CENTRAL ASIA’S SECOND CHANCE by Martha Brill Olcott: Reviewed by Laurence Jarvik

by Laurence on 12/28/2005 · 15 comments

Martha Brill Olcott’s valuable new survey of Central Asia has appeared at a tricky time. Clearly, the study of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan was started with an optimistic spirit. It looks like a guidebook that could have been used for businesspeople, academics, students, and even tourists to the region that fills the center of the Eurasian land mass, Mackinder’s famous “pivot point” of world history.

The Andijan violence of 2005 has clearly been a pivot point for regional geopolitics, and perhaps for President Bush’s Global War on Terror. In the aftermath of what the Uzbek government declared was a terrorist attack on a major population center, the US and EU condemned the government for “excessive force,” demanding an international investigation. China and Russia, on the other hand, backed authoritarian leader Islam Karimov’s decision to fire on armed demonstrators holding hostages, who had earlier seized several government buildings and set fire to movie theatres. To answer riot and rebellion with Napoleon’s “whiff of grapeshot” seemed logical to the East, if not to the West.

This split had spillover effects. In its aftermath, Karimov ordered troops out of the US base in Uzbekistan and signed an alliance with Russia. It marked a geopolitical defeat for the United States, and the first instance where Bush’s “democracy” policy took precedence over military requirements for the Global War on Terror. Deprived of its base in Uzbekistan, the US was then squeezed by Kyrgyzstan, which asked for some $200 million dollars to keep open Ganci airbase–100 times what the US had been paying previously.

Round One: Russia and China, by a knockout.

Olcott’s book is fascinating, as much for what she does not say, as for what she does. For while she states that “Blame Lies with the Region’s Leaders,” (p.234), the data in her book equally support an alternative hypothesis which goes unstated: American policies have not only harmed Central Asia, they have damanged the strategic interests of the United States.

Evidence for this hypothesis can be found in remarks scattered throughout the text, like clues to a Sherlock Holmes mystery. For example:

For a certain group of policy makers, those concerned with monitoring the democratic progress of these governments, the leaders in charge of these states have effectively become the enemy, men whose departure from political life was viewed as a good thing for their populations . . . The US foreign assistance strategy has led to much ill will on all sides, without substantially enhancing the capacity of either government or opposition to govern in a democratic fashion.(240)

Olcott’s book seems to end suddenly–without a customary concluding chapter on p. 244. Instead of tying together loose ends, pages 245-387 present is a mass of raw data in appendices containing charts and graphs; footnotes with fascinating tidbits, and a valuable index.

This silence about her key message seems very Central Asian. If one digs through the data sets, one comes up with a picture of a region that is closer to the one presented by its authoritarian leaders than the one found in reports by NGOs such as Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group.

Central Asia is not poor. In fact, the region’s economies are growing. There is considerable foreign investment, especially in oil, gas, and mining sectors.

Central Asia is not backwards. In fact, the countries enjoy literacy rates higher than the USA.

What is most striking is Oclott’s evidence that Central Asian leaders have not invented the extremist Islamist threat in order to maintain power. The threat from extremism is real. Like Thailand during the Vietnam War, these countries have adopted authoritarian policies to prevent conflicts raging around them from exploding among their populations.

And Olcott almost says this–with caveats blaming Uzbek leadership failures–in a section called “Uzbekistan: Central Asia’s Frontline State.” Where she points out this little reported fact: “Uzbekistan was the only Central Asian state to join the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq, despite the fact that this damaged its relations with Russia and China.”(177) In other words, attacks on Uzbekistan–including Andijan–were attacks on the US-led coalition.

There is more detail in Appendix 13, listing both official and unofficial Islamic organizations–some of which have documented ties to Al Qaeda in addition to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for example the “Jamaat of Central Asia Mujahideen.” This group, according to Olcott, “remains focused on terror acts in Central Asia.” She also notes that Tajikistan’s “Baiat” (covenant) has perpetrated terror attacks against both non-Muslims and “Muslim grops that it considers too moderate.”

This is a book that one can turn to again and again. Olcott has put together a treasure trove of information that is useful to anyone attempting to understand why what is happening in small countries that are far, far away has relevance to the lives of ordinary Americans, and for improving chances for world peace.

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David Walther December 28, 2005 at 6:41 pm

Laurence, you continue to amaze me:

“Central Asia is not poor. In fact, the region’s economies are growing. There is considerable foreign investment, especially in oil, gas, and mining sectors. Central Asia is not backwards. In fact, the countries enjoy literacy rates higher than the USA.”

First of all, just because a country’s economy is growing does not mean by any shadow of a doubt that it is not poor. Poverty is not mentioned by economic growth–viability might be, but poverty is not. If you start from zero, it’s very easy post growth. If you want to put up some numbers, then let’s talk about them, but again, this is pretty stunning. Kazakhstan is the only country in the region even beginning to approach an acceptable average standard of living. There are large swaths of Uzbekistan where people live on bread and water. How can you say a country whose minimum wage is less than twenty five cents a day!!!

And as bad as that is, Uzbekistan is the second richest country in the region. and “the countries enjoy higher literacy rates than the USA?”

Do you honestly believe that there are more literate people in Turkmenistan and Tajikistan than in the USA? I’ll take this opportunity to remind you that Turkmenistan recently closed all regional hospitals and health clinics and stopped training doctors and nurses this year.
What are you trying to say here?

Bertrand December 28, 2005 at 9:25 pm

Well, having read this, I am almost speechless, but not quite.

