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Mainstream, Vol XLIX, No 16, April 9, 2011

Independent Central Asia beyond a “New Great Game”

Thursday 14 April 2011


by Ajay Patnaik

Inside Central Asia—A Political and Cultural History of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey and Iran by Dilip Hiro; Harper Collins Publishers India, New Delhi; 2010; pages 448; Price: Rs 599.

Dillip Hiro’s latest book Inside Central Asia is, as the cover suggests, a political and cultural history of not just five former Soviet Central Asian republics but also that of two extended cultural neighbours—Turkey and Iran. There could be some relevance in including the latter two countries in a book that focuses on Central Asia. It would be interesting to see how much of influence these two countries have had on the developments of the Central Asian states in the last two decades, especially as there was speculation in the initial years of independence that the future course of the Central Asian states would be determined by the diverse pulls of a secular-democratic Turkey and Islamic Iran. There was talk that the Central Asian countries would emulate or be influenced by the Turkish and/or Iranian models.

Turkey, supposed to be a beacon for the Central Asian states, has been torn between the militant secularists and Islamists. Slowly but steadily, as Hiro’s book narrates, Turkey has been witnessing the erosion of the secularist space. The election of 2002 brought a moderate Islamic party to power with a clear mandate. The Kemalist legacy has been strongly challenged by the new political dispensation, symbolised by the lifting of the ban on headscarves in educational institutions. The tussle between the secular pillars and Islamists also weakened the democratic institutions. Alarmed at the use of democracy by the Islamists to reach their goals and using their position in power to sabotage their secular principles of the Constitution, the Army has intervened from time to time and in the process weakened the democratic institutions. The power of the military and the role of the judiciary remain a concern, as was expressed in a European Union annual report cited by Hiro. In fact, Turkey’s experience would make the Central Asian leaders worry about democracy being used by the Islamists to gain power. Nor do the Central Asian states have the tradition and practice of the Army being an institution to intervene in the political process to protect secular values.

Iran, an Islamic state that strove to see the victory of the Afghan mujahideen replicated in Central Asia, has turned into a pragmatic power keen on expanding its economic and cultural influence in the region. Iran’s earlier zeal to export its brand of radical Islam to this region was moderated following the Taliban victory in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. Yet, there is a trust deficit in some states that has hampered Iran’s strategic aspirations in the region. Pragmatism also guides the Central Asian states, which do not see Iran as a role model but a country that can give access to warm waters and cooperate in the energy and other economic sectors. Iran’s anti-Taliban position and its growing ties with Turkey makes it a more acceptable partner in business terms. But its model of integration of state and religion would be an anathema to the current Central Asian leadership.

The Central Asian states have followed their own paths both in economic and political terms. From gradualist Uzbekistan to fast-tracked Kazakhstan, all the countries have followed different paths for transition to the market, trade liberalisation and privatisation. Even in terms of political orientation, there are different patterns visible—authoritarian, semi-authoritarian to proto-democratic political systems. Uzbekistan, like the rest of Central Asia, inherited a Soviet-era communist leadership at the helm that usurped the nationalist anti-Moscow sentiments to continue at the top at the time of independence. However, the biggest challenge to the leadership in Uzbekistan comes not from the nationalist forces but from the radical religious forces. The nation-building process has been based on emphasis on the titular nation’s identity and culture through such steps as revival of historical figures such as Amir Timur, and institutiona-lisation of the traditional way of life through mohalla councils.

According to Hiro, Uzbekistan has used terrorist bombings in the United States, Afghanistan and East Africa in 1993, 1996, 1998 and 2001 as incidents that confirm its emphasis on stability vis-a-vis democracy. The bombings in the capital Tashkent in 1999, aimed at the President and his Cabinet members, pushed Uzbekistan to go overboard against the religious radicals and adopt a repressive attitude. However, it was not its secular credentials or its strong actions against the radical elements that made Uzbekistan a strong partner of the United States in the region. This was prompted more by geopolitical considerations than anything else. Uzbekistan’s withdrawal from the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty in 1999 symbolised a shift in the geopolitics of the region. The loss for Russia implied a huge gain for the United States that reached its peak when Uzbekistan offered a military base to the United States.

Contrary to the views of those who speak of a “New Great Game”, the Uzbek example shows that the Central Asian states have utilised multiple engagements with external powers to advance their interests. Instead of being pawns in any ‘Grand Chess Board’, the states have retained their autonomy to choose their strategic partners. After the Andizhan events in 2005, when the state acted with force against the radical elements, the US made serious efforts to corner the Uzbek leadership and pressurise it by mobilising international opinion. The closure of the US base in Uzbekistan witnessed another geopolitical shift that brought Russia back to the region as a leading strategic partner. Uzbekistan joined the Russia-led regional organisations like the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Eurasian Economic Community and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Even China has made strong economic gains following strains in relations with the West. As the book rightly underlines, Karimov has skillfully continued as the leader by adopting a combination of policies that include gradualist reforms towards a market economy, changing strategic international partners to suit his interests, the emphasis on secular statehood and stability, and strong control of the civil society.

