Conflict Transformation and Strategic Peacebuilding in Central Asia

Said Yakhyoev

July, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

The Role of Economic and Social Opportunities in Post-Conflict Societies

The essay will explore the role of the economy and social well-being and its impact on the transition to peace. I advance two arguments: First, when economic opportunities diminish, grievances are more likely to become expressed through violence, while in an environment of increasing economic opportunities, political grievances will not result in violence, even if the grievances are considerable. Second, when economic and social opportunities exist, the transition to peace is more sustainable. Hence in post-conflict peacebuilding, more effort should be made to create economic opportunities in order to increase the probabilities of lasting peace. I examine these arguments in the case of several Central Asian countries.

Conflicts: Political Liberties, Poverty and Economic Opportunity

Conflicts in Central Asia appear to erupt when social and economic patterns of communities are disrupted and opportunities to cope with new challenges diminish. Like the theory of horizontal inequality and relative deprivation, changes in opportunities represent a highly visible negative change between one's present and past capabilities. Such negative change is felt across groups and does not require inequalities between distinct groups. It seems that in a number of instances, such opportunity-deficiency has precipitated conflicts in Central Asian states.


Once an "island of democracy," after controversial elections in 2000, Kyrgyzstan was slowly sliding towards authoritarianism. Its constitution was amended in 2003 by the executive branch, and subsequent machinations in local elections in 2004 and parliamentary elections in 2005 spurred massive protests. These resulted in a revolution on March 24, 2005. The leading opposition figures, as well as the protesters, proclaimed the Tulip Revolution was a revolution for democracy. The mass media, such as CNN, linked the Kyrgyz revolution to those of Georgia and Ukraine. Many were less optimistic, however, observing that the revolution boiled down to one clan taking over the other, thus just reshuffling the regime, rather than changing its nature.

My own research a month later tried to identify what factors allowed the opposition/protesters to bring down the government of President Askar Akaev. In the course of interviews with some NGO staff, protesters, and a few media and security representatives, it became increasingly clear that the protesters had only a vague or little political ideology to back their claims. They did not see a viable alternative to the current political situation, nor did they contemplate regime change originally. Instead, many people I interviewed explained that the primary reason for protesting was the poverty and hopelessness of their situation. Unlike the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, it was not parties or presidents that people demonstrated for: from 256 instances of protests after the parliamentary elections and until the day of revolution, 45% were in favor of the local candidate. Charismatic individuals from one's own clan or constituency group were perceived as more likely to provide opportunities or care about their particular in-group.

My interviews with people who participated in protests in the rural southern provinces (where the protest movement originated) all confirmed that poverty was the leading reason for the mobilization. Poor housing, unemployment and, importantly, the inability to receive passports that would allow people to travel to find work were major concerns. Vote buying was another leading trigger of the protests.

The link between poverty and protest is also seen in the empirical evidence which shows that the protests were more intense in poorer regions. The southern provinces of Kyrgyzstan are markedly poorer than the northern provinces and the capital. Demonstrations were more frequent and larger in the southern provinces than in the northern ones: there were about 60 protests in the South, while there were only about 20 in the north, with the exception of the capital which experienced an influx of people from other regions. The Southern protests were also larger: the average size of protest in the South was 552 people, while the average size in the north was 476 (counting the final days of demonstrations when southerners joined their northern counterparts, thus diminishing the number further). Finally the composition and ratio also support this claim: in the south, small towns raised disproportionately more people than did the much larger cities in the north. Interviews showed there were few or no intelligentsia participating in protests in the south.

In Kyrgyzstan 80 % of the poor are employed in agriculture. The fact that the Southern regions host 60 % of population, but have only 33% of the total arable land and are generally more impoverished has also helped reinforce the perceived north-south divide. This perception was manifested in an "us-them" relationship during and after the revolution in March 2005 which was observable in interviews with residents of the capital and southern towns.


Two months after the revolution in Kyrgyzstan, a demonstration occurred in Andijan, Uzbekistan, arguably in solidarity with local businessmen imprisoned by the state on religious grounds. At the same time a military group attacked a local prison and captured several local governmental buildings. The Uzbek government responded by deploying troops which eliminated the armed group, but they also shot indiscriminately at the demonstration, killing or wounding hundreds. After the Andijan events, peaceful demonstrations continued around the country, in particular in Samarqand, against the closure of a local market. Why did people tolerate the authoritarian regime in Uzbekistan for over 15 years, but then began to protest and form insurgencies in 2005, especially after the Andijan tragedy?

