Always On The Brink

by Nathan Hamm on 11/29/2009 · 10 comments

This week has seen the production of a lot of straight-up BS on Central Asia. Christian has posts going after things reported about Tajikistan and Uzbekistan that don’t pass the whiff test. In both cases, stereotypes of Central Asia as a mysterious land of danger offer the tiny gloss of plausibility needed to get downright ridiculous stories to press. (That’s probably overly fair to LWJ, which has never seen a “Some dude joined Al Qaeda and WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE” story it won’t print.)

Over at GlobalPost, Turkmenistan gets added to the “potentially super scary and really dangerous” list with a story questioning whether or not the country’s seeming stability is a myth.

Yet underneath, storms are brewing.

The country sits in a rough neighborhood, sharing long borders with Afghanistan, Iran and Uzbekistan.

Yet the potential threats to Turkmen stability are real. Sources in the capital say heroin flows freely throughout and through the country. With that could come other influences — arms traffickers, Islamic fundamentalists, the Taliban.

Honestly, that’s about the whole story. Two, maybe three diplomats offer a few scare-quotes throughout, there’s a mention that people don’t have jobs, the government’s not-so-mild dislike for activists and the independent-minded religious, and stuck in there too is a mention of last year’s bizarre shoot-out in Ashgabat. Oh, also, there are tons of cops. In all, it doesn’t make Turkmenistan sound much different than the rest of formerly Soviet Central Asia, and it sounds especially like Uzbekistan.

Perhaps I’ve just been paying more attention, but it does seem that lately there has been at least a small uptick in westerners warning that this or that Central Asian country is on the brink of collapse. I’m sure that right now, this is the result of some combination of more visas being issued and increased attention on Afghanistan. Because it’s certainly not the result of any particular event. Each and every Central Asian government is probably as or more stable at the moment than at any point in the past five years. Sure, one need not look too hard to find examples of public dissatisfaction, but one can spend all the time one wants and not come up with any credible indicator that the sky is about to fall.

Since a good stereotype story is worth republishing updating, we probably will all be lucky enough to see a bumper crop of new reports in the near future on THE NEW GREAT GAME and a Ferghana Valley mere hours away from exploding with Islamic rage to establish anew the caliphate. I guess it was only a matter of time before some of the surplus of dumb things said about Afghanistan would start getting converted into dumb things said about Central Asia.

On the bright side, maybe we’ll get a good article out of Nick Megoran out of all this.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Prithvi November 29, 2009 at 11:01 pm

The most interesting (SCAAAARRRRYYYY) story I’ve heard out of Central Asia, other than the proposed escalation in Afghanistan, is the fall out from Bank Turalem underwriting bad loans. The LA Times described the bank’s head Mukhtar Ablyazov as an opponent of Nazarbayev without really expanding on this. He fled a little while before the authorities cracked down on BTA.

Of course Ablyazov (who made his fortune importing cars into Lithuania) is saying that the charges are trumped up and political in nature. On the other hand, the charges against the bank are mostly genuine and hardly a surprise in the current financial climate (actually they were probably a rude surprise to BTA’s western investors.)

Anyways, I found it interesting that an opponent of Nazarbayev could enjoy such prominent standing and only be attacked when BTA had genuinely been involved in some financial hanky panky. Then again, he is a business man, and the authorities perhaps (*speculation*) didn’t want to spook foreign investors, so they waited until an opportune time arose.(*speculation*)

Livin' in the 'stans November 30, 2009 at 1:02 am

Amen, amen.

AJK November 30, 2009 at 11:27 am

Yeah, it is weird how news about Central Asia picking up means that overblown drama about Central Asia picks up.

I assume that it has to do with more visas being issued, sure, but also the fact that people who get paid for their writing get paid more if they inject some intrigue and danger into their stories. You’ll get a lot less readers reading “No, really: Kazakhstan is a real country, albeit one with corruption issues” or “Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have very able internal security, thank you very much” compared to the ZOMG side of journalism.

Cornelius November 30, 2009 at 6:45 pm

Nathan, while I generally agree with your assessment and would love to see a rendition of the great “Calming the Ferghana Valley Experts” paper I do think that the alarmist pieces that you complain about do actually serve an important purpose.

