Sanat Kushkumbaev, PhD in Political Science says the Central Asian countries are unlikely to see revolutions similar to those that have happened in the Middle East in the immediate future. He said, however, that there is a danger of unrest and destabilization in the region from the growing spread of radical Islamist ideas and also lack of cooperation between the region's countries. Kushkumbaev downplayed the widely discussed "threat" of Chinese expansion in the region, saying that from the economic point of view the region needed China more than China needs it.
The following is the text of Kushkumbaev's interview with Bigeldy Gabdulin entitled "Sanat Kushkumbaev: External factor is important but only when society inside is weak and disunited" published by Central Asia Monitor website on 22 August, with retained original subheadings: Central Asia is becoming a quite "hot" region on the geopolitical map of the world. A knot of various problems has formed here - political, social, cultural and so on, which have been created not only by the region's countries but also by the big players on the political "chess board".
Central Asia Monitor's editor-in-chief, Bigeldy Gabdulin, has spoken about the situation in this part of Eurasia with political analyst, senior researcher at the Kazakhstan Institute of Strategic Research (KISR) under the president of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Sanat Kushkumbayev.
Is there a danger of "Arab scenario" in Central Asia?
Q: Central Asia is one of the important objects in world politics. Recently there was a hearing at the US Congress on the issue of struggle for Central Asian natural resources. They quite seriously spoke about probability of a new war in the region. The chairperson of the session, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher noted that the rivalry for oil and gas has intensified, but the main thing is that dangerous signs have begun to show in Central Asia. What is your view concerning these dangers? Do you see a threat here similar to the one that can be observed in the Middle East?
A: Congress hearings on similar subjects are held regularly. Usually they are devoted to problems of post-Soviet countries, countries of Africa and Asia, and also issues of geopolitics and global politics. But from the point of view of our region that [hearing] is an alarming symptom.
Therefore, the Central Asian countries, their political elites should listen to such opinions and strive to prevent possible negative developments. It is not a foregone conclusion that it's [destabilization] going to happen, but it is one of the possible scenarios. If in some offices far away across the ocean they are seriously talking about it, it should be taken as a signal.
Q: Do you see a threat similar to the one that has emerged in the Middle East?
A: Many experts are predicting exactly the Middle Eastern scenario, reasoning that the "Arab spring" will smoothly spill over to the Middle East, Iran and Central Asia. Possibly, somebody would want that kind of development, however the conditions in Central Asia today are a little different after all and I would not fully project what is going on in the Middle East on our region.
If something similar happens in Central Asia it is not going to happen in the nearest future. A whole set of conditions must coincide to make events similar to the ones that have taken place in the Middle East, and alas taken a tragic turn, happen here.
There is a whole number of factors that make the situations in the two regions different from one other.
First, it's the role of Islam. In the Arab world, religion plays a much more considerable role than in the post-Soviet countries of Central Asia. We have enough representatives of other ethnic groups who practice different religions, and also there is a big share of the population who grew up in the Soviet Union. Correspondingly, the religious factor so far has not been playing a key role in politics.
Second, the factor of time, form the point of view of generation change. Most Middle Eastern countries since the moment of their getting independence have been ruled by authoritarian regimes, with rulers staying in power for 25-30 and even 40 years, like in Libya. And over the five-six decades of independence there grew a third (post-independence) generation which does not want to put up with the way of government that was established in the middle of the past century.
As is known, it was exactly young people who became the main striking force in the process of toppling those regimes.
Q: Apart from external threats there is a real ground for conflicts between the Central Asian countries themselves: border disputes, the Caspian Sea division issue, disputes over drinking water resources, rivalry for regional influence, security issues and so on. Can we avoid regional conflicts?
A: Of course, and there are all the preconditions for that. But here it is necessary to fulfill certain conditions. There are several "but"s linked to the economic and social situation, also political reforms, including expanding the role of representative branches of power, which in solving one or another issue can be much more flexible than the rigid executive vertical of power.
