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26/12/04
Joining Forces in Central Asia By Pavel Felgenhauer
 
  
 

Thursday, May 26, 2005. Issue 3174. Page 8.

www.themoscowtimes.com/stories/2005/05/26/007.html

After Sept. 11, 2001, the Kremlin had to accept the deployment of U.S. and NATO forces in Central Asia and Afghanistan. Russian nationalists mourned the decline of Moscow’s influence in Russia’s backyard, but fear of an Islamic radical threat has outweighed their dislike of the West. The current regimes in Central Asia may be authoritarian and corrupt, but they are secular. The governments in Russia, in China, in the West and to some extent in Iran believe that these secular regimes are an important firewall to stop the spread of aggressive Sunni Islam.

In March, an insurrection originating in the Fergana Valley toppled the government of President Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. This month, another insurrection in the same region on the Uzbek side of the border in Andijan was suppressed with heavy civilian casualties. The Uzbek authorities say that 169 civilians perished in Andijan during the uprising. Some Uzbek opposition sources say the number of dead is 745. Up to 2,000 are reported to have been wounded. Eyewitnesses say that Uzbek troops used 14.5 millimeter APC guns to shoot at the crowd in Andijan. At close range these shells can cause death from shock when hitting any part of the victim’s body.

The local police forces and an army brigade based in town failed to contain the revolt. Eventually, Uzbek special forces staffed with contract solders were deployed to quell the uprising.

Uzbekistan has a population of over 25 million, but its armed forces are relatively small: about 50,000 men in the Army and an additional 20,000 in the Interior Ministry forces. Conscripts staff most Army divisions, while several special forces and airborne units are all volunteer. These crack forces managed to crush the antigovernment protests in Andijan, but it is clear that the Karimov regime does not have enough battle-ready troops to keep an increasingly restless population under control.

Uzbekistan has the potential to be a wealthy country. Self-sufficient in natural gas and oil, it is a major producer of uranium, gold, copper and other metals. Nonetheless, since the collapse of communism, poverty has been growing, while the nation’s riches have been commandeered by the Karimov family.

The regime has never hesitated to use brute force to suppress political opposition and control economic activity. During the 1990s, the authorities, to keep hard currency from leaving the country, ordered antipersonnel landmines to be laid on the Uzbek borders to stop private retail traders from importing unauthorized consumer goods. Lots of cattle and herders have been maimed or killed in these minefields.

The majority of the population genuinely hates the regime and its eventual collapse is a predictable event. A bloody and chaotic disintegration of authority in Uzbekistan may bring radical Islamists to power and destabilize the entire region.

Central Asia, and first and foremost Kazakhstan, has long been the main testing grounds of new, major weapons systems. The main Russian space launch center Baikonur in southern Kazakhstan is only around a 100 kilometers north of the Uzbek border. All Russian manned space launches to the international space station blast off from Baikonur. A disruption of these launches could kill the space station project.

Stability in Central Asia is essential to Moscow and Washington, but neither has the capability to act unilaterally. Some 120,000 of Russia’s best troops are tied down in the North Caucasus, while the U.S. Army is bogged down in Iraq. Only a joint international NATO-Russian task force, like the one deployed in Bosnia in the 1990s, could supervise an orderly dismantlement of Central Asia’s dictatorships.

Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, the people of Central Asia welcomed the arrival of NATO troops after Sept. 11. There is no anti-Russian hostility in the region. A joint operation is feasible and should be implemented before the flames are fanned sky-high.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.

    
 
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