Saparmurat Niyazov Turkmenbashi the Great, dictator of Turkmenistan, recently died. The political class of this remote Central Asian republic rallied round his look-alike successor. Long Live Turkmenbashi! At first glance, there seems little for the outside world to cheer in the trajectory of politics of Turkmenistan, or for that matter the other Central Asian “stans : Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan. Since they spun almost unwillingly free of the Soviet Union 15 years ago, few have done much to move on from state-centered rule.
Ruling elites are plagued by nepotism, corruption and the suppression and occasional killing of dissidents. Add a decade-long international media obsession with the bizarre extremes of Turkmenbashi’s personality cult, and the invention of a ridiculous Kazakhstan for the spoof film “Borat, and Central Asia’s eclipse would appear complete. So was the West wasting its time playing the new “Great Game for Central Asia? No. The stakes remain high: This is a moderate-minded Muslim region that has a strategic expanse equivalent to Western Europe, a young population of 55 million, and natural resources ranging from 4 percent of the world’s energy reserves to 20 percent of its uranium. But the West has to become more realistic about how fast and in what way monopolistic states will move towards the rule of law and democratic rights. And above all, let’s not forget how far Central Asia has already come since the dying days of the Soviet Union. Fifteen years ago, life proceeded at a crawl in a dead-end place like Turkmenistan. Thinly stocked shop shelves rarely carried more than rough Eastern European plastics and shiny ceramic kitsch. Finding food of any kind was a constant struggle, even in hotels in the capital, Ashgabat. The city’s long, leafy boulevards were indistinguishable from one another, empty of people and innocent of basic facilities like taxis. Nobody had it easy. The first US ambassador worked from a small, plywood room in the best Communist Party hotel and met his visitors with a line of socks hanging up to dry along one wall.
The closest it had to a free market was the Ashgabat Sunday bazaar on the edge of the desert south of the city–an almost medieval wonder where men in shaggy hats would size up camels and women in gorgeous flowing gowns bargained for silver trinkets still made of hundred-year-old coins. Being left behind nurtured a profound inferiority complex in the Turkmen people and leadership, shared to various extents by their neighbors. It wasn’t all Central Asia’s fault. The region suffered more than a century of discriminatory Russian and Soviet policies. Just one famine engineered by Joseph Stalin in 1931-1934 killed 40 percent of the Kazakhs alone. Most Central Asians are Muslims who speak non-Slavic languages, but Moscow always privileged Russian culture and gave Slav immigrants the best jobs.
The Soviet Union worked to eliminate the Turkic, Tajik and other local cultures and their intellectual, religious and aristocratic leaderships. Central Asia endured pogroms, assimilation and devices like changing their alphabets from the traditional Arabic script into odd varieties of Cyrillic. Small wonder, then, that the first 15 years of independence involved a steep learning curve for all the Central Asian republics, especially as the Slav technocrat and urban elites headed back west. All states suffered and overcame crises ranging from hyperinflation to coups to Tajikistan’s 1992-1997 civil war. Poverty remains widespread. But there has been no post-colonial collapse. Outsiders may laugh at the late Turkmenbashi’s fantasy marble palaces and gilded statues in central Ashgabat, and the $50 million Turkmen theme-park outside town, but the patient Turkmen people, remembering the void and scorn before, can view them with a certain pride. In Uzbekistan, the regime has a mania for control, and its policies can amount to enforced rural poverty and murder of political opponents. But to an outsider its cities still look livelier and more prosperous than in Soviet times.
Kyrgyzstan, with no wealth but its mountains and dams, developed a more happy-go-lucky attitude, and its people have become Central Asia’s pioneers in fighting for more democratic government. The best-run state, however, is the vast territory of Kazakhstan, whose strong banking system has helped propel its credit rating past Russia’s. While no democracy, Kazakh stability and prosperity are fostering some institutions and another essential ingredient for future democratic development: Central Asia’s first real middle class. All in all, a remarkable number of US goals set in the early 1990s have been quietly achieved. The region is now out of the exclusive control of Russia. Kazakhstan handed over its nuclear weapons. Governments in the region are relatively stable and secular.
Islamist extremism remains a minor threat. Oil production from the region is well on its way to adding a few percentage points to world supply. US-based oil majors Chevron and ExxonMobil are still by far the two biggest players in Central Asian oil, with more than $32 billion invested; 10 other Western oil companies have invested the same amount. A new westward energy corridor that avoids both Russia and the Middle East has opened. A vast, independent region does now act as a strategic buffer between Russia, China and the Middle East.
Iran has stayed a minor influence, although that is perhaps less because of American anti-Iran policies than because of the way Iran’s economic weakness and bureaucratic foibles make it a paper tiger anyway. There are plenty of reasons why the West should work harder, especially Europe. Right now, Russia and China are busily gaining ground, new oil and gas developments are pointing east rather than west, and in 2005 the US lost one of its two air bases used in support of its troops in Afghanistan. Since June 2001, a regional security grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, has deliberately excluded the United States and privileged Russia and China.
Turkmenistan’s existing gas exports are mainly to Russia’s Gazprom, but the recent change in leadership has provided an opportunity for the West to try for new fields; the likely new president – elections are scheduled for February 11 – is a Turkmen nationalist, and can be wooed. Europe, in particular, can no longer count on this kind of work being done by the US. In Kazakhstan, the regime is prickly because of a US court action accusing the president of bribe-taking. Central Asian states in general are convinced that the US “freedom agenda aims at regime change along the lines of popular revolutions-cum-coups since 2003 in Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. As German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said after touring the region in December, Central Asia has an “urgent desire for a European Union role. After all, Central Asians know that it is not their own strength, but the balance of superpowers around them that has given them what independence they have so far enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Throughout the region, this independence has allowed new national cultures to put down roots. Apart from the Persian-speaking Tadjiks, these cultures are mainly Turkic. As they look forward, policymakers should consider parallels with the development of Central Asians’ ethnic cousins in Turkey. Since 1923, the Turkish model has moved from one-party state to clumsy democracy to broader freedoms. Along the way, prosperity, stability and interaction with the outside world have been the most important inputs, not high-minded and under-informed sermons from afar. Indeed, the draft ideas for a new set of EU priorities in Central Asia are well-advised in focusing on the lifting of poverty as a key first step. In December, Steinmeier himself noted that in the case of Russia, “we will not be able to influence things our way through criticism alone. Why should Central Asia be any different?
Hugh Pope, a journalist based in Istanbul, is author, most recently, of “Sons of the
Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World (Overlook Duckworth, 2005). This commentary, which first appeared in The Wall Street Journal, is published by agreement with the author.