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Washington Must Step Up Its Engagement in Central Asia

Recent unrest in Kazakhstan underscores the risks of ignoring the root causes of political instability in the region.

By , a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and , a research professor at the Central Asia Program in the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.
Kyrgyz troops are greeted after returning from Kazakhstan.
Kyrgyz troops are greeted after returning from Kazakhstan.
Relatives and others meet Kyrgyz troops as they return from Kazakhstan near Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, on Jan. 14. VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images

This month, protests in Kazakhstan sparked by a sharp increase in gas prices and caused by discontent with the government spread across the country. The unrest and the ensuing violence serve not only as a cautionary tale for other Central Asian countries but also as a wake-up call for the United States. Washington needs a more coherent and dynamic policy for the region, which lies at the crossroads of Russia and China and is more unstable than many outside observers understand. It is time for the United States to shift its approach and increase its engagement in Central Asia.

Although reliable information on exactly what happened in Kazakhstan and why may take some time to emerge, three significant implications are already clear. First, the eruption of regime-threatening unrest underscores the risk that further instability could catch Central Asian governments and the United States off guard. Despite their differences, the five landlocked former Soviet states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—share an authoritarian and kleptocratic style of government, to varying degrees. Throughout Central Asia, political elites have prospered while average citizens struggle to obtain adequate health care, jobs, and education.

Kazakhstan’s success in quashing the recent unrest may discourage would-be protesters for now, but resentment over economic and social disparities simmers beneath the surface across the region. Kyrgyzstan is so far the only country that has experienced protest-driven regime change, only to see new elite factions emerge. As may also prove to be the case in Kazakhstan, power struggles between elites can erupt in times of instability. Elite networks that have benefited from corrupt systems will scramble to protect themselves from a sudden change in leadership.

This month, protests in Kazakhstan sparked by a sharp increase in gas prices and caused by discontent with the government spread across the country. The unrest and the ensuing violence serve not only as a cautionary tale for other Central Asian countries but also as a wake-up call for the United States. Washington needs a more coherent and dynamic policy for the region, which lies at the crossroads of Russia and China and is more unstable than many outside observers understand. It is time for the United States to shift its approach and increase its engagement in Central Asia.

Although reliable information on exactly what happened in Kazakhstan and why may take some time to emerge, three significant implications are already clear. First, the eruption of regime-threatening unrest underscores the risk that further instability could catch Central Asian governments and the United States off guard. Despite their differences, the five landlocked former Soviet states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—share an authoritarian and kleptocratic style of government, to varying degrees. Throughout Central Asia, political elites have prospered while average citizens struggle to obtain adequate health care, jobs, and education.

Kazakhstan’s success in quashing the recent unrest may discourage would-be protesters for now, but resentment over economic and social disparities simmers beneath the surface across the region. Kyrgyzstan is so far the only country that has experienced protest-driven regime change, only to see new elite factions emerge. As may also prove to be the case in Kazakhstan, power struggles between elites can erupt in times of instability. Elite networks that have benefited from corrupt systems will scramble to protect themselves from a sudden change in leadership.

Second, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s request for military assistance from the Russian-controlled Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has strengthened Moscow’s long-standing influence in the region. Like other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan had worked to balance its foreign relations to prevent any one state from dominating it. Tokayev must keep some distance to preserve his domestic legitimacy, but he now finds himself in a position in which he will face pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin to tilt the scale in Moscow’s direction. His first major test could come with Russia’s potential invasion of Ukraine.

The events in Kazakhstan marked the first time the CSTO had ever deployed troops to address a crisis. Putin’s willingness to do so in support of Tokayev illustrates his growing desire to reinforce stability in Central Asia and play kingmaker for its leadership. The CSTO’s limited so-called peacekeeping mission and quick withdrawal—just a week after the deployment of troops—likely reassured people across the region who were wary of potential Russian occupation, as well as demonstrating to the region’s leaders that Moscow is a reliable patron.

