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East European Perspectives: June 7, 2000

7 June 2000, Volume 2, Number 11
Breeding Islamic Fundamentalism: ?????The Declining Prospects For Democracy In Post-Soviet Central Asia

The governments of post-Soviet Central Asia are producing what they say they most want to avoid: growing instability and the rise of a radical Islamist opposition. Moreover, the two most important outside actors, Russia and the West, are unintentionally encouraging this process, in the first case so as to extend Moscow's influence, and in the second in the name of maintaining stability. But as a result, the prospects for democracy and the stability that it can bring in all five of the countries of this important region are now worse than they have been at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This sobering conclusion, one that suggests these countries might follow the authoritarian, anti-Western path pursued by Iran, Algeria, and several other Islamic countries, reflects the nature of the post-communist regimes in these countries, the nature of Islam as it has evolved there first under the Soviet system and now under its successors, and finally the nature of the involvement of outside powers. It is precisely on this point that the area differs from East-Central Europe. On the one hand, outside influence in East-Central Europe has tended to break, rather than encourage, authoritarian tendencies. The way the EU has dealt with the "Haider problem" is a ood illustration of a "veiled warning" sent to prospective new members. And on the other, religion, while possibly encouraging some forms of authoritarianism, plays a more ambiguous role in Eastern Europe, encouraging some forms of authoritarianism but undermining others.

Some Dangerous Continuities

In his classic essay of a generation ago, "Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984?" Andrei Amalrik predicted that the countries of post-Soviet Central Asia were far more likely to continue Soviet patterns of behavior long after communist power fell than any other countries that might emerge from the rubble of the collapse of the USSR. He argued that the congruence, even fusion of the traditional patriarchal forms of rule with Marxist-Leninist methods would have the effect of preserving the Soviet system--albeit under other names. And that preservation of the past, he concluded, would mean that when change did come to the region, it was likely to be more radical, more anti-Western, and hence more dangerous than anywhere else.

Tragically, as so often happens to a prophet, Amalrik's words on this point have been ignored even after his fundamental prediction came true. Even more tragically, his prediction about Central Asia appears to be ever more likely to prove true as well.

Overwhelmingly, the Soviet leadership of these republics remains in place. Three of the five presidents were first secretaries of the republic communist parties before independence. And even in the two countries which have "new" leaders--Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan--both the lower levels of the state apparatus and the values of the Soviet leadership appear predominant. All five leaders have adopted strategies designed to keep themselves and their entourages in power regardless of the popular will. All of them have suppressed or simply sought to control the institutions of a genuine civil society. And all of them have liberally used the vocabulary of democracy even as they have sought to severely limit popular participation.

In many ways, these five countries are very different, but the approach to governance by their leaders has in fact converged. Initially, many analysts were sharply critical of the openly anti-democratic attitudes of the leaders of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, somewhat more hopeful about Kazakhstan, and openly optimistic about Kyrgyzstan. (Tajikistan has been in a civil war for almost all of the period, and few expected democracy to emerge from that conflict anytime soon.)

But in the last few years, Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbaev has become ever more authoritarian and narrowly based on his extended family. And Kyrgyzstani President Askar Akaev has disappointed those who hoped he would lead the way to democracy in the region. Their two countries still remain more open than Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, which are ruled respectively by a leader who runs things along traditional authoritarian lines and by one who maintains the Soviet communist system in all but name. And increasingly, the leaders in all five suggest that democracy in the Western sense must be abandoned because of cultural reasons or postponed indefinitely because of threats to stability.

Still worse, these leaders have done everything they could to prevent the emergence of a genuine civil society that could simultaneously provide support for their governments over time and produce a new generation of leaders. All five governments maintain tight control over the electronic media, most of them openly censor the print media as well, and the privatization of the media has often been into the hands of government loyalists or even the family members of the president. Journalists are harassed and in some cases even killed. Their sources are incarcerated or otherwise intimidated.

Genuine NGOs are severely restricted in their activities or even banned altogether, with the authorities recreating a phenomenon pioneered by the Soviet regime: government-organized non-governmental organizations, or GONGOs. Such groups are trotted out by the authorities to demonstrate that these regimes are moving in a democratic direction, a tactic that works all too often not only in Central Asia but elsewhere as well because many Western governments and scholars now equate NGO development with democratic change. And these regimes have sought to draw on the traditional identities of the population, ethnic and religious, even as they have sought to denature these attachments, to redefine them to fit the post-Soviet leadership.

But largely because of Western insistence and because they hope to generate support for themselves, albeit on their own terms, the leaders of the countries of this region have used the vocabulary and even forms of democracy while draining both of any real content.

That combination in turn has produced a fragile authoritarianism of superficially powerful regimes but with little or no genuine popular support, with little or no ability to withstand extra-systemic challenges to their rule, and with little or no chance to transfer power from one generation of leaders to another in a peaceful and democratic way. And thus, while they may appear stable for the moment, these regimes lack the institutional and political frameworks necessary to remain stable during the rapidly approaching period when the current crop of leaders will pass from the scene.

