Back To The USSR In Central Asia

5 December 2002

By Stentor Danielson

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is widely regarded as marking the death of the dictatorial communist model for societies. When the iron curtain came down, the West discovered that the Evil Empire was hollow, its government rife with corruption and its people on the verge of starvation. While Ronald Reagan's moral clarity and Star Wars arms race may have been the straw that broke the camel's back, the Soviet system largely brought itself down.

Much of our attention since then has been on the European states of the former Soviet Union, as well as the Eastern European nations once under Moscow's shadow. These countries have set their sights on the democracy and mixed economies they envy in their West European neighbors. And they have made steps -- sometimes successful, sometimes only tripping over their own feet -- toward that goal.

In Central Asia, however, the Soviet legacy is alive and well. The governments of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have modeled themselves on Moscow instead of Washington or Stockholm. The consequences for the people of Central Asia have been devastating.

While millions of lines have been devoted to Afghanistan over the past year, few in the media have turned their eyes to its northern neighbors. Turkmenistan's eccentric -- or rather, dangerously irrational -- president Saparmurat Niyazov garnered some attention when he renamed the months after members of his family. Niyazov, who styles himself "Turkmenbashi" ("Father of the Turkmen"), is hard at work developing a personality cult around himself, on the model of V.I. Lenin. His book of cultural and ethical teachings, the Rukhnama, is required reading in Turkmen schools. He awarded himself the position of president for life (eschewing even the charade elections that modern dictators like Saddam Hussein and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe hold), and then topped it off by naming himself the national poet. One wonders how many of Turkmenistan's economic woes could have been addressed in the time Turkmenbashi has spent composing verses in celebration of his (starving) people's culture.

On the economic front, a Central Asian leader with an eye toward improving the lot of the region's people would have his work cut out for him. Central Asia inherited a massively distorted economy from the Soviet Union. The region was essentially one giant cotton plantation, operating at a loss but propped up by subsidies from more prosperous republics like Belarus and the Ukraine. The Soviet agricultural model relied on production quotas ordered from the top, by bureaucrats concerned with everything except the actual ability of the land to produce the desired crops.

Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan have made limited steps toward privatizing their economies, with mixed success. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has barely paid lip service to the market. The production and sale of cotton is still entirely controlled by the government. Some areas of land have been privatized, but buyers are required to grow certain quotas of state-selected crops. When bad weather this year prevented some of these farmers from meeting the quotas, they attempted to salvage their livelihood by planting more profitable produce. The authorities got word of this and destroyed the new crop as punishment. Managers of state-run farms face disciplinary action as well, since unusually heavy spring rains that killed off just-planted cotton have left the country short of its production target. The threat of missed quotas has led to corruption, as managers lie about their production or bribe officials.

Import restrictions have also put a chill on enterprising cross-border trade, which brings in income for many of Central Asia's poor as well as being an important source of goods for others. Earlier this year Uzbekistan put tariffs of 90 and 50 percent on manufactured and food products, which were reduced after public protest to 70 and 40 percent -- still high enough to drive many traders out of business. The bureaucracy involved in managing the tariff policies has brought about more corruption, as traders are forced to bribe officials in order to carry on their business.

Poor economic management has meant a deteriorating environment as well. Inefficient use of irrigation water has caused widespread salinization of soils, poisoning crops. Waste water filled with salts, pesticides, and fertilizers is shunted off into storage pools such as Lake Sarakamish -- once a dry desert basin, now a toxic lake. Central Asia is also home to one of the world's salient environmental disasters -- the Aral Sea. The sea shrunk to half its original area under the Soviets and is on track to shrink even more under current farm practices. The Amu Darya river no longer reaches the sea because of irrigation withdrawals. Dust storms pick up salts from the exposed sea bed and deposit them in fields. Environmental refugees have begun fleeing Karakalpakstan, the Uzbek province closest to the Aral Sea, because of the health problems caused by contaminated water and soil.

Government repression is no stranger to contemporary Central Asia either. In Kazakhstan, for example, the government has resorted to the old Soviet tactic of forced subscription to raise funds. Teachers and other state employees are required to buy government publications or face losing their already meager salaries. In Kyrgyzstan, teachers have also been forced to attend pro-government rallies and raise money for the regime's entertainment expenses, while being threatened with the loss of their jobs if they spoke to reporters.

Kazakhstan has also been conspicuous in its repression of the free press. Journalists who question the government face intimidation, loss of jobs, and even legal action depending on how strident (one is tempted to say "truthful") their criticism is.

The history of Soviet rule provides a long list of dos and don'ts for anyone looking to build a prosperous society in Central Asia. But Uzbek authorities are now working to erase the historical precedent that shows how their authoritarian style of governance is doomed to failure. Educational reforms are aimed at blaming the Russian people, rather than the Soviet system, for Uzbekistan's woes. President Islam Karimov told parliament, "Having visited one of the schools, I asked adolescents, if they knew who was Brezhnev? They answered, 'No, we don't.' Then I asked them, 'Who is Gorbachev?' They again said that they didn?t know. And I told them that they are doing great." If Karimov succeeds in making Uzbeks forget history, he is doomed to repeat the mistakes of Brezhnev and Gorbachev.

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