Dilip Hiro's Inside Central Asia is a riveting account of the emergence of countries with a heavy historical baggage, and full of contradictions, from the ruins of the Soviet Union, and their endeavour to become stable nation states, with a national identity of their own.
Contextualising some of the serious problems of nation-building the Central Asian leaders have encountered since independence, the writer refers to the importance (under the Soviet rule) of administrative divisions, where the new-born states incubated.
Following the Stalinist doctrine on nationalities, the region was carved out along its ethnic and linguistic fault lines. Thus, modern-day Kyrgyzstan emerged in 1991 from the Kyrgyz Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). Kazakhstan evolved from the Kazakh ASSR, and Turkmenistan, from the Turkmenia Soviet Socialist Republic. Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are modern incarnations of former Soviet territories having majority populations of Uzbeks and Tajiks.
Although the focus was on ethnicity and language, significant ethnic and culturally distinct minorities did exist in the administrative building blocks of the erstwhile Soviet Union — a factor that has of late caused considerable social instability. Inter-ethnic tensions have flared in Central Asia, resonating across the newly established national borders.
Hiro has brought into sharp focus the challenge posed by political Islam to Central Asia — most critically, to the governments of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Partly, this has to do with the Ferghana valley that spans these countries. A traditional bastion of Islam and dotted with mosques and Madrassas, the picturesque Ferghana valley powerfully echoed the radicalisation of neighbouring Afghanistan, which peaked prior to 2001, when that country was held by Pakistan-backed Taliban. Pan-Turkism, which is committed to the establishment of traditional Turkistan, has also emerged as a major threat to the post-Soviet regimes of Central Asia. Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev is deeply worried that a vehement assertion of Turkic nationalism is bound to scare away the Slavic minority groups, especially ethnic Russians, who comprise nearly 43 per cent of Kazakhastan population and form the core of its skilled manpower.
If the Central Asian rulers have taken to authoritarian, strong-arm methods to counter the challenges posed by the forces of political Islam and ethnic or pan-Turkic nationalism, it is because of, as Hiro explains, the absence of an inheritance of democratic culture and tradition. He graphically narrates how, President Islam Karimov's regime in Uzbekistan killed, apparently in custody, Mizaffar Avazov, an Islamic militant suspect, by immersing him in boiling water. Big ticket corruption, especially in energy-rich Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan has been rampant.
As for foreign policy, Central Asia's outreach to the West, in an attempt to neutralise excessive Russian influence, has been badly hit in recent years. Soon after independence, the Central Asian leaders went into an overdrive to cultivate the United States to bolster their regimes. Post-9/11, Mr. Karimov established a “strategic partnership” with the U.S. in the wake of the so-called ‘War on Terror'. The Karshi-Khanbad base provided by Uzbekistan proved crucial in the American air campaign in Afghanistan. But Uzbekistan's 15-year old flirtation with the Americans ended abruptly, in the aftermath of the Tulip revolution — the colour-coded public insurrection, backed by the West, which overthrew the government of President Askar Akayev in Kyrgyzstan. The distancing of the Americans has brought the Russians right back into their Central Asia backyard. Hiro argues that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's unique, and authoritarian, concept of “managed democracy,” now inspires Central Asia's difficult transition to enduring political stability.
Hiro has shown an extraordinary ability in weaving seamlessly the different strands of developments, historical as well as contemporary, that led to the rise of secular authoritarianism in Central Asia. For the uninitiated, Hiro's book is a high quality primer and nuanced introduction to political and cultural history of the region. For the specialist, it opens several vistas for further research and analysis. If there is a shortcoming, it will lie in the book not adequately anticipating the resource-rich Central Asia embarking upon a course of deeper engagement with energy-hungry China, and possibly India. India may, after all, be finally arriving in the region through Turkmenistan, thanks to the four-nation deal signed recently for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline.