How will central Asia cope with the passing of its independence generation?

Instability and uncertainty could draw outside powers into a competitive struggle for influence over the region.

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It is 25 years since the five Central Asian republics emerged unexpectedly, and somewhat reluctantly, from the wreckage of the Soviet Union to stake their claim as independent countries. Against the expectations of those who predicted a “Eurasian Balkans” of contested sovereignties and internal fragmentation, all five have survived. Yet states that relied on the personal authority and nation building skills of their founding fathers (they were all men) are now facing perhaps their ultimate test in the need to find a new generation of leaders capable of replacing them.

The death in September of Uzbekistan’s autocratic President, Islam Karimov, prompted a flurry of speculation about how smoothly this generational transition was likely to be managed, not least because Karimov made no obvious plans for a succession. The prospect of a power struggle therefore seemed very real. As it turned out, long time Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyaev, quickly emerged as the consensus choice of his peers and was duly confirmed as President in a rubber stamp election that offered little real choice. So far, so stable.

One important consequence of the transition in Uzbekistan has been to hasten preparations for a leadership succession in neighbouring Kazakhstan where President Nazarbayev is now the last of the old independence-era leaders still in power. In a government reshuffle that took place a few days after news of Karimov’s death became public, Nazarbayev promoted rising star, Bakytzhan Sagintaev, to the post of Prime Minister and his own daughter, Dariga Nazarbayeva, to a seat in the Senate. Many expect that before long she will be named Speaker of the Senate, putting her in line to assume the role of acting President under the constitution should her father step down or die in office. This leadership tandem is emerging as the preferred route to achieving the stability and continuity with which Nazarbayev intends to seal his political legacy.

There are significant asymmetries in the way that change could impact on the region. The transition in Kazakhstan is particularly important because it is the largest, wealthiest and most stable of the Central Asian republics. It shares with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan an abundance of natural resources, but has gone further in modernising and opening its economy. The role it plays as a de facto regional leader means that there is more at stake in its future stability. The resource-poor countries, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, are less developed and remain heavily dependent on wage remittances from their citizens working as migrant labourers in Russia. It is no coincidence that they have experienced more political volatility since independence.

Despite these differences, there are three major challenges that the countries of Central Asia face in common. The first stems from the problem of governing an ethnically heterogeneous region whose borders were, in many cases, deliberately drawn up by Stalin for the purpose of fostering ethnic division. Although Tajikistan experienced a bitter tribal conflict in the aftermath of independence and Kyrgyzstan maintains tense relations with its Uzbek minority, Central Asia has mostly avoided the kind of ethnic strife that has disfigured other parts of the post-Soviet world. Will the emerging generation of leaders be as successful as their predecessors in promoting civic rather than ethnic forms of national identity? A second challenge comes from the rise of political Islam. Independent estimates put the number of Central Asian jihadists fighting with ISIS in Syria and Iraq at around 4000, making them the third largest contingent of foreign fighters. With ISIS now in retreat, the question arises of what happens if these battle-hardened militants return home?

The final danger is that instability and uncertainty could draw outside powers into a competitive struggle for influence over the region. The prospect of a “New Great Game” in the Eurasian heartland has been recurring theme of foreign policy commentary since the 1990s, yet despite tensions between Washington and Moscow over the 2005 Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the basing of American troops during the War on Terror, Central Asia has not become a geopolitical flashpoint on a par with Ukraine, Syria or the South China Sea. In large part, that can be attributed to the success with which its leaders have managed to strike a careful balance in relations with the great powers. The most nuanced example has been President Nazarbayev’s pursuit of a “multi-vectored” foreign policy that has seen Kazakhstan develop close but non-exclusive ties with Russia, China, the US and the EU, while participating in the fullest possible range of multilateral organisations.

This balancing act could easily become more difficult to sustain as global power relations continue to shift unpredictably. Two years ago, Vladimir Putin appeared to link Kazakhstan’s statehood to Nazarbayev’s personal rule and advised the country to "remain in the greater Russian world". This was interpreted as a sign that Russia might be tempted to take advantage of a change in leadership. More broadly, Central Asia’s new leaders will need to find a way to reconcile the different and possibly competing visions of the powerful countries around them. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt envisages the region as a source of energy supply and a new outlet for trade and investment. Russia remains focussed on reintegrating former Soviet territories under its leadership through the Eurasian Economic Union. India has registered its desire for a growing share of influence through its Connect Central Asia policy. The EU and the US have traditionally given higher priority to issues of governance, although that may now change with Donald Trump in the White House.

The West approaches Central Asia with a weakened hand compared to even a decade ago when the US national security strategy proposed democratic capitalism as the “single sustainable model for national success”. The patronage of rising Asian powers, through initiatives like China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, means that the old strategy of using financial conditionality to insist on democratic change has become far less effective. Western policy will need to focus on more achievable goals, such as strengthening the ability of Central Asian countries to function as independent states and establishing norms in area like the rule of law and property rights that could lay the foundations for political change in the longer term by facilitating the growth of an independent middle class.

Although the interests and visions of the major powers engaged in Central Asia differ in crucial respects, there is also a significant degree of overlap. It should not be forgotten that one of the main goals of China’s Silk Road initiative is to open a new path to the West. All of Central Asia’s external partners see it as a region of growth and expanding economic opportunity. It is hard to think of another part of the world in which the potential for a win-win dynamic is more apparent. Realising that potential will depend on whether the emerging generation of Central Asian leaders can match the largely successful nation building efforts of their predecessors.

David Clark was Robin Cook’s special adviser at the Foreign Office 1997-2001.