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Security Issues of the Ex-Soviet Central Asian Republics.

By Maxim Shashenkov Published for The Centre for Defence Studies, Kings College, University of London by Brassey's, 165 Dover Street, London SE1 4YA Price |pounds~10.00. 73 pages ISBN 0961-8422

RUSSIA STILL COUNTS in Central Asia, even though a fragile independence has arrived. That is one good reason why this wide-ranging and topical study by a Russian analyst based at Oxford University should receive close attention. He identifies many potential challenges to the existing state borders, coming from internal conflicts, economic pressures as well as rivalries between the republics.

Central Asia is in a difficult period of transition which, according to Shashenkov, is likely to take a violent form in many parts of the region. Tajikistan's civil war has led to great destruction and fear which generated a wave of refugees from the republic in 1992. The key to future regional stability will certainly depend upon Uzbekistan, the key republic in the region with the biggest population.

This study claims it is through Afghanistan that the newly-independent republics of Central Asia are likely to be drawn into the politics of their Muslim neighbours. This is especially true of the three republics having borders with Afghanistan -- Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Large numbers of kinsmen of all three ethnic groups are also, of course, living across the border in Afghanistan.

The interaction and interdependence of events in Afghanistan and Central Asia is steadily growing. One way of measuring this is the flow of weapons between mujahedin guerilla groups in northern Afghanistan and the opposition parties in Tajikistan. More important than any inspiration from the Afghan "victory of Islam" against Communism among Muslims of Central Asia, he writes, is, "the rise of the Tajik/Uzbek factor in Afghan politics." This actually represents a strategic factor for the whole of Central Asia, with the reinforcement of existing ethnic identities.

The writer dismisses the idea that Afghan mujahedin may try to foment a jihad or holy war against the former Communists ruling the Central Asian republics. Afghanistan is too devastated by war, and too absorbed with its domestic problems for this to be a serious option.

Shashenkov argues that it is not radical Islam but ethnic nationalism which constitutes the main threat to regional stability. Cooperation will grow, but any kind of meaningful confederation of Turkic states is unlikely. The governments all support the status quo in state borders. But in nationalist intellectual circles there is considerable interest in changing the borders between their respective republics and uniting their ethnic brethren living across the borders.

This is particularly evident in the case of Tajiks and Uzbeks. A "Great Khorasan" state is publicly advocated by a group in Tajikistan calling itself the "Great Ariana Society", while the idea of a "Greater Uzbekistan" incorporating Uzbek-settled lands in other republics -- or even the whole of "Turkestan" -- attracts nationalists in Uzbekistan.

Extreme nationalist groups are not limited to the Turkic peoples or Muslims. The recent phenomenon of the Cossack revival rapidly in northern Kazakhstan, dominated by Slav settlers. Calls for revision of the borders by Cossack groups and Russian nationalists roused the counter Kazakh Alash movement, voicing strident Kazakh demands. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has contained the Alash movement, with the primary aim of preserving inter-ethnic stability.

As yet, however, the impact of irridentist ideas is barely perceptible outside the intelligentsia. The ugly, chauvinistic side to ethnic nationalism can be seen through, notably in Kyrgyzstan, where the Osh Aymagy organisation is keen to organise an "ethnic cleansing" of Uzbeks living in Osh district. Osh in the Fergana valley, adjacent to the border with Uzbekistan, was the scene of a horrific organised massacre of Uzbek families in June 1990.

Steps towards the creation of small national armies have been taken by both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the two major republics in terms of population. They are building on a predominantly Russian officer corps. The bulk of the Russian armed forces in the region are still based in Turkmenistan. A regional security framework on the basis of Muslim states alone is much less probable than continued reliance on Russian military support and participation in such security arrangements.

One basic reason for this is the geography of Central Asia. There are powerful foreign neighbours to consider, notably China. Chinese territorial claims on territory of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may be in abeyance, but their revival must be feared. The other neighbour states, Iran and Afghanistan, besides Russia itself of course, have considerable influence and power to bring to bear on the future development of the independent republics.

The closeness of the Chinese border cuts both ways. The newly independent republics are wary of their huge neighbour, while Peking has good reason to be worried over the attraction of independence upon the Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim peoples of Chinese Central Asia. The Muslim factor in Xinjiang cannot be ignored.

Turkey is pushing hard for influence, and forging economic links for the future. It has a well-defined goal, and some definite advantages. Yet the attraction of Turkey and influence of Pan-Turkic ideas should not be exaggerated. For the foreseeable future, Russia is likely to remain the chief trading partner of the Central Asian republics, while Turkey has narrow limits in its economic resources for making investments or aid. Iran, for its part, is also seeking to extend its political and economic influence in the region, with the goal of creating a bloc of states tied closely to Iran, composed not only of Afghanistan and Tajikistan but also Turkmenistan. But Iranian progress has been slow, and it has to overcome a barrier of suspicion.

The Yeltsin government's concern is quite naturally to promote Russian national interests in the former Soviet Union. In Central Asia that means above all preserving stability. The ten million Russians living in the Central Asian republics and in Kazakhstan must be encouraged -- and helped, if necessary -- to stay. If they become desperate about their future there it will produce a wave of refugees with which Russia cannot afford to cope.

Such a development would not only put further pressures on the Yeltsin government, but would increase the ominous influence of Russia's stridently nationalist right-wing opposition. Moreover, Shashenkov points out, any upheaval in Central Asia is bound to have an impact on Muslim separatist ambitions in Russia itself. "Tatarstan, which lies in the centre of the European part of Russia, is a key factor to Russia's own territorial integrity and stability." That is a sobering thought.
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Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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