After three decades of independence following the fall of the Soviet Union, Central Asian countries continue to face challenges to their stability and governance.
Last year saw large-scale domestic unrest in three of the region’s five countries — Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — and a devastating cross-border conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan was the largest ever trans-boundary escalation in the region.
Many of these events follow similar patterns: growing tensions and grievances among citizens lead to protests, which are met with a harsh and disproportionate response including the use of lethal force by security forces, feeding into further mistrust between authorities and the population.
The first crisis unfolded in Kazakhstan in January 2022, triggered by domestic grievances and discontent over rising fuel prices and unequal living conditions, leading to 238 deaths. In Tajikistan’s large but sparsely inhabited Gorno-Badakhshan region — which has an ethnically and linguistically distinct population — long-simmering tensions boiled over into clashes in May between communities and authorities over the detention of local leaders and residents who have faced persecution by the government, resulting in dozens of deaths.
Elsewhere, changes to the constitutional status of Uzbekistan’s Karakalpakstan autonomous republic, as well as other socio-economic factors, sparked unrest in July and resulted in 21 deaths, according to the official tally.
In all three cases, the first reaction of many in the region’s governments, such as Kazakhstan’s president, was to place the blame on interference from “foreign groups” (either from within the region or further afield) looking to create instability or weaken the cohesion of their countries. This isn’t a new phenomenon, as external interference has long been blamed for unrest in post-Soviet countries — claims that are often amplified by regional powers like Russia. But last year saw more of it than usual.
This is worrying for two reasons. First, it suggests that peoples’ legitimate day-to-day concerns are often ignored and instead blamed on abstract, far-away foreign interests. While foreign countries might have some degree of influence, protest or unrest is often sparked by problems much closer to home and relates to issues that affect people’s daily lives, such as inadequate infrastructure, limited opportunities for employment, high living costs, a lack of transparency and accountability, and violations of political rights.
Second, when governments direct attention toward international groups, civil society organizations, media and activists become targets, as many receive much-needed support from abroad. Rather than attempting to create instability, many of these civil society groups are the ones who are working to address the very problems that could lead to grievances and unrest in the first place.
From Small-scale Violence to Broader Insecurity
There are many cases where smaller-scale violence and insecurity can breed larger societal problems if left unaddressed. For example, issues of marginalization or exclusion, or lack of work opportunities, can lead to recruitment into violent extremist or criminal groups.
Another example of endemic insecurity is domestic violence, which is a huge issue for communities around the world and has wide-ranging knock-on effects. In Uzbekistan, there were 14,774 cases of gender-based violence reported to police in 2020, but numbers are likely much higher due to a widespread lack of reporting in a conservative society that sees domestic violence as a private matter, especially in remote, rural areas.
Factors like COVID-19 have worsened the problem due to restricted movement and close proximity of victims and perpetrators, as well as increasing pressures that can lead to violence such as a lack of opportunities for work. While the Uzbek government has made efforts to tackle domestic violence since Shavkat Mirziyoyev became president in 2016 — including through two 2018 decrees on domestic violence and social rehabilitation — there remain a wide range of obstacles to implementation including societal norms, lack of awareness of legal and human rights, low capacity of shelters and rehabilitation centers, insufficient funds to maintain these shelters and an absence of consequences for perpetrators. There is also a lack of coordination between many of the institutions charged with supporting survivors, gaps in laws and procedures and differences in approaches (for example, between courts and police).
According to research published by International Alert in 2021, as a result of family violence in Tajikistan, many young people join criminal or violent groups or, in many cases, repeat cycles of violence once they have their own families. This reinforces harmful gender norms that restrict girls from accessing high school education and employment and perpetuates the idea among boys and men that violence is the best solution to their problems, whether this is political or in the domestic sphere.
These research findings suggest that livelihood programs and initiatives to improve mental health — coupled with efforts to tackle harmful stereotypes — can help shift the gender norms that, along with other factors, contribute to domestic violence and intimate partner violence.
Our experience working in the region has also shown a clear link between domestic violence and wider security issues, such as economic dependence and stigmatization. Communities we have surveyed highlighted links between these issues.
For example, when we spoke to people in Tajikistan’s Bokhtar district in Khatlon region in 2017, almost half of them linked violence in the home (such as between parents or against children) as a major contributing factor to vulnerability to recruitment into violent groups — and 84 percent said they had encountered psychological or physical violence at home. As a result, they would prefer authorities to focus on addressing harmful gender norms and domestic violence as driving factors behind such recruitment, rather than the somewhat nebulous issue of “violent extremism.”
People across the region told us that it wasn’t only domestic violence that could lead to discord, violence and unrest, but also harmful gender norms and economic conditions, and that these didn’t just relate to expectations of women but also men.
