Skip to main content

Faraway Countries

Apologies for the hiatus in blogging- caused by total lack of time.

To restart the thread I wanted to move away from UK politics- I have much to say, but I am still considering the best way to express my thoughts on the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. In any event the coalition is running smoothly for the time being, and there are more urgent issues to address overseas.

Political upheaval in the newly independent states of Central Asia do seem to make much impact in the minds of Western newspaper readers, but occasionally, the five Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan do make occasional news, albeit in a rather tangential way. The average person may have heard of Kazakhstan, if only because Sacha Baron Cohen chose to make his generic East European a Kazakh- even though most Kazakhs are not European, but rather east Asian in appearance. Perhaps others may have heard of Uzbekistan because of the campaigns of Craig Murray who, when British Ambassador in Tashkent, denounced the brutal torture and murder of opposition figures by the regime of President Islam Karimov. However, I think that over the course of the next few years we are all going to be hearing a lot more about the region- since I fear that it is becoming a geopolitical crush point that will lead to extremely dangerous instability that will threaten the security of both the West and of China.

So how can these "faraway countries of which we know nothing" (copyright Neville Chamberlain) create such difficulties? After all, they are mostly extremely poor, landlocked (in the case of Uzbekistan, double-landlocked) and indeed are very far away. Of course the same could be said of neighbouring Afghanistan- and indeed that is the root of the problem. The ethnic composition of Afghanistan includes Tajiks (Ahmad Shah Massoud, the stalwart of the Anti Soviet resistance, was a Tajik) Turkmens and Uzbeks as well as Pashto, Hazara, Baluchis and other ethnic groups.

The mosaic of ethnic groups in Afghanistan is mirrored across the rest of central Asia: Uzbekistan has several cities, including fabled Samarkand, that are majority Tajik. Kyrgyzstan has a near 20% Uzbek minority, as does Turkmenistan, while there are Russian minorities across the entire region, including nearly a quarter of the population of Kazakhstan. In fact Stalin deliberately constructed the borders of his Asian satraps so that they did not coincide with actual ethnic boundaries: particularly in the Fergana valley, which is shared between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The result is that when the former republics of the Soviet Union became independent, they were pretty fragile political units at best.

The politically fragile countries faced a series of challenges: extreme poverty, as the market of the former Soviet Union disappeared, and a flight of Russians back to the Russian Federation- many well educated workers, which the local economies could ill afford to lose. In Tajikistan, the country initially disintegrated into civil war, which was only ended with the emergence of a Russian backed strongman, Emmamoli Rahmon. Early hopes for the emergence of democratic states were dashed as the Soviet Nomenklatura stayed in power. All of the regional leaders, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, had their roots inside the Communist Party, and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made the transition form First Secretary of the local Party into Presidents of independent states almost seamlessly. The political culture has remained rooted in the corruption and brutality of the Communist era.

In fact the corruption in the region was fed by significant energy discoveries. The vast oil reserves of Kazakhstan have allowed the regime to build from scratch a new capital, Astana, in the middle of the huge land mass. Yet despite this wealth, the majority of Kazakhs remain dirt poor. In Turkmenistan, the wealth is based on giant gas fields- and the corruption of the regime reached truly baroque proportions. The President declared himself the "Turkmenbashi", the father of the nation, and renamed months of the year after himself and his mother. Perhaps fortunately he later succumbed to a massive heart attack and was replaced with a more conventionally authoritarian and corrupt regime. Uzbekistan has few resources, but is by far the most populous state in the region: and with significant Uzbek minorities in all its neighbours. Even still, there is a significant Tajik minority, which has been the subject of repression by the ruthless and brutal regime.

Overall, then the situation in Central Asia, poor, corrupt, and unstable is not a happy one. However there are yet further pressures which are undermining the already fairly grim outlook for the region. The impact of the "War on terror" as it applies to Afghanistan has only added to the political pressures on these unstable societies. Although the first President of Kyrgyzstan was not a Communist, indeed was regarded as a Liberal when first elected, he soon lapsed into the same authoritarian format as his neighbours. Eventually he was overthrown in the so-called Tulip revolution- which led to hopes that the other dictators might be forced to concede ground. However when a similar Liberal movement was formed in Uzbekistan, Karimov snuffed it out with ruthless brutality: a brutality that drew protests across the world. In Kyrgyzstan the domestic political turmoil became an arena for a struggle between the United States and Russia. The US needed a forward support base for its operations in Afghanistan, and the new government was happy to provide it. As the political pendulum swung against the Liberals, however, the Russians too demanded a base in the former Soviet Republic. The result is that the two countries both have bases within about sixty miles of each other. Neither claims to be interfering in the internal affairs of the host country, but the spies and spooks of both are much in evidence.

