This report offers a road map for understanding the most likely sources of violent conflict in the post-Soviet nations of Central Asia—ethno-nationalism and nativism, Islam and secularism, water resources and climate change, and labor migration and economic conflict. The analysis draws from emerging trends in the region and identifies the ways in which Central Asia’s geography and cultural place in the world interact with those trends. It suggests that the policy goals of the United States, Russia, and China in the region may be more compatible than is often assumed.

Police wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus detain a protester during an unsanctioned protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on June 6, 2020. (Vladimir Tretyakov/AP)
Police wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus detain a protester during an unsanctioned protest in Almaty, Kazakhstan, on June 6, 2020. (Vladimir Tretyakov/AP)

Summary

  • Central Asian states are multiethnic in their constitutions, yet a resurgence of nativism and nationalism are the most common drivers of large-scale violent conflict in the region.
  • Similarly, although all Central Asian states are avowedly secular, the region is experiencing an Islamic religious revival, pitting local Islamic tradition against versions of Islam from other parts of the world.
  • Resource scarcity and climate change are constant sources of regional conflict and promise to become more problematic as water and other resources become even more scarce.
  • Labor migration, mostly to Russia, creates not only great economic opportunity but a new set of social problems. Central Asia could learn from other Asian countries that have decades of experience in protecting their migrant workers.
  • The hand of criminal organizations is often visible in mobilization to violence. Organized crime and corruption in the region exploit all of these other cleavages and undermine good governance.
  • Russia and China see Central Asia as a strategic region. Whether they, along with the United States, share a vision of stability and peace in the region and can find ways to collaborate will be important in the coming decades.

About the Report

This report examines likely sources of violent conflict in contemporary Central Asia and how they interconnect. Its goal is to better understand how they might be exploited by disruptive forces inside and outside of the region in the coming years. It suggests that the policy goals of the United States, Russia, and China in the region may be more compatible than is often assumed.

About the Author

Gavin Helf is a senior expert on Central Asia for the United States Institute of Peace. Previously, he worked in the Asia and Middle East bureaus of the U.S. Agency for International Development on democracy promotion and countering violent extremism. From 1984 through 2007, he studied, lived, and worked in the Soviet Union and its successor states, mostly in Central Asia and the Caucasus.

Related Publications

Central Asia and Coronavirus: When Being Nomadic Isn’t Enough

Central Asia and Coronavirus: When Being Nomadic Isn’t Enough

Friday, April 3, 2020

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

“Do you know how nomads prevent conflict?” a Kazakh friend once asked me. “I turn this way; you turn the other way. We start walking.” In ordinary times in Central Asia, this traditional “social distancing” may be enough to avert friction. But in a time of pandemic, it isn’t. Like elsewhere, the novel coronavirus is challenging Central Asian states and societies in new ways and revealing a great deal about the character of peoples and their governments. Here’s a look across the region at how the crisis has affected its states and how leaders have responded.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Fragility & Resilience; Global Health

Central Asia Leads the Way on Islamic State Returnees

Central Asia Leads the Way on Islamic State Returnees

Friday, September 13, 2019

By: Gavin Helf, Ph.D.

Beginning in January of this year, Kazakhstan began repatriating its citizens from Syria on dedicated mass flights in what it calls “Operation Zhusan.” Zhusan literally means sagebrush, but significantly, it evokes the unique scent of the Kazakh steppe—something along the lines of “the green, green grass of home.” Within months, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan followed suit, and Kyrgyzstan is expected to soon begin facilitating the exodus of its citizens who were involved with the Islamic State.

Type: Blog

Fragility & Resilience; Reconciliation; Violent Extremism

The Ukraine-Russia Conflict

The Ukraine-Russia Conflict

Monday, March 23, 2015

By: Lauren Van Metre; Kathleen Kuehnast, Ph.D.; Viola Gienger

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its military operations in Eastern Ukraine have overturned the post–Cold War norms that had provided stability and development for the former Soviet countries bordering Russia. As neighboring countries assess their own security situation based on Russia’s aggressive practices in Ukraine and the West’s response, they are actively testing the new contours of Russian and Western engagement, regional alliances and relationships, and regional conflict dynamics.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Justice, Security & Rule of Law; Global Policy

Ukraine-Russia Conflict Colors View of Civic Roles in Central Asia

Ukraine-Russia Conflict Colors View of Civic Roles in Central Asia

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

By: Hanne Bursch

Ukraine and the countries of Central Asia wouldn’t seem to have much in common other than their former Soviet past. But post-Soviet Russian ambitions may be linking them in unexpected ways. The outcome of Ukraine’s current effort to consolidate its democracy, against Russia’s resistance, has ramifications for whether the Central Asian countries view civil society and democracy as a driver of instability or a force for reform.  

Type: Analysis and Commentary

View All Publications