The Central Asian region has historically been the flashpoint of struggles for influence, power, and resources. The current geopolitics of this landscape are no exception, as there are serious sources of tension. Territorial and border disputes complemented by historic and ethnic animosities might at some point boil over into conflict between any of two countries in the region. Above all, the dispute over scarce water resources has made some think the situation might escalate into a potential full-blown conflict.
There is no reason to doubt the existence of disputes and conflicts among the Central Asian countries. First, some of the countries are not happy with the way geographical boundaries were drawn by their erstwhile masters in the Moscow. The countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are the least happy about the division of the Fergana Valley. Tajikistan has long lamented that the areas of Samarkand and Bukhara, which are now part of Uzbekistan, should have been under its control for historic reasons. The issue has even led to a row between the two at the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Disputes over the equitable management of water resources between the regional countries are also a reality. And finally, all these countries have the common characteristic of being ruled by authoritarian regimes. In other words, the very nature of their government systems can add to their propensity for war and conflict.
These factors have been there since the independence of these states in the aftermath of the Soviet disintegration. But the real question is what will happen in the future: Could Central Asia really have a war?
Despite tensions, the idea that war in Central Asia is likely can be challenged if one takes a closer look at multiple factors. First of all, before going to a war for resources or land, the regional countries will have to challenge the greater geopolitical dynamics and forces. Russia and China — the two foremost actors engaged in Central Asia — will find it quite contrary to their interests if there is any war in this region. Both these major powers have their respective (and to some extent common) interests in maintaining stability in the region. Russia has developed an undeniably strong influence over the region, which once used to be an integral part of the Soviet Union. At a time when its relations with the West have plunged to a new low, Russia can hardly afford any agitation in its backyard. In fact, such a scenario would seriously undermine Russia’s standing vis-a-vis the United States at global level. On the other hand, China has major economic stakes in the region that Beijing would not like to see imperiled by any crisis. Its economic clout in the region is no less than that of Russia. With the initiation of the “One Belt, One Road” project, stability in Central Asia has acquired a new significance for China. In reality, one of the top sources of income for Central Asian countries are either massive energy-related exports to China or trade and investment ties with that country. Under these circumstances, any problem would be a direct cause of displeasure for Beijing.
The Central Asian countries (with the exception of Turkmenistan) also share a common strategic platform with Russia and China, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Even if Russia and China have not taken any direct measures to resolve the long-standing issues between these countries, they will find it quite unappealing to let these dispute escalate into a direct war.
Second, the aspect of domestic politics cannot be ignored. For several reasons (but mainly because of lowering energy prices), Central Asian economies over the last few years have suffered from a slowdown. War can help an authoritarian regime muster domestic support for the time being but in the longer run, it will prove to be a double-edged sword that can undermine the grip over power. And the Central Asian countries would have even fewer reliable options to jumpstart economic recovery in the case of a serious war. The truth seems to be not lost on the heads of these states, who have retained grudges against each other but shown little courage for crossing the line.
In addition, several of these countries are in the process of a political transition, which is not perfect timing for a war-like crisis. Uzbekistan recently elected a new president after the death of its strongman Islam Karimov. Karimov had to use brutal force in Andijan in 2005 to quash threats to his rule; it will likewise take the current president a long time to establish his control. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan is in the early stages of preparing for a power transition, as 76-year-old President Nursultan Nazarbayev is now the only Soviet-era leader still in control of a Central Asia government. Similarly, Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon held a referendum in May last year to lower the age requirement for president so as to pave the way for his son Rustam to succeed him. It should be remembered that many of the conflicts in the region involve Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, whether bilaterally or involving a third country as well. Going to war would mean inviting future difficulties for maintaining power.
The Central Asian countries, with all their mutual conflicts and domestic issues, have maintained a delicate balance of stability at the regional level. That is another important counter argument. Cross-border skirmishes are not rare but have never exploded to the extent of derailing the tacit understanding about larger normalcy. In this sense, these authoritarian regimes — while sticking to their conflicting claims and demands but avoiding a total war — have proven to be more rational than might be expected on the basis of conventional wisdom.
There is no denying the fact that Central Asia region has many forbidding challenges to deal with. But these problems are not the only variables in play, nor will they take on an overriding role in influencing the decision-making process at state levels. To predict the future of ties between these countries merely on the basis of existing disputes would be falling victim to the trap of oversimplification. These governments have many reasons to think twice before committing any full-scale aggression. In order to sustain the smooth running and longevity of their regimes, Central Asian governments might in fact be even less attracted to the idea of war in the future.
Nodir Boboev is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), Jilin University, China.