Central Asia, scene of the Great Game between England and Russia in the nineteenth century, is once more a key to the security of all Eurasia. Since the fifteenth century the region has mainly been politically organized from without; from the 1870s Russia controlled most of its vast territory. The collapse of the Soviet Union four years ago left five new states and placed the area's fate in question. Whether stability comes, and how, will affect Eurasia as a whole, and particularly Russia in its transition to democracy.

Central Asia--Afghanistan and the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan--is strategic despite its seeming remoteness. It borders China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan and the four major cultural zones they represent; Islam is a significant force without and within. The region possesses some of the world's largest deposits of oil, natural gas, gold, and uranium. The site of the bloodiest war of the past generation, between Afghan rebels and Soviet troops, the region is now roiled by civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Huge stores of conventional weapons in several of the countries pose problems. The area also produces or acts as a conduit for much of the heroin reaching Europe. For these reasons alone Central Asia cannot be ignored.

There are three possibilities for the region. It could come under the hegemony of one or more outside powers, Russia being the most likely candidate. It could lapse into chaos--Tajikistan and Afghanistan already have--threatening the security of adjoining regions. Or it could achieve equilibrium and coherence from within, through the emergence of an anchor state or states.

The growth of one or more strong centers would fill a political vacuum in Central Asia, eliminating what has long been the main rationale for foreign encroachment and so helping protect Russia's fragile democracy from the potentially fatal temptation of expansionism. Most important, a Central Asian stabilizer would quickly become the third leg of a tripod of power in the former Soviet Union, alongside Russia and Ukraine. This could create a healthy balance that would best serve the interests of regional security, Europe, and NATO.

Among the Central Asian nations, only Uzbekistan appears to have the potential to be such a stabilizer. But for Westerners, Uzbekistan is an unfamiliar country in an unfamiliar region, and so far it has been relegated to the periphery of U.S. policy.


Seven decades of Soviet rule and central planning deformed the politics and economies of the Central Asian states, each in a different way. Four years after independence the countries of the region are still struggling to find and follow their distinct paths to the overall development that each acknowledges is necessary.

Kazakhstan gained great short-term diplomatic benefit from agreeing to relinquish the nuclear weapons left on its soil after the Soviet breakup. It will be a country to reckon with because of its enormous oil reserves. Adroit leadership by President Nursultan Nazarbayev and a body of legislation favorable to business have made it even more attractive than Russia for foreign investors.

Yet Kazakhstan's prospects are severely constrained by the ethnic and territorial division of the country between Russians and Kazakhs, the weakness of local institutions, the absence of a scientific intelligentsia, and underdeveloped industry. Its chief city, Almaty, is ill suited to be a major capital because of its limited room for expansion and its location at the edge of the country's Kazakh-populated zone. A plummeting GDP in 1994 and Nazarbayev's 1995 proroguing of parliament and resort to reform by decree suggest that Kazakhstan will not play a major regional role as an independent force anytime soon. Apparently recognizing this, Nazarbayev agreed in January 1995 to allow several Russian military bases on his country's soil.

As for Kyrgyzstan, despite President Askar Akayev's aspirations for it to become the "Switzerland of Central Asia" and his ready access to President Clinton's White House, this small, mountainous nation lacks most of the requirements for a regional power. It is poor in resources; its public life is riddled with interclan rivalries, regional divisions, and corruption; and with Russians constituting 20 percent of the population, it faces ethnic tensions that could eventually threaten its survival.

Turkmenistan has already done so well from the sale of natural gas that the government supplies electricity at no charge to everyone in this otherwise poor country. But with a large desert territory, a population of fewer than four million, and a minuscule intellectual elite, Turkmenistan will depend on others for security, much like the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Tajikistan has felt the full impact along its southern border of the war and large-scale drug trafficking in neighboring Afghanistan. Its own resulting civil war and ethnic strife have been exacerbated by grave divisions among Tajikistan's leaders, a paucity of natural resources, and a populace awash in Soviet weaponry. As for Afghanistan, a generation of brutal warfare has not only left a large portion of the country in ruins but has destroyed most of the attributes of statehood, inviting interference from neighbors.

This assessment may undervalue the strengths of these countries, but there is little reason to believe that any of the five could resist outside pressures or even mobilize the political and economic resources to resist chaos within, should it erupt. That leaves Uzbekistan as the sole candidate for regional anchor.


