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Central Asia: Ten Years After (Part 1)

  • Bruce Pannier

The Central Asian states of Kyrgyzstan (31 August), Uzbekistan (1 September), and Tajikistan (9 September) have just ended celebrations marking 10 years of independence. The three former Soviet republics traveled different paths during their first years of freedom but now find themselves facing many of the same obstacles and sharing some of the same strategies to try to improve their situation.

RFE/RL's Bruce Pannier spoke recently with John Schoeberlein, the director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asian Project, about the anniversaries and their significance. Schoeberlein talked at length about the major events of the past 10 years and where the countries of the region are heading. In this first of a three-part series drawn from the discussion, we look at what happened during the past 10 years. A second part will focus on the problems the countries are facing today. The third part examines what the future may bring.

Prague, 10 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- John Schoeberlein is the director of the Harvard Forum for Central Asian Studies and of the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Central Asian Project, based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. He spoke with RFE/RL about the different routes that Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan followed after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Schoeberlein's comments about Uzbekistan would seem also to describe the paths taken by the other Central Asian states, as well:

"The general direction [in Uzbekistan] has been toward the development of rather authoritarian approaches and a very strong, centralized government, as well as a very strong role for the executive, which has hampered the development of some aspects of society. It has resulted in a situation where there has been an unfortunately high level of problems with human rights and with the suppression of alternative parties."

In Uzbekistan, the process of consolidating power into the executive branch started in the first days of its independence. Schoeberlein says the system seemed to work:

"The country has lived through 10 years of a rather peaceful period. Many people predicted that there would be serious outbreaks of strife upon the demise of the Soviet Union, but this has not happened. There has been only some relatively limited incursions of militants opposed to the government over the last couple of years. But on the whole, there hasn't been widespread difficulties within Uzbekistan itself. Some people attribute this to the leadership's very authoritarian approach and very strong efforts to clamp down on any opposition."

In Kyrgyzstan, the first years of its independence were viewed favorably by the West. The country was considered to be an island of democracy in the region. Under President Askar Akaev -- a physicist by training -- Kyrgyzstan allowed the existence of an independent media and opposition political parties and seemed genuinely committed to democratic reform.

Schoeberlein says: "There has been this perception that Kyrgyzstan has been the most democratically oriented of the southern Central Asian republics, and that certainly is an appropriate perception."

Tajikistan is still haunted by its first years of independence. The nation fell into civil war some six months after it became independent. Schoeberlein says that, of all the Central Asian states, Tajikistan suffered the most in the early years:

"The 10 years of independence in Tajikistan have been the worst, most difficult years for any country in Central Asia because of the civil war that broke out immediately after the breakup of the Soviet Union. And this lasted for five years and had a devastating effect not only on the economy but on the political development of the country."

The Tajik civil war, which lasted from 1992 to 1997, also affected Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Though the war was fought by many factions for a multitude of reasons, two main groups eventually emerged, and the war came to be seen as a fight between secular government forces and an Islamic opposition.

After the Soviet Union fell apart, the nations of Central Asia began to fear the actions of radical Islamic groups. Tajikistan's secular government -- mainly former Communist Party members from its days as a Soviet republic -- enjoyed the sympathy of its neighbors, who did not want to see the same problem arise in their own countries.

Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan all contributed troops to a CIS Central Asian Peacekeeping Battalion sent to Tajikistan. The troops were sent to monitor the Tajik-Afghan border and prevent elements of Tajikistan's Islamic opposition -- who had fled to safe havens in Afghanistan -- from returning. Russia already had a large troop presence in Tajikistan in the form of the 201st Division, stationed in Tajikistan during Soviet times.

But Tajik government forces could not win the war, and a peace accord with generous power-sharing provisions was agreed with the Islamic opposition in 1997. Tajikistan's civil war and the power-sharing deal it agreed to still exert a huge influence on events in Central Asia, as we'll see in part two.