Central Asia between East and West
After long years of “remoteness” in Soviet Empire, Central Asia became a newly discovered region during the 90´s. Global and regional powers entered the area, being attracted by its oil, gas and other resources. Since then, many studies on economical and geopolitical potential of the region has been published, both in Russian and Western languages. But a very few of them deeply analysed internal development of Central Asian states. This publication attempts to explore this very delicate area - states and societies based on clan and kinship relations, so-called zemlyachestvo (community of people born in one town or region), patron-client or other informal relationships.
Geopolitics of Central Asia
Considering internal situation in post-Soviet Central Asian States, the role of external powers could not be omitted. The key players in Central Asian “chessboard” are Russia and the USA, then follows China (in spite of some overestimation of its influence) and then other regional powers such as Iran, Turkey.
Geopolitical situation in Central Asia rapidly changed after September 2001, when direct influence of the USA started to be manifested not only in the economy of the region, but also in political and military areas. Since then, Uzbekistan has become the closest ally of US policy in the area, although its importance and geopolitical position had been stressed long before terrorist attacks in the USA.
Russian position towards its former republics has gone through several turnovers of Kremlin foreign policy. Return of Russia to Central Asia during Putin’s presidency is a response to growing interest of the USA. Moscow monopoly of power in Central Asia is over, but, nevertheless, Russian position is much more important than some Western observers and researchers suppose.
Fall of USSR brought new security challenges to the Newly Independent States of the region too. Perestroika in Soviet Union unveiled invisible and unsolved social and ethnical problems - ethnic relations, poverty, ecological problems etc. Danger of conflict in the area grew up rapidly shortly after declaring independence in Central Asian republics. Even so, authoritarian regimes established in Central Asia were able to stabilize such conflict potential (except of Tajikistan), but only by means of repression methods. Up to now the regimes can more or less control the situation, although the problems were only suppressed, not solved. New opposition movements appeared, the most radical of which manifested their military power (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan). Opposition based on Islamic ideas could find its support in Islamic states - often through unstable Afghanistan affected by civil war.
Nowadays the main conflict potentials for Central Asian states are contained in the regimes themselves. Collapse of any of them could carry instability over the whole region, and even lead to the new round of civil wars.
Other four chapters of the book analyze political processes in four Central Asian republics – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan states (southern tier of the region). All these chapters have integral structure. They start from geopolitical conditions of a particular state and then explore its internal political development. Formal political structures, especially constitutional systems are examined at the beginning, while informal political ties in the country with special regard to the highest political elite (real decision-making body there) follow. Essential attention is also paid to state ideology, which represents all the regimes outwards. Each chapter is concluded by the main trends of political development in a examined country in the 90´s and possible perspectives of the regime in the near future.
Uzbekistan is usually viewed as a country with strong geopolitical position due to its population, geographical position and economical potential. But, in fact, these factors are just assumptions of real geopolitical weight. Uzbekistan is still too weak to play an influential role within the region. Despite loud voices from Uzbek officials declaring Panturkic unity after the fall of Soviet Union, the processes of internal relations inside Central Asia has gradually gone off. These facts limit a potential for Uzbek domination in the region. Except this, neighbouring Kazakhstan with stronger economy and more structural conditions could play a leading role better. Nevertheless, the importance of Uzbekistan, as many observers reckon, cannot stay off the attention.
The chapter concentrates mainly on development of informal political ties not only in the 90´s, but it goes deeper to the period of Sharaf Rashidov, The First Secretary of CP of UzSSR (from 1958 to 1983). Current political elites were formed exactly in this period. Political changes in Uzbekistan in the 80´s (three changes in the position of the First Secretary) put the republic into some kind of “cadre disorder”, which was stabilized only after president Karimov installation in its office. From then, several groups of interests, representing clan and mafia vertical of power, were fighting for influence on the state incomes. The main rivals during the 90´s were exponents of Samarkand and Tashkent mafia structures. President Karimov was trying to” tack about” these two main groups, but in last years he decided to strengthen its own family ties to assure its legacy.
