"CENTRAL ASIA" No. 2 (8) 1997


By Paul A. Goble

Mr. Goble is Assistant Director, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, based in Washington, D.C. The views expressed here are his own. Paul A. Goble is assistant director for broadcasting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Earlier, he served as a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, special advisor for Soviet nationality problems and Baltic affairs at the State Department, director of research at Radio Liberty, and special assistant for Soviet nationalities in the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Trained at Miami University and the University of Chicago, he is the editor of four volumes on ethnic problems in the former Soviet Union and has published more than 150 articles on ethnic and nationality questions.

Contrary to the expectations of many, geography rather than culture is defining the fate of Central Asia. But for the first time in recent history, the peoples of this region will have a voice in defining just what the map of this part of the world looks like. And their decisions will have an important impact not only on the region but on their neighbours and on the world as a whole.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, many both inside of Central Asia and out assumed that the most important factor that would define the future of the countries and peoples of the region was Islam. Consequently, many especially in the West suggested that these countries would inevitably gravitate toward the Middle East and South Asia and that there would be a significant competition for influence in Central Asia between the secular Islam of Turkey and the more radical variant of Iran.

That "new great game" between Ankara and Tehran, however, never really happened. Despite Turkey's advantages in terms of language, resources, and secularism, Ankara was effectively eliminated from this supposed competition because it was geographically distant and because nothing coming from Central Asia could go to Turkey except by crossing a third country. At the same time, Iran enjoyed the great advantage of geography: Were it not for the poverty of the Iranian government, its isolation from the West, and the antagonism of Shiia and Sunni Muslims, Iran would have been the bridge to the West.

But if this game never happened, it nonetheless highlights an important point: geography matters profoundly in international affairs -- where a country stands depends to a large extent on where it sits -- but geography is not something that exists entirely outside of the minds of the people who are on any given map. In sum, physical geography is terribly important in the relations among states, but how states view it , that is, how they conceive their political and cultural location, may matter as much or even more.

Following the recovery of their independence, the five countries of Central Asia have had to make decisions about three different maps: the old map that linked them into the Soviet Union and still ties them to Russia, the map of their own region that defines both its limits and their interrelationships, and the new and larger map that defines their relations with various states and regions beyond their own.

Tearing Up the Old Map

For most of this century, the five countries of Central Asia -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- were subordinate to Moscow and subsumed in map defined by Russia. That map was largely accepted both by the Central Asians themselves and by most outsiders. But in 1991, that map was tossed into the scrapheap of history, a development that placed enormous challenges on both these countries and other states as well.

Many in Central Asia assumed that their political independence meant that they would have the freedom to choose their orientation and place on the map of the world. Some looked to the Islamic states for inspiration; others looked to the "little dragons" of the Pacific rim; and still others looked to the secular West.

But very quickly, the Central Asians learned that changing maps by itself did not mean changing geography. On the one hand, the Russian presence could not be ignored. Russia was and remains the most powerful influence in the region. Some of that is inertia, but much of it reflects the conscious decision of the Russian government to maintain control over what it calls "the near abroad."

And on the other hand, the Central Asians had to confront a fact that many of them still do not want to acknowledge: They are a landlocked region, surrounded by countries either locked in their own problems or interested in projecting their influence on the Central Asian states. And the Central Asians had to face the fact that while their region is immensely rich potentially, it is also fundamentally poor in fact -- not because of the qualities of its populations, as some have thought, but rather because of the difficulties of exporting its resources to create wealth.

And that geographic fact, one that the Central Asians may modify over time by diversifying production and ties with other states, has forced Central Asia to defer to Moscow more than most people there or elsewhere would like. The debates on pipelines from Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to the West have highlighted this difficulty even if they have not led everyone to reach the necessary conclusions.

Further, this geographic fact once recognized will allow Central Asians to understand why some outside powers are acting the way they are with respect to the neighbors of Central Asia. Russian policy toward Iran, Chinese policy in Xinjiang, and American policy in Pakistan all have their roots in a concern about Central Asia, a concern that suggests how central the region is to the thinking of outside powers even as it highlights how remote the region remains on the map.

A Regional Map for Themselves

Having achieved independence, the Central Asian states have also had to draw a new map for themselves. Are they five different countries with few common interests, or are they a single people cruelly divided by Stalin that must reunite? Are the divisions among them natural or are they the product of Russian imperialism in the past or even now? And equally important, what are the external borders of the place called "Central Asia"?

As every student of Central Asia knows, the divisions now in Central Asia reflect the imposition on the region of a European model of identity and development, a model that fails to capture the nature of identity in this part of the world. But to say that is not to say that there are not real differences among these peoples and these states.

Some like the borders of Kazakhstan were imposed from the outside in order to make Central Asian unity impossible. Almaaty cannot act exclusively like a Central Asian country or it risks losing control of its ethnic Russian north, but unless it does, Central Asians will not unite because they are unwilling to submit to Uzbekistan's dominance.

But others, like the location of water supplies or the history of Islamization and sedentarization, are independent of these imperial designs of divide and conquer and thus reflect real and important differences among these countries.

Drawing a map of the region then presupposes that the countries acknowledge their commonalities and their differences, drawing on commonalities where they can and recognizing their differences where they must. And a willingness on the part of all concerned to recognize that the map is more complicated than anyone inside or outside had assumed.

One point worth noting about this is that much of the discussion about Islam and Turkic unity is not about Islam or Turkishness per se rather it is an effort to find a vocabulary to discuss this new map, to define who belongs where and how to have cooperation. That may change if the repressive governments in the region, backed by outside powers interested in stability, end up giving birth to anti-Western "fundamentalist" challenges. But it is not yet the case, and assuming a better understanding of the map and of the way in which "fundamentalism" is produced won't.

But these difficulties within Central Asia as it is commonly understand pale into insignificance relative to defining the limits of Central Asia, the outer line on this new regional map. In Soviet times, the region was always called "Central Asia and Kazakhstan," a reflection of the enormous differences between the former and the latter. Since the collapse of Soviet power, some have wanted to include Afghanistan, northern Iran, Azerbaijan, Xinjiang and parts of Siberia under the rubric.

Such changes in mental maps are not trivial. If one thinks of Central Asia in one way, certain policies become inevitable. And they become impossible, if one thinks of it in a different way. Moreover, if Central Asians define their region more broadly, then their relations with the outside world will change as well. Beijing clearly does not want Xinjiang (Eastern Turkestan) in Central Asia. And Azerbaijanis bristle at any suggestion that they are part of that region as well.

Finding a Place on the Map of the World

Because most people saw Central Asia as an appendage of either the Soviet world or the Islamic world, few understood that it would inevitably have other ties as well. Some of these are defined by economics. Given that Central Asia is labor rich but capital poor, it was inevitable that these countries should have linked up with the capital-rich but labor poor states of the pacific rim.

Others are defined by politics. Some are interested in containing Russian power while other people are interested in promoting it. And still others are defined by culture, with some being interested in including Central Asia into the Muslim and even Arab world and other people being interested in preventing that from happening.

And because of these multiple and competing interests, Central Asians have a greater chance to define themselves and their map than ever before.

They can balance these various forces and thus achieve much, as soon as they recognize that they are very much back on the map and it is one of their own choosing.

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