The Third World Peoples of Soviet Central Asia
by Daniel Pipes
[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
Edited by W. Scott Thompson. San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 1978. pp. 183-203.
Most of the fifty million Third World peoples of the Soviet Union live in Central Asia, a large area north of Iran and east of the Caspian Sea. These are Muslims (Turks and Iranians) who fell under Russian rule over a century ago. In striking contrast to other Third World peoples -- who have been ruled by Europeans and who by now enjoy independence -- the Central Asians are still governed from Moscow. Russian dominion raises many questions about the relation of these peoples to the Soviet Union and their potential restlessness for independence. Central Asia being very little known, we begin with some introductory facts.
As West Europeans in recent centuries sailed the world conquering territories and establishing colonies, the Russians followed a similar pattern by different means. They, too, conquered territories and established colonies, but rather than sail, they marched.
Russians expanded into Asia in three stages. In the first, beginning in the 1550s, they crossed the Ural Mountains, conquered some Muslim principalities, and continued east through Siberia all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Although they traversed immense distances, they encountered only sparse populations of primitive peoples and reached the Pacific in 1638 without serious opposition. The non-Russian peoples of this vast area concern us little, because they were and are few and primitive.
The second wave took about 150 years, from 1711 until 1855. During this period the Russians conquered the Caucasus region and present-day Kazakhstan. Although both of these areas had larger and more developed populations than Siberia, they, too, included few centers of power or culture. The third and final wave went more rapidly. Between 1864 and 1884, the Russians took control of all the important cities of Central Asia -- all of which, surprisingly, fell almost without a struggle. Quite suddenly, the Russians found themselves wielding power over some 5 million subjects of an alien civilization.
The vast majority of Central Asians were Muslims. For a millennium they had actively participated in Islamic civilization, producing many of its great dynasties and cultural achievements. Most of the population spoke Turkic, some spoke Iranian languages, and Iran had a predominant cultural influence over them all; in important ways, Central Asia was virtually a part of Iran. Accordingly, the population was heavily oriented to Muslim areas of the south and east, and had only fleeting and antagonistic contacts with a distant but expanding Russia. When the Russians appeared in Central Asia as conquerors, they were complete aliens.
The Russian land empire closely resembled the contemporaneous sea empires put together by the British, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Italians, Germans, and Belgians. Like other colonial masters, the Tsarist government believed in the overwhelming superiority of its own culture. Russians insisted on using their own language, despised local customs and culture, especially Islam, and held attitudes characteristic of all European colonizers in the Third World. Russian settlement in Central Asia resembled that of the French in Algeria, the British in Rhodesia, or the Portuguese in Angola. The only difference was that, unabashedly imperialistic in their expansion, they used far harsher and more brutal methods than any other European colonial power.
The Tsarist government also used its colonies for strategic and economic benefit, much as the other European powers. Central Asia served the Russians in stopping a British advance from India. The government built a railroad connection to Russia, encouraged the planting of cash crops such as cotton, and turned Central Asia into a captive market for Russian industrial products by setting high tariffs for foreign goods. Russians settled Central Asia not only in towns but also on farms, especially to grow grain in the Kazakh plain.
Before 1917, Russian Communists unambiguously condemned every instance of European imperialism, including the Tsarist presence in Central Asia. On coming to power, the Bolsheviks promised a new era, and spoke of the cultural -- and even political -- autonomy of the old colonies. Despite such intentions, those areas are still part of the Soviet Union seventy years later. Why were these promises not kept?
The Communists found it much easier to give away the Tsar's possessions than their own. Once in power, they resisted every effort to break up the empire -- indeed, they reconquered a number of non-Russian regions that had set up local rule. Finally, in 1924, with the turmoil of the revolution and the subsequent civil war behind them, the Soviet government began implementing a "nationalities policy." Rather than release the non-Russian peoples from Soviet rule, this policy granted them national "republics" within the U.S.S.R. In Central Asia, this meant dividing the region into five republics that, with minor adjustments, survive to the present: Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
The boundaries of these republics scrupulously followed minor linguistic variations in Turkic dialects (which explains the extremely odd shape of Uzbekistan). The republics did not reflect anything more than this, however, for there was no existing political consciousness along linguistic or any other lines in Central Asia. Indeed, the inhabitants had almost no sense of territorial loyalty. Rather, they saw themselves primarily as Muslims. The creation of national republics introduced a new political concept: suddenly, on orders from Moscow, the Central Asians became five distinct peoples. This was no less artificial than it would be to divide the United States along the lines of five major accents and calling each of the resulting regions a nationality.
