THE NEW YORKER
April, 6 1992
By Robin Wright
THE Hotel Uzbekistan, in the heart of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, is a monstrous and monotonous gray block of concrete that arches around an empty plaza. Like many buildings in the ancient city, the hotel was erected after a 1966 earthquake devastated the old landmarks. After the earthquake, the core of Tashkent was rebuilt in a matter of months, with the help of thirty thousand "volunteers" front what were then the Soviet Union's fourteen other republics. A quarter of a century later, parts of Tashkent are still variously referred to as the Riga sector, the Vilnius sector, or the Kiev quarter, after the capitals of republics that contributed labor. The worst sector, Tashkentis tell visitors, is the Ashkhabad quarter, which was built by workers from poor neighboring Turkmenistan.
The reconstruction may have been efficient, but Tashkent, once an oasis stopover for caravans on the old Silk Road across Asia, lost much of its historic flavor. The traces of ancient Greek, Persian, Arab, Mongol, and Turkish civilizations that ruled the region before czarist Russia expanded into Central Asia in the nineteenth century have virtually disappeared. The nondescript Stalinesque architecture, which often makes government complexes, business offices, and apartment high rises indistinguishable, did more than any political-indoctrination campaign to stamp Tashkent with a Soviet ambience. In the sterile and now shabby lobby of the Hotel Uzbekistan, the symbols of a rich Asian culture -- colorfully embroidered beaded caps, damascene-like tapestries, and tea sets with their pots and handleless cups -- are relegated to souvenir-display shelves.
Yet a half century of czarist rule and more than seven decades of Soviet domination did not completely transform Tashkent or its inhabitants. Sometimes visibly, sometimes beneath the surface, physical and cultural traditions have survived attempts both by monarchs and by Communists to Russify the south. Despite widespread poverty, flowers have remained an essential element of Tashkent life. On the clay of the first snow in Moscow last fall, stalks of red gladioli stood almost shoulder high under the Central Asian sun in Tashkent's downtown parks; in the courtyards of simple clay-brick houses in Old Tashkent, pink, white, and red roses were still blooming. Although the Islamic religion was scorned by tile czars and banned by the Soviets, its everyday customs have never been abandoned. In little teahouses or open-air bazaars, "Salaam alaikum," or "Peace be upon you"—the Islamic greeting common to the nearby Arab world and to Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—has remained standard among the Uzbeks. And although Moscow imposed its language and its ways, the local heritage has persisted in life-cycle rituals. At a late-autumn wedding I observed my first day in Tashkent, the bride kept her head bowed and avoided eye contact in the modest manner of Central Asian brides; the bridegroom wore the gold brocade coat and matching crown, bedecked with feathers, that distinguishes Central Asian bridegrooms.
The legendary hospitality of Central Asians has not disappeared, either. In the hotel lobby, I met a budding entrepreneur named Dilmurad Mohammedaliyev (the Russified version of Muhammad Ali). An unusually large young Uzbek, who could have been a pro fullback, he immediately invited me to another wedding. "If you really want to know about the future of Central Asia, this is where you'll see it," he said. "This is a different kind of marriage—this is a traditional wedding."
We drove to a kolkhoz, or state collective, on the outskirts of Tashkent which grew pears, melons, and citrus fruits. White sheets had been draped between high poles to separate guests from the produce, and to separate women from men. As a foreign guest, I was designated an honorary man and invited to sit at one of many long rows of picnic tables covered with big bowls of fruit, plates of cold cuts and cheese, and piles of thick round flatbread and small sticky cakes. Clusters of bottles offered everything from local soda pop to a slightly sweet Uzbek champagne. Platters of kabobs were served while a band played local music and sonic three hundred men talked noisily.
The "wedding," it turned out, was actually a double ceremony for two brothers, Iskander and Ismail Djalilov, aged three and five. Late in the evening, the little boys, dressed in miniature gold groom's coats and crowns topped by a peacock feather, made their debut to receive toasts and gifts. In Uzbek, the ceremony is called a sunnat toi; elsewhere it is known as a circumcision. The medical procedure had in fact been performed earlier in the day in the presence of the boys' male relatives. The evening's festivities, celebrating the occasion, were to continue all night and end with a rice breakfast at 6 A.M. "It is the most important event in a male's life until he turns eighteen," Mohammedaliyev explained. "It is called a wedding because it is the ceremony during which a boy-child marries Allah."
For much of the evening, the senior men of the family and their friends sat at the entrance to the kolkhoz greeting guests and chatting. Most wore the black quilted coats and black four-cornered caps with white embroidery so common in Central Asia. Among them was the boys' grandfather Abdul Kayoum Iloja, a kindly old man with a big beard. Unlike his grandchildren, he had deeply slanted eyes. Over the centuries, the intermingling of the nomadic tribes that once roamed the Central Asian steppes and their various conquerors has produced combinations of Indo-European, Turkic, and Mongol features, among others. Even within a family, they can range from very Western to very Asian. After a new "freedom of conscience" law in 1990 formally allowed the practice of religion in the Soviet Union, Kayoum was among the first to make the pilgrimage to Mecca during the annual hajj; "Hoja" is an honorific title added to the beginning or end of names after the pilgrimage. Although lie had spent his whole life under Communist rule, Kayoum told me, he had secretly learned, and kept, the faith that first took root in Central Asia in the eighth century. "Two thousand made the hajj in 1990. Five hundred were from Tashkent," he said, smiling proudly. "Islam is now growing very fast. The Islamic public is agitating." His grandsons would have a different upbringing, he predicted, because of the new freedom to practice and teach religion. He hoped that one day Sharia, or Islamic law, would rule the land. With the confidence of a true believer, he said, "Everyone wants an Islamic state."
THE Soviet Union was home to almost sixty million Muslims—the fifth-largest Islamic population in the world, larger than that of any Middle Eastern country. The majority now live in the five former Asian republics: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyastan, and Tajikistan—the most isolated and least-known parts of what is now the Commonwealth of Independent States, and perhaps of the world. It wasn't always that way. For centuries, this area was part of Turkestan, which in its medieval glory stretched from Turkey into western China and united diverse peoples and tribes with a common culture, language, and religion.
After Russia absorbed Central Asia in the nineteenth century, the region was administered by the czars as a single colony, still called Turkestan but by then diminished in size. After the Bolshevik revolution, the Turkestanis, believing they had been liberated from Russian oppression, applied for autonomy. It was denied, which triggered a six-year civil war in the south. At the height of the rebellion, in 1918, a secret conference of the resistance, mobilizing local cultural forces, declared a new state, the Turkestan Independent Islamic Republic. It never had a chance against Russian troops. And when the uprising was finally quashed, in 1925, Stalin moved quickly to prevent new pan-Islamic or pan-Turkic challenges to Communism. Turkestan was carved up, somewhat arbitrarily, into the five republics. The name itself disappeared from the map.
Since the Soviet demise, however, the new Central Asian states have quietly begun another round of upheavals, this time over how to reorganize and reorient their societies. In what was the Soviet Union's most conservative region, a host of explosive political, economic, and social flash points have now emerged. Of the five republics, Turkmenistan (which I did not visit) has so far undergone the least change, even though it shares strategic borders with Iran and Afghanistan. Its land is ninety per cent desert; its capital, Ashkhabad, is, like Tashkent, a Russihed oasis of Stalinesque architecture. Turkmenistan was traditionally the quietest Soviet republic, better known for its carpets and its Turkoman horses than for its politics. To no one's surprise, it was one of the last of the Soviet Union's fifteen republics to declare full independence.
Among the new idioms of political and social expression in Central Asia, Islam is one of the most vibrant; in Uzbekistan, its resurgence is visible at every turn. Amid the prams, inner tubes, and school satchels at Kids' World, in downtown Tashkent, the hottest-selling item was a two-volume album of the Koran recorded in the original Arabic; as noteworthy as its availability was the fact that it had been recorded locally. A salesgirl in the store blushed when I asked if she had listened to it. In a land where religion had so long been suppressed and few had publicly admitted their faith, she was now embarrassed to admit she had not heard it – “I know I should," she added. Though the noisy disco at the Hotel Uzbekistan was filled with women in miniskirts, mainly Russians, a Tashkent cabbie pointed out long white head scarves -- symbols of Islamic modesty—being worn by young Uzbek girls milling out of a school as the more prevalent fashion craze.
At Friday prayers on the Muslim Sabbath, the wailing muezzin at the Central Mosque, in Old Tashkent, drew overflow crowds. It was one of the few mosques that had been allowed to remain open during Communist rule, in part because it was controlled by the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Central Asia, headquartered across the street in a majestic fifteenth-century complex with a beautiful azure tiled entrance and a courtyard filled with roses. The Spiritual Directorate was in turn controlled by the Kremlin.
