Threats to stability in Central Asia: what role for the EU?

Keeping Central Asia stable and free of conflicts has been mentioned as a priority both in national governments’ narratives and those of international partners already for a long time. The early-1990s, times of political and economic transitions, were uncertain by default. Few observers could foresee how the newly emergent states would address the spectre of ethnic conflicts or civil wars. Disputes over borders and water resources highlighted low level of inter-state cooperation, while the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan put Central Asia at the forefront of the fight against terrorism. The region has not been free of heated disputes and open conflicts, and undoubtedly, most of the aforementioned issues require close attention.

However, long-term stability of the region cannot be pursued without addressing some less visible, yet critical problems. These are often issues of domestic nature that set the very environment within which a stable and prosperous development can be imagined. While national governments are primarily responsible for addressing (or not addressing) these challenges, international partners of the region have a big role to play. This brief looks at three particular areas – education, economy and equality – that are critical for sustainable development of the region and deserve more national and international attention.

A convenient stability

One can hardly generalise about “threats to stability” in Central Asia. The differences between Central Asian states’ economic situations, political systems and foreign policies can hardly be ignored. Yet, the recent twenty-six years saw a consistent prominence of hard security issues in discussions about stability across the region. In particular, the returning motives include non-traditional security threats (terrorism/extremism, religious radicalisation, drug-trafficking), inter-state conflicts (borders and water disputes) or possible spill-over of the war in Afghanistan, especially in the context of the NATO withdrawal in 2014. While legitimate in many ways, the above issues should be viewed with at least a few caveats.

First, the sacrosanct meaning attributed to the stability of Central Asia, as a condition of equilibrium, has two roots. In the first place, such understanding of stability was fostered by the acceptance of stability as a value, by Central Asians (and external observers), preoccupied with “economic turmoil and lawlessness” in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse.[1] In the second place, it is fostered by a change in development aid after the Cold War: from the principle of non-interference to an intervention (not necessarily a military one, but also by funding of development projects) which targets potential hard security threats in Central Asia, the ones which may eventually affect donor countries.

Second, the governments in Central Asia learned how to use the rhetoric of international security. The 9/11 attacks and ensuing US/NATO intervention in Afghanistan put Central Asian states at the forefront of the war on terrorism. This provided a new security framework for the region’s cooperation with the western world, which proved to be more convenient for collaboration than the previous alignment based on a vocabulary of democratisation, good governance and human rights. Central Asia’s non-western allies share a similar language of security, best illustrated by an oft-cited goal of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – fighting “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Such language allows a very broad interpretation and merges the distinction between international security, state security and security of specific regimes, as it legitimises silencing of any forces which might challenge current political constellations in Central Asia.

Third, many security issues that can be found on top of national agendas are outcomes of, or tightly linked to, problems in other areas. One can hardly address the problem of “religious radicalisation” by targeting “radicalised” individuals, confiscating suspicious religious literature or labelling some groups as “extremist” while ignoring underlying problems –  the condition of education or restricted political participation. Drug-trafficking cannot be effectively fought by solely upgrading the scanners or training sniffer dogs at border checkpoints, if corruption and organised crime are left aside, not to mention the demand for narcotics in countries of their destination. Focusing on often invisible roots of security issues may not be very expedient politically or convenient for the logic of project-cycles preferred by international partners. Yet, these precise roots of security issues will keep hampering human security in the region, if not addressed.

Thus, actors genuinely concerned about the long-term development of Central Asia should remain attentive to who and how defines “threats” or “stability”. The region’s long-term stability, however, hinges on developing an environment which would enlighten and empower citizens, and this should be a priority for both national and international policy-makers.

Inconvenient yet critical: education, economy and equality

A report on threat perceptions of the governments of OSCE participating states noted, with a surprise, “the salient prominence of perceived domestic threats combined with questions about the efficiency and legitimacy of governance”, as opposed to more traditional notions of military and transnational security threats.[2] This finding resonates very well with our understanding of some critical issues for long-term stability in Central Asia. These are domestic matters related to institutions and governance with implications for human security and development: education, economy and equality.