Although smaller than Kazakhstan, which has vast tracts of uninhabited desert, Uzbekistan is nine-tenths the size of France. It has a population of about 23 million; Afghanistan and Kazakhstan are next in Central Asia, at about 18 million each. In addition, there are politically active Uzbek minorities in all the other countries of the region, including the 1.5 million ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan. Ethnic Russians, by contrast, represent less than a tenth of Uzbekistan's population and are concentrated in the capital, Tashkent. Uzbekistan lies at the geographic center of Central Asia. While it borders all the region's other states, it alone has no common border with any major power.

Uzbekistan's ancient urban centers of Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and Tashkent have constituted the historical and cultural core of the region since the fifteenth century. The Mongol conqueror Timur, or Tamerlane (c. 1336-1405), born near Samarkand, brought the entire Middle East under his sway and lavished the proceeds on the city, his capital. The Uzbeks of today differ ethnically from the medieval Timurids, but the Timurids are irrevocably linked with the nation, making Uzbeks feel they share a tradition of statehood that, though interrupted, has no parallel in the region. This also shapes Uzbek attitudes toward surrounding powers. When, after the Turkic-speaking states of Central Asia declared their independence in 1990-91, Turkey briefly aspired to act as their elder brother, Uzbeks dismissed it as an upstart. Had Timur not defeated the Ottoman sultan Bayazid in 1402 and, incidentally, saved Europe in the process?

Both the czars and the Soviet regime confirmed Uzbekistan's place in inner Asia. The Russians named Tashkent their regional military and administrative headquarters after taking control of it in 1865, and the city was still the seat of Russia's military presence in Central Asia when the U.S.S.R. began disintegrating in 1990. Although this Soviet republic housed no nuclear weapons, its military bases boasted some 40,000 Red Army tanks, now rusting in equipment graveyards around the country.

Soviet rule also developed Uzbekistan's economy, endowing it with major factories for the production of aircraft, buses, and tractors as well as refineries for oil piped in from neighboring Turkmenistan. The Soviets set up a network of research institutes and scholarly publications in Tashkent, confirming the city's status as a regional capital of scientific and intellectual life.

Undergirding these political, economic, and intellectual assets is a solid base of natural resources. Uzbekistan lacks Kazakhstan's overwhelming oil reserves or Turkmenistan's vast gas deposits but is rich in both fuels nonetheless. Gold, tungsten, and manganese are abundant, while Uzbekistan's uranium deposits are essential to Russia's nuclear industry. And the cotton monoculture, though built on colonial exploitation by Moscow, enabled Uzbekistan to become one of the world's leading producers of that important export commodity.


Such advantages give substance to Uzbekistan's prospects, but they are offset by drawbacks that could derail all hopes for the future. As is often true, many of the liabilities are the obverse of the country's strengths.

The cotton monoculture with its ubiquitous irrigation system led directly to the Aral Sea's loss of 60 percent of its volume since 1960--one of the world's worst ecological disasters--and the resulting fouled water and windblown salt created serious public health problems. The emphasis on cotton also rendered Uzbekistan dependent on food grown elsewhere. The Kremlin treated Tashkent as a showcase city but tied its communications and transportation all the more closely to Moscow, the single hub of the Soviet empire. If Uzbekistan's central location is an asset, its engineered borders are not, since they correspond to neither natural nor ethnic boundaries. Perhaps because Uzbekistan's homegrown communist leaders were masters at keeping Moscow out of their hair, they were at first reluctant to seize and capitalize on independence. Since the old regime did not collapse, leaders did not have to start from scratch after independence, but this means that many Soviet-era personnel remain in place and that some of the most negative Soviet institutions, notably the National Security Service (formerly the KGB), are intact.

Western critics have accused Uzbekistan's leaders of being unregenerate communists. This is not the case, for even during the Soviet period those in power in Uzbekistan were far more concerned with balancing the powerful regional and clan interests in the republic than with applying the precepts of Marx or Lenin. Yet they are not democrats either. Indeed, democracy is so remote a concept that the Uzbek name for its parliament, Oliy Majlis, was imported--from the Arabic. The regional factions and family-based networks that continue to dominate the country's political life have a dangerous dislike of compromise and desire to best all rivals. With Moscow no longer imposing order, the president manages the diverse interests with difficulty, if at all. Most citizens are leery of one man--one vote democracy, since it could upset a balance of powerful social forces that is already far less stable than in the past.