The authority of the Directorate, however, has become a source of dispute in Central Asia; internal struggles and intrigues have weakened its clout. The scuttlebutt in Tashkent over the past year has centered on accusations, made by other mullahs, that the Directorate's chief mufti sold for profit some of the one million Korans that Saudi Arabia had donated for free distribution. The mufti managed to survive a mini-putsch last summer, when he was defeated in an election held by other government-backed mullahs, who were responding in no small part, I was told, to the growing pressure of Islamic activism. Uzbekistan's Communist government declared the election illegal and forcibly put him back in power, but neither move really restored his authority. Scandals aside, the Directorate's real problem is that it is seen as "official" Islam- that is to say, it is supported by the local Communist Party — at a time when the wellspring of support is for "unofficial" Islam, which has been busy since the nineteen-seventies organizing cells to wage a secret war against totalitarian and atheist rule.
Abduilab Ismailov, the chief of the Directorate's international department, was working in a cubbyhole office facing the courtyard. A small man who frequently perfumed his black goatee and mustache from a gold-topped flacon while he talked, Ismailov outlined the dimensions of Islam's growth. "Three years ago, there were about eighty mosques in all Uzbekistan,” he said. “Now in the Namangan region alone there are more than a thousand, and Namangan is only one of twelve Uzbek regions. But things are growing so fast that this figure can be obsolete in one day." (Other estimates claim that an average of ten new mosques are opening daily in Central Asia.)
In a niche in Ismailov's office was a quotation from the Koran in six languages--Russian, Arabic, English, Uzbek, Farsi, and French. "In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful! Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, rejoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: they are the ones to attain felicity," the English version read. When pressed, Ismailov said he favored adopting Islamic law, eventually. "Yes, I want it," he said. "But you have to learn Islam to start to want it. When enough people know the Sharia, they, too, will want it."
Yet Ismailov told me that he deeply opposed mixing mosque and state. "Certain religious teachings can't be a political force," he explained as he poured me tea. Nor did he want a theocracy to replace the Communists who are still running Uzbekistan, and he distanced himself from the Islamic Renaissance Party, which had emerged from the underground in 1990. "I'm not acquainted with their charter," he said, trying to dismiss the subject. "I'm far front the issue of the political struggle. If they're planning to defend the interests of the Muslim population, which is the majority, then I welcome them. But if they're trying to get power for themselves, and use Islamic slogans to do it, I'm against it. It's not necessary to have a religious leader as head of state. Do you consider the United States a Christian state?"
The American Constitution separates church and state, I replied. "Is your President a believer?" I said yes.
"Well, it's no different here," he said, with some irritation.
THE future of Islam may be better judged at the Higher Islamic Institute, a madrasah, or seminary, in Old Tashkent. Like mosques, madrasahs are proliferating in Central Asia,and enrollment is soaring. In a simple classroom with vintage wooden desks, I talked to four mullahs-to-he, all in their middle or late twenties, who had been waiting for years to get into a seminary. One of them, a tall youth from Tajikistan named Suleymon Boltuyev, who carried a huge weathered copy of the Koran, had been waiting since 1982. With the restriction on numbers lifted, the only limitation now is space; from fifty students three years ago, enrollment at the Institute has risen to four hundred, its director told rne. Two new madrasahs had opened recently in Tashkent, seven more in other parts of Uzbekistan. "We've got to be proud and thankful to Allah," Boltuyev said of the new religious freedoms, discounting the role of perestroika. Boltuyev's mission now, as he sees it, is to spread the word further. "The knowledge of history and science proves Islam to be the only religion in the world that does not lead man astray and to bad deeds," he said. Indeed, all the young seminarians seemed surprised that there might be any question about whether Islam would, in the end, prevail throughout the region.
None of them wanted to copy Iran's Islamic revolution, however. "We want a theocratic state run by the clergy, we want Sharia, but the model of Iran is not suitable," Tsumbai Lyusanov, a soft-spoken young Kyrgyz whose family came from China, told me. "This would not be a militant state. We want no victims and no bloodshed—just peaceful existence." The Muslims of Central Asia are different from their Iranian brethren in another important way as well. Iranian Muslims are predominantly Shiite, but the Muslims in the five republics are overwhelmingly Sunni. In Shiism, the clergy are empowered to intercede between God and man, and thus mullahs and imams like Ayatollah Khomeini are able to play powerful leadership roles in interpreting God's will to the faithful. Among the Sunni, man's relationship with God is direct, and the clergy serve largely as guides or advisers. The difference is sometimes compared to the difference within Christianity, with Catholicism's infallible Pope and strict hierarchy in contrast to the looser structure of Protestant faiths.
Through intermediaries, I then tracked down the leaders of the clandestine Islamic Renaissance Party, or I.R.P. The 1.R.P. calls for the overthrow of Communism and the establishment of an Islamic republic, but it eschews religious extremism. Although a branch of the I.R.P. had eventually been allowed to register as a legal party in Moscow, it was initially banned by all five of the conservative Central Asian republics. Uzbekistan's leaders went further: they outlawed all religious parties and any attempt by the clergy to run for parliament. Police raided an I.R.P. constitutional conference held in early 1991, and the leadership has remained underground ever since.
Abdullah Utayev, the I.R.P.'s political chairman—not to be confused with its spiritual leader, the real power in the Party—is a plump Uzbek with a small goatee who works for a publishing company. His first deputy, an affable man named Abdullah Yusuf, is a teacher. Yusuf did most of the talking, with Utayev nodding throughout. "When Western people write about Islam, they talk about its being fanatic, and they use the term 'fundamentalist,' Yusuf said, leaning forward and speaking intensely. "I'd like to emphasize one thing: we cannot draw a parallel with Iranian society. There is a great difference between the Shia and the Sunni. The spiritual leader who will be a chief of state here should not only be a member of the clergy. He has to know the secular sciences as well. Pakistan is a more suitable model." He hastened to add that Pakistan's system was not exactly what his party had in mind, either. Pakistan is all Islamic republic, but it is headed by a secular leader, and Sharia is only one ---not the only --source of its laws. Saudi Arabia, where Sharia is the law but the clergy are only advisers to the monarchy, and where no one votes, is also not a model, he said. "We have our own, different ideas. What we really want is an Islamic democracy, although all the elements of democracy are in Islam, so we don't need to add the word."
How did their party define an Islamic democracy?
"With our people, the notion of democracy means no restrictions," Yusuf said. It would not be a one-party state; the franchise would be universal; the rights of ethnic and religious minorities would be protected; and private property would be honored. But the I.R.P.'s Islamic democracy would in fact have some restric‑tions. “Anti-Islamic” practices, for example, would be forbidden. “This means that all those things which are no good for humanity —drugs, drink, prostitution--must not be allowed," he said, Nor would tolerance be universal, even toward Muslims. "All the people appointed to Muslim posts in past years had to get the permission from the state," Yusuf said. "Not all are legitimate members of the clergy. All who work for the Directorate will have to go."
And how long would it be before this Islamic state took root?
"Only Allah knows," Yusuf answered, shaking his head. "But mankind is moving so fast. We didn't think the events of the past six years could take place even in fifty years."
THE Gur-Amir Mausoleum is the highlight of Samarkand, Uzbekistan's oldest city. Samarkand first became a crossroads between Fast and 'Vest under Alexander the Great, a role it retained for almost two thousand years—until ships replaced land caravans for international trade. The mausoleum—a towering complex surrounding a courtyard which contains a mosque, a madrasah, and quarters for the ascetic dervishes—was built in the fifteenth century, at the time of Samarkand's greatest glory.
I arrived at the mausoleum early one morning, before it had opened; a young Uzbek militiaman in an ill-fitting gray uniform was still preparing for the first tourists, When I pressed him with questions that a brief history on the front wall, in Russian, did not answer, he invited me inside for a look before the crowds came. The centuries have done their damage to the shrine's exterior, but the interior has been restored to its original splendor. Sunlight shines through arched windows and reflects from high walls decorated with intricate blue-and-gilt mosaics; the light inside seems golden.
On the floor were six sarcophagi, five of light marble surrounding one of greenish-black jade. The one in the middle marks the official resting place of the fourteenth-century warrior-king Timur the Lame, so called because of a limp, who is better known in the West as Tamerlane. Next to him rest two sons, at his head a beloved teacher. The militiaman, who introduced himself as Zayniddin, talked at some length of Timur's expansion of old Turkestan – through conquests in Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, southern Russia, Syria, Turkey, and India—and of the development of Samarkand, his exotic capital. Then, looking at the sarcophagi, he sheepishly confessed, "These are only models. They were put here at the time of Timur's death. He ordered it done that way." After a pause, he asked, "Would you like to see the real ones?"
We went outside and made our way around the building to an innocuous little door in the rear. Zayniddin unfastened a padlock at the top and led me into a small underground crypt. The unadorned brick vault also contained six sarcophagi, which were positioned exactly like those in the room above, but were of simpler white stone. The top of Timur's real tomb was engraved with his autobiography. At the bottom, Timur had added a warning that anyone who opened his grave would start a major war. Despite local protests, Zayniddin told me, the sarcophagus was opened by Soviet authorities in June, 1941. Four days later, he added solemnly, Hitler's armies attacked.
