Political Legitimacy trends in Central Asia
H. B. Paksoy, n.d.
As Denis Sinor points out in his introduction to Radloff's Proben, in the past 100 years, "New, artificial, names have been created and it is not always easy to establish equivalencies." Today, it is the practice to label the Central Asians as "Muslims." In fact, Islam is a newcomer religion, following in the footsteps of Shamanism, Tengri, Manichaeanism and Buddhism.
"Islam" as label or analytical category must be used cautiously --even among the Central Asians it isn't a monolith. Accordingly, in most cases (perhaps with the exception of Bukhara and Khiva residents), Islam largely remained a veneer on all previous religions. Even when the Russian Christianization campaigns began in the 19th c., not all Central Asians were Muslims. In addition, due to the very nature of its spread in Central Asia, the context of Islam was greatly altered from one location to the next. The doctrines of the madrasa based ulama were rather different than the teachings of the itinerant sufi dervishes in their endeavors to spread Islam. As Islam became an overlay, the underlying elements of previous religions remained mostly visible. Today, most prominent of those underlays belong to the Tengri and Zoroastrianism.
B) Any newcomer idea, doctrine or orthodoxy requires "legitimacy" in the minds of the recipients, the nature of which differs according to the society. Political legitimacy in Central Asia always demanded persuasion. Persuasion required mass communication. How was it possible, for example, in early 16th c., an era preceding the invention of movable type, to conduct mass communication? In the case of Central Asia, the task was accomplished through the medium of literature. Perhaps the Shibaninama of the early 16th c., a poetry anthology, is a good example, among many, seeking to convince the population that this ruler, Shiban of the Ozbeks, was every bit a good and capable ruler as those preceded him. Today we might call this variously as propaganda, nation building, or, social engineering. In Central Asia, literature grew due to indigenous needs and is still employed widely.
Indeed, if a Central Asian ruler did not come from a long and identifiable lineage, he did not hesitate in manufacturing one in his writings. It was up to the population to decide whether they were going to accept the new ruler's claims, primarily on the basis of the brilliance thus displayed. All this, the new ruler did by writing poetry and "political tracts," in which he shared in the common values of the people --whether those were also his own or not-- he wished to lead. Those poetry anthologies, in manuscript, were duplicated by copyists in palace libraries and by private savants. The contents of these collected treasures (or single poems) were committed to memory by individuals for later oral recitation. This constituted, what was later termed by the British in the 20th c. Malaya/Burma "Emergency," a "minds and hearts" campaign. In Central Asia, these campaigns were used more often than armed troops, for poetry proved more effective than the sword in convincing the Central Asians. In this manner, the rulers also wished to preserve the history of their reigns.
The impetus for mass communication also came from the people, wishing to safeguard their heritage. The Oghuz, also called the Turkmen, came to constitute the basis of the 11th c. Seljuk empire. After the fall of the Seljuk empire, the Oghuz/Turkmen groups did not disappear. Being members of a confederation, the Turkmen/Oghuz simply regrouped in the time honored process and joined other kindred confederations. Abul-Ghazi Bahadur Khan (1603-1663), ruler of Khiva after the Shibanid period, was asked by his Turkmen subjects (which constituted a large portion of the population under his rule) to compile the authoritative genealogy of their common lineage from many extant written variants. He prepared two, under the titles Secere-i Terakime (probably completed in 1659) and Secere-i Turk. It should not be inferred from this very brief sketch that the new ruler did not resort to arms to convince the population. But, sooner the new king resorted to armed force after taking over, more hasty was his decline. When the population is unhappy with the ruler, an alternative leader can be fostered. If such a person is not immediately available, a temporary substitute might be tolerated. The Central Asians might just be indulging the present political leadership for that purpose. But underneath there are the ever-present signs of search for that popular figure who will capture the hearts and minds.
