Central Asia: Lessons for the Middle East

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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.

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  • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

    A brave article raising an important and forgotten topic: population transfers. Let's remember that the Arabs pressured the Jews to leave all Arab lands—close to 1 million Jews. The majority settled in Israel.

    The Arabs who fled the newly-created state of Israel in 1948 would have eventually moved to Arab nations if it weren't for Western aid (direct aid or through the United Nations). One doesn't have to push anyone out. The search for jobs will do it … if the welfare is cut off.

    • ObamaYoMoma

      I hate to rain on your naïve parade, but what is happening in Israel has never been an ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs. Instead, it has always been a permanent jihad of conquest being waged perpetually against the Jewish unbelievers in Israel by the Islamic world today primarily via their so-called Palestinian proxy, which were conveniently created in Moscow out of whole cloth in 1964 by the Soviet KGB to camouflage the Islamic world's permanent and perpetual jihad of conquest under a cloak of nationalism.

      • http://libertyandculture.blogspot.com/ JasonPappas

        I wasn't addressing the "Arab nationalism" vs. "Islamic jihad" issue. The author bravely raises the issue of expelling a hostile population from its border.

        Now we shouldn't lose the important perspective that you raise. Israel is on the front lines of the jihad … so is India, for that matter.

  • KarshiKhanabad

    There are a great many reaons why the U.S. should be actively involved in Central Asia. Ironically, we had an active base in Uzbekistan (I was there in 2003-4) until the politics of the Andijon incident got us kicked out in 2005. As for the patchwork nature of the Soviet-imposed borders, look at the western border of Uzbekistan and see how it was lopped off short of the Caspian Sea to give that shore to Turkmenistan. Note how the national capitals of the 'Stans all lie close to the drawn borders. Look up the destruction of the Aral Sea during the Soviet era.

    The author is correct in describing the Central Asian region as a highway for conquerors across the centuries; Uzbeks told me with pride that Alexander the Great took an Uzbek wife. Their coinage depicts Tamerlaine. The ethnic map of the area is far more complex than the artificial borders. One of the few bright spots is the changeover from Cyrillic to Latin in their written languages and the substitutiion of English in place of Russian in their schools.

  • ObamaYoMoma

    I hate to rain on those writer's parade, but what is happening in Israel is a permanent jihad of conquest is being waged perpetually by the Islamic world against the Jewish unbelievers in Israel, and in fact it is one of many permanent jihads of conquest also being waged simultaneously around the world by the Islamic world against various non-Muslim unbelievers. As the Jewish unbelievers in Israel are far from the only non-Muslim unbelievers in the world that are victims of permanent jihads of conquest being waged perpetually against them.

    Thus, instead of trying to misrepresent the permanent jihad of conquest being waged perpetually against the Jewish unbelievers in Israel by the Islamic world as somehow being an ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs, which is utterly absurd to say the least, Israel's government and foreign ministry should be meeting with all of the other various victims of permanent jihads of conquest around the world in order to form a united front with them to collectively oppose the permanent jihads of conquest being waged simultaneously against all of them. It should also at the same time refuse to negotiate with the Islamic world unless the Islamic world agrees to negotiate collectively with all of them, again because there is strength in numbers.

    Indeed, it's literally insane and suicidal at the same time for alleged supporters of Israel to pretend that the permanent jihad of conquest being waged perpetually against the Jewish unbelievers in Israel is an ethnic conflict between Jews and Arabs, when in reality it obviously is a permanent and perpetual jihad of conquest to make Islam supreme. In fact, it is just one jihad of conquest out of many jihads of conquest that collectively altogether comprise the stealth global jihad.

    • Western Canadian

      I hate to rain on your incredibly ignorant and pompous parade, oh, wait a minute, no i don’t…..

      You are an uncommonly ignorant lout and jerk, who spends his time and welfare cheques (note commonwealth spelling) composing inflated nonsense and rubbish, the basis of which is usually ascribing motives, behaviours and attitudes to the rest of the human race (as a whole, in groups and as individuals) that have nothing in common with and in no way resemble, the actual motives, behaviours and attitudes of said rest of the human race.

      Your entire existence, as pitiable as it is, consists of attacking straw men (and no doubt straw women) of your own creation, while trying to and failing to rewrite history, the koran, and anything else you have no familiarity with, but have at some point in your sad existence heard about but completely misunderstood.

      You have also apparently forgotten to take your meds again.

      • ObamaYoMoma

        I bet this leftwing Canadian twerp here wishes he could report me to the Canadian Human Rights Commission in order to censure me, as it is clear that he has a serious aversion to the truth.

        • KarshiKhanabad

          OYM, he must be a Muslim since he doesn't attempt to logically debate you but simply indulges in gratuitous insults that any smart two-year-old could outdo him in.

          Ain't it great to be an American? We can tell the Canadian Anti-Human Freedoms Commission to go pound sand and say to them, "I'm a free man, lickspittle. There's nothing you can do about it."

          Which movie did that quote come from?


          • ObamaYoMoma

            Which movie did that quote come from?

            DOCTOR ZHIVAGO

  • Indioviejo

    Very illuminating article. I like the show of futile nation building among Muslim peoples. Does anybody think we have learned the lesson ? I think not.

  • Myles

    Quite possibly the stupidest and most ignorant statements about Central Asia in 2012. And I’m guessing it will still be reigning champion come December.


  • judy Shenk

    Myles cannot find a single thing they got wrong. What a doofus!