Although Timur is known to the outside world for his ruthless military tactics, his rule is regarded by many in Central Asia as a period of greatness, not only for the prosperous empire he built but for the achievements of Islamic culture, particularly science and the arts. After Zayniddin relocked the crypt, he stood still for a few moments before returning to his duties. "What we need is a new Timur to build a new Turkestan," he said. "I dream that a day will come when our republics unite and renew the ancient name. It would be good for Central Asia. It may be our only hope of survival."
ACROSS from the Hotel Uzbekistan k is a bright-yellow building with classical white columns which looks a little like a giant doll house and serves as the headquarters of the Writers' Union, I went there to meet Abdulrahim Pulatov, who is the leader of Birlik, a populist pro-democracy movement that was founded in 1988. Like the I.R.P., Birlik, which means Unity, is outlawed in Uzbekistan. I asked Pulatov, a physicist, about the prospects of reuniting Turkestan firstin Central Asia, and then to its old boundaries across the continent. "For a hundred and thirty-five years, we've been a colony, and now we've got independence," he said. "Democracy is the first step, but what comes after that is a big question. Here people have approximately the same culture and language. Joint economic and environmental problems also unite us. So working together is both logical and efficient. Our movement is not against ties with Russia. Every normal and sane politician thinks that turning only to Asia is impossible, because, especially in the cities, Europe has had an impact. But we have to think about which ties will he most profitable, which are most natural. We will broaden our contact with Islamic and Asian countries. We have to communicate with neighbors from whom we've been separated for seventy years. This is the future." As for the re-creation of old Turkestan, Pulatov added, "Doubtless, in my lifetime there will be a Turkestan that extends beyond Central Asia."
Turkestan, however, takes various shapes in the minds of BirIlk's members and sympathizers. Some see it as a tightly knit state with a central set of laws and a central administration; others see it as a loose confederation. Jamal Kamal, who is the most famous Uzbek writer and has translated nine Shakespearean plays into Uzbek, later told me, "Turkestan will not be one solid, united state. Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the others will continue. Each will still have its own name. Turkestan will be more like a cultural and economic federation. Maybe only after many years it will he one state."
Birlik officials agreed that they have no aggressive agenda and no desire to forcibly weld together parts or all of other states. They also stressed that their version of Turkestan is not an Islamic state. "The model is Turkey," Pulatov said. "The state is secular and has modern industry and connections with both Europe and Asia. But the power of religion is much stronger here than in Turkey. There are people who believe that the best model is Iran or Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, although most of them only have a superficial knowledge of how any of those countries are run. People simply haven't had any information about those places in seventy years. The ones who do know something turn to Turkey."
Birlik is not anti-Islamic. Indeed, Birlik and the "unofficial" Islamism regularly consult and work together against the Communist government in Tashkent, and many Islamists share the goal of restoring the old state. "Turkestan is also our dream," Abdullah Yusuf, the deputy I.R.P. chairman, had told me. "Islam does not have a notion of nationality. Islam knows only a believer and a nonbeliever. Now we face the fact that Europe will he one state, with no borders. Turkestan, as we see it, will be like the European Community. It says in Islam that people have to unite and have no wars between them." And Birlik officials, assuming their own victory in any new election, suggested that Islamists would be included in an opposition government. But in the long term Pulatov and others in Birlik are wary of the Islamic tide. "The longer the Communists try to block democracy, the greater are the prospects for an Islamic takeover," Pulatov said. "We need to avoid the rise of the Islamic movement in Turkestan."
At the moment, however, Turkestan is little niece than a dream, albeit one with a lot of potential. As the crow flies, Tashkent is only about two hundred miles from the Afghan border, three hundred miles from the Chinese border, and some five hundred and fifty miles from the Iranian border. Although Turkestan once included parts of all three countries, major transport links between Central Asia and its neighbors are still routed via Moscow. Thus, to get to any neighboring state in the south a Tashkenti has to fly almost seventeen hundred miles northwest, through three time zones, to Moscow, and then fly hack over the same territory on an international carrier. Since 1989, the border has become a bit more porous for buses and trucks—most notably between Turkmenistan and Iran, and between Kyrgyzstan and China--but the job of re-creating Turkestan would require a physical as well as a political overhaul.
A bigger obstacle may be represented by the tall brown cotton stalks and their bulbous white blooms which dominate the Central Asian landscape. On a Sunday afternoon at the peak of the harvest, I caught up with Crew No. 6--thirty men, women, and children responsible for seventy hectares - in the vast fields surrounding Tashkent. Wearing a white bandanna over his head to ward off the sun, a picker named Rayshan Sagdibayev deftly pulled off the soft cotton puffs and dropped them in a deep sack. "You can tell when they're about to blossom by these little spots," he explained, pointing out half a dozen brownish pimples on a bud. "We'll get this one at the next picking, but even if you plucked it off now it'd still bloom."
The original supply of seed for Central Asian cotton came front the United States in the eighteen-sixties, Sagdibayev told me. "These were only small fields before. Now there is little else." After the American Civil War cut off supplies of cotton, Russia turned to its newly conquered colony in the south, which had the requisite fair climate' and abundant water. Later, under Soviet rule, the kolkhoz.es and the sovkhozes, or state farms, in all five Asian republics increasingly turned to cotton production. By the early nineteen-eighties, the cotton crop of Uzbekistan alone almost matched the entire American yield, and cotton had become a major Soviet export to some thirty countries.
The high productivity came at a cost. Cotton, the Uzbeks like to say, is a monoculture dictatorship. It is estimated to account for forty per cent of the labor force of Uzbekistan and to consume sixty per cent of all its resources. To meet ever-increasing quotas, other crops—mainly fruits and vegetables—and livestock grazing have been abandoned or cut back. The Soviet regime also stopped rotating cotton crops with alfalfa, and thereby depleted the soil's nutrients; pesticides were overused, and local rivers were drained for irrigation. Pressure for higher yields eventually resulted in the so-called Cotton Scandal of the early nineteen-eighties, when dozens of Uzbek officials were arrested and tried for falsifying yields to match rising production quotas that they could not meet.
The over-all result has been an ecological and health disaster. The Aral Sea, which was once the world's fourth-largest inland lake, has shrunk to sixty per cent of its former size, because the two rivers that flowed into it were diverted for cotton-field irrigation. The former port city of Aralsk is now more than twenty-five miles from its shoreline. People are faring no better than the environment. Hundreds of thousands of cotton pickers have been exposed to poisonous insecticides and to defoliants, which, studies have shown, make them up to sixty per cent more likely to suffer from nervous and intestinal disorders and jaundice.
The cotton monoculture has been an economic disaster as well. For cotton, as for agricultural produce and raw materials from all fifteen republics, Moscow paid artificially low prices. Then it converted the cotton into cloth and other consumer goods at factories in the industrial Russian heartland and sold them back---or abroad--for top ruble. Little of the profit was used to develop the Central Asian republics, and they were left with few resources and limited goods to trade with their Asian neighbors. Figures for 1989 show the Central Asian republics to have been the poorest; the annual per-capita income in Uzbekistan was less than half of Russia's. Now, with production and crop yields declining, and shortages of equipment and of spare parts for antiquated machines growing throughout the Commonwealth, simply maintaining the old standard of living everywhere will be tough.
Uzbekistan does have food. The outdoor stalls at the bazaars in Old Tashkent and Samarkand were laden with fruit and vegetables. Old women and young men hawked pomegranates, lemons, red and green peppers, huge tomatoes, eggplants, scallions, fat carrots, radishes, a wide assortment of nuts, the mainstay potato, mounds of fresh spices, and dozens of other fresh foods. Corners of parking lots were filled with piles of watermelons and cantaloupes. My interpreter, a nineteen-year-old student from Moscow State University who revelled in the foods unavailable at home, bought and ate so much that he was violently sick the next day. In a two-story in-door market at the Tashkent bazaar, the only lines were for frozen chickens and pigs' feet, the latter a Russian delicacy that infuriates local Muslims. There, too, long sausages hung neatly from a rod, and butchers with big axes chopped beef sides and horse meat into fillets.
But food is expensive. Sagdibayev, the cotton picker, earns about twenty-eight rubles a day—the equivalent of less than a dollar--and must support a family of five. "And prices in the shops are growing even faster," he added. The cost of a single lemon was four rubles on the day I visited Tashkent's bazaar, and I watched an elderly Russian couple buy thirty-five pounds of potatoes, as much as the two could carry, for fear the price would soon rise again. Yet, according to some local analysts, the economies of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are the only two in Central Asia that have even a distant hope of becoming viable on their own; in mountainous Tajikistan, ninety-five per cent of the land is not arable.
Together, however, the five Central Asian republics are willing to gamble that they have a chance. Last August, a week before the Moscow putsch, they held a summit in Tashkent and solidified the framework of a Central Asian common market. The pact reduces trade barriers and opens the way for barter deals among the republics. In effect, it created a new economic bloc, bringing together fifty million people in a region stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Chinese border.
