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February 03, 2011

Central Asia on the brink?

Twenty years after emerging from the wreckage of the former Soviet Union, the five countries of Central Asia are grappling with an accelerating collapse of their physical and human infrastructure, threatening dire consequences for their near-term stability, warns a new International Crisis Group report.

"Quietly but steadily, Central Asia's basic human and physical infrastructure - the roads, power plants, hospitals and schools and the last generation of Soviet-trained specialists who have all this running - is disappearing," says the report entitled "Central Asia: Decay and Decline. "Post-independence regimes made little effort to maintain or replace either, and funds allocated for this purpose have largely been eaten up by corruption."

The crisis, the report finds, is most accute in the two poorest countries, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where local experts say that in the next few years there will be no more teachers or doctors. "Experts in both countries are haunted by the increasingly likely prospect of catastrophic systemic collapse, especially in the energy sector," it says.

Things aren't that much better in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, and even Kazakstan, the best-off of the former Soviet Central Asian republics, is being "tested by infrastructure deficiencies, particularly in transportation and training of technical cadre," the report warns.

The bottomline: unless steps are taken by the regimes and their international donors to halt the deterioration, poverty and anti-government anger will deepen, fueling instability and providing Islamic radical groups with "further ammunition against regional leaders."

Central Asia's leaders, especially the aging despots, might want to read the report in light of events in Tunisia and Egypt. It's doubtful, however, that they will.

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"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

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