From: Le Monde diplomatique <>
To: Le Monde diplomatique <>
Subject: Central Asia's five fragile states
Date: Mon, 14 Mar 2005 13:02:05 +0100 (CET)


Torn between nationalists and islamists: Central Asia’s five fragile states

By Vicken Cheterian, Le Monde diplomatique, March 2005

At the Bratislava summit last month, experts from the United States and Russia suggested there should be a joint military base in Kyrgyzstan. Central Asia is torn between nationalism and Islamism, and a trial of strength continues there between Washington and Moscow.

IN THE heart of Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, stands a huge statue of Ismoil Somoni, a Persian-speaking king who built an empire in central Asia in the 10th century. Walk through a triumphal arch next to the gold-crowned statue and into a beautiful rose garden, and you come across a map in marble representing the Somoni empire, which stretched from the shores of the Caspian Sea to the borders of China. The capital of this empire was not Dushanbe, but Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan.

This sums up the problems of identity and state borders in central Asia. The Somoni monument, which cost $20m, was inaugurated in 1999, when the state budget was $250m. Symbols are highly valued in central Asia, and the cult of this long-lost dynasty is taken seriously in Tajikistan and beyond.

In neighbouring Uzbekistan, statues of Lenin and Marx have been exchanged for those of Emir Timur—Tamerlane—the 14th-century conqueror, including a statue of him in the centre of the capital, Tashkent; he is mounted on a horse, sword in hand. The Uzbek authorities want to project an image of power, but their neighbours have different memories of the conquests of Timur: from Kyrgyzstan to Georgia his name evokes ruined cities and pyramids of skulls (1).

There's another minor problem: Timur was not an Uzbek. The Shaibandies—the Uzbek tribes who conquered central Asia - chased out the last of the Timurid khanates; Timur's grandson, Babur, found refuge in India and founded the Mughal empire.

Saodat Olimova, a sociologist, says that in Tajikistan “there's a need to construct an all-Tajik identity, to get rid of frustration and the shame of the war. In the Soviet days Tajikistan was the poorest of the 15 republics, but nevertheless a part of a superpower. Now we are one of the poorest [countries] on the globe.” What undermines the revival of a national idea far more than the absence of a historical memory is Tajikistan's severe poverty. In spite of a growth in trade and agriculture, there are few jobs and half the population is under 18. Up to a million Tajiks have left to seek work in Russia or Kazakhstan, often as illegal immigrants. The growing xenophobia in Russia has made the lives of Tajik and other central Asian migrants grim, as they are exploited by employers and harassed by the police. Several hundreds go back home in coffins every year.

Tajikistan is slowly emerging from the devastating civil war that erupted in 1992 and caused the deaths of tens of thousands. Remarkably, there was a peace treaty in 1997, giving the opposition led by the Islamic Renaissance party (IRP) a third of government posts. In a region where former communist leaders are intolerant of political Islam, the IRP's presence in the Tajik government was a big step towards conflict resolution and the creation of basic democracy: the IRP was now in parliament, beside the presidential People's Democratic party and the communists, to represent the interest not of the state bureaucracy, but of the bazaar traders.

But 9/11 changed the power balance and pushed the IRP into a corner. “The IRP do not want to spoil their relations with the president, so their voice is not heard now,” says a political analyst in Dushanbe, Parviz Mullojanov. Even when the authorities crack down on the former opposition fighters, chase them from government posts or even imprison them, the IRP keeps silent so as not to jeopardise its cooperation with the government. As a result, new underground and radical Islamist movements are growing in Tajikistan, as well as elsewhere in central Asia. The best known is the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation party), a radical Sunni movement that started among Palestinian refugees in Jordan. It calls for the return of the Caliphate (2). The movement is marginal in Arab countries but does have popularity in central Asia. Mullojanov says the influence of the Hizb ut-Tahrir so far has been mostly among the ethnic Uzbeks of Tajikistan: “Their popularity is based on pan-Turkism, which takes on different forms in central Asia. In the past it was Jadidism (3), later nationalism, and now it is Islam.”

Fighting in Uzbekistan

For several days in March 2004 urban guerrilla fighting erupted in Bukhara and Tashkent, where dozens of armed activists attacked police stations. Then in July, female suicide bombers attacked the United States and Israeli embassies, leaving more than 50 dead and dozens wounded. This underlined the fragility of the situation in Uzbekistan. There have been terror attacks before, but this time there were new factors: the events happened in Bukhara, which had been largely peaceful (in the past militancy was limited to the Ferghana Valley region), and there was public sympathy for the attacks. Many in Tashkent said that as long as the attacks were aimed at the police, a symbol of repression and corruption, they were unconcerned. With Uzbekistan's deep economic problems, the absence of all possibility of public expression could lead to even more serious violence.

