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Volume 6, issue #20 - Wednesday, October 24, 2001

An overview of former Soviet republics in Central Asia

24-09-01 The five new nations that emerged in Central Asia after the Soviet collapse are a patchwork of mostly Muslim peoples. All the major ethnic groups are related to the Turks, except for the Tajiks, who share ethnic ties with the Iranians. Known as Turkestan under the czars, the territory came under Communist control following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
After defeating the Basmachi -- Muslim rebels opposed to communist rule -- the Soviets carved five separate republics from Turkestan: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, they became independent countries that reached out to the West, joining NATO's Partnership for Peace and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russia remains their main economic partner, and millions of ethnic Russians live in Central Asia.

While they are often lumped together, these countries have not shared the same fate over the last decade. Here is a look at each of them:

About four times the size of Texas, Kazakhstan is the largest Central Asian country and the only one that borders Russia, sharing a 4,225-mile ( 6,800 km) frontier with its northern neighbour. It also borders China, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.
Kazaks make up just over half the population, and there is a very strong Russian minority, about 35 %. Roughly half of the population is Christian, the other half Muslim. The West is highly interested in its rich oil reserves. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has maintained close ties with Russia. Kazakhstan has yet to see major incursions by Islamic groups. Human rights groups accuse the government of harassing the opposition and independent media.

Kyrgyzstan: A land of high mountains and broad valleys bordered by China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is about the size of South Dakota. Ethnic Kyrgyz make up more than half of the population, with sizable Russian and Uzbek minorities. Enmity between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks dates back centuries.
The country is poor and has suffered in recent years from attacks by Islamic rebels that revealed weaknesses in the military. Once considered the most democratic-minded Central Asian leader. President Askar Akayev, a physicist by training, has cracked down on dissent.

The poorest of the former Soviet republics of Central Asian, Tajikistan has a 744-mile (1,200 km) border with Afghanistan, the source of many of its problems, including refugees and drugs. A civil war between government forces and Islamic rebels ended in a cease-fire in 1997.
Tajikistan is unable to defend its borders, and 25,000 Russian troops are stationed there to block the drug trade, keep refugees out, and prevent incursions from Afghan rebels. President Emomali Rakhmonov is dependent on Russia for economic, military and political support.

A country about the size of California, Turkmenistan has only 4.5 mm people, most of whom are Turkmen in origin. It borders Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and has huge natural gas reserves. President Saparmurat Niyazov does not tolerate any opposition and the cult of personality he has allowed to flourish resembles the idolatry of the Soviet era.

Also about the size of California, Uzbekistan is an ethnically complex country that borders Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. President Islam Karimov has cracked down on dissent. The government says the threat posed by Islamic militants justifies limiting civil liberties.
Unsanctioned expressions of Islam, including wearing beards or traditional women's head coverings, are punished with jail, expulsion from universities and harassment, human rights groups say. A series of bombings in 1999 was blamed on the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Source: AP via Newspage


copyright Alexander Wostmann