Imposing national republics on the Central Asians served the Soviet government in two important ways. First, it broke the unity of the region and thus reduced the likelihood of all Central Asians acting together in concert against the Russians. Second, by providing the Central Asians with their own political structures, if only in form, the Bolsheviks technically ended the colonial nature of their rule in Central Asia without allowing a fundamental shift in power.
This change had profound implications and long-term significance. Through a breathtakingly simple change in ideology, the establishment of national republics justified permanent Bolshevik rule over non-Russians. They allowed Soviet leaders to claim that the non-Russian peoples voluntarily chose to become part of the Soviet Union and also that fraternal ties made their relationship mutually beneficial. Unlike imperial regimes, which overtly subsumed the interests of the colonies to those of the ruling peoples, they could argue that federation with progressive forces in Russia brought benefits to all peoples, that Moscow's revolutionary government had as much appeal to non-Russians as to Russians. And if joining the Soviet Union was an enlightened act that benefited society as a whole, breaking away would be a counter-revolutionary act, the selfish response of the bourgeoisie.
In short, making the old colonies into nominally independent republics allowed the Bolsheviks to argue that non-Russians had freely chosen to remain under Russian rule. Overnight, the colonized peoples found themselves transformed from oppressed masses into "younger brothers" in the struggle for peace and equality. The doctrine of Marxism-Leninism being by nature anti-imperialistic, the Soviet Union could not -- in theory -- have colonies. As it would so often in years to come, Marxism-Leninism showed itself flexible enough to buttress any argument.
Colonies or National Republics?
Did Central Asia really cease to be a Russian colony after 1924? Or did the creation of national republics mask a fundamental continuity between Tsarist and Soviet rule?
"Colony" here means a region subjugated to an alien people where the ruling class is not only distinct but has a home elsewhere. Soviet authorities claim that Central Asia is no longer a colony, but an independent republic. But if the experience of Central Asia since 1924 has resembled that of the West European overseas colonies such as India or Algeria, we may indeed call Central Asia a colony and the U.S.S.R. and empire.
The Soviet assertion does have some basis, for Central Asia has been in important ways much better off than a typical colony. Central Asians have benefited from their own political structures, from dramatic economic gains, and from great advances in education. Most striking is the fact that, in important ways, they have fared better under Soviet rule than have the Russians themselves. They have suffered less terror, dislocation, bureaucracy, religious persecution, and economic mismanagement. But, the counter-argument goes, prosperity and education have nothing to do with colonialism; the colonial relationship is defined by power. A colony need not be badly off, but it must be ruled by aliens, and this Central Asia most certainly is.
To evaluate the merit of these viewpoints, let us look at three features of Central Asia under Soviet rule -- politics, economics, and culture.
Politics. The political situation of Central Asia differs from that of a typical colony in several ways. The region's lack of power results from centralized Soviet rule, not the inequity between Russians and non-Russians. A totalitarian government such as that of the Soviet Union requires centralization; Moscow controls innumerable details in the lives of all Soviet citizens, including the Russians. Thus, the absence of power in Central Asia can be explained without reference to its predominantly non-Russian population; it would have little self-rule no matter who lived there.
Given the nature of the Soviet government, the distance of Central Asia from Moscow has benefits, for it slightly relieves the people of the region from the heavy hand of the state. Living far from the center of power, their actions are less subject to the intense scrutiny of the government; of all Soviet peoples, the Central Asians experienced the least terror during Stalin's rule and less interference since. In an important way, then, the Muslims enjoy a better quality of life than the Russians.
In two other ways, too, Central Asians do not fit the status of a colonial people. First, Central Asians are full-fledged citizens of the Soviet Union. They enjoy complete legal equality with the Russians; the discrimination they suffer is outside the law. Second, the Soviet army conscripts all citizens, without regard to regional or ethnic origin. Central Asians serve just as Russians do. Once in the army, no distinction is paid to origin, and all nationalities are freely mixed. This too contravenes the colonial pattern.
