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Politics, Energy Resources and Islam in Central Asia. The Case of Kazakhstan

Wednesday, 22 November 2017 11:38
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by Gregorio Baggiani


The Islamic revival in Central Asia represents one of the most important historical phenomena of recent decades. After decades of Soviet domination, the rebirth of an Islamic identity in Central Asia constitutes an important repossession of a spiritual identity and heritage by the populations of an area that until 1991 the Cold War had practically cut off from the rest of the world. The fact that these countries were once part of the Soviet Union prevented them from fostering relations with other Muslim states, except at the regional level and always under Moscow’s watchful eye. As from the seventies, the Russian-Soviet authorities persecuted the Islamic religion to much lesser degrees than the past, mainly for reasons regarding Moscow’s foreign policy: in fact, Soviet Central Asia needed to prove to the Muslim states the substantial compatibility between communism and Islam and serve as a showcase of the Soviet social and political model for the Muslim states of the Third World. While promoting state atheism and considering religion a residue of the past, Moscow had allowed the survival of Islam in Central Asia above all to achieve its foreign policy goals.

The Soviet state had already seen clearly that the Muslim world, especially in the Gulf area, and Asia in general, would acquire an ever growing strategic importance in the decades to come. The soviet attempts to invade Afghanistan in the early eighties can, at least partially, be led back this and to the need to contain any possible expansion of Islamic fundamentalism to the Soviet Republics of Central Asia. The Eighties, and in particular the Gorbachev era, saw a revival of Islam in Central Asia, which became even more marked after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, contributing to filling the void created by the collapse of communist rule.

Islam, therefore, became the symbol of a newfound identity aimed at erasing the heritage of Soviet domination and forced Russification, something that had, however, several positive consequences, such as the spread of a scientific culture and a progressive industrialization, contributing to an improvement in the economic conditions of the local populations. The history of Russian/Soviet domination in Central Asia has therefore left a positive legacy that continues to influence positively, or at least non-negatively, today’s relations between Russia and the now independent Central Asian republics, which aim to become fully-fledged political subjects in the international community after so many years under foreign rule. They are also clearly aware of being in a geo-strategic area at the center of the interests of the great powers and hence subject to several forms of internal and external pressure that make their position in the international context particularly delicate and exposed to the risk of sudden abrupt reversals of the status quo; the so-called “orange revolutions” that have characterized several post-Soviet countries in the last two decades.

A careful mix of nationalism and, according to the country, a more or less extreme cult of personality surrounding the leader who incarnates the nation’s newfound independence and Islamic rebirth have been the ingredients with which the governments of the area have been trying to ideologically prop up these Central Asian states, which were going through a delicate period of transition from Marxist-Leninist ideology to a market economy. This has obviously led to a de facto exclusion of a transition towards a western-style liberal democracy, substantially a foreign body to the local cultural traditions, despite the repeated promises by the local governments to adopt institutions of the liberal kind. Another aspect of the post-Soviet context is the difficulty for anyone to stir an active interest in the population with regard to politics, after the long years of political inertia and apathy that marked these states during the Soviet era, the effects of which persist in broad sectors of the population. A population that shows little interest in political events and in particular in the establishment of western-type democracies, instead preferring authoritarian leaders in their respective countries; an authoritarianism that often goes hand in hand with a marked paternalism and cult of personality. All this in a cultural context in which it is usually collectivistic traditions that prevail, at least in the rural environments linked to clan allegiances or ethnic belonging rather than to the individual. It is important to bear in mind that still today the prevalent factor among the individuals of most Central Asian countries is more often than not their relation to a clan or to an ethnic group, and this prevents, or at least poses an obstacle to the establishment of a western-style democracy, or one that tends to assess leaders exclusively according to their political and economic programs and not according to their affiliation to a particular clan or ethnic group.

According to the European Union, the establishment of democracy in Central Asia would make the management of state finances and the selection of prestigious state appointments more transparent, two aspects that are currently often carried out on the basis of crony or clan allegiances rather than on the basis of skills or political programs. In the long run, democracy would allow several countries in the area, in particular those with considerable energy resources, to grow uniformly without the government elites illicitly taking possession of the conspicuous profits from these resources and leaving the majority of the populations in a condition of mere sustenance.

