31 May 2009

Steppe it Up!

  • Dilip Hiro. Inside Central Asia. Overlook. May 2009.

November in Astana—Kazakhstan’s new marble and glass capital in the middle of the empty steppe—is blisteringly cold, and distractions from the harsh wind that whips across the desolate landscape are welcome. Standing outside of the airport one evening, I shared a beer and cigarette with a young man from the south of Kazakhstan, on the lengthy way to Moscow. He noticed my beard, and smiling, asked—“nu, namaz chitaesh?” Did I pray?  This was a perfectly serious question and one I found my facial hair elicited often enough throughout Central Asia. It turned out that this young man had just been accepted been to university, and once I explained that no, I wasn’t religious—nor even a Muslim—we talked for a while about adapting to foreign countries and homesickness. He showed me a Koran he had taken with him, worried about the influences he would meet in Russia.

Islam in Central Asia can vary greatly in both intensity and form of belief.  Today, Central Asians—Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks—overwhelmingly self-identify as Muslims. Mosques dot the map from the wastes of the Kara-Kum in Turkmenistan to downtown Dushanbe, Tajikistan, where the crowds from Friday prayers clog the main thoroughfare. The region boasts the birthplace of the world’s major Sufi orders and was once home to Islamic empires that brought the traditional Middle Eastern seats of power to their knees. It is also a place where mullahs are approached to tell fortunes and  pilgrimages are made to a sacred cave on the Uzbek-Turkmen border, where young women, pleading for fertility, attach strips of cloth to clay and throw them to catch on the cave’s ceiling.

In many forms, Islam is important to understanding Central Asia’s development in the post Soviet period, and Hiro makes a valiant effort to bring it to the forefront. Hiro—whose writing has, since the 1970s, largely focused on the broader Muslim world—also includes two countries, Turkey and Iran, generally understood to fall outside the boundaries of Central Asia. This seems reasonable: Turkic and Persian cultural and imperial influences were, until the Tsarist colonization in the mid-to-late 19th century, the dominant external forces in Central Asia, and as Hiro notes, “in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet collapse, a debate raged whether the freshly independent Muslim-majority Central Asian states would follow the model of secular, pro-Western Turkey or the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

This is a debate that has been repeated—by Western commentators and Central Asian leaders alike—over the past two decades. Tajikistan’s civil war was regarded as an incursion of radical Islam to the region, if not, given its geographic and linguistic ties, a sign of encroaching Iranian and Afghani influence. Islam Karimov, the steadfastly secular president of Uzbekistan, found this reason enough to conduct bombing raids in Tajikistan during the height of conflict (he glowed with self-justification when the US came around to the threat of Islamic terrorism that he had been complaining about for years prior to September 11, 2001). The respective governments of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, while focusing on developing economic and structural ties with both Turkey and Iran, nonetheless find equivalent cause to persecute any dissidence on similar fears of religious radicalism.

Yet it is neither Iran nor Turkey that dominates Inside Central Asia, nor the region itself, but rather Russia and its more than one-hundred twenty-five years of Imperial and Soviet colonization and control.  Hiro’s account provides a fast-moving and well-sourced genealogy of the Central Asian republics’ political and economic trajectories, focusing on the post-Stalinist period up to the present day.  It is unlikely that more comprehensive analysis of this period in Central Asia has been written, and it serves as a valuable update to Hiro’s earlier Between Marx and Muhammad: the Changing Face of Central Asia (HarperCollins, 1995). It quickly becomes clear moreover, that much as in his previous work, Hiro rejects the supposed choice between the Turkish and Iranian models—especially given the ascendancy of the openly Islamic, if not Islamist, Justice and Development Party in Turkey and the elevation of Abdullah Gul to the presidency, which, Hiro says, broke “the secular establishment’s eighty-four year grip on power.” If there is a choice facing Central Asia, it may be which of two histories to return to: pre-Soviet Islam or the authoritarianism bequeathed to the republics by the Soviets, and under which they lived for the greater part of a century.

