Central Asia

Origin of above map
 Afghanistan  Kirgizia
 Armenia  Mongolia
 Azerbaijan  Tadzhikistan
 Chechnya*  Tibet*
 Georgia  Turkmenistan
 Iran  Uzbekistan
 Kazakhstan  Xinjiang*

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Anciently the huge city of Balkh (now Wazirabad - formerly the center of Bactria) was influential over a large area. Unknown civilisations have left remains, from at least 4600 years before present. Many developments in western civilisation are associated with this area as their origin, including Zoroastrianism, an important component of western religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

The map shows us that the frontiers are arbitrary, defined by the Soviet Union, and not corresponding to the ethnic realities. Probably a federation of some kind would be the only way of resolving the border disputes, but the various dictators would resist any such cooperation.

The key to this area is Afghanistan, which is said to have remained unconquered since at least the time of Alexander the Great. Most of the peoples of the area are Muslim, though Tibetans and Mongols are Buddhists and there are pockets of Buddhists in some of the republics.

Afghanistan was a Buddhist center before the invasion by Arabs who converted the people to Islam. There are some Buddhist minorities in Russia (Buryats).

What looked like a Soviet attempt to conquer Afghanistan in 1979 failed and the Soviet army withdrew in 1989. Tibet has been occupied by China.

The countries to the north of the Amu Daria (River Oxus) were conquered by the Russians, first during Tsarist times and then by Stalin. All declared themselves independent during the last year of the Soviet Union, perhaps encouraged by the success of the Afghans in getting rid of the Russian invaders.

This area contains some of the most ancient cultural centers in the world. The Muslim cities of Bukhara (Bukhoro), Balkh, Tashkent (Toshkent), Samarqand have influenced every part of the world through their mathematicians and philosophers at the beginning of the last millennium, though since the conquest by Russia their importance is much diminished.

The student should consider the rise and fall of empires in the area, including that of Genghis Khan, Tamurlane (the Timurid empire). The language of the rulers has been Persian and Turkish.

The Russian presence in the area was only recognized by the Russians in the last years of the Soviet Union as being a classic colonial occupation which has now gone through the decolonization process. The five Muslim republics made an agreement to trade among themselves and avoid central control. Thus, although in August 1991 they agreed to sign the Union Treaty setting up a new Soviet Union, and when that failed, because Ukraine refused to join, they joined the Commonwealth of Independent States, they may have taken the first step towards a new Central Asian federation. The situation remains uncertain as several of the states which have declared independence may not be able to maintain it. Persian speaking Tadjikistan is unlikely to join a federation because of their traditional bad relations with Turkic speaking peoples (past massacres).

The above was written in 1990 when the Soviet Union ended. No federation has emerged. Instead most of the republics have become autocracies under their former Communist leaders. They have ambiguous relations with Russia and the United States. The Russia of Putin has no wish to encourage democracy. Nor has the United States which wants bases in the area to help in its war in Afghanistan.

Their relations with Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey are becoming an important question, as well as their borders with Russia which claims some of their territory. It would not be surprising if the Muslim countries gain aid from Saudi Arabia and other oil rich countries. The Communists never succeeded in suppressing the Islamic culture of the area. So far (2003) all the successor governments are secular and are suppressing Islamic movements, but it may be wondered how long they will succeed.

Turkey is especially interested in the Turkic speakers and there is sentiment among Turks for a pan-Turkic community or federation. Moreover Turkey is interested in the oil wealth of Azerbaijan (after western technology has been installed). Turkish influence was apparently spreading in 1990 but since then has been limited to some influence in Azerbaijan.

Iran is interested in opening up trade with the area, and also in spreading Shi'ite Islam.

All the frontiers of this area are disputed and can lead to conflicts.

An important source of instability is the lack of a political culture in the former Soviet republics. Most are still controlled by a single party. In Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Tadjikistan there are or have been wars either inter-state or internal. The economies of the whole region have been so intertwined with Russia's that economic independence is very difficult to attain. Even the major oil producers, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, have little chance of breaking away from Russia until they can get their oil out by another route - which western and Chinese oil companies are actively promoting.

Multi-national oil companies have moved into the area and there are plans to build oil pipelines passing through Afghanistan, Iran, Georgia and Turkey, thus by-passing Russia. A new pipeline was opened from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia in May 2006. Perhaps the area will gain considerable freedom of action with respect to Russia but may come further under western influence. It is still unknown how much the different states assisted the US in the war against Osama bin Laden. China is actively trying to control the oil for its rapidly growing industry.

The Great Game
In the time of the British Empire there was a kind of cold war between British and Tsarist forces in the whole area. There are signs that a new phase of this has now begun, as the United States has military bases in many of the countries, ostensibly to assist US operations in Afghanistan, following the Al Qaeda attack on New York and Washington in September 2001. Clearly the current Russian government is disturbed at this development and has reactivated some of the former Soviet bases. As Peak Oil approaches or is passed, control of the pipelines and oil fields may seem important.

Interesting reading

Eric Newby - a short walk in the Hindu Kush

Robert Byron - The Road to Oxiana

The Road to Oxiana

Colin Thubron - Lost Heart of Central Asia

Craig Murray, former British ambassador

Last revised 28/12/10

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