On November 14, 2000, Dr. John Schoeberlein, Director of the International Crisis Group's Central Asia Project and Director of the Forum for Central Asia Studies at Harvard, spoke at the Endowment about the growing presence of Islamic radical forces in Central Asia. The event was chaired by Ambassador Morton Abramowitz, with commentary from Dr. Greg Austin, International Crisis Group (ICG) Asia Program Director, and Dr. Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate with the Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program.
"Armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan by radical Islamists whose declared aim is to establish a religious state in Central Asia have sent shock waves through Central Asia and have drawn as much international attention to the region as any issue since independence," according to John Schoeberlein. The incursions lasted from August through October 1999, recurring in August-October 2000. These events, which followed terrorist bombings in Tashkent in February 1999, have drawn attention to the security threat Islamic mobilization poses for regional security in Central Asia.
At present, the threat posed by Islamic insurgents is limited, with militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) operating out of bases in neighboring Tajikistan and Afghanistan and unable to conduct prolonged military operations. But Schoeberlein believes that popular support inside Uzbekistan for the insurgency is expanding.
Schoeberlein offered a complex picture of the socio-economic factors causing support for Islamic insurgents. While groups in Afghanistan may contribute to the funding and training of the IMU, Schoeberlein emphasized that Afghanistan's role in promoting the incursions should not be exaggerated. He criticized the official accounts of the incursions offered by Central Asia's leaders, which state that the "impetus of these incursions is entirely from the outside, and that participants are motivated only by ideological delusion or self-interest" as "overly simplistic."
"The participants and sources of support behind this insurgency are difficult to identify," Schoeberlein commented. The official accounts neglect internal conditions, such as the economic difficulties involved in transition, which have left segments of Central Asia's population disenchanted with current political regimes. The expectations aroused at the time that the Central Asian states gained independence have yet to be fulfilled.
According to Schoeberlein, there has so far been only a low level of public support for groups like the IMU. Most of the Central Asian population is not ready to rebel against the status quo. However, the potential for an anti-regime Islamic movement to spread through underground networks remains possible.
Accompanying public disenchantment in Uzbekistan is the government's "severe suppression of unofficial Islamic activity." Both in Uzbekistan and in other Central Asian states, governments are nervous of the role the revival of Islam could play in providing "an alternative means of mobilization and expression," said Schoeberlein. "The victimization [of Muslims] increases radicalism," said Schoeberlein. "The greatest risk to stability comes from the prospect that the general population will come to see the insurgency as fighting for their own interests," he concluded.
In his presentation, Schoeberlein emphasized that the Central Asian governments must move away from an antiquated approach toward Islam that dates back to the Soviet period. The government of Uzbekistan in particular, by using security services to harass Muslim activists and demanding the registration of religious organizations, is using outdated Soviet tactics to deal with a complex social movement that in many areas of Central Asia is closely linked to the inhabitants's sense of identity. Instead of viewing the expression of Islam as a security problem, Central Asian governments should accommodate the more moderate components of the Islamic revival.
Likewise, the U.S. and international organizations that work in the region should recognize the "nature and diversity" of Islamic movements. The U.S. should avoid close association with Uzbekistan's crackdown on Islam, since doing so might only arouse anti-western sentiments in the region. U.S. foreign policy is contradictory; while championing the cause of human rights, the United States gives tacit support for Uzbekistan's suppression of religious movements by placing the IMU on its list of international terrorist groups. If a greater level of democracy is to be achieved in the region, the United States, while recognizing its inherent limitations in influencing domestic policies, should strongly encourage Central Asian governments to build democratic institutions that are the ultimate guarantor of long-term stability.
In her commentary, Martha Brill Olcott stated that the U.S. response to increasingly authoritarian regimes in Central Asia was insufficient and came too late. In dealing with the situation, she said, "we are constrained by our perceptions of Islam," which were shaped largely by the drastic events of the Iranian revolution. Olcott explained that "the U.S. appears to be taking Uzbekistan's side in what really is an internal struggle within Islam." She underscored the difficulties involved in U.S. attempts to influence Uzbekistan's policies "on the ground," particularly now, when the critical decisions the post-Soviet state made after independence have been institutionalized.
"The current situation in Uzbekistan," said Olcott, "is almost like a Shakespearean play that is already in its third or fourth act-there is not much we can do to change the course of the action." She added, "the only thing that remains to be seen is whether it is a history or a tragedy." The Islamic revival in Uzbekistan has been going on for 25 years, and will "not be reduced by brutal police tactics," she commented. The security situation in the region continues to deteriorate, given the instability in neighboring Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, after a decade of slow reform that has led to social dislocation, Uzbekistan's government has solidified along semi-authoritarian lines. "By its silence, the U.S. government is condoning practices that it used to so vociferously condemn when they were done by the communist regimes in Central Asia," she noted. According to Olcott, the United States needs to re-examine its policy in Central Asia and reflect on its preferences regarding Islam's role in political systems. The constructive activities of NGOs in the region should continue, and the West should make more money available to support economic reform in Uzbekistan.
Asked about the potential for sizable violence in the region, John Schoeberlein, while noting that the security risks the current situation poses should not be exaggerated, outlined two scenarios that could lead to violence. First, the potential for mass opposition to the government is becoming a possibility with the large-scale suppression of Islam. Schoeberlein stated that prominent human rights groups "have estimated the number of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan to be around 20,000," a figure which includes the families of those imprisoned or sent into exile. Once outbreaks begin, Schoeberlein commented, "wide-scale violence has a tendency to feed on itself," leading to massive upheaval. Second, the violence could take on an inter-state character, if, for example, Uzbekistan were to invade Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan to stop incursions being mounted from these two states.
Responding to a question on the role Saudi Arabia plays in the region, and its possible value as a U.S. ally in Central Asia, Schoeberlein explained that while Saudi Arabia helped finance the Islamic revival in Uzbekistan, its influence is now limited by the recent religious repression, which has virtually cut off Saudi Arabia's funding. Schoeberlein also commented that while the matter warrants attention, cooperation with Saudi Arabia would be difficult because its position on Islam is radically different from U.S. policy.
Morton Abramowitz brought up the issue of Russia's policies in Central Asia. Martha Olcott commented that Russia remains a "guard dog in the area that inherently limits U.S. involvement." Russian policy, which typically views Islamic radicalism as a terrorist security threat, is tempered by the fact that "20 percent of the population in the Russian Federation is of Muslim extraction," she added. Schoeberlein noted the divide between Russia and the Central Asian states in their attitudes toward starting a dialogue with the Taliban. While Russia opposes such a dialogue, some Central Asian states have expressed it as a possibility.
Concluding the discussion, Greg Austin stated that all of the preconditions for large-scale violence exist in the region: sharp ethnic divisions have been reinforced by governments and international organizations, economic and social conditions have worsened, large numbers of weapons are available in the region, and the drug trade runs rampant. "While the margin for intervention by the international community is small," he said, "it does not mean that we have to ignore it." Austin commented that the U.S. is not currently devoting its attention and resources in a way that will ease the security situation in Central Asia and meets U.S. interests in a region that is strategically important. Noting inherent limitations on U.S. policy, he concluded, "Central Asia is a foreign policy problem crying out for vigorous, extensive international collaboration between the major power." Likewise, Austin advocated "multilateralism from the inside," in the form of organizations like the Central Asian Economic Union, which bring Central Asian states and populations together to deal with economic and social issues.
Summary by Erik Scott, Junior Fellow with the Russian and Eurasian Program.