The concept of non-traditional security (NTS) is still short of a commonly accepted or authoritative definition. While the sphere of traditional security is quite precise, no accord exists as to what non-traditional security is and what it includes and what remains excluded. The definition of NTS used by the Consortium of NTS Studies in Asia, otherwise known as NTS-Asia, is pertinent: “NTS challenges are defined as challenges to the survival and wellbeing of peoples and states that arise primarily out of non-military sources, such as climate change, infectious diseases, natural disasters, irregular migration, food shortages, smuggling of persons, drug trafficking and other forms of transnational crime.”1) Mely Caballero-Anthony finds NTS threats having a few common characteristics.2) They are generally non-military in nature, transnational in scope-neither totally domestic nor purely inter-state and are transmitted rapidly due to globalization and communication revolution. This implies that these non-traditional threats are much more intimidating than the traditional ones as they require the national leadership to look not only outwards to cultivate international cooperation, but also inwards, with an open outlook to execute internal socio-economic and political reforms.3)
NTS threats apply with particular force to Central Asia. The last two decades have witnessed growth in a wide range of NTS threats in Central Asia. Those threats concern the survival and well-being of peoples and states. They arise primarily out of non-military and transnational sources. Security in Central Asia is no longer narrowly defined in realist terms. Much of traditional security study in Central Asia revolved primarily around the “new great game” and the struggle for access to and influence over energy sources. Since 2001 analysis has moved on to emphasize not the great game alone or foreign powers’ designs upon the region as constituting the real threat to security, but rather the danger arising out of internal deformations that could generate the all too visible terrorist threat. One can identify seven broad branches of NTS sub-studies, namely, international terrorism, trans-national organized crime, environmental security, illegal migration, energy security, human security, and internal security.
The standard narratives see the main NTS threats either in the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and with them associated insurgent groups, or it envisions the threats to security in the prospect of state failure there due to the oppressiveness of these despotisms. Certainly, everything about these regimes testifies to the ubiquity of “illegitimate governance.” Central Asian states, like many Third World states, are preoccupied with internal threats rather than external ones and with legitimacy problems. Central Asian states now recognize that climate change, major ecological transformations, and rivalry over energy supplies could unhinge Central Asian security. Central Asia is subject to a number of serious environmental problems among which the desiccation of the Aral Sea, as a result of the cotton monoculture, the pollution of the Caspian Sea, the pollution of drinking water, salination of the soil, soil erosion, etc., and the consequences of nuclear weapons testing.4) For example, the southern Aral Sea is on pace to dry up within a decade. Rivalries and tensions revolving around water use are rising. All these make Central Asian states vulnerable to NTS threats.
What is understudied in the Central Asian NTS literature is how the region’s lack of democracy and state weakness as a basic element of insecurity and great power interventions overlap, and in many ways, reinforce each other. Some support the claim that Russian support for dictatorships in Central Asia has caused instability. Others further argue that not only Russian, but also Chinese and American interventions and their competition with Russia have caused instability. This article examines how state failure and domestic pathologies and foreign intervention combine to cause NTS threats.
1)See the NTS-Asia website, available at
Central Asia is often viewed by Western states as a Pandora’s Box of various security threats, whose root causes are multi-faceted. The first fullscale report on this complexity of Central Asian security was “New Security Threats in Eurasia: Implications for the Euro-Atlantic Space” released in 2005 by the Silkroad Studies Program.5) The standard narratives see the threats such as ethnic conflict, “warlordism,” and drug trade are destabilizing Central Asia. The view that the region is plagued by instability, conflict and poverty which fuel the illicit trade in narcotics and other forms of organized crime is abundantly visible in reports from the Silkroad Studies Program and the Jamestown Foundation’s North Caucasus Weekly and Eurasia Daily Monitor as well as the Central Asian local press.6) The same factors are also taken to fuel radicalism that potentially breeds terrorism. Niklas Swanstrom is one of the pioneers of NTS study on Central Asia.7) However, Professor S. Frederick Starr, Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, holds that these issues are not fundamental reasons for undermining the security of the region, nor does the economic crisis cause havoc.8) There is no clear consensus in the Central Asian security literature as to fundamental reasons for instability. More academic work needs to be done in this area, including consideration of the implications for Central Asian security and political relations.
High-ranking American analysts and officials and more recently Australian scholar Kiril Nourzhanov have grasped that the non-military issues of security are very important in Central Asia. Kiril Nourzhanov’s analysis of Central Asian threat perceptions highlights this sense of threat from each other. Nourzhanov notes the need to break away from a Western-derived threat paradigm that sees everything in terms of the great power rivalry commonly called the new great game and the main internal threat to regimes, namely insurgency even though these are certainly real enough threats.9) While these threats surely exist, they hardly comprise the only challenges to Central Asian security.
The so-called “Great Game” among the great powers can cause threats to regional security. At least in the Russian case, Russian policy is clearly antagonistic to these states’ acquisition and retention of their full sovereignty as well as to democracy, which is assumed a priori to be the way to go forward in meeting contemporary challenges. Moscow’s efforts to forge a unified, or integrated CIS in economic and defense policies are well known and Russian leaders have long since made clear their view that the successor states to the Soviet Union are not fully sovereign states and that Russia pursues a sphere of influence policy there.
