The 2012 Registan Conference: Reflections from Casey Michel

Registan held their first conference on October 4&5, and here at CES we were lucky enough to have Casey Michel attend on behalf of CES. His reflections on the issues discussed at the Registan conference are a great meditation on all the moving parts of Central Asia, and what themes will be important to watch in the coming months and years.

This post is long, but as ever, Casey mixes policy and poetry with ease. We strongly encourage everyone to take the time to read through this, particularly when the discussion of Uzbekistan starts, when Casey reaches his stride in conveying why, exactly, it is so important to know, understand and care about this region so alien to so many.

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There was a pool of blood on a Tashkent staircase. There was a Western oil representative, assessing the business atmosphere, placing Russia’s knife on the throats of the former Soviet republics in Turkestan. There was a rural uprise outside Dushanbe: people who’d waited weeks without water, protesting while diplomats watched from their high-rise, showers and faucets running behind.

And there was a man aflame, dying. His torso flailed, and slowed, and lay still, and the flames continued to eat the flaking clothes he’d worn. Another man stood near – just stood, staring, catatonic. A British man turned to the one still alive, the one still staring. “

“What happened?”

The man turned, catching his eye.

“That’s my neighbor. He’s from the other side.”

The other side. The other side of Tajikistan – an Islamist, or a democrat, or a communist layover. Didn’t matter. He was theirs. He deserved to die. He deserved to burn.

He deserved to serve, along with those above, as an image that would last for two decades among those who’ve observed Central Asia’s post-independence transitions. He deserved to remain a symbol of the area’s ebbs, the area’s growth and promise and hardening. He deserved – with the blood, and the riots, and the knives from twenty years past – to serve as a reminder of just how far these economically independent nations have now come.

Such was the topic of discussion during last week’s inaugural Registan conference. Seeking to examine the structures and trends in the five ‘stans comprising Central Asia, the individuals behind Registan compiled some of the leading voices – some of the few who give a damn – who’ve devoted themselves to covering a region as opaque and understudied as any you can find. The people in both attendance and on panel offered a group as close to the US-based Central Asian intelligentsia as you could hope to find. Everyone, in a single room, conveying their similar goals, their differing ideas, their assessments of the journey each nation’s taken and each country’ll find.

Because, as was mentioned in the conference’s opening rounds, the area doesn’t share the opacity it once did. Social media, increased travel, and desires for international acceptance have plied more information from an area that, under seven decades of Soviet rule, was little more than barren backwater. And while the information’s frustratingly sparse – “If only we had better data!” became the conference’s calling card – the area is, fortunately, easier to read, easier to assess, and easier to describe than it’s ever been.

And yet, it is that ease of analysis that is perhaps the main reason for the theme of unease running the conference. Because while that increased access to information, communiques, and population trends has allowed more layered scrutiny, it has also allowed observers to confront the lingering the remaining unknown unknowns. It has allowed analysts and experts to realize that there was a limit to their study, and that the only things beyond that limit are those greatest questions remaining: questions of succession, of economic development, of resource allocation. The questions that remain are, one may argue, the only ones worth pursuing. They’re the most worrisome, the ones that have led to this underlying concern. They’re the ones that’ve led to this “wobble.”*

*And don’t forget — this is all pre-2014, too.

The area, as explained by the panelists, was staring down an impending transition. It was readying itself for a period of, at best, tight-brow concern, and, at worst, a return to the horrors of Soviet implosion. And that’s why we’d gathered – to ask this question, to see these trajectories. What’s this area experienced? What’s this third decade of independence – following the decade of fire and dust, following the decade of pipeline boom and liberated growth – going to display? Where’s the area now pointed?

Of course, discussing the generalities of “area” risk removing the nuance and individuality of each country, of each dictator. And as those in the room and behind Registan were well aware, each nation, while webbed together, were moving at speeds and trajectories individual to themselves. So while there was a consensus that these greatest questions remained unanswered, it was only in these individual examinations that we could hope to find any answers.