By the late 1950s, Moscow had generally chosen to take a quietest approach to Central Asia.  The mosque closures that had started in the 1920s continued, but with much less vigor, and efforts to undermine established tribal stratification faded.  Other than Khrushschev’s Virgin Lands drive to populate and farm the north of Kazakhstan, the Politburo tended to allow local communist parties to rule the constituent republics with little outside control. Under Brezhnev, who himself had risen through the ranks in Kazakhstan, the hands-off trend only strengthened, allowing favorites such as Sharaf Rashidov to rule as they wished while embezzling billions of rubles. In a ninth grade textbook, printed right before the fall of the Soviet Union, I once read a passage describing the relationship between the different Soviet republics. Central Asia was described as the source of cotton, and melons, and various heavy metals. This does appear to have been the principal Soviet perspective: as long as Central Asia provided the quotas demanded by the Central Planning Commission in Moscow—or claimed to do so—then it was better not to ask questions.

Melons are still shipped to Russia from Central Asia (there’s even an official “melon limit” on Turkmen Airlines) but after Andropov became premier in 1982 questions did start to be asked. The resulting shakeup in the Central Asian party structure set up the current political situation: two out of the five current rulers of Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan’s Karimov) are still of the last Communist Party leaders installed under Gorbachev. In 1991, all five countries were ruled by various reincarnations of the Communist Party chinovniki who had previously held power, and while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan found their political structures shaken to one degree or another, Saparmyrat Niyazov of Turkmenistan managed to hang on until his death in 2006.

Moscow found its direct influence flag even before the actual fall of the Soviet Union when its attempt to replace the long-serving Dinmuhamad Kunayev, First Secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan, with an ethnic Russian born nowhere near Kazakhstan was followed by nearly three years of sometimes violent protests. This led ultimately to the succession, in 1989, of Nazerbayev, a former Kunayev protégé, and more importantly, a Kazakh. Yet even as the Russian Federation’s international influence waned, it has retained deep political and economic ties to the region. Its troops, under the umbrella of the Commonwealth of Independent States, remain stationed in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan; it continues to employ the Kazakh Baikonur launch pad for satellite and International Space Station launchings; Gazprom’s pipeline monopoly has only in the past few years begun to been circumvented, and bilateral trade and investment between Russia and its former Central Asian client states show few signs of abating or slacking. This is not to mention military intervention. “The external forces backing the pro-Nabiyev [i.e. former Communist] side—Uzbekistan actively and Russia tacitly—were far more powerful than a fractured Afghanistan and distant Iran,” Hiro writes, in reference to the Tajik civil war. This may serve to sum up the overall situation in post-Soviet Central Asia, in which Russia continues to assert its authority against powers, such as the US, that attempt to influence politics in republics far from their traditional spheres of influence. President Bakiyev of Kyrgyzstan, after all, demanded the closure of the US air force base in Bishkek on the same day that Dmitri Medvedev pledged nearly $2 billion in loans, aid, and debt forgiveness to the mountainous republic.

In undermining the misleading division of Central Asia between the supposed Turkish and Iranian models, and in explicating Russia’s former and current power in the region, Hiro further develops the pole opposing Islamism—militantly secular authoritarianism.  This is not purely theoretical: Hiro points to Uzbekistan as a country currently embroiled in a conflict between the two extremes.  The most populous country in Central Asia, with significant diaspora populations in the others, Uzbekistan carries significant weight in the region. It is also a country with a particularly authoritarian regime, and one that has been in conflict for the last decade with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), a terrorist organization variously based out of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, and with loyalties that have shifted from Tajikistan’s Islamic Revolutionary Party (IRP) to the Taliban to the Northern Alliance. Hiro goes as far as to predict that “the political future of Central Asia will basically revolve around what happens in Uzbekistan.”


A month after I left Turkmenistan, in September 2008, Turkmen security forces stormed a warehouse on the outskirts of Ashgabat. The government offered little in the way of official explanation, and accounts of the event varied radically. Residents of Ashgabat reported an earlier and more tightly enforced curfew, loudly reverberating explosions over a twelve hour period, and tanks patrolling the streets. It was rumored that the Turkmen government had called in Russian CIS forces to assist in the operation; statements were issued implicating drug traffickers, opposition politicians, or religious extremists. In a country bordering Afghanistan, these things can quickly become intertwined. Without openly leaning one way or another, Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov, Turkmenistan’s president, showed little interest in dispelling the notion that Turkmenistan now found itself in a situation similar to Uzbekistan’s ongoing struggle with the IMU.

