Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Kazakhstan's Wild West?

I was struck by an article in RFE/RL, Kazakh Suicide Bombing Puts Spotlight on Western Regions, that discusses rising Islamic extremism in Western Kazakhstan.

While most of the country's oil fields are located in the Western part of the country near the Caspian basin (the most notable fields include Tengriz and Kashagan), most inhabitants of Western and Southern Kazakhstan do not accrue the benefits of the O&G industry. These regions remain economically underdeveloped, with agriculture comprising the predominant form of subsistence. Consequently, the people of Western and Southern Kazakhstan are more conservative in their socio-political orientation.

While the entire Central Asian region encounters a variety of security threats, mostly from transnational criminal networks, Kazakhstan is widely regarded as the regional beacon of security. Moscow confronts violent groups in the North Caucuses, Dushanbe struggles to secure the 1,500 kilometer boarder with Afghanistan while governing a country deeply divided and underdeveloped, and Bishkek is trying to prevent a north-south conflict. Meanwhile, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a designated terrorist organization that reportedly retains ties with al-Qaeda, was founded in 1999 with the distinct goal of ousting President Karimov. Just last week, NATO forces launched a raid targeting IMU members operating inside Afghanistan. The authoritarian Karimov is notoriously aggressive in targeting the IMU and members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (e.g. Andijan Massacre 2005). Finally, Turkmenistan is a tightly controlled police state that has not confronted major domestic instability, largely attributed to the policies of the illustrious Turkmenbashi and current President Berdymukhamedov. One need not look further than the gold-plated statue that rotated to constantly face the sun Turkmenbashi erected in Ashgabat to honor his "immortality" to observe the unique chutzpah of one of the world's most oppressive dictators (too bad he died in 2006 and his statue was taken down in 2010). Meanwhile, Kazakhstan, under President Nazarbayev since independence, is certainly not without its problems, but has achieved 8% annual GDP growth rate for the past ten years. The IMF recently (March 2011) predicted the Kazakh economy will grow by 5.9% this year.

The security situation in the neighboring Central Asian Republics and Kazakhstan's relative stability explains why the suicide attack by Makhatov in Aqtobe last week comes as a surprise. Does the attack in Aqtobe indicate a growing movement of domestic extremism in Kazakhstan? This could be an isolated incident, as all countries confront domestic threats. On the other hand, as the RFE/RL article details, Russian authorities claim that inhabitants of Western Kazakhstan work with groups in the North Caucuses.

I certainly do not know the answer to this question. While I will spend most of my time in Almaty, which is right next to China and a hop, skip and a jump away from Bishkek, I do plan to travel to Western Kazakhstan for a weekend trip and am curious to witness for myself the difference in political persuasions and economic subsistence.

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