Central Asian Islam As An Available Identity

Islam does not represent a threat to either the social order or political arrangements in Central Asia; but Islamist politics do. Indeed, in the countries of this region, Islamist politics may prove to be the most potent force over the next generation.

This apparent paradox reflects three things that are often neglected in the analysis of the Central Asian states: First, Soviet policies had the effect of removing the content of Islam while leaving the label as an important marker of identity, thus opening the way for its fundamental redefinition by political entrepreneurs either supportive or opposed to particular regimes. That also has meant that divisions within Islam that are viewed as so important elsewhere--between the four schools of Sunni Islam, between Sunni and Shiia Islam, and between the dominant community and the more restricted Sufi orders--are significantly less significant in defining how Central Asians who adhere to one or the other will interact with one another.

Second, the post-Soviet regimes there have continued the Soviet practice in many ways, even as they transformed it in others. On the one hand, these regimes have sought to exploit the Islamic identity of the population as part of post-Soviet identities, but to do so in a way that Islamic precepts play much less of a role in political life there than in many other countries and also, more significantly, in a way that restricts participation by Muslims qua Muslims in political life. Indeed, in its own way, the current regimes are more anti-Muslim than the Soviet regime was because they have more to fear.

And third, precisely because these regimes are able to contain most of the other elements that could provide the basis for the emergence of an independent civil society but refuse to deal with Islam in a supportive way, yet cannot eliminate either this primordial tie or the institutions that support it, these governments have put themselves at the risk of going the way of the shah of Iran. Indeed, many opposition figures of a more liberal persuasion in these countries are convinced that Western support for the governments is playing the same role that Western support for the shah played in Iran--and more importantly--will lead to the same consequences.

One preliminary remark is in order. Most discussions about Islam in Central Asia today have been cast in terms of a Taliban-sponsored threat supposedly sweeping north from Afghanistan through Tajikistan even, in the words of some, "to the gates of Moscow." Such discussions in almost every case are intended to push a political agenda rather than to describe reality.

The Taliban does not pose the kind of threat that many in Central Asia and elsewhere suggest. It is largely a self-limiting Afghan group, although it does have some ties to Tajik groups in northern Afghanistan. But such charges, made in the name of political agendas extraneous to the analysis of facts on the ground have, often come to be believed by leaders and thus become at least in part a self-fulfilling prophecy--at least with respect to policy choices.

That has had the effect of detracting attention from the very real role that Islamic attachments do play and has often meant that the expert community has downplayed these precisely because it is convinced that Islam, in its Taliban movement form, is no genuine threat at all.

As in so many other spheres of life, Soviet policy toward religion in general and Islam in particular was designed to make them national in form but socialist and Soviet in content. Islam was during the course of the Soviet period reduced to a shadow of its former self, with the officially permitted Islamic establishment putting forth a completely denatured version of the faith, with individuals who continued to identify themselves as Muslim lacking any access to information about what that attachment actually meant, and with those few who did have such information--elders who passed on the information privately to a small group--frequently being presented as the only true bearers.

Indeed, much Western and even Soviet commentary on Islam focused on what many called the "non-mosque" trend of Islam. Some out of hope and others out of fear saw this as the most important challenge to Soviet power, but in fact, as neither Western nor Soviet commentators were happy to conclude, the Islam these groups practiced was also a shell, an identity rather than a program, a primordial tie rather than a political reality. And Islam did not play the role many had expected it to play during the last years of Soviet power.

Not surprisingly, this approach tended to break down most of the important divisions within Islam. When Muslims felt themselves under attack by the Soviet regime, they were less inclined to make these distinctions, in many cases because they no longer knew what they were. And thus suggestions by many that Sufis or Wahhabis or someone else were playing a special role had less to do with facts on the ground or with the meanings of these terms as usually understood than many who used them clearly believed.

Indeed, surveys that have been done show that many Muslims cannot define even the most basic elements of their faith, but retain attachment to it as a marker rather than as a guide. The author of this note was once told by Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev that he was a good Muslim and prayed three times a day. Of course, a good Muslim prays five times a day; something a man who had been in the Soviet military and the Communist Party since the age of 18 might not have known. But this does not mean that Dudaev was not in some sense a Muslim, because that is how he styled himself even as he insisted on his other identities as well.

Yet another Soviet inheritance that tends to be forgotten is that the Soviet system insisted that certain identities were acceptable and certain others were not, thus creating a hierarchy which the regime tried to control through rewards and benefits. Declaring oneself an Uzbek was good while declaring oneself a Muslim was seldom career enhancing. Not surprisingly, people learned to declare certain things and not to declare others; and regimes learned that they could thus control the manifestation of identities even if they could not control the identities themselves.

Almost a quarter of a century ago, the heroine of an Uzbek novel said that she felt always like a Russian matryoshka doll that others were assembling or disassembling and, consequently, she seldom knew which identity would be on the outside exposed to the world. She expressed what was then a vain hope that she would someday be able to decide which layer could be exposed and hence be the basis of her identity.

