Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) propaganda video. Comments on Youtube suggest they get some resistance from their compatriots.
I was delighted to give an interview to CA-News, which is a Central Asian news online publication based in Bishkek associated with AKIpress.org (in Russian).
But because there are a half dozen or so mistakes in the translation that makes me sound like I'm saying the opposite of what I actually said [fortunately fixed within a day!], and because not everybody reads Russian, I'm reprinting the original Russian questions and my answers in English below. I've asked them to make the corrections. I don't mind, because this is an important independent publication and I support its mission. I think they do a good job.
I'm not sure how they came to ask me, a person who is not a formal expert on the region, for such an extensive interview, but they did, perhaps in search of independent analysis.
Although I've spent a career of 35 years in this field where I have travelled extensively throughout Eurasia, and lived and worked in Russia and travelled frequently to Russia, Belarus, Poland in particular for OSCE, I have never been to a single Central Asian country. I worked in the Central Eurasian Program at OSI for six years without such a boon. It's not for any lack of desire; it just so happened that at different times when I was actually invited to go to Kyrgzystan when I worked with various human rights groups, or Kazakhstan when I was a public member at the OSCE, it simply happened that I couldn't go. I doubt I could get a visa to Turkmenistan, having written critically about it for OSI for six years, or Uzbekistan, where I also wrote critically for two years -- and of course before that, I edited two weeklies for RFE/RL and other publications for many years.
Even so, I study the regional Russian-language and English-language press very carefully, go to all the conferences I can, and interview people directly either when they visit the US, or when I see them at international conferences or over email and Skype. That's certainly not a substitute for a personal visit, where you can get the feel of things and have many important one-on-one conversations. But in lack of direct exposure on my skin of the winds of Central Asia, I'm no different than most pundits who have either never been there, or have been there only infrequently, and don't even speak any regional languages.
I do think there's an advantage to having a critical independent view of this critical region. I think those not in formal structures can speak out more loudly about the corrosive effect on human rights that the US and Europe have had; the ongoing pernicious role that Russia plays; and the troublesome future of Chinese domination -- not to mention the ways in which the oppressive autocratic regimes play these factors off against each other to keep themselves in power and their people miserable.
You have nothing to lose if your job does not depend on some certain perspective. I find that the status quo in the human rights movement is to minimize the threat of terror or unrest and play up the awfulness of the regimes. That's a whitewash, given the groups in the region that have many, many more thousands of adherents that Western-style human rights groups -- like Hizb-ut-Tahir.
As for Washington, I find that far from there being the "neo con" belief that a) there is rampant terrorism and a horrible threat of Islamization and/or b) some imminent "Arab Spring" coming, there is actually nothing of the sort. Oh, there's that one paper at Jamestown Foundation or something, but that's it.
That is, those on the left, the "progressives" and the "RealPolitik" adherents constantly pontificate as if there were some horrid neo-cons or hawks or conservatives saying these things, but in fact these groups, which have dwindling influence in any event, either are following RealPolitik themselves or don't even care at all about this region (mainly the latter).
So in my view, there is this whole fake industry of anti-anti commentary, which runs like this:
"There isn't any Islamic threat at all in this region, perish the thought, it's just a poor region with dictators who in fact go overboard suppressing legitimate Muslim activity"
"There's no Muslim fervour in fact, these states are Sovietized and secularized".
"Nothing is going to happen when troops leave, it is all wildly exaggerated and people who say that seem not to realize that the US troops are the conflict generator, not the IMU"
"Russia has little influence any more in this region; it has less gas extraction, it has less money, it has length troop strength and its efforts to make a Warsaw Pact -- the CSTO -- or a Soviet Re-Union with a customs union have mainly failed."
And so on.
While each one of those statements can be true up to a point, they also lead to this strange endorsement of the status quo in these regions that in fact ends up serving the regimes, in my view.
Russia's influence is considerable, and it has been behind unrest by its action (as it was in Bakiyev's ouster and its threats to Atambayev) or inaction (with the pogroms in Osh). The remittance economies are huge -- for the labour migrants from Tajikistan in particular, but increasingly Uzbekistan and even Turkmenistan. That means that Russia winds up dominating the lives of these countries through some of their most vulnerable citizens -- not just the mainly male workers but the females left back home as head of households with children. The Russian language did not disappear from this region, even if it is taught less, because dominating Russian mainstream media, and Russian-controlled social media like mail.ru and Vkontakte, are very big factors in the media space in this region.
As for terrorism, sure, it gets exaggerated and the regimes "do it to themselves". But there are also real terrorist acts that occur. There is a sense that the presence of US troops in Afghanistan has ensured a kind of "frozen conflict" in this region that isn't on the official list of the frozen conflicts. The IMU has been tied up mainly fighting NATO troops. So when they go away, then what? Where do they go, those 5000 or 8000 or however many fighters there are? (And probably there are analysts saying they are only 2000, but who really knows, what, you did a door-to-door survey, guys?) Will they peacefully melt back into the countryside and farm happily? Or what? I think it's okay to look at that question critically without being branded as a terrorism hysteric.
Ditto the question of "Arab Spring". No one thinks there is any Arab Spring coming to Central Asia. I don't know of a single pundit or analyst saying this. Yet again, there is the "anti-anti-" industry making this claim, mainly from the Registan gang. The problem is that when you adopt that scornful skepticism, you stop seeing reality when it appears. As Paul Goble put it, there is a way in which talking about the Arab Spring is a little spring in itself. And there are signs of unrest here and there, and you don't know how they will turn out.
Remember, the same gang at Registan -- Sarah Kendzior and Katy Pearce -- were predicting with firm determination that discussion of oppression on the Internet was causing a chill in use, a decline in use, and even the shuttering of popular discussion pages. They implied that there would never be any Twitter revolution in Azerbaijan, that it was going to be slow and incremental and we shouldn't artificially speed it up by over-amplifying human rights cases.
Yet thousands of people keep demonstrating in Azerbaijan despite the news of repression, and they keep using Internet tools to make their case -- tools that Pearce is now blithely measuring with machinopology as if she had never written that Internet use would be chilled by such expression. It hasn't been. Facebook membership boomed. Will this "spring" last forever? I truly doubt it. Not with potential European and American oil interests -- and actually existing Russian and Iranian oil interests -- in this mix. Everybody will blame the West for the crackdown in Azerbaijan that is likely to be inevitable and thorough, and fume at the regime-tropic USAID grantees that they ignored last year (or even cooperated with) as the smoking gun of American perfidy. But it will be Russia's money and military role that will be the bigger factor.
This is how I'm seeing it, in the end: To the extent Russian wants or needs conflict, or is weakened and can't efficiently prevent or manage conflict, there will be conflict in Central Asia after NATO troops are withdrawn.
Part of that resistance to Russian state intrusion will be Islamic ferment. If analysts were busy telling everyone these were secular Soviet states and Arab Spring can't happen, they will be uncomfortably confronted with the reality that Islam is a great organizing tool in countries where it has historic roots, and this need not be seen as a threat to the West. Yet because they've been engaged in such an industry telling us it's not a threat to the West, they will be embarrassed when in fact it will be -- as they emblematically were when the Egyptian woman activist just feted at the State Department turned out to be such an anti-American hater, 9/11 celebrator, and horrid anti-semite on Twitter, and not because she was hacked -- a fiction State had to indulge in to save face.