At the same time, Central Asia shares vital characteristics with colonies. It has the trappings of power but not the substance. Like the maharajas of India, who retained formal authority while the British ran their affairs, the republics of Central Asia are independent and sovereign. Indeed, they not only have their own foreign and defense ministries, but even the constitutional right to secede from the Soviet Union. Two Soviet republics (though not Central Asian ones) are full members of the United Nations. But all this is a sham; the republics neither make their own foreign policy nor influence decisions made in Moscow. Their foreign and defense ministries are hollow showpieces, and the U.N. representation fools no one. All power to deal with the outside world resides in Moscow. The Russians allow the Soviet Third World peoples little more power than do the typical colonial master.
Nor is Moscow's power limited to foreign policy; it has the last word in internal affairs too. There can be no rivalry between Moscow and the republics; the latter have no forces to array against the center. The instruments of power are all in Soviet -- not the republics' -- hands. The army and the secret police are controlled by Moscow, vital economic matters are directly supervised from there, and so on. The central government delegates the power enjoyed by the republics or local authorities. One need not look far for indications of Moscow's power in running the republics: it can order the outcome of court cases, set censorship guidelines, discipline party members, or reverse any locally made policy. It can always reverse decisions made at the republic level. Tashkent will never experience a spring like Prague's.
What little power the republics have is largely for propaganda purposes. The outside world generally, and foreign visitors specifically, must find some self-government in Central Asia. Were it not for foreign opinion, the republics would probably have less authority than they do now.
Centralization of power need not imply Russian control over Central Asia; if Central Asians participated in the central government in proportion to their population, they would not be under Russian control and the region would not be a colony. Again, efforts are made to show that they do participate, but a careful look reveals that this, too, is fraudulent; Russians dominate every decision-making body. The minorities' token representation gives them almost no say in deliberations that decide their fate. A decision from Moscow is a decision by Russians, and all decisions are ultimately made (or affirmed) in Moscow.
Not only do Russians dominate, but the whole Soviet regime is bound inextricably with Russian nationalism. Far from representing an internationalist ideology, as it originally intended to do, the Soviet government represents Russian interests; it is a linear successor to the Russian empire. This limits patriotic feeling of Central Asians for the regime. They generally view it less as their own than as a Russian government.
Russian power extends even within the Central Asian republics, where ethnic Russians hold many key positions. Normally, Muslims hold the top positions and ceremonial posts, while Russians fill key second-level jobs to keep a close watch on local developments. Russians also double up with Muslims in many positions. They are appointed directly by Moscow, and they maintain tight control over the local political apparatus. The presence of many Russian settlers in all the Central Asian republics makes it possible to keep all political positions in local hands and still include many Russians. Moscow need not send Russians out to the provinces, for so many of them already live there. While technically keeping power in the hands of residents, the capital can give real authority to the Russians among them.
All this resembles the nineteenth century European sea empires. But whereas those empires made no efforts to hide the domination of the vanquished, the Russians have an ideology and elaborate political structures to disguise it. Ironically, while the Soviet Union has contributed to making the present an anti-imperialist age by attacking all forms of colonialism, it has done the most to refine the colonial relationship by shedding its overt features. A "fraternal tie" looks better, but in real terms it means the same thing -- the control of one people by another. Economic and cultural affairs closely reflect this power relationship.
Economics. In some ways, again, Central Asia defies classic colonial patterns. Although Central Asia had barely any industry in 1917, it has developed much since then. Dramatic improvements in productivity and standards of living have taken place, often greater than those of the Soviet Union as a whole.
The government has made substantial efforts to accelerate growth by investing heavily in Central Asia. Moscow has apparently put more money into the region than it has extracted. If this is true, it defies nearly all colonial precedents, for no metropolitan power ever (intentionally) invested more in a colony than it derived from it. Further, much of this investment could have brought better returns through investment elsewhere in the Soviet Union; one may, therefore, conclude that it was put into Central Asia to improve standards of living there. Martin Spechler has dubbed this oddity "welfare colonialism."
The Russian connection has thus brought Central Asia economic benefits, lifting the region to a prosperity that the local peoples on their own could not have attained. Comparison between the Central Asians and their nearest kinsmen in independent countries -- Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey -- bears this out. Regardless which index one considers -- per capital income, mortality rates, medical services, electric power -- Soviet Muslims in all respects enjoy higher standards than their independent neighbors. In part too, this may be due to the more stable government in Central Asia; none of its neighbors has had the same government since 1920, and all have witnessed turmoil in recent years.