Her observations in the novel, "The Diamond Bracelet," call attention to two things that are often downplayed in a discussion of Islam in Uzbekistan. On the one hand, Uzbeks, like everyone else, are a bundle of different identifications; they are not one thing at all times. Consequently, those who thought that Islam would overwhelm "Uzbekness" were simply wrong. And on the other, the Uzbek authorities of today were given a powerful model of how to manipulate identities by rewarding certain kinds of declarations and punishing others, rather than by directly attacking one or the other and seeking to eliminate it. Whatever Soviet intentions may have been, that was what Soviet practice in Uzbekistan consisted of.

In ways that should have surprised no one but that were completely at odds with the predictions of most Western analysts, the post-Soviet regimes in Central Asia sought to enlist the support of Islamic identity while continuing the Soviet-era practice of excluding Islam as a political force and dehumanizing it through control of its content.

The regimes of this region have set up their own national official Islamic establishments. These claim to be speaking in the name of Islam. And they regularly invoke Islam to support the current regime. But at the same time, they clearly seek to restrict any Islamic claims to greater participation in political life and thus continue to denature Islam as a potential guiding force within the political system. To that end, Islam as a force is demonized by discussions of the role of foreign groups, like the Taliban or Wahhabism, as a way of discrediting Islamic attachments of the population.

And also toward that end, all five governments to varying degrees have restricted popular access to Islam, even as it has proclaimed that it is doing anything but. Their police forces have penetrated the mosque, the security organs have co-opted part of the ulema, and the governments have thus moved to deprive Muslims of the kind of independent status they would most probably seek were they in a better position to know their religious traditions.

In all this, these regimes have followed Russian efforts to reaffirm the Orthodox Church's caesaropapist traditions, hoping to make Islam a national religion in ways that Islam as such does not really allow. And thus their policies have had the effect of once again dividing the faithful into those with little information about their religion and supporters of the official line--the overwhelming majority, it should be said--and those with more information, who thus counterpose Islam to the official political establishment.

This latter group, while still relatively small, may prove to be most important over the next generation. Precisely because these rulers--like the shah--have been relatively effective in stifling all other forms of civil society representation and because Muslims in this region generally lack a precise understanding of Islam in all its complexity, the governments in Central Asia are watching the emergence of a new underground Islam--a movement that can attract and organize all opposition to these regimes--precisely because they can offer access to the primordial tie that does unite all Muslims. A recent example of such linkages comes from Azerbaijan, where the liberals are now making common cause with several Islamist parties.

To the extent that happens, these Muslim groups could quickly emerge as the dominant feature once the current leaders pass from the stage, and, as a result, these countries could be transformed into a radical Islamic state even as such states are passing from the scene elsewhere. And those Islamist political entrepreneurs could hijack the opposition movement even as they did in Iran 20 years ago.

None of this is inevitable. But it is one of the challenges that face the countries of Central Asia and those outside who care about their fate. And it also dictates both a strategy and a diplomacy for those concerned about the emergence of such a regime; one that could undercut much that has been achieved across this region.

Geopolitical Competition and Regional Instability

Meeting these challenges would be difficult for these countries on their own. Unfortunately, these challenges have been compounded by the policies adopted by the two outside actors who play the largest role in the region. On the one hand, the Russian government is ever more interested in winning back the positions it lost in the region in 1991 by playing up to the current leaders and by positing threats to them so that the region will turn again to Moscow for aid. And on the other, Western governments generally adopted a very short-term approach, supporting or at least avoiding too open criticism of the authoritarian regimes there, in the name of stability and in order to allow for outside economic development.

Especially since the rise of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has argued that threats to instability in Central Asia coming from Islamist political groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere are so great that democratic procedures may have to be put off indefinitely, and that all these states must cooperate with the Russian authorities in order to prevent them from being swept away. Such attitudes were very much on view in early April, when the security council secretaries of the region convened in Dushanbe. And such a message appears to be gaining Moscow new converts in the region.

Meanwhile, the West has been extremely reticent in criticizing the rising authoritarianism of these regimes. Instead, it has focused on short-term goals and evaluated these governments largely in terms of the performance of elections when these regimes actually have them. One American official in the region noted privately not long ago that the only reason people in Washington thought that Kyrgyzstan was more democratic than Kazakhstan was that the Kyrgyz government had not had an election quite so recently.

Happily, the U.S. and some European countries are beginning to be more critical of these regimes--an apparent recognition that the aging leaders of these five countries may be able to control the situation as long as they are alive and in office--but that they are creating a situation where their successors will be very different and much less interested in either promoting democracy or working with the West.

All of this recalls the Western approach to the shah of Iran, where uncritical support for an openly authoritarian regime led to its replacement by a theocratic and anti-Western tyranny. The governments in Central Asia are breeding Islamic fundamentalism even as they talk about democracy, however modified, and the historical record suggests that a failure to speak up on this now will have the most serious consequences not only for the people of this region, but for the rest of the world as well.

*A version of this article was first presented to a hearing of the International Relations Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington on 12 April 2000.