Horses graze in a wintry steppe in south-east Kazakhstan. Photograph: Shamil Zhumatov/ Reuters
Most dramatically, the head of Tajikistans Omon riot police Gulmurod Khalimov, rumoured to be a hot-shot sniper and favourite of the chairman, vanished last year and resurfaced in an Isis propaganda video promising to hunt down and kill Americans.
While it is clear that there is a radicalism problem, rights activists say the governments have employed the fight against extremism to go after moderates and objectors. In Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance party, a moderate Islamic force calling for a secular nation with religious liberties, has been hounded into exile. Hundreds of its supporters have been rounded down and jailed.
Shabnam Khudodoydova, a Tajik woman living in Russia, also reported persecution under the guise of a crackdown on extremism. After she began to post in opposition political forums and writing that the Rahmon regime had induced slaves and sheep out of the Tajik people, she noticed she was being followed in St Petersburg, and fled to Belarus. There she was arrested, beaten up in custody by humen she believes were Tajik security agents, and held in jail for several months, before being released and fleeing to Poland.
She afterward detected she had been put on the Interpol watchlist, accused of being a recruiter for Isis. I am not a terrorist, Im not an Islamist, Im actually an atheist. Ive never even believed in God, she said by Skype from Poland.
There is now a chicken and egg situation: the governments of the region claim their repressive policies are a response to the very real threat posed by Isis and other Islamist movements.
Cynics suggest that the suffocating stranglehold on political and religious life leaves no middle ground: for those who want an escape from the confines of the regime, extremism can be the only alternative. When you push out the moderate Islamic alternatives you leave more potential for people to get radicalised, said one western envoy based in the region.
In Kara-Suu, a town not far from Osh on the border with Uzbekistan, the imam of the local mosque, Rashot Kamalov, has been to imprisonment for calling for an Islamic caliphate.
In a grimy teahouse not far from the towns teeming market, Dilyar Jumabayev, a supporter of Kamalov, said the imam had not called for people to go to Syria, but simply preached about current injustices. The region, chiefly made up of ethnic Uzbeks, is poor; on the road from Osh the carcasses of Soviet industrial plants lie derelict and abandoned.
Police keep a close eye on Jumabayev, and during one search of his house, he was beaten and had his front teeth kicked out. He was later sentenced to 10 months in prison for resisting apprehend. What has republic brought us in 25 years? I was never a fan of the Soviet Union but at the least people worked then. Now there is no work, the factories have closed. I am selling everything in my house including the refrigerator so that I can afford medication, he said.
In Osh, lawyer Khusanbay Saliyev is dealing with hundreds of cases for possession of extremist literature, and said he believed about 90% of them to be fabricated by paranoid and avaricious authorities. There is torture and repression, and it has the opposite effect, pushing people into the arms of the radicals, he said.
The totalitarianisms of central Asia are now at a crossroads. Outwardly, they seem more or less stable. Demises of dictators, in Turkmenistan a decade ago, and this year in Uzbekistan, have led not to political change but simply to a new tyrant taking over, in what at least to outside eyes is somewhat smooth procedures.
All the leaders remain adept at playing off major powers for maximum benefit. Of course, when hes speaking to me hell say everything he knows I want to hear, and if hes speaking to the Russians hell tell everything they want to hear, said a western envoy about the president of the country in which he is based.
But across the region, growing populations remain in poverty, and the Russian economic crisis of the past two years has put a huge dent in remittances. Criteria of healthcare and education show little sign of improving, and the systems are too stubborn and entrenched to allow for real reform.
Mausoleums in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Photo: Image Broker/ Rex Features
Even in the best instance scenario, central Asia has very problematic and difficult times ahead. The economics are not working any more, told Mullojanov, the Dushanbe-based analyst.
Seventy years of Soviet rule followed by a one-quarter century of dictatorship have beaten out the impulse to protest from most central Asians. When revolt has erupted, it has either led to new governments in accordance with the status quo, as in Kyrgyzstan, or to violent, ruthless crackdown, as in Uzbekistans Andijan in 2005. Even moderate criticism can lead to jail sentences or worse.
In Kara-Suu, Jumabayev preferred his words carefully, but said the direction of movement was clear: If a civilisational kind doesnt to be implemented by its obligations to the people, then other forms of civilisation will unavoidably develop. We watched it happen with communism, which was overtaken by republic. Now, we are seeing the same thing happen to democracy.