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Central Asia / Security

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SECURITY SPECIAL: Central Asia's lost decade

By Steven Lloyd Wilson
For the decade preceding 9/11, world powers perceived Central Asia as a vacuous entity

MADISON - Thursday, September 22, 2011 -  

The twentieth anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union, marked by many Central Asian states this month, was a critical turning point for the region. However, the attacks of September 11,2001 had an equally profound effect on Central Asia's importance in the global sphere. In the first piece of this series, we analyze security trends within the region and major players' foreign policy approaches to Central Asia in the decade preceding that fateful day.

If you wore any clothing manufactured in Asia in the last twenty years, chances are you've worn cotton grown in Uzbekistan. But the odds are also good that you couldn't find Uzbekistan on a map.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Western world celebrated the triumph of democracy over authoritarianism throughout the former Eastern Bloc. On Christmas Day 1991, fifteen new states emerged from the defunct Soviet Union. The first free elections in decades, and in some cases ever, thrust opposition candidates into the seats of power throughout the former empire.

But most of the five states of Central Asia all simply returned former communists to the reins of power. Each of those five executives retained power throughout the decade that followed, through various degrees of electoral fraud and naked force.

Had half a dozen dictators ruled in Eastern Europe in those years, the West would have noticed, and the celebrated wave of democratization would have been considered anything but. But those five footnotes of foreign policy did not count much in western opinion, as they remained five countries with unrecognizable names other than the ubiquitous suffix of "stan."

Central Asia’s time in the limelight has waxed and waned throughout history. In the late 19th century, Russian armies reached the Fergana Valley. Those final tsarist conquests sparked visions of the Great Game in western imaginations, with the Indian jewel the next territory within the bear's reach. But attention waned in the twentieth century, so that the vast Muslim uprisings at the end of the first World War were hardly noted in a west preoccupied with the aftermath of the conflict.

History would replay itself in the 1990s, as Tajikistan disintegrated into a vicious civil war that left a hundred thousand dead with nary a headline in a western world that had moved on.

Ethnic Russians, some resident in the region for decades, emigrated en masse during the years after the Soviet fall, retreating along with waning Russian power into European Russia. Less than 40 percent of Kazakhstan's population was ethnic Kazakh when the Soviet Union fell, a proportion that burgeoned to 63 percent over the next two decades as Russians, Ukrainians, Germans and other Europeans emigrated by the millions out of Central Asia. As Russian power pulled back, other powers showed little interest.

China evinced some concern for the region, out of fears that independent ethnic states in Central Asia would fuel independence movements in its own restive far western provinces, but it did little to fill the gap left by the Soviet withdrawal. Turkey too expressed interest in the region, forming pan-Turkic partnerships with the new states and providing aid, though to little lasting influence other than a switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet.

America and the west expressed little interest in the region during the 1990s, outside of some stirrings of hope that oil and gas fields in the area could wean the world off of dependence on Middle Eastern suppliers. These interventions could not replace the vacuum left by the withdrawal of massive Soviet subsidies and the dismantling of the welfare state implemented by the Soviet center.

Saudi Arabia spearheaded Islamic interest in the region from the Middle East, funding a massive expansion in the construction of mosques in Central Asia and fueling a revitalization of Islamic culture after seventy years of Soviet atheism.

This reintegration of Central Asia with the rest of the Islamic world, combined with a power vacuum and mounting violence and poverty, created a perfect storm for fundamentalism. Disaffected individuals who had once fought in Afghanistan as draftees in the Red Army found their nearest allies in their former enemies across the Afghan frontier.

The forces of anger and frustration gradually coalesced into organized groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which urged the adoption of Sharia Law throughout Central Asia and increasingly adopted violence as a method to bring about regime change. These groups moved with ease across national borders, fighting in the Tajik Civil War, deploying fighters as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and finding allies in al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Despite their efforts to retain their iron grasps on power, the autocrats of Central Asia were unable to effectively counter these threats to stability, which culminated in a series of bombs rippling through Tashkent in 1999 in an apparent attempt to assassinate Uzbek President Islam Karimov.

All of these trends occurred “under the radar” and were largely ignored by the more powerful players on the world stage.

For a decade, Central Asia was forgotten. Then the Twin Towers came down, and the superpowers once more turned their attention to the region.


Steven Lloyd Wilson is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University  of Wisconsin-Madison. He specializes in comparative democratization within the former Soviet Bloc.




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