Central Asia compares favorably not only with the Middle East countries to its south, but also with other regions of the Soviet Union. It experienced a smoother development under Soviet rule than most other regions. Aside from the catastrophic collectivization efforts in the 1930s, the Central Asians have almost escaped the economic excesses and reversals that have so severely afflicted the rest of the Soviet Union. In contrast to other regions, Central Asia has received enough money for agricultural investment; as a result, it is the only region in the country with a successful agriculture.
If Central Asia's economic picture compares favorably with other regions of the Soviet Union, the usual colonial relationship is turned on its head. Can one yet maintain that Central Asia is economically a colony of Russia's? Yes, because the power relationship implies that Moscow holds nearly total control over Central Asia's economy.
To begin with, the centralized policy of the Soviet government implies that Moscow makes economic as well as political decisions, right down to a trivial level. Distant bureaucrats fix factory schedules, farm productivity, and worker payment. Khrushchev himself once lectured the Uzbeks on the best type of sheep for them to raise. Thus Moscow exercises a detailed tyranny over Central Asian economic life. Beyond this, it directly controls the most sensitive industries, such as gold and military production, to the exclusion of local authorities. Moscow determines foreign trade to and from Central Asia. The people and governments of the area do not dispose of the hard currency they earn. Instead, their profits go directly to Moscow, which usually allows them only a fraction of those funds for their own use.
Central Asia serves the classic colonial purpose of providing Russia with cheap raw materials and then importing its industrial goods. (India, for instance, filled this role for Britain). All the cotton in the Soviet Union is grown in Central Asia, but in 1964 only 9 percent of it was processed locally, the rest sent out of the region. In return, the Russians cut Central Asia off from direct foreign trade, and exploit it as a captive market for their inferior industrial goods.
Typical colonial relations exist not only between Central Asia and Moscow, but also between the Muslims and Russians living in Central Asia itself. The Russians there tend to have the better land and the better jobs (like the French in Algeria). The region presents a model case of ethnic stratification, wherein one group, the Russians, commonly enjoys economic advantages that few from other groups share. Even if this situation can be explained by differences in skills, motivation, and education, it still reminds the Muslims of who runs things.
Whatever Central Asia has, it enjoys at Moscow's pleasure. Presumably, Moscow has good reasons for treating Central Asia leniently; one can be sure this is not a spontaneous act of generosity. As Michael Rywkin notes, "Soviet Russia seeks political domination, even at the price of economic discomfort for its own citizens."
Without underestimating the economic advantages that Central Asian Muslims have over their independent brethren to the south, this matters very little in the present age of nationalism. Welfare colonialism is still colonialism. The economic benefits of colonial rule have almost never influenced a people (unless its numbers are very small) to prefer remaining a colony. That the blacks in South Africa are richer than their compatriots everywhere else in Africa does not make them content; they do not compare themselves with poorer blacks in distant countries, but with the richer whites in their midst. Given the choice, it appears, independence matters more than economic well-being; surely this applies also to the Muslims of Central Asia.
Culture. Here, too, Central Asia differs in some ways from the typical colony. The Tsarist government before 1917 had done nothing to encourage education, so the literacy rate in Central Asia was minuscule. Education has made tremendous strides since 1917; currently, nearly everyone can read. All children must attend school; numerous technical programs prepare them for skilled jobs; and there are now several universities in the region. This change came about as a result of the heavy Soviet emphasis on education, and the willingness of the government to spend on it. Such advances in education distinguish Central Asia from a typical colony, where the European power is typically unwilling to spend money on education. Indeed, many colonial powers (including the Tsarist one) prefer an uneducated colony, rightly expecting less trouble from it.
In an odd way, the Soviet treatment of religion argues again for Central Asia's relatively privileged status. Soviet authorities discourage religion on principle, yet Islam has fared better than Christianity. If mosques were turned into post offices, Russian Orthodox churches were used as barns. Having Christian origins themselves, the Communist leaders have persecuted Christianity with particular ferocity; they seem to care less about Islam.
On the negative side, Russian attitudes toward Central Asian culture, and Russian control of it, betray a colonial relationship. In Tsarist times, the Russians viewed Islam as a sinister force; they did not understand it, and they made few efforts to come to terms with it. This attitude exactly matched that of other European colonial rulers. The Communists added an atheistic ideology to that mistrust. Today, both the Russian settlers in Central Asia and the Soviet regime scorn the Islamic civilization of Central Asia.
