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Central Asia: Political Stability Seems Elusive

  • Beatrice Hogan

A new study published by New York's Council on Foreign Relations looks at conflict prevention in the Ferghana Valley, a densely populated, volatile zone spanning Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. RFE/RL's correspondent Beatrice Hogan talks to Barnett Rubin, one of the study's co-authors, about his recommendations for the region.

New York, 4 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Rich in natural resources, such as energy, gold and cotton, Central Asia has attracted the interest of numerous Western investors. But political stability - a prerequisite to profits -- remains elusive.

"Calming the Ferghana Valley," a new study written by Nancy Lubin and Barnett Rubin of the private New York think tank Council on Foreign Relations, suggests ways to promote peace in the region.

Speaking to RFE/RL in a telephone interview, Rubin explains why Central Asia's troubles seem to originate in the Ferghana Valley.

"Part of the reason that you have such dissidence in the Ferghana Valley is that this is the region which really has been harmed the most by the division of Central Asia into independent states because it divided up a natural economic and social area into three different countries."

The recent hostage crisis in Kyrgyzstan is just the latest in a serious of incidents traced to the Ferghana Valley. The February bombings in Tashkent, the 1997 killings in Namangan, and the 1990 riots in Osh and Dushanbe all suggest the region's potential for violence.

But violence is not inevitable. Rubin say that Central Asian leaders can diffuse tensions by allowing religious and other civil society groups to operate openly. This will take a leap of faith for current Central Asian leaders, who he says run highly authoritarian regimes. Rubin says that in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan especially, leaders tend to view the development of civil society and other independent movements as a threat.

But Rubin says:

"The state in these newly independent countries doesn't have the capacity to do all those things (such as feeding the poor and providing essential services.) And the state should instead be looking for partnerships with legitimate social organizations, not stigmatizing, criminalizing them, and driving them into political opposition."

Rubin says that states should look at religious groups as potential partners rather than rivals. Allowing open religious expression, however, does not mean the states should permit extremism:

"Rather than stigmatizing a group on the basis of its ideology, a government has the duty to be sure that it enforces legitimate law; that is, political violence is against the law whether it is Islamic, Christian or secular."

Rubin says that many of Central Asia's problems stem from two conflicting Soviet legacies -- one of division and the other of unity.

The Soviets installed artificial boundaries in the region to create five states -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. He says this was an effort to break the people's allegiance to their pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic identities.

The borders, however, were administrative rather than political or economic. The region's infrastructure and economy was based on a single unit, such that Central Asian states provided raw materials to feed factories in Central Russia and Ukraine.

Rubin says that understanding the region's infrastructure -- road, rail, and water networks -- is critical to comprehend its current problems.

This issue is especially pronounced in the Ferghana Valley, where the region's economy is interdependent but its political boundaries distinct. The main road from Tashkent, Uzbekistan's capital, to the Ferghana Valley, for example, crosses Northern Tajikistan.

As Uzbekistan continues to build more border controls -- in its effort to control the Islamic insurgency -- Rubin says the tensions will likely mount. He says the states rather must look for regional rather than national solutions to their problems.

"Even though independence is a source of pride and is something important, nonetheless, we shouldn't cover up the fact that becoming independent in these particular boundaries has also created problems that need to be solved. And it is possible to have international cooperation, open borders, and economic exchanges I while maintaining national identity and national sovereignty. And I think that if the peoples and governments of Central Asia try to embark on that path, they should enjoy a lot of international support."

The study encourages the states to participate in international institutions, such as the UN-sponsored Ferghana Valley Development Program, as neutral forums to work out their common problems.