Then, this February, four of the five—Kazakhstan is still an observer—joined Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan in a broader Economic Cooperation Organization, nicknamed the Islamic Common Market. The new Asian states are slowly hut steadily moving away from the Commonwealth's European republics. If the pace continues, one of the new frontiers between Europe and Asia may run right throughout the Commonwealth.
The center of Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan (or “land of the Kazakhs”) is dominated by a leafy park dedicated to Russian war heroes, including those who settled Central Asia. In the center is a giant house of pastel pink with white columns and white trim, topped by four gold cupolas, which was built during the Romanov era as a Russian Orthodox cathedral. The feel of urban Kazakhstan, in its design and its symbols, is pure Russian.
Czarist Russia first entered Central Asia through Kazakhstan, and it is the only southern republic with which Russia shares a border. The legendary cossack light cavalry beat back the vestiges of the Great, Middle, and Small Hordes in the eighteenth century; Russian authorities moved in to colonize the territory and replace the princely khans in the mid-nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, Stalin strengthened Russian rule by forcing millions to resettle in the south. (Only recently have the Kazakhs, with forty per cent of the population, again become the largest ethnic group in their own land; Russians are down to thirty-eight per cent.) Under the czars, all personal names were Russified. In the nineteen-twenties, Moscow ordered that the Latin alphabet replace Arabic script, which had been used since Central Asians embraced Islam, in the eighth century; in the nineteen-forties, it re placed the Latin alphabet with the Slavic Cyrillic alphabet. The effect was to limit the use of Kazakh to homes and the streets, making the Kazakhs functionally illiterate in their own language. Russian colonial authorities and settlers also replaced traditional tribal and clan leaders in Kazakhstan's grassy steppes, where its nomads had grazed livestock for centuries. Although various Communist leaders eventually brought Kazakhs into the Party and then into top leadership positions--the criterion often being compliance rather than competence—Russians always ran the show, either from secondary positions inside the republic or from on high in Moscow. Thanks to greater literacy levels and better training, Russians also dominated the skilled professions. Only in 1989 did the balance of power begin to change significantly. Besides the freedom-of-conscience law, which reconnected the republics to the roots of Central Asian culture, another new law allowed them to use their own languages again. Now Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, and Turkmen are all gradually replacing Russian as the official government languages; in Kazakhstan, certain jobs are restricted to speakers of Kazakh. All five republics also have plans to revert eventually to either the Latin or the Arabic alphabet.
The effects of the new language law were apparent at a school I visited on the outskirts of Alma-Ata where the city begins to rise toward the snowcapped Tien Shan Mountains. The facility, built of concrete, is in fact two schools, each for all ages: School No. 145 is for Kazakh students; No. 45 is for Russians and twenty minorities.
"After the language law was passed, some Kazakh parents asked for a separate school, so their children wouldn't lose their language," Aleksandr Baraskevich, a Russian science teacher with a blond walrus mustache, told me. “Frankly, the initial demand was to remove all Russian kids from the school and to give it to the Kazakhs." After heated debate, a compromise was worked out: until a new school could be built across the street for the Kazakhs, the two student bodies would he physically separated in the existing school. In September, 1990, when the fall term began, a heavy steel-mesh fence was erected on the first floor to segregate the ethnic groups. A white bust of Lenin and a red flag went to the Russian side. A few weeks later, an explosive device went off under one of the school entryways a few feet from the fence, set off by persons still unidentified. The next day, the headmaster took the fence down. But it was no longer needed; the division had been established.
Long before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the language law had begun to change the social landscape of Central Asia. "The emphasis now is on roots, tradition," Baraskevich said. "History classes in both schools deal with Kazakhstan's independent history as well as with the Soviet era. Russian students also now have to take Kazakh language classes. And there's a special privilege for Kazakh kids: they do Russian as a foreign language.” More than ninety percent of the Russians in all five Central Asian republics never learned the local language, whereas the Asians had to know Russian in order to function in society. Segregation, however, may not be the right alternative, Baraskevich told me. "It's not good to separate kids," he said. "If they are physically separated, then psychological barriers will come next. Over a generation, this could have a major impact. Frankly, most of the students don't understand why the decision was taken."
Teachers in the Kazakh half of the school told a somewhat different story. "For our pity, the Kazakh children haven't known their language," Dina Begezhanova, a dark-haired young Kazakh teacher, told me as we sat in a small office filled with children's desks. "They haven't known the history of our nationality. They are hungry for their own identity and to be proud of who they are. Things are slowly improving. Now there are about thirty Kazakh schools. But still there are problems. One of the biggest is books. There are no Kazakh texts for chemistry, engineering, or English. Classes one through three have no books at all in Kazakh, so they still use Russian books, which teachers must translate into Kazakh. One of the problems is just finding ways to print things in Kazakh. It's a real problem, you know, finding a Kazakh typewriter."
The end result is a gradual transformation: the once dominant Russians and the second-class Asians are beginning to swap positions. Unless the Russians learn Kazakh, they will become the functionally illiterate. Their reaction includes both fear and anger. Vitaly, my Russian taxi-driver, whose grandparents had been exiled to Kazakhstan from Saratov, in southern Russia, in 1922, reflected on the changes. "Before perestroika, everything was fine. No one talked about nationalities. It was so calm and peaceful,” he told me one day as we drove around Alma-Ata in his cab, a twelveyear-old red Chigaly with a cracked windshield and a tarantula, encased in plastic, in the gearshift knob. "But after perestroika people began to say to Russians, `Go home, go back to Russia'—even to old people on buses. Before perestroika, there were no Kazakhs working in the stores. Now they're all over the place. You don't know what will happen next. We're sitting on a powder keg here. We'll be refugees, that's for sure. If there were anyplace else for us, I would have gone by now. But there's no place else for us." Indeed, unlike the colonists of other abandoned European empires, Russian colonists cannot just pack up and go home. With huge housing shortages and the prospect of mass layoffs in the conversion to a free-market economy, Russia cannot absorb its troops returning from Eastern Europe, much less the roughly twenty-five million Russians dispersed throughout the Commonwealth. Some Russian cities are officially "closed," because of overpopulation or limited housing, and in others getting housing requires wealth or highly marketable skills.
Vitaly, a tall, lumbering man who favored a denim jacket and a blue cap, had no inhibitions about expressing his feelings toward Kazakhs. As we drove on a rural road one day, two shepherd dogs helping a young Kazakh herder on horseback corral his cattle strayed into the road. When 1 urged Vitaly to be careful not to hit the dogs, he responded, "Don't worry. Those dogs are smarter than any Kazakh." Another time, he told me, "Like everyone with slant eyes, the Kazakhs are not capable of doing anything for themselves. If they drive all the other nations away, they'll begin losing and they'll go back to living in yurts." Although on the surface Alma-Ata is a distinctly quiet and peaceful place, Vitaly pulled out an icepick that he said he had recently begun keeping under the floor mat of his car. "Don't go out after nine," he warned me. "You'll come back naked. Gangs of Kazakh kids attack you in the dark and leave you with nothing."
I had heard similar tales in Uzbekistan, whose population of twenty million includes one and a half million Russians; Russians account for eight per cent of the population in Tajikistan, nine per cent in Turkmenistan, and twenty-two per cent in Kyrgyzstan.
On a Sunday at Tashkent's Upensky Orthodox Cathedral, parishioners buying thin brown candles before morning services crowded around to talk. "Russians don't have any future here. We're waiting for the massacre by the nationalists to break out any day," a middle-aged Russian named Alexandra Kozlova told me. Another woman, Varvara Zhakova, a frail eighty-fiveyear-old who had come from Siberia with her parents, told me, "We've seen everything. My mother, my father were whipped by Stalin's people. In the past, if you weren't with the Communist Party it was hard to get a job or a promotion. Now you can't get ahead unless you're with the Uzbeks." Tears trickled down her cheeks. "My daughter has her doctorate, but they don't want to give her a job because she's Russian."
Vladimir Razumov, a forty-two-yearold Aeroflot pilot, was less emotional but no less worried. "I was born here and my children were horn here, so I'm not eager to leave. I like Uzbeks, and I don't feel persecution. But things have changed. At the beginning of 1991, there was a big argument. The boss said that there should be no more Russian supervisors that Uzbeks should replace them. Others said supervisors should rise by merit, not nationality. Now it's policy to make more Uzbeks into pilots," he told me. Razumov has started reading Aia lion Week in search of a job with a foreign airline. "IATho's waiting for me in Russia? No one. And there's no place to live," he said. "The only hope for a lot of Russians in these republics is to go abroad, because Uzbekistan is very unstable for us. I fear we'll he either expelled or forced to go."
