Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lessons from Central Asia


Central Asia: Lessons for the Middle East

Posted By Nodir Ataev and Steven Plaut On January 10, 2012

Just as the new calendar year was about to begin, new violence broke
out in the village of Andarak in southern Kyrgyzstan. Internecine
violence among the ethnic groups of Kyrgyzstan has been flaring up
periodically for years with the worst outbreaks in 2010. Kyrgyzstan
may be the closest thing to be found in Central Asia to a "bi-national
state," the sort of state that some are proposing be imposed upon the
Middle East as a "solution" to replace Israel. It is the second
poorest of the ex-Soviet republics. The two main ethnic groups in
Kyrgyzstan are the Kyrgyz, about 70% of the population, until
relatively recently in history a nomadic tribal population, and ethnic
Uzbeks, close to 20%. There are also ethnic Tajiks living in the
country. And there are lessons to learn from the violence there about
the viability of multi-ethnic states in the Middle East.

At first glance, Kyrgyzstani ethnic relations might be expected to be
idyllic. Both of the two main population groups consist of
predominantly Moslem people speaking Turkic dialects. The Tajiks are
also Moslem, speaking a language close to Farsi. Yet the country has
seen outbreaks of massive inter-ethnic violence. In June 1990, a
violent land dispute between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks erupted in the city
of Osh. In the summer of 2010, southern Kyrgyzstan was again gripped
by bloody internecine violence. (The New Year's violence this year was
between ethnic Tajiks and Kyrgyz.)

The south of Kyrgyzstan is predominantly Uzbek and was sliced off and
glued into Kyrgyzstan by the Soviets in order to provide the country
with parts of the fertile Fergana Valley. In the 1990 fighting, a
state of emergency and curfew were introduced there and the border
between the neighboring Uzbekistani and Kirghiz republics was closed.
Soviet troops were deployed to stop the violence. According to
official reports 230 people died, but unofficial figures range up to
more than 1,000.

Central Asia is a part of the globe that is known by few Americans,
with even fewer who have visited it. It is composed of countries that
almost no American can identify on a map. Yet it is nevertheless an
important region, located just north of Afghanistan and near the
heartland of the forces of the anti-Western jihad, a region whose
strategic worth is increasingly valued by the West in light of the war
against terror. And it is also a region in which there are lessons
for other parts of the world with regard to "engineering" artificial
states. In particular, it illustrates the folly of proposals to
construct "bi-national" and "multi-national" states in the Middle East
as some sort of recipe for peace.

Throughout history and until very recently, Central Asians lived
within the greater states and empires of other peoples, among them the
empires of the Chinese, Mongols, Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Turks and
Russians. Most of Central Asia was conquered by Alexander the Great
and so was opened up to "Western-Hellenistic" cultural influence quite
early. Later the region was incorporated within a series of Islamic
states, khanates, and empires, including those of Islamized Mongols.
Most of the population was Islamized, although at different paces,
with those today called Uzbeks being among the earliest to embrace the
faith, and those called the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs converting much later,
many only in the last two centuries. Historically the population of
the region did not see itself as composed of separate "nations," but
rather as heterogeneous cultural and linguistic subgroups and clans
within those larger empires, and where religious and tribal ties were
far more important than "national" ties.

The nature of statehood and nationality in Central Asia was radically
and artificially altered by the Soviets, who sought to neutralize the
political ambitions and independence of the peoples of the region
through a policy of divide and conquer. The Soviets also decided to
erect boundaries for "Socialist Republics" and similar political
structures (like "autonomous oblasts") throughout the region. Stalin
and his people intentionally drew "national" boundaries for these new
"nations" that often ignored demography and the ethnic compositions of
the populations. They drew borders in an intentional way to include
large populations of "alien" peoples in each of the new "republics"
being invented. For example, two of Uzbekistan's largest cities are
in fact ethnically Tajik.

The Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tajiks, and many others were all
interspersed throughout the territories of the "republics" in a
dizzying mosaic. Cynics suspected that the Soviets wanted such
structures to prevent ethnic-based opposition from forming, to focus
attention of the ethnic groups in conflict against one another so that
their populations would be easier to control, and to foment
Russification. The languages of these new "countries" were forcibly
and artificially transformed by requiring the use of the Cyrillic
(Russian) alphabet, although in recent years Cyrillic is being widely
replaced by the Latin alphabet. Stalinist policies of mass expulsion
of populations brought other ethnicities and other tensions to Central
Asia alongside uprooted populations from the Crimea and Georgia and
elsewhere transplanted there.

Every one of the "republics" of Central Asia sits inside artificial
borders arbitrarily drawn by the Soviets, each a sovereign
authoritarian country; Uzbekistan has retained even today its
one-party Soviet-era dictatorship. Ethnic tensions are to be found in
all the countries of Central Asia, and these sometimes produce massive

According to the United Nations, in the 2010 violence 400,000 refugees
were displaced and over 100,000 people, mainly ethnic Uzbeks, fled
across the border to neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The
Kyrgyzstani interim government headed by acting president Roza
Otunbayeva was accused of granting shoot-to-kill powers to its
security forces in the south, and was criticized by human rights
organizations. Human Rights Watch reported some involvement of
government forces in attacks on Uzbek neighborhoods.

There are several lessons that can be learned from the violence in
Kyrgyzstan. As a predominantly Moslem country Kyrgyzstan is very much
a part of the Middle East. As such, the first lesson is that in the
Middle East, bi-national and multi-national political structures do
not work well, even under the best of circumstances, and produce
inter-communal and internecine violence. Multi-ethnic Tajikistan has
also seen civil war break out among different Muslim groups in that
country. If relations among the fellow Turkic Muslims of rival ethnic
groups break down into near-civil war, then how much less viable would
be any bi-national Jewish-Arab state of the sort that the
Destroy-Israel movement is currently proposing?

Ironically, there is a related positive lesson for the Middle East
from the same region. While relations between ethnic Slavs and local
Muslims in Central Asia have often been tense and can be potentially
explosive, recent violent confrontations have been relatively rare
largely because of the massive out-migration of the Slavs to Russia
and the Ukraine. Ethnic Germans also largely emigrated. Ethnic
Russians and Ukrainians simply moved to those nation-states in which
their kin are the dominant majority.

Could not the Arab-Israeli conflict be resolved at least partly
through a similar out-migration of "Palestinians" and their relocation
into the predominantly Arab ethnic "homelands," much like the
resettlement of Central Asian Slavs? After all, "Palestinians" are by
and large people whose families migrated into what is now Israel from
neighboring countries over the past century or so, to take advantage
of rising standards of living produced by the Zionist immigrations and
investments of capital there. And Palestinian Arabs are the only
ethnic group on the planet that can choose to move to any from among
22 different sister states composed of the same ethnic group to which
they belong.

Confrontation and civil war with Slavs have been prevented in Central
Asia thanks to "transfer" of the minority Slav population to the
predominantly Slavic countries. "Transfer" has long been the bogeyman
solution that defenders of the Palestinian agenda dismiss as a racist
and colonialist idea. They prefer the "progressive" solution of
annihilating Israel and its population and erecting even more Arab
states in its territory. The same people who want Israel dismembered
reject out of hand the idea that Iraq or Syria could be made into more
tranquil places by breaking them each into smaller states with more
homogeneous populations. After all, that would be "colonialistic,"
unlike Soviet border invention.

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