The Islamic revival itself, in many cases aimed at compensating for a weak economic growth, has been spearheaded by the governments of the area with a careful balancing between the construction of a national identity and the fear of a likely development of Muslim fundamentalism, which already finds many followers, in particular in the Fergana Valley. Some states, such as Kazakhstan and Kirghizstan, despite the rediscovery of their religious roots, have maintained substantially lay states, whilst others, such as Uzbekistan, have introduced a policy of rediscovering their Islamic roots, placing them as legitimate foundational elements of the nation, but even here without entirely relinquishing the secular nature of the state. The rediscovery of Islamic religiosity in Central Asia has therefore manifested itself non-uniformly, taking on different forms and following different modes from country to country, according to their different preexisting cultural traditions.

The difficult balance between a state policy of encouraging the population to rediscover its religious traditions as a primary factor for strengthening the national conscience, their so-called nation building, and at the same time the fear that this may favor Islamic extremism, is therefore an extremely delicate exercise we need to pay particular attention to. States such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Iran and so on, have contributed to the revival of the religious phenomenon, but also to the birth of Islamic radicalism in this predominantly Sunni area, but one which also has countries with consistent Shiite minorities, such as Tajikistan.  This is therefore an area that throughout the 1990s became a terrain of fierce competition between countries of the Muslim faith for an Islamic “reconquista” of a space that had been for many decades a subject of the Soviet empire and hence substantially shut off from influences from the rest of the world. This took place by building mosques and madrassas, by granting scholarships to young people allowing them to spend time in Islamic countries and learn or study more deeply the religious precepts of Islam.

The birth of a radical imported unmediated Islam, different to the local variety, obviously also aroused deep concern among the local authorities, whose functions, especially with regard to their western interlocutors, also include curbing Islamic fundamentalism; a function that often becomes a justification for their political paralysis. The struggle against fundamentalism also becomes the substantial justification for the authoritarianism and general corruption characterizing the governments of the area; an authoritarianism and corruption that risk to turn into the main causes of the growth of the fundamentalist movement, in particular if corruption in the government apparatus continues to increase, thus polarizing the aforementioned existing social differences, especially those between cities and rural areas, with the latter still marked by extreme poverty and by a more widespread religious sentiment, perceived as  factor of social cohesion in the context of a difficult economic and social situation. When a rural area suffers from insufficient levels of economic development, we tend to find a low social and professional diversification accompanied by an impoverishment of the population; a condition that Islamic ideology can exploit to exercise a greater allure. This of course becomes even more important in the case of the Central Asian and Caspian states (Azerbaijan, for example), which enjoy significant incomes from their vast energy resources; profits, however, that mostly end up enriching a small government and technical elite and not the rest of the population, which continues to suffer from a lack of the public goods and services it would need for a harmonious social and civil development.

The question is then whether these huge profits deriving from oil and gas exports are actually paradoxically counterproductive for the development of a country; whether they actually contribute to what analysts have called “the oil curse”, which prevents the development of a sufficiently free society, in political and economic terms, because development is essentially guided by the state. In many cases, therefore, this gives rise to an unwholesome economic culture that often ends up counting exclusively on energy resources to finance a parasite economy devoted to the consumption of luxury goods and the export of capital with little interest in the diversification of economic activities. When energy resources are not managed correctly, as has often occurred, this can give rise to two scenarios: a political stasis, characterized by strong authoritarianism and, in some cases, a polarization of wealth, which is one of the main causes of an exponential growth of Islamic radicalism. This conservative attitude is generally endorsed by Russia, which is suspicious of any liberal turn or “orange revolution” (as these democratic attempts are more specifically called in the post-Soviet space), aimed at destabilizing the status quo, whilst the United States generally push for an evolution in the liberal sense of local governments, provided this does not damage in the short or medium  term its economic or strategic interests in any way.