THE Kazakhs see things differ- ' ently, of course. Bakhytzhan Khasanov, a big, burly man with white hair, who looks like a Kazakh version of Lorne Greene, is a social linguist at Alma-Ata's Institute of Philosophy and Law and one of the authors of the republic's language law. "This is rubbish," he said of Russians' fears. "If we were going to ask the Russians to leave, we'd do it openly. So far, we have no conflicts with the Russian population. In fact, Kazakhstan is the calmest republic." Any disturbances, including a recent incident between Kazakhs and the cossacks, were instigated by Russians. In that incident, which occurred in mid-September in northern Uralsk, minor clashes broke out between Kazakh nationalists and cossacks brandishing Russian flags who were celebrating four hundred years of allegiance to Russia. No one was killed, but the seriousness of the episode was reflected when the Kazakh President, Nursultan Nazarhayev, told Boris Yeltsin that the Russian military commemoration on Kazakh land demonstrated "open disrespect" for his republic's sovereignty. The message itself was a serious event. The Presidents of the two largest republics had collaborated to foil the August coup and are considered the cornerstones of cooperation within the new Commonwealth.
The real problem, Khasanov told me, was not Kazakh attitudes toward Russians hut Russian intentions in Kazakhstan—especially the growing talk of creating an autonomous Russian region, or even of seceding. "Nowadays, there are many separatists among the Russians," he said. "They would like to annex several eastern regions of Kazakhstan to Russia, because Russians are the majority there. They don't want to stay in Kazakhstan. They don't want to learn the Kazakh language. So they want to take the land back with them to Russia. It'll never happen. Whose are most of the graves of those who fought for this land, Russian or Kazakh?1.Vhose songs have the lore of this land, Russian or Kazakh? We want some lands hack, too, from Russia. The first Kazakh capital was in Orenburg, in the nineteen-twenties. Now it's Russian territory. Saratov, Astrakhan, Orenburg—these are all cities of Kazakhstan now under the Russian flag. We aren't going to listen to cossack nationalists anymore."
I pressed him about the possibility of open conflict between Russians and Central Asians. The last bloodshed in Alma-Ata, in 1986, involved Kazakh-Russian clashes over the replacement of the Kazakh Communist Party chief by a Russian leader. Since the Soviet demise, Presidents Nazarhayev and Yeltsin have, in theory, preempted potential border disputes by agreeing to the current frontiers; few of either the Russians or the Kazakhs I interviewed, however, believed that the agreement would hold.
"I believe that ethnic conflict will go on, but in a concealed way, not vividly manifested,” Khasanov predicted. “But, if it should come into the open, it will lead to a catastrophe.”
As the empire breaks up, the redefining of the relationship between the colonized Central Asians and their former Russian masters, now shorn of their Soviet cover and might, will play a major role in shaping the longer-term status of both. Russians still widely view the Russian presence as a civilizing influence on Central Asia; Central Asians now openly express the view that Russians usurped their rich and ancient civilization. Even if all the Russians in Kazakhstan were to "go home," not all the potential problems would disappear. Unlike the colonies of other empires, which were continents away, Russia's former territories would he on its borders--most notably the strategic three-thousand-mile border with Kazakhstan.
In the new Commonwealth, the Asian republics can no longer he considered less important than the European ones. In area, Kazakhstan, which is larger than Western Europe, is also larger than the thirteen other non-Russian republics combined, and it has a nuclear arsenal and substantial oil and mineral wealth. Uzbekistan, with its twenty million people, has the third-largest population of the republics (it is surpassed by Russia and Ukraine); Kazakhstan, with almost seventeen million, is fourth. And the growth has not stopped. Between 1960 and 1980, the Asian populations of the Soviet Union grew almost four times as fast as the Russian population.
The bitterness between nationalities and the widening population imbalance between them are among the most explosive flash points in Central Asia. Both are exacerbated by a deteriorating economy, which is expected to get much worse before it gets better. Unemployment is already estimated to have reached at least ten per cent throughout Central Asia. In some rural areas, where high birth rates have produced a large corps of poor, untrained youth, unemployment is as high as thirty per cent. The implicit promise of economic growth front free markets may go unmet, because of the strain on resources, such as water, from increasing populations.
Indeed, since 1989 virtually all the Central Asian violence that is attributed to ethnic differences has really come down to rivalries over resources.
Riots erupted in Tajikistan in 1990 when rumors swept the republic that Armenian refugees were to be given preference in housing over families who had been on waiting lists for decades. After twenty people were killed, Moscow dispatched troops to end the fighting. In the densely populated Fergana Valley, which spills over from Uzbekistan into Kyrgyzstan, at least two hundred and fifty were killed in clashes that same year, when a Kyrgyz Party boss transferred land from an Uzbek-populated kolkhoz to some landless Kyrgyz. A year earlier, in another part of the valley, Uzbeks had attacked Meskhetian Turks -Muslims who had been deported from Georgia by Stalin--over allegations that they were getting preference in jobs. Elsewhere, Kyrgyz and Tajiks have clashed over rights to limited land and dwindling water supplies. In the past, Russians were largely immune, since they were protected by the threat that Moscow would dispatch Soviet troops in the event of anti-Russian unrest. But with the collapse of the center, and decades of pent-up hostility now coming into the open, Russians feel, whatever the reality, that they are now "primary targets." As Vitaly put it, "it's just a matter of time."
AN American official visiting Kazakh" stan in September described President Nazarbayev as "way ahead of anybody else" in Central Asia. A shepherd's son and former steelworker, he had long been an advocate of power sharing between Moscow and the republics. He tried to help Gorbachev save face after the August coup by introducing the idea of transferring power from the Kremlin to a council made up of the republics' leaders-- over which Gorbachev would preside. And after the coup he quit the Communist Party. ‘Vhen the Kazakh Communists reconstituted themselves as the Socialist Party, Nazarbayev declared he would run as an independent in the December Presidential elections. (To no one's surprise, since there were no other candidates, he won.) And, with the help of a Korean-American adviser, he has also been at the forefront of economic reform.
Yet, for all the current acclaim, Nazarbayev is, at best, a political centrist; his enthusiasm for a market economy is not matched by an enthusiasm for promoting democratic reforms.
Despite opposition demands, he has not broken former Communist Party officials' hold on the local K.G.B., the military, or the judicial system. Although public-opinion polls indicate that less than twenty per cent of the population, including its Russians, supports the Party, Communists still occupy all hut twenty of three hundred and fifty-eight seats in parliament. A host of opposition parties have been legalized, but Nazarbayev has not moved to form one of his own or to support any of the others, as Yeltsin supported Russia's Democratic Party. 'The result has been political stagnation; the former Communists remain the single dominant force.
Nazarbayev is not solely responsible; the disparate opposition groups are fledgling. In contrast to the situation in Uzbekistan, the populace has not as yet been impassioned by any fiery cause, which was evident one day at an outdoor shopping mall in Alma-Ata. In the middle were two giant yurts, surrounded by a small crowd listening to a succession of speakers- - a scene more reminiscent of the soapbox speakers at Hyde Park than of the mass opposition rallies in Prague before the velvet revolution. Outside one of the yurts, which was flying a green flag with a silver moon, I met Rashid Beis, chairman of the executive council of Alash, an Islamic nationalist movement in Kazakhstan. Beis, a big, bearded Kazakh in a suit jacket, invited me into what he referred to as the movement's mobile headquarters; it had been set up on September 5th, he said—two days after a Kazakh law allowing opposition parties was passed. The handful of proselytizing Alash politicians regularly preached on AlmaAta's streets from 9 A.M. until two the next morning, Beis told me; then they bedded down inside the yurt, which was furnished with a gas stove and a dining area.
Alash, named after the mythical ancestor of the Kazakh people, has a range of demands. "The minimum is a free Kazakhstan. The maximum is a free republic of Turkestan," Beis said as we sat cross-legged on the yurt's elevated floor. "At present, we agree to secular power. At present, we understand we can't have purely Islamic power. But if we have secular leaders who are also Muslims, then the laws passed won't conflict with Islamic law. In the future, an Islamic state of Turkic-speaking people, with the clergy as rulers, is our ideal."
For all the passion and eloquence of the Alash speakers who were carrying on outside the yurt, the Islamic movement in Kazakhstan is comparatively tame. Mosques are proliferating, and new religious schools are opening throughout the republic, but the turnout at Friday prayers during my visit was no more impressive than the size of the congregations at Russian Orthodox churches. As is true throughout Central Asia, Islamic feelings run much deeper in rural areas, but so far the people there lack leadership or links with other villages that might turn Islam into a national force. I remarked to Beis that the crowd outside his headquarters was small, and he conceded that his Uzbek counterparts had made deeper inroads. "Those who support us are numerous, but we don't have a membership, because the population is poorly politicized," he explained. "We have no mass media to reach the people's hearts and minds."
But even a small following apparently represented a threat. In March, seven members of Alash were arrested for "insulting" Nazarbayev and holding unauthorized rallies. They were the first political prisoners detained since Kazakhstan became independent.
