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Whose Rules Rule? Everyday Border Conflicts in Central Asia

"Understanding local everyday conflicts—and how people solve problems, build networks, and move toward a common goal—is crucial to sustainable development," stated Kathleen Kuehnast, consulting social scientist at The World Bank and former Title VIII-supported research scholar at the Kennan Institute. "We know that everyday conflicts greatly disrupt livelihoods, assets, and resources, and destabilize community relationships," she said. Speaking at a 27 November 2006 lecture at the Kennan Institute, Kuehnast and Nora Dudwick, social development advisor at The World Bank and former Title VIII-supported research scholar at the Kennan Institute, reported on the findings of a recent regional study highlighting the key issues that drive local-level conflicts in Central Asia.

According to Kuehnast, much of the recent research on the potential for conflict in Central Asia has focused primarily on growing tensions between ethnic groups over limited natural resources, particularly access to land and water. The five-year civil war that occurred in Tajikistan during the mid-1990s, however, illustrates that local conflicts—even among groups with similar ethnic and religious backgrounds—can become explosive and quickly spill over into widespread violence and civil war.

Over the last five years, according to Kuehnast, The World Bank has placed greater emphasis on bottom-up development assistance targeting lending interventions and grants to local communities. The Bank is therefore interested in learning whether countries at risk for conflict can sustain community-driven development efforts, which require community members to manage their own development interventions and solve local problems. The Bank commissioned a study on local level conflict in Central Asia that drew on 52 case studies from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. According to the conclusions presented by the authors at the talk, which do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bank, the study concludes that a major contributor to local conflict is weak governance, especially at the local level. In Central Asia, weak governance manifests itself as the absence of an agreed upon set of rules and laws that are understood and enforced by all the various actors. The uncertainty about "whose rules rule" in daily human interactions in Central Asia has increased the cost of economic transactions, lowered overall human security in the region, deepened the sense of inequality—especially among poor and marginalized residents—and, as a result, has increased everyday conflict.

This is particularly manifested at the borders of the five Central Asian countries, said Kuehnast. The countries are highly interdependent in terms of networks, trade, social ties, and natural resource use. Prior to the formation of the Soviet Union, access to agricultural resources, pasture, and water were predominantly regulated by extended kinship groups. During the Soviet period, Central Asia was carved into five republics and borders were "gerrymandered" to divide ethnic groups and resources. Until 1991, the republics functioned as part of a single economic unit, the Soviet state. In the years since independence, corruption, crime, and arbitrary bureaucratic power have made life difficult for local populations once accustomed to moving freely across what are now guarded international borders.

Water allocation is an especially sensitive issue between the Central Asian countries, stated Dudwick. In Soviet times, the region had a unified water management system that irrigated a large agricultural area. "Today," said Dudwick, "instead of a unified system, water management is carried out by five countries with major problems of collaboration and cooperation." The upstream nations, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, have the ability to manipulate water flows downstream, and often do. At the local level, she continued, "local officials are simply not empowered to do much to solve problems or resolve disputes. They may have certain responsibilities, but do not have the resources to repair infrastructure, or the authority to change the rules." As a result, warned Dudwick, these lingering water conflicts "may be reinterpreted as ethnic conflict[s], which then pull other conflicts into it and can lead to escalation."

Which approaches to conflict resolution are working on the ground? Dudwick noted that there are traditional leaders in these societies, from the aksakal councils of elders in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to religious leaders throughout the region. These traditional leaders can mediate disputes on a daily basis, but they have no authority to change the rules of the game. Furthermore, Dudwick said, "traditional" does not necessarily mean fair or inclusive. These leaders can be members of the elite and generally have a strong gender bias. Donor assistance sometimes plays a positive role by improving infrastructure or similar efforts, Dudwick noted.

However, development aid by itself is not the answer, the speakers cautioned. "Development always affects power relations and access to resources," according to Dudwick. Changing these relations triggers conflicts ranging from civic contestation to more extreme conflicts. "Fair and effective local level conflict management can therefore be seen in itself as an important development outcome," concluded Dudwick.


About the Author

F. Joseph Dresen

F. Joseph Dresen

Senior Program Associate
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more