of truth in terms of setting their long-term priorities.
In Kazakhstan, there was a risk that after the summer terrorist attacks the security agenda would supplant modernization efforts, with the government focusing on responding to the new threats of radicalism and terrorism, while showing little appetite for implementing reforms it had announced earlier. There was a risk that the government would proclaim some kind of war on terror, and would mobilize internal and foreign policy resources to this end. It seemed that these fears were starting to be realized when the government unveiled a package of measures to combat terrorism. These measures included new migration rules and harsher punishment for terrorist and extremist activity. Responding to these measures, advocacy groups accused the government of using terrorism and extremism as a pretext for a broader crackdown. In other words, there was a risk that the national development strategy paradigm would change. However, this shift away from a modernization agenda did not materialize in Kazakhstan.
In fact, an analysis of the causes and factors of radicalization (protest movements and other aspects) conducted by Kazakh authorities showed that many issues were attributable to deficient communication and a lack of flexibility in government policy. This understanding paved the way to certain adjustments. For example, ministries and the government in general now hold public hearings on state programs and use new communication tools for soliciting feedback. The parliament has also adopted new regulations and now invites community and opinion leaders, civil society activists, experts and representatives of international and other organizations to contribute to working groups or committees, so as to ensure that the laws it adopts are subject to public oversight. New bodies were created to promote dialogue, including the Ministry for Religious and Civil Society Affairs. Communication policy was also improved with new approaches. Most importantly, the government has come to understand that instead of giving up on modernization plans and programs, a system-wide effort is needed to implement them. It is for this reason that tactical adjustments were made to these plans. For instance, some reforms were delayed in order to thoroughly evaluate them and identify vulnerabilities. At the same time, other reforms are moving forward as planned. In other words, Kazakhstan remains committed to ushering in this new stage of modernization. The new leadership of Uzbekistan has also set new modernization goals.
However, not all countries in the region have a strategy of this kind. Some national governments are still guided by opportunism, which creates uncertainty in Central Asian politics.
Yerlan Karin is Director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.