State atheism has two special consequences in Central Asia. Coming from men of Christian origin, Muslims see atheistic doctrines as a covert Christian attack on Islam. They note that Russians have always despised Islam -- earlier in the name of Christianity, now in the name of atheism. From the Muslim point of view, the two look suspiciously similar. Second, Islam being tied to every aspect of a Muslim's life, an attack on the religion also denigrates his whole way of life and his culture. By assailing Islam, the Russians malign much more than the Central Asians' religion.
Soviet policy toward the Turkic and Iranian languages of Central Asia indicates most clearly the power Russians wield in cultural matters. The government played havoc with the local languages by changing their scripts and word meanings. The Soviet government ordered that the Central Asian languages drop the Arabic script, starting in 1922, as a way to isolate the Muslims of the Soviet Union from both their Islamic heritage and from writing in Turkey, Iran, and other parts of the Middle East. This gave the Soviet authorities much greater control over reading matter. Also, it put an obstacle in the way of Soviet Muslims communicating with foreign Turkic and Iranian speakers. That the intention was to isolate was proved by the Soviet reaction to Atatürk's reforms. When he required the Turks of Turkey to adopt the Latin alphabet in 1928, the Soviets ordered a second change in script, from Latin to Cyrillic. Cyrillic letters remain in use until this day.
The change from Latin to Cyrillic letters involved another change too. Whereas the Latin alphabets had represented each sound of the many Turkic dialects with the same letter, the Cyrillic alphabets for the many dialects assigned different letters for the same sound. The intent behind this needless complication is clear; the different letters made communication between nationalities more difficult. In this manner, alphabet policy reduced the chance of unified action by Turkic speakers against the Russians. As ever, Russian interests came first.
The Russians did more; they redefined Turkic and Iranian words to suit their purposes. Disregarding the sentiments of those who speak these languages, the Russians shuffled word meanings around to suit their purposes. This is perhaps the most blatant instance of Russian cultural imperialism.
Assessment: Still a Colony
In the final analysis, Central Asia does appear to be a colony of Russia. Economic progress and relative well-being notwithstanding, the complete and arbitrary power that Russians exercise points to this conclusion. Russian control of distant and alien lands makes those areas, in effect, colonies. Shrill anti-colonialist rhetoric to the contrary, the Soviet Union retains the classic relationship of European ruler and Third World colony. Of all European peoples, the Russians alone retain a large colonial empire -- a statement that holds true even without considering the European republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, White Russia, the Ukraine, and Moldavia), the satellites in Eastern Europe (Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria), or Mongolia.
The other great empires have been reduced to disjointed bits: Macao, Belize, Gibraltar, Reunion, St. Helena, the Falklands, etc. Only the Russians are left. Why is the world so little aware of the Russian empire? How have the Russians maintained strict colonial control without anyone noticing?
The Russian empire kept out of view thanks to two features: the land connection, and the creation of republics. Regardless how far the Russians traveled, they always stayed on land, so their colonies lacked the obviously colonial quality of a sea empire. Although Central Asia lies much further from Moscow than does Algeria from Paris, the sea constitutes an insurmountable barrier to making Algeria part of France, while the land tie between Russia and Central Asia facilitates their connection and obscures the alien quality of Russian rule in Central Asia.
The establishment of republics also served to make the Russian empire invisible. Powerless local governments allow the Russians to maintain control while bestowing the appearance of autonomy. Although Russians rule, this becomes evident only upon closer inspection. Setting up subservient local governments in vanquished territories is the major Russian contribution to the refinement of colonial rule.
Changes and Prospects
Central Asia's invisibility is coming to an end with its population explosion and a heightened political awareness. The region's demographic surge has already begun to transform the Muslims' role within the U.S.S.R. In the years between the censuses of 1959 and 1970, the major nationalities of Central Asia increased in population by 51 percent, as shown in Table I; increases between the 1970 and 1979 census were still an impressive 32 percent. Russian gains during the same periods were but 13 and 6 percent, respectively.
On average, Central Asian nationalities have increased by nearly half in a decade; this comes to about 3.8 percent per annum, a figure approaching the biological maximum.
