By Patricia H. Kushlis
Throughout the Gorbachev years and before, the Soviet Union’s five Central Asian Republics (otherwise known as the -stans) were the strongest supporters of the Soviet Union. When the collapse came, they were also the least prepared for independence politically or economically. Prior to their forced assimilation into the Russian Empire in the 19th century, they had been Turkic or Persian speaking Muslim khanates with all that they entailed.
As part of the Soviet Union, a kind of modernization was brought to the region. Women were freed of the veil – sometimes forcibly - and required to go to school. They still, however, often produced large families – and when the Soviets sought “hero” mothers with 14 or so children to deify, the authorities turned to the Central Asians because few, if any Russians, Slavs, Balts or Moldovans, met the numeric requirements.
Meanwhile, Moscow used Central Asians as wartime cannon fodder and conscript brigades were sent to repair Moscow’s streets, water and sewer systems. Stalin divided the khanates into republics fractionalizing the ethnicities according to the best divide and rule policies of the time – an historic fact of life that continues to prove an irritant to amicable relations among and within the republics thereby causing friction and instability domestically and providing a convenient way for Russians and others to manipulate the five largely authoritarian countries to their advantage.
What is perhaps less generally known is that by the 1970s the Soviets regularly transferred wealth from the European parts of the Union to Central Asia to keep the Central Asians materially satisfied so that the Russians and other Slavs could continue to rule the vast region and its resources unchallenged. They also controlled the republics through a "second in command" system (namely by placing a Central Asian to the top position and a ethnic Russian as deputy.)
Furthermore, for the most part, the Soviets kept the Central Asians isolated. Strict travel and emigration restrictions meant that they had little contact with the West, could not establish residency in the prestige cities of Moscow and Leningrad and their only bases for comparison – if they had them at all – were India, Pakistan and Afghanistan – countries most directly to their south.
Of the Central Asian republics, only Kazakhstan has produced substantial petroleum. So it’s no surprise that today this republic remains the richest of the five. And by 1991, it’s quite likely that a majority of the republic’s population was Slavic – if not Russian – despite what the then census claimed.
The other Central Asian republics had basically been caravan stops on the ubiquitous Silk Road with multiple branches that ran from eastern China to Istanbul from the Middle Ages onward although Uzbekistan's cotton crop was prized within the Soviet Union itself.
"Voting Against Freedom"
In Joshua Kucera’s article, “Voting Against Freedom,” in the Winter 2013 Wilson Quarterly, the author seeks to answer the question as to why democracy has failed in the former Soviet Union – with the exception of the Baltic Republics and Moldova – and criticizes the Clinton State Department and Obama Administration for pretending that democracy building there remains a realistic goal for US foreign policy.
Kucera may well be right. But for anyone who had previously spent time in the region and knows its history, the answer to his question is simple. These regions had never experienced democratic governance. Never. Whether in reality or secondhand. The closest a few Central Asians may have come to understanding the meaning of the word would have been from contacts with Indians and an occasional trip to the country for the privileged few. Let’s face it, India was not exactly a paragon of economic achievement during the Soviet period – at least until recently.
A return to things past: the 21st Century Great Game
I’ve found that political culture is deeply imbedded in most, if not all, societies. It often provides the norm –so from my perspective a reversion to things past in Central Asia should come as no surprise. The Communist ideology – even in Moscow when I worked there from 1978-80 – was skin deep consequently I’m not surprised that it was even a frailer reed throughout Central Asia than in Russia itself. I doubt that a late 20th century democratic implant from thousands of miles away could have been any more successful.
But Kucera’s article does not discuss perhaps the most important issue that needs to be considered with respect to Central Asia today as the US military leaves Afghanistan and its supply bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan and the Obama administratoin deliberates America's albeit limited options in the region. The issue is the 21st century version of the Great Game - this time between Russia and China - and their fight for influence, access to and control of Central Asian natural resources especially Kazak oil and gas.
In essence, China is hungry for petroleum products and seeks a shorter, cheaper and safer transport route between the Middle East, the Caspian Basin and Chinese factories and cities on its Pacific coast and further inland.
Putin’s Russia, meanwhile, has been working diligently to tighten control of the existing pipelines that transport oil and gas from Kazakhstan and nearby Azerbaijan to Europe through agreements with Central Asian governments and suppliers (often one in the same) to ship oil and gas via Russia rather than through the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.
This pipeline was built by western oil companies in the 2000s with much US government encouragement to help Europe avoid a Russian stranglehold on the product by moving the valuable commodity to the Mediterranean via Georgia and Turkey and hence on to Europe, Israel and elsewhere in the West. But what are the consequences of this struggle over Central Asian resources for Europe and the US? Is it important or not?