The Soviet apparatus, having inherited the tsarist studies, has been well informed of this Central Asian use of literature, including prose, poetry, histories. It was for that reason that the Soviet Oriental Institutes of the USSR Academy of Sciences produced libraries full of narratives very much in the model of Shibaninama, but without the poetic beauty intrinsic in Central Asian literature. Only so much lyrical pleasure can be derived from a tractor or kolkhoz produced in the 1930s. Hardbound copies of these "modern" examples abound. Not only did the Russians seek to write themselves into the history and culture of Central Asia, but pretended that there was no culture in the region until they, the Russians gave it one. The Central Asian response was standard. Regarding the Moscow version of Central Asian history an example of fiction, the Central Asians began writing true history, as they knew it, under the guise of literature. Olmez Kayalar and "Sun is also Fire" are two prime examples.
In order to better understand the current developments, we need to spend a bit more time in the origins of these events. Now, let us look at what the Russian apparatus have learned over time.
The 16th c. Shibani and his Ozbeks, a tribal confederation modeled after its predecessors, were hard pressed, working to supplant the already rooted Timurid culture. That the Ozbeks of Shibani militarily defeated the Timurids did not necessarily assure a victory for the former. There is not much point in being the ruler of an empty land. If one is to be the king, one must have a population to rule over. At the time and place, if the population did not like the new khan, they could always move.
They often did. And the population must accept the ruler as legitimate, to provide him with the necessities of life. Not even under the heavy hand of Stalinism did Central Asia fully complied with the demands of pretending rulers. When they could not move, the Central Asians began engaging in passive resistance. They slaughtered cattle, forcing the Stalinist propagandists to exhort the benefits of rabbit farming; which fad was not accepted either, and allowed to fade quietly. It is also known that the Soviet cotton quotas were rarely, if ever, were fulfilled to the satisfaction of the center.
Timurids, spread throughout Central Asia, had established a very recognizable and successful political and cultural identity.
In this sense, the use of the term "culture" refers to both varieties: the political and the arts. Timur, the founder, had died in 1405, and the unity of the vast empire he founded did not survive him. His progeny began fighting among themselves for the highest title immediately. The palace intrigues certainly contributed to the process. But the main reason was the system dictated by the nature of the society. Every member of the royal family was in training from birth to be the grand ruler. Given the rate of fatalities of the time (even Timur lost a son or two in his own life), it was a necessary precaution against the ravages of nature and military opponents.
Eventually, none of Timur's offspring was able to succeed to Timur's throne. Instead, several kingdoms sprang from Timur's domains. Establishment of the Moghuls of Babur (1483-1530) is one of the end results. The astronomer mathematician Ulug Bey's (d. 1449) Samarkand and the Herat kingdom under Huseyin Baykara (r. 1469-1506) are two others. In the latter, some of the highest forms of Central Asian literature and arts flourished, from a peculiar amalgam of different traditions, ranging from Uyghur to the Persian. The focus of that era revolved around poet courtiers such as Ali Shir Navai (1441- 1501).
Shibanid's personal rule did not last long. Even though he declared the end of the Timurids in 1500, Shibani himself fell in battle in 1510, fighting against the Safavids (dynasty r. 1501- 1736) of Shah Ismail (r. 1501-1524). Shah Ismail was in return defeated by the Ottoman Sultan Selim I (r. 1512-1520) at Chaldiran, in 1514. Shibani and Ozbeks also fought Babur, which are detailed in his Baburnama and corroborated in Muhammad Haidar's Tarikh-i Reshidi. Babur sought and received the aid of Shah Ismail and his kizilbash Safavids in his opposition. But Babur lost the greater struggle, and went on to found the Moghul empire in India.
After the death of Sibani Khan, his Ozbek confederation melted into the extant population of the realm, just as its forerunners did, and in the same manner itself was formed. But, their confederational appellation remained as a designation. Shibani's descendants, much like those of Timur, took possession of principalities and competed against one another. Once again, such confederations were not separate and distinct ethnicities, but simply political groupings of smaller units. Their composition, ethnic, linguistic or historical bases are not much different from each other. In fact, they are of the basic stock of the Timurids. Neither side needed translators to converse with the other, for they spoke the same language, but perhaps with different accents. The vastness of space and their contacts with other cultures or groups were the prime reasons for the establishment of new confederations.
