When people think of Central Asia, they usually associate the region much more with the former Soviet Union than with Asia or even the Middle East – and sometimes even less so with Islam. In fact, the Republics commonly referred to as the “Stans” have deep roots in all of the above. And few authors know Central Asia, Asia, and the Middle East as well as Ahmed Rashid, who has authored many books on these parts of the world.
One of his books, “The Resurgence of Central Asia,” has just been republished. He spoke about the book and other issues to Kayhan Life
Q The book is titled “The Resurgence of Central Asia.” Is Central Asia regaining its historic importance in actual terms today?
A This is a reprint of a book that was written after the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of Central Asian states. I covered the resurgence of Central Asia at that time, which was the end of the Gorbachev era, the beginning of the Yeltsin era, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were very high hopes that Central Asia would evolve just as the Balkan republics did in the western part of the Soviet Union. And that after many years of repression by Stalin and the Communist system, we would see a resurgence in Central Asia.
Q And today, with 20/20 hindsight?
A I think there has been a lot of disillusionment in Central Asia in the political leadership. Unfortunately, we have had a continuous reign of dictators and semi-dictators in Central Asia who have not carried out a full economic reform agenda as other former Soviet states did in the ‘90s. We’re seeing a political system that is still very antiquated and very Stalinist in its outlook, rather than a more modern outlook that would win popular support.
I think they can still rise but there has to be a reform-minded leadership which respects democracy and all the ethnic issues. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of inter-ethnic violence which leaders have not been able to control. There also has to be closer ties between Central Asian and its southern neighbors – Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. At the moment, the relationship is minimal.
Q Why is the book still relevant?
A It’s relevant and being reprinted because, first of all, it offers an account of the breakup of the Soviet Union from the perspective of Central Asia. It also offers a shortened history of each individual republic and where these ethnic groups came from.
Q You dedicate a chapter to the 1919 and 1991 uprisings in the region. In both periods, the Central Asian states underperformed. Did the Soviet leadership not have a point in not wanting to trust the states?
A When Czarist Russia occupied Central Asia from the 1860s to the 1890s, you should remember that they did so mostly to compete with the British empire in India and they also wanted the raw materials like cotton, wheat, rice, minerals. Once the Soviets came in and followed the Czarists, they followed the same pattern of exploiting Central Asia for its resources and not allowing the emergence of independent political parties.
The problem was that Central Asia was a very backward part of the world at the end of the 19th Century and it was kept backward by Czarist Russia and the Soviets. It was used only as a source of raw material. The local communist parties were built up by the Bolsheviks. For the first 20 years, there was no local cadre of people – Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik, Turkman – who were brought into the party or given any position of responsibility. They were all Russian or cadre from the western part of the Soviet Union. Central Asia has had a very raw deal in the past 200 years.
Q You refer in the book to how Sufism was the Muslim “face” of Islam in Central Asia. Then came Wahabism. How did that transformation happen and, in this age of terrorism, can the tide be reversed?
A Central Asia was one of the earlier bastions of Islam, one of the first regions in the world to be Islamized and it was not through conquest. It was done mostly by proselytizing through preachers and Sufis. Islam spread very rapidly in Central Asia. The Sufi trend emerged very quickly. Rumi was born there. When Islam was threatened, first by Czarist Russia and then by the Soviet Union, many of the Sufi movements became militant. After 1917, the civil war which went on nearly 15 years was actually carried out by Moslems against the Communists in Central Asia.
Wahabism is also a modern concept in the sense that it came [about] because of various Central Asian scholars who were studying in India in the 18th and 19th Centuries and brought it back to Central Asia, especially to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from where it spread. The influence of the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda and other groups in the result of this initial following of Wahabism, which was not very widespread but settled quickly in the Fergana Valley, the central point of what we call today Islamic fundamentalism.
Q How did the intelligence machinery of the Soviet Union and Central Asian republics miss that?
A I think the Afghanistan war had something to do with this. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, a lot of the troops were from the Central Asian units. They were Muslims or former Muslims in terms of the Afghan resistance they saw. Then, you had the influence of Al Qaeda, which talked about a global Jihad, and the Chechen resistance to Russia, the war in Chechnya. You had a lot of influences from the outside which helped create and support Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia. Many of the Central Asian regimes were dependent on Moscow to do their repression works, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they lost those abilities. The regimes could not control these movements.
Q Now you have a strongman in the Kremlin, and Central Asian leaders who are not smarter, just older. What is the hope for Central Asia?
A Unfortunately what we have seen in Central Asia is leaders maintaining their power for 20 to 25 years, having rigged elections, and not opening the political and economic conditions to competition, to progress and development – plus massive corruption. But I think things are slowly changing. We have seen massive progress in Kyrgyzstan, where they have renounced the presidential system and adopted a parliamentary system. We have finally seen a chance in Uzbekistan, where President Karimov, who was in power since 1989, finally died last year. His successor has shown some sense of progress. Kazakhstan too has carried out some economic reforms partly because of the oil and gas it has and demands by Western governments and companies who have insisted on some reforms. We have seen virtually no reform in Tajikistan and no reforms in Turkmenistan.