The great irony of this recent wobble, at least to the pro-democracy-as-economic-stability forces, is that, suddenly, the nation with the most enviable immediate future remains the most blatantly illiberal. With a young-ish dictator, a proven record of transition, and critical nexus among the pipelines etched across the region – to say nothing of the increased armor in the Caspian – Turkmenistan has suddenly become to bastion of stability in Central Asia.

Berdymukhamedov is ever the dictator Turkmenbashi was, with a touch of tribal-nationalistic bent tossed in, and the nation remains the bizarre backwater it’s always been. But, look beyond the bizzarities.* Look beyond the notions of Hermit Kingdoms and atrocious human rights records. Check the pipelines. Check the political opposition, if it exists. Check the trajectory of any reformations. As Berdy’s father, whom the dictator long admired, would say, “You never run to where you could walk.” Such is the pace of change in Ashgabat. Such is any potential for trouble. And while Turkmenbashi passed at a similar age to Berdy, there are none of the concerns about the latest dictator’s health that dog Nazarbayev and Karimov.

Indeed, there seems there’s little susceptibility in Turkmenistan to anything outside of Russian pressure. And even that – with TAPI, with the potential of Nabucco – continues to wane.* Independence increases. Stability exists. And Turkmenistan becomes, slowly, the investment envy that Kazakhstan once knew.**

*As one Central Asian official recently said, “We are not looking for a New Great Game. We are looking, instead, for a New Great Gain.”

**Kazakhstan, while still the economic powerhouse, abdicated its image as the island of stability following the events of Zhanaozen, following the protests and investigations and hard-right turns in sweeping the opposition figures. Its economic engine still chugs, but the political question – Nazarbayev’s now 72, with no obvious succession planned – looms ever larger. But that was a discussion for another time: This conference focused largely on the southern-most ‘stans, though Kazakhstan plays no less a role in the region’s stability than any other nation. Here’s hoping there’ll be more on Astana next time around.

That stability is all the more emphasized when casting a glance eastward, examining the nationalism that’s suddenly gripped Kyrgyzstan in a way that, one may argue, other countries have never experienced. (This theme of nationalism, which ran through all presentations on Kyrgyzstan, came at the same time an ‘attempted coup’ led by a trio of nationalists shot through Bishkek. If you follow one Central Asian story over the next few weeks, look here.) Osh’s mayor, Melis Myrzakmatov, has suddenly become the putative keeper of the country’s south – it is his hand that tamps down the continued inter-ethnic tensions besetting the region.

Because it’s still there, that tension. Uzbeks depart; Kyrgyz – the ones who heave their language around in order to turn everyone to “patriots” – move in, and take over businesses, and display Peace Bells that offer messages in Kyrgyz and English and Russian and … nothing else. And while the reconstruction of Osh’s begun, and while those who lived through the massacres and riots can now speak on other subjects, the healing, if it can be so called, has barely begun. Bishkek’s parliament falls and falters and stutters to any kind of legislation, and Myrzakmatov continues to rule without restriction. The nation’s halves remain, and the nation’s Uzbeks continue to live estranged.

But what will they do? Will they remain, and live with meager restitution from Bishkek, and face a life as a citizen sidelined because of their ethnicity? Or will they move, cross the Ferghana, head to Uzbekistan, and find themselves in a country where the repression stifles more than anything Bishkek’s offered? What would you do? Which Gibraltar Rock is the lesser?

Because it was the segment on Uzbekistan – the discussions on human rights; that was the one that will stay with you long past the conference’s closing remarks. It was the tales of torture and drugged confession and boiled body parts that turned the conference from wonkish discussion to something a bit … more. First-hand observation, tales from a modern gulag, conversations on moments and individuals – wonderful individuals, idealistic individuals – who’ve lived lives no one should know. It was those voices that remind of the realities of policy and economy. That remind you why this region has to be known.

And they remind why the discussions on Central Asia need to be aired publicly – and why conferences such as Registan’s carry more importance than the bull sessions that exist online. Combating Uzbekistan’s human rights records is, as far as we’d seen, the most intractable question still swirling the region. Should we, as some believed, pursue of tactic of name-and-shame? Should we introduce a Magnistky-like bill for Tashkent, call those individuals to task for their roles in the torture and the massacre and the impeachment of any democratic principle? Or should we forget those methods, stake that they don’t work, and instead head for a softer encouragement? Should we offer sanctions, or should we coax with promises of acceptance and support? Or do we need to make these methods mutually exclusive? Can we, as it were, keep all the tools in our toolbox? And what, even, is our role — and where do we go now?

