Security threats are rapidly shifting in Central Asia, according to the America's intelligence chief. Hazards faced by the United States coming from Central Asia are now more likely to be connected to economic factors, than to Islamic radicalism. The US government's shifting perception of Central Asian security indicates that policy making in President Barack Obama's administration will not be guided by "Islamophobia," some experts contend.
The five post-Soviet Central Asian states have "highly-personalized politics, weak institutions, and growing inequalities [and] are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges posed by Islamic violent extremism, poor economic development, and problems associated with energy, water, and food distribution," said Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence. Blair testified before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 12, giving the intelligence committee's annual threat assessment report to Congress.
Falling oil prices could lead to "societal discontent" in Kazakhstan, and could "derail the momentum for domestic reforms." The failing economies in Kazakhstan and Russia will decrease the amount of remittances sent back to Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. "Tajikistan, in particular, faces increased threats to internal stability from the loss of these critical revenue streams," Blair said in his written testimony.
Blair did not mention the potential closure of the US air base in Kyrgyzstan, but did say that instability in Central Asia would affect military supply lines to Afghanistan. "Ultimately, these challenges to regional stability could threaten the security of critical US and NATO lines of communication to Afghanistan through Central Asia," he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
The threat assessment was one of the first indications of how President Barack Obama's administration might deal with the Caucasus and Central Asia differently from the preceding Bush team. Blair's analysis offered a contrast to last year's testimony by then-DNI Michael McConnell, who emphasized the threat from Islamist radicalism coming from Central Asia.
"I think the new administration will be less Islamophobic than the previous one," said Sean Roberts, a Central Asia specialist and professor at George Washington University. While the threat assessment was likely written by the same intelligence agency staff that wrote the previous assessments, the new administration has likely created a new environment, Roberts said.
"It's too early to see policies percolating down to that level, but there may be an effect where the general environment with the new administration is less focused on the fear of Islamic fundamentalism, and the intelligence agencies which previously felt pressure to highlight that may not feel that pressure any more," he said.
The focus on economic issues is accurate, Roberts added. "The largest threat to instability in Central Asia now is not Islamic fundamentalism, I think the situation in the region has gotten a lot worse because of the global economic crisis," he said. In particular, the Kazakhstan banking sector -- which had funded much development in the rest of the region -- has been badly weakened, which could lead to severe economic crisis, he said. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Concerning Georgia, the 2008 assessment -- before the August war with Russia -- said the two separatist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, were potential flashpoints, but added that "President [Mikheil] Saakashvili's reelection in January will help renew his democratic credentials and leadership mandate." [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
This year's assessment gives a less rosy picture of Saakashvili's prospects: "Although the political situation in Georgia has stabilized, President Saakashvili faces increasing criticism from the domestic opposition, and his reaction to that will either enhance or set back Georgia's democratic development."
While last year's assessment of the situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan was limited to the observation that Russia's suspension of its cooperation with the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty "could lead to similar suspensions by Azerbaijan and Armenia and a subsequent arms race," this year's analysis takes into account many more factors.
"Azerbaijan fears isolation in the wake of Kosovo's independence, Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and signs of improved Armenian-Turkish relations. Armenia is concerned about Baku's military buildup and does not want to become dependent on Russia. Both countries face the dual challenges of overcoming inertia in democratic reforms and battling endemic corruption in the face of an economic downturn," Blair said in his assessment.
Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.