The importance of the human security dimension is also growing in the region, although the definition of human security is often unclear. In the Central Asian context, human security consists of economic isolation, massive decline in output, poverty, collapse of social security, increased criminalization of the political system due to the upswing in the drug trade and organized crime, income shortage, and widening income disparities including rural vs. urban, poor vs. rich.10) These dimensions are all contributing to instability. As Niklas Swanstrom pointed out, “environmental, water, economic and other security threats have not received the attention they deserve and have drowned in the media attention regarding the terrorist threat.”11)
Internal security has significant relevance for any discussion of Third World security, including Central Asia, where the security environment is one of ‘reversed anarchy’ as described by Mikhail Alexiev and Bjorn Moeller. Alexiev, quoting Moeller, observes that,
Amitav Acharya’s observations about Asian security in general apply with particular force to Central Asia.13) National security concepts in Central Asia are strongly influenced by concerns for regime survival. Hence, security policies in Central Asia are not so much about protection against external military threats, but against internal challenges. Moreover, the overwhelming proportion of conflicts in Central Asia fall into the intra-state category, meaning they reflect the structural weaknesses of the state, including a fundamental disjunction between its territorial and ethnic boundaries. Many of these conflicts have been shown to have a spillover potential; hence the question of outside interference is an ever-present factor behind their escalation and containment. Against this backdrop, the principle of noninterference becomes vital to the security predicament of states. And a concept of security that challenges the unquestioned primacy of the state and its right to remain free from any form of external interference arouses suspicion and controversy.
Two things stand out in delimiting the nature of Central Asia here: the primacy of internal security and great-power intervention. The domestic situation in most if not all of these states is precarious, and there is a direct link between that precariousness and foreign intervention and competition for influence among the great powers.
Central Asian countries simultaneously face the exigencies of both statebuilding, i.e., assuring internal security and defense against external threats without sufficient means or time or resources to compete successfully with other more established states. Not surprisingly their primary concern becomes internal security and their continuation in power, hence the proliferation of multiple military forces, intelligence, and police forces in these countries, often enjoying more resources than do their regular armies, and their governments’ recourse to rent-seeking, authoritarian, and clientelistic policies.14)
The central issue in Central Asian security is ensuring the continuation in power of the ruling regime and of the president’s power. Even though these states acknowledge themselves to face external threats of terrorism and narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan that then corrupts and corrodes the socio-political fabric in their countries, those threats are second to the preservation of the status quo. States “outsource” aspects of their security to stronger neighbors to acquire resources or rents from the great powers which are then used to pay off clients, grant them the rents they seek, provide for domestic economic development, and stabilize both elite relationships and the overall state. For if they do not acquire these rents they have no choice but to turn quickly to external patrons, undermining the domestic situation and introducing political rivalries among the governing elite with dangerous crisis potentials for those elites.
Apart from the machinations of the great powers who visibly act in and upon Central Asia, the local states have utterly failed to devise stable and functioning forms either of succession or of regional cooperation. Indeed, there are connections between these two forms of local failure because a succession crisis invariably leads to significant perturbations within the region among its member states. There is an all too ready acceptance by analysts and governments interested in the region that such crises or other kinds of threats to state stability justify calls for foreign intervention that are likely to trigger region-wide crises.
Through “multi-vector” diplomacy to gain security resources and assistance from the major external actors, local governments can mitigate their potential external security dilemmas by exploiting great and major power rivalries to secure tangible security assistance that they could not otherwise produce on their own. Thus the New Great Game materially assists domestic security in Central Asia and not only by foreclosing possibilities for any one power to dominate it.
Despite widespread condemnation of the supposedly pathological or weak and ineffective domestic structures, only one of these regimes has been toppled by revolution (Kyrgyzstan) and even that did not lead to a major restructuring. This forces us to ask why it is that supposedly dysfunctional regimes, confronting a host of profound security challenges are able to keep on going despite their failures to address these challenges. The survival of what are clearly dysfunctional if not failing states is attributable to their ability to leverage the so called new great game for their benefit. Great power rivalry in Central Asia stabilizes what would otherwise be failing and dysfunctional governments by providing local rulers with the assets by which they can stay in power.
The region as a whole remains at risk from the pervasive misrule that characterizes it. The prospect of state failure leads interested external actors to prepare policies of more overt neo-colonial subordination of Central Asia to their interests and ambitions. Failure to master internal security dynamics opens the way to long-standing hard security threats. Indeed, for these states, and arguably even for transitional states like Russia, internal police forces enjoy greater state resources than do the regular armies, this being a key indicator of the primacy of internal security as a factor in defining the term national security.15) Nevertheless, at the end of the day, it also still remains true that if they cannot defend themselves militarily against these threats, which have arisen due to a previous failure to provide security, they go under as classical thinking about hard security would predict.
