It is the best of times, it is the worst of times. Fifteen sovereign countries have sprung from the rubble of the U.S.S.R. Four of them lie in Central Asia, one of the great unknown regions of the world.
Central Asia conjures up images of the Silk Route in its heyday several centuries ago, when the conqueror-khan Tamerlane built his capital in Samarkand. More recently, with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the region has been recast as the Third World underbelly of the Soviet Union.
Seven decades of Soviet rule brought unquestionable benefits to Central Asia. But those achievements haven’t been enough to offset problems arising from centuries of underdevelopment, and today the region still suffers from poverty and deep ethnic and regional animosities.
As Russian influence in the region wanes, traditional ethnic allegiances across the new countries’ borders and with neighboring Afghanistan have assumed a new importance. At the same time, the collapse of communism, an exhausted modern ideology, has cleared the way for the rise of Islam, a rejuvenated traditional one.
This is a tale of two countries. One of these new nations, Kyrgyzstan, is struggling hard to build a peaceful democratic society. The other, Tajikistan, has plunged into a civil war whose victims already outnumber the total death toll in El Salvador during the 1980s.
It is also the story of two men born in 1944. Each symbolizes the democratic aspirations of his respective country. One of them became president and is now struggling to keep the ship of state on course in the face of formidable obstacles. The other one lost his bid for election, and his peacemaking efforts have not been enough to prevent his country from becoming a Central Asian Bosnia.
Kyrgyzstan: a tenuous democracy
A pair of jet-black eyebrows arranged quizzically on a high, balding forehead give Askar Akayev, the forty-nine-year-old president of Kyrgyzstan, the appearance of an Oriental emperor-sage. His favorite pastime, reading history books (a passion he picked up as a student in Leningrad during the heady liberal atmosphere of the 1960s), only adds to that image.
A quantum physicist, Akayev was unexpectedly thrust into the political limelight in the fall of 1990, when he was the head of Kyrgyzstan’s Academy of Sciences. After Parliament failed to elect either of two candidates from rival factions of the old Communist apparatus, they chose Akayev as an alternative to them.
The scientist-turned-president then pulled a few surprises of his own. Akayev immediately opened the doors of his office to grass-roots activists, lifted controls over the news media, and loosened the bureaucracy’s stranglehold over the economy.
An activist president, he still travels through the republic to personally meet with citizens and foster democratic attitudes. “A few years ago,” he says, “I wouldn’t have imagined that the people could have awakened so quickly, that one fine day they would be able to adopt truly democratic values and ideals.”
Of course, democracy is not utopia. In his travels, Akayev must also contend with the tensions simmering between the Kyrgyz majority and the Russian, Ukrainian, and Uzbek minorities. But he dreams of a level of ethnic tolerance that could transform mountainous Kyrgyzstan into “the Switzerland of Central Asia.”
Not everyone in Kyrgyzstan has shared his dreams, however. When Kremlin hard-liners detained then-president Mikhail Gorbachev and rolled tanks into the streets of Moscow in August 1991, Kyrgyzstan’s Communist party bosses immediately sent congratulations and prepared to perform the same stunt at home.
Akayev beat them to the punch. He sacked key plotters in the military and banned the party for attempting to overthrow him. In a powerful gesture of solidarity with democratic movements in the region, radio stations in Kyrgyzstan broadcast information to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where hard-line regimes were censoring news about the attempted coup.
When the dust settled, Akayev’s popularity had soared. No one ran against him when direct presidential elections were held two months later.
“Personally, I don’t feel very comfortable about running unopposed,” he told me the next month. “As a scientist I know that people never get the best results when their assumptions go unchallenged. But since the Communist party discredited itself by supporting the coup, I was deprived of the pleasure of running against alternative candidates.”
But dissension is rising in the Kyrgyz countryside. Provincial bosses in the South have built a feudal enclave that increasingly refuses to submit to the capital. And Communist party members are now looking to authoritarian Uzbekistan, the most hard-line of the four new Central Asian countries, for support.