Third, Russian and Chinese responses to the unrest in Kazakhstan reveal the extent to which their interests in stability in Central Asia align, despite some competition between the two countries for influence in the region. Just after Russia approved the deployment of CSTO troops, Chinese President Xi Jinping contacted Tokayev to express support, and Beijing offered security assistance from the Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which Russia is also a member. The move was just the latest example of Putin and Xi putting cooperation ahead of principles, such as not interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs, and pushing their own institutions to the fore to challenge U.S. unipolarity.

For years, Russia and China have exported elements of their own political models to Central Asia, providing tools such as surveillance technology that help authoritarian regimes maintain some stability through tight control. In Kazakhstan, for example, the government’s so-called Safe City projects use Chinese facial recognition cameras and vast databases to monitor citizens’ activities. These technologies were likely deployed to track down some of the hundreds of people arrested in connection with the unrest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, this month.

Beijing and Moscow have also provided full-throated endorsement of authoritarianism in the region, including validating rigged elections with SCO observers. Both countries challenge the validity of supposed Western values in the region and accuse the United States of using democracy promotion as a tool of interference. Putin and Xi have long fixated on the threat posed by so-called color revolutions, fearing they could inspire challenges at home and weaken the hold of cooperative autocrats abroad. China is especially concerned about unrest in its Xinjiang region, which borders Central Asia and shares ethnic, linguistic, and cultural heritage.

Tokayev’s claim that “foreign terrorists” instigated this month’s unrest was copied from the playbook used by Moscow and Beijing to justify suppressing similar protests in Russia and in Hong Kong. But domestic problems, not external threats, pose the bigger risk to stability in Central Asia. If the United States wants to avoid ending up on the wrong side of history, it must focus on addressing the needs of populations in Central Asia and the underlying causes of resentment toward governments. Washington also needs to counterbalance Beijing’s and Moscow’s risky support of kleptocratic authoritarianism.

Although the economic and social concerns of most people in Central Asia are not unique, their implications for U.S. interests and geopolitics are. Nestled among Russia, China, Iran, and Afghanistan, some Central Asian states are rich in extractive resources, and regional governments have partnered with the United States on counterterrorism. However, poverty, underdevelopment, and weak governance have fed transnational crime in the region. Poor economic conditions and frustrations over corruption have also increased the appeal of fundamentalist Islam.

The United States must offer the people of Central Asia an alternative to the Russian and Chinese models. Since the Soviet Union fell more than 30 years ago, Washington has provided aid to the region but has often focused more on security issues—terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and the U.S. mission in Afghanistan—than on the root causes of domestic instability. U.S. programs to support democratic and economic development have failed to adequately incorporate local contexts to address widening disparities. The United States could lead efforts to address these conditions, leveraging its experience in education, health care, food and energy security, and natural disaster preparedness.

In the Central Asian context, this means that the United States must identify and embrace local partners, particularly within Muslim civil society, which has growing legitimacy among the region’s majority-Muslim populations. Most regional Muslim organizations are supportive of democracy and open to working with development partners that respect the local Islamic social and cultural context, as a recent study reveals. Religiosity has significantly increased in Central Asia in the past 20 years; tapping into Muslim civil society would add credibility to U.S. efforts in the region.

Washington should also expand collaboration to assist the region, including with multilateral institutions such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which already has active missions in the region, and with Japan and India, its partners in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Japan has been active in Central Asia for decades, providing more official development assistance there than any other country. India has also increased its bilateral outreach in Central Asia, particularly given growing concerns that instability in Afghanistan will affect the broader region.

Governments in Central Asia have long worked to maintain good relations with China, Japan, Russia, and the West, as well as with regional players such as India, Iran, and Pakistan. Jointly addressing instability in the region with like-minded partners would give Washington more bang for its buck. A united front would also better serve local populations and position the United States and its partners for relevance in the region in the long run.

Beth Sanner is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She previously served as deputy director of national intelligence for mission integration and the CIA’s deputy director for Russian and European analysis.

Sebastien Peyrouse is a research professor at the Central Asia Program in the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University. He specializes in Central Asia’s political systems, economic and social issues, religion, and its geopolitical positioning toward Russia, China, and South Asia.

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