Optimism vanishing in Central Asia
he West must not help dictators stay in Central Asia

Received via e-mail, March 2001

Richard FRYE
Founder, International Center for Central Asian Studies in Samarkand

Harvard International Review, 10/01/2000

From the outset, I must disclaim any competence as a former Kremlinologist, or indeed as a political analyst of Central Asian affairs. Unlike the American authors of the symposium in the Winter 1999/2000 Harvard International Review, my only claim to an ability to review the pieces is knowledge of the Russian,Taiki and Uzbek languages, as well as many visits to the area since 1955 and residence in Dushanbe,Tajikistan in 1990-1992. So my views are not those of the elites in the region (including visiting foreigners), but of common folk with whom I lived and conversed. Furthermore, being an historian and philologist, I am hardly one to pronounce on US foreign policy or the economic problems of Turkmenistan. Nonetheless, perhaps the views of one who knows and loves the people of Central Asia, from a predominantly Iranian viewpoint, may shed a different light on the area than those represented in the articles.

The first impression one gains from a comparison of the articles in the HIR of 1993 with those in 2000 is the optimism of the former and the dark pessimism of the latter. Furthermore, three of the authors of 1993 were Central Asian and only one in 2000. Nancy Lubin and Shirin Akiner are two returning contributors with interesting developments. In 1993 Lubin then emphasized the need for Americans, who were just entering the area, to focus on the practical issues affecting our own national security, rather than offering benevolent or humanitarian assistance to an exotic, faraway place with little relevance to the United States. By 2000, she is concerned with oil and economic resources in the area. In 1993, Akiner described the beginnings of Islamic parties, and of outside influences such as the Wahhabis and missionaries from Turkey and Pakistan, but in 2000 she becomes more theoretical, analyzing Islam in Central Asia as tripartite-- traditional, government-sponsored, and purist.

It is true that before 1990, knowledge of Islam was minimal in Central Asia, even among the ulama (religious leaders). The Chinese Muslims (Hui or Dungans) were much better informed, many reading difficult Arabic texts or even speaking Arabic although they had never left Gansu or Xinjiang.

Today there are many savants, mystics, and preachers (all Akiner's purists), overshadowing the old traditional Muslims and in a purist fashion decrying the entry of religious leaders into politics, much as the savants of Qum regard the mullahs of Tehran who wield political power but hardly religious authority. Since Central Asian Sunni Islam does not have the hierarchy of Shiite Islam, the separation of church and state will not be threatened in Central Asia. But we are living in a new world, and even though there is little danger of a purely religious establishment taking over the state as in Iran, there is always a great danger of fanatics using religion to promote their own political aims.

An attempt to overthrow a secular government and to establish a theocracy based on medieval Islamic laws is hardly possible in Central Asia when even in Iran it is a failure.The threat of Islam in Central Asia, in my opinion, is greatly overblown by the autocratic governments. Religion has always been used by politicians to further their own aims. Politically or terroristically speaking, what will Islamic extremists everywhere do if the Israeli-Palestinian problems are resolved and peace and stability is established there?

Let us leave religion and turn to economics and international relations, the main thrust of the articles. Boris Rumer gives a grim picture of economic stagnation and the decline of living standards in Central Asia. He may attach too much importance to the future of two blocs of countries in the former Soviet Union, one comprising Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and the other Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Are these two blocs really going to define the contours of the future political configuration in the post-Soviet space? I suspect that in the "post-Soviet space," integration and secession of different blocs is more likely in the future, and that even here globalization will change our present world.

In Martha Olcott's piece on "national consolidation," she writes that during the war in Tajikistan,Tajik leaders attempted to minimize the political role of ethnic Uzbeks from northern Tajikistan's Khojand province. The Uzbeks, however, are overwhelmingly from southwest Tajikistan and not from the north. It was Tajiks from Khojand being marginalized.At the time of the Tajik civil war it was not Uzbeks and Tajiks displaced by Stalin, but the Tajiks from Garm and the vicinity who were later moved to Kurgan Tiube where manpower was needed. Olcott is certainly correct to say that the aspirations of the people of Central Asia have not been heard, but let us hope they will be heard in the years to come.

John Schoeberlein stresses the inability of Central Asian factories to function properly, now that they are cut off from suppliers from other parts of the former USSR. As a case in point, the huge aluminum plant in Tursunzade,Tajikistan was unable to function because of inability to secure parts and equipment made elsewhere. It was Stalin's plan to concentrate specialties in disparate parts of his empire to force interdependence, and this has greatly harmed the newly independent states. Was it solely the devaluation and change in Russian currency that forced the Central Asian states to invent their own currencies, only valid within their own national frontiers? Already in 1992, I heard of plans to establish national currencies as a sign of real independence. Schoeberlein notes that Tajik citizens travelling in Uzbekistan are subject to predation by local Uzbek authorities. It should be mentioned, however, that it is almost impossible for Tajiks in the south to leave by way of Termez, since visas are required and they cannot obtain visas. Uzbeks living in Tajikistan who wish to travel in Uzbekistan, however, do not have the same problems as Tajiks. Furthermore, many Uzbeks in the government in Tashkent want to recover Tajikistan, which Stalin removed from Uzbekistan in 1929.

Turkey formerly was thought to be the bridge between the West and Central Asia, but in 2000 the influence of Turkey has declined in every sphere. The great threat of Iran to Central Asia, which is brought up by Ariel Cohen in his article on the Silk Road, seems to be a favorite subject of those within the Beltway. But the reality is that such a threat is improbable. Are strategic interests and allies, the chess pieces of politicians involved with international affairs, the main components of future policy? If this is the case, why worry about internal conditions in Central Asia? Allies can change, but even with those the United States now has, is Turkey's treatment of the Kurds, or Saudi Arabia's of women, worthy of concern on our part? Maybe not in the past, but economic interests will become more important in the future, and they do bear more relevance to internal affairs than the game of international political chess.

The last word comes from Akezhan Kazhegeldin, former prime minister of Kazakhstan, who describes how democratic movements were systematically undermined by all Central Asian leaders, who proclaimed loudly their allegiance to democracy for foreign ears. As I frequently have said, he also notes that frustrated foreign businessmen in Central Asia forget that local entrepreneurs suffer even more. He sums up the matter succinctly: the West must not help dictators stay in Central Asia.

Received via e-mail, March 2001