Because Kyrgyzstan is economically dependent on trade with Uzbekistan, Akayev has been unable to challenge the Uzbeks in their self-assigned role as regional cop. When Uzbekistan dispatched secret police across the border to kidnap Uzbek critics attending a recent human-rights conference in
Kyrgyzstan, Akayev, once dubbed “the Vaclav Havel of Central Asia,” maintained an embarrassing silence.
For the most part Akayev has guided Kyrgyzstan well along a difficult path. During his tenure, the country has enjoyed relative tranquility, with a political life free of the repression, violence, and potentially explosive Islamic backlash that plague the other new countries. Perhaps he has been so successful because he understands very clearly what is at stake: “There are moments when I think that Central Asia might become the biggest conflict zone on Earth over the next decade.”
Akayev does not have to look far to find a blueprint for brutal conflict in Central Asia. Across the border in neighboring Tajikistan, civil war has broken out, pitting a coalition of gangsters and former Communists bent on ethnic cleansing against an uneasy alliance of democrats and increasingly radical Muslims. This violent struggle has already made Tajikistan the region’s Bosnia, and it has the potential to spread across all of Central Asia.
Tajikistan: descent into chaos
Democratic politics gathered strength in Tajik-istan in September 1991, when more than fifteen thousand people in the capital city of Dushanbe joined a two-week protest rally against the corrupt party establishment. The crazy-quilt mix of urban liberals, Muslim activists, and bearded village elders dressed in long, blue robes and pointy boots staged a peaceful sit-in the likes of which Central Asia had never seen before.
The demonstrators condemned the ruling clique’s clan-based patronage system and shady ties to the criminal underworld. They demanded a new president, chosen through free elections. The most frequently mentioned name was that of a secular liberal, Davlat Khudonazarov.
A well-known filmmaker, Khudonazarov has large eyes and a short, black beard. He projects a thoughtfulness and integrity seldom seen in politics. As a student in Moscow, “I was raised on Russian and European culture,” he says. “That fact, combined with my being exposed to nonconformist ideas in the 1960s and 1970s, explains why I share the ideals of perestroika.”
Khudonazarov’s commitment made him a natural choice for the loose coalition of democrats, nationalists, and Muslims. Unlike Akayev in Kyrgyzstan, however, he faced a united apparatus in the Tajikistan Communist party.
Publicly, the government agreed to presidential elections. But behind the scenes, the Communist elite was determined to remain in power regardless of the vote, and incumbent President Rakhmon Nabiyev won an election characterized by media manipulation and stolen ballots.
In May 1992, when it became clear that Nabiyev had returned the government to business-as-usual, demonstrators staged another mass sit-in rally in Dushanbe. Nabiyev (who had appointed a notorious racketeer to head a newly formed presidential militia) bused in government supporters, many of whom were criminals. Violent clashes erupted in the streets of the capital.
Remarkably, the demonstrators chased the progovernment forces out of the capital and forced Nabiyev to sign a power-sharing agreement with his opponents. But what should have been the beginning of peace turned out to be the prelude to war.
In the southern province of Kulyab the defeated progovernment force regrouped into an army calling itself the Popular Front and chose as its leader Sangak Safarov, a charismatic ex-felon who had spent twenty-three years of his life in prison. The Popular Front immediately launched an “ethnic cleansing” campaign that has killed an estimated one hundred thousand people simply because they were born in different regions from the dominant clan in Kulyab.
Popular Front members have allied themselves with the old Communist elites and members of the Uzbek minority. They receive direct military backing from the government of Uzbekistan and support from the Russian military establishment, which still has units stationed in Tajikistan.
Arrayed against them are Muslims, democrats, nationalists, and residents of two provinces that border Kulyab. This coalition now receives weapons from Afghan mujeheddin across the border, as well as muted sympathy from Kyrgyzstan’s democrats and a tiny segment of the liberal intelligentsia in Russia.
