Rashid on Central Asia
[Mike King, in the New York Review of Books]
Two springs ago I found myself plowing through a sequence of books on the history of countries in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and along the Black Sea. (See, for instance, my post on Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road.) At the same time, the Seattle Art Museum had an exhibition on Central Asian ikats (post here) that reinforced my newfound interest in the region. And then a brochure arrived highlighting a trip to Central Asia and the Caucasus this October sponsored by the Met. (Bad timing.)
No surprise, then, that when I saw an article by Ahmed Rashid with the title Why, and What, You Should Know About Central Asia in the table of contents of the current New York Review of Books, I went straight to it. The article is behind a paywall, so you won’t be able to read it in full without subscribing. Too bad.
The opening draws one right in.
On the freezing night of December 12, 1991, in the heart of Central Asia, I stood on the icy tarmac of the airport outside Ashkhabad, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Turkmenistan, watching as the five former Communist Party bosses and future presidents of the republics of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan arrived wearing fur coats and hats. The honor guard, the military band, and the dancing girls holding frozen flowers went through elaborate drills, shivering all the while as the dignitaries’ planes landed.
It was a critical moment in the history of the world. Four days earlier Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus had signed a treaty dissolving the Soviet Union. The five republics were now suddenly independent but nobody had consulted the Central Asian leaders themselves. Angry, frustrated, fearful, feeling abandoned by their “mother Russia,” and terrified about the consequences, the leaders sat up all night to discuss their future.
It was strange to see the heirs of conquerors of the world—Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, and Babar—so cowered. They were tied to Moscow in thousands of ways, from electricity grids to road, rail, and telephone networks. Central Asia had become a vast colony producing raw materials—cotton, wheat, metals, oil, and gas—for the Soviet industrial machine based in western Russia. They feared an economic and social collapse as Yeltsin cast them out of the empire. That night a deputy Turkmen foreign minister told me, “We are not celebrating—we are mourning our independence.”
Rashid reviews three books and two reports, all in the context of what may happen in the region after the US departs from Afghanistan next year. The closing two paragraphs give a sense of what’s at stake.
Tumultuous changes could well be in store—both internally as the Central Asian states are forced into greater reforms and democratization through pressure from below, and by policies pursued by the regional big powers. That the US is more or less exiting the region, while Russia faces a deep economic and political crisis that is unacknowledged by its leaders, will leave China in an even stronger position in Central Asia and Afghanistan. What, if anything, China, with all its strength, may do in the region is a mystery.
Sir Halford Mackinder, the nineteenth-century political theorist, viewed Central Asia as “the pivot region of the world’s politics” and “the heartland” because, he said, “it is the greatest natural fortress in the world.” He reckoned that whoever controlled Central Asia would exercise enormous power. But no power has achieved control there and the battle for influence will take different directions after 2014. One of the great dangers for the US and other Western powers will be continuing ignorance and neglect of what is happening there.
I’m particularly intrigued by one of the books under review, Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, which came out in May. Rashid writes:
The weird, the strange, the corrupt, and the grand are all evident in Philip Shishkin’s Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia. He writes primarily about Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan—at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Tiny Kyrgyzstan has a population of just 5.5 million people who live in the highest mountain ranges in the world, with no resources except sheep herding and income from a single gold mine. They have tried hard to become a democratic state—overthrowing two presidents to do so. The result, not surprisingly, has been more misery and much chaos.
Shishkin, an American journalist of Russian origin, captures these events in a far corner of the world with breathless and poetic prose. … He relentlessly pursues and then tells the stories of the most corrupt and powerful and also the most sincere and admirable characters who inhabit these mountains.
If you can get hold of Rashid’s article, it’s well worth reading.