06/15/2012 11:22 am ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Central Asia: Region in Decline (AUDIO)

The countries of Central Asia are in the midst of a deep crisis. Often overshadowed in international circles by their war-torn neighbor to the south, Afghanistan, most of the Central Asian "Stans" -- Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- are experiencing a slow, painful decline, with their own governments largely to blame. Kazakhstan is in less trouble, but shows little interest in reform or the ability to handle labour unrest or so-far low-key challenges from insurgent groups.

Central Asia provides a textbook example of the damage that endemic corruption does to a country. The education and health systems in places like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, are nearing total collapse. Many teachers leave in the middle of the school year in favor of better-compensated jobs as migrant laborers in Russia. Rates of unemployment are extreme, especially in Tajikistan, where the economy scrapes by on remittances from workers abroad in Russia. Rural areas there are hardest hit -- some might receive just an hour of electricity a day in the winter. Here and elsewhere in the region, the capitals fare better, but only because leaders have learned to prevent angry crowds in the centers of power.

For now, the United States is the most visible external power in Central Asia, with critical supply routes running through the region into and out of Afghanistan in what is called the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). The Pentagon expanded these lines after tensions with Pakistan shut down routes into southern and eastern Afghanistan. But as the United States begins to withdraw from Afghanistan, there will be a window of opportunity for other powers to stretch an arm of influence into Central Asia. Russia, the traditional outside power in the region, would like to maintain what it calls its "privileged relations" in the region. It has neither the money to win over regional leaders, nor the troops to protect them, however, should the need arise.

China, on the other hand, is on the way up, and is likely to be the predominant external force in Central Asia after the U.S. and NATO complete their drawdown. China is likely to establish roots in Central Asia after the U.S. completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled for late 2014. China's interests center on the region's abundant natural resources, in particular oil and gas. And China alone possesses the technical and financial capability to exploit these resources on a large scale. But it may also find itself charged with shoring up the security of some of the most vulnerable Central Asian states.

Beyond corruption, Central Asia's most chronic problem may well be Afghanistan. During the United States' long war in South Asia, Central Asian fighters joined the Taliban insurgency, providing a security reprieve for weak states like Tajikistan. As the war ends, those fighters may return home, with unpredictable but potentially volatile results.

Looking forward, the Chinese government must improve its clumsy and insensitive labor and environmental policies if it wants to stay in Central Asia for the long term. The Chinese may also find themselves pulled into the region's corruption and security concerns -- for instance, some analysts fear that radical Islamist fighters in Afghanistan could spread north, even as far as China's Xinjiang province.

I spoke with Paul Quinn-Judge, Deputy Asia Director for the International Crisis Group, about what to expect in Central Asia in the coming years. Listen to our conversation here.