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Inside Central Asia: Six Questions for Dilip Hiro


With unrest and another revolution in Kyrgyzstan, the Central Asian region is back in the news. I put six questions to Dilip Hiro, one of the region’s most prominent observers, on the basis of his recent book Inside Central Asia.

1. Your discussion of Central Asia includes Turkey and Iran, whose historical importance to the region can’t be questioned, and who continue to play significant roles that you describe—but you omit discussion of Afghanistan, even though its centrality to current Central Asian politics is apparent from every morning newspaper. Explain your call.


My answer lies in examining the list of the 68 countries attending the international conference on Afghanistan hosted by Britain in London on January 28. Of the three Central Asian republics present – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – only Tajikistan has a common border with Afghanistan. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the remaining two immediate Central Asian neighbors of Afghanistan, were absent. Their absence was all the more striking when juxtaposed with the presence of such countries as Cyprus, Slovenia, and Switzerland: they are not members of NATO and have no or little contact with or interest in Afghanistan.

So it is hard to agree with the statement about Afghanistan’s centrality to current Central Asian politics being highlighted in the Western press. What comes through in the Western media, though, is the inextricable linkage between Afghanistan and Pakistan; and rightly so.

Nonetheless I have described at length the impact that the events in Afghanistan have had on Central Asian republics, starting with the Soviet Union’s military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979. I have also dealt in detail with the Taliban’s capture of Kabul in September 1996 and how the independent Central Asian states and Russia reacted.

Overall, the recent history of Afghanistan is incorporated into the general narrative of Central Asia, with emphasis on its impact on Afghanistan’s immediate Central Asian neighbors, particularly Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. By the way, this is also the case with Russia: its relationship with the Central Asian republics is a common thread in the chapters dealing with individual regional states.

2. Turkmenistan is generally reckoned the most “closed” of the Central Asian societies. We’re now three years into the presidency of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. Western governments greeted Berdymukhammedov with hope for improvements, at least in education and health care, and opportunities for gas exploration and development. Have these expectations been disappointed?

In domestic policies, Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s record is mixed. On the positive side, he ordered the removal of the ubiquitous photographs of his megalomania precedent, Saparmurat Niyazov, from public buildings. He did the same with the miniature of Niyazov’s face crowning the Neutrality Arch in the capital of Ashgabat, which lit up a corner of TV screens. Niyazov’s name was excised from the country’s patriotic oath. And Berdymukhammedov redenominated bank notes, removing Niyazov’s portrait from all but the highest 500 manat ($150). In a bold move, he ordered the demolition of the Neutrality Arch, a giant tripod, topped by gold-plated statue of Niyazov set to rotate 360 degrees to face the sun, dominating the skyline of Ashgabat.

Furthermore, he extended compulsory education to the original eleven years, from Niyazov’s curtailed nine. He re-introduced the teaching of foreign languages in schools. He also restored pensions that had been severely cut by his predecessor, and state maternity benefits.

On the negative side, while forbidding ostentatious celebration of his birthday, Berdymukhammedov awarded himself with a huge gold-and-diamond pendant and issues silver and gold coins with his portrait. Also large portraits of him appeared on public buildings and major intersections. He reinforced the ban on ballet. And students were still required to wear traditional dress at school. Above all, fear has persisted. The mere mention of his name in public makes locals twitch, flinch, whisper, fall silent, or look the other way.

In the hydrocarbon industry, Western oil corporations have so far drawn a blank. During Berdymukhammedov’s first year as president, the Russian behemoth Gazprom agreed to buy 50 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas annually out of its total output of 62 billion cubic meters. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) signed up to develop a giant gas field with a commitment to purchase 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually for 30 years to be delivered to China’s Xinjiang province through a 1,140 mile pipeline traversing Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Last December Chinese president Hu Jintao turned the gas valve at the Turkmen town of Saman-Depe in the presence of his counterparts from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

3. Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov seems to invite a test for the West—how much do human rights really matter? After the massacre in Andijan, he was the subject of tough talk from the United States and sanctions from the European Union. How has Karimov managed this?