The emerging environmental and ecological security paradigm focuses more heavily on the broad array of challenges presented by nature. Ecological security grows out of the continually evolving relationships between human societies and an ever-changing physical environment that sustains all forms of life. A central assumption inherent in this new way of thinking about security is that threats to well-being are just as likely to come from nature as they are from other people.16) The relationship between climate change and conflict has received copious attention during the past few years.17) According to IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), climate changes are apparent now and are already having negative effects on the social and economic development of developing and emerging countries. The effects of these changes threaten not only human security in many regions worldwide, but also peace and stability.18)
Environmental issues were part of the political trends during the Soviet period. Nationalist and republican challenges to Moscow’s authority came in the form of grassroots opposition to environmental degradation and exploitation; inter-ethnic competition for land, water and other resources.19) Since 1991 what Central Asian countries have been concerned about is the question of how to share their water and other resources and how to cooperate on these issues. While Moscow benefited economically from the distorted and destructive development of Central Asia throughout the twentieth century, the region and its inhabitants now have to pay for its costs: environmental degradation; water shortages and pollution; health problems including high rates of infant mortality, respiratory illnesses, typhoid, etc.20)
Climate change has already caused a shortage of water resources in Central Asia. For a region of desert and steppes, conflicts over the allocation of scarce water resources are inevitable and pose the single greatest threat to regional security. Water will become increasingly scarce in the years to come. High temperatures and decreased snowfall will contribute to a slow but steady melting of the Tajik and Kyrgyz glaciers feeding the Amu Darya and Syr Darya and their tributaries. This will significantly alter the water regime in Central Asia.21) Water resources will decrease also in quality. Salinity in the Khorezm region of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan has caused the prevailing west-east winds to sweep up tons of salt and carry it to the Tien-Shan Mountains and the Pamirs. Deposited on the high mountain moraines, this salt is gradually melting the massive glaciers that are the source of water for the entire region.22)
A common assumption is that the pursuit of an NTS agenda is more likely to lead to greater cooperation among states by focusing attention upon functional forms of engagement that help to build confidence and trust with positive spill-over effects into the traditional security realm.23) Anyone studying security issues in Central Asia quickly recognizes that environmental and ecological factors the use and control of land, water, energy, and other raw materials, and the reclamation of polluted lands─play an extremely important role in that region’s security and political agendas. Central Asia is vulnerable to climate change due to its dependence on renewable natural resources for economic development and agriculture.24) But the shift away from a purely geo-political interpretation of security divides states more than it unites them. Indeed, struggles to define new uses for hydropower in and around Central Asia have been or are being caught up in this geopolitical rivalry among the great powers.
Environmental problems in post-Soviet Central Asia pose a serious risk to human and regional security. The drying out of the Aral Sea is having far reaching consequences for the climate and biodiversity of the surrounding regions. Poverty and environmental degradation are linked in a vicious downward spiral in the region. Trans-border environmental problems are developing into trans-border conflicts. Desert winds are transporting sand and salt over long distances, depositing millions of tons of polluted salts on agricultural land all over the basin area. This is a classic case of ecological conflicts where there is a direct link between environmental degradation, scarcity of resources, competition for access to scarce resources and conflict and to prevent conflict, there needs to be a regional environmental cooperation. 25)
The most topical struggle over water involves Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan and it involves struggles over water and hydropower projects. Added to this issue is the fact that Uzbekistan is trying to assert its own regional supremacy in Central Asia, while Russia is trying to unite all the states in its own security structures and agenda to exclude the United States and minimize China’s influence. Furthermore, all the regional governments are trying to extract concessions from Russia in return for Moscow’s efforts to subordinate them even further to Russian economic and military power. Thus, these efforts to deal with water issues soon run afoul of clashing local and great power political perspectives. Today Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are almost at the brink of war, in no small measure due to their rivalry over water sources for irrigation in the Uzbek case and for hydroelectric power in the Tajik case.