What we currently see not only in US – but also in EU/EU member states – policy making towards the region is an utter disregard of the specific long term challenges of each of the countries in the region. Instead, in DC, Berlin, London and Brussels Central Asia is subsumed as some sort of northern appendix of Afghanistan; or as convenient oil/gas exporter to satisfy growing energy demands in the west. The results are policies that at best are not necessarily informed by the do-no-harm doctrine; other policies such as the Northern Distribution Network might have serious implications in terms of facilitating graft and corruption; while increased cooperation in military and security matters leaves the question of what kind of security is supplied by whom and more important for whom completely open. I am not even going into the complete failure of Western policy makers to seriously adress other long-term issues, such as the enourmous youth bulge, rotting infrastructure and deplorable state of education opportunities and health services. The underlying strategic conundrum of sowing the long-term seeds of instability by cooperating with and propping up authoriatrian, secular regimes in order to meet short-term security and energy demands remains unsolved and not sufficiently discussed. The potentially catastrophic consequences of a serious crisis in, say, Uzebkistan should force everybody only remotly involved to take the risks of the region more seriously than the mere possibility would dictate.

If the alarmist speculations that everybody who has only a bit of experience in Central Asia can only roll their eyes about help to generate enough attention to the region and its challenges to get some actual experts involved it is worth the intellectual pain of having to read crappy analysis.

Nathan Hamm November 30, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Except we’ve been seeing this stuff periodically for almost the past 20 years and not seen any of the results you hope for. Quite the contrary, we’ve seen plenty of short-sighted, over-reaching, grand-standing policy.

Like I said, all of these states have serious structural problems that will make them nightmares if they collapse in worst-case-scenario fashion. But I don’t think they will collapse in ways that we’ll anticipate, and I don’t know that it’s really smart policy for the West to go chasing after every eventuality.

Ahad_Abdurahmon November 30, 2009 at 7:07 pm

A textbook-level example of blogging.
P.S. what is wrong establishing a caliphate in ferghana valley? it would be just plain formality, nothing more.

Shohmurod November 30, 2009 at 8:47 pm

What is wrong with establishing a Caliphate? Are you kidding?
Are you just being academic and theoretical and trying to avoid even obvious assumptions or are you being sarcastic? I would answer your question like this:
1. Women would lose a significant amount of their civil rights and live like in Saudi Arabia…no freedom to walk alone in the streets, no freedom to choose their husbands…what kind of life is that?
2. Islamic fundamentalists would find a comfy home to increase their madrassas thousand-fold, killing all science education.
3. World domination and terror plots…
What’s wrong with a Caliphate? Everything!

Turgai Sangar December 1, 2009 at 8:08 am

Well, Shomurod, this is everything but how the advocates of the Caliphate themselves see it, cf. …

The Khilafah is not a Totalitarian State

The Khilafah’s Education Policy

An introduction to the Islamic Social System


Ahad_Abdurahmon December 1, 2009 at 12:29 pm


I was being sarcastic. But we have to understand that Islam absolutely dominates the culture, mentality, way of life, social interactions, and even economic and trade networks in Ferghana valley (and Tashkent to some extent).
Economically, people here don’t depend on government as much as they do on private trade and craftsmanship networks. They don’t give a rat’s ass to borders and keep trading across 3 borders because their social and economic networks and government borders do not coincide.
Let us be open minded for a moment and acknowledge that Ferghana valley is way more integrated and interconnected in one socioeconomic medium than the rest of the Central Asia is. The idea of lifting those formal limits called state borders is not new. People keep bringing it up.
Religious-political groups have advocated it more than anyone else so far. Therefore people think that if it takes to call it Caliphate to lift those borders, then be it so. Because most of the people in the Valley are practicing muslims anyway.
Now, I don’t want to leave a wrong impression about myself. I am an advocate of secular-democratic Turkistani regionalism. But I also beleive the building blocks of Turkistani regionalism will start in Ferghana valley. Because it is at the interconnection of three formal state borders and has more homogenized REGIONAL identity that transgresses ETHNIC identities.

lola December 11, 2009 at 5:58 pm

Although Ferghana Valley houses most vocal Islamic people, most people in Uzbekistan and rest of Central Asia (excluding Afghanistan, Pakistan, Xinjiang) are not deeply religious, most are concerned with economics/wealth rather than religion or politics. Hence not matter how outspoken Ferghana valley folks maybe they are not going to be supported by the rest of population and as long as local presidents continue a “good” job of silencing these voices and slashing opposition the region will remain in its current state, a status that is also supported by the neighbors, China and Russia. Moreover, my people like their alcohol and partying too much for Caliphate to emerge in the near future, on the other hand there is an example of Iran…

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