In the yurt next door was Zheltoksan, or the December Party, named after the December, 1986, clashes over the firing of the Kazakh Communist Party chief, Dinmukhatned Kunayev —the only Kazakh ever to serve on the Politburo. Batry Kudaibcrgenov, a why little man, literally pulled me inside to talk; by then, there was no one outside to listen to him. The December Party, he explained, had six demands. "1,Ve want an independent Kazakh state. We want to have a national republic army, and nut continue contributing to one under Soviet control. We want a new law allowing the three million Kazakhs living outside the republic to come borne. We also want freedom for two political prisoners held since 1986, an explanation for the three hundred missing since then, and the trial of forty-four officials who were responsible for ordering troops to act against the people in 1986." Throughout Central Asia, the recurrent theme, in different forms and on diverse issues, is the past: it has to be dealt with or incorporated before the future can be defined. Suppressing it or ignoring it will not work.
The December Party is not the only secular opposition. Several other Kazakh parties have declared themselves since the August coup attempt- ,among them a Republican Party, a Social Democratic Party, and a National Independence Party—but few are visible, in part because there is no opposition press to provide coverage. Indeed, after my interpreter and I left the December Party's yurt Kudaihergenov ran after us to give me his address. "Please send me anything you write," he said. "The foreign press is the only publicity we get." As we walked away, my interpreter quietly drew my attention to two hulking light-haired men in tracksuits who had been at the edge of the crowd since shortly after we arrived. They were distinctly Slavic, and did not appear to he among the politically curious. "K.G.B., definitely," my interpreter concluded.
The same American official who lauded Nazarbayev conceded that Kazakhstan was "not a hotbed of reformist thinking." In interviews with foreign and local reporters, Nazarbayev has talked about democracy in terms of an eventual "awakening." It is, at best, a go-slow approach, which he justifies as the result of the region's authoritarian past. Nazarbayev prefers to emphasize the economic reforms. Last fall, on a visit to Moscow, he reeled off "the statistics of success" to a reporter from the New York Titrtes: Meat supplies had quadrupled since he opened the way for private ownership of cattle. Thirty per cent of Kazakhstan's agricultural produce was grown on the one per cent of land owned by independent farmers. And private housing was spreading across Kazakhstan. He also said that he had overcome public reluctance to privatization by helping to open a private café in each major Kazakh city. He told his interviewer, "I wanted them to see that though it was twenty per cent more expensive, they would soon be standing in line to get in, because the service was better, they were not being barked at, they were being invited to come hack. It worked. In our conditions, we need examples."
When I sought out the model cafe in Alma-Ata, however, I found not a cafe but a fast-food joint; it was not privatized from former government ownership, I learned, but was a new Korean franchise, run by managers brought in from Seoul. Except for pink and black furniture, the place was empty; only two of a half-dozen outdoor tables had diners. Several girls behind the counter—attired in redand-white striped shirts, black ties, red skirts, and little fast-food caps—talked idly among themselves. Above them was a neon menu with pictures of hamburgers, shakes, French fries, sandwiches, and something called ice flakes. My ever-hungry interpreter offered to sample the food. There were no French fries, though, "because the potatoes here are too small and low quality, so they won't go through the machine," one of the girls told us. There were no shakes, either, "because there's no ice." And, unlike the picture on die menu of a fat patty of beef with a thick slab of cheese and relishes, the hamburger was a thin slice of ham anathema to Muslims—accented with a hit of shredded cabbage. The "burger" and a paper cup of warm cider cost an exorbitant thirteen rubles.
FOR more than a thousand years, an epic legend has been handed down through generations of Kyrgyz tribes. Its million lines tell of the famous warrior Manas, who conquered lands front Central Asia to Beijing, and whose descendants carried on the family name and established traditions still honored among the Kyrgyz. During centuries of khan rule in Central Asia, Kyrgyz poets could spin out the tale of Manas into weeks, even months, of narrative episodes of adventure, conquest, and romance. "The Iliad and the Odyssey are tiny in comparison," Abdukadyr Vorosbayev, a gray-haired Kyrgyz linguist and scholar wearing a blue-and-white baseball cap and a denim jacket, told me as we talked in a dimly lit bar in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgizstan. “There was a period in the nineteen-fifties, sixties, and seventies when the story was not allowed, but it stayed alive among the people. Children heard it from their parents. We still have poets who sing the Manas legend. It's timeless, and its universality touches all things important to the human spirit. It's about love, honor, courage, and the importance of family. It's about the basic idea of unification of the nation and the creation of a centralized state. Most of all, it's about Manas, who was a Kyrgyz. His story speaks to the tenacity of our people."
For the Kyrgyz, Vorosbayev told me, the Manas saga was a bonding force among diverse nomadic clans, who roamed the mountains and valleys breeding horses, cattle, and yaks for more than a millennium. Until the late nineteenth century, the Kyrgyz had no permanent settlements, other than regularly used "places of hibernation" during the hitter winters. "Formally, the Kyrgyz belong to the Muslim family, but Islam as a religion doesn't have tight roots here," Vorosbayev explained. "Religion is like culture, but it's not our spiritual world. Manas is more important in understanding Kyrgyz roots."
The people of Kyrgyzstan—or Kirghizia, as the little republic on the Chinese border was known until it deRussified its name last year—have always been distinct from the other Central Asian communities. Although they were part of old Turkestan, the Kyrgyz historically looked more to the Muslims of western China than to Turkic-speaking Asians. Vorosbayev told me, "I like to drive a Ford and wear a denim jacket, but most of all I don't want to lose my sense of identity." His son is now at a Beijing university, and Vorosbayev helped organize an exchange program with Chinese from Xinjiang, the province that was once the eastern frontier of Turkestan. Islam is not yet a visible political force in Kyrgyzstan, though Muslim observances and mosques have significantly increased since the freedomof-conscience law was enacted. And, compared with the flowering of energy and emotion in other Central Asian capitals, Bishkek, a place of neat wooded parks and wide boulevards, is a quiet, and even quaint, city. On a Sunday, the most exciting things to do were to visit the outdoor puppy market in the woods behind the bazaar and to chat with the cavalry cops patrolling the streets.
Kyrgyzstan is even more distinctive, however, for its "silk revolution," which culminated after the abortive August coup in Moscow. The silk revolution never had the vibrancy of Czechoslovakia's velvet revolution, and was little noticed by the outside world, but it did set a precedent in Central Asia which the neighboring republics cannot ignore. It started in June, 1990, with ethnic riots in Osh, the republic's second-largest city, over the transfer of land between ethnic groups. At least two hundred and fifty Kyrgyz and Uzbeks were killed; some unofficial claims put the death toll over a thousand. Angry young demonstrators then besieged the headquarters of the Communist Party, which was blamed for mismanaging the crisis and causing needless bloodshed. Unlike the episodic unrest in other Asian republics, the furor did not die down. Hunger strikes and a campaign by a new Democratic Movement, which pulled together twenty-two opposition forces, eventually overwhelmed Communist hard-liners, and parliament was forced into holding Presidential elections. In October, 1990, the Communist Party leader lost the Presidency to a pro-democracy physicist named Askar Akayev, a dark horse summoned back from the Soviet parliament in Moscow to run for the post after no candidate won a majority in the Kyrgyz parliament's first vote.
During the silk revolution, Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian republic to break the pattern of orthodox Communist dictatorships that still held on to power. By the end of 1990, Kyrgyzstan had declared sovereignty and dropped both "Soviet" and "Socialist" from its title. Pushing slowly, to avoid a backlash from Communists in the Kyrgyz parliament, Akayev promised a multiparty system with a free-market economy. In a sign of the times, the name of the capital was changed from Frunze, after a Kyrgyz Russian who became a Soviet military hero, to the original Bishkek, after the churning staff that makes fermented mare's milk, the national drink.
Central Asia's oasis of democracy had a close call during the August coup attempt in Moscow. Kyrgyzstan was the only republic where hard-liners including many of the Communists pushed aside in 1990— attempted a similar coup of their own. Local K.G.B. officials came to arrest Akayev while a commander of the Central Asian military district attempted to deploy tanks in the streets. To add insult to injury, the first news flashes about the coup's fizzling in Moscow reported that the plotters were trying to escape to Bishkek. "This false information went through Aeroflot channels. But the people at Aeroflot and others misunderstood the name," I was told by Feliks Kulov, who, as Kyrgyzstan's Interior Minister, had to deal with the internal threat as well as the possible arrival of the coup ringleaders from Moscow. "We learned later that the coup leaders actually intended to fly to Belbek, which is on the Crimea."
Kulov, an amiable and surprisingly young man, may he the only Interior Minister in any republic in Soviet history to have a popular following. Tie is widely viewed as a hero whose boldness single-handedly made the silk revolution possible. At the Democratic Movement's headquarters, Taabaldy Agemberdiyev, the movement's ideology chief, insisted that I meet Kulov, and then picked up the phone to arrange the meeting. "Thanks to Kulov, we have democracy here," Agemberdiyev told me. "During the hunger strike in 1990, when the Communists were still in power, he was the commandant, the top cop, of the city. But he didn't order troops to break it up. He used his authority to let people carry out the rally, despite a curfew. His actions made it possible for us to stand up to the Communists and then break their hold on power." If Kulov had ordered a crackdown, as his Uzbek counterparts have done repeatedly against Birlik meetings and protests in Tashkent, the reaction to the deaths in Osh would never have grown into the silk revolution. "Then, during the coup attempt, Kulov isolated K.G.B. troops here and had them encircled," Agemberdiyev continued. “He disobeyed the military commanders and closed down the airport, in case of an attack. He put his own life and career at risk during the coup." Yet throughout the two crises—the one that first brought Akayev to power and the one, ten months later, that insured the new President's political survival-- Kulov was a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Not surprisingly, he quit the Party in August.
