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Central Asia: 'Taliban' Author Says Russia To Regain Influence In Unstable Region

  • Nikola Krastev

Ahmed Rashid, author of the bestseller "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," says Russia is poised to regain its influence in Central Asia due to the growing split in the region's governing elite. Rashid, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism, yesterday presented his latest book, "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia," at the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization in New York. Speaking at the presentation, Rashid warned that the suppression of Islam in Central Asia and the unwillingness of the authoritarian regimes there to take on political and economic reforms are speeding up the radicalization of Central Asia.

New York, 22 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ahmed Rashid describes his latest book -- "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" -- as a "wake-up call" to the world. Unless the international community becomes aware of the growing instability in the region, he warns, Central Asia could become the world's next hotbed of violent unrest.

Rashid, a noted scholar and author of several bestselling books on Islamic extremism in Central and South Asia, says despite the establishment of U.S. military bases in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan after 11 September, and the broader involvement of Central Asian states in international affairs, there has been almost no change in the region's domestic political situation.

The author, speaking yesterday in New York at a presentation of "Jihad," says the absence of political alternatives and reforms has forced the opposition to go underground.

"If you go underground there are only two ways to go. Either you go to Moscow, which has become a kind of Miami for Central Asian dissidents, or you go to Afghanistan, which has become a Miami of Islamic radicalism."

Central Asia, Rashid says, is probably the only part of the world where there have been no changes in leadership since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The same bureaucratic structures that were prevalent during the Soviet system are still existing there. As a consequence, Rashid says, there has been no creation of a middle class. With the collapse of social services, soaring unemployment rates, and crippling poverty, people in Central Asia are much worse off in 2002 than they were in 1991.

It is a situation, Rashid says, that has provided a breeding ground for fundamentalism. The Islamic revival that came in the wake of 1991 was not properly channeled -- frightened by the religious resurgence, he says, Central Asian regimes simply suppressed it.

"And because the regimes in Uzbekistan, in Turkmenistan, in other [Central Asian] countries, were so scared of this Islamic revival, they basically decided to crush it. So what you had was a radicalization of Islam where a lot of the militants -- people opposed to the regime -- either went to Tajikistan, or Afghanistan, or Pakistan, looking for inspiration, for training, for religious education. [This,] of course, over the last 10 years has worsened the situation."

The impact of Afghanistan has been huge in Central Asia, Rashid says -- not only because of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban militia's support of radical Islamic groups there, but also because of the region's growing exposure to what he calls the "weapons and drugs culture."

"A lot of Afghan heroin is exported through Central Asia which, of course, gives funding to these groups because these groups are able to set up networks -- not only for their own parties and for the radicalization of Islamic Central Asia, but also [to] make money on the drugs trade exporting heroin from Afghanistan to Moscow and Eastern Europe, which becomes a very lucrative business to fund their own network."

Rashid says younger recruits in regional militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are now looking to violently overthrow authoritarian regimes in Central Asia because of their longstanding policies of religious repression. He says such groups are gaining rapidly in strength and numbers.

"The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan [IMU] and other such groups are not only able to take radicals from Central Asia to Afghanistan for training, but they are able to import radicals from the Caucasus, from Russia itself. Which is why you've got this huge manpower base in Afghanistan after 11 September of Chechens, of Daghestanis, of Tatars from Russia itself, the Muslim part of Russia. And the IMU itself evolves into a pan-Islamic, if you like, former Soviet Union recruiting ground where it is able to recruit people from all over the former Soviet Union."

The problem is compounded by the fact that in the post-11 September period, the Central Asian elite is very seriously divided, Rashid says. In Turkmenistan, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov deserted the country for Moscow, where he set up an opposition group and convinced several leading Turkmen to follow suit. In Kazakhstan, the leader of the opposition, Akezhan Kazhegeldin, is the former prime minister. In Kyrgyzstan, many members of the former elite are in jail and are now leading the opposition. Only in Uzbekistan, because of the state of repression and the tight control by President Islam Karimov, the elite has not yet splintered, Rashid says.

"And of course, this is going to allow Moscow -- because a lot of this dissident elite is now sitting in Moscow -- [huge] leverage in Central Asia. There's been a lot of talk about a coup against President Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan in the next few weeks, and I think this is quite a possibility. And this is a way Russia's going to get back into the game in Central Asia after losing out because of the American presence there and American buildup there."

Rashid says the U.S. administration has yet to come up with a coherent aid strategy or economic plan for Central Asia. As a result, he warns, the authoritarian regimes will have no reason to open their societies to genuine economic reform and to foster the establishment of a stable middle class.