The Present Era
Map of Central Asian States
The independence of 1991 is really an unwanted independence, because of
the Russian financial and security support. These republics were
originally designed to be ruled and were not designed as independent
There are a few trends to be discussed in the post-Cold War era. The
first is the international dimension. Immediately after the fall of the
Soviet system in the early 1990s, Turkey and Iran were believed to be
the major players in this region. The logic was that the population in
these Central Asian republics was Muslim. This argument is weak since
it assumes these Central Asians have no identity. But Turkey and Iran
also do not have the resources to exert that kind of influence in the
region. Instead, the rulers of these republics portray themselves as
whatever the external powers want them to be in order to obtain support.
The other aspect is the realization of oil deposit in the region,
particularly around the Caspian Sea. The notion of pipeline politics as
the new Great Game, however, is premature. First, the Caspian oil price
has to be relatively high in order to be economically viable. Second,
the regional infrastructure is too poor to support the industry. For
example, Turkmenistan has a large deposit of natural gas, but the
Turkmen cannot get it out to obtain hard currency. There is also a
200-mile pipeline from the region to Iran, but it is of low capacity.
Domestically, there are five authoritarian dictators ruling these
republics. Three of them (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are
Soviet era officials who have retained the presidencies. All three are
nominally democratic, but freedom has certainly been curtailed.
Kyrghyzstan at first seemed to be an exception, but its president
eventually did not want to relinquish power. The rating of Turkmenistan
in a number of socio-economic indicators is very poor. Its population
has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the entire world.
Another distinguishing event of the region is the complete breakdown in
Tajikistan into virtual anarchy. It disintegrated mainly because 50% of
its budget was subsidized by Moscow. It was instantaneously curtailed
when it became independent. It is not quite true that it was the
Islamic fundamentalists trying to overthrow the Tajik government. The
civil war pitted an opposition coalition of ethnic Pamiris, Tajik
nationalists, and Islamists against the ruling Communist government
that was backed by Russia and Uzbekistan.
Another aspect of the region is the Islamic fundamentalist in the
Ferghana Valley. This region has a lot unemployed young men, and it has
received a lot external influence like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This
area has become a base of Islamic agitation. The current Central Asian
regimes actually encourage the growth of Islamic fundamentalism by
treating the local population badly. The regimes also use Islamic
fundamentalism as an excuse to arrest and imprison their political
enemies in order to consolidate their rule in the region.
After 9/11, external powers, like the US, try to exert influences in
Central Asia. Russia is not at all pleased with this development since
this area is former Soviet territory. However, Russia is tolerating it
for two reasons. First, this will divert the attention from Chechnya;
and second, Russia has become a good ally as an oil producer.
The presence of foreign powers in the region, such US military troops,
will have social ramifications for this region. It is likely that this
development will create tension.
Another potential social and political problem is illegal drug
smuggling, such as opium in southern Kyrghyzstan. Warlords would raise
money to finance their activities through drug trade.
It does not seem that foreign aids and assistance have done a lot to
the region. The idea of foreign aids is to promote democracy and free
market. However, the Central Asian leaders, who do not have serious
intention to change, simply see us as a source of resources. If we
continue to support them unconditionally, we might be sowing the seeds
for future problems. Furthermore, if these dictators continue doing
what they are doing and if we get associated with them, the domestic
local oppositions might use anti-Americanism as what Khomeni did to the
shah in Iran.
In this light, the scenario in Central Asia, in some aspects, fits nicely with colonial history in general.