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Central Asia Finds Independence A Mixed Bag

by Antoine Blua

Once-Obscure Central Asia Now In Global Spotlight

Thirteen years ago, Kyrgyzstan became the first Soviet Central Asian republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union. Uzbekistan followed the next day, and Tajikistan about a week later on September 9. By the end of that year, all five Soviet Central Asian republics were free nations. After years of Soviet domination, independence was hoped to usher in a period of rapid political and economic development. But RFE/RL spoke with two analysts who say the reality hasn't yet lived up to the expectations.

Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says that on balance the record of more than a decade of independence is hardly impressive.

"I just hope that the next decade is going to be more successful, that some of the lessons from the past decade will be put to good use, and [that] we will see more enlightened economic and political programs coming out," Hunter said.

Hunter said the Central Asian states have largely failed to meet the challenges facing them after the collapse the Soviet Union -- including economic transition. "You had the challenge of economic reform. The transition from an economy that was integrated within the broader economy of the Soviet Union into the international economy was a very mammoth job that has not yet been completed," she said.

Efforts have been made to build up regional transportation links to the outside world. But Hunter said arbitrarily drawn borders inherited from the Soviet era have created ethnic tensions and rivalries that prevent fruitful cooperation. "There's been in the last few years a greater awareness among the Central Asian countries that they have to cooperate among themselves and with their neighbors in order to address more efficiently some important issues," she said. "Some of these countries have water, others have energy. How do you manage this in a way that benefits everyone?"

Peter Sinnott, a professor of Central Asian studies at New York's Columbia University, notes on the positive side that the Central Asian states in the past decade have been able to maintain a degree of independence from Moscow. He said this may change, however, as they become increasingly dependent on Russia -- and China.

"As they fall further and further behind economically, they are faced with a China and a Russia that see them as only as a place of resources. So the era of Central Asia supplying raw resources cheap to the world -- Russia and China -- continues. The true economic independence of these countries has not emerged," Sinnott said.

The collapse of the Soviet Union created a political vacuum that was to be filled by pluralistic, democratic systems across the region. This clearly has not happened. Sinnott said that as power has remained centralized, the populations have developed estranged from the leadership, creating what he calls a "false stability."

"There isn't the sense that the state and its people are interacting that much. Police in Uzbekistan only work in distant provinces from where they were actually born, [and troops are] wearing masks when [they] are in action. These things are really symbolic of states that are at war with themselves in a sense," Sinnott said.

Sinnott points out, however, that the people of Central Asia are in many ways "outperforming" their leaders in terms of building civil society.

© 2004 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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