The sudden passing of Uzbek President Islam Karimov earlier this month caught the headlines both in India and overseas. There has been continuity in the leadership in the Central Asian Republics, except in Kyrgyzstan, since the five sovereign republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — emerged from the former Soviet Union’s ruins in 1991. Over his 27-year rule as Uzbek President, Karimov interacted with four Indian Prime Ministers, including two visits to Tashkent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July 2015 and for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in June 2016. President Karimov is likely to be succeeded by interim President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has been Prime Minister since 2003. This would indicate continuity of the regime, similar to what happened in Turkmenistan in 2006 when President Saparmurat Niyazov suddenly passed away.
The five CARs are predominantly Muslim-majority nations. The republics are demonstrably secular, both in their respective constitutions as well as in governing practices. Seven decades of Communist rule since the early 1920s till their independence left behind a legacy of full literacy, gender equality and officially supervised religious establishments. Immediately after their independence, the forces pushing for global Islamisation saw an opportunity to introduce Wahabi and other forms of intolerant Islam in the CARs. The end of the atheist Communist regime, the advent of new freedoms and ostensibly multi-party systems opened up space for such elements to function. There was an influx of foreign mullahs and imams, widespread building of Saudi-financed mosques and free distribution of radical Islamic literature. The leaders of CARs, including President Karimov, quickly realised the danger of political Islam to their secular societies and strongly curbed foreign influence over their religious establishments.
Tajikistan, that shares a long border with Afghanistan, was the first target of attack by the Islamic forces. It faced a long civil war in 1992-97, during when more than 50,000 people died. However, the radical Islamic groups were subdued with the active military assistance of Russia and Uzbekistan. The rural areas of the fertile Fergana Valley have long been a breeding ground of radical Islamic forces, with their main goal being ousting the Tashkent government by force. The Uzbek government crushed the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and its leadership, and the fighters fled Uzbekistan and found shelter in the AfPak region in the 1990s. An insurrection in Andijan, in the summer of 2005, was mercilessly put down by Uzbek special forces. India has long established cultural, historical and civilisational ties with Central Asia. It is in India’s interest that this region continues to be a champion of secularism and tolerance at a time when much of the Islamic world is being buffeted by strong winds of Wahhabism and other forms of medieval religious beliefs.
Prime Minister Modi’s visit to all the five CARs in July 2015 was seen as a strong affirmation of friendship and support to these countries for their secular polity and development-oriented policies. Uzbekistan has a population of 28.1 million and its per capita income is over $5,000 in PPP terms. The population of Uzbekistan is more than the combined population of the other four CARs. So, understandably, Mr Modi began his Central Asian tour from Tashkent. With the prevailing uncertainty over the future of Afghanistan, the Central Asian region is vulnerable, particularly if the Taliban manage to regain control over Afghanistan. It is in the interest of India to work together with Russia, Iran and China to support and strengthen the present governance structures of the CARs.
The CARs are very conscious of the ever-lurking threat of terrorism on their soil. Tashkent was hit by six car bombs in 1999 when 16 people lost their lives. The Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (Rats) in Tashkent, under the auspices of the SCO, coordinates the member countries’ actions against terrorists. India’s participation in Rats as a member of SCO would be greatly helpful in our own anti-terrorism efforts. It is suspected, for instance, that Pakistan’s ISI is using Uzbeks hiding in Northwest Pakistan for terrorist actions against Afghanistan. Many organisations have been critical of CARs for their lack of a fully democratic polity and perceived limitations of human rights. These critical policy issues pose a real dilemma for the CAR leaders. Any relaxation in control over mass media and political activity may be exploited by Islamic elements to radicalise the population and to inflame passions.
As evident from the current discourse in democratic countries ranging from Turkey to the United States, the political narrative appears to be shifting from the predominantly economic to predominantly cultural, identity focused and intolerant of “others”. In hindsight, for the masses of Iraq and Libya, their situation under the former authoritarian rulers was better than their present plight faced with chaos, civil war and economic ruin. Unfortunately, liberal democratic forces have been repeatedly trumped by religious fanatics from Egypt to Iraq. The well-meaning global progressive community needs to pause, take a long hard look at the present and potential political forces and ensure they work with the existing stable, strong and secular regimes in the CARs, nudge them towards more liberal policies and insulate these five nations from a future similar to the current turmoil in West Asia.