This ambiguity of the United States message often ends up undermining the credibility of its policies aimed at safeguarding human rights in the Central Asian region. It is also evident that the lack of authentic pressure towards democratic change by Russia will end up in the medium and long term favoring the Islamic fundamentalist forces, because it is this very lack of democracy and of morality in the management of public money that outrages public opinion and as a consequence leads to the growth of Islamic movements coming in particular from Pakistan and to a lesser degree from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The repression of Islamic movements, however, in turn ends up legitimizing them, as the government is unable to respond to the populations’ very often more than legitimate claims for social justice. The progressive Islamification of social and cultural life has therefore deeply influenced the cultural plain while at the same time damaging the economic one, insofar as it has done away with what remained of Soviet scientific education, replacing it with a religious education made up almost exclusively of Koranic religious precepts, whilst a significant economic growth would require a modern economic, legal and scientific culture, including a marked separation between state and religion. The gradual introduction of Islam, especially in its more traditionalist versions, therefore also de facto damages human capital, which would be essential to achieve economic growth, and particularly damages women, who are precluded from a professional career and relegated to the more traditional role of mother and wife. At the level of propaganda, therefore, Islam becomes for some Central Asian governments at once a substitute for economic growth and a justification for its lack. The connection between a lack of growth in the wellbeing of the population and the spread of Islamic radicalism is therefore more than evident. Economic and political assistance from the West, whether direct or via International organizations such as OSCE, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which, thanks to its light inclusive structure, is not perceived by the Central Asian states as “Western”, is often decisive towards a gradual acquisition of democratic rules by the young Central Asian republics and in mediating ethnic conflicts, and resolving them, at the regional and international level. This could be a decisive factor to check the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the region, much more so than the generic recommendations from the European Union on the respect of human rights, which only irritate local governments and hence often fall on deaf ears.

In this part of the world, particularly crucial to the strategic balances of the forthcoming decades of the 21st century, the relationship between Islam and modernity, between Islam and political/social development, represents a particularly important point for the stability of a huge geopolitical area situated between Russia, China, Iran and India; an area where what international relations specialists call the power shift is taking place, i.e. the shift of the planet’s power centers from West to East, the signals of which are at present more than clear. Within the context of this strategic geopolitical area, also because of its remarkable energy resources, in particular in the Caspian Sea area, estimated to be the third most important in the world after those of Russia and the Persian Gulf, the fight against Islamic extremism becomes of crucial importance both for the Central Asian governments and for the other powers in the area, such as Russia, China, United States, India and the European Union.

The EU is traditionally less rooted in the area in comparison to Russia and even to the United States, which has always programmatically set out to expel Russia from the area, or at least to prevent it from occupying once again a dominant position in the area after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To this end the US has worked towards developing and reinforcing the local institutions in an anti-Russian sense, but also towards influencing the internal policies of the Central Asian states. The European Union can provide governments in the area with important and well-appreciated economic and legal support, even though it suffers from an insufficient military capacity when it comes to the resolution of conflicts and also from the fact that its policies in favor of human rights as a way of guaranteeing democracy, also as a political tool to contrast Islamic extremism, often ends up undermining or damaging its political relations with the local autocrats, who, despite their formal declarations adhering to such principles, consider these European recommendations an intrusion in their home affairs or even a sort of neocolonialism. This factor contributes to a significant extent to distancing the Central Asian states from talks with the European Union, leading them to privilege discussion partners who place less emphasis on this delicate issue, which Europe believes would make the region less politically instable.

Hence the need for the European Union to reformulate its policies in a more flexible direction;  one that will better adapt to the specific historical and cultural reality of the Central Asian area. The objective of keeping radical Islamism in check is in any case something all the aforementioned powers have in common, though the strategies aimed at constraining this huge threat to international security may vary from country to country: take for example Russia and its approach to the problem of internal Islamic terrorism, China’s to the problem of the ethnically Turkish Uyghur Muslim minority in the Xinjiang region on the border with Central Asia, and the United States’ with  the threat of Islamic terrorism from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It is no surprise, however, that some Central Asian countries, in particular those lacking raw materials, find themselves in a state of permanent economic and political stagnation. This problem has struck mainly those countries of the area where Islamic tradition is more rooted and urbanization more developed, such as Uzbekistan (Samarkand, Bukhara), and less those in the north with a more moderate religious tradition and where for many centuries life has been typically nomadic, such as Kazakhstan, which, despite being a Muslim state, has for a long time been on the frontline in the fight against Islamic extremism from the south, also because of its multiethnicity (25% of ethnic Russians), which would make the cohabitation between prevalently Russian Orthodox citizens and Muslim ones unmanageable, with the risks of a bloody civil war that would ensue, even with a possible Russian intervention in defense of the Russian minorities living mainly in the north of the country, bordering with Russia itself. Other factors, including the stress Kazakh president Nazarbayev places on the harmony between the different ethnic communities living in the country, on the importance of economic growth and the resulting national and international prestige, such as the country’s presidency of OSCE in 2010, contribute to relegating to the background the issue of Islam, an entity entirely separated from the state. Internal and international motives come together, especially in the case of Kazakhstan, to determine the fight against Islamic extremism, both homegrown and imported from other Islamic countries of the Central Asian area or beyond. This particularly applies to those leaders who grew up during the Soviet era. What remains to be seen is how the situation will evolve with the new generations that will come to power in the years to come; future leaders whose formation came after the Soviet era and hence never introjected the atheism promoted by the Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Politicians who never grew up under Soviet indoctrination could either decide to back pressure from large sectors of the population for a stronger influence of Islam in the state or continue to keep a marked separation between state and religion, with the risk of dangerous drop in public consensus that this entails.

