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Between competing traditions.

IT WAS NO coincidence that within week of the street fighting in Kabul, similar scenes took place in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. The politics ofthe newly independent states of Central Asia are recognisably Middle Eastern, but with the added complication of the legacy of Communism. This legacy is of nations which were never wanted being given an independence which was never sought.

The most important featue of Central Asian politics today is that for the first time in over a century it is dominated by Sunni Muslims. Non-Sunni and such non-Muslims as the Russian, German, Ukrainian, Korean and Jewish minorities are obliged to refrain from conspicuous political involvement.

The reason is simply that from the beginning of the Russian conquest of the region in the 1850s until after the Second World War, there was virtually total Russian domination of Central Asian politics. But now that the former Soviet republics are indepedent states, the native Muslim populations feel that it is their turn to rule.

Unlike the inter-Sunni war in Afghanistan, political competition in Central Asia is between three groups --the ex-communists, the Islamists and the nationalists. The Communists Party is still the ruling group in the region, although it no longer calls itself such. In Uzbekistan it has become the "Popular Democratic Party", in Tajikistan the "Socialist Party" and in Turkmenistan the "Democrat Party". In each republic, the apparat, the communist bureaucrats and functionaries, have a stranglehold on government. Only in Kyrgyzstan, whose president, Askar Akayev, is a self-avowed liberal, does the apparat seem to be under control.

What the republics lack are their own armies. Most have set up small "national guards", which are little more than presidential guards. Such forces are disastrous as a political instrument as President Rakhmon Nabiyev's attempt to suppress unarmed Tajik protesters in May with his "national guard" (which left around 70 dead) demonstrates.

Consequently, Central Asian governments, from authoritarian Uzbekistan to reformist Kyrgzstan, depend upon the goodwill of the armed forces belonging to the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) to stay in power. It was the local CIS garrison which patrolled Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, after May's violence and it was the Russian-led KGB which thwarted an attempt by pro-Moscow hardliners to overthrow President Akayev in Kyrgzstan during last August's coup. This puts Central Asia's politicians in the same position of vulnerability as the luckless Najibullah in Afghanistan.

The governments of Central Asia are not alone in fearing a future without CIS troops. The Russian minority of some 9.7m, 19.25% of Central Asia's population, shares their apprehension. Withoutt CIS forces, Soviet-imposed borders might be less than sacrosanct. This could lead to border conflicts between the Central Asian states, or it might encourage Russians and other non-Muslims, a majority in Kazakhstan and nearly 30% of the population of Kyrgyzstan, to secede.

The ex-Communists are clinging to power, but even without opposition and without the environmental and economic crises, immediate political problems may prove overwhelming. The inter-ethnic violence of recent years could be repeated. But such violence masks a deeper problem-the essential weakness of national identity in the region. Central Asians are as likely to fight members of their own ethnic group as outsiders. Partly this is because of the creation of the Central Asian nations by the Soviet Union in thee 1920s. Boundaries were drawn between Muslims of the region, but there was little binding alleged compatriots together.

Tajiks are divided between north and south, and between Tajik and Badakhshani. The northern town of Khojand (Leninabad) was the recruiting ground for top party cadres and is Nabiyev's power base. Its southern rival, Kulob, has closer ties to northern Tajik Afghanistan and, along with the Islamic traditionalist countryside, Kulob is the opposition's base. Similar rivalries exist between the major Turkmen tribes and between the Uzbek cities of Tashkent and Fergana on the one hand and Bukhara and Samarkand on the other.

Under Gorbachev, the Central Asian republics did not attempt to dismantle Communism or to leave the Soviet Union as other republics did. They clung to the old union and feared being abandoned by Moscow. The gradual demise of the Soviet Union exposed an absence of policy. The governments have been reduced to casting around for "models of development", which are authoritarian enough to keep them in power and economically successful enough to keep the populace quiet.

The Central Asian states have all gone through the necessary hoops to gain US recognition, UN membership and international aid. Their presidents have copied Boris Yeltsin and put themselves up for direct election. The difference is that Yeltsin was the opposition candidate and won despite the official hostility.

But, in Kyrgyzstan, to Askar Akayev's embarrassment, and in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, thanks to official harassment, the incumbents were unopposed. In Uzbekistan the strongest opposition candidate, Abdurrahim Pulatov of Birlik, was not allowed to stand. In Tajikistan, the Communist-dominated media and dubious electoral practices ensured that the opposition candidate had no chance of winning.

These internal tensions and lack of democracy render the governments vulnerable. Their most important challenger is the Islamic movement, which showed its strength in the March-to-May demonstrations in Dushanbe when it nearly overthrew the regime. However, the Islamic movement is divided into three strands.

The largest comprises the traditionalists, those who are most in touch with the countryside where Islam seems to have survived reasonably successfully under Communism and where most practising Muslims are still found. The next most important faction is the Islamic Renaissance party, founded in Russian in 1990, but banned throughout Central Asia.

The smallest Islamic faction is made up of the Sunni fundamentalists, often called Wahhabis. The fundamentalists draw inspiration from such Sunni thinkers as Maudoodi and Qutb. Like their equivalents in the Hezbi Islamic in Afghanistan, Central Asia's fundamentalists are extremely hostile both to the Shia and to secuarism.

The state exploits the divisions in the Islamic movement. Fear of the fundamentalists of central and southern Tajikistan allowed President Nabiyev to strike a deal with moderate Islamists and democrats which allocated them one-third of the cabinet seats and allowed him to survive.

The weakest Sunni Muslim group in Central Asian politics at present is the non-Communist nationalists. Made up of former Communist party members and dissidents who have rejected domination by Moscow and local party bosses, the best known examples are Birlik (Unity) and its splinter group Erk (Will) in Uzbekistan.

With Agzybirlik (Unity) in Turkmenistan and Rastokhez (Renaissance) in Tajikistan, such groups are more tolerated than the Islamists, though they are still subject to sporadic harassment. President Sapurmurad Niyazov characterised Turkmen democrats as the "lame sheep" in the Turkmen flock. Unsurprisingly some Turkmen opposition figures prefer exile in Moscow to being herded in Ashkhabad. But it indicates how easily the Central Asian state intimidates its critics.

Butt these directionless governments that cannot be swept away and an opposition that is too easily divided can only have one effect. Thatt is to leave Central Asia open o the kind of outside manipulation that has characterised Afghanistan's history.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:political competition in Central Asia
Author:Apostolou, Andrew; Zaman, Amberin; Matossian, Naritza
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Words:1168
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