Somewhat like Uzbekistan, though more cautious, Turkmenistan has been quite slow in introducing liberalisation and privatisation. Its energy wealth and a smaller population have allowed the state to provide a decent living standard to its population that has served to legitimise the most authoritarian government in Central Asia. With a loyal Opposition, controlled press and “official” Islam, its first President Niyazov went onto build a personality cult far exceeding that under Stalin. Projecting himself as the temporal and spiritual leader of the Turkmen, Niyazov assumed the title Turkmenbashi (First among the Turkmen). Its energy wealth also allowed Turkmenistan to adopt a policy of neutrality that has been practised with great deftness. While Russia remains the major partner, the US and other countries have been allowed to play a role in that sector, and even the Taliban-led Afghanistan was not a pariah so far as a proposed pipeline to Pakistan through Afghanistan was concerned. Writing a 400-page book, Ruhnama, which according to Dillip Hiro is “a hodgepodge of revisionist history, pedantic moralising, petty philosophising and unsubstantiated claims”, Niyazov went on to promote Turkmen culture with a vengeance, banning teaching of foreign languages and making knowledge of Ruhnama compulsory for educational establishments and its dissemination in the state-run media. Declaring himself President for life, Niyazov went on to even change the names of days and months (for example, January was named Turkmenbashi and Monday was named Bash Gun or Beginning Day). Even the month of April was named after his mother and became Gurbansoltan Eje.

Despite this personality cult and continuation of the command type of economy, Turkmenistan has been courted by the West not just due to its energy resources but also due to its proximity to Afghanistan. By allowing the United States overflight rights through its airspace, limited landing rights and the use of transit routes for food and other supplies to post-Taliban Afghanistan, Turkmenistan was able get massive military aid, which went up from a meagre $ 600,000 a year during the Clinton years to $ 19.2 million in 2003. The alliance with Washington paid dividends. As Hiro underlines, like his fellow dictator Karimov, Niyazov used the security alliance with Washington to crush any sign of serious dissent.

Both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have used language and ethnicity to bolster their national credentials and prop up their authoritarian rule by targeting the imaginary “others”. Russian language has been targeted and so also minorities like Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Uzbeks in Turkmenistan. The death of Niyazov has brought a change in leadership. But there is more continuity than change. While foreign language teaching has been restored and so has been the eleven-year compulsory schooling, the system still remains most authoritarian in Central Asia. Russia remains the strongest economic partner of Turkmenistan.

The book suggests that Kazakhstan followed a similar trajectory of nation-building as other Central Asian states since independence. State-led nationalising measures like making Kazakh the state language, increasing domination of Kazakhs in the political, economic and adminis-trative spheres, pauperisation of the Slav-controlled enterprises and collective farms in the north to facilitate their privatisation by the Kazakhs, manipulation of general elections to secure a higher share for Kazakhs at the cost of Russians etc. The denial of dual citizenship to Russians was followed by shifting the capital from Almaty to the Russian-dominated northern city of Astana as a symbol of the Kazakh grip over the traditional Slav settled areas. At the same time, like other states of the region, there is a hardline approach towards nationalist and religious parties that can destabilise relations between communities living there. It has promoted the Yasawi Sufi order to present a moderate face of Islam in the country. Kazakhstan, like Uzbekistan, is likely to have the incumbent President serve for life through such methods as constitutional amendments or referendums that would remove any restriction on their tenure.

However, unlike its neighbour Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan has not shifted from one geopolitical extreme to another. Kazakhstan also considers itself as a bridge between Europe and Asia. It has had strong relations with all the major powers. If the human rights issue in the case of Uzbekistan is a contentious one inhibiting relations with the West, corruption has been an issue that from time to time has soured Kazakhstan’s relations with the West. However, Kazakhstan has used its energy resources to overcome these constraints and develop a strong partnership with the United States, Russia and China. The multi-vector nature of Kazakhstan’s foreign policy comes out from the narrative in Hiro’s book. While Kazakhstan endorsed the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline as an alternative bypassing Russia and China, the bulk of Kazakh oil nevertheless passes through Russian pipelines and there is one pipeline taking oil to China.

Kyrgyzstan, like its neighbour Kazakhstan, had a large minority population which is one of the reasons for the eruption of inter-ethnic tensions from time to time. A major riot took place between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek communities in the south of the country in 1990 and there is simmering tension that has continued since then. President Akaev, who was the only one not to be a Communist Party leader of the republic, created a semblance of liberalism in political and economic spheres. In fact, it was in the economic sphere that most liberal reforms were carried out. Depending on subsidies from Moscow even after independence and prompted by Russian President Yeltsin, Akaev freed price controls leading to hyper-inflation. According to Hiro, Kyrgyz authorities tried to take public attention away from economic downturn by focusing on nation-building. The issue of language and mythological heroism of Manas were harnessed to the cause of nationalism promoted by the state. The demands for dual citizenship by Russians and Uzbeks were turned down and a new national currency was introduced like in other countries of Central Asia.
Nevertheless, Kyrgyzstan like other countries in the region also controlled the growth of nationalist or radical religious movements. Even the state-led nationalising efforts were moderated later through measures to reassure the Russian minority like the opening of new orthodox churches in the north, allowing the use of the Russian language for official purposes and encouraging Russian-language publications and TV channels.