The Central Asian countries show us that inept management, command methods often stand in the way of avoiding conflict situations. I mean the border, water sharing issues and so on.
The black-and-white way of thinking which is a remnant from the times of the Soviet Union is still alive in the minds of the political class. This is where the cause of hostile attitude to your neighbors lies. In other words, we are living by the principle: if they disagree with our conditions, we will cut off water, gas supplies, block the roads and borders for them and so on. It leads to escalations which are often projected on inter-ethnic relations (which is the most dangerous thing).
And if the ruling groups, politicians are unable to prevent it (some on the contrary even take advantage of problems trying to redirect growing social frustration in some other direction), it may have sad consequences. The Osh (ethnic) violence of 2010 showed how dangerous it can be.
Therefore, we need to get rid of the "black-and-white" model of relations between our countries. We need dialogue, compromises and so on - things that, unfortunately, are in short supply at the moment.
Different interests, different priorities
Q: If you can say briefly what is preventing us from creating a Central Asian Union?
A: The Central Asian countries have been getting increasingly dissimilar (since the date of their getting independence). They have different models of economic development, different priorities.
For example, Kazakhstan seeks multilateral cooperation, while Uzbekistan wants bilateral ties. Turkmenistan is a special model altogether both economically and politically, and it is closed to its neighbors and distant form them.
Besides, all the regional countries get much of their incomes from exporting raw materials, which is not something that could stimulate cooperation. On the contrary, it makes them competitors on external markets.
As a consequence, they do not have a shared vision of the future. To create some kind of a union, it is necessary to have coordinated long-term goals and tasks, and then you need to create a joint model of development and, finally, give up part of your sovereignty.
It's obvious that the current generation of politicians are not particularly bothered about it and are hardly capable of formulating a clear joint goal.
Q: Undisputedly, Russia and China are going to step up their struggle for influence in Central Asia. In particular, after the planned departure of NATO from Afghanistan in 2014 there may happen some unpredictable events. The big countries that are close to the region are already taking certain measures.
For example, there is a discussion going on about the possibility of Russia's return to Afghanistan. In its turn, Beijing is trying to increase its economic, cultural and financial influence. All this confirms that some Western experts' forecasts regarding the region are grounded. And it makes me wonder: why such analyses focus particularly on break-ups, wars, armed clashes, and in this context they heavily focus on religious radicalism?
And another thing, you most probably know that recently your counterpart, political observer Mars Sariev, Kyrgyzstan said that Kazakhstan is one of the most vulnerable (after Kyrgyzstan) countries of Central Asia in terms of susceptibility to external influence. It was said in connection with the creation in the USA of a department in charge of external religious policy. Do you agree with that?
A: Let's begin with our colleague Mars Sariev. He is quite competent on many issues, but in this case I would not quite agree with his view on the situation, his approach. This approach is based on conspiracy theories that are based on permanent suspicions that somebody is "planning" conflicts, revolutions and so on.
It seems to me that it would be quite difficult and expensive in relations to our region, and the main thing - it would hardly be expedient. In the world politics there are simpler and cheaper methods.
The Kyrgyz colleague focused attention on the Protestant groups and sects, in particular, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and so on, in a word, on those [religious] confessions which are usually called non-traditional. He talked about a possible conflict exactly in this context.
Without playing down the importance of inter-confessional relations, I still think that those experts who say that Kazakhstan and other Central Asia countries are in danger of an inter-confessional split are wrong.
Much more serious problems for us are those that exist within the country and first of all within the Muslim community, where radical and extremist groups have been trying to recruit to their ranks more and more people, especially the young ones. These groups believe that their way of life is more righteous and accuse others of being faithless and sinful and so on.
Q: Indeed, in recent years we have observed active Islamization of Kazakhs, especially the young. It is no secret that not all of them practice "peaceful Islam", there are radicals among them. What do you think, can it destabilize the situation in the country and in Central Asia?