Among the nations of Central Asia, few of these liabilities are unique to Uzbekistan; regional loyalties and clan structures, for instance, are equally powerful in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and could as readily lead to unrest. But if Uzbekistan successfully addresses these challenges, the country's assets will leave it uniquely positioned to anchor the security of the region.


Some Western observers question whether Uzbekistan's government is up to the task. The country is still ruled by the former first secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan, they argue. They cite the slow progress of privatization and the chilling list of human rights abuses documented by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations: unlawful searches, denial of due process, political arrests, and interference with the press.

It is true that President Islam Karimov rose to power under communist rule (though in the era of perestroika) and that his government has proceeded slowly with privatization and at times demonstrated scant regard for human rights. Repression has undeniably occurred, and the constitution contains several questionable clauses, including one guaranteeing free speech only "within limits prescribed by law." But the authorities tend to speak apologetically of earlier human rights violations as temporary responses to extreme circumstances rather than a practice that will endure. The larger story is that the Karimov government is acting in accordance with an overall strategy of change. To be sure, it has in mind conservative reform that avoids what Karimov calls "pseudorevolutionary leaps"--but reform nonetheless.

The strategy rests on three pillars. Foremost is the establishment and protection of Uzbekistan's sovereignty. Beyond that, the government wants to assure political stability while steadily broadening participation and the rule of law. It also aims to foster step-by-step privatization and the growth of free markets in a manner that supports rather than undermines social well-being.

The first objective, promotion of sovereignty, has called for fast footwork. When Uzbekistan reluctantly declared its independence on August 31, 1991, there was ample cause for anxiety. Soon thereafter, the wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan and its need to strengthen its security to the south forced Uzbekistan to enter into an uneasy military alliance with Russia, even though it feared Russia's ultranationalists might try to exploit the arrangement to gain a permanent foothold in the region. While Uzbekistan's leaders collaborated militarily with Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Tajikistan, they expressed grave reservations about Russia's June 1994 draft mutual security pact for Commonwealth of Independent States countries, which remains unratified. They also opposed Russia's proposals on dual citizenship, which would have transformed Uzbekistan's ethnic Russians into a kind of fifth column for Moscow. And although Uzbekistan is a CIS member, its government has vocally criticized Russia's most recent push--after Yeltsin sent troops to the secessionist republic of Chechnya in December 1994--to centralize the CIS around Moscow and turn what is ostensibly an economic association of former Soviet republics into a political and military alliance.

Having secured independence, the government focused on transforming the military into an Uzbek institution. Working with local remnants of the Soviet Army, it set about de-Russifying the force, so that the officer corps, 85 percent Russian at independence, is now 65 percent Uzbek.

Noting the threat to Ukraine's sovereignty arising from that nation's dependence on foreign oil, Karimov made energy independence a priority. Laying more than 600 miles of pipeline a year, drastically cutting consumption, and successfully seeking Western investment, Uzbekistan expects to be self-sufficient within two years. A parallel program in agriculture has shifted tens of thousands of acres of marginal land out of cotton and into wheat, reducing food imports and beginning to address the ecological effects of the Aral Sea disaster.

The Karimov government has aggressively pursued transportation and communications development programs to lessen reliance on Russia. German construction companies are building a web of roads suited to the needs of an independent state, while the national airline and its new fleet of Airbuses have transformed Tashkent into a hub with direct links to European, North American, and Asian cities. Meanwhile, France's Alcatel and other foreign firms have broken the Russian monopoly in telecommunications.

Uzbekistan's sovereignty and stability have also been threatened from within, by territorial clans and other special interests, including religion, that leave the government wielding far less power than it might appear. Uzbek leaders have seen territorial and clan conflict rip Afghanistan and Tajikistan apart and Islamic forces almost swamp the secular regime in Algeria. When, in an early move, the Karimov regime canceled an election, it sparked a campaign of attacks by Islamic militants. Karimov resolved to use the power of the old system to trim the excesses of the new and to set clear parameters for the fledgling country's politics. Determined that Uzbekistan would be a secular state, he banned all religious parties and excluded radical reformers and extreme nationalists from the political scene.

The president thus refused to recognize the Islamic Renaissance Party and drove from office the mufti of Tashkent, Mukhammad Yusuf Sadyk, who then departed the country. Last March Karimov postponed the presidential election to 2000, reasoning that holding it this year as scheduled would provoke a clash of territorial and clan loyalties that might destroy the young state. Much criticized in the West for this, Karimov points out that Presidents Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Akayev of Kyrgyzstan, both considered warm friends of democracy, have since taken similar measures. As part of the same strategy of trimming the political extremes, the Karimov government refused to register Birlik (Unity), a party pushing to form a counterparliament of the sort that existed briefly in Soviet Estonia, and Erk (Liberty), a party of intellectuals accused of championing extreme nationalism.

