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  • Mia Baxley

More Eyes Should Be on Central Asia

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Heads of state pose for a photo at the 2018 SCO summit

Political events in Central Asia rarely, if ever, capture the Western media, but that silence is not for a lack of activity. Collectively, Central Asia – consisting of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – is a politically, culturally, and historically complex region and home to almost 77 million people, or nearly 1 percent of the global population. Aside from several latent media biases, the radio silence on Central Asian affairs is also intentional on the part of the governments in this region; Freedom House reported in 2022 that no nation in Eurasia (including Central Asia) is home to a free and fair media landscape.

Central Asia falls between two of the world’s major superpowers: Russia to the north, and China to the east. As the former ruling nation of the Soviet Union, Russia has the power to pull a lot of political strings in the region. However, with some analysts speculating that Russia’s relationship with Central Asia has been waning, China has been poised to step up as the next possible successor to support the region.

Although Russia and China vie for influence in the region, their approaches vary. Russia’s influence is strategically militaristic, contributing a significant portion of security personnel and artillery. In the ongoing border war between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, with both nations home to Russian bases, Tajikistan has been accused of using Russian-made artillery against Kyrgyz civilian zones, including homes and schools. Other forms of Russian military involvement in the region have resulted in fatal consequences. As Kazakhstan fell into unrest in January of 2022, Russian paratroopers were deployed to assist in the repression of the protest. Russia’s claim for its military build-up in the region is border security to curtail potential extremist uprisings and organized crime, viewing these tumultuous nations as a possible breeding ground for insurgencies.

China’s support, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly economic. China heavily invests in infrastructure in the region, mostly through the Belt and Road Initiative to create an economic corridor to the rest of the world. Over the last 30 years since the end of the Soviet era, China has given economic and political attention to Central Asia when, as one analyst speculates, the region had mostly been considered too complicated and remote to be useful for European interests. Central Asia is even becoming a stranger to its historical ally, Russia, and its quickly growing relationship to China is one of the many reasons why it is not as close to Russia as it once was.

China quickly recognized the Central Asian republics in 1992 after their independence from the Soviet Union in order to establish a clearer line of the borders between China’s westernmost territories and the new states in the region. Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar from India further stresses this in relation to China’s concern with the stability and control of Xinjiang (East Turkestan). The normalization of relations was followed by a push for establishing partnerships with the new states.

When China founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a regional cooperative pact in 1996, Central Asia was invited to join. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were founding members, while Uzbekistan was invited to join the pact later. Neutrality-focused Turkmenistan is the only Central Asian nation that is absent in any capacity. The Center for Strategic and International Studies further argues that China stepped into Central Asia around the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, when the US was sufficiently distracted by the political turmoil there.

The China-led SCO has been primarily focused on regional stability, most notably against ethnic separatism and regional terrorism. This fact is worth noting because of Central Asia’s strict authoritarian regimes and their collective degree of ethnic and political control.

The Central Asian regimes frequently utilize the tactic of branding religious leaders, activists, outspoken journalists, and anyone else who seeks to expose the truth about government-level abuses as “extremists.” Tajikistan is one notable example of a state that benefits from using this tactic. The regime under Emomali Rahmon banned its only opposition party in 2015 and immediately labeled it as a terrorist organization, using that label as a cover to arrest top party members. Thousands of activists and journalists who speak out against the Tajik government are jailed and held on baseless extremism charges, especially in the wake of new violence such as the May 2022 uprising of ethnic Pamiris in the autonomous Gorno-Badakhshan.

2022 has especially been a year marked by regional ethnic and political violence, both within states and across borders. Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan autonomous region was the home of another deadly uprising in July when President Shakhov Mirzoyiyev announced – and then recanted – a decision to curtail the region’s current degree of autonomy. Six months earlier, the government of Kazakhstan committed a grave act of violence against its own civilians in January of 2022 when its violent repression of anti-government protests resulted in 240 deaths and hundreds of stories of torture and arbitrary detention. Tajikistan recently began a campaign of terror when hundreds of Afghan refugees were indiscriminately deported back to Afghanistan, regardless of pending asylum status elsewhere, and the new spark of violence in its border war with Kyrgyzstan has displaced nearly 140,000 civilians and killed approximately 100 others (including four children).

Russia and China’s own human rights track records strongly indicate that they would be willing to turn a blind eye to the issues in Central Asia to maintain their spheres of influence. Both nations are in possession of the Security Council veto, a powerful diplomatic tool that has the ability to shut down resolutions with a simple “no” vote, and they have been consistent in how it is used. China and Russia use the veto frequently to shut down debate on security issues of their own design (the war in Ukraine being one of them), the Syrian War and its humanitarian fallout, and anything that may harm its strategic and regional allies (including North Korea). It could be correctly assumed that the veto would be used to protect a hypothetical Security Council vote on Central Asian human rights issues as well. But maybe, in this regard, Central Asia benefits from the lack of attention it receives from the West.

No conversation on human rights in Central Asia is complete without a critical look at who is helping to keep these abuses going. Russia and China can plant their political roots in an unmonitored region and continue to grow in other similarly oppressive states, places where violence against civilians can run amok without being checked by third-party outside sources. If the West is serious about its commitment to global human rights, it must also give some attention to the isolated and culturally complex nations as well. The lives of 77 million people are not insignificant numbers.

Mia Baxley is an Early Warning Analyst at Genocide Watch.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Genocide Watch

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