The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, accused the Hizb ut-Tahrir of being behind the attacks. The party, which rejects the use of violence, is becoming an al-Qaida equivalent for central Asian rulers, and for Russian and US commentators (4). The real danger is that severe long-term repression of the Hizb ut-Tahrir could lead to the development of more radical underground groups, inclined to use violence as a legitimate form of political action.

The nucleus of such a group already exists—the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). It was formed in 1998 by former Uzbek fighters who fought in the Tajik civil war on the opposition side. It is headed by Tahir Yuldash; Juma Namangani is in charge of the military side. Both come from the Ferghana Valley, a region at odds with Karimov. Based in the Tajik and Kyrgyz mountain regions of Tavildara and Batken, the IMU carried out incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999, and daring attacks in Uzbekistan in 2000.

The IMU, colluding with the Taliban, suffered losses during the US invasion of Afghanistan, and US sources declared the death of Namangani during air raids over Kunduz. Since then, Uzbek fighters have taken part in clashes between Pakistani forces and Islamic rebels in the tribal regions of Waziristan (5).

If Uzbekistan were not suffering from a deep crisis, neither the Hizb ut-Tahrir nor the IMU would threaten its stability. In the early 1990s Uzbekistan chose a different path from the other post-Soviet states that had favoured outright privatisation, an authoritarian regime and supervision of most economic activities. This system, which provided stability but led to steep economic decline, was applied in a milder way in Uzbekistan. This made the country attractive to foreign investors—German and South Korean car makers, the Swiss food industry, Dutch banking. But high levels of corruption, continued state control and arbitrary rule persuaded foreign investors to leave. The Uzbek regime survives today by exporting minerals and cotton, bought from peasants at fixed prices that are only a fraction of their value on the international market.

Thirteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the economic conditions of ordinary Uzbeks continue to worsen. The situation of agrarian workers is close to slavery: peasants cannot leave the kolkhoz where they work, cannot choose what to plant or to whom to sell their products. Here, and elsewhere in central Asia, there is mass migration from rural areas to the capital, creating new social problems, including a spread of HIV (6).

The authorities react by imposing isolation on the country, with visa restrictions for citizens of neighbouring countries, and by closing, and even mining, the borders. Recent measures restricting trade in traditional bazaars have led to riots in the towns of the Ferghana Valley. Unlike the early 1990s, no one in Tashkent now thinks authoritarianism will eventually lead to foreign investments, reforms or modernisation.

Stalinist theme park

Turkmenistan has become a Stalinist theme park: luxury hotels and presidential palaces abound, yet some Turkmens don’t have access to drinking water. Saparmurat Niyazov has appropriated the title of Turkmenbashi (head of all the Turkmens). He is everywhere: he is the official founder of all Turkmen newspapers, his portrait appears on all television programmes, and his book, Ruhnama (book of the soul), is required reading for students and officials.

Turkmenistan is 80% desert, populated by nomadic tribes who have only a loose sense of belonging to one nation. The country is rich in natural gas, which helped concentrate power into Niyazov's hands and finance a repressive police structure. Niyazov has engaged in social engineering to build a new generation in his own image: he banned foreign language teaching, abolished the “non-Turkmen” National Philharmonia orchestra, reduced compulsory school education from 12 to 10 years and invalidated all higher education degrees received outside the country after 1993. Students in higher education have dropped to 3,000, from 30,000 in the final Soviet decade (7). The media is censored, the internet controlled, travel to and from the country difficult. All dissent is harshly repressed, particularly since the assassination attempt on Niyazov in 2002 (8).

Turkmen officials reject criticism from international organisations, viewing it as interference in internal affairs. (In recent years, a dozen Turkmen diplomats and their families have sought asylum.) The whimsical rule of Turkmenbashi has led to paralysis, with declining agriculture and mass youth unemployment, making Turkmenistan's long-term prospects uncertain.

The democratic experiment

Kyrgyzstan is still seen as the most open country in central Asia, even after several years of authoritarian policies. Kyrgyz pluralism has more to do with President Askar Akaev's failure to impose authoritarian rule than with the development of real political institutions in which people can practice their political rights. Years of privatisation have created an economic system revolving around the family of the president.

This is also true of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, where Akaev's relatives own, in whole or in part, lucrative economic sectors (sources say any business bigger than $1m), such as air companies, imports of basic consumer goods and construction.

Parliamentary and presidential elections are expected in Kyrgyzstran in 2005. The outgoing leader is not a candidate. This will bring a change in the ruling elite for the first time since independence, but it will also create an opening for a real power struggle. “The president and the family will fight with all available methods,” said a journalist in Bishkek, Alexander Kulinsky. “There are few or no genuine democratic parties here. Most of them do lip service to attract western favour.”

