Ironically, the events of September 11, 2001 and the American-led international "war on terror" have made it easier for the ruling elites to justify greater repression of religion. Central Asian leaders have encouraged not only the international community but also their own populations—which are fearful of the possibility of civil war or the coming to power of religious extremists—to turn a blind eye to the regimes' abuses of power.
In Uzbekistan in particular, any form of opposition, even secular, has been liquidated on the pretext of religious fundamentalism. The authorities have officially banned external signs of religiosity, such as wearing a beard for men or a scarf for women. They also put pressure on state employees by forcing them not to join religious associations if they hope to be promoted.
These harsh tactics have often not achieved the government's aims—and, quite the opposite, have served to link Islam with popular strivings for greater political participation and power.
Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government is locked in confrontation with Islamist parties. Uzbekistan, which was considered the most stable state in the region throughout the 1990s, has become a cauldron whose explosive potential is feared by everyone. With every act of opposition or political destabilization, state repression has increased.
Drug Trafficking and Narco-States
Until the end of the 1990s, Central Asia played only a transit role in the global drug trade, but this situation has changed. Today the five states are also becoming sites of production, refining, and consumption.
If Central Asians aspire to reconstruct some new version of the trade networks of the old Silk Road, so far they have found themselves caught instead in the middle of a "drug road." More than one third of the record-levels of opium grown in Afghanistan reaches Russia and Western Europe via one of the two major Central Asian roads.
Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and even more so Tajikistan can in fact be classified as "narco-states." State representatives, at each administrative level, from the directors of collective farms to regional authorities and the highest-ranking state officials (i.e. the presidential families), are directly involved in the drug trade. It has corrupted the entire state structure, in particular customs officers and the police corps.
The fact that both the political leadership and the oppositional Islamist circles receive considerable revenues from the drug trade makes it difficult for anyone to apply effective counter measures.
With the Soviet Union's policing authority gone, drugs that previously had been limited to traditional and local usage have been commercialized as big business and controlled by organized criminal groups. These crime networks have developed into highly integrated commercial ventures, managing transport networks, chemical and pharmaceutical products, money laundering companies, and banking structures.
In Kyrgyzstan, the Chui valley is reported to grow close to 5 million tons of hemp, which is capable of producing nearly 6,000 tons of hashish, as well as more than 2,000 hectares of poppies capable of yielding 30 tons of opium per year. The four other states have followed suit.
Refining laboratories are sprouting up rapidly in Central Asia, making it possible to rake in huge profits prior to sending stocks to Russia and Europe. More than a hundred opium processing laboratories, each capable of producing twenty kilograms of heroin per day, are reportedly active.
The trade boom with China has played a major role in the development of these laboratories, since the Chinese chemical industry was the first to furnish the chemical products necessary for the transformation of opium into heroin, notably acetic anhydride.
Central Asia has also become a zone of drug consumption. The few figures available indicate that urban jobless youth are not the only users, but that the scourge has also affected rural milieus and in dramatic proportions. This is particularly so in Turkmenistan, where over 100,000 people are affected, but also in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley, in the south of Kyrgyzstan, and throughout practically all of Tajikistan.
The Poverty of Independence
Drug trafficking, corruption, and repressive politics have led predictably enough to the impoverishment of Central Asia's people.
The implementation of a market economy has been accompanied by a radical disengagement on the part of the state in key sectors such as social protection, the health system, and public education. The result is massive pauperization that only Kazakhstan is currently in a position to address. Land redistribution efforts have also been generally ineffective at improving conditions in rural areas.
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rank among the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per inhabitant of approximately USD$350 per year. According to UN figures, approximately 70 percent of Tajikistan's population lives below the poverty line on less than a dollar per day. Entire regions of people suffer malnutrition and even near-famine. In Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan this figure drops to 50 percent, but numerous zones remain on the verge of economic strangulation.
The 2008 world financial crisis has dramatically weakened these already fragile economies, and intensified general social discontent. In particular, the large numbers of Central Asian migrants (nearly three million Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks) that go to work in Russia and Kazakhstan each year, mostly on construction worksites, returned to their countries of origin this year without the expected money.
In some sense, the Central Asian economies are still based on the colonial model: over-dependent on the export of natural resources. Kazakhstan is reliant on its oil, which represents more than 20 percent of its budget revenues and 58 percent of its exports; Turkmenistan on its gas, which accounts for 57 percent of its exports, while its cotton makes up 25 percent of state revenues; and Uzbekistan on its cotton and its gold, which represent 17 and 25 percent of its exports, respectively.
The two poorest states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have neither hydrocarbon reserves nor exportable agricultural products, and have to make do with a few mono-productions of precious metals. The region's development is thus subject to the ups and downs of world prices of oil, gas, metals and cotton.
The poverty is made all the worse by a widening gulf of social inequalities, weak administrative structures, and an absence of either real legal constraints or institutional mechanisms to ensure that economic decisions are made in the public interest.
Kazakhstan is the only state to have any real economic dynamism, primarily in oil production. Its rates of growth, which have reached between 5 and 8 percent a year since the beginning of the 2000s, have made it possible to half the number of persons living beneath the poverty line (the figure has lowered to about 20 percent) and a GDP per inhabitant estimated at US$9,400 in 2006.
A Central Asian Future
The great international fear of the 1990s that Central Asia would slide into a mafia-style economic system financed by drug traffic networks, and characterized by the connivance between the ruling political circles and clandestine economic structures—into which radical Islam is trying to insert itself—appears to have become reality.
Though the risks of civil war—which were real after the disappearance of the USSR—have seemingly faded, the political and economic achievements of the region remain far from outstanding. With the exception of Kazakhstan, the Central Asian states have been sliding steadily into economic crisis.
In addition, again with the sole exception of Kazakhstan, political stability ought not to be regarded as a certainty in the region, despite the authoritarian nature of the regimes.
Kyrgyzstan is probably the most troubling case. The Kyrgyz state only exercises limited authority over its territory, is divided into clans defending particular interests, and is undermined by the shadow economy, while in the country's south Islamists publicly preach to the Uzbek and Kyrgyz minorities, and some of the youth are rapidly radicalizing.
In Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir—an international, pan-Islamic Sunni political party—is taking root by setting up clandestine structures that make up for the lack of state presence: it gives financial aid to pauperized rural milieus, to single mothers with children, for free education, and for the organization of political discussions to develop criticisms of the established authorities.
The domestic tribulations of the Central Asian states could reverberate throughout the entire region, foremost in Afghanistan, but they could also have a negative impact on Pakistan, Iran, Chinese Xinjiang, and Russia. The effect of "losing" Central Asia will likely be detrimental to world politics for years to come.
Though they seem remote and poverty-stricken, it has never been so urgent that we pay greater attention to these poorly understood places.