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Hard to shake history loose.

THE HIGH-MINDED THEORY of aspirant cultural leaders in the emerging republics of Central Asia aims to make a fresh start in creating a community stretching from the Volga basin to the Himalayas. The burden of historical reality means that the task is difficult to implement. Kazahkstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan have emerged from the environment of ideological confrontation of the past, but have yet to find an alternative identity and a working definition of their relationship with the rest of the world. Internal conflicts and external uncertainties combine to sow doubt and turmoil throughout the area.

Many politicians and commentators in the Central Asian republics argue that the region constitutes a natural unit because of shared languages, common religion and economic interdependence. In fact, the republics have been busier, since breaking away from the Soviet Union, in setting themselves up as independent nation states.

Central Asian intellectuals have difficulty in elaborating upon the cultural and social needs of their republics without mentioning the devastating effects of 75 years of Communist rule. For their part, Russian academics and post-Communist thinkers emphasise that the new Russia was not responsible for the Soviet regime. "Soviet" and "Russian" are two different terms which should not be confused, and Russians themselves have been the victims of Soviet dictatorship.

The opposing viewpoints were aired last November at a Unesco conference held in Tehran. Delegates from Central Asia insisted that they have suffered from being the subjects of a "colonial regime". According to Mamas Kozibayev, the director of the institute of history and ethnology at the Turkmenistan Academy of Sciences, "our memory has been emptied and our history was taught in an imperial way, leaving a blank spot on Iranian and Turanian influences. The origins of our people were not studied, and nomads were considered second-class citizens."

Along with other leading Central Asian academics, Kozibayev wants Unesco assistance to write new history textbooks which will give "a proper place to pages written with the blood of the people". The head of the Russian delegation at the Unesco conference, responded acerbicly that "history can serve evil and violence".

History is certainly an easier tool to employ for divisive rather than unifying purposes. Russians point out that they have lived in their millions in Central Asia for over a hundred years. Russian culture is now part of local culture and the expulsion of Russians would scarcely be in the real interests of Central Asia.

Meanwhile, the confusion of the region's indigenous people, and the potential for ethnic conflict, is reflected in the remarks of another senior member of the Turkmen academy of sciences, Annanespov Murad. "The Russians should leave in five or ten years," he says, then adds "but not immediately, not now. The departure of these experts would not achieve any good result."

Iran sees the looming confrontation between the Central Asian republics and their former "oppressor" as a chance to reinforce its cultural influence in the region. The foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, has spoken of Central Asia's "Iranian identity". It is impossible to look at the region, he is on record as saying, "without making reference to Iranian culture and to the Iranian language -- and, not least, to Islam".

Unsurprisingly, Turkey sees matters quite differently. As one delegate to last November's Unesco conference put it, "the peoples of the new Central Asian republics are like our cousins. Their language is close to ours, and so are their cultural roots. We have obvious links with this world. They want to establish an open society, which will not come via Iran even if they accept help from the Islamic republic."

China is also actively concerned by developments in former Soviet Central Asia, if for no other reason than preventing disruption spreading into Chinese Turkestan. The area is also a prospective market for Chinese exports. Good trade relations could have a stabilising effect.

Central Asians are somewhat bemused by the interest shown in their welfare by competing outside powers. We have had one godfather since the 19th century, they point out, and do not need more self-styled relatives telling them what to do. The prospect is positively dangerous, given a situation where moderate and fundamental Islamists are already rivals and both are in conflict with quasi-Communist authority. To complicate the issue further, the individual republics are beset by ethnic rivalries.

Russia, Turkey and Iran are either deeply entrenched in the region or setting down roots. They each believe they have an historical-cum-cultural right to a say in the future of Central Asia. This is an unnerving prospect for a group of countries suddenly flung into independence and deeply unsure of their identity. Expect Central Asia to be one of the most unstable parts of the world over the coming few years.
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Russian influence on Central Asian republics
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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