In the early 1990s Kyrgyzstan was considered a model for reforms throughout the former Soviet Union. Akaev was a scientist, not a former apparatchik, who enforced political liberalisation, developed a free press and privatised the economy with generous donations from international organisations. But this investment was only a fraction of the Soviet-era state subventions, leading to the closure of mines and industries, and the mass exodus of Russian specialised workers. Though the economic downturn has now stabilised, the birthrate is dropping by 55,000 a year. Moreover, half a million Kyrgyz workers have already migrated to Russia or Kazakhstan.

Under these circumstances, says Emil Juraev, a professor of political science, “state policies to inspire a new national identity are failing. On the other hand, ethnic identity is strong, and Kyrgyz tribal and regional identities remain strong too. State power relies on the Bishkek-based bureaucracy and the clan system.”

This mountainous country has few strong links to bind it together and many fear that a power struggle could lead to the partition of the country between the Chui Valley in the north, where the capital Bishkek is situated, and the Ferghana Valley in the south, with Osh, the next biggest city in the country.

A Kazak dynasty?

Kazakhstan is the only central Asian country with an upturn of economic productivity, thanks to its lucrative oil exports. GDP is up by 9% and foreign investments topped $2.1bn in 2003 (9). In the parliamentary elections of October 2004 the two main parties were Oton (Homeland), headed by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Asar (Together), headed by the president's daughter, Dariga Nazarbaeva (10). The main opposition coalition, made up of the Communist party and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, failed to win representation in parliament. Although Nazarbaeva's party won only a foothold in the parliament, with just four seats out of 77, there are rumours that, after her success in dominating the Kazakh media and active presence on the economic scene, she is preparing to succeed her father and create a new dynasty, as Gaidar Aliev did with his son, Ilham, in Azerbaijan.

The five states of Soviet central Asia did not become independent in 1991 because the masses were mobilised for independence. The rulers and people of central Asia overwhelmingly supported the preservation of the Soviet Union until the last days, unlike the people of the Baltic or the Caucasus. All five presidents who rule central Asia today came to power in the 1980s, during the unstable years of perestroika. Of course, each country tried to reaffirm its legitimacy in different ways: Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan experimented with privatisation and political reforms; Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan preserved state control over the economy and absolute rule; Tajikistan initially fell apart in a violent civil war in 1992 but, remarkably, succeeded in bringing about national reconciliation in 1997. None the less there is a growing convergence in all five states towards concentrating absolute power in the hands of the head of state.

National independence did not conquer the imagination of most of the population: the deterioration of their living conditions made them unable to accept the political legitimacy of the new nation-state projects. What has come to fill this gap are social networks based on regional solidarity; they are opposed to the idealist groups that, a decade ago, called for regional unity—then under the Turkic banner, and now under that of Islam.

Ruling elites who have graduated from Soviet political schools see in Islam only extremists and terrorists. They failed to appreciate Islam as more than folklore at a time when the collapse of the communist ideology and repression made a reappraisal of Islam's past and present in central Asian societies a necessity.

As the authorities continue to repress the Islamist political groups and the various sects, their societies are growing more Islamised. In Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan political Islam is becoming more radical.


(1) See Christian de Brie, “World domination with horse and bow”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, November 2004.

(2) Kemal Atatürk declared the end of the Caliphate, of all politico-religious authority based on Islam, after the outbreak of the first world war.

(3) This Islamic modernisation movement in central Asia, mainly by urban intellectuals, influenced the education system, social thought and ethical norms. It did not survive the Soviet purges of the 1930s.

(4) Jean-François Mayer, Hizb ut-Tahrir: The Next Al-Qaida, Really?, PSIO Occasional Paper, Geneva, 2004.

(5) Artie McConnell, “Tashkent bombings signal rise in Islamic activities”, Jane's Intelligence Review, London, May 2004.

(6) Gulnoza Saidazimova, “HIV infections mount in Uzbekistan as prostitution rises”, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Prague, 30 November 2004,

(7) “Cracks in the marble: Turkmenistan's failing dictatorship”, International Crisis Group, Asia Report, no 44, Osh/Brussels, 17 January 2003.

(8) Arrests linked with this assassination attempt include the former head of Turkmen diplomacy, Boris Shikhmuradov, and the former mufti of the republic, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah.

(9) Andrew Jack, “Kazakhstan turns into magnet of central Asia”, Financial Times, London, 26 May 2004.

(10) See Vicken Cheterian, “Caucasus: the privatisation generation”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, January 2004.