The short answer is: geography and hydrocarbons. Its common borders with the other four Central Asian republics as well as Afghanistan makes Uzbekistan the region’s most strategic country. It is also the most populous, accounting for half of Central Asia’s population. Its president Islam Karimov knows this; and so do the leaders of the European Union (EU) and the United States.

The massacre of 187 (the official figure) to 500 unarmed civilian in the Uzbek city of Andijan in May 2005 shocked the world. After calling for an international investigation, the Bush administration temporized partly because Russia and China opposed it, and partly because it was keen to maintain the use of Karshi-Khanabad airbase for U.S. troops and warplanes needed for Afghanistan. Taking umbrage at Washington’s criticism and strong condemnation in the American media, Karimov ended the Pentagon’s lease of the airbase. His move gained the backing of the Beijing-based six-member Shanghai Cooperation Organization. During his visit to Beijing in July 2006, he signed a $600 million joint venture with a Chinese energy corporation.

As for the EU and its ban on military sales to Tashkent, Karimov noted that Germany was eager to see that the EU did not irredeemably antagonize Uzbekistan, which possessed much-needed natural gas. He therefore allowed Germany to keep a military base in Termez, a town on the Uzbek-Afghan border. In return Berlin lobbied hard to see the EU lift its economic sanctions on Uzbekistan.

4. The last Kyrgyz president, Askar Akayev, left quietly in the face of a popular uprising against him. The current president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, seems determined to use violence to suppress the current demands for his departure. How do you assess the situation in Kyrgyzstan this week?

The Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 resulted in the flight of President Askar Akayev, following his rigging of the parliamentary elections. By promising to curtail presidential powers and eradicate corruption, Kurmanbek Bakiyev got elected president. But once in office he reneged. The long-running tug-of-war between the parliament and president on the division of power resumed. By introducing a new electoral law and founding his own party, Ak Zhol (Bright Path), he gained control of the legislature in the 2007 election.

Despite his enhanced powers, Bakiyev failed to tackle persistent corruption and the rise of the black economy. To silence the growing disaffection, he adopted Russian president Vladimir Putin’s strategy of establishing “managed democracy” by harassing opposition leaders and shackling the media.

Responding to Bakiyev’s plea for financial aid in the wake of the global credit crunch of 2008, Russia wrote off debt of $180 million and provided a loan of $300 million, with a promise of a $1.7 billion investment in the Kyrgyz hydro-electric projects. But he reneged on his promise to end the Pentagon’s lease of the Manas air base, a crucial hub for its campaign in Afghanistan. He renewed the lease for a higher rental and secured the Obama administration’s assurance that it would not criticize his election malpractices or human-rights violations.

So, in a role reversal, the Russian-language TV channels, popular in Kyrgyzstan, marked the Tulip Revolution’s fifth anniversary last month by highlighting Bakiyev’s misrule. This came in the midst of rising popular disaffection caused by the steep hikes in water and electricity charges imposed in January. A swiftly cobbled coalition of opposition groups called for national protest on April 7.

The subsequent popular uprising, resulting in 75 deaths, led to Bakiyev fleeing to his home town of Jalalabad. The interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva received its de facto recognition when Putin phoned the new leader. While a NATO spokesman said that flights to the Manas airbase had been suspended, Otunbayeva indicated that she would look to the Kremlin for “further assistance.”

5. Kazakhstan’s Saparmurat Nazarbayev will shortly travel to Washington for a face-to-face meeting with Barack Obama. He launched impressive reforms in Kazakhstan that led to a significant independent financial services sector. But economic woes and persecution by his government seem to have brought down the nascent banking industry and many of the nation’s oligarchs have fled abroad. Did the West oversell Kazakhstan as a model for economic and political reform in the region?