Erika Weinthal has plumbed the depths of the complex multi-level interaction among foreign actors, local governments, and domestic constituencies in creating cooperative solutions to water problems, especially around the Aral Sea, during the first decade of Central Asian independence. That process bears out and validates the idea that Central Asian states have established a pattern of extracting foreign resources to strengthen domestic state-building capabilities, international legitimacy and satisfy critical domestic constituencies. But as she also has shown, these solutions were limited, helped stabilize a repressive and backward, not to mention suboptimal system of economic and social control as well as water usage and did not resolve the asymmetries between upstream and downstream users and between energy-rich and energy-poor states. Those solutions were also closely tied, as she has shown to the state-building processes in Central Asia after independence.26)
5)Emin Poljarevic, “New Security Threats in Eurasia: Implications for the Euro-Atlantic Space,” report from the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program (Washington: 2005). 6)Niklas Swanstrom, “Traditional and Non-Traditional Security Threats in Central Asia: Connecting the Old and New,” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 8-2 (2010), pp. 35-51. 7)See Niklas Swanstrom, “The Narcotics Trade: A Threat to Security? National and Transnational Implications,” Global Crime 8 (2007), pp. 1-25; Niklas Swanstrom, “Political Development and Organized Crime: The Yin and Yang of Greater Central Asia?” China and Eurasia Forum Quarterly 5-4 (2007), pp. 83-101. 8)Emin Poljarevic, op. cit., p. 14. 9)Kiril Nourzhanov, “Changing Security Threat Perceptions in Central Asia,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 63-1 (2009), p. 94. 10)Ibid., p. 4. 11)Niklas Swanstrom (2010), op. cit., p. 37. 12)As quoted in Mikhail Alekseev, Regionalism of Russia’s Foreign Policy in the 1990s: A Case of “Reversed Anarchy,” in Donald W. Treadgold Papers, No. 37 (Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, 2003), p. 12. 13)Amitav Acharya, “Human Security and Asian Regionalism: A Strategy of Localization,” in Amitav Acharya and Evelyn Goh (eds.), Reassessing Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific: Competition, Congruence, and Transformation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), p. 241. 14)Mohammad Ayoob, “From Regional System to Regional Society: Exploring Key Variables in the Construction of Regional Order,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 53-3 (1999), pp. 247-260; Mohammad Ayoob, “Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism,” International Studies Review 4-3 (2002), pp. 127-148 and the works cited therein. 15)Julian Cooper, “The Funding of the Power Agencies of the Russian State,” Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies 6-7 (2007), available at
From its inception, the Arab spring has had an international cast as revolutions in one country have inspired subsequent revolutions across the Middle East. Consequently, many have speculated as to whether this inspiration or example could carry over to Central Asia. Clearly the possibility of such a diffusion or inspiration has profoundly frightened leaders in Central Asia. Central Asian leaders’ response to the Arab spring shows that their primary concern is internal security and their continuation in power. Central Asia has not yet been engulfed in crises because great power rivalry in Central Asia stabilizes what would otherwise be failing and dysfunctional governments by providing local rulers with the assets by which they can stay in power.27)
Differences in history, culture and circumstances make direct comparisons between the Middle East and Central Asia difficult. However, in some important respects, the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan share a dynamic similar to those causing the upheavals in the Middle East, including unemployment, poverty, corruption, little outlet for meaningful political discourse, and a lack of opportunity particularly for young people.28) Based on statistical analysis Ralph Clem recently wrote that “The empirical data available suggest a very close fit between socioeconomic conditions in Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand and the five Central Asian countries on the other, especially with regard to the youthfulness of the population.”29)
However, there are also significant differences with the North African and Middle East countries, which make popular uprisings in the near term less likely in Central Asia. First, the economic situation is not as dire in Central Asia. International Monetary Fund (IMF) unemployment projections for 2011 in Central Asia range from a low of 0.2 percent in Uzbekistan to a high of 5.7 percent in Kazakhstan, compared to 9.2 percent and 14.7 percent in Egypt and Tunisia, respectively. Second, significant proportions of the workforce in poor countries such as Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have found work outside the country, primarily in Russia, easing unemployment and providing a very valuable source of remittances for those poor countries. Third, the hydrocarbon wealth of countries like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan has enabled them to cushion the impact of economic hardships in those countries. While citizens in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere have turned to Facebook and Twitter as forums through which to interact, organize and exchange ideas, the vast majority of Central Asia lacks access to the Internet, with 14 percent Internet penetration in Kazakhstan in 2008 marking the highest of all the Central Asian countries.30)
Although Internet access has since grown, governments have succeeded in blocking outside influences and tightly controlling domestic media through harassment, prosecution and imprisonment of journalists. The lack of independent media allows governments to control the dissemination of news and information.31)
Another factor is the lack of meaningful political opposition in most of Central Asia. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, significant opposition parties are largely nonexistent, and organized opposition groups are for the most part either illegal or tightly constrained by the authorities. While these same conditions seem oppressive to Western observers, residents in some parts of Central Asia value this stability and are wary of the turmoil and unpredictability in recent years in neighboring Afghanistan and, to a certain extent, Kyrgyzstan.32)
Governance throughout Central Asia displays the triumph of informal relationships: clan, tribe, and/or family, triumphing over formal and legal ones. That trend is the opposite of what prevails in most modern states. So we see in Central Asia at best an incomplete modernization and the persistence of archaic social structures that have nonetheless found ways to become functional in these states. Nepotism and systematic corruption are rife everywhere. And with the rise of narcotics trafficking, widespread criminality pervades several governments. Or else alternative forms of corruption and predation lead to the same conclusion. The rulers of these states enjoy control over or access to hugely disproportionate amounts of the state’s economy which in many cases are dominated by one or two crops or raw materials like oil, gas, cotton, copper, gold, etc. At the same time they have preserved previous socio-economic structures like the Soviet system of cotton farming in Uzbekistan as highly serviceable forms of socio-political control.33) This phenomenon too exemplifies the melange of old and new that characterizes the region’s socio-political structures and creates so much difficulty for analysts and external policymakers wishing to ameliorate conditions there.
