By Robert D. Kaplan and Lauren Goodrich
If the West is disillusioned by the Arab Spring, what may eventually happen in Central Asia is beyond its worst imaginings. The Middle East, for all its challenges, has no legacy of Stalinism, boasts Western-educated elites, knows something of capitalism and the free market and is proximate to Europe via the Mediterranean. European colonialism in the Middle East was benign in the extreme compared to that of Stalin's Soviet Union in Central Asia. There is no legacy in the Middle East of mass deportations and eradications of whole intelligentsias, as there is in Central Asia. Central Asia, in terms of modern political consciousness, is the back of beyond.
Indeed, much of Central Asia, including the demographically and geographically pivotal states of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, has yet to enter a post-Soviet phase. Such states are still governed by the same Leonid Brezhnev-style central committeemen as in the days before the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But political change of some sort must come. Central Asia probably has a big future in the news.
Throughout Central Asia, Islamic consciousness has risen over the past two decades as a moral force against the rule of often brutal, sterile and corrupt authoritarian regimes. A wild card in this regard is Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of substantial numbers of American troops from the country in 2014, the possibility arises that Islamic fighters from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan will return to their ethnic homelands and sow unrest. Yet the real chance of epochal change in former Soviet Central Asia may come less from Islamic revolution than from the passing of aged leaders themselves, who have no credible successors of the same stature, while the institutions required for successful political liberalization remain problematic. Each of these states has populations willing to challenge the regime in question. The fact is, Central Asian political elites lack essential political legitimacy, even as their populations evince less in the way of civil societies than the populations of many Arab states. The leaders themselves may in certain cases enjoy cult-like status. But that won't be true of those who follow them.
Whereas states like Yemen and Libya in the Middle East are mere geographical expressions, their borders may still have more meaning than those of Central Asian states like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan: Designed by Stalin, these so-called states were deliberately meant to conflict with ethnic settlement patterns, so as to make it impossible for them to break free of the Soviet Union. Wherever the Arab Spring leads us, the Palestinian Territories excepted, borders in the Middle East may be on the whole less disputable than those in Central Asia, should revolts take hold there.
Central Asia, with the exception of Tajikistan, is Turkic. But by further breaking the region up into ethnicities — Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen, Kyrgyz — and creating official republics, even as they made sure the clan system everywhere remained intact, the Soviets ensured that pan-Turkism would have a hard time rearing up. The result, given Stalin's artificial borders, are states that are mutually suspicious of each other and that are partial misnomers themselves. For example, there are large Uzbek populations in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, even as Tajiks dominate the slum encampments on the hills in the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand inside Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan, with 27.6 million people, is by far the most populous country in the region, with close to half of the whole population of Central Asia. This is mainly because Uzbekistan has a cartographic appendage in the northeast that encompasses most of the Fergana Valley — the demographic inkblot of Central Asia, with 10 million people. Whereas much of Central Asia is high and dry terrain, the Fergana is a well-watered depression, suitable to agriculture and packed with large populations of Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz. Ethnic rioting between these groups has been a periodic feature of post-Soviet life.
In 2005, Uzbek forces opened fire on Uzbek protesters in the Fergana (in Andijan specifically), as part of a clampdown that drew condemnation from Washington and other capitals in the West. Moscow loved this because it estranged the United States from Uzbekistan (leading eventually to the closure of a U.S. air base) and isolated Uzbekistan from straying too far from its relationship with Russia. Russia knows that Uzbekistan — because of its demographic heft and particularly assertive ethnic nationalism — constitutes the biggest threat to Russian domination of the region. But while Uzbek nationalism is vibrant, Uzbekistan as a state is weak. The clans who run the state from the capital of Tashkent are estranged from those who dominate the Fergana Valley, where much of the population lives. Politics are kept in check by President Islam Karimov, 74, who may run the most oppressive regime in the former Soviet Union. The West hates Karimov because of his human rights record. But it is not out of the question that, following Karimov, interethnic chaos will create a humanitarian disaster worse than his rule.
Kazakhstan to the north has aligned itself with Russia to balance against Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan, whose land area is larger than the rest of former Soviet Central Asia combined, is part of a customs union that includes Russia and Belarus. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, 72, conscious of the ethnic threat from Uzbekistan, actually wanted the Soviet Union to continue to exist beyond 1991. Kazakhstan may be territorially vast, but its population of 15.4 million is split between those bordering Russia and those clustered deep in the south close to the ethnic cauldron of the Fergana Valley and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Thus, it is vulnerable to political unrest.
Kyrgyzstan, with a population of 5.4 million, is in a state of constant instability because of an obvious reason journalists ignore: It is geographically divided, with the capital of Bishkek in the extreme north part of the Kazakh plain and more integral to Kazakhstan, while different clans occupy the teeming Fergana in Kyrgyzstan's southwest, separated from Bishkek by formidable mountains. You see the pattern: The Fergana is where most everyone actually lives, and it is divided among several artificial states with capitals relatively far away. It is ethnic unrest in the Fergana (as played out a little more than a decade ago), in combination with a political crisis in one or more of these capitals, that has the potential to unravel the region.
Tajikistan already had a civil war in the 1990s. Burdened by Central Asia's roughest terrain and bordering the Fergana to the north and war-torn Afghanistan to the south, Tajikistan is internally divided by clans. With virtually no industrial economy or energy production at home, many of its young men either work in Russia and Kazakhstan or fight in Afghanistan.
It is Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in particular that, unlike some other Central Asian countries, are propped up by energy wealth: principally oil in Kazakhstan and natural gas in Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan, far to the west of the Fergana, is geographically and demographically isolated, and to a greater extent than Kazakhstan, is playing China against Russia. Turkmenistan received $5 billion in loans from Beijing in 2011 and $4 billion in 2010 in order to facilitate Turkmen natural gas exports to China.
Central Asia constitutes the world's most fascinating geopolitical experiment. Its legal borders make little sense. It is fabulously rich in hydrocarbons and strategic minerals and metals. (Kazakhstan is about to become the world's largest producer of uranium and has the world's second-largest chromium, lead and zinc reserves.) It will increasingly be crisscrossed by energy pipelines in all directions. And it is politically unstable. Russia and China are battling for influence here. What the map looks like in Central Asia decades hence is perhaps harder to predict than anywhere else on the globe.