Any president who has the audacity—as Karimov does—to declare that he is “ready to rip off the heads of two hundred people, to sacrifice their lives, in order to save peace and calm” carries a certain cachet, and it can be easy, for Central Asian governments and Western commentators alike, to fall under his shadow—that is, to accept the notion that Uzbekistan’s position represents the regional standard. Like many commentators on the region, Hiro focuses his attention on Uzbekistan, and specifically on the historically fertile and restive Ferghana Valley (which extends into present day Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Ferghana is beautiful, surrounded by arms of the Altai and Tien-Shan ranges, a valley system of rivers and orchards. Home to the traditional, Persian-influenced, settled population of Central Asia—along with Samarkand and Bukhara—it has, since the Arab conquest, been the area to embrace Islamic belief most strongly. It is also, for these and other reasons, hardly representative of the region as a whole: viewing Central Asia through the lens of Ferghana is ultimately quite misleading.

From the perspective of Ferghana, the relevant conflicts are  Islam versus secular authority and inter-ethnic conflicts, whether between traditionally settled Tajiks and previously nomadic Uzbeks or between Russian settlers and everyone else. Yet when one taking a broader view, these issues recede, obscured by tribal politics and a post-Soviet scramble for a share of the economic gain promised by Central Asia’s natural resources. Astana, Kazakhstan’s supremely isolated capital, was built in the lonely center of the steppe for the simple reason that it represented the nexus between the traditional grazing grounds of the three Kazakh “hordes”—not, as Hiro argues, to underline a “resolve to retain the Slav-majority northern provinces.” As much as Islam was a significant element in Tajikistan’s civil war, Hiro largely glosses over the regional tensions between the traditional centers of power—Kulyob and Khujand—and provinces such as Garm and Kurgan-Tube, which were almost completely locked out of political power during Soviet rule. It is odd, moreover, for Hiro to suggest that Niyazov’s rise through the ranks of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan was only marginally and “not overtly” helped by his belonging to the leading Teke tribe. The Teke have long been dominant in Turkmen politics, and Niyazov’s elevation was at least in part due to an effort by local elites to reassert this authority, especially over the sacked bureaucrats of the Ersari tribe who had been emplaced by Niyazov’s predecessor, Muhamednazar Gapurov.

While marshalling impressive detail in its outline of Central Asian politics, Inside Central Asia contains a disturbing number of misunderstandings and simply false claims about Central Asian culture. Hiro does not appear to have visited the region since 1994—he lists interviews from 1992 and in Between Marx and Muhammad cites a trip in 1994, but none thereafter—and yet, even fifteen years ago, one has to wonder where he went and whom he spoke to. Uzbeks, like most Central Asians, certainly do take their tea with sugar, and have no seasonal discrimination between green and black teas, as Hiro claims. I have no idea where he came up with the notion of taking nan—the standard flat bread—and sprinkling it with salt, and having eaten plov of numerous variations in four different Central Asian countries, I would expect that Hiro’s recipe, involving, oddly, apples, prunes, and tomatoes, would scandalize a great number of cooks in the region.

Food aside—although on a related note, Hiro somehow avoids noticing the plethora of camels and goats in the region, instead repeatedly claiming that Central Asians have traditionally been herdsmen of a domestic animal far less common in the area, cattle—there are also unfortunately errors in the accounts of the five republics’ developments. Kurgan-Tube does not border Afghanistan and—having conducted absurd quadrilingual interviews with students in Kulyob—I do not think it’s fair to claim near-universal Russian fluency in Tajikistan. It would be difficult to count twenty-two hotels in Ashgabat, let alone the twenty-two “five-star hotels” that Hiro identifies. Even the Nissa, arguably the nicest hotel—where a Bahraini prince, visiting Turkmenistan to falcon hunt, once shared his (subsequently prepared) catch with a group of Americans, myself included—is probably not worth more than four stars.