The Muslim population of Central Asia numbered some 13 million in 1959, 20 million in 1970, and 27 million in 1979. Central Asian Muslims constituted 6 percent of the total Soviet population in 1959, 8 percent in 1970, and 17 percent in 1979, and they will make up an ever-larger proportion of the Soviet population in the coming decades. As the region grows in numbers, its concerns demand more attention from the Russian authorities.
This surge in the Muslim population is already transforming the Soviet work force and army. Young Muslims of Central Asia are coming of working age in large numbers just as the Soviet economy needs many additional low-skill manual workers; the timing might be just right. Like the workers from the Mediterranean area who seek work in North Europe, the Muslims of Central Asia can go north to jobs in Siberia and Western Russia. The difficulty lies in matching workers and positions, for Central Asians are reluctant to leave their region, and most of the new jobs cannot be relocated in Central Asia. Will they migrate; will the jobs come to them; both, or neither?
So far, it appears that the jobs and the workers are staying apart. According to an official Soviet report, one million of a working-age population of seven million is employed; "in Central Asia, employment of the rural population is the question of questions." This matter bears careful attention, for if Central Asian workers and the jobs are not brought together, the Soviet economy will suffer and Central Asians will be restlessly underemployed.
Central Asians in the army are another worry for the Russians. If universal conscription is continued, Muslims will constitute almost a third of future recruits by the year 2000, and this could have a profound effect on Soviet military policy. Not only are most Central Asians ignorant of Russian, less educated, and less skilled, but their loyalty to the Soviet Union and their motivation to fight for it are open to question.
Politically, too, Central Asia promises to become more troublesome, partly due to developments within the U.S.S.R., partly due to events to the south. "Though the change is as yet hardly noticeable," Alexandre Bennigsen and Marie Broxup write, a turning point in the history of Soviet Islam came in 1978, with two major external events." The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan pitted Russians against Muslims for the first time in decades; and the presence of Soviet Muslims in Afghanistan gave them an unprecedented opportunity to make contact with foreign Muslims. The effect of Iran's Islamic Revolution on Soviet Muslims was perhaps even greater. Iranian success against the United States surely raised hopes in Central Asia of a similar assertion against the Russians.
As its isolation breaks down, the Muslims are beginning to pursue increased contacts with the outside world. These have made them increasingly aware of the world order and of their own anomalous position. In a world of independent states, why are they one of the few peoples yet under the thumb of a distant city? Their confidence heightens their aspirations. The Muslims want "independence, full sovereignty and liberation from Russian control. . . . How could it be otherwise? They know that Southern Yemen, Libya, Uganda, and Angola are sovereign states while glorious Bukhara is not."
The December 1986 riots in Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan, may have been a first step in this direction. In protest against the replacement of the longtime Kazakhstan party leader, Dinmukhamed Akhmedovich Kunayev, a Kazakh, by Gennadi V. Kolbin, a Russian, several hundred students set cars and at least one building on fire. Some 280 persons are thought to have died. The rioters reportedly carried banners with slogans like "Autonomy and a separate seat for Kazakhstan at the United Nations," "We want to join China," "America is with us, the Russians are against us," "Kolbin go back to Russia," and "Kazakhstan for Kazakhs."
Alexandre Bennigsen's speculation that "members of the Communist youth organizations were manipulated by openly anti-Soviet religious fundamentalists" was confirmed by a Soviet press accusation that "some people, using lies, threats and persuasion, tried to take our political illiterate youngsters into the streets and squares." It is striking to note that Russians had held this position on earlier occasions, without repercussions. Leonid I. Brezhnev, for example, had been Kazakhstan party chief in 1955‑56. But what was acceptable in 1956 was no longer tolerable in 1986. "The riots in Alma-Ata are in part a backlash from the war in Afghanistan. . . . The new spirit of the Afghan jihad is slowly but steadily spreading into Soviet Muslim territories."
With occasional exceptions, Central Asian nationalism has been muted until now; in the long run, however, it seems inevitable that the leaders of these peoples, like all other leaders, will demand independence. Eventually (though when is a matter of speculation), Uzbeks, Tajiks, and the others will become stubbornly nationalistic, and the Soviet regime will face unprecedented internal troubles. The articulated discontent of Central Asian Muslims will cause more than domestic problems; it could severely damage the Soviet Union's carefully cultivated anti-imperialist image and sabotage its standing in much of the world. Most serious of all, unrest there would compel Moscow to turn its attention from Afghanistan, the Indian Ocean, and Central America to its own territory -- with much benefit to the world at large. Other than the possibility of a change at the highest levels of the Soviet government, this is perhaps the best opportunity for checking Soviet aggressiveness.