Less than a year after losing the presidential election, Davlat Khudonazarov reemerged as a peacemaker. More than any of his allies, the filmmaker turned statesman saw the dangers of civil war. “Once people got their hands on weapons,” he said a year after the fact, “both sides should have gone out of their way to reach a compromise.”
In June 1992, Khudonazarov began a one-man peace mission which he carried to the South. A month of dialogue yielded modest results. By getting people to talk, Khudonazarov was building grass-roots support for peace. A flicker of hope appeared.
Then, to Khudonazarov’s surprise and horror, President Nabiyev tried to steal the limelight by coaxing regional leaders into a quick-fix truce. Lacking a proper foundation, the agreement collapsed. Before anyone realized what had happened, southern Tajikistan plunged into a full-scale civil war.
After months of bitter fighting the Popular Front, backed by Uzbek tanks and aircraft, entered the capital and shut down the independent press. The new government they set up consisted of apparatchiks and mobsters. Sources vary, but Popular Front gunmen are estimated to have rounded up and killed between eight hundred and five thousand locals within a month of taking the city. Most of the victims were led away and shot because, according to their passports, they had been born in the wrong province.
Meanwhile, approximately one hundred thousand refugees who faced death because they belong to the wrong clan fled across the Afghan border. Some of them are now in guerrilla camps run by the mujeheddin, who include a healthy dose of Muslim ideology in their training. “Today’s field commanders will be the politicians of tomorrow,” Khudonazarov predicts.
In the early days of peaceful protest, Tajikistan’s secular democrats welcomed the Muslim revival as part of a general moral and spiritual awakening in society. “By allying ourselves with Muslim activists, we hoped to win them over to a more open, pluralistic vision of religion and society,” explains Khudonazarov. But many are unable to shake Soviet-era prejudices against Muslim politics, fearing that their rise to power might lead to the Islamization of Tajikistan.
“For now the government has driven Islam underground,” Khudonazarov says. “After several years of this kind of war, extremist Islamic politics will finally come to Tajikistan. Only this time it will be the government’s own doing.”
To this day, a prosperous, united Europe cannot resolve the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Compare this to a poor, restive region with almost no external constraints to keep it in check. No surprise, therefore, that yesterday’s idealists don’t have much room left for optimism.
In Kyrgyzstan, Askar Akayev is struggling to hold onto the presidency. Although he proudly points out that “the Kyrgyz people were never fully conquered by anyone,” it may be a long time before they enjoy the full blessings of peace.
This May, in a turn of events that recalled Russia’s recent constitutional crisis, the Kyrgyz Parliament approved its first constitution, stripping Akayev of many of his executive powers. Although Akayev remains president, Prime Minister Tursunbek Chengyshev has replaced him as head of the executive branch of government. Akayev’s political future is uncertain; his ouster would be a blow for democracy in Central Asia.
Still, Akayev has more reason for hope than his Tajik colleague. Khudonazarov, who has been the subject of repeated death threats, is now in hiding in the United States. Based on his own experiences, he predicts rough times for the Kyrgyzstan president. “I’m afraid that the old Communist nomenklatura in Kyrgyzstan could resort to extreme measures in order to recover everything that it has lost,” Khudonazarov says.
The exile’s face takes on a still gloomier expression when he ponders the future of his own country’s war orphans. “You can’t kill all of them because some of them will survive no matter what,” he says. “These kids will either grow up to be terrorists or else they’ll settle in for a prolonged war, like Pol Pot’s troops in Kampuchea.”
As this article goes to press, refugees are already returning to Tajikistan with the guns, training, and Muslim ideology they received from the Afghan mujeheddin. Uzbekistan and Russia are answering the Tajikistan government’s call “to help stop the spread of Islamic fundamentalism” by deploying troops along the Afghan border.
If Islam becomes an idiom for justice across the region, as it did in Iran in the 1970s, social unrest could easily spread to the impoverished peasants of Uzbekistan. And if violent struggle comes to Uzbekistan, the gendarme of Central Asia, it may quickly spread through the entire region.Vladimir Klimenko, a free-lance journalist based in Moscow, is a frequent contributor to Mother Jones.