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Central Asia: Analysis From Washington -- Foundations Of Power

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Soviet-era leaders have remained in power in Central Asia less because of their ability to reposition themselves ideologically than because of their strong and continuing ties to important sub-national communities.

And these ties explain not only the basis for their power but also the nature of the political process there, one in which regional and sub-ethnic linkages are often far more important than national or ideological ones and in which the task of nation building is still very much one for the future.

These are among the most important findings in a recently published book, "La Nouvelle Asie Central ou la Fabrication des Nations," by Olivier Roy, a leading French specialist on Afghanistan who conducted extensive field work in that region between 1990 and 1994.

As he did in his earlier studies on Afghanistan, Roy focuses on what he calls "groupes de solidarite," small communities related by marriage or descent and living compactly in a particular region or town who interact with like communities in assembling or disassembling larger units.

The French scholar shows that these solidarity groups have persisted since the early 1920s despite Moscow's often turbulent nation-building efforts in Soviet times and the uncertainties following the disintegration of the USSR into a series of nominally national states.

Roy suggests that these groups are relatively much more significant than larger communities such as the nation or the state, a finding that helps to explain why political and social life in the Central Asian countries remains so fragmented.

But more intriguingly, he suggests that the existence of these groups and the ties that Communist-era leaders maintained with them helps to explain why three of the five Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- are still led by the men who were the last republic Communist Party first secretaries.

By the time of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Moscow was willing to allow Central Asians to occupy the post of republic party first secretary. But unlike the way it dealt with the leaders of other republics, Moscow was unwilling to allow the Central Asians to advance to the center.

That pattern, Roy suggests, allowed the party chieftains in these republics to "go native," to increasingly rest their authority on their ties with groups within their republic rather than on their commitments to either the Communist Party or even to the Soviet Union.

On the one hand, the de-ideologization of these officials at the end of the Soviet period and the political bases they had built for themselves at home almost uniquely positioned them to succeed as the leaders of the newly independent countries there.

But on the other, their reliance on the sub-national solidarity groups Roy has identified rather than on the titular nationality of their countries as a whole has contributed to both their own authoritarianism and the fragility of the stability these leaders have maintained up to now.

Despite criticism that Roy may have extrapolated too much from Tajikistan, one of two Central Asian states where the current presidents are not former party chieftains -- Kyrgyzstan is the other -- his book is nonetheless important because it calls into question three widely-held views.

First, Roy's findings undercut claims that Central Asians are somehow naturally and inherently authoritarian, as both local leaders and outside observers sometimes suggest. Instead, he places both the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes there within the context of early nation building, a time when tensions between various levels of identity often create conditions for authoritarian regimes but also conditions for going beyond them.

Second, Roy's book demolishes the claims of those who believe Central Asians are all one people and also those who believe that the Soviet system effectively built genuine nations there.

If Roy is right, and his evidence on this point seems persuasive, neither view is correct: Central Asians vary widely among themselves, and these variations can support national identities. But because Moscow failed to finish the job, these identities are very much a work in progress.

And third, Roy's findings may point the way toward a more open and participatory political system in Central Asia, one in which the emergence of a genuine civil society could take place.

While the solidarity groups he discusses are primordial in their origins, many of them have absorbed political or economic functions, such as control of a region or the operation of a collective farm, that may allow them to form a kind of civil society between individuals and the state.

If that happens, and it is no sure thing, the countries of Central Asia may move far more rapidly toward democracy and free markets than anyone now predicts.

And if that occurs, then the forces which have sustained the current generation of leaders there will unexpectedly help to bring to power a new and very different one.