Up to Timur's domination of Central Asia, the legitimacy rested with the (Mongol) Chinggisid line. So much so that even Timur throned puppet Chinggisid Khans, replacing them at will, and ruled in their name. Such was also the case in the Golden Horde in the North. Omeljan Pritsak wrote:
What was the ideology or the ultimate goal and purpose of the Chinggisids? Much has been speculated. The Secret History of the Mongols, the compilation of traditions and admonitions of Chinggis, contains a line which might be regarded as the essence: "Tengri opened the gate and handed us the reigns." Some authors speculated that Chinggis was thus motivated by a thought of racial superiority. This assertion is not substantiated. Moreover, the troops of Chinggis were distinctly multiracial. Chinggis appears to have been after personal security and power.
After Timur, legitimacy was almost entirely transferred to the Timurid line. Timur was also concerned with the security of his domains. This he did by removing potential threats to his own rule, which forced him to wage continuous military campaigns.
After each expedition, he brought back artisans, scholars and poets to his beloved city of Samarkand. He doubtlessly succeeded in his military goals. The same assessment cannot be made with respect to his social organizational attempts. Timur's actions demonstrate a desire to rearrange the existing tribal structures, to create a new confederation loyal only to himself. But, that confederation having been formed through the forceful actions of one man, Timur, did not assure its survival. The tribal groups did not come together under their own volition, as they have been doing throughout their history. Timur's deeds were recorded as well, again by a third party, and those do not mention any claims to racial superiority. All that can safely be asserted is that Timur's ideology, too, was one of survival of unity.
At the moment, the political map of Central Asia resembles very much the time that gave rise to Timur: Mongols, the absolute rulers of the region during the 12th-13th c. were in steep decline, having lost the cultural and economic battle to more deeply rooted civilizations. Timur began his professional life in the 14th c. as a single adventurer. His early personal successes attracted followers, which grew in number with every follow on victory. His defeat of a sizeable Mongol detachment, long before his name reached the ears of Christopher Marlowe (who gave "Tamarlane," the distorted spelling of Timur to us), laid the foundation for his personal power and the beginning of his reign.
After so many centuries in the life of Central Asia, the legitimacy question is still alive in the late 20th c. Since Timur, no one had legitimacy across Central Asia.
To recapitulate: there are currently two overarching trends in Central Asia. Both are closely intertwined and neither can be considered without reference to the other: 1) Nature, ideological orientation and legitimacy of the present political leadership; 2) Recovery of the historical identity by the masses in light of the present.
For the most part, these two issues will be in serious contention against each other for the foreseeable future. The outcome will influence the attributes of the emerging society in Central Asia. The solutions to problems ranging from environmental pollution to water distribution rights will come from the emerging competition between these two. Ideologies cannot do battle in abstract. They must have human adherents through which to compete. The first category represents the interests of the current leadership, while the second is the platform of the mass politics minded peoples' guides. Which one is legitimate, and when one will triumph over the other is the implicit contest.
It is remembered that the current Central Asian leadership was installed not by the will of the people, but by a central government whose political character has became known over the past forty years or so. The Soviet Central government also attempted to create new political groups, but in reverse. While Chinggis, Timur and Shibani sought to form larger polities from smaller units, Moscow wished to reverse the process and foster the smallest possible identities. Soviet bureaucrats bent all known data to claim that the language spoken, for example by the Turkmen, Ozbek and Karakalpak are entirely distinct, unrelated and separate languages even when all these groups can speak to each other without any difficulty. The histories written in Moscow strenuously attempted to create different identities and "geneses" for each artificially differentiated republic. As every Central Asian confederation had an identity, even if their components migrated from one to the next and constituted common elements, on the surface these new "identities" were accepted.
Each Republic thus created by decrees of Moscow were also equipped with local leaders trained in Moscow, to follow the orders of the CPSU under Marxist Leninist rhetoric. The only legitimacy of the republican leaderships flowed from the presence of Red Army and KGB divisions nearby. These leaders had to compel the population to comply with the demands of the center. Members of those Central Asian leaderships were replaced when they could not deliver what Moscow wanted. On the other hand, Moscow backed leaders also had to placate the population. It is easier to walk on a tight-rope than a sagging one, and the rope these leaders were obliged to walk on has been a rather droopy one. As of late, this Central Asian leadership became "nationalist" overnight, and in some cases declared independence for the "republics" they lead. Thus the existing gaps between the entrenched leadership and the populations at large, who expect some material and economic results the word independence implies, grew even further.
