Afghan neighbors gain spotlight


History: As five former Soviet republics struggle to form national identities, they find themselves in the middle of the U.S. war on terrorism.

October 15, 2001|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

They speak Persian dialects and Turkic tongues, their ancestors developed algebra and conquered vast empires, and they live in land once traversed by the fabled Silk Road.

And most Americans know very little about them.

"I would venture to guess the average American may not have noticed the name Uzbekistan until three weeks ago," says John Schoeberlein, director of Harvard's Forum for Central Asian Studies.

Now, some U.S. soldiers are stationed there, and the four other countries that make up the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are growing in importance because they, too, are neighbors of Afghanistan.

Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan (stan means "land") are a mixture of languages and cultures, separated by arbitrary borders.

But these mostly Muslim societies, with a combined population of about 58 million, are hardly carbon copies of one another. Although the Uzbeks and Tajiks and Kyrgyz have mingled for centuries and share much in common, they speak different tongues. And to varying degrees, they retain distinct cultures and traditions, with some not too far removed from nomadic pasts.

Their collective history is as rich and varied as the topography, which ranges from towering mountains to vast deserts. During the Roman Empire, traders began moving through the area between the Mediterranean and China along the Silk Road -- spinning off wealth that attracted Mongols and other invaders who left their mark.

Lasting cultural contributions were made. The development of algebra has roots in a province of present-day Uzbekistan, notes Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. And the Persian poet Omar Khayyam? "He was from this territory," Starr says.

Tamerlane, the great conqueror, lies entombed in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where he ruled. A favorite grandson, Ulug Beg, was an early astronomer.

The more recent past has offered little glory, however. During the 19th century, the region fell under the sway of an expansionist Russia, which teamed with the British to create Afghanistan as a buffer between their respective spheres of influence.

In the 1920s Josef Stalin began pulling the five areas into the nascent Soviet empire, wreaking havoc through the forced collectivization of farmland.

Stalin drew odd-shaped boundaries as a way to reduce possible resistance. That helps explain why Uzbekistan is home to two largely Tajik cities, Samarkand and Bukhara. And why the vibrant Ferghana Valley falls into Uzbekistan and two other countries, sowing ethnic tension that exploded in bloody riots in 1990.

With the Soviet Union's collapse a decade ago, these five former republics for the first time tasted independence within their Soviet-era boundaries, and all have struggled with nationhood.

Surging Islamic movements and ethnic aspirations in a land where nationalities are strewn across the boundaries of countries provide fertile ground for trouble.

"Will the Ferghana Valley become a flash point for the next crisis?" wonders Anthony Richter, director of the Central Eurasia Project of the Open Society Institute in New York.

In some ways the concept of national identity is an awkward fit in Central Asia, a rugged place where family and tribal loyalties have long exerted the strongest pulls. By the 1920s, even though Uzbeks and Tajiks spoke different languages (Uzbek is a Turkic tongue, and Tajiks speak Dari, a Persian dialect), they did not think of themselves primarily as Uzbek or Tajik.

Rather, Schoeberlein says, many Uzbeks and Tajiks thought of themselves as non-nomads, settled in low-lying land and differing from the Kyrgyz, who herded sheep in the mountains. "They thought of themselves as one group: the settled population," says Schoeberlein.

Yet Stalin, using a "divide and conquer" strategy, forced people to be labeled either Uzbek or Tajik, perhaps to discourage a broader regional identity that could prove troublesome to the Soviets. Richter likens it to making residents of Switzerland identify themselves as German, French or Italian rather than Swiss.

A study of Central Asia by the Library of Congress' Federal Research Division explains Stalin's thinking this way: "The creation of modern Tajikistan was part of the Soviet policy of giving the outward trappings of political representation to minority nationalities in Central Asia, while simultaneously reorganizing or fragmenting communities and political entities."

Richter and other scholars classify the populations in two ways: by whether they speak a Turkic or Persian language and whether they are traditionally nomadic or sedentary.

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