Thanks to their ability to forge this control over people and resources Central Asian leaders have translated that power and access into personalized forms of rule and rent seeking that displays and characterizes all the pathologies listed above. There is abundant evidence of widespread corruption, accelerating income differentials in income and extremely unbalanced concentrations of wealth, and pervasive signs of anomie and anomic behavior. Those signs take the form of family breakdowns, huge increases in drug addiction, criminality (including official corruption), torture of dissidents, more brutal forms of sexual discrimination and exploitation of women, ecological devastation, widespread poverty, ethnic intolerance (as in Osh in 2010), etc. As a result most foreign observers see this region as being plagued by multiple overlapping structural crises embodying all these pathologies if not more.34)
Governments are paying a lot of attention to mass communications and social networks, the engines of protest in the Middle East and North Africa. Uzbek authorities, for example, have taken steps to tighten control over cellular companies, instructing providers to report on any suspicious actions by customers, and on any massive distributions of text messages via their cellular networks. Azerbaijan has just taken similar action to keep close tabs on cell and text traffic.35)
Incumbent officials are also clearly concerned about the religious dimension of politics. This means all forms of religious expression mainly Muslim, but also Christian that are not officially sanctioned are facing more scrutiny than ever. In Kyrgyzstan, for instance, over 170 unregistered mosques have been closed down in recent months. Conversely, Tajik authorities are proceeding with plans to build a mosque that can accommodate over 100,000 worshipers. Local experts say the massive mosque would make it easier for authorities to keep track of religious affairs in the capital Dushanbe.36)
Efforts to control religion go beyond domestic politics. In Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, crackdowns are in part connected to suspicions about Iran’s involvement with, or ideological support for religious opposition to the ruling governments. Tension concerning perceived Iranian meddling is particularly acute in Azerbaijan. Baku took steps in 2011 to neutralize the overtly pro-Iranian Islamic Party of Azerbaijan (AIP), including arresting the party’s head Movsun Samadov. At the same time, Iranian agents are suspected of trying to intimidate secularists in Baku, and discouraging discussion about the role of Islam in public life.37)
In Tajikistan, President Emomali Rahmon’s administration is confronting a revival of militant Islamist activity. Shortly before the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt in February 2011 Time Magazine ranked Rahmon eighth on a list of the Top 10 autocrats in trouble. In addition to building a massive state-run mosque, the Tajik leader has taken such drastic measures as recalling students studying Islam at foreign institutions, including Al-Azhar University in Cairo.38)
Of late, Kazakhstan, a country that has traditionally styled itself as a bastion of religious and ethnic toleration, has taken forceful steps to increase government control of religion. The catalyst for such action appears to be a string of terrorism incidents in 2011, although in virtually all of the cases, officials seemed reluctant to pin the blame on Islamic militants.39)
In October 2011, President Nursultan Nazarbayev signed legislation that imposed stringent registration requirements on religious associations. For example, all officially recognized religious groups, as well as anyone conducting “missionary activity,” were required to re-register in order to keep operating. The legislation also contained a vaguely worded provision that appears to give the state broad powers to intervene in the country’s religious life. Specifically, the provision “prohibits religious associations that are bent on the destruction of families, force the abandonment of property in favor of religious communities ─ and are harmful to the morals and health of the citizens.”40)
Central Asian governments have also shown considerable willingness to associate themselves with Russia and China in regard to issues like external calls for liberalization and democracy because they regard democracy promotion from Washington as an outright threat to the status quo which, they maintain, boils down to a choice between them and Islamic fundamentalism. For that reason Central Asian think tanks and analysts have urged that Washington pursue a different strategy, one that emphasizes not democracy promotion but regional economic integration among Central Asian states and with neighbors like Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.41) However, on the basis of recent history there is little reason to believe that Washington can succeed in promoting genuine regional cooperation where the subjects of that cooperation are themselves unwilling to act.
Indeed, President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan expressly linked the US failure to win success for its crusade for democracy to the problems in Afghanistan. As noted above, in November 2006 he publicly connected his and presumably his colleagues’ frustration with Washington’s democracy promotion campaign in a country and region with no democratic traditions to NATO’s problems in stabilizing Afghanistan. That critique illustrates just how he but also his colleagues seek to sidestep the issue of democracy at home while using what they call multi-vector diplomacy to obtain these goods from abroad like defense equipment, training, investors, and US defense of their interests by virtue of its involvement in Afghanistan, etc., while avoiding contentious issues. The security and material assistance these foreign programs provide allow Central Asian regimes to worry less about external threats, and even to forego genuine regional integration while they can concentrate on exploiting those great power rivalries and the circumstances that grow out of them like energy rivalry to increase their domestic security, and leverage enough resources like energy rents with which to keep domestic challenges at bay.
Obviously the new Northern Distribution Network (NDN) road through Central Asia to Tajikistan exemplifies a strategy that could give a greater impetus to a focus on economic development and regional cooperation, i.e. external provision of goods that Kazakhstan and its neighbors could not provide for themselves.42)
The prospect of state failure leads interested external actors to prepare policies of neo-colonial subordination of Central Asia to their interests and ambitions. Although Central Asians claim that they have had largely stable governments for twenty years and resent the implication that they have to learn governance from the West, in fact the paradigm of ongoing potential instability has much validity to it. And this is not a question of learning from the West or accepting its tutelage. Rather the point is visibly one of enlightened self-interest.
