Central Asia – the distorted reality

MOSCOW. (Ian Pryde for RIA Novosti)

The inauguration of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on February 13 as the new president of Turkmenistan was notable for his speech announcing greater access to the Internet and mobile telephony – a welcome breath of fresh air after Saparmurat Niyazov’s outdated personality cult. But in an interview with a Turkmen newspaper soon after, Berdymukhammedov apparently recanted, arguing that there was no need to hurry with reform and that democracy had to be adapted to local conditions.

Democracy in Central Asia: Can it work?

To the outside world, this certainly just looks like a lame excuse for maintaining power and preserving an authoritarian regime.

Berdymukhammedov is not alone, however. President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan has also long been circumspect about introducing democratic change, arguing, like President Putin in Russia, that democracy cannot be introduced willy-nilly into countries where it has no historical roots.

On the face of it, it must be welcomed if Berdymukhammedov does take Turkmenistan on a more open course.

Central Asia has in any event been down that road before – and to those who know the history of violence in Central Asia and understand the central role of the clan system in the region’s society, politics and economy, the idea that “democracy” is a universal panacea is not quite so obvious.

From its “independence” in the early 1990s, the Kyrgyz Republic was a self-styled “oasis of democracy” in Central Asia.

This official view was believed by the international community and foreign observers for years, but belied by the obvious signs of corruption at a senior level in 1991 and 1992. The corruption continued throughout the rest of the decade and into the new millennium, and apart from nepotism, included blatant manipulation during both referenda and elections.

Unfortunately, this kind of bad reporting about the “Stans” has continued almost unabated since the 1990s. All too often biased, interpretation is based on abstract principles and scholasticism which bear little relation to reality on the ground.

Even the Moscow kommentariat frequently got basic facts wrong during their reporting and analysis of the so-called Silk Revolution in the Kyrgyz Republic in 2005 – and they know Russian!

In Europe and the United States, few of those who comment on the “Stans” have ever lived there – and even fewer have a thorough command of Russian and/or any of the local languages. Visiting Radio Liberty’s Munich headquarters in the early 1990s, I was shocked to learn that the station’s chief analyst on Central Asia had not only never been to the region, but showed little interest in going. She was subsequently appointed OSCE representative in Tashkent.

No wonder, then, that the West often gets it totally wrong on Central Asia. The West bought into Kyrgyzstan’s official propaganda of the country as the “Switzerland of Central Asia” and an “island of democracy in the region” when local journalists and observers were pointing to growing corruption from the beginning of Akayev’s presidency.

More recently, in October and November 2006, it took the International Crisis Group around 2-3 weeks to respond to the latest round of troubles in the Kyrgyz Republic – even though the ICG has a permanent office there, informed people in the country knew the situation was about to deteriorate, and the Russian media began reporting about the worsening atmosphere soon after.

The Myth of Islam in Central Asia

Being Muslim, these countries, we were told in the early 1990s, would have to choose between the only two options for development – between Iranian fundamentalism and Turkish secularism.

The U.S. accordingly moved quickly to open embassies in each of the republics, as did Turkey and Iran.

It was hardly noticed that China was just as quick to move in as well, not only because of its long common border with the region, but also because of its fear that pan-Turkic nationalism could spread to Xinjiang – a.k.a. Chinese and Eastern Turkestan and home to millions of Turkic-speaking Uighurs.

Some observers and journalists from the Muslim world, on the other hand, concentrate on Islam, believing that their religion gives them a special insight into the region. They fail to register the kiosks selling contraceptives and alcohol, nor do they notice the rarity of veils in some of these republics. If they ever attended the clubs, they would see young girls dancing in scanty outfits.

Russia and America in Central Asia

In the early 1990s, it occurred to few observers that with the Russian “Big Brother” abdicating, the last thing senior politicians and ordinary people in the region wanted was yet another country telling them what do.

And yet, Central Asia remains and will remain closer to Russia than is often recognized in the West.

As a result, the U.S. in particular, and to a lesser extent Europe, gravely underestimated the shock to Central Asia when the presidents of the three Slavic republics of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The West also overestimated the solidarity Central Asians felt with Chechnya during the First and Second Chechen Wars. All the Central Asians I have ever spoken to in the region express support for Russia. “Islam” in Central Asia is yet another myth arising at least partly from unfounded comparisons with the colonial history of the Middle East and its development since 1945.

