The short eruption of violence between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan following this month’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Samarkand is illustrative of several key factors, none of which are well understood by analysts and policymakers. The true nature of the confrontation — this time around — is about trying to settle property disputes along the ragged borders between the two countries.
It seems that analysts and policymakers are, once again, missing some major points in what is going on between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. This is primarily because they are focusing on human rights issues first and ignoring the anthropological setting.
Of course, human rights issues are important and are a fundamental backbone of Western foreign policy today. However, understanding granular factors about the anthropological landscape in Central Asia is important too. In fact, it is so important that the factor is often ignored because of agenda-setting by practitioners. They first jump to analyze the factors of criminality and indecency, which are extremely important, but miss the understanding of clans and their power games. The historical foundations of these states and their ethnographic maps are salient to understanding how to make successful policy recommendations toward Central Asia.
Missing from analysis is the cultural-religious-political aspect of the disputed region and how clan behavior plays into the larger international misunderstanding of the events that are going on in this part of Central Asia. The fact that SCO leaders met for an informal dinner, which was well documented, and then visited a key Samarkand mosque, Bibi-Khanym, for a group photograph, was highly significant. Met with sneers and comedy routines from Western analysts, the photo was highly illustrative. The mosque, and the city of Samarkand, have strong historical connotations. It was in Samarkand that Tamerlane ruled and other empires also came to rule over this historic city in later centuries.
Today, the bulk of the peoples of Central Asia have remained true to the basic anthropological essence of clans. That mosque photograph and the subsequent videos showing the SCO leaders touring the “Samarkand Spirit” souq were illustrative of the clans coming under one roof. Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon were seen talking and enjoying themselves over the entire evening. After their departure, these leaders then went to war over property rights based on clan interests.
Kyrgyzstan is home to more than 30 clans, of which President Japarov belongs to a key northern “wing.” Meanwhile, Rahmon is empowering his clan by preparing for his son to take his place in a dynastic succession. After 31 years in power, Rahmon is seeking to continue his family’s grip on power. Indeed, the Tajik president has been conducting a clean-up campaign against his clan’s enemies by jailing dozens of his opponents from the mountainous Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast.
The re-eruption of violence between the two countries, just a day after the SCO conference, involved a serious mix of clan animosity and technology, including the use of drones. Japarov’s ability to use Turkish drone technology in a kinetic environment featuring Tajikistan’s Iranian-supplied drones is an example of outside powers empowering clan-like behavior and warfare. With close to 100 dead and more than 100,000 Kyrgyz displaced, calls to end the warfare came from a number of parties, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, who called for “no further escalation” between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Putin was also in the photographs of the SCO leadership’s Samarkand tour, so he had been in conversation with these two leaders just a few days earlier.
This example of clan-like behavior is also illustrative of the separate governance routes in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev is erasing the previous clan rule of former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, even going as far as renaming the capital Nur-Sultan back to the former name of Astana.
Meanwhile, in Turkmenistan, a dynamic succession occurred in March, when new President Serdar Berdymukhamedov was elected. His father, Gurbanguly, also known as Arkadag, is still head of some Turkmen clans, of which there are three primary groups. When Turkmenistan’s governance is compared to Tokayev’s leadership, the Kazakh president removed the Nazarbayev clan name to rearrange the zhuz clan structures.
Uzbekistan also has its clan issues and this factor was seen in July’s uprising in Karakalpakstan, on the Kazakh border.
Overall, the point is that a type of orientalism is augmented by a human rights agenda that masks these other, more dominant, local issues. Western methodologies and approaches to Central Asia need to dig into what makes these societies tick beyond the criminal scene, inequality issues and environmental concerns. These factors are all important, but a good foundation for analysis rests in the anthropological arena. Making fun of or complaining about the Central Asian countries’ behavior is counterproductive and a waste of the reader’s time.