Although these measures conflict with democratic ideals, they serve as the basis for civic accord, at least for the time being. But recognizing that the peace is fragile, the government has begun an intricate dance, permitting the establishment of political parties within the new parameters. Recently it has allowed independent television and radio stations to take root both in Tashkent and in provincial centers. It has also extended recognition to the politically moderate Sunni branch of Islam that predominates in the country; financed citizens' pilgrimages to Mecca; and effected a rapprochement with other Islamic countries.

To counter the divisive forces in the society, the government has mounted campaigns to strengthen national identity. It established Uzbek as the official tongue, forcing the president and senior members of the government to study the language (all official business in the Soviet era was conducted in Russian). It plans to abandon the Cyrillic script for the Roman alphabet soon. Dozens of rich but long-ignored legal, scientific, and philosophical texts from Uzbekistan's medieval period are being published. New educational institutions are preparing citizens to participate fully in international life, teaching them English principally but also German and Russian, while the thousands of young people sent abroad to study are expected to help guide their homeland's development.

Are these steps leading to a more thoroughgoing authoritarianism, or will they, as the government claims, prepare the way for the expansion of participatory government? Karimov points to the growing self-confidence of his people, which, he suggested recently, is enabling them to move beyond the "childhood disease" of extreme nationalism. Nationalism has made possible the considerable power of presidents in many of the countries carved from the U.S.S.R., Russia included. But Uzbekistan has laws, not significantly different from ones in presidential republics like France, that define the president's powers, nor are these mere empty words. And while the country's four new legal parties could prove as docile as those in communist Poland, for now their leaders speak eloquently of their independence.

Despite flirtations with Middle Eastern and Asian models of authoritarianism, Karimov and his team profess to be convinced that in the long run democracy will be essential to the maintenance of social accord. But like conservative reformers everywhere, they insist that democratic participation will proceed only from the prudent instincts associated with the ownership of property. Economic reform, therefore, is essential to their cautious program of nation-building.


Karimov's initial moves to reform the economy targeted Uzbekistan's colonial heritage. The president for the first time allowed natural gas from Bukhara to be used for local needs rather than being piped to Russia. In January 1992 he dismantled Moscow's price controls and privatized most retail stores. To date, 54,000 private businesses have been registered. Although there are as yet few start-up firms, some, like Efim Bank in Urgut, have brought their entrepreneurs great wealth and visibility.

Influenced by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's preaching about a law-based society, Karimov has insisted on the creation of a legal framework for a market economy before large state firms are privatized. The Institute of Philosophy and Law in Tashkent is finishing a major drafting project on property rights, and with the help of German jurists is completing a new civil code and laws on trade.

Notwithstanding the delays, Karimov is committed to privatization. For one thing, he believes it is necessary to prevent the kind of corruption prevalent in Russia and to some extent in Uzbekistan. "Corruption exists," he says, "so long as state property exists." Given his moderate instincts, he will probably maintain state control of a few industries deemed essential to national security, but this should leave as much as 70 percent of nonagricultural GDP in private hands.

Karimov's penchant for conservative reform is most evident in agriculture, because of the nationwide irrigation network. The president expects the state to maintain control of water resources and hence the cotton industry. Since the collective farms established in the Soviet period are largely controlled by families and clans, Karimov favors their transformation into cooperatives rather than full-blown privatization, which he fears would trigger conflict. Forty percent of farmland has already been turned over to private owners, but there is as yet no free market in land and no possibility of mortgaging land holdings. The government hopes that improving living standards in the countryside will empower co-op members to set up independent enterprises.

A striking feature of Uzbekistan's economy is the stability of its currency, the sum, introduced in July 1994. Pushed out of the ruble zone by Russia the year before, Uzbekistan was one of the last former Soviet republics to create its own currency. But its tax collection system was intact and the government was strong enough to hold the budget deficit last year to 3.5 percent of GDP. Along with the government's decision to bank gold in the West, this fiscal discipline reduced inflation to 1.8 percent a month by last fall, making the country far more attractive to investors from Asia and Europe.