Being the most liberal and market-friendly country, Kyrgyzstan received a lot of Western assistance and funding from international financial institutions. The early liberal trends proved to be deceptive and Akaev, like the rest of his counterparts in Central Asia, resorted to authoritarian rule. Kyrgyzstan’s leader and his immediate family were mired in corruption. If the energy wealth was the source of corruption in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan’s source was the gold industry.

One major threat that Kyrgyzstan faces is from the radical Islamic forces, who in 1999 and again in 2000 took hostages in the mountainous Batken district in Osh province. Akaev used both the language issue and threat from radical Islamic forces to consolidate his position. While the issue of security and stability was utilised to the hilt, language efficiency was employed as a tool to prevent his rival, Felix Kulov, to emerge as a candidate for the presidential poll against Akaev.

9/11 offered a great opportunity for Akaev to cement his ties with major powers and derive greater legitimacy to his semi-authoritarian rule. While offering the US an air-base facility at Manas airport, he engaged Russia for domestic security with the involvement of some high-level Russian internal security officials. Yet, the involvement of Russia could not save Akaev in 2005, when the so-called “Tulip Revolution” swept him out of power. The popular protests that marked the “coloured revolution” was, according to Dillip Hiro, a result of huge indebtedness, continued weakness of the local economy and widespread electoral malpractices that put into question the parliamentary elections of February 2005 in the eyes of the population. Hiro also discusses the role of Western NGOs like the Freedom House and the American embassy in Bishkek. The change did nothing to alter the authoritarian course that Kyrgyzstan had been taking of late. Neither did the promised constitutional reforms materialise nor did the new administration meet the expectation to eradicate corruption. With a loyal pro-presidential party that won parliamentary majority in the December 2007 elections, Bakiev managed to even add legislative power to his executive authority.

The “Coloured Revolution” did not spread to other parts of Central Asia from Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan, like the rest, did not witness a “Tulip Revolution” though it had elections around the same time as Kyzgyzstan in February 2005. Its policy of accommodating moderate Islamic groups and a strong presidency survived the scare following a series of “coloured revolutions” in the post-Soviet space. Like its neighbour Uzbekistan, Tajikistan is very hard on radical Islamic groups and has managed to stem the spread of mosques and religious educational institutions. The government is allegedly wallowing in corruption. In addition, as a transit route of Afghan heroin, the country is more prone to the influence of drug money in the administrative structures and economy.

The ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and the change of government in Afghanistan helped create greater cooperation with the West. By providing overflight rights and even airbase facilities, Tajikistan has gained financially and in terms of legitimacy for the leadership. Along with strong Russian engagement, Western help allowed Tajikistan’s economy to improve. However, as we know subsequently, this was a short-term development Tajikistan’s economy is dependent on money sent by the labour migrants to Russia, most of whom are illegal. Poverty-induced migration and discontent have been growing. Earlier the government tried to deflect attention by raising nationalist issues like the status of Samarkand and Bukhara, the Afghan Tajiks’ suffering under the Taliban, glorification of the Aryan, Zoroastrian and Samoni legacies. These may no longer be effective; that is why, like most other states in the region, Tajikistan has resorted to more and more authoritarian practices. The post-civil war arrangement notwithstanding, the regime tries to subvert the opposition space in every possible way.

On the whole the book by Dillip Hiro captures the developments in Central Asia that followed the Soviet disintegration. Despite the sketchy treatment of many themes and empirical details the book confirms to what this reviewer believes. The Central Asian states have followed their own path and are not pawns in any “New Great Game”. The natural resources and strategic significance of the region for many external powers enable the Central Asian states to have greater leverage while dealing with major powers. This helps the regimes in gaining legitimacy and financial resources.

Though some developments like the ouster of the “post-Tulip Revolution” leadership in Kyrgyzstan have taken place since the book came out, the basic nature of developments in the region have not changed much. Most of the regimes have been able to stop the tide of popular discontent by authoritarian practices. In a region troubled by the growth of radical Islam and international terrorism, harsh and repressive measures against religious and nationalist groups have deflected criticism on democracy, human rights and corruption counts. One would partly agree with the conclusion of Hiro that the rhetorical commitment to the market economy and multi-party system has been under Western pressure and in the process has “inadvertently made redundant the establi-shment of a party genuinely advocating free enterprise and liberal democracy”. The result, according to Hiro, was that ethnic nationalism and religious fundamentalism filled the vacuum. It is debatable how much of this was the result of the vacuum and how much of it was born out of an exaggerated fear created to strengthen the continuity of the regimes and their repressive actions. Also, in some cases the danger could not be overstated.

The book makes interesting reading with some details on intrigues at the highest political level in the Soviet and post-Soviet period. Some insights are presented on the influence of family members of the ruling leadership, scandals surrounding some of them and the shifting balance of forces within the ruling elite. Even for researchers interested in Central Asia, the book is useful with its wealth of source materials.

The reviewer is a Professor, Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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