A lamentable state of public education is nothing new in the region. The Soviet-time literacy rate was often stressed as a big difference between Central Asia and other parts of the world, under the colonial rule and not only. Few would hear similar bragging today. The countries of the region inherited fully state-funded and controlled education systems, focused on a solid primary and secondary education. Nowadays, the levels of Soviet-time funding on education could hardly be sustained. In addition to poor funding, outdated curricula, a deficit of well-trained and dedicated teachers and scarcity of updated teaching materials are exacerbated by political resistance to real reforms. National governments, particularly in resource-poor countries of the region, still struggle with very basic problems of the education system, such as the provision of textbooks and attracting good teachers. Nurseries, where three kids share a single bed, cold school rooms or universities where exam grades are bargained for cash, are not best practices which would allow healthy individuals and competent professionals to grow. Private schools offer better quality education, but they are mostly accessible for urban and rich groups of the society – in this way producing the elites that do not always speak the language of the population. A growing quality gap between urban and rural, or elite and “ordinary” schools, is a problem shared across the region, with huge implications for societal development in the decades to come.

The second area which poses a potential threat to stability is the limited development of small and medium enterprises (SME). Although economically the countries in the region are clearly on very different levels, some same problems are shared and need to be addressed by all of them. In oil-rich economies in the region, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, few benefit from access to the resources and power. The state remains strong and the power of the state apparatus large thanks to energy revenues. In turn, in remittance-dependent economies, such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the state has nearly abandoned some of its primary services to the population (e.g. healthcare, education) while nevertheless retaining the control of the economy. Excessive control of the state, poor infrastructure and rampant corruption are some of the key factors squeezing small-scale economic activities or driving them underground. This leaves the SME sector under-developed, especially in rural areas. Allowing the growth of SME could provide opportunities for many active citizens without special “connections” or big capital to undertake economic activities, and in turn, create employment for other people and generate a higher tax income for the state.

Finally, equality understood as the rule of law and social justice is severely missing throughout the region. Political systems of all Central Asian states, although to a different extent, are dominated by strong personalities and an executive branch which enforces the situation in which the law follows politics, and not vice-versa. Laws might be in place; their non-selective execution and independent judiciary, however, remain to be seen. Implications of this can be seen in the daily lives of ordinary citizens, who mastered the “laws” of corruption, and for whom informal ways of addressing problems are a norm rather than an exception. The rule of law is often a part of donors’ agendas, although often it is reduced to capacity-building projects. Endless trainings might be somewhat useful, but one may wonder to what extent training judges or prosecutors improve social justice in countries where a phone call from the “right” person can play a greater role than a law.


The governments of Central Asian states differ in resources, capacity as well as openness to conduct much-needed reforms in the areas discussed above. The European Union and other international partners of Central Asia have an important role to play, although this might require calibrating approaches and efforts to particular countries. The following recommendations could be proposed:

  • Define long-term stability as a condition that empowers citizens and creates the best possible opportunities for their physical, professional and intellectual development. Disentangling the concept of stability from an “absence of any change”, as it is commonly defined nowadays, to wider society-oriented notion will send an important political message to political and societal actors of the region.
  • Encourage national governments to collaborate closely with relevant civil society actors in elaborating strategic reforms of the education sector. Encourage particular attention to streamlining curricula, improving learning outcomes assessment and motivating teachers. Support two-way exchange visits for students of high-schools and universities with their European counterparts.
  • Support national governments in developing and implementing economic development programmes focusing on support to SME. Encourage active cooperation between respective national government agencies and private business associations, as well as businesses and civil society organisations in discussing matters of taxation, licensing and other aspects of state regulation of business. Provide direct support to already existing successful and socially oriented enterprises operating in poorer areas, instead of providing grants to form new ones from scratch.
  • Stress the centrality of the rule of law and social justice in cooperation with the countries of the region. While small-scale capacity-building or awareness-raising projects may have their own benefits, long-term support to national-level programmes on fighting corruption, enforcing the law and institutionalising state-society collaboration is vital.

Shairbek Juraev and Karolina Kluczewska

  • This is a pre-publication version of the policy paper. It was published in Threats to Stability in Wider Europe: Expert and Academic Analysis, edited by Samuel Doveri Vesterbye and Rick Fawn, 2017.
  • Both authors were Fellows under ‘Around the Caspian’: A Doctoral Training for Future Experts in Development and Cooperation with Focus on the Caspian Region. CASPIAN is funded by the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 programme. Grant agreement number SEP-210161673.

[1] The Curse of Stability in Central Asia, by Sarah Kendzior, 2013,

[2] Threat Perceptions in the OSCE Area, by OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, 2014,