There is no doubt that the current Central Asian political leadership is unwilling to voluntarily relinquish the perks they have so enjoyed under the Soviet system. With further loss of their legitimacy, recognized only in Moscow, some local leaders went so far as to establish private "enforcement" squads to protect their own status, and substantial private income. This caused their sagging-rope walk even more hazardous. The opposition to their rule is assembled under the umbrella of the "Popular Fronts" in each republic, and are ready to talk. Regardless of their actual designations or names, these opposition groups are not yet fully rooted. That, too, is not an accident, for the top political leadership in the republics have been actively working to render the popular fronts ineffective. Methods employed are standard, those very techniques used by Moscow earlier: infiltrate, manipulate and discredit.
The primary weapon of the opposition to the entrenched Central Asian leadership is the printed word. Though the Central Asian press is somewhat more "brazen" nowadays, the unofficial papers are still not free to offer the full spectrum of political options. That is not because there are no options, or that there are no thinking souls. The reasons lie more with the tinkering of the holdover apparatus, despite their present political color.
Newsprint and presses are still in the control of the republican leadership. As a result, most of the opposition papers, once begun, have not been able to sustain publication. So, contraband cassettes are also pressed into service by the opposition, as had been done in the pre-Gorbachev era. But, in the minds of the populace, the nagging legitimacy issue is not silenced. It seems, at every instance one paper is muzzled, another takes its place, however briefly.
One of the vehicles utilized by the Soviet state to manipulate public opinion and legitimacy was the creation of straw-men. Anyone who showed the least bit of popularity with the masses on any given issue could be built-up to be a media figure. When the movement ascribed to this newly shining celebrity gained any measure of strength at the expense of the central power, a series of charges could be manufactured against him. That would not only assure the toppling of the person from his temporary plinth, but also discredit the movement he is associated as well. Birlik in Ozbekistan, Agzi Birlik in Turkmenistan, and the Azerbaijan Popular Front have been the target of those tactics.
More than likely, most of the Popular Front movements in Central Asia were originally staffed by individuals who had the best of intentions. But soon they fell victim to the "straw-men" treatment. First, they were lauded in the leadership controlled republican newspapers. When the integrity of the leadership of the Peoples' Fronts did not allow them to comply with the requirements of the republican leaderships, they were dealt with in more physical manner. Some were killed, others were roughed- up to the point of requiring lengthy convalescence. A number are living and working in exile.
As in most other cases in their history, the thinking Central Asians responded to the dire emergencies with biting satire. Their newspapers, official or otherwise, pre-glasnost or post-coup, are brimming with humor of various types. Cartoons often carry the message as much as the short stories. This also has historical roots. Molla Nasreddin was one of the most successful satirical magazines, published in Tbilisi, Baku and also in exile in Iran between 1906-1920. This journal was later co-opted by the Bolsheviks, in the post 1920 era, due to its powerful legacy. There have been efforts to resuscitate it recently, fighting against the continuing but unspoken censorship. Even starting with the Brezhnev and continuing with his successors' periods, Central Asian humor persistently pounded at the legitimacy issue. The overwhelming majority of these struggles were carried out in local dialect press and not in Russian. Even in the period of Openness, these publications were not allowed by the center to leave their localities. In the West, one cannot openly subscribe to them. Only personal contact can secure an occasional sample.
Any one or a group of publications cannot be singled out in Central Asia as best representing the views of this or that independence minded group. The Peoples' Front leaderships occasionally gain control of a particular journal of newspaper, and air their views in that publication. The entrenched republican leadership, reminiscent of the earlier practice, manages to replace them with their own adherents. The independence minded authors move to other publications. The chase continues.
