Monday, 18 February 2013

The curious ethnic history of Central Asian unrest

As far as powder kegs go, there are surely far more volatile regions around the world than in Central Asia. The Levant is almost entirely immolated, North Africa desolated, and South-east Asia a tinderbox. Yet sometimes it is the countries not making headlines which are the most important to monitor.

The Central Asian states, all once part of the old Soviet Union, have much to offer the world. But there is a growing and violent unrest among those calling that vast landscape home, and a pervasive feeling between observers that a spill-over of tensions is barely held back.

The geopolitical significance of Central Asia is not generally well received, but it is important nonetheless.

While Afghanistan may be forefront in the public consciousness, it is countries with comparable suffixes such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan which threaten to make headlines in the near future in very similar ways.

This is not because each of those Stans harbours expansionist dreams or recalcitrant tendencies. Rather it is their bizarre cartographical structure which threatens to touch off explosive actions. The future is bright for Central Asia if they can leverage their many valuable natural resources. It is their past which continues to cast a long shadow.

The iconic Soviet leader Joseph Stalin failed at many things but used his state powers astutely to control the historically restive Central Asian peoples. If Stalin was to focus on his more pressing concerns of Europe, he needed to ensure those south-eastern borderlands were free of trouble.  

Although he did displace a great many people, with the horrible mass deportations and culling of the educated. It was Stalin’s artificial and puzzling border divisions which cut up the remaining folk exactly where they stood, keeping them occupied with each other rather than with the Soviets. Stalin’s cartographical slicing is puzzling not because it beggars belief, but rather because the result appears remarkably puzzle-like on the map.  

Few places more closely resemble a patchwork of nations as those bordering the strategic, and rich, Fergana Valley. The diamond-shaped valley is only 22,000 square kilometres, roughly half the size of the New Zealand’s North Island. It is fed by two rivers and is a very large oasis in a sea of inhospitable mountains and steppe. Despite its beauty, nothing about the Fergana Valley is simple.

Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all have borders inside this valley causing regular unrest and trade disputes. Stalin broke up the valley by extending these three ethnically distinct nations directly into it so no single country could control it completely. The Russians even today retain interest in the valley and the echoes of old Soviet-era puppet governance are still heard in the aging dictators of the surrounding Stan nations.

The Fergana Valley is Central Asia’s largest market but is yet to move into the context of a post-socialist economy, although it is still an attractive destination for investors from the region and elsewhere. The world’s second largest cotton plant is based in the valley along with rail and natural gas lines.

The valley is far from any commercial-friendly waterways and a great travelling distance over rugged and sparse steppe to the closest advanced cities. Although there is growing investor interest in the valley’s energy and mineral resources, getting to them with extraction tools is easier said than done.

Population density in the Fergana Valley is on average 360 people per square kilometre. This compares with a density for all Central Asia of a mere fourteen people per square kilometres. In other words, unrest occurs largely because almost everyone living in Central Asia can be found down in the fertile mountain pastures of the Fergana Valley, while the various state capitals are located thousands of miles away over rolling high peaks.

Central control from these capitals is almost non-existent and the artificial borders separating ethnically diverse populations in the only truly fertile land for kilometres around promises to stir significant problems in the future.

The economies of the surrounding Stan countries are extremely undeveloped. Poverty is widespread among the vast resource wealth while one of the world’s least-efficient irrigation systems keeps millions of people just above subsistence levels.

And yet, with all these problems, the FerganaValley is the beating heart of Central Asia and events there affect the entire region. Both China and Russia are playing a new version of the Great Game in the region competing to develop the billions of dollars’ worth of resources in Central Asia.

Just how the region will look in a few decades is anyone’s guess, but there is every chance the map will be redrawn. The Central Asian countries are too artificial, too mingled, and too ethnically tenuous to remain as they are for long.

Only a squad of social scientists, historians and linguists could truly sketch the cultural layout of the Fergana Valley. Mixing people of Uzbek, Turkic, Kazakh, Turkmen, and Kyrgyz with all their unique cultural idiosyncrasies cooled the region for decades during the Soviet colonisation.

Yet today, as Central Asia’s resources become increasingly noticed by the outside world, the all-but-permanent ethnic tensions are beginning to re-emerge while potential fortunes lie scattered throughout the region.

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