Russia’s economic ills fuel radicalism in Central Asia


Central Asia’s authoritarian governments have rarely found it easy to keep a lid on social discontent or to inoculate their countries against chronic instability in Afghanistan. Ethnic tensions and religious violence have punctuated the era of independence, and domestic political repression is the norm, The FT’s Tony Barber writes:

These four former Soviet republics [[of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan] have maintained close economic ties with Moscow in the quarter-century since the USSR’s break-up in 1991. Now, in the view of Paul Goble, a US expert who writes for [Window on Eurasia], the risk is that Russia’s economic troubles will fuel the rise of Isis and other radical Islamist forces that are developing footholds in Central Asia.

Remittances – earnings that Central Asian guest workers in Russia send back home – are the channel through which Russia’s troubles may boost militant Islam in the region. When Russia’s economy was booming in the first decade of this century, several million Central Asians arrived in search of seasonal or long-term work. By 2014, according to the International Monetary Fund, remittances from Russia-based workers made up about 45 per cent of GDP in Tajikistan and 30 per cent of GDP in Kyrgyzstan.

However, Russia’s economy contracted by 3.7 per cent last year. Many Central Asians discovered there was no more demand for their labour. Remittances collapsed in value by about 50 per cent in the first six months of 2015.

“At least some of these returning and impoverished guest workers are likely to be attracted by promises of high salaries from those seeking to recruit them as soldiers for militant extremist units in the Middle East, South Asia and elsewhere,” Mr Goble writes.

In Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab, Nate Schenkkan explains how the Russian economic crisis is bringing Central Asia’s years of stability to an end.

Rakhimbek Bobokhonov, a Moscow-based Tajik historian, says that many Central Asian guest workers became involved in radical Islam while they lived in Russia, The FT’s Barber adds:

Such migrants tended to organise themselves in Russian cities on the basis of their religion, not their nationality. This made them more susceptible to the approaches of radical Islamists, as did the sight of alcoholism and drug use among native Russians.

Andrei Kazantsev, one of Russia’s foremost experts on Central Asia, who was born in Turkmenistan, estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 people from ex-Soviet states have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. “Representatives of Turkmen tribes living on the Afghan-Turkmen border have raised the black banners of Isis,” he says, noting that this is one area where Basmachi fighters, or Central Asian Muslim rebels, resisted Soviet power in the 1920s and 1930s.

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