But none of this looks imminent. If the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Afghan mujahidin have both stirred responses among the Muslims of Central Asia, neither appears to have precipitated a major shift in mood. One plans for change in Central Asia not this year or next but in the decades ahead.
United States Policy
As Central Asia gains in importance, the United States needs to consider its options very carefully. The easiest place to start is with short wave radio broadcasts. The Voice of America currently programs 2 1/2 hours daily, and Radio Liberty programs 10 hours. While this is about double the broadcast time before the Iranian revolution, the potential significance of Central Asia warrants yet greater expansion of programming, particularly as this would hasten the autonomist urges described here. The Iranian republic broadcasts many hours of highly charged material to Central Asia; it would be a mistake to allow Tehran to dominate the air waves to this potentially critical region.
Beyond radio broadcasts, the United States government needs to formulate a policy toward Central Asia. To date, Washington has done nothing; it has never challenged the right of Russian rule in the region, nor has it formulated a policy regarding self-determination in the Central Asian republics. This timidity has been due to an American appreciation for the extreme Soviet reaction against any official discussion of Central Asia, which the Russian authorities would consider an unforgivable provocation. And what would be gained?
Further, the U.S. faces the danger of raising nationalist hopes in Central Asia without being able to support them (such as happened in Hungary in 1956). If the United States government suddenly made an issue of the colonial situation in Central Asia, peoples there might take it as a signal that the Washington encourages their efforts to achieve independence. Were local movements to rise in response, the United States would find itself morally committed to stand by them. Fearing both a terrible turn in relations with the Soviet Union and responsibility for developments in Central Asia, the United States government has refrained from meddling.
The sensitivity of the Central Asian question is indeed reason for caution but not for inaction. Two reasons argue in favor of making an issue out of Soviet imperialism in Central Asia: it is consistent with the U.S. policy since World War I of opposing all colonial rule and favoring self-determination; and it serves American purposes. Cautious discussion of Russian rule in Central Asia could cause the Soviet Union grave embarrassment in international circles and it could possibly contribute to the dismantling of its empire.
How might the topic best be brought up? By addressing the colonial issue to the world at large, not the Russians or the Central Asians. Rather than try directly to influence events in the Soviet Union, Washington should make the world aware of the situation there. Were the United States, for example, to submit Central Asia as a topic for discussion at the United Nations Committee on Decolonization, this in itself would make the matter an issue of international debate. The United States enjoys a global bully pulpit; note the repercussions of earlier debates over human rights and terrorism.
A campaign against colonialism is likely to win wide international support. It would focus much attention, especially among Muslims, who feel strongly for their co-religionists. And it would also serve to put the Soviet Union on the defensive. The United States and its allies need not to wage this campaign on their own against the U.S.S.R. It should be enough to raise the issue and then let Third World countries apply pressure on the Soviet Union. Their displeasure carries more weight because they, unlike the U.S., are potential allies.
It is likely this effort would meet with success. There are already indications of Afghan and Iranian interest in Central Asia. In January 1987 Gulbaddin Hikmatyar, fundamentalist Muslim leader of the Afghan mujahidin, held a well-publicized rally in Pakistan calling on Moscow not only to leave Afghanistan but to give independence to four of the Central Asian republics (all of them but Kazakhstan). The Iranian authorities express optimism: "In a day which is not very far off Islam will raise its head from the center of world atheism and blasphemy, and burst forth.
The U.S. task, then, is to make the Third World aware of the situation in Soviet Central Asia. Making known the situation in Central Asia, may not only cause the Soviet Union to lose its prestige as an anti-imperialist power but this might speed up the release of its many colonies.
The more the Third World knows about Soviet Central Asia, the better both for the Central Asians and the outside world. As the Central Asians grow in numbers and gain political consciousness, their obscurity and invisibility will end. Their status as the last major Third World peoples under European rule should become a vital matter of international concern in the coming years.
 Strictly speaking, if the Third World is defined as those developing areas under the aegis of neither the United States nor the Soviet Union, then all peoples of the Soviet Union are in the Second World. However, they are potentially Third World peoples.
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