The International Crises Group, as well as the local human rights movement and the international community at large recognized the causes of Andijan uprising as "especially ruinous economic policies" that triggered a number of demonstrations around the country. Anecdotal evidence from residents of the country confirms that in an environment of economic decline, the government imposed import tariffs and quotas on imports which increased consumer prices and thwarted businesses. Simultaneously bazaars - a source of income for thousands and centers of economic activity - were being closed and entrepreneurs intimidated which further stimulated protests. For a long time, apparently, people did not challenge the regime or the laws. They thought the police-state was acceptable, as it was perceived it was providing stability and the rule of law. Yet once it denied individuals the ability to improve (or even maintain) their livelihoods, the governmental policies became unacceptable.


Dictatorial Turkmenistan is a contrast to the previous two cases, with diminishing freedoms and mounting repressions. Least democratic and probably one of the most repressive among the Central Asian states, Turkmenistan has avoided serious popular upheavals or violent conflicts by maintaining tight social control, and proceeding slowly -- if at all -- with political liberalization. This oppression was offset, however, by the relatively high standard of living provided by natural resource (especially natural gas) exports. This brought funds into the country and enabled the state to provide a better standard of living for its citizens than was common in surrounding areas. General acceptance of this situation and influx of export revenues strengthened the state's power, allowing it to become -- and stay -- a police state. In contrast, in the early 1990s, much poorer Tajikistan's state was too weak to suppress social unrest and attempts to maintain authoritarian rule led to loss of control and civil war. In Kyrgyzstan in the same period, the state rapidly lost its powers, but conflicts were avoided by dedication to democracy and liberalization.

Ten year's later, however, the situation in Central Asia is different: Kyrgyzstan eroded its democracy, Tajikistan has learned its lesson and is starting to recover from war, and the people in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan increasingly face economic stifling in addition to the lack of political freedoms.


Let us analyze how declining opportunities makes violence more likely. Generally, low opportunities tend to marginalize certain groups more than others. This leads to social unrest which is expressed in the form of crime, inter-group tensions, and short-term opportunistic behavior such as fraud, corruption and nepotism.

Low opportunities also make mobilization easier for at least two reasons. Declining opportunities reduce the perception of governmental legitimacy, especially in post-communist societies where the expectations of the state are high. Since worsening life conditions directly affect people, mobilization against the dominant group on these grounds is easy, even without a viable political alternative. This was demonstrated in the case of Kyrgyzstan's revolution. However, the full-scale armed incursion of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the Fergana valley in 1999 and 2000 failed to generate much local popular support, which speaks about the legitimacy of the Uzbek government.

Secondly, as the Collier studies showed, poverty and lack of alternatives makes the hiring, equipping and maintenance of insurgents less expensive. Similarly, it is cheaper to bribe people during elections, or manipulate precinct staff, usually teachers or governmental workers. Both practices were seen in the Tajik and Kyrgyz elections in 2005.

In the long-term perspective, by-products of social and economic failures such as inter-group violence and demonstrations (as in Kyrgyzstan) or armed insurgencies (as in case of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) only reinforce authoritarian regimes and political grievances. The point here is that diminishing opportunities are likely to trigger long-lasting grievances, disrupt healing process after war, and stall democratization processes.

The Role of Social and Economic Opportunities in Post-Conflict Peacebuilding

The Case of Post-Conflict Tajikistan

What about Tajikistan which has the worst living conditions and fresh inter-group grievances? How has Tajikistan avoided the recurrence of social tensions during the dangerous first five years that Collier claimed to be decisive in determining whether transition to peace or fallback to war occurs? Certainly the experience of war served as a deterrent, but what prevented reoccurrence of large scale social tensions among once- belligerent groups? It seems that opportunities to redress needs and avoid frustrations appeared in the form of massive labor migration to Russia. The role of labor migration in post-conflict Tajikistan is hard to underestimate.

Annually from 400,000 to 800,000 Tajiks, mostly men, migrate for work to Russia and other countries. In 2003, the adult population was around 59% or 3.7 million. This would make labor migrants roughly from 21% to 43% of the male adult population. The annual remittances are estimated to be from $200 million to up to $600 million, while GDP of the country is only around 2.1 billion. According to a World Bank poverty assessment study, such remittances were a major cause of poverty reduction since 1999 and are the second largest household income in the country. Labor migration has thus been a major employer, providing post-conflict support comparable in size to the Marshall Plan and in nature to the Keynesian development model. It is hard to imagine where those millions would have found employment after the war had labor migration been prevented, and what consequences that might have brought. While the labor migration is not a panacea and involves heavy long-term costs; it was key to redressing social pressure in the most difficult, early years of peace.

Indeed, new sources of income bring more independence and security for the people and may respond to the original grievances. Of course, by end of the war, the grievances had changed. They probably were made of a mixture of predatory crime, grievances inflicted during the war, and group identities, rather than pure political confrontation. Nevertheless, new opportunities help distract people from conflict to caring for one's own well being. Leaders are also likely to focus on post-war economic opportunities, in an effort to take advantage of these before others do. This increases the cost of breaking the stability and makes co-optation of political outliers and spoilers easier.

