OCA #22 SUMMER 2016 WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the proclaimed independence from it by the republics of Central Asia, the region has had a hard time intergrating its past into its future. A region that was once on the crossroads of great empires, from Alexander the Great’s invasion of Bactria (in modern day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) to being conquered by the Russian empire in the 19th century. The history of the region involves a constant tale of displacement and transition. The 5 republics that occupy the territory formerly known as Turkestan did not exist a century ago. Their creation is as a result of a project of tinkering and tampering by the Soviet communists.
After the Bolsheviks came to power, they inherited a region with a complex situation, that was as diverse culturally as it was politically, and also faced complex problems with language and religion. The danger lay in independent groups like the Basmachi movement, who could seize upon any situation and assert their own control over the territory and set a precedent for other parts of Russian empire that were thriving for secession and self-control. It was important to spread the doctrine of communism and establish the idea of socialism among the now defunct Russian empire, to create a society that would share ideals, principles and goals, and where the cultural and religious differences were minimised.
Different strategies were developed to establish the Bolshevik’s power. They tried to integrate different cultures and ethnicities under one common idea, imposing a common language (Russian) that would break cultural and nationalistic boundaries and establish an easier path to literacy as education would become transformed from being accessible only to the privileged to being available to all. It took huge effort to educate a region that is believed to have had a literacy rate of just 2-3% of the population. However those achievements came at a cost, since the main goal of the Bolsheviks was the development of communism, which required the reduction of its people’s national self-awareness in order to make their languages and cultures less relevant.
Another policy that had an impact on Central Asia were Agro-Water reforms. It was a project that brought a lot of positive economic impact as land that was seized by Russian imperialists was given back to farmers under certain guidelines. The Bolsheviks provided a larger part of the region with electricity and industrialised and urbanised other smaller cities. In all, the Bolshevik reforms bought a lot of good to the region: they educated the people who were otherwise illiterate, gave women an equal presence in society and industrialised and developed the republics economically.
However with all this good also came pain, none more so than after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Suddenly the region faced a political vacuum that had to be filled when the republics declared independence. The newly formed states (Republic of Uzbekistan Republic of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Republic of Tajikistan, Republic of Turkmenistan) faced a period of great uncertainty and instability as the newly formed states had no blueprint for self-governance. After the declaration of independence, the states held presidential and parliamentary elections where the only people that had the platform to be elected were the same communist bureaucrats that were in power administratively before the collapse. It is unsurprising reflecting back that this should be the case as no-one had known anything else under communism. These leaders have faced serious challenges as the borders of their states were disputed, their resources were unevenly distributed and their spheres of influence constantly disturbed.
Today after twenty-five years of independence all of these states have, sadly, failed in addressing these issues, besides the bilateral relationships between the republics, there are very few positive examples of an integrated relationship in the region. The trade of products and goods between the five states accounted only for 10% of the trade in the region as a whole. There are no day to day functioning economic or military unions between the states, and the only unions that the countries are part of are maintained by their bigger brothers like China and Russia. Asking for stability is asking for a lot from states that were a cut out of the Soviet vision, and while their existence is now close to three decades, it is fundamentally clear that the biggest path for success in Central Asia would be integrating the countries, creating unions and blocs that would develop more co-operation between the states, reform the governments and tear down the borders that suffocate the free flow of goods. The main path for integration lies in democratisation and economic cooperation of the region, but as of now they are still stuck in political transit, where every country’s individual strategy is directed towards the internal problems of social and political development.