As a sign of Central Asia’s slow but ongoing destabilization, the region’s governments are increasingly engaging in efforts to tighten security, with the assistance of the Kremlin. Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in a meeting on Dec. 21 of the Collective Security Council of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, an institution that includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. As in other recent regional summits, much of the discussion centered on security in Central Asia and efforts to fight terror groups. Russia maintains a military presence in Central Asia through its bases in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. For Moscow, as well as for Beijing and Washington, Central Asia is a key concern due to the fact that upheaval in the region could impact security interests in Afghanistan, as well as internal security in Russia and Western China.
Today, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that Russia is rearming Kyrgyzstan’s military in order to counter the threat posed by the Islamic State. The announcement comes less than two weeks after Kyrgyz forces were engaged in an armed confrontation with an alleged terror cell in the country’s capital, Bishkek, and merely a few weeks after the Kyrgyz government’s Dec. 1 decision to tighten border controls.
Central Asian governments are increasingly signaling that they are nervous, both about the region’s security challenges and troubling economic problems. A report by Tajikistan’s Statistical Agency published in December showed that in the first nine months of this year, about 20,000 individual entrepreneurs returned their business licenses, signaling that the country’s business environment, especially for small businesses, is rapidly deteriorating. There are about 155,000 such individual entrepreneurs in Tajikistan currently, out of a total of 305,000 businesses registered at the beginning of the second half of 2015. This phenomenon is in part the result of Tajikistan’s currency woes. Like other Central Asian countries, Tajikistan’s currency has greatly weakened as the value of Russian ruble has fallen. At the same time, as we noted in a briefing late last week, many Tajiks working in Russia have returned home, while the value of remittances flowing from Russia to Tajikistan has fallen by over 65 percent in the first nine months of this year.
The Tajik authorities are visibly concerned about internal stability. A crackdown on the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, which has intensified since the summer, is now reportedly being expanded to the relatives of party members. The party is too weak to pose a threat to Tajikistan’s regime, but internal economic woes and fear of protests is likely motivating the regime to quash most forms of dissent.
In our annual forecast for 2016, Geopolitical Futures noted that Central Asia is being hit by multiple forces. Russia’s economic troubles and China’s slowdown will impact countries throughout the region and, while we do not expect significant regime changes in the coming year, we are anticipating deteriorating economic conditions to contribute to instability throughout the region. As 2015 comes to a close, there are growing indications that Central Asia’s challenges are intensifying and the region is slowly destabilizing.