These errors are frustrating, but Inside Central Asia’s omissions are more immediately distressing—omissions, primarily, of secular and moderate influences in the region. Hiro references pan-Turkism and Turkey’s prospects of “vast economic, diplomatic and cultural possibilities” in the region, but the widespread phenomenon of Turkish-language schools, sponsored in part by the Turkish government and scattered throughout Central Asia, goes completely unmentioned. This lapse is especially noticeable in the case of Tajikistan, a country with little historical Turkish influence, yet where the Tajik-Turkish High School in Kulyob is generally regarded as the best source of local secular education.

China, too, receives surprisingly short shrift. The Chinese-founded Shanghai Cooperation Organization, however, has proven an effective economic and political mediator in the region, and China’s influence is immediately visible throughout Central Asia. Bazaars are increasingly dominated by Chinese rather than Turkish or Russian, goods, and perhaps the best judge of a trade route is what goes on under the surface. I was given to understand, more or less explicitly, that the border posts on the Chinese border were the cushiest in the Kazakh army, since the bribes there were even higher than those on the southern border on the route north from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Even in Turkmenistan, a country that can be immensely stingy about providing visas of any sort to foreigners, Chinese contractors were a common sight by 2008, and had become the sole developers of the expanded, and newly verified, natural gas fields in the south of the country. This represents a significant shift in the economic structure of the region, and a new openness to foreign capital and investment.

Even where stronger Islamic influences do exist, it is important to understand their basis and context, and the fundamental ways in which the Central Asian approach to Islam differs from other parts of the world. The word Wahhabi is used in the region; it hardly has the same meaning as it does in Saudi Arabia, or in places where the Saudi state has sponsored madrassahs following the strict teachings of Wahhab. Wahhabis, in the Saudi sense, are Sunni and fervently opposed to the theocratic Shi’ite state; in Central Asia, wahhabi truly ought to carry a small “w,” as it simply designates a level of religious radicalism. It would make no sense otherwise for Felix Kulov, the former vice-premier of Kyrgyzstan, to warn publicly of wahhabis inflitrating the southern part of his country, “in part from Iran.” This goes unmentioned in Hiro’s account. It was, however, made explicit last October in an apartment on the edge of Dushanbe, where, sharing in a meal to mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan, I was party to a long and heated discussion amongst those assembled on the various strains of Islam in Tajikistan. The influences here, it seemed, were the Khanafi school of Sunni Islam, as well as the long-established Sufi brotherhoods of Central Asia—hardly the Taliban-like specter of Sharia law that is called to mind in the West by the mention of Wahabbi with a capital “W”.

It is unfortunate that in the US—and Russia—fear of such a specter has led to an overinflation of the threat from Central Asian governments, even from countries with almost no history of Islamic radicalism. Hiro quotes Kazakhstan’s Nazerbayev, who in 1992 claimed his “special responsibility … to steer other Central Asian states away from Islamic fundamentalism.” This sense of responsibility has remained consistent in Kazakh politics: the Kazakh parliament followed Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s lead in December of this past year to pass a restrictive law on potentially threatening religious organizations. Putting the focus on what is often viewed as a new front in the “war on terror” is certainly an effective way of attracting Western support and aid dollars—yet it also obscures other threats the region faces.

The republics of Central Asia remain endemically corrupt and wracked by poverty. Their economies have disturbingly large gray and black sectors, and, with the exception of Kazakhstan, they have suffered economic stagnation since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region, with its lengthy and porous land borders and sometimes complicit governments, stands as a major conduit for the export of heroin, only adding to corruption and underground economic activity. The lack of financial opportunities has led millions to seek construction work in Russia: between 15 and 40 percent of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan’s GDPs have, in recent years, been made up of remittances sent home by migrant workers. With the collapse of the Russian real estate and construction markets, the threat of large populations of unemployed and economically stricken young men suddenly returning to these countries is becoming increasingly real.

In taking account of the scene in Central Asia, the framework of Islamic radicalism or the threat presented to the Karimov regime from the Ferghana valley can only go so far. Nor should the region, and its future, be seen simply through the lens of Russian, Turkish, or even Chinese influence. Centuries ago, Timur and his legions seemed to take the world by surprise, as did Chingiz before him.  Central Asia was then only seen as nothing more than the route to somewhere else—and how could such power have arisen from the Silk Road?  It’d probably be more effective to look at Central Asia as Central Asia. Those glass and marble skyscrapers in Astana, after all, aren’t on the road to anywhere.

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