At the moment, discussions with visiting Central Asians suggest that independence, or survival as a unit and culture, is at the top of their agenda. The free market economic model they seek is based on the Korean or Japanese or even the Chinese versions. Various Central Asian groups are pressing for the full disclosure of Central Asian history which has been officially withheld from them under the Soviet rule. Under varying verbiage, the primary ideology proposed by the opposition is the unity of Central Asia. No evidence of Islamic fundamentalism appear in any of the Peoples Front memoranda or platforms. This has been perhaps one of the success stories of the Soviet legacy.
Any such claims to the contrary emanate from sources outside Central Asia. (One also notes the formal existence of the Islamic Party, for example, in Tajikistan, which runs on that basis alone). What is raised by individuals and by some organized groups is the nature of unification, as it existed before, as recent as 1920s. The proponents of this unification seem to be advocating the reenactment of another confederation, as Central Asia has seen many times in its past. Origins of Kazaks and Ozbeks, for example, reflect that heritage.
Under these conditions, Moscow center has changed tack yet again. Domination of center through "guided economy" is the new approach to Central Asia. "Give them 'independence' but control the purse strings thus compel them to work for the benefit of the central rulers" is how it can be briefly defined. Moscow's insistence on signing mutual trade agreements, keeping the Ruble as the single currency, and demanding that the republics share in paying the foreign debt created by the center are the elements of this policy. Some incumbent Central Asian leaderships are perfectly willing to go along with the these initiatives of Moscow. Others are not.
Nor are the so called democratic or independent news services in Moscow (Interfax, PostFactum, etc.) have any reliable or correct information concerning Central Asia. Despite their extravagant claims, these supposedly radical or anti-conservative elements are still expounding the old Soviet policies, mirroring the well worn nationalities policies and wishes of the Russian center. The contents of reports appearing in those services do not correspond to the deeds and thoughts of the Central Asians. For example, numerous ominous "analyses" have appeared in those "independent" news services concerning the loss of the control of nuclear weapons to Central Asians. Later it was elliptically suggested that the control of the nuclear weaponry was never lost by the Red Army. Which was true? Why the discrepancy? Similar claims have been made about the so called the "Islamic Threat" to emanate from Central Asia, ready to explode and engulf and devour the civilization as we know it. We are waiting. In both instances, the aim of the news services appear to provide support for the central policies of the government in power ("poor us, have mercy, do not press us hard....); and not provide "radical, etc." fresh news to the West about the Soviet Union itself. Central Asian works such as "Sun is also Fire" and "Let Us Learn Our Heritage" go directly against the pronouncements of these "radical" services.
The Central Asian opposition leaderships are well aware of this scenario. But while the members of the opposition have a collection of works to serve to legitimize themselves with, the incumbent political leadership conspicuously lacks them. The incumbents are spending treasuries in order to create such a corpus of legitimizing literature. What the both sides can or intend to do will be the subject of intense observations. We are likely to read their views primarily in the form of literature, probably well before the events take to the streets, and the related political statements appear in the central press or the "independent" news agencies.
1. H. B. Paksoy, "Chora Batir: A Tatar Admonition to Future Generations." Studies in Comparative Communism Vol. XIX, Nos. 3 & 4, Autumn/Winter 1986.
2. H. B. Paksoy, "Central Asia's New Dastans" Central Asian Survey Vol. 6, No. 1, 1987.
3. Alpamysh: Central Asian Identity under Russian Rule (Hartford, Conn: AACAR, 1989).
4. Z. V. Togan, Turkili Turkistan (Istanbul, 1981) Second edition.
5. (Bloomington and The Hague, 1967).
6. H. B. Paksoy, "Nationality or Religion? Views of Central Asian Islam" AACAR Bulletin (of the Association for the Advancement of Central Asian Research) Vol. VIII, No. 2; Fall 1995.
7. Muhammad Salih, Shaibani-nama (Chaghatay text) (St. Petersburg, 1908). Several editions, printed in other localities, are also available.
8. Mahmud al-Kashgari, Compendium of Turkic Dialects, Robert Dankoff with James Kelly (Tr.) (Cambridge, Mass, 1982-1984) Three volumes.