In Turkmenistan, a very unique political system and ideology has been established under President Saparmurat Nijazov. His regime became one of the most brutal dictatorships in the contemporary world. While in other Central Asian states the power is distributed among more groups and personalities (with dominance of presidential circles), system in Turkmenistan is based on almost total control of one person. All the political system with its very specific and unusual four branches of power outfall in the Cabinet of President, Prophet of Turkmen Nation The Great Saparmurat Turkmenbashy (The Father or more exact The Head of Turkmens). But even in this highly centralized system we can find the features of clan-based traditions with leading position of Akhal-Tekke tribe settled around Ashghabat.
In this chapter, a particular attention is paid to exceptional ideology generated by the totalitarian system with “The Creator of New Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan” in the centre. Turkmenbashy is presented as the most important person in Turkmen history. He is seen as a successor of old Turkmen states and dynasties. The main source of such ideology (having a very few analogies in the modern history) is Ruhnama, The Holy Book of Turkmens, which is closely analysed in this chapter too.
Centralized vertical of power of this kind makes the regime very vulnerable in regard with possible demise of Turkmenbashy, which can be very sudden and unexpected. New political elites are not prepared for it that is why a danger of turmoil after regime fall is considered to be the highest in whole Central Asian region.
In spite of the isolated position of Tajikistan and its lack of any significant natural resources, common boundary with unstable Afghanistan makes the leading power pay at least minimal attention to the republic, which was regarded as the poorest part of former USSR.
On the other hand, it was only Russia (and Uzbekistan, to less extent) with some international organisations that were engaged in Tajik affairs during five years of civil war.
The roots, development and reconciliation processes, as well as tightening of president Rahmonov’s power vertical in post-war period, are the main topics of the chapter. Consolidation of state structure was delayed, in comparison with other Central Asian regimes. But, after regaining the control over the territory of the country, president Rahmonov was able to set up a state structure based on regional support of its native heath in Kulyob. He gradually eliminated representatives of other regions and political figures from United Tajik Opposition, formed during civil war to resist Kulyob elites.
At present, Tajik regime could be considered as the most stable within the region. The danger of Islamic fundamentalism coming from Afghanistan is relatively low and continuing support from Moscow gives Rahmonov enough resources (mostly military ones).
President himself is relatively young so he does not need to think about successor processes. As the “Creator of the Peace in Tajikistan” in state ideology he fulfils all the assumptions to stay in rule for several following years.
This small mountainous country was called an “island of democracy” in Western press during the 90´s. Relatively democratic formal structures, set up soon after independence, as well as a new president and former academician Askar Akayev, truly showed Kyrgyzstan as an example among countries in transition. Although Kyrgyzstan is a country with small geopolitical potential, it soon invited many international organisations to its territory and plays a leading role in democratisation processes in Central Asia. Functional multi-party model (not only theatrical as in neighbour Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan) has been created and opposition parties could take place in elections in a comparatively free competition.
Nevertheless, stability and “democracy” model worked only to the moment, when opposition parties were potentially strong enough to gain power (including the position of president). Then the pressure on opposition parties intensified and some opposition newspapers, which had been able to be distributed freely, were closed. In fact, the form of pressure is still more moderate than in other countries in the region. But the times of “the island of democracy” went out definitely.
The reason of this political aggravation could be found also in specifics of Kyrgyzstan informal structures. Kyrgyzstan proved that it is not an exceptional country in Central Asian region. Even here there are groups of interests and clans, based around several leaders. President Akayev is surrounded especially by its own zemlyaks from Kemin district (northern Kyrgyzstan) and the same group of his wife from Talas (northwest of the country). Processes of so-called “keminization” and “talasization” removed all other political forces either out of the real political power vertical or into some insignificant places.
In perspective, it will be crucial whether president Akayev and its surroundings will be able to keep that position without losing his foothold in fight with their clan rivals and in front of international community
In conclusion of the book, possible perspectives of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in Central Asia are considered. The changes of elites are expected in next few years. Old leaders could withdraw from politics in several manners. The moderate ones assume elections or some kind of “soft revolution” (possibly in Kyrgyzstan) or “soft” assignment of successor (possibly in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan). On the other hand, violent change of power through a civil war, or at least some turmoil) cannot be excluded (especially in Turkmenistan).