Because Americans are opposed to the idea of (formal) empire on both ideological and economic grounds and tend to idealize (abstract) democracy, they usually believe that “subject nations or peoples” are desperate for their freedom. Indeed, many in the U.S. – including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice – maintain this is the main reason the Soviet Union collapsed.

This view flies in the face of much history and fails utterly to take into account the great extent to which both elites and “the people” often buy into the values of imperial powers.

Numerous precedents testify to the “Ausstrahlung” or attractiveness of a “Hochkultur” to conquered peoples. The Roman Empire and the British and French colonial empires are prime examples. The Germanic tribes who battered at the gates of the Roman Empire for hundreds of years absorbed much Roman and Latin culture, and continued to do so for centuries after the fall of Rome in 476 AD. The experience of the Mongols is similar – they were largely absorbed by the higher cultures of China and India after conquering these huge countries. And of course millions of people still speak English and French in Asia and Africa because of the British and French legacy.

So strange as it may seem to Westerners appalled at Stalin’s excesses and the “lack of freedom” in Central Asia, the elites and many ordinary people saw – and still see – Russia as a higher culture with a much more developed society.

Americans also failed to realize that Russia would not be weak forever, and that when it recovered, the common ties of history, culture and language would give it a huge advantage in Central Asia. Nor would any of the “Stans” be foolish enough to make any serious moves against such a dominant neighbor, even if they wanted to.

And, in fact, although often unpublicized in the mass media, bilateral meetings between ministers and officials from Russia and the republics of Central Asia have continued regularly ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union – and their lingua franca remains Russian.

In this sense, the U.S. policy of the 1990s to drive a wedge between Central Asia and Russia, firstly to prevent the re-emergence of Russia as a superpower or a threat to America, and secondly to secure the rich energy resources of the region and prevent them coming under Russian control, could well be unsustainable in the medium and long-term. The problems over the rent for the U.S. airbase in the Kyrgyz Republic and the base in Uzbekistan after the events in Andizhan indicate the kind of difficulties that are likely to arise with an American presence in the region.

Central Asia Now

After 9/11, countless Western parachute journalists arriving in Central Asia were shocked to find that Islam and Islamic fundamentalism were conspicuous by their absence.

And even now, faulty interpretations seem to dominate. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are frequently described in Western media reports as “Stalinist” – a sobriquet that shows just how little such journalists and their editors really understand about both Stalinism and Central Asia – or how much they are pushing their own agenda.

These regimes are certainly not democratic, they do not deal lightly with the opposition, and human rights abuses are common. But they have never engaged in the kind of mass killing to fulfill “the plan” that occurred under Stalin.

From a realist perspective, the idea of democracy in Central Asia is fraught with problems. Many in the West have forgotten the appalling violence which the region has witnessed over the last 20 or so years, beginning in Alma-Ata in 1986, the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s, and numerous conflicts between various ethnic groups.

Talk to anyone in the region who witnessed any of these events, and they want little more than peace and quiet. The rulers of the region also have a desire simply to keep the lid on things not just because of their desire to maintain power, but also because the danger of things falling apart is rather greater than it often appears to people in Western Europe and the USA. The failure of the Kyrgyz Republic to achieve economic growth in the 1990s led to disillusionment with democracy, as in Russia, and the country has still not managed to achieve stability following the Silk Revolution in 2005. Kyrgyzstan shows the kind of problems that can arise in Central Asia, as did Tajikistan earlier. Loosening up too fast could be a recipe for disaster, even in the Central Asian countries endowed with huge energy resources. Berdymukhammedov is wise to move slowly.

Ian Pryde is CEO of Eurasia Strategy & Communications, Moscow. He spent over five years living and working in Central Asia and Azerbaijan during the 1990s.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

Originally written for Ian Pryde’s weekly column for the Opinion & Analysis section of RIA-Novosti’s English-language website.

Now available at https://sputniknews.com/analysis/2007022261121928/, the site of the Sputnik news agency, the successor to Russian state-owned RIA Novosti’s international branch, which became defunct in 2013.

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