Human Security in Central Asia: In dialogue with Dr Johan Engvall

Concept of human security revolves around development and security. The people-centred approach in foreign policy not only protects but also equip people and societies for potential threats. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Central Asian Republics encountered with grievous challenges mainly related to sustainable governance. Human rights violation, problems related to ethnicity and gender, terrorism, drug trafficking and environmental degradation are concerns for Central Asian economies. 

The growing influence of international actors in the region having a larger impact on economic growth and social development. However, enduring non-conventional security and developmental goals cannot be achieved unless human security becomes the prime interest of regional and international developmental frameworks. 

Shambhavi Thite from The Kootneeti in dialogue with Dr Johan Engvall, Senior Fellow at Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Researcher at Swedish Defence Research Agency discuss the various challenges related to human security and development in Central Asian Republics.

Question: What are the potential key matters related to human security in Central Asia?

Dr Johan Engvall: There are several, but amongst the most salient factors I would highlight:

  • Demography – Since independence the region’s population has grown from about 50 million people to approximately 72 million 2019, equivalent to an annual increase of around 750,000. This strong population increase will continue over the next decades, and the increasing population trend will exacerbate the structural weaknesses found in the region. In particular, this is likely to exacerbate problems regarding poverty, unemployment, internal and external migration and access to scarce resources among the population, not least in the densely populated Fergana Valley which is shared between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan – all of whom already have a tense relationship with one another, especially on the local level with conflicts over borderlands. In the urban centres, continued urbanization will put an already crumbling infrastructure under further stress.
  • Economy – The lack of structural economic reforms and the lack of economic diversification makes the economies in the region highly dependent on external factors, such as labour migration, commodity-prices and the economic situation in major economic partners, such as China and Russia. Covid-19 and its immediate and longer-term effects will be seen in the region over a long time and could have severe consequences on many levels.
  • Politics – Corruption is a major feature of the governance of these states with a number of negative effects on individual and collective well-being on the region. As historical and contemporary evidence shows that it is extremely difficult to get rid of systemic corruption. Strong reform measures are needed but as a rule, there is a little political will to truly address the problem since the political systems are built around the distribution of corrupt revenues from the top to the bottom of the state hierarchy. For political development, corruption holds back the development of effective, fair and transparent state institution, while also hampering the possibilities of democratization in the region.
10 Facts about Poverty in Uzbekistan - THE BORGEN PROJECT
Uzbekistan/ The Borgen Project

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Question: Do you think these issues are shaping Central Asian politics at national and subnational level?

Dr Johan Engvall: Yes, they have an impact on politics at both the national and subnational level. Overall, however, people make their ends meet thanks to their own networks and their own wealth of initiatives, not thanks to central or local government provided basic welfare policies. 

Question: How intense is the impact of intra-regional relations on the affairs associated with human security?

Dr Johan Engvall: It varies depending on which factors we are talking about. It is particularly felt regarding those factors which take on an inter-state dimension or intra-state conflicts with connections to other states. Tense ethnic relationships especially between the majority group and some ethnic minorities have occurred with tragic outcomes in both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan, the southern part of the country has been particularly problematic with violent conflicts between ethnic Kyrgyz and ethnic Uzbek. On an inter-state level, the greatest problem was for long the bad relationship between Uzbekistan and its two smaller neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, although on a political level the situation has improved markedly over the last years since Mirziyoev became president in Uzbekistan and set out a new regional policy for Uzbekistan. The relationship between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan appears at present the most volatile in the region, with a trend of an increasing number of violent and deadly confrontations along the poorly demarcated Kyrgyz-Tajik border. Overall, the major drivers of inter-state tensions over the past decades have been conflicts over the use of water in the region, border disputes and the fear of Islamic radicalization.

Central Asian countries’ flags

Question: Is it true that international agencies are paying less attention to these problems? What are the important issues related to human security that the international framework must address?

Dr Johan Engvall: I don’t think so. The human security/welfare dimension has featured prominently in various international programs for the region – including human rights, democratization, anti-corruption, poverty reduction, health care, environmental degradation, etc. However, it might be true that when it really matters traditional hard security aspects and economic interests may gain the upper hand. However, there has been an effort to maintain a balance between the different dimensions of security. In the end, expectations need to be realistic of what external actors can and cannot do when acting as agents of change. The aspect of domestic political will are necessary for promoting human welfare.

Question: How international players especially neighbouring countries are contributing to the development of Central Asian countries? What are the problems that generally occur in Central Asian countries due to these neighbouring countries?

Dr Johan Engvall: For now, and the foreseeable future, the fate of the Central Asian countries is closely dependent on the fate of the economies in China and Russia, although in different ways. Labour migration to Russia has resulted in a dramatic increase in annual remittances from Russia over the past 15-20 years. For many households in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, these payments are crucial. For governments with constant budgetary constraints and limited ability to collect taxes and use these for welfare, the remittance economy has become an alternative social security net, and social stability and unemployment have largely been put in check thanks to a steady stream of remittances. The potential effects of Covid-19 which is likely to unfold over a longer period of time can in the light of labour migration hardly be exaggerated. The weak domestic job markets are unable to absorb this workforce, leaving the issue of labour migration absolutely critical.

As for China, it has replaced Russia as the major trading partner, investor, financer and granter of loans in the region. Chinese cheques have enabled large infrastructural projects and given Chinese control over several vital economic assets, especially in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. At the same time, these countries debts to China has risen quickly and may limit the sovereignty of these countries. In the end, the Central Asian countries have tried to maintain a multi-vectoral foreign policy to avoid becoming too dependent on one particular external power.

Johan Engvall is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. Engvall is also a Researcher at the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. His expertise is in state building, political economy, corruption and organized crime, with a particular focus on Central Asia. He holds a Ph.D. degree in Government from Uppsala University, as well as a degree in Political Science from Stockholm University.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Shambhavi Thite

Shambhavi Thite is a Former Research Intern at The Kootneeti

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