Kyrgyzstan's silk revolution reflects the uneven pace and erratic nature of political change in Central Asia. What has occurred over the past two years in little Kyrgyzstan is just the opposite of what has been happening in giant neighboring Kazakhstan. In Alma-Ata, the polls and popular movements indicate that political reform is supported at the bottom but resisted at the top. In Bishkek, the democratic transformation has been the product of a few men directing change from the top. Neither republic has witnessed the kind of emotional nationwide uprisings that swept Eastern Europe—and now have the potential to unseat Uzbekistan's Communist government. Despite the Central Asian republics' common heritage of religion and unity in old Turkestan, and despite their agreement on the need for regional unity in the future, each republic is going through the transition from centralized Soviet rule in its own way.
For Kulov, the decision to side with the pro-democracy forces against his own party grew out of conscience and instinct rather than ideology. "I didn't jump to the decision, It was a very difficult process," he told me as we sat around the conference table in his oak-panelled office. "I was a criminologist by profession, so I started accumulating my doubts a long time ago, when I was told there were no reasons for crime or problems in the Soviet Union. I remember being taught that the reasons for crime were unemployment, private property— all the things associated with capitalism. In the past, we were primitive in the way we handled crime. We captured and detained violators and didn't look for the roots. Later, I understood that crime is quite logical. There is almost always a reason for it." When, as police commandant, he had to decide what to do about the hunger strikers and the peaceful protestors at the parliament, he concluded that they were not engaged in criminal acts. I asked if he had understood at the time the potential repercussions of his decision. "Not really," he said, chuckling. "It was just instinct."
When we talked, Kulov was absorbed in what he called "departyization," or disentangling the republic's security system from Communistapparatchik control. "We still need to sort out personnel. That does not necessarily mean firing people but, rather, creating a system to avoid involvements in political, or even tribal, fights," Kulov told me. "Several members of the Interior Ministry are still involved in local political intrigue. There are even some we call traitors."
"Should the average person feel safer now?' I asked.
"I wouldn't say that he should feel the same freedom as in Western Europe," Kulov replied. "We're trying to set up the most painless system, ways not to oppress people. For example, we won't keep dossiers anymore. And I wouldn't like to see the Interior Ministry, and the [local] K.G.B. fused, as it was in earlier days. If anyone has that much power, it will be dangerous. For now, the K.G.B. is still technically capable of providing information, following people, and so on. I don't rule out the possibility that the chairman of the local K.G.B. has issued an order for my telephone to be tapped. But I would say that its powers are more limited. Our goal now is to work normally, to enforce laws regardless of parties and political figures. This is the most difficult task."
Helping democracy take root, however, may prove just as difficult. While Kyrgyzstan is the most democratic Central Asian republic in principle, its people are the least politicized. In October, Kyrgyzstan became the first newly independent republic to hold free national Presidential elections. The elections were held both to bring its more than four million people into the democratic process and to give the President a popular mandate. But, to Akayev's embarrassment, no one ran against him. "My wife took the three votes from my family and cast them," my Kyrgyz taxi-driver and guide said.
“I assume she voted for Akayev, but I never asked.” (Group voting, a common practice during Communist rule, was supposed to have been eliminated under the new democratic system.) At Bishkek's open-air bazaar, I randomly sampled the ideas of fruit and vegetable venders about their expectations of democracy, A young man named Akhtam, who was in his fifth season of selling pomegranates, did not want to talk until my taxi-driver told him, "It's O.K. for an interview. We're democrats now." Akhtam thought for a minute, and then said, "We expect peace to prevail so we can work and trade. We expect to live better." When I asked if he was living any better yet, he replied that he now got anywhere from eight to twelve rubles per kilo for his fruit, an increase over the previous year. To many in the poorer republics, democracy is anticipated more for the implicit right to prosperity than for the right to vote.
One of the key questions for the small and more obscure republics like Kyrgyzstan, however, is whether they can afford independent democracies over the long term. Kyrgyzstan has gold, mercury, and uranium, the last formerly used to develop both the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal and its power stations. But minerals alone will not pay for Akayev's ambitious development projects, such as an international airport for flights to and from Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East, and a new industrial base to make the Kyrgyz more independent of Russia.
As prices rise for both local and Commonwealth goods in new free-market systems, Kyrgyzstan's young democracy faces the danger that its people will not be able to keep up, and that the absence of development could spawn disillusionment or political discontent. Yet the Democratic Movement did not seem in any hurry when I visited its offices. "A painless transformation to a market economy and developing an open relationship with other countries will take time," Agemberdiyev, the ideology chief, told me. "We're in a transition state. There's no way we can mix our ability with our desire."
I asked Agemberdiyev whether the republic's new government might need greater public support, even just heightened interest, to insure tolerance during the transition.
"Democracy has, so far, done nothing for the man on the street or the fruit dealer in the bazaar," he responded. "There have been no changes yet. We haven't had time. The interest of the masses in change has grown, and I think people believe in democracy. But they don't always know what democracy really means. One of our tasks now is to create local democratic organizations. We have so many good slogans, but we must translate them into life." He said that by the next Presidential election, in 1996, there would be a candidate to oppose Akayev. Nevertheless, he admitted, the process of transforming democratic slogans into reality would be arduous. "If we reach that goal in fifty years, of reaching the bottom of society, we will be fortunate," he said. "Everything has to be changed—education, the economy, the role of the individual. This will take a generation or two. People are still at a tribal level of thinking."
THE poverty in Dushanbe, the I capital of Tajikistan, hangs thick in the air. The street-sweepers water at night to clear away the dust, but by midday the city is again covered with pollution from cement, brick, and aluminum works, and clouds of carbon monoxide gust from the tail pipes of trucks, buses, and cars. As darkness descends, the city has an eerie feeling: few street lights or car headlights are turned on, and only sparse and dim building lights indicate direction. Tajikistan’s per-capita income in 1989 was the lowest of all the Soviet republics'. Now, as the value of the ruble shrinks, income is probably only a fraction of what it was then—and it shows.
The smallest of the Central Asian republics and the most distant from Moscow, Tajikistan suffers from shortages that are even worse than Russia's. On the day I stopped in at Dushanbe's Central Department Store, the shelves offered an odd assortment of goods: brown pottery jugs, orange plastic stools, a few embroidered tablecloths of dull-gray fabric—whatever had been made, shipped, or left over recently, it seemed. One whole wall was empty except for a pile of forty-watt light bulbs; the only busy corner was a queue for crude rubber hoots. At Dushanhe's bazaar, the supply of Central Asian produce was comparatively skimpy, and the prices were much higher than they were elsewhere in the region; dozens of people were lined up for bread. Throughout the capital, bottled drinking water was scarce, new housing was basically nonexistent, anti taxis were so sparse that my interpreter and I had to commandeer a car belonging to an unemployed civil servant on the street for transport. Dushanbe—which lacks the energy of Tashkent, the cosmopolitan feel of Alma-Ata, and the sense of hope in Bishkek- -can best be described as desperate.
After the failed August coup in Moscow, Tajikistan went through its own upheaval—and three Presidents in less than a month. Angered by the Tajik President's failure to condemn the coup, a new coalition—of nationalists, workers, and Islamists - took to the streets to protest. The President resigned. A new acting President then agreed to comply with Moscow's instructions to suspend Communist Party activities, and did nothing when jubilant crowds pulled down the towering bronze statue of Lenin across from the parliament. The second President was abruptly fired by the Communist-dominated parliament. On September 23rd, the Tajik legislators appointed Rakhman Nahiyev, a former Party boss during the Brezhnev era, as the third President. They also unbanned the Party, declared emergency rule, and posted troops around the city's remain‑ing socialist symbols. Communist rule was officially back.
But the tit-for-tat turmoil between the old Party and the new democrats was not over. The opposition coalition mobilized a round-the-clock vigil at the newly renamed Liberty Square, across from the parliament; protesters pledged not to leave until democracy was restored. In one of those flukes of history, it then began to rain, unseasonably, in Dushanbe. The largest challenge ever to Communist rule in Tajikistan responded with unprecedented organization. Literally overnight, more than five dozen giant tents, provided by the central mosque, were set up. Tent City, as it was nicknamed, soon had supply lines of food and water. Barricades were erected to protect against a possible crackdown. Tajik veterans of the Afghan war, including many who were permanently maimed, set up a tent to vent their wrath at a system that had forced them to fight their brethren in Afghanistan. Hunger strikers set up another tent. And Islamists, marry sporting newly fashionable beards, organized the five daily prayers and a host of speakers.
