Staunton, July 22 – Two comments last week, one by a Russian specialist on Afghanistan suggesting that that could disintegrate with possible spillover effects for Central Asia and a second by a presidential advisor in Tajikistan who spoke about the possibility of the appearance of two new states being carved out of the region, have been criticized in Moscow as “fantastic.”
But the fact that such suggestions were made at all and the nature of the arguments against that possibility highlight just how fragile some of these states are, how problematic the borders among them inherited from Soviet times are, and the certainty that some people in the region are thinking the unthinkable about the countries in which they live.
On the Afghanistan.ru portal, Andrey Serenko, a specialist at the Moscow Center for the Study of Contemporary Afghanistan, said that the growing “’privatization of sovereignty’” by regional ethnic, military and economic groups in Afghanistan threaten that country’s territorial integrity especially after the American withdrawal (afghanistan.ru/doc/62482.html).
After the collapse of Najibullah’s communist regime in 1992, Serenko said, several provinces of Afghanistan in fact were “’privatized’ by major field commanders” along ethnic lines. The recent conflict between Uzbeks and Tajiks in Takhar Province suggests this could happen again, all the more so because these divisions now have an economic base.
Non-Pashtun business interests are now so strong that they could provide the kind of support for secessionist groups that the latter did not have two decades ago. As a result, Serenko suggested, Kabul may soon have to decide which is the greatest threat: “the reanimation of the Taliban or the disintegration of Afghanistan and the loss not only of its internal but also of its external sovereignty.”
Sayfullo Safarov, the deputy director of the Presidential Center for Strategic Research in Dushanbe, then suggested that Afghan developments could have an impact on political borders in Central Asia proper, leading to the formation of a new state, Greater Badakhshan, on what is now the Tajik-Afghan border, or a second new one in the Fergana Valley.
The Tajik expert said that groups on the Afghan side of the border hope “to unify [their] territory with the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast and form a new state, Greater Badakhshan. Behind this effort, he said were “the main figures of secret ‘geopolitical games’” (ca-news.org/news:1073743 (subscription), repeated at islamsng.com/sng/news/7055
In a follow-on comment to Golos Rossii, the Tajik specialist said that he also sees the preconditions for the appearance of a new Fergana Republic which would include within its borders parts of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan and Kazakhstan on the basis of Islam or cultural commonalities (rus.ruvr.ru/2013_07_20/Grozit-li-Centralnoj-Azii-smena-politicheskoj-karti-5542/).
Not surprisingly, Safarov’s statements have provoked a media firestorm in Tajikistan. But officials there have tried to calm the situation. Foreign Minister Khamrokhon Zarifi said that “the Badakhshan problem does not exist. It never existed. These are the fantasies of specific groups who want to create instability in the countries of Central Asia.”
Dmitry Aleksandrov, the head of the Central Asian sector at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISI), was almost as dismissive of the idea that new states could emerge in Central Asia anytime soon (rus.ruvr.ru/2013_07_19/Sozdanie-novih-gosudarstv-v-Centralnoj-Azii-fantasticheskij-scenarij-6687/).
He suggested that such predictions were “somewhat alarmist” because at present there are “no immediate broad threats of destabilization in Central Asia.” Moreover, the Moscow analyst said, the situations in Badakhshan and the Fergana Valley are quite different in terms both of religious and ethnic identities.
Some in the elites of both places may hope to form new states, but “the population in the main does not support these ideas very strongly,” either because they are divided along ethnic lines or because the meaning of Islam varies among them. In the Fergana, he said, this idea isn’t going anywhere, but the situation in Badakhshan is more complicated.
On the one hand, the Tajiks on the two sides of the Afghan border are very different because of the impact of the Soviet system. But on the other, there is the possibility that militants from the Afghan side will pass into Tajikistan. “To speak about the prospects for the appearance of a new state,” he said, “is premature.”
Indeed, Aleksandrov suggested, that could happen “only in the case of the complete disintegration of the Central Asian region,” something that if it happened could lead to “the establishment of several units like states.” But for the immediate future, “this is still a fantastic scenario.”
What is certainly going to be a problem in the coming months is the return of Central Asian militants who have fought in Afghanistan. “Having acquired military experience [there], they will seek to use it on the territory of Tajikistan and other countries,” but, the Moscow expert said he doesn’t think this will cause “the full-scale disintegration of Central Asia.”