Central Asia: Lessons for the Middle East

Nation-building's long record of failure.

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 violence.

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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