Samarqand. Courtesy Cyber Uzbekistan
By Alidad Mafinezam
New Brunswick, New Jersey
A review of Shireen Hunter's "Central Asia Since Independence" (published by Center for Strategic and International Studies , CSIS, 1996)
The term "Central Asia," so widely used today among academics and foreign policy strategists, was little more than a geographic technicality before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The term has been popularized to celebrate the end of communist hegemony and to lend ideological support to the cause of loosening Moscow's lingering influence in what used to be the southern reaches of the Soviet empire.
Composed of five newly-independent Muslim countries to the West of the Caspian Sea -- Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan -- Central Asia is thus more a political entity than a precise geographic denotation. The geographic center of Asia falls in Russia, but pundits take great care never to include Russia as a part of Central Asia.
Central Asia, then, is a post-Cold War political construction. The definition used in most of the two dozen recent books available in English on the region is rightly limited to the above-noted newly-independent countries. But Shireen Hunter's "Central Asia Since Independence" begins by questioning conventional wisdom, arguing that Afghanistan and northeastern Iran are also a part of Central Asia.
This initial confusion notwithstanding, Hunter has produced a book about Central Asia that uniquely connects the abstractions of political and institutional theory to contemporary, hands-on strategic assessment. This is impressive because constrained by the demands of brevity, Washington think tanks -- in this case, Center for Strategic and International Studies, with which Hunter is affiliated -- often publish books and policy papers that pay little attention to theory and history, even less to culture.
Hunter's book may not be the most comprehensive work available on Central Asia, but it is one of the most user-friendly. In 170 pages, Hunter provides a much-needed and praiseworthy context for Western policy planning.
Having constructed a historical and cultural map against which to judge the region's current predicament, "Central Asia Since Independence" discusses political ideology and the challenges of institution building, looking individually at five countries beleaguered by the legacy of seven decades of Soviet economic inefficiency, political repression, and international isolation. The book then looks at these countries' relations with one another and with outside powers, ranging from Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, China and other East Asian powers, to Arab states, India, Pakistan, Israel and the United States.
While the breakup of colonial empires is usually driven by the anti-colonial struggle of citizens of the periphery, the political independence of Central Asia came about through the unraveling of the center. Lacking any pre-Soviet experience of nationhood, Central Asians took their independence from Moscow as an unwanted gift. Their geographic boundaries had been created not naturally over common ethnicity or culture, but artificially, on the basis of the whims of Kremlin autocrats. Hunter makes this point repeatedly lest we exaggerate the political yearning of Central Asians to break away from Moscow, or their current capability to chart an independent foreign policy.
Unlike the states of the Caucasus, Central Asian states -- except Tajikistan -- have managed to stay clear of post-independence civil war. Considering that the Caucasian states have manifested a greater desire to separate from Moscow, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the yearning for autonomy and the ability to avert civil war. Those who prematurely defend a Western-Central Asian strategic alliance as a means of loosening Russia's stranglehold may be spelling out the recipe for disaster.
All current Central Asian dictators are former communists with deep ties to Moscow, ties that have managed to maintain an impressive measure of political stability despite extreme economic dislocation. Hunter correctly sees the most pressing challenge of Central Asian states not in loosening Moscow's influence, nor in accelerating free-market reform, but in political institution building and the establishment of a mechanism for the peaceful transfer of power.
The region's institutional underdevelopment and ethnic heterogeneity could spur violent power struggles if any of the current rulers were to depart in the near future. To strike a balance between undoing Moscow's stranglehold on the one hand, and maintaining stability on the other, is the greatest challenge of policy making for outside powers.
Hunter is critical of Western multinational corporations for further widening the gap between a well-connected minority who have rapidly amassed considerable wealth, and the rest of the population whose standard of living has seen a precipitous decline. Outside involvement should aim to spur a steady growth of the region's economies, taking care not to further strain the already fragile system with economic and political contradictions.
While she mentions the drawbacks of greater Iranian involvement in Central Asia, including the ideological, anti-Western posture of Iranian rulers, Hunter disagrees with the current U.S. policy to isolate Iran from Central Asia. As a stable country with relatively well-developed institutions and transportation networks, Iran is ideally located to connect Central Asian economies to outside markets. The newly-independent states will continue to craft their foreign policies more on the basis of strategic and economic calculation, than through religious or ethnic affinity. This will make the spread of militant Islam -- a main worry of the United States -- an unlikely development.
For all its positive attributes, the book never makes explicit why we should attach so much importance to the future of Central Asia. Hunter discusses the energy deposits of the region and the various possible routes for transporting Central Asian oil and gas to international markets via pipeline, but does not mention the extent of Central Asia's oil and gas riches. Nor does the book provide compelling reasons for the region's political significance.
The fate of Central Asia in the twenty-first century will bear directly on the global balance of power, not just because of the region's vast energy reserves -- considered second only to the Persian Gulf -- but also because Central Asia geographically connects China, Russia and Iran, three countries destined to remain central U.S. foreign policy concerns in the decades ahead.
Any attempt by Beijing, Moscow and Tehran to forge stronger economic and strategic ties in the future will have to be anchored in their cooperation in Central Asia. If we give Huntington's thesis on the clash of civilizations any credence, as the millennial crossroads of Confucian, Slavic, and Irano-Islamic civilizations, Central Asia will have to be seen as a region of immense strategic significance.
The main demand for energy in the twenty-first century will come from the East. Geographically much closer to Russian and Central Asian energy reserves than is the United States, the rising Asian countries will have a strong stake in establishing a deep political foothold in and around the Caspian Sea. The ancient Silk Road between Iran and China will likely become an energy road.
The successful projection of American power in this region, then, will have to be a cornerstone of US foreign policy. Failure on this front could spell the beginning of the decline of the United States as the preeminent global power in the next century.
Alidad Mafinezam is a PhD candidate at the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey. His dissertation deals with the impact of the U.S. Congress on economic sanctions.
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Shireen Hunter is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. She was formerly the director of Middle Eastern Studies at CSIS. Before 1979, she was in the Iranian foreign ministry.
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