A: Yes, there is a real threat. And the short and medium-term prospect is that it is going to be growing. It is a global trend and it involves not only the entire Islamic world, but the non-Islamic one too.
We can see that in neighboring China. For example, in Xinjiang, western autonomous Uighur region,there have been quite frequent and intense conflicts involving religious factor.
The countries of Central Asia too have faced this problem - some earlier, some later. Uzbekistan's authorities, and partially those of Tajikistan have begun to strictly control the religious sphere since as early as the 1990s, creating a corresponding legal framework and acting decisively, and sometimes harshly.
In Kazakhstan for a long time there was a more liberal environment, and it is still like that in Kyrgyzstan. As is known, in Russia this problem is very acute in North Caucasus and it is spreading toward the Volga region.
By the way, first jihadist groups came to us from Russia's territory, from North Caucasus. They involved quite a few young people. It is no secret that many supporters of radical groups are marginalized people who find themselves in the periphery of social and political life and cannot see any future for themselves in the current social system.
Q: Or on the contrary, is it the absence in Kazakhstan of a single religious "concept", i.e. a religion that would unite everybody, what's making our country ideologically weak and susceptible to outside influence?
A: Yes, it is partially right. The thing is that it is very difficult to drive religion into some conceptual frame. On the one hand, an ideological vacuum has been created in our country. But on the other hand, if the state begins to actively interfere in this sphere there will be a risk of it making some serious mistakes. There is no need to go from one extreme to another.
Subjective attention on the part of state bodies to religious attributes, dress or beard, "over-regulation" of this sphere, as it often happens in some neighboring countries, can hardly add warmth to relations between the believers and the state. At the same time, in the present conditions both society and state need to put up a barrier against destructive extremist organizations. There is a thin line which should not be crossed. We can see that sometimes bans have the opposite effect, i.e. people begin to radicalize and see the state as an enemy, hence their estrangement, terror attacks and other anti-social things.
Q: Most likely the increased interest in religion is a consequence of the ideological vacuum we have in our country. What do you think, has anything changed for the better after the arrival of Marat Tazhin as new state secretary?
A: It seems to me that some changes are taking place. He is known as a serious analyst, who is quite balanced in his views. It seems to me that he has a vision and understands the core of the problem.
Another question is what mechanism will be used to make changes. I've got the impression that many officials do not understand the full complexity and many sided of the processes in the religious field. Therefore, success will to a great extent depend not so much on the understanding of the problem on the highest level, but more on the officials who will be implementing the state policy.
Another question is about the officially recognized clergy. It is said not for nothing: "Don't do what mullah does, do what mullah says." It is no secret that sometimes people join alternative Islamic groups because they do not see real religious leaders in the official imams ("imam" means one who is standing in the front), i.e. they do not see them as a role model.
External shield and internal core
Q: Asian countries, including the Central Asian ones, are a testing ground for various projects - revolutions and religious conflicts. How can we protect ourselves from that?
A: It is quite possible to protect ourselves, for which we first of all need internal stability. When we talk about external influences, I agree: yes, the external factor is important. But it is important only when one or another society is weak inside and disunited, when social and economic problems get chronically neglected, when society suffers from inept management, and when large-scale corruption corrodes the entire state system.
The external factor will always be secondary if society has a strong backbone.
Looking at the Middle Eastern countries where the ruling regimes collapsed one after another like a card castle, we can see that it happened because they had inefficient, bureaucratic and corrupt systems of management.
The Central Asian countries have been facing the same challenges for many years. And the answer (if they can avoid revolution) depends on their ability to respond to these challenges.
Q: Can we count on Russia's military power in case of some external threats?
A: Of course. The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) is a military and political bloc and if need be we can use the agreement as our insurance policy: here please, in these circumstances, you must help us. However, there has been no single case over the entire period of the CSTO existence when it has been practically "tested" in real life.