Moreover, the prospect if not reality of state failure teaches harsh but true lessons. Failure to master internal security dynamics opens the way to longstanding hard security threats. Russia, in particular, seems to be so anxious about the possibility of unrest in Central Asia spreading from a domestically triggered insurgency in other states like Kyrgyzstan, that here too it has suggested joint intervention with Kazakhstan.
Obviously this assessment links the prospect of state collapse in Kyrgyzstan to international rivalries (the so called new great game) and to the possibilities of separatism among China’s Uyghurs. Thus it implicitly postulates the paradigm outlined above, i.e., a direct link from state failure to foreign invasion or intervention and even the threat of state dismemberment And where there is not an actual sign of state failure but a domestic situation that could be manipulated to provide pretexts for intervention, Russia has already prepared the legal ground for doing so.
27)Stephen Blank and Carol R. Saivetz, “Playing to Lose?: Russia and the ‘Arab Spring’,” Problems of Post-Communism 59-1 (January-February 2012), pp. 3-14. 28)Stephen Blank, “Central Asia and Caucasus: Hiding Weakness with Shows of Strength,” Eurasia.org (12 January 2012), available at
Transboundary water resources create strong interdependencies between upstream and downstream countries. Kazakhstan depends on China and other Central Asian countries for about 50 percent of its water supply.43) The Syr Darya is a major fresh water resource for Kazakhstan, used mainly for irrigation in the agricultural sector. As a downstream country, Kazakhstan struggles with high pollution of the Syr Darya and diminishing waters in the Aral Sea.44)
Kyrgyzstan is the most upstream country on the Syr Darya. Being highly dependent on fossil fuel imports from neighboring countries, Kyrgyzstan has focused on developing its hydropower capacities. Hydropower makes up about 75 per cent of Kyrgyzstan’s energy consumption with the largest share coming from the Toktugul Dam. Since it uses only 10 percent of its hydropower potential, Kyrgyzstan needs to construct additional power lines.45)
Due to climate change, Kyrgyzstan has lost over 1,000 glaciers in the last four decades; by 2050 about 20 percent of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan will melt, while the glaciers in Tajikistan lost a third of their area in the second half of the twentieth century alone.46)
Thus, considerable additional potential for conflict exists in a region whose regional challenges impact directly or indirectly on great powers. A reduction in river levels will have a serious impact on hydroelectric power in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and on cotton production in Uzbekistan, potentially leading to tensions. Meanwhile tensions in Central Asia are mounting over river management in the Amu-Dariya and Syr-Dariya river basins between the upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan) and their downstream neighbors (primarily Uzbekistan, but also Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). Climate change will worsen water supply and could significantly increase the existing potential for conflict.
For those states lacking in hydrocarbons like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, water is their main source of power both literally and figuratively. Water issues are vitally important for them. Water issues are also vitally important for the downstream states that suffer from water scarcity, and are the hydrocarbon producing states: like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This situation exists within a context where foreign governments like Russia and the EU have weighed in on water issues in Central Asia.
Tashkent demands publicly that solutions to water problems take into account the interests of all states. In urging “rational and effective use of water resources in the region based on universal international norms,” Tashkent has thrown down the gauntlet, so to speak, to its neighbors. And it also precipitated a new round of crisis-level tension among its neighbors that could easily get out of control. Specifically, Uzbekistan has criticized its upstream neighbors’ endeavors to construct new large-scale projects to build hydropower facilities and stated that only Central Asian states can resolve the problem. In other words, it seeks to exclude Russia, China, the United States, and the EU from weighing in decisively on those issues.
The rivalry over water issues has drawn great powers like Russia into the conflicts between Central Asian states as each one tries to entice Russia to support it and provide it with the resources needed to prevail in their rival claims to the water while Moscow seeks to avoid decisive entanglement in regional conflicts and preserve its hegemonic ambitions in the area. This underscores as well the importance of inter-state rivalries among Central Asian states themselves. In its effort to be Central Asia’s undisputed security manager Moscow must now mediate disputes among these states and must also walk a narrow line lest it irretrievably embitter one or another state.
