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The Next Global Trouble Spot is Central Asia: We Can't Ignore It

Central Asia is today facing a gathering set of challenges that no region would envy.

08/09/2016 5:50 AM AEST | Updated September 8, 2016 05:54
Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters
Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov died of a stroke last week.

Before the G20 this week dominated the global media, two seismic ruptures occurred in world politics: the death of a president, and a targeted terrorist attack on a foreign embassy. These events didn't occur in Europe, North America, or even the Middle East, however, but in the heart of Central Asia; a land until recently cloaked by the shadow of empire, and rarely mentioned in international headlines.

In Uzbekistan, a country is coming to terms with the death of the only president it has ever known -- the 78-year-old Islam Karimov -- after he suffered a severe stroke. And in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Chinese diplomats are fretting after a targeted terrorist attack on their embassy in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek.

These events might seem trivial -- elderly world leaders die, and terrorism in the past few years has risen markedly across the globe. And the region might seem obscure -- how many Westerners could locate Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan on a map?

But the events of last week matter, and not just for the people of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, but for the entire Central Asian region -- one mired in corruption, economic stagnation and instability -- and the world. This week's events risk opening a can of worms that, like the Arab Spring, could force a broader set of international actors to intervene in the event of state collapse.

Central Asia is today facing a gathering set of challenges that no region would envy.

The five regional countries -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan -- are all ruled by strict autocrats with no obvious successors. Three of these countries until last week were led by the same men who ruled during the Soviet era, which ended in 1991. In each country, civil liberties have been oppressed, political oppositions banished, and the largely Muslim populations prohibited to practice their faith: in Tajikistan, even growing a beard is a crime.

Their economies are floundering. They depend heavily on foreign aid, remittances from expats working in Russia, and are falling into the trap so many resource-rich regions do: an over reliance on commodities to fuel their economy. Dwindling oil prices since 2013 have destroyed already fragile economic prospects.

Even the effects of climate change are wreaking regional havoc. The tensions over strained shared water resources leaves Central Asia as a not-improbable candidate for the world's first war over water.

There is, in short, a gathering perfect storm. The determinants of state failure: popular disenfranchisement, economic hardship, intra-regional tensions, and an overconcentration of power to leaders who, once they fall, expose the charade of the state-stability they have espoused, define the region.

But at the same time as Central Asia is suffering a diverse set of complicated challenges that risk its very stability, a grand geopolitical struggle over the region has emerged.

Russia -- long having seen the region as its backyard -- is pushing ahead with its rival to the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union -- which aims to integrate all of Central Asia once more under Moscow's leadership.

China is rapidly expanding its foothold in the region. It's 'One Belt, One Road' initiative -- a giant, multi-billion dollar regional infrastructure plan -- aims to orient Central Asia closer to Beijing and is key to its ambitions of achieving genuine great power status.

And the United States, desperate to halt any power shift to Beijing or Moscow, is doubling down on its regional presence, forged during the height of the Afghan War.

It is a remarkable and volatile confluence of events: Central Asia is simultaneously experiencing a renewed global geopolitical interest, while wrestling with the struggle of extreme instability. It is in this context that the events of the last week are so important.

The death of Uzbekistan's leader could cause serious regional ramifications. Karimov leaves behind an enormous power vacuum, having left no obvious successor, and an aggravated and disenfranchised Uzbek population. This opening will naturally cause minority groups to seek to shape the future of the regime, if not replace it.

Uzbekistan is the only regional country that borders each of its four Central Asian neighbours. The blurring of ethnicities and nationalities over state borders means that if Uzbekistan falls into chaos, tumult could cross into neighbouring territory. With fundamentalist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda already seeking to shape events in the region, such an eventuality could further encourage their presence as they seek new markets, away from the losing battlefields of northern Iraq and Syria.

And in Kyrgyzstan, the terrorist attack that specifically targeted the Chinese embassy will cause alarm bells for Beijing as it pursues its regional investment projects. If this is not an isolated event, it could risk the viability of the One Belt One Road initiative, or at least curtail its ambition. This would only damage the region's economic prospects, further enhancing the prospect of state failure.

It is too early to speculate specifically how severe the ramifications of last week will be, but these events are a wake-up call to the international community. While Central Asia hasn't caused too many headlines recently, it almost certainly will in the years to come.

And if we have learned anything from the Middle East, it is that the manifest challenges of a region's unravelling cannot be ignored.

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