Once again the answer lies in geography and hydrocarbons. A huge country, four-fifths the size of India, with a miniscule population of 20 million sitting atop huge reserves of oil and gas, and abutting Russia and China, Kazakhstan has a place of its own in Central Asia.

Soon after independence in 1991, President Saparmurat Nazarbayev went all out to expand the idea of private property where everything before was owned by the state. This applied as much to retail trade as it did to banking. With Chevron and Exxon Mobil leading a consortium planning to invest $20 billion in exploring and extracting oil and gas, the need for private banking soared.

But, as elsewhere in the non-Western world, oil and gas are as much a source of national wealth as they are of large-scale corruption at the top. When it comes to sharing the returns from hydrocarbons, it is not uncommon to see the political and economic elite bickering and turning against one another. Such became the case in Kazakhstan when oil prices fell below $10 a barrel in 1999.

By the time the price rose to $75 a barrel in 2006, Kazakhstan had become as corrupt as Angola, Libya, and Pakistan, according to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indictors. The following year Nazarbayev had the pliant parliament amend the constitution to exempt him from the two-term limit on presidency and seek re-election as many times as he liked.

Hardly the political and economic reform model that the West had in mind for the rest of the region in 1992.

More recently, there was hope in Western capitals that with Kazakhstan named in 2007 to chair the 56-member Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)–dealing with human rights, freedom of the press, fair elections, and arms control–in 2010, the Nazarbayev government would liberalize the political system. The contrary happened. Assured of trumpeting Kazakhstan as “the leader of Europe,” Nazarbayev became more intolerant of the opposition than before, resulting in the harassment and even murder of leading oppositionists and independent journalists.

6. You describe Turkey’s historical cycle, in which civilian governments that test the bounds of the secular state invariably run into pushback from the military—sometimes in the form of imposition of a military government. But recent news from Turkey points to a foiled coup against the current AK Party government. Is the military’s era as a “guarantor” of Kemalist policies now past?


Yes. More importantly, in the words of Mehmet Altan, a leading Turkish columnist, “Kemalism is dead, but nobody knows how to dispose of the corpse.”

What is remarkable about the continuing arrests inter alia of serving and retired military officers in an alleged plot to overthrow the government of the Islamist-inspired Justice and Development Party (known as the AK Party) in 2004 is that their two coup attempts were aborted.

The bottom line is the public support the AK Party has garnered. Its 47 percent popular vote is unprecedented and is two-and-a-half times its secular rival. This is the end result of the massive migration of peasants to urban areas that has occurred since the 1960s. While these rural folks have retained their religiosity they have lost their awe of the deeply secular upper-middle and upper-class compatriots. The arrival of telephones and myriad TV channels has helped the process. A 2006 survey showed 59 per cent of Turks describing themselves as “very religious” or “extremely religious.”

The comparatively corruption-free governance by the AK Party, combined with an adroit management of the economy, has helped it to rise above the earlier established parties that were often corrupt to the core.

Its active pursuit of Turkey’s full membership of the EU required it to expand human, democratic, and minority rights. It did so by effecting the most thoroughgoing reform of the laws and standards. At the same time, the AK Party continued to nurture the grassroots organization it had inherited from the now dissolved Islamist Welfare and Virtue parties. It stuck firmly with the strategy of working from the bottom up–a reversal of the way Kemalists had operated, from the top down. So its rule decimated the Kemalist statism.

A prime condition for EU membership is the civilian control of the military. To meet it, the National Security Council with its military majority–the highest executive authority since 1982–was turned into a consultative body in 2003 with its military membership reduced from five to one. That ended the domination of the military in the Turkish politics.

Little wonder that when, in the course of investigating the 2003 plot to overthrow the AK Party government, 49 serving and retired military officers were arrested in February 2010, the top military leaders did nothing more than issue a short bland statement.

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