When the Soviet Communist monolith collapsed in December 1991, five Muslim states emerged as Central Asian Republics (CARs). Little was known about most of these states, save by dedicated academics who, almost overnight, were very much in demand to assess and speculate. The result has been a scramble to rediscover heretofore closed societies. As this volume demonstrates, however, this attention has been both helpful and insidious.
The New Geopolitics of Central Asia and Its Borderlands is the cumulative effort of a 1992 Massachusetts Institute of Technology symposium sponsored by the Center for International Studies. The eleven essays presented here by prominent area specialists, including a Russian, an Iranian and a Pakistani, were updated to 1993.
Interestingly, the volume concentrates on the geopolitical implications to the breakup of the USSR in the heart of Asia, taking as a central theme that a new "Great Game" is developing with parallels in the Russian-British rivalry of the last century to which that term was first applied. According to the authors, the new game is vastly more intricate because it involves the aspirations of several ideological tendencies, including "Pan Turanism," "Pan-Iranian nationalism," "Pan-Islam" and "Pan-Westernism." All recognize, nevertheless, that Russia remains a dominant power for the CARs.
To be sure, Central Asia and the Caucasus are embedded in a vast territory stretching from the Black Sea in the west to China in the east. Moreover, since the area was an arena for competition between Asian, Middle Eastern and Western powers even prior to the communist takeover in the 1920s, there will naturally be an attempt to regain what was once lost to Moscow. Still, Russia has not abdicated its perceived interests in the region and, given dramatic changes in Moscow, may yet reassert itself despite Turkish, Iranian or Western influences.
Although Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even Azerbaijan may not want to remain under Russian tutelage, there is little evidence that they are actively seeking to replace one imperialist power with another, no matter what its origins and no matter how many cultural, linguistic or religious affinities may exist between them and Turkey, Iran Pakistan or other Muslim states. Indeed, few Central Asians crave to resurrect a domineering empire to rule over them, when hardly any time has passed since the demise of the USSR. Westerners, especially Americans, who favor the Turkish option for Central Asia, for example, remain oblivious to this major point. In fact, the 1991-92 pro-Turkish hoopla, including Islam Karimov's off-handed remark that Tashkent regarded Ankara "as an elder brother," (p. 155) has now been replaced by more thoughtful insights throughout Central Asia and Azerbaijan.
Despite such fundamental reassessments, the essays here underline the usefulness of the "secular" Turkish model for the CARs. Few would argue that Turkey has taken a leading role in the region since 1991 ostensibly because of its linguistic and cultural affinities with the predominantly Turkic peoples there. Still, Ankara is-rightly or wrongly-perceived by a vast majority of Central Asians as a hegemonic power, a potential empire builder that is not necessarily welcome. Moreover, the fact that Ankara represents secular values, is not endearing to those who thirst for religious traditions and values. This reality is widespread despite what some might perceive as a troubling "Islamic Revival" (Rumer, p. 83).
The fundamentalist theme is best analyzed by Graham Fuller, who offers an apocalyptic view of the region, arguing that increased ethnic and national tensions and a growth of Islamic radicalism are inevitable. Fuller posits that the civil war in Tajikistan could spill over into, and eventually break up, Afghanistan or even destabilize India and Pakistan. Others offer less extreme forecasts but often highlight particular political penchants. Seyed Kazem Sajjadpour identifies Iran's interests as stabilizing. In his useful essay, Sajjadpour argues that Iran is not spreading radicalism of the Islamic variety or otherwise. When contrasted, however, the Fuller and Sajjadpour essays highlight another example of what is contradictory in these studies. Whereas Fuller believes that "to be a Muslim [in Central Asia] is to be a Turk (except in Tajikistan) and to be a Turk is to be a Muslim" (p. 26), Sajjadpour underlines how Islam serves as a "common cultural denominator" (p. 199). Clearly, there is an identity crisis here that needs attention and, eventually, a solution. This debate is not new and has been going on in several countries-including Turkey-for some time. Its parameters have now been enlarged to include every CAR. It is therefore difficult to ascertain that Turkey "is the spiritual center of a large Turkic world" (p. 42) as Fuller asserts, arguing that the importance of the Arab world has been proportionally diminished. Given that Islamic fundamentalism in on the rise throughout the Arab/Muslim world, it would mean that the Arabs-not the secular Turks-have a lock on Islam. For millions of Muslims around the world, Turks or "westerners" aspiring towards secularism are not a model to emulate.
For Martha Brill Olcott, who provides a brilliant expose as to what the USSR has done to the area, this issue is a non-starter: people are what they are (p. 64). She brilliantly points out how critical this identity crisis is, whether one discusses the influence of clans in traditional societies or issues dealing with religion or language. Olcott posits that although much has been written about linguistic or religious similarities, few members of the CAR nomenclature can, in fact, communicate in their native Turkic tongues. Even fewer pretend to follow established religious norms. Olcott reports vignettes that shed remarkable light on opportunist dictators who pretend to rule in the name of lslam but are, in reality, nothing more than loyal apparatchiks.
Momentous developments are under way in Central Asia and events are moving fast throughout the region. Despite its shortcomings, this book is a valuable addition to the literature because it captures how early predictions proved to be premature.