Central Asia - An Explosive Legacy of the Former Soviet Union
When I visited Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in 2000, it was primarily for the beautiful sites along the famous “silk road”. Many of the people I talked with blamed the West for ignoring the huge problems on the one hand and neglecting the significance of this region for the future of the world’s prosperity and stability on the other hand.
All five countries – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – have been led since their independence in the early 1990s by former secretary generals of the former Communist party of the Soviet Union. All five presidents of these countries have no record as democrats.
These countries all show the parameters of authoritarian and dictatorial countries: One party/clan regimes, corruption and bribery, huge bureaucracies, no real political opposition, centralized, planned economies, no independent jurisdiction, no free media and a kind of nepotism. A special problem is the Russian-led monostructure of the economy causing a dependency upon its center i.e. Moscow.
Another source of headache is the Ferghana Valley: An artificial entity – formed by the former Soviet Union - belonging to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and home to extremist Muslims who want to re-establish a “Caliphate.”
It came to no surprise to me that there was unrest and rebellion against the regimes in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The freely elected new government in Kyrgyzstan gives some reason for hope. Uzbekistan used brute force to end the demonstrations and rebellion, but this might not be the end of the problems. Not all of those who fight against the government in the name of democracy are terrorists, and not all terrorists want democracy.
Prior to 9/11, there was already close cooperation between China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan – and later – Uzbekistan against Islamic extremists in the region. 9/11 changed the pattern of Central Asia fundamentally. Suddenly, Central Asia became an important new front in the “Great Game” – to win power and influence in a region that is rich in raw materials but politically vulnerable.
The stationing of foreign troops in some of the Central Asian countries – especially by the United States and Russia – symbolizes the great powers’ interest.
The monoculture in Uzbekistan – the production of cotton – is the source of the huge environmental problem in Central Asia that we present in our newsletter "The Water Bomb." The production of cotton requires a lot of water. This was taken from the two rivers – the Syrdar'ya and the Amudar'ya – that used to fill the Aral Sea. However in recent years and decades, the Aral Sea is drying up – a problem that we address in our newsletter.
There is another explosive problem in the Aral Sea – the island of Vozrozhdeniya that was used by the Soviet Union as a laboratory for experiments and for storage of biological and chemical agents. These agents are still there. Nobody knows exactly which and how many chemical agents are present there. As the Aral Sea continues to dry up, the winds bring a mixture of these agents and the salt from the Aral Sea to the people and agricultural regions.
There is already a dramatic increase of diseases in the region south of the Aral Sea. This is a real time bomb threatening the living conditions of millions of people who are unable to solve – or even mitigate - the problem.
In addition to biological and chemical agents, there is also a nuclear legacy. Central Asia was a test-bed for nuclear weapons, too. No one knows where the remaining sites of experiments and storage are. To my knowledge, the former Soviet Union and its successor Russia did not inform the Central Asian countries about the dangerous NBC legacy.
Central Asia cannot solve the problem without foreign aid. Unfortunately, there is little cooperation between the five countries. Kyrgyzstan owns a huge reservoir of water power in the high mountains. A program “water for oil or cotton” between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan could revitalize the water transport to the Aral Sea and could bring economic support to Kyrgyzstan.
What must be done by outside powers?
- Clear the NBC-legacy in all Central Asian countries – including Russia
- Encourage close economic and environmental cooperation
- Enhance the process of democratization
- Coordinate the “war on terror” as an international campaign against terrorism
- Do not allow Central Asian countries as well as China and Russia to use the “war on terrorism” as an alibi against democratization
- Support the integration and participation of moderate Muslims into societies
- Make sure that the revenues from the exploitation of raw materials – like crude oil, gas and gold – reaches the people not just the clans
The newsletter is written by a retired Pakistani Brigadier General, Aslan Khan, who has followed the developments in Central Asia for many years. His focus is on the “water bomb.”
His analysis leads to clear conclusions and recommendations.