And that’s the point – the ethos behind the panels, aside from mere assessment, was to offer some thoughts on solution, on guidance. Uzbekistan’s status encapsulated these troubles more starkly than the others. It presented a compilation of human rights atrocities and economic idiocies, all with enough of a unified populace to present a coherent course, if we could ever settle on one. Kyrgyzstan’s still too messy, still unfurling; Turkmenistan’s too bleak, too obvious; and Tajikistan’s too disparate, too diffuse, to offer any truly unifying theories about how we – how anyone – could direct the nation that’s in the most perilous position come 2014.

Indeed, it is Tajikistan’s status that posted some of the most interesting discussions of the entire two-day conference. The nation’s farm reorganizations are all moving at different paces – some are unified and productive, while some remain transitory and poor, and some have no idea how to possibly market anything other than cotton. Meanwhile, the president’s actions seem largely unpredictable and unplanned – but, upon further examination, stand all too obviously.

Gorno-Badakhshan, for instance, looked haphazard. That seemed the consensus. But look a bit deeper: look at the way the government held the 35,000 in Khorog hostage. Look at the way they blamed the “magic stray bullet” for knocking out the area’s electronic communications. Look at the way they utilized the themes of risk surrounding the dam at Lake Sarez — the same dam the Soviets said the Americans would bomb, flooding the five million directly downstream. Look at the way Rahmon convinced the populace of the notion that only four Pamiris could destroy the dam and flood out the area they’ve purported to protect. Look at the way they spun it, and responded with their forces. Look at the deaths they left behind. Look at Imomnazar Imomnazarov.

So there’s planning, there. Rahmon has an agenda, and it’s only beyond the cursory glance when you find it. He’s more intelligent than most’ll give him credit for. And it’s only when those embedded in Tajikistan return with their tales and their research that the rest of us can connect these disparate elements and can bring Dushanbe’s moves to light.

Because there is, perhaps, no country more indicative of the changes Central Asia’s experience over the past twenty years than the rutted nation of Tajikistan. Yes, it’s shed the horrors of war. Dushanbe’s fist is that much stronger; the opposition is that much more fractured. And yet, the gunsmoke, even but two months ago, still puffs through the nation’s east, and the warlords still maneuver through the Pamirs, and the drugs still shuttle northward from Afghanistan. The state has strengthened, and solidified. But it’s still a nation broken through fiefdom and patronage. It’s still, as much as anything, a country smothered in the legacy of the ‘90s. It’s still growing, and it’s still reeling. And, despite Rahmon’s youth, it’s still as tough to get hold of the nation’s direction as any — and thus the country continues, despite its gains, to wobble.

The prior wobble, though – that swift sink that immediately followed Soviet implosion – is what landed the region the growth it eventually saw in the 2000s. The troubles are what led to Kazakhstan’s international prominence, and Kyrgyzstan’s tumultuous democracy, and Turkmenistan’s stability. It’s what led to Uzbekistan’s continually vocal diaspora, and what led, en fin, to the end of Tajikistan’s civil war. It led, in the end, to something better.

Central Asia has largely left the images of that prior fall – those puddles of blood, those blades on throats, those men aflame – behind. There’s been peace, or some form of it, for an extended period of time. And that peace is to be lauded. But that peace has no guarantee of continuance. And that was the theme of conference. That question – that largest question – tethered the presentations, because what comes after the wobble, after the power transfers and the NATO pullout and the economic transition, is entirely unknown.

Those who presented and participated held the best guesses at the next state. But they were just that: guesses. This next step in the New Great Game, these next leaders of the former Soviet states, the latest development in hydrocarbon extraction and water access – all those ingredients that lead to stability and growth and peace – are the unknowns. We wait, and we encourage, and we analyze. We gather, and share our findings. And we watch for the wobble, and we prepare for what comes next.

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