Each day, hundreds more Tajiks turned out to expand the human blockade around the parliament. Across the republic, state farms and factories threatened to strike. "We said if Nahiyev didn't resign, we'd replace the tents with a building," one of the Islamist protesters told me. "We had already prepared a hundred thousand bricks. Support was not just from the people. Even the Soviet military refused to intervene." The southernmost republic, once virtually cut off from foreign view, was suddenly besieged by the Soviet media and the international press. For ten days, tens of thousands of protesters sat it out. Unaccustomed to criticism and to the limelight, the parliament finally called an extraordinary session. "I cannot understand this!" Nabiyev shouted from the podium. "You voted for me! Yet in the course of seven days you change your mind?" On October 6th, he abruptly resigned. With Presidential elections scheduled in less than a month, the deputies decided not to name a fourth President. Tajikistan, which had also just declared independence, was left without a chief of state.
I arrived in Dushanbe as the election campaign was in full swing. Several Tajiks suggested that I meet Davlat Khudonazarov, chairman of the Soviet Association of Filmmakers and a member of the former Soviet parliament, because he personified the direction of change in Dushanbe. A widely acclaimed director and the closest thing the Tajiks have to a heartthrob, Khudonazarov recalled how deeply Communism had engulfed his life. "Until this year, the most dramatic moment in my life was in 1956, during the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party, when Stalin was disgraced," he told me. "I was a teen-ager, and it was a very hard moment for me. I believed in Stalin. I was brought up in the Tajik Mountains, the son of peasants, living the life of a shepherd. Up in those mountains, Stalin was a god. All of a sudden, he turned out to he had."
This year, Khudonazarov switched sides. During the August coup, he was among the first national figures to rush to Russian Federation headquarters, known as the White House, to support Boris Yeltsin. After the coup was defeated, he quit the Communist Party. During the September crisis in Dushanbe, he was among the early speakers at Liberty Square urging on the demonstrators. After the crisis ended, he formally joined the opposition coalition. When we talked, he was running for the Presidency on the Democratic Party ticket against Nabiyev, his former colleague. His campaign slogan was "The future against the past."
"Decolonization will take ten or fifteen years," Khudonazarov told me. "We know for sure that the way will be difficult. On the one hand we have the forces of renewal, and on the other the hanging on of the feudal and nornenklatura regime. The battle won't end with the election; they won't give up so easily-. Tajikistan is also in terrible straits. We'll need something like the Marshall Plan to revive this republic and to eventually achieve real independence. If we gain economic freedom, then political freedom will follow." As in all the Central Asian republics, economics takes precedence over politics, whether the speaker is a new democrat, a reformed Communist, or an unrepentant hard-liner.
I asked Khudonazarov, who began working in film at the age of fourteen, what would happen if he were directing the Tajik political crisis as a movie.
"I would make a movie that had no bloodshed. Each republic has its own way to democracy, but the main task for each is to undo the years of tension that Communism has imposed on us and to organize an orderly transition, so the republics don't unravel under conflicting pressures. Our goal during the transition has to be civil peace. But that's difficult to come by, in real life or in the movies."
In the subsequent election, Khudonazarov, who later claimed widespread polling violations, including the distribution of pre-marked ballots, received thirty per cent of the vote, to Nabiyev's fifty-seven. Tajikistan became the first republic to witness a comeback by a Communist—not just once but twice.
One of the few opposition leaders who conceded the possibility of a Communist victory was, ironically-, Davlat Usmon, the young deputy chairman of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party. I met Usmon as he and his colleagues were setting up the new I.R.P. headquarters in a downtown Dushanbe apartment. After years of being banned, the Islamists had finally been allowed to register as a legal party. "We had a deep and thorough conspiracy," Usmon said of the local 1.R.P.'s years underground. "We met clandestinely throughout this period. Only a few of our members were picked up by the K.G.B. In 1982, we started an underground newspaper called Islama Pravda, or Islamic Truth. By 1989, we were issuing underground brochures and leaflets calling for the liquidation of the Communist and atheist regime and demanding a democratic state. We are active in many places, in many ways, and the authorities couldn't stop us." The I.R.P.'s dination showed at Liberty Square. By everyone's account, its members were the most active and visible organizers at the protest.
I asked Usmon about the Tajik I.R.P.'s agenda, now that it had been legalized.
"Our main goal now is to prepare people for the creation of an Islamic state," he said. "Becoming legal is very advantageous. It allows us access to the masses to educate them. Probably even the Russian sector of the population, which once listened only to the negative propaganda about Islam, will change its attitude toward us. At present, the creation of any Islamic state in Tajikistan is impossible, because seventy years of atheism shows. The people are not ready yet. Also, there's a phrase in the Koran about not forcing people to believe in something. Our charter says we have to use all means possible except violence, so we're educating them gradually about Sharia." Creating an Islamic state, lie predicted, could take as long as forty years. In the meantime, he had no fears of Communist rule. "If Nahiyev wins, he won't stay for long--that's sure. We'll work closely with the democratic bloc if there are any manifestations of oppression. We'll build more Tent Cities."
OF all the Central Asian republics, Tajikistan is the place where nationalist and religious forces have come the closest together—an unofficial alliance that could shape any third attempt to end Communist rule. One man who may be instrumental in a future transformation is Tajikistan's leading cleric, Qazi Hajji Akhar Tura-h onzod a , The Qazi--an Islamic term for "judge" which in some Muslim communities has come to mean "leader" and is used with reverence and affection--welcomed me warmly to his office suite, at the Hajji Yakub Mosque in Dushanbe. Dressed in a gray-and white pin-striped jacket, and with a small, neat beard, the Qazi appeared anything but a fanatic in the mold of Iran's early revolutionary leaders. For a cleric of his rank, he is also a young man—just thirty-seven. On his desk were a regular phone, a cellular phone, and a fax machine; while we talked, all three were often going at the same time. He was just completing arrangements for a trip to Moscow the next day, he said. The government had invited him to participate in talks to end the Afghan civil war. Although he denied it, several Tajiks had told me that the Qazi's following extends well into neighboring Afghanistan.
"There is a great deal of unity here," he told me. "Our people have believed in Islam for thirteen hundred years. And Islam is ninety per cent of our culture and tradition, so you can't separate something religious from something national."
Did that mean he favored an Islamic state?
"Many people ask me that question," he said, smiling. "The answer is no, for a number of reasons. First, decades of atheistic practice have not gone unnoticed. It has had an impact on the minds of the people. Second, we're closely tied to the Slavic republics economically, and everyone knows how frightened the Slays are of the idea of an Islamic state. Finally, we don't want the same thing to happen to the Islamic revolution that happened to the Communist revolution. We don't want to be isolated. We can't find a way out of our economic situation without foreign investment. And we know that the international community, too, wouldn't react well to the idea of an Islamic state." The outside world should also never expect a repetition of the Iranian revolution in Tajikistan, he added. "The models of the state are very different for the Shia and the Sunni. And Iran is Shia and we are Sunni."
Yet the Qazi did predict an Islamic role in the shaping of the region's transition to post-Soviet rule. "We do have plans to have close relations with Iran and Afghanistan," he said. "We are united by more than a thousand years of history. We Tajiks favor and encourage this trend. But that doesn't necessarily mean the creation of a new state." He also said that he was adamantly opposed to the re-creation of Turkestan. "There are certain Turkic-speaking fanatics-- Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris, and Turks—who propose this idea. But I don't think this way will get Tajiks anything good. We'll coop-crate with them on economic issues, but we don't like the idea of Turkestan," He added that Tajikistan did not want to be liberated from Russian domination only to be dictated to by another group – an observation I had heard from many other Tajiks.
DURING the seven decades of Soviet rule, the already diverse pieces of old Turkestan took on separate identities. Each is now a distinctly individual member of the Commonwealth. In the short term, the recreation of a Turkestan will, at best, be more of a brotherhood than a state, based more on economic exigencies than on united political goals. Indeed, the greatest threat within the region is the unwillingness or the inability—depending on the republic—to deal with political change. In the new Commonwealth, Central Asia is the last bastion of Communist or one-party rule. In all hut Kyrgyzstan, true democratic movements are still tightly monitored or denied media exposure or outlawed altogether. Even the limited, and now outdated, "new thinking" of perestroika has yet to take hold. In the absence of meaningful openings, the frustration and alienation, the tension, and the nationalist rivalries are almost certain to deepen. In that atmosphere, the one strong and unifying factor—Islam, which provides a set of laws by which to rule a society as well as a set of spiritual beliefs—may present the only long-term alternative.
Under those circumstances, a new and more vibrant Islamic Turkestan might take shape. Even the Qazi said that Islam must do more than just offer definition or direction to an incipient nation; in Central Asia, the concept of a modern nation-state is considered to be Western, and alien to Islam's origins. "Once people are educated about Islam—and there are a lot of people, even believers, who don't really know about the religion—and we achieve a breakthrough in their minds, Islam will be a great factor in uniting people of the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf," the Qazi said. "I believe Islam will play a great role in establishing relations throughout the world. But it takes time."
Monday, April 6, 1992
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