To be sure, the central bank is still poorly organized, and a plan for its reform is still in preparation at Arthur Andersen & Co., the accounting firm. Nevertheless, the World Bank has offered $160 million in financing and the Paris Club has pledged $900 million in credit, which has attracted attention abroad and brought to Tashkent a parade of heads of state from India, Germany, Israel, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

For now, Russia is still the largest foreign presence in Uzbekistan's economy. Thousands of Russian specialists who left after independence have been brought back to industries under term contracts. But the expansion of trade and investment from elsewhere is expected to diminish Russia's economic voice.

After the fall of the U.S.S.R., it was widely assumed that Turkey would become a major player in the economies of Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries. But Turkey's own economic hardships, along with what many Uzbeks consider the Turks' condescending attitude, have severely limited Turkey's role.

South Korea, Japan, and Germany are moving aggressively to establish themselves. The South Korean companies Daiwoo and Samsung have set up factories in Uzbekistan, and Japan's Toyota and Mitsubishi are doing so, either alone or in collaboration with local firms. Thanks to the 200,000 Koreans whom Stalin settled in the country after World War II, South Korea enjoys an advantage over Japan. Daimler-Benz will produce trucks near Nukus, and several German construction and telecommunications firms are well entrenched.

The sprawling Chkalov Aircraft works offer a window on economic reform in Uzbekistan. After nearly collapsing in the wake of the Soviet breakup, the state-owned facility restored links with most of its former suppliers and now has a contract with Rolls-Royce for engines for a new craft designed for the short-haul market of western China and Central Asia. If and when the government privatizes the concern, it will be selling a valuable asset and will not have to resort to bargain-basement pricing.


It would be premature to judge Karimov's strategy of conservative change a success or failure. With its clan-based social structure, its fears of Islamic fundamentalism, and civil wars in two neighboring countries, Uzbekistan is constrained by very different concerns than those guiding policy in Moscow, let alone the Baltic states or Central Europe. But it appears that Tashkent has managed to secure the country's sovereignty and establish the civil accord the government deems essential for development. Overall patterns of foreign investment suggest that economic reform is on a good course.

The United States has been slow to recognize Uzbekistan's significance. U.S. investment has been modest, with the exception of projects mounted by Newmont Mining, the M. W. Kellogg Co., and a few others. An initial enthusiasm for Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan brought Vice President Al Gore to both those countries, leaving Karimov to receive an unwelcome lecture on human rights from a State Department officer. But in an apparent shift, Secretary of Defense William Perry visited Tashkent last March and praised Uzbekistan as "an island of stability" in Central Asia. Uzbekistan responded by becoming the only Central Asian state to back the trade embargo against Iran the U.S. proposed last spring, aimed in part at the sale of Russian nuclear reactors.

The Perry visit hints at a change of course in Central Asia, which has up to now been an afterthought in European security. The United States had focused on NATO expansion, arms reduction, and a special relationship with Russia based on a drawdown of weapons and Moscow's commitment to democratization and economic transformation. In the past year Washington has acknowledged that an independent, peaceful, democratic, and economically developed Ukraine could further those goals. The same reasoning should now be applied to Central Asia, and Uzbekistan in particular. A sovereign Uzbekistan, politically and economically reformed, is the best hope to anchor a potentially unstable region and foster Russia's development as a "normal" country free from regional insecurities and imperial longings.

In no way does this imply that Uzbekistan would become the head of some new Central Asian union embracing the four Turkic-speaking states, if not Tajikistan. Such an arrangement would rightly be opposed throughout the region, and the other countries have already evinced anxiety over Tashkent's rising political and economic valence. But a strong Uzbekistan that respects its neighbors' sovereignty can foster cooperation in this vast region of geographically open borders, strengthening its neighbors' security and prospects for development. The contending parties in Tajikistan, for example, have asked Karimov to mediate in their civil war, suggesting the possible benefits in the security sphere. The Central Asian Customs Union established in February 1994, and Uzbekistan's participation in the economic as opposed to the military and political dimensions of the CIS, are examples of what might be achieved in the economic realm.

As Central Asia gets on its feet, the CIS can emerge as an informal body for economic coordination among countries with a common heritage of Soviet rule rather than as a neo-imperial system enshrining Russia's sphere of military and political influence in an unstable region. Such an arrangement, in which a sovereign and strong Uzbekistan would play a significant role, best serves the interests of all countries involved, Russia included.

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  • S. Frederick Starr, Distinguished Fellow at the Aspen Institute, is the author of 13 books on Russian and Eurasian history, politics, and culture.
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