Out from under Moscow's shadow

Georgie Anne Geyer

February 12, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Samarkand, Uzbekistan THE WORLD KNOWS legendary Samarkand as the golden treasure city of the great and barbaric Tamerlane, who conquered most of the known world in the 14th century and left this incredible city of turquoise and gold.

But today even mythical Samarkand is falling to the imperatives of market thinking and exchange rates, and it is finally opening to the outside world on quite different terms than five centuries ago.

"This is our stock exchange and its name is Turkestan," Ahsham Razukob, told me brightly on one recent visit to fabled Samarkand. "It started only in September, and now we have 150 brokers working here.

"The Americans should come -- the first ones who come will win!"

As Secretary of State James Baker III this week takes the extraordinary step of visiting Uzbekistan -- and thus remote central Asia for the second time -- it is clear that these new "countries" here have caught his eye. He and George Bush see them as "new worlds" -- and that they certainly are.

From huge, mineral-rich Kazakhstan in the east to poor but uniquely democratic little Kirghizstan in the south, to the culturally rich Uzbekistan, all these Moslem countries have suddenly emerged from their darkness as colonies of the Soviet Union. Now countries of their own, or virtually so, they are exulting in direct conversations with the "forbidden" outside world.

In Tashkent, the Uzbek capital where Mr. Baker and entourage plan to make a major stop, the "nation's" foremost intellectual, Jamal Kamal, translator of Shakespeare into Uzbek, spread his arms wide symbolically as he talked to me about central Asia's new space in the world.

"Before, to go to Kabul, we had to go through Moscow," he said with evident joy, "and we had to stay inside the plane in Moscow. Now we can go from Tashkent to Istanbul. We have embassies from India, Turkey, Mongolia, Libya, Cuba, China.

"It is a great achievement for us -- to have our own ways to the countries of the world."

Turkish Airlines now flies directly from Istanbul to Baku every Monday; Israel is planning flights from Tel Aviv to Baku and probably Bishkek, and Kazakh newspapers have announced that a Maxim's is going to open in Alma Ata!

After an extraordinary trip throughout the entire area, I have found a number of fascinating constants. The republics are all claiming, in their present enthusiasm, to be "the bridge" between Europe and Asia. All look upon Moscow as the "dark hole" of their history. All speak of being accepted as "civilized" peoples, all are impassioned about learning English, and all are convinced they are under no military danger from outside because of the example of superpower defense of Kuwait. (Good luck!)

Those are a few of the good things that Jim Baker and company will find.

On the darker side, while Turkey is doing important work in expanding its influence to these mainly Turkic peoples, Shia Iran also busy in the Persian-related Moslem areas trying to extend Shia fundamentalism. So far, in this new "great game" of central Asia, the Turks are far, far ahead -- and a new American presence and influence (much desired everywhere) could strengthen Turkey's healthy example.

But the picture for economics is far more dangerous than the picture for diplomacy and outreach. These new "countries," freed from Moscow's bureaucratic gouging, are now gouging each other in prices. The entire system of barter between the republics has broken down.

The answer to chaos, today as yesterday, as Jim Baker will discover, is an abyss of endless ethnic civil wars. Indeed, the entire area remains poised above a veritable caldron of boiling hatreds.

Meanwhile, the much-vaunted answer of business remains an open question. Few contracts have actually been signed with foreign firms. When I talked a little longer with my Samarkand businessman, I discovered he and his colleagues were mainly brokers carrying out the old barter methods on a more sophisticated basis -- and they had no good idea of what the historic Samarkand region could really produce.

Still, Mr. Baker is right to be giving attention to these old peoples in these new lands. For all of the new freedoms and influences mean that there is a Middle East forming that already reaches far beyond the contours of the Arab-Israeli conflict and which is already changing the maps of our interests.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist who writes about international affairs and U.S. foreign policy.

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