As noted above, the lack of societal recovery, understood as restoration of rule of law, economic revival and regaining of the lost social capital in conflict-torn societies, is ammunition for spoilers and radicals, people who promulgate violent alternatives to allegedly incompetent political arrangements. Dynamic rehabilitation and employment, on the other hand, can entrench popular support for transition to peace and marginalize spoilers.

Diversified opportunities for education, employment and other services allow people not to depend on the government and to contest governmental power with other groups. It also allows people freedom from dependence on other indivisible resources such as land, which has long been and remains a leading cause of inter-group conflicts within states. Land, for example has been a major source of contention in the border villages in the Fergana valley where Tajik, Uzbek and Kyrgyz communities intersect. Yet in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and especially Tajikistan, fewer and fewer young men are willing to work in agriculture, since better options exist in business and labor market abroad.

In the long-term perspective, more access to skilled work and education is necessary to haul the massive poor sector into the middle class on which democracy depends. While the belief that civil society and democratization prevent violent conflict has spurred many large civil society and democratization projects, research on Tajikistan's civil society reveals a sad reality: The concept of civil society is contained within the small "quasi middle class," while the powerful rich, and poor majority are completely ignorant or disinterested in the concept. Thus, the credibility of democratization projects is questioned, if they only target the small, self-serving middle class, while the majority is either suspicious of its impact or ignorant of the concept.

Finally, and perhaps even more importantly, new opportunities result in intangible change in the social psychology of conflict-affected societies. Among these intangible changes is a sense of hope for the future. Hope for change and mutual trust are fundamental, indispensable elements that transform society from "war-system" to "peace-system." Hope restores trust and respect in dealing with other people. Creating basic social and economic opportunities helps stitch together the gap between the poor and the middle classes, in particular between urban and rural residents, through trade and services. Without hope, there will be efforts to cooperate, to rebuild societies, and no incentives to invest in long-term relations between battered communities.


Based on recent conflicts in Central Asia, this essay tries to show how declining social and economic opportunities either directly caused violent conflicts or triggered mounting grievances. It then proposes that the creation of economic opportunities is vital to prevent the reoccurrence of violence in post-conflict societies for a number of reasons. Opportunities reduce social tensions and restore interdependent relations that help transition to peace. Opportunities also help keep governments and peace deals legitimate and deny massive disenchantment that would allow mobilization for violence.

Creating new sources of income reduces reliance on resources such as land, and water, and reduces strain on the governmental services. In the long term, more economic opportunities help redress grievances of people and create a wider middle class on which democracy can be built. Finally, economic opportunities bring hope and trust in people and discourage violence, emphasizing the prevailing benefits of peace. This said, peace processes must pay more attention to stimulating economic recovery and creating alternative opportunities for key stakeholders. They should also favor policies that increase peoples' abilities to change their lives by their own efforts, as opposed to concentrating peacebuilding efforts mostly on political reconciliation and attainment of certain political standards.

[1] Research by author for graduate thesis work, April-May 2005, Kyrgyzstan. The data about protests were collected from police logbooks, indicated incidence of protestors, approximate number of people and claims.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Uzbekistan: The Andijon Uprising. Update Briefing, 25 May 2005. International Crisis Group report. Click here for more info.

[4] Ibid.


1990: Tajikistan. Massive student and xenophobic violence against Russians and urban residents, originally over low stipends and housing.
1990: Kyrgyzstan. Violent conflict between Kyrgyzs and Uzbeks over land around city of Osh.
1992: Tajikistan. Massive 40-day, two-camp election sit-ins and demonstrations in Dushanbe, eventually resulting in violence and spilling over to full-scale inter-regional civil war.
2005: Kyrgyzstan. Largest election protest brings about regime change in Kyrgyzstan.
2005: Wave of demonstrations breaks out as result of economic policies, resulting in shooting of civilians.

[6] Collier, Paul. Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and their Implications for Policy. World Bank policy research papers. June 2000. A PDF version is available online. Click here for more info. p.6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] IMF study indicates that the numbers vary according to sources and are difficult to estimate, however a range between 400,000 to 800,000 per year were indicated by various sources. Official national data estimates are range from 200,000 to 450,000.

[9] World Bank, Gender Statistics database, 2003 demographic data for Tajikistan. Click here for more info.

[10] In fact, according to IMF data in 2003, GDP was 1.6 billion, which would make remittances account for 20% to upto 50% of GDP.

[11] Kireyev, Alexei. The Macroeconomics of Remittances: The Case of Tajikistan. IMF Working Paper, January 2006. International Monetary Fund.

[12] Safarova, Nigora. Civil Society in Tajikistan: An Insight into the Phantasmagoric Precursor of Democracy and Development. Academic research paper, 2005. Central European University.

[13] Lederach, John Paul. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace Press, 2004. p.84.