Vol. 3, No. 24 (December 15, 2010)

Rethinking Central Asia

S. Frederick Starr
Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Johns Hopkins University

(A Precise of a presentation
 Professor Starr is making to 
the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
on December 17, 2010)

Amidst the endless rush of events in the heart of the Caucasus, and the ongoing dance of external powers there, it is easy to allow Central Asia to slip from view.  By “Central Asia,” I mean the historical region including Afghanistan that has existed as a cultural zone for 3,000 years and not only the five former Soviet republics. 

The casual picture one forms from both the Russian and western press is a depressing one.  With remarkable consistency, the press of Russia, Europe, and America offer the image of a region that is dominated by primitively authoritarian governments, riddled by oligarch-led corruption, vitiated by a growing polarization of wealth, and increasingly permeated by radical Islamists who feed of the failure of governments.  

Each of these points contains an element of truth.  One-man rule (except in Kyrgyzstan), weak parliaments, corruption in high places, polarization of wealth (although this is declining in Kazakhstan), and Islamists currents are all causes for concern.  But this is only part of the picture.  The reasons for which the rest of the story is ignored are easy to identify.  Most Russian journalists have yet to accept 1991 and are eager to prove that Central Asians are incapable of governing themselves without Russia.  European and American papers have few, if any, reporters on the spot in the region and end up relying on tendentious and often carelessly researched reports by NGO organizations.

The part of the picture that we ignore is worthy of our attention.  Kazakhstan’s banks were greatly overextended and suffered during the economic crisis but are recovering well.  The growth rate of GDP is again over 8% and the country consistently seeks to maintain a balance in its international political and economic relations.

Uzbekistan’s banks were not overextended before the crisis and the government guaranteed all private savings as the crisis was about to hit.  As a result its rate of GDP growth is a solid 8.2%.  This has led a more confident Uzbek government to introduce limited reforms and extend loans to more small and middle sized private firms.
Tajikistan’s growth rate is a relatively low 3.1%, from a very low base.  This is far from what is needed but not bad in comparison to many western countries.  Poverty is widespread but solid growth for four years before the crisis began to cut into this problem.  Moreover, the National savings bank is making more and more micro-finance loans and loans to women whose husbands are working in Kazakhstan or Russia.

Kyrgyzstan, of course, has lived through two governmental crises in five years and may yet see another.  But a new government there is trying a bold experiment with parliamentary democracy, and the society possesses a significant number of modern and well-educated men and women.  Adroit moves prevented outside armed intervention and International financial institutions are committed to helping the country emerge from crisis.

Afghanistan is indeed a suffering land, with active fighting in several parts of the country and widespread deep poverty.  But over the past decade every key health indicator has increased dramatically, hundreds of new schools have opened, and large numbers of girls are being educated for the first time.  Hundreds of new firms are beginning to generate profits.

Finally, Turkmenistan has, in three years, undergone a “New Renaissance.”  Besides reconstructing the capital and secondary cities, the government has invested heavily in education and public health in what is bound to be a transformative development.  A new pipeline to China broke Gazprom’s hold on the country and will generate vast new wealth.  

More important than these “objective” developments is the gradual emergence of a new psychology throughout the region.  Instead of viewing themselves as cultural colony of Russia or, before that, of the Arab world, they are increasingly embracing the achievements of their own Turko-Persian civilization, in both the ancient times and the golden age 800-1100.  Figures like Farabi, Ibn Sino, Khorezmi, Farghani, Hayyam, Yusuf of Balasugun, Mahmud of Kashgar and Biruni are increasingly seen as the common heritage of the entire region, rising above ethnicity and political geography.  Such giants once made the region the intellectual center of the world. 

It was also the most generative center for the main religions.  Zoroastrianism was born there, Buddhism took shape there, animism, shamanism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and Judaism all flourished there.  The region helped define the very character of Islam through such figures as al-Bukhari, Ghazali, and Yasavi. 

Nor was Central Asia backwards politically.  Several of the world’s mightiest empires were based there, among them the Kushans, Parthians, Seleucids, Tuerkis, Samanids, Taurids, Ghaznavids, Ghorids, and Timurids, not to mention Babur, who was born there and began his exploits in the Ferghana Valley and Afghanistan. 

Central Asians are gradually embracing this complex and rich heritage.  They see themselves increasingly not as a periphery but a center, not as an object to be toyed with by others but as sovereign subjects with legitimate rights in the international community. 

Where will this lead?  Of course, we don’t know.  Things could slip backwards.  Yet there is reason to think this won’t happen.  Across the region there have been serious investments in education.  A new generation of young leaders has been trained abroad or had its horizons expanded by new or reformed institutions within the region.  It is only a matter of time before such men and women begin to put their stamp on Central Asia as a whole, including Afghanistan.  As this happens, one can reasonably expect new and more positive directions.  As the last Soviet generation fades, it will be replaced by a new generation whose members are more closely in touch both with the larger world and with their own cultures and heritage.  In looking to the future one must always be sober and avoid all naivety.  But surely the developments I have briefly sketched here are grounds for cautious optimism.