Kyrgyzstan’s political and economic crisis is linked to the crisis in its electricity sector, coupled with its highly inefficient use of water and electricity. Much of Kyrgyzstan’s infrastructure is obsolete. The country suffered severe cold in the winters of 2007-08 and 2008-09, and the water level at Toktogul has dropped to 70 percent of its previous levels. Kyrgyzstan must build new hydroelectric dams to ensure that it can produce electricity and does not have to make the draconian cuts in electricity deliveries that took place after 2007.47) Most Tajiks view the Rogun Dam as a way out of the energy shortages that have plagued the country for most of the past decade. The country’s aging hydropower plants generate enough electricity in warmer seasons to meet domestic needs. In winter, however, energy demands peak while water levels in rivers fall, leading to energy deficits. As a result, authorities resort to rolling blackouts from the late fall to early spring, leaving most of the country with only two to four hours of electricity per day.48) Although the initial construction for the Rogun Dam began in 1982, the break-up of the Soviet Union did not allow the country to complete the project. In 2007, Russia partnered with Tajikistan to complete the dam, but the two parties soon fell out. The Tajik government announced in early 2010 that it would try to raise by itself the $1.4 billion needed to finish the dam and the construction was re-launched.49)
However, these new dams could mean less water released downstream to Uzbekistan when its cotton crops need the water, making this an international issue. Although the five Central Asian states agreed in 2008 on measures to alleviate the water and energy deficit for 2009, it is clear that mistrust between Uzbekistan and its two eastern neighbors continues to prevail.50)
In 2006, the United States made clear that it supported the expansion of hydro-electric power in Tajikistan so that it could export electricity to Pakistan and Afghanistan, gain export markets not directly tied to Russia and support South Asian development.51) Tajikistan was also looking to other benefactors to support its projects to produce hydropower. Not surprisingly, Tajikistan drew closer to Kazakhstan in order to gain material resources from it, particularly oil and gas. In May 2008, Rahmon hinted at support for closer ties with Kazakhstan and support for President Nazarbayev’s program of a Central Asian Union that would be a new regional alignment at the expense of Uzbekistan and Russia. A new Kazakh-Tajik investment fund will put US$100 million into the fund that will realize projects in Tajikistan. A consortium will operate on the Rogun hydroelectric dam project, helping with shares in the consortium and as investors. Kazakhstan is also interested in other hydroelectric dam projects to carry electricity through Kyrgyzstan to Kazakhstan and buying Tajik hydroelectricity. Nazarbayev’s plan skirts Uzbekistan, and uses his country’s economic power much as it did to become a major foreign investor in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia and check Uzbekistan’s efforts to dominate its eastern neighbors (i.e., Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Nazarbayev also made a vague promise about relieving Tajikistan’s imminent food crisis, but made no binding commitments, certainly none on loosening Kazakhstan’s ban on grain exports. In return for these economic gestures to Dushanbe, Tajikistan appeared to be moving to support Kazakhstan’s reinvigorated push for a Central Asian Union to which Uzbekistan is opposed.52)
Not to be outdone, in 2006, Russia proposed a regional consortium to ensure effective water use and the consideration of all countries interests (i.e., Uzbekistan’s as much as if not more than Tajikistan’s interests).53) This apparently has remained Russia’s position, namely that everyone’s interests must be satisfied by whatever solution to water issues comes about, a stance that leads to the suspicion in Tajikistan that Russia is colluding with Uzbekistan to prevent water shortages in Uzbekistan and prevent the economic independence Tajikistan would gain from exporting electricity to South Asia. The development of such exports could facilitate other energy projects linking Central and South Asia, a prospect that greatly injures Russian interests and coincides with Washington’s preferences. Uzbekistan is also seen as a competitor with Tajikistan for electricity exports to South Asia so it naturally looks askance at that project.54)
In April 2009, Central Asian leaders invoked foreign recommendations at the most recent water summit, thus essentially inviting foreign participation in these issues.55) Therefore, there is now an international debate on this issue and related questions. Experts from other countries and other governments in Central Asia dispute Tashkent’s claims and argue that it and possibly other states like Turkmenistan use water irrationally. They also advocate carrying out an examination of all Central Asian hydropower projects.56) Yet EU experts have also criticized Tajikistan’s Rogun Dam project saying it entails high risk and replicates “past reckless Soviet industrial planning.”57) Pierre Morel, the EU’s representative for Central Asia, urges that those governments avoid large hydropower projects and construct in their place small hydroelectric projects that require much less investment and are built much more quickly.58) He also called for a single international coordinating agency to resolve the water and energy problem lest these issues further burden regional development. Furthermore, water projects already underway in Kazakhstan with the assistance of the World Bank offer some prospect of alleviating its and possibly other countries’ water issues.