For example, men are expected to be breadwinners and provide for their families. Because of difficult economic conditions, many are unable to do this leading to psychological pressure and a search for alternative means of fulfilling societal expectations, including by establishing (violent) dominance at home, or by joining criminal or violent groups to gain a steady income and sense of status or identity.
The best way that governments can prevent conflict and instability is to listen to the concerns of their citizens and work to address them, rather than deflect responsibility. These concerns may include a range of economic factors, as well as different forms of violence, exclusion and marginalization, harmful gender norms that fuel violence at home, or governance that is opaque or unresponsive to community needs.
Indeed, addressing these underlying factors not only benefits communities, but also creates more stable societies. Many national and international initiatives focus on issues like violent extremism rather than the issues that communities identify as impacting their daily lives. Saferworld’s analysis has highlighted that programs that focus exclusively on violent extremism run the risk of neglecting the underlying conflict drivers identified by communities.
If these problems are neglected, they run the risk of boiling over into wider discontent as we saw last year. This means not just looking at the obvious linkages — such as fuel prices or other economic pressures leading to dissatisfaction — but also encouraging closer cooperation to tackle social issues that make communities less secure. As we see consistently through close work with communities, this involves addressing rigid gender norms that hold back growth, lead to violence against women and instill a greater acceptance of violence as a way to resolve conflict.
Enter Civil Society
Civil society has a crucial role to play in addressing these underlying concerns, as it often enjoys greater trust with and is closer to the communities it works alongside. Communities often feel more comfortable sharing their concerns with civil society organizations as they don’t focus on narrow national security priorities and do not directly represent state institutions that people may distrust. They also bring a range of approaches to addressing local challenges, drawing on diverse knowledge and resources.
For example, in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, our partners complement government efforts and help connect state bodies and communities through collaborative problem-solving platforms where local concerns are mapped out and prioritized, with joint solutions proposed based on principles of transparency and inclusion. They also advocate for initiatives that are more sensitive to local dynamics and that are led directly by the people affected.
Unfortunately, in many cases, civil society is seen by authorities as a threat rather than as a potential partner that can provide huge advantages at the local level. There is a growing trend to stymie the work of NGOs in the region, with many facing pressures to stop their work altogether or put aside certain issues such as human rights.
Authorities also often believe that platforms that enable people to air their concerns only contribute to greater instability — as opposed to providing a pressure valve where civil society and state bodies work together with people to address challenges before they escalate. It’s therefore important that civil society, international organizations, diplomats and donors continue to make the case for opening dialogue with a free civil society that is able to get to the heart of the many sources of conflict and insecurity.
Recent instability in Central Asia warrants the diligent attention of both governments and civil society. Governments should recognize that instead of being a threat, civil society has a crucial role in identifying people’s day-to-day concerns and is an important partner for authorities to jointly address those issues. Doing so at an early stage would help de-escalate local conflicts and prevent grievances from spilling over into violence, as they did in 2022.
Local authorities and civil society should work together on joint plans of action and facilitate dialogues, including support for collaborative platforms like community security working groups or, where they do not exist, help creating new ones. International donors also provide a crucial lifeline for civil society in the face of challenging odds, and should continue to provide support, share some of the risks and advocate with governments on the benefits of allowing these organizations to do their work unhampered.
The international community can also encourage governments in the region to see civil society as partners rather than opponents. Many governments in the region see security as solely under their purview, and thus miss the benefits of more consultative and people-centered approaches — an argument that international organizations and diplomats can keep making to increase government buy-in. They can also support efforts to share learning regionally by building trust across borders, emphasize the importance of regional integration and work to bolster regional autonomy.
Donors and international representatives can also ask critical questions of themselves on how to effectively address conflict by speaking more directly with grassroots organizations, and supporting locally identified priorities that reflect the daily problems of people affected by conflict. These priorities can be strengthened by pushing for adherence to international commitments (such as the Sustainable Development Goals), developing more effective national legislation (such as the various laws and proposed initiatives to tackle gender-based violence), or by advocating for effective local approaches that stress inclusion, transparency and accountability.
The focus of governments and donors on extremism or foreign interference often ignores the underlying factors that drive people to violence. Violent groups’ propaganda and recruitment efforts mostly succeed when people feel their concerns are not being heard or resolved by their governments.
The most effective way of addressing these grievances is to ensure inclusive and responsive services, and avenues through which people can voice their concerns, which civil society is often best placed to support. Ultimately, this will undermine violent extremism by tackling its root causes.
Ilya Jones is a regional conflict and security adviser for Saferworld Central Asia, based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Shamsiya Rakhimshoeva is a regional monitoring, learning, evaluation and gender coordinator for Saferworld Central Asia.