In May 2022, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, Donald Lu, traveled to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan. Yet, aside from a short stint by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, very few senior US officials stepped foot in the region or paid attention to “local drivers and motivations.” Each Central Asian state achieved independent diplomatic relations since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the region continues to be overshadowed by Moscow and Beijing, both militarily and economically.
In the past few years, Turkey advocated the Organization of Turkic States (formerly the Turkic Council) play a more prominent role. If successful, Ankara’s influence could either redirect, undermine, or strengthen local leadership from C5 nations, including Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev of Kazakhstan recently offered bold, public rebukes of Russian imperialism and refuted President Vladimir Putin’s overture that Kazakhstan is “historical Russia.” In addition to sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine, Tokayev refuses to recognize the independence of Luhansk and Donetsk, which pairs with domestic support for reduced Russian influence.
Thankfully, events in the last few months indicate a renewed US interest in the region. In March 2022, CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie testified in March 2022 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he emphasized new opportunities for cooperation with Central Asian countries and Pakistan. He explained that “partners in Central Asia value several US security cooperation activities, including support for border security activities, basic peacekeeping skills development, and Foreign Military Sales/Foreign Military Financing.” In June, USCENTCOM’s Gen. Erik Kurilla visited Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
The United States is keen to amplify intelligence and security collaboration with Central Asian states, which is long overdue, considering various forms of instability emerging in and around the Afghanistan border since the US withdrawal.
EFFECTS OF CSTO TROOP DEPLOYMENT
On Jan.6, 2022, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) invoked Article IV for the first time in history, deploying troops to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to quell civil unrest. Despite Kazakhstan’s status as one of the most democratically-minded states in the region, the protests were in response to decades of corruption and inequality under the Nazarbayev family. As a result, over 200 people died, and many more were arrested or detained without trial and subjected to abuse by the hands of state police. While the CSTO deployment was shocking and unprecedented, the misuse of surveillance technology in this space was writing on the wall for those tracking patterns of unlawful detention, protest movements, and crackdowns on activism, assembly, and speech.
What these developments have in common is the potential for authoritarian surveillance to proliferate as a “catch-all” mitigation technique, especially in the absence of a strong civil society and legal institutions.
President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev called for a Constitutional Referendum in June to increase local leadership and representation. On May 16, 2022, CSTO leaders met in Moscow to celebrate its 30th anniversary. However, the efficacy and allegiance to these Russian-influenced organizations may change. A renewed opposition, led by Bolat Abilov, the founding member of the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (an alliance among businessmen and politicians), calls for Kazakhstan to leave the Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO. Western-backed weapon sales and donations to Ukraine proliferate by the day, and leaders in the region are actively reconsidering their loyalties to their northern neighbor.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine accelerated the pace of these changing dynamics in the region. While removed from the mainstream policy and media discourse (which is fixated on NATO enlargement via Finland and Sweden and Turkey’s posturing over the Kurdish YPG), the lack of safeguards and proliferation of illiberal norms regarding technology from within Central Asia is a major international security concern. During “Bloody January (Қанды қаңтар)” — theterm used to describe the political protests earlier this year — “terrorism” was insufficiently cited as an excuse to cut internet access and weaponize surveillance technologies in an already securitized nation where “smart” technology from China has been proliferating for years.
Virtual private networks (VPNs) were pivotal in allowing a handful of voices in Kazakhstan to communicate with each other and the outside world, bypassing surveillance from SIM card certificates. This directly correlates to how the information and intelligence war is being fought in Ukraine, Belarus, and Eastern Europe. The stifling of dissent and information flow in this space will remain a serious concern for the local population and the international intelligence community.
EMERGING SECURITY AND TECHNOLOGY CONCERNS
How security, technology, and democracy intertwine in this part of the world is unique and transforming rapidly. The international community should expect the increased proliferation of Turkish and Chinese technologies in Central Asia in response to increased ISIS-Khorasan and Taliban activity. Turkish ANKA drones will now be manufactured in Kazakhstan. Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 was instrumental in offsetting Russia’s military influence in Nagorno-Karabakh and has been mobilized by the NATO member to aid the Ukrainian war effort. This is the first time Turkish drone technology is being manufactured outside the country and is no small development. Ankara has also voiced opposition to Sweden’s ascendancy into NATO, which is a reminder that increased influence may have negative implications for minority groups, such as Armenians and the Kurds.
In addition, to alleviate energy shortages (which have been worsened by a “surge” in illegal cryptocurrency mining spilling into Kazakhstan from China), Kazakhstan is considering nuclear power. This is despite the painful legacy of Soviet nuclear testing, repeated promises to avoid nuclear development, and ongoing international cleanup initiatives by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. The procurement strategy for raw and spent fissile material (rods) through Russian and Chinese beneficiaries is now under active reconsideration.
Even with the help of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors and the LEU bank effectively monitoring this activity in a post-SWIFT market will be incredibly difficult, as will be preventing ransomware and malware attacks. Blockchain technology may be one option for mitigation. However, given the instability of Kazakhstan’s leadership and the ongoing issues with migration, remittance dependency, and militant activity, some of this material may fall into the wrong hands if safeguarded improperly or without guidance from outside organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency or European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Moreover, corruption remains high, and Kazakhstan is not a member of the Financial Action Task Force, which fosters cryptocurrency-centric information sharing, but it is a member of the Eurasian Group.
What these developments have in common is the potential for authoritarian surveillance to proliferate as a “catch-all” mitigation technique, especially in the absence of strong civil society and legal institutions. Moreover, as the threat of militant activity in the region grows, there is serious concern the atrocities directed at Uyghurs (and some ethnic Kazakhs) will witness a spillover effect into Central Asia and elsewhere. Surveillance technology may be the connective tissue between seemingly disparate security concerns in the region and globally. It can be beneficial for combatting illicit trade, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and human trafficking, but its misuse is rightfully alarming.
Proactive, protective measures need to be taken now, not later. Strategies should be discussed routinely, in greater depth, and by a broad range of experts in civil society and government to establish rapport, trust, and mutual agreement over responses to shared problems. Transparency and information sharing in this space will be essential, as will be a fundamentally increased understanding of Central Asia’s local politics, history, and technology.
Nicole (Cole) Anselmo currently works in Washington, DC; her interests are in human rights, law, armed conflict, Russia, Central Asia, Finland, CVE, CSS, nuclear nonproliferation, and cybersecurity. This work is an expansion of her thesis for the Cambridge Security Initiative’s International Security and Intelligence Program, a joint venture with the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London (@ISICambridge). Nicole was twice awarded a US Fulbright Grant to Almaty, Kazakhstan, but deferred due to COVID-19.