In January 2009 Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, desiring to consolidate Russian access to Uzbekistan’s gas and oil, supported Tashkent by denouncing those who seek cheap gas and backed Uzbekistan president Karimov when he talked of the need for Russia to influence Tajikistan to desist from building the Rogun Dam to take account of Tashkent while Uzbekistan was squeezing Tajikistan in a crisis.59) Medvedev apparently then backed away from previous support for Rogun and other projects and said that Russia would not support any regional hydroelectric project unless they took into account every state’s interest.60) This enraged the Tajik government which then promptly cancelled President Rahmon’s visit to Moscow, cancelled broadcasting licenses for the only available Russian television channel, launched media attacks on Russia, and approached both Washington and international financial institutions for help.61) Not surprisingly, and especially in view of Tajikistan’s precarious internal and economic situation, Rahmon succeeded in winning more resources from these institutions for poverty relief.62)
There have been a serious escalation of tensions between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan regarding the Rogun Dam construction. President Rahmon has repeatedly claimed on TV that Tajikistan will complete the project at “any expense” and referred to the construction of the dam as a “battlefield for national pride and honor.”63) Uzbekistan’s leadership has also mobilized stateowned media to present the Rogun project as an imminent threat to the country’s agriculture and environment.64) Tashkent fears that the reservoir behind the Rogun Dam will require increased water withdrawals from the Vakhsh River, thus affecting the flow of water that Uzbekistan needs to irrigate its cotton fields.65) Tashkent has undertaken a number of measures in order to block the construction of the dam. Uzbekistan has resorted to diplomatic and economic pressure on Tajikistan, and has successfully persuaded possible foreign investors, notably Russia and China, from participating in the project. Since the end of 2011, Uzbekistan has imposed a transport blockade on Tajikistan, which is connected with outside world mainly through the transport network passing through Uzbek territory. Starting from 1 April 2012, Uzbekistan also shut down the gas supply to Tajikistan.66)
Unable to secure external investment for the 335-meter dam, which is estimated to cost up to US$3.6 billion, the Tajik government has financed the initial phases of the project from state budget funds. The country spent $420 million in 2009-2011, and is planning to spend another $223 million on the project in 2012.67) In an attempt to overcome Tashkent’s opposition and persuade international financial institutions to fund the Rogun projects, Dushanbe requested the World Bank to conduct two independent studies assessing the dam’s economic feasibility and its potential social and environmental impact. The results of these studies will be available in the summer of 2012.68) The World Bank has requested that the Tajik government suspend the construction of the dam and the resettlement of people from the dam’s projected flooding zone. A similar message was delivered by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On 22 October 2011, speaking at a meeting in Dushanbe, Clinton insisted that Tajikistan should not build the dam before the findings of the World Bank-commissioned studies become available.69) Special attention is paid to the CASA-1000 Project, which aims at connecting the electric power systems of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan with the corresponding systems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. After the negotiations, the Russian president made an official statement where he confirmed Russia’s interest in supporting the CASA-1000 Project, and even mentioned “hundreds of millions” to be provided by Russia for this project.
In exchange for the long-term lease of a military base, Moscow will provide investment in energy projects. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev generated the most excitement on 3 September 2011 with an announcement that Moscow is ready to invest in energy projects in Central Asia, including a plan to build power transmission lines from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan via Afghanistan. Known as CASA-1000, the 1,000-megawatt project could create a lucrative electricity export market for two of Central Asia’s most beleaguered states. For CASA-1000 to take shape, however, Tajikistan needs to complete the long-stalled Rogun Dam.
43)Kerstin Fritzsche et al., op. cit, p. 4. 44)Ibid. 45)Ibid. 46)Ibid. 47)Azad Garibov, “An Undeclared Cold War in Central Asia?” Eurasia Review (5 June 2012). 48)Alexander Sodiqov, “The Rogun Dam at Key Juncture,” Asia Times Online (22 November 2011). 49)Azad Garibov, op. cit. 50)Ibid. 51)Asia-Plus Internet Version (in Russian), Dushanbe, FBIS SOV (8 May 2006). 52)Bruce Pannier, “Central Asia: Kazakh, Tajik Presidents Show Oil and Water Do Mix,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (14 May 2008). 53)“Central Asian Summit to Focus on Water Resources Sept. 2,” RIA Novosti (28 August 2006). 54)Shairbek Juraev, “Energy Emergency in Kyrgyzstan: Causes and Consequences,” EUCAM: EU-Central Asia Monitoring 5 (February 2009). 55)Erica Marat, “‘Water Summit’ in Central Asia Ends in Stalemate,” Eurasia Daily Monitor (30 April 2008). 56)Erica Marat, “Controversy Intensifying over the Construction of Dams in Central Asia,” Eurasia Daily Monitor (7 May 2009). 57)Ibid. 58)Joanna Lillis, “Kazakhstan: Amid Central Asian Dysfunction, Astana Becomes an Island of Sound Water-Management Policy,” Eurasia Insight (6 May 2009). 63)Azad Garibov, op. cit. 64)Ibid. 65)Alexander Sodiqov, op. cit. 66)Azad Garibov, op. cit. 67)Alexander Sodiqov, op. cit. 68)Ibid. 69)Ibid.
The discourse on non-traditional security is redefining perceptions and pushing the boundaries of security cooperation in Central Asia. Security in Central Asia must be understood in broad, holistic terms, where the interaction of inter-state rivalries among the local governments, combined with internal illegitimate governance and external interest creates a hideously complex security situation. Due to these rivalries among states the local governments are often the instrumental actors in attempting to bring the external influence of the major powers, China, Russia, and the United States, and more regional powers like Pakistan, India, and Iran to bear in Central Asia. While the external actors are hardly shy about acting in and if possible upon Central Asia they are as much drawn into these internecine quarrels as they are “neo-imperial” actors. Institutions for responding to an expanding security agenda are lacking, and the interdependencies between the traditional and non-traditional realms remain obscure. The complex and highly politicized nature of these NTS challenges are likely to amplify pre-existing tensions, and ultimately exacerbate rather than alleviate instability in Central Asia.