In Search of Stability

By Rumer, Boris | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

In Search of Stability


Rumer, Boris, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

At the end of the 1990s, 2 distinct tendencies have emerged as the predominant features of contemporary Central Asia: degradation in the social and economic sphere and growing tensions among states in the region. The source of both problems is a profound economic crisis that the governing regimes cannot even contain, much less resolve. The resulting instability threatens to unleash a massive social explosion - all the more likely amidst the increasing importance of the Islamic factor - and also to trigger interstate conflicts that could result in a general "Balkanization" of this vast region in central Eurasia.

Text:

Economic Crisis and Political Unity

At the end of the 1990s, two distinct tendencies have emerged as the predominant features of contemporary Central Asia: degradation in the social and economic spheres and growing tensions among states in the region. The source of both problems is a profound economic crisis that the governing regimes cannot even contain, much less resolve. The resulting instability threatens to unleash a massive social explosion-all the more likely amidst the increasing importance of the Islamic factor-and also to trigger interstate conflicts that could result in a general "Balkanization" of this vast region in central Eurasia.

In the early half of the 1990s, it was generally believed that the principal direction of change in the Central Asian countries was the result of two processes: first, the transition from the Soviet command-mobilization economy to a market-based system, and second, the establishment of democratic institutions. In less than a decade, it has become clear that if one dispenses with ideological fantasies, the real constellation of coordinates for Central Asia indicates neither a triumphant formation of a market economy nor an inexorable process of democratization.

Instead, the main dynamics in this region are economic degradation, a massive decline in the standard of living, the dismantling of the social infrastructure, and the consolidation of authoritarian regimes based on personal rule that bears little resemblance to democracy. All five Central Asian states are rapidly plunging toward the bottom ranks of the poor countries of the world, with all the attendant consequences.

Social and Economic Catastrophe

During the 1990s, the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia have had to traverse a difficult path from unbounded hopes to profound disenchantment. The exhilaration that accompanied the sudden and unexpected acquisition of independence at the start of the decade has given way to intense public frustration and a serious economic crisis.

From 1991 to 1998, the level of economic activity plunged a catastrophic 39 percent in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, 45 percent in Turkmenistan, and 66 percent in Tajikistan. The only exception to this pattern was Uzbekistan, where the gross domestic product decreased by less than ten percent during this period. Although the country exhibited some economic growth from 1995 to 1996, these gains are misleading: Uzbekistan has merely rebuilt the economic model of the former Soviet Union, a policy that will ultimately lead to stagnation.

The economic crisis in Central Asia is unfolding against a background of explosive demographic growth; despite the economic troubles, the population continues to increase rapidly. In the 1990s, the annual rate of population increase was 1.5 percent in Kyrgyzstan, approximately 2 percent in Turkmenistan, and more than 2.5 percent in Uzbekistan and even in Tajikistan-a nation which has suffered through a decade of war and ceaseless military conflict. In the next 15 to 20 years, the rate of population growth in Central Asia, with the exception of Kazakhstan, is expected to continue at a high level.

This incessant demographic growth, given the parallel process of rapid economic decline, has had the effect of concentrating a greater proportion of the labor force in agriculture and urban services. …

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