9. A History of the Seljuks: Ibrahim Kafesoglu's Interpretation and the Resulting Controversy, Gary Leiser (Tr., Ed) (Southern Illinois University Press, 1988).
10. "Z. V. Togan: On the Origins of the Kazakhs and the Ozbeks" Central Asia Reader: The Rediscovery of History (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1994).
11. See the footnotes in H. B. Paksoy, "Introduction to DEDE KORKUT" (As Co-Editor) Soviet Anthropology and Archeology Vol. 29, No. 1. Summer 1990; reprinted in Central Asia Reader...
12. An example may be found in Maria Eva Subtelny, "Art and Politics in Early 16th Century Central Asia" Central Asiatic Journal Vol. 27, No. 1-2 (1983); idem, "The Poetic Circle at the Court of the Timurid Sultan Husain Baiqara, and its Political Significance." PhD Dissertation (Harvard University, 1979).
13. Lowell Tillett, The Great Friendship (Chapel Hill, 1969).
14. Central Asian Monuments (Istanbul: Isis Press, 1992).
15. See Lt. Col. Sir Wolseley Haig & Sir Richard Burn (Eds.) The Cambridge History of India (1922-1953), Vol III, Turks and Afghans (1928). M. G. S. Hodgson, in his The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization (Chicago, 1974), 3 Vols., suggests that the above cited 1928 volume is written from the now outdated British Empire point of view. See also V. Smith, Oxford History of India (Oxford, 1958).
16. Timur's grandson, who ruled Samarkand and environs, author of principal astronomical and mathematical works which were translated into Western languages beginning with the 17th century. See Ulugh Bey Calendar, John Greaves, Savilian Professor of Astronomy, Tr. (Oxford, 1652). Ulug Beg's works influenced European studies on the subject. Bartold utilized a French translation by Sdillot, Prolgomnes des tables astronomiques d'Oloug-beg (Paris, 1847-53). See Barthold, Four Studies on the History of Central Asia Vol. II, Ulug Beg. (Leiden, 1963). For a more detailed bibliography, see Kevin Krisciunas, "The Legacy of Ulugh Beg" H. B. Paksoy, Editor, Central Asian Monuments (Istanbul: Isis Press, 1992).
17. "Risale-i Huseyin Baykara" AACAR Bulletin Vol. IV, No. 2 (Fall 1991).
18. A. S. Levend, Ali Sir Nevai (Ankara: Turk Dil Kurumu, 1965- 68) 4 Vols.
19. Memoirs of Babur, Anette S. Beveridge, Tr. (London, 1922). Reprinted in 1969; Zahir al-din Muhammad Babur, Babur-nama (vaqayi). Mano, Eiji, Editor, Critical Edition based on Four Chaghatay Texts with Introduction and Notes (Kyoto: Syokado. Nakanishi Printing Co., 1995). Frontispiece + LIX + 610 Pp.; Wheeler Thackston, (Tr.) A Century of Princes: Sources on Timurid History and Art. (Cambridge, MA., 1989).
20. E. D. Ross, (Tr.), N. Elias, (Ed.) (London, 1898).
21. "Moscow, the Golden Horde, and the Kazan Khanate from a Polycultural Point of View" Slavic Review Vol. XXVI, No. 4 1967.
22. Francis Cleaves, Tr. (Harvard, 1982).
23. Mogollarin Gizli Tarihi, A. Temir, Trans. (Ankara, 1948), (P. 227).
24. H. B. Paksoy, "Elements of Humor in Central Asia: The Example of the journal Molla Nasreddin in Azarbaijan." Turkestan als historischer Faktor und politische Idee. Prof. Dr. Erling von Mende (Ed.) (Koln: Studienverlag, 1988).
25. H. B. Paksoy, "M. Ali--Let us Learn our Inheritance: Get to Know Yourself." Cahiers d'Etudes sur la Mediterranee orientale et le monde turco-iranien No. 11, 1991.
26. Ayaz Malikov, "The Question of the Turk: The Way out of the Crisis" Central Asia Reader.
27. H. B. Paksoy, "Firibgarlar: Suddan Keyingi Mulahazalar." Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs Vol. 9, N. 2, 1988.