China is the immediate neighbour of the region, and has significant interests- not least reopening the old silk road trading route between China and Europe that existed for centuries and which the Chinese would like to develop as a faster way to access the markets of Europe.

Meanwhile individuals and groups loyal to Islamic fanaticism have also been using the region to wage a proxy struggle with both the West and the oppressive local dictatorships. The Fergana Valley, split so uncomfortably between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekstan, has been a hotbed of groups which support the agenda of Al-Qaida. Now, as unrest grips Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbeks on the Kirghiz side of the border have come under attack by forces opposed to the new leadership in the Kirghiz capital, Bishkek.

So what can we conclude from this brief tour d'horizon?

That several great Power interests: The US, Russia and China, all have interests that collide in the region- as does India, which is wary of Pakistani influence anywhere. That the dire poverty- despite the potentially huge oil and gas wealth available- and oppressive politics are creating the conditions for a major radicalization of society- possibly in the direction of Islamic fanaticism. That the impact of the war in Afghanistan, including the lucrative heroin trade, is eroding the rule of law across the region.

In short, Central Asia now resembles the Balkan peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century: a hot bed of violent instability that could create the conditions for Great Power rivalry to lead to something worse.

I fear that until we know and understand the conditions in these far away countries, we will have learn our lesson the hard way: it is not just in Afghanistan that central Asia has the power to disrupt on a global scale.


Popular posts from this blog

Cicero ReDux

By Special Request of Baroness Scott and Mark Valladares... Cicero's Songs returns: bigger, longer and uncut.
October 1st marked the half way point of the Estonian Presidency of the European Union.  Perhaps for many people such an anniversary is of passing interest at best.  Yet the conduct of the Estonian Presidency is reinforcing just how forward looking and innovative the most northerly of the Baltic States has become.
Estonia is a country that wants to live in the future, and with its openness and innovation, that future seems a lot closer than almost anywhere else in Europe
It is not that Estonia does not “do” the past: the picturesque cobbled streets of old Tallinn have tourist crowds a-plenty enjoying the mediaeval architecture in an Indian summer of sunshine and blue skies.  The real point is that Estonia refuses to be a prisoner of its past. Lennart Meri, Estonia’s President in the 1990s- who spent years of his childhood in Siberia- once told me that the country had to conc…

Trump and Brexit are the Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore in Russia's Hybrid war against the West.

In December 1941, Imperial Japan launched a surprise attack on the United States at Pearl Harbor. After the subsequent declaration of war, within three days, the Japanese had sunk the British warships, HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, and the rapid Japanese attack led to the surrender of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941 and the fall of Singapore only two months after Pearl Harbor. These were the opening blows in the long war of the Pacific that cost over 30,000,000 lives and was only ended with the detonations above Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"History doesn't often repeat itself, but it rhymes" is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain, and in a way it seems quite appropriate when we survey the current scene. 

In 1941, Imperial Japan, knowing its own weakness, chose a non-conventional form of war, the surprise attack. Since the end of his first Presidential term, Vladimir Putin, knowing Russia's weakness, has also chosen non-conventional ways to promote his domestic powe…

The American National nightmare becomes a global nightmare

It is a basic contention of this blog that Donald J Trump is not fit for office.

A crooked real estate developer with a dubious past and highly questionable finances. he has systematically lied his way into financial or other advantage. His personal qualities include vulgarity, sexual assault allegations and fraudulent statements on almost every subject. 

He lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes.

He has, of course, been under criminal investigation practically since before he took the oath of office. The indictment of some of closest advisers is just the beginning. His track record suggests that in due course there is no action he will not take, whether illegal or unconstitutional in order to derail his own inevitable impeachment and the indictments that must surely follow the successful investigation of Robert Mueller into his connections with Russia.

However, all of that is a matter for the American people. 

It is also a matter for the American people that Trump is cheating…