Maybe it is a good thing that so far things never went that far, but many experts note that in relations between the CSTO member countries there are some issues. The CSTO is a multi-sided organization, involving not only Russia and Central Asian countries, but also Armenia and Belarus.
As is known, Uzbekistan does not see the CSTO as a real mechanism that could help protect its interests.However, in the military sphere, we have established bilateral ties with Moscow. From the military and political point of view, Russia is still the only major power in our region, which is recognized by the Western countries. And we need to proceed from this.
Soldiers of the Caliphate
Q: With machine guns in their hands, they [members of Islamist group Soldiers of the Caliphate] told our country's authorities: "If you insist on your position, we will act against you. You should know that the policy that you follow is the same that was used in Tunis, Libya and Egypt. However it brought losses to those who stood behind it [that policy]." What do you think, was it serious? Should Kazakhstan strictly control the religious side of life?
A: I have said already that "over-regulation" of this sphere might lead to radicalization of religious groups. There is the law [on religion], there are several regulations. In my view, whenever it is possible to do without active administrative interference, it should be avoided.
As you know, the first major terror attacks in Kazakhstan happened within a month after the adoption of the new law on religion. I think it was not a coincidence. The problem is not that that group manifested itself within a month (it had been created earlier, and its roots are outside Kazakhstan), but that the adoption of the law became a kind of a trigger for the radicals.
But, as you can see, there was no continuation, and that tells us a lot. This is the way people who are involved in the terror process go through some kind of training: they are given an assignment, and everyone tries to do that "homework" in their own country. And then they are sent to "the hot spots" like the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan and so on.
We have the chance to prevent creation of a serious underground [extremist] movement here, a broad alternative field for cultivating such methods. So far we have had to deal only with isolated cases, but it is an alarm bell for us.
Q: You mentioned the first terror attacks in the country. Did our official bodies responsible for national security handle them in a proper way? Are they ready for further similar threats?
A: After those events in the country the government set up an anti-terror center with a high enough status. It is an indication that the government is seriously concerned about this problem.
Speaking specifically about countering terror activity, in my view, there are two levels there. First. When we talk about preventing terror attacks, there is no room for talking about "what should have been done". It is necessary to act firmly, decisively and consistently. But that's still about responding to something that has already happened.
The second level is fighting the root causes, which is more important and more efficient than fighting consequences. As is known, social problems first become chronic, then often get transformed into political or religious and so on. It means they must be solved in a timely manner, without delay.
Q: I would like to hear your opinion: is what many people call "soft expansion" by China really happening or is it just another "horror story"?
A: I would not want to overestimate the threat coming from China. We should differentiate between two dimensions here. The most popular cliche-horror story is [about danger of] mass migration from China. The question is: what such talks are based on, where are the concrete figures? In reality, there are not many migrants from the Celestial [Empire, China], except ethnic Kazakhs.
We know that even Xinjiang that borders on us is experiencing another problem - qualified ethnic Hans are leaving the province for eastern and southern regions of China. It is a logical and global process: people with higher level of education and professional skills want to live in a more comfortable environment.
In Xinjiang, many Hans, especially, in the past few years behind the backdrop of the tragic events (violence involving separatist sentiment among ethnic Uighurs) have not been feeling comfortable.
The Central Asian countries are not the most attractive place for migrants.
Another question is growing Chinese economic presence in our country and the region as a whole. But that's an objective process and for us it means both an opportunity and a challenge.
It is very difficult to compete with China even for the well-developed Western economies. However, it is our problem, not China's.
We are more interested in China than China in the Central Asian countries. Chinese loans and goods are more attractive and competitive on world markets. And that's pure statistics. The Central Asian countries' share in China's foreign trade is quite pitifully small, while China's share in the regional countries' trade is huge. For Kazakhstan it is the second largest trade partner. And the trend is such that in the foreseeable future China has all the chances to become the biggest.