The West needs to be aware that in many Central Asian states for both the state institutions and the local populations ethnic and clan relations often prevail over pure strictly meritocratic or programmatic considerations on who may be the best candidate, and this prevents, or at least represents an obstacle to the creation of a western-style democracy. In other words, the choice of leaders is often not made exclusively on the basis of their political and economic program, but above all on the basis of the clan or ethnic group they belong to, coupled with the long-standing Central Asian tradition of personifying power, which implies the choice of strong leaders capable of running the country autocratically in the context of a great concentration of governing power in their hands. In the best of hypotheses, they receive a sort of plebiscitary mandate from the population in the context of elections that are not always entirely free and without concrete governing activity being organized according to the traditional schema that divides power into legislative, judicial and executive. In other words, some post-Soviet Central Asian states, and Kazakhstan in particular, witness the affirmation of a modern economic culture, mainly sustained by the presence of remarkable energy resources, but also a prevailingly authoritarian and paternalistic concept of political power, one which widely guarantees economic and social freedom, but limits political freedom, as in the case of Kazakhstan, and in many cases an authoritarian and dictatorial conception, as in the case of Turkmenistan.

This long authoritarian and paternalistic tradition stresses the many structural problems of this type of political model. For example, the sensitive issue of a President’s succession, of Nazarbayev or any other in the area, for which still today there is no transparent institutional mechanism, can obviously lead to violent power struggles, as succession mechanisms and criteria have not yet been definitively established. Obviously the choice of these succession mechanisms is a crucial factor for maintaining stability in a single country or in the entire Central Asian region, an area which is in turn crucial to continental, and probably even international, balances. The more the validity of succession mechanisms is recognized as clear and transparent by the population i.e. the more unanimously it is agreed upon in such a way that the President or administration in power does not choose staff or successors merely on the basis of purely crony or nepotistic criteria, but above all on meritocratic ones, the less likely it is for the Central Asian political arena to see a future rise of extremist forces of the ethnic or religious kind capable of conquering public electoral consensus with politically demagogic proposals or through all-out political struggle, popular insurrections or terrorism. These are forces that we know tend to prosper when a country suffers from a widespread public discontent linked to a poor economic and social situation. The establishment of such mechanisms, however, can only take place once the entire population begins to develop a political conscience in terms of their economic and social rights.

Something the authoritarian paternalism practiced by part of the leadership of some Central Asian states with measures such as granting public funds, or building infrastructures or through an incessant patriarchal propaganda tries to prevent. These measures, however, may become more difficult to implement as a likely drop in the price of energy resources or their progressive depletion would necessarily imply the thinning of sovereign funds to use for financial and infrastructural investments on behalf of the state. An increased political awareness in the population could therefore demand more transparency in the management of public resources by the state, whilst their contraction could lead to fierce political fighting, with the most uncertain outcomes, for a fairer redistribution of resources among the population. Indeed, a more or less important part of the riches of most Central Asian countries eludes public scrutiny and is set aside, whether legally or not, for the accumulation of wealth by the political party in power; by the presidential and bureaucratic clique and by the technocrats who manage the extraction and marketing of energy resources. Statistically, the very presence of these huge energy resources leads to the establishment of a single absolutist party. In other words, the concentration of great wealth derived from energy resources prevents, or at least delays, the birth of a democratic society, or even a polycentric one.

It prevents the birth of a society conscious of its choices. If we look at the cases of Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kazakhstan, even with their own historical and political peculiarities, we clearly see that they all share common, or at least comparable, political dynamics.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Tuesday, 28 November 2017 11:52
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