This is really a bit over the top. It’s too much to even try and refute for the most part. I think one must be careful relying on the opinions of those who are basically apologists for corrupt, venal despots. Especially those who engage in the Uzbek version of denying the holocaust, as Ms. Olcott basically does.

Yes, there is a threat from radical Islamists in Central Asia, but portraying the events at Andijan as an “attack on the US-led coalition” is beyond the pale, displaying an awesome level of ignorance.

Central Asia is not poor? I think Laurence and Ms. Olcott (who is famous for her Potempkin tours of Central Asia) need to spend a bit more time in the regions where, as David quite correctly points out, people literaly survive on bread and water. Maybe they could make a little visit to a huge collective farm just outside Kitob in Uzbekistan, where three villagese share one poluted water source, from which they haul the water on foot or by donkey.
Or maybe they could visit Istiklol, where more than a thousand ethnic Tajiks were removed from their traditional homelands and forced to settle on land that cannot be cultivated in decaying houses without gas and potable water. People who are not allowed to travel outside their “reservation” to look for food or help.

Literacy rates? Please. Do not confuse literacy with education.

There’s just too much wrong here. It’s not even worth going on about it. This sounds very much to me like a book one can turn away from again and again.

LazyNomad December 28, 2005 at 9:49 pm

“What is most striking is Olcott’s evidence that Central Asian leaders have not invented the extremist Islamist threat in order to maintain power.”
Couldn`t agree with that.Ties between Al Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are not proven. Also the IMU appeared in the early 1990`s (long before Al Qaeda) as the result of suppresive policy of Islam Karimov who put a ban on the activity of few political groups. So Karimov has to blame himself also for the rise IMU. Also for quite some time now there are no news about IMU, which could mean that the organization is not existing anymore.
Now, as for Jamaat of Central Asia Mujahideen – this is very strange organization. Nobody ever heard of it`s existence before it was suddenly annihilated soon after Tashkent`s bomb blasts in 2004.
The official reports stated that the leaders of Jamaat had ties with Al Qaeda (who doesn`t nowadays) and financed themselves by robbing people`s flats (3 reported cases).
In my opinion it would be better if some countries of Central Asia (Uzbekistan, for instance) would become islamic states, then maintaining unjust regims by fighting with it`s own citizens and prohibiting alternative political views.

ozod December 28, 2005 at 10:36 pm

Well, I’d rather say, it is indispensable to acknowledge that this work is worth only appreciation.

Nathan December 28, 2005 at 10:42 pm

Ties between Al Qaeda and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan are not proven.

They aren’t? As far as I’ve read, they are extremely well-proven. It doesn’t matter who came first, they do work together.

And I think it’s a bit much to say Karimov is 100% responsible for the existence of the IMU. Unless one wants to say that the Adolat’s ideology is all his fault. Sometimes agents of action need to be assigned responsibility for their decisions rather than tracing everything back to the “root cause” that someone wants to point to as the source of all evil.

I also don’t see how adopting Islamic government would do much to improve the lot of anyone in Central Asia except for the new thugs that would be running the show.

LazyNomad December 29, 2005 at 1:51 am

Here are the abstracts from the report on Asia and Picific from http://www.european-defence.co.uk:
“The rise in Islamic militancy in Central Asia has been blamed on lack of democracy, high unemployment, economic mismanagement and poverty in the region. The repression of Islam is believed to have had a negative effect – only the government in Tajikistan has allowed an Islamic party representation in parliament, the Nahzati Islomi Tojikiston (NIP) (Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan). However, the legacy of Tajikistan’s 1992– 97 civil war was the creation of several Islamic militant groups to challenge the rule of the country’s president, Emomali Rakhmonov. One group, the Hizb Ut-Tahir (Party of Liberation), has been banned due to its aim to create a pan-Central Asian Islamic state. Hundreds of its supporters have been thrown into prison, although there is no evidence that it has ever been involved in terrorism.

In Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov’s authoritarian rule has resulted in the rise of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an Islamic militant group that operates across the borders of neighbouring Central Asian republics, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and is believed to have links with Al-Qaeda. The IMU, which has also called itself the Islamic Party of Turkestan (IPT) since 2001, is believed to have links with other Islamic militant groups in Chechnya and the Xinjang province in China. The IMU wants to create a pan-Central Asian Islamic state and uses drugs trafficking and arms smuggling to finance its terrorist activities. The US government claims that large sections of the IMU may have been dismantled since the 2001 war in Afghanistan, where it was believed that many IMU militants were fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Unrest and an alleged massacre of civilians by Uzbek troops in the city of Andijan in eastern Uzbekistan on 13 May 2005 was blamed on Islamic militancy by the Uzbek authorities.”

here`s some more from http://www.jihadwatch.org, including quotation of Martha Brill Olcott:
“In her prepared statement to the House committee, Fiona Hill wrote: “I would suggest that harsh government repression of dissent is as much, if not more, of a threat to Central Asian stability today and in the immediate future as the radical Islamic movements …”
Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, seconded this view in her own prepared statement: “The Central Asian elites are exaggerating the threat to the state that is posed by those advocating radical Islamic ideologies, and US policymakers will be making a grave mistake if they allow shared goals in the ‘war on terror’ to blind us to the short-sighted and potentially dangerous policies that are being pursued in the region with regards to religion.”

In a spring 2003 article in the Journal of International Affairs, Edward W Walker wrote: “There is little risk that Islamists will come to power in the region soon, especially now that the collapse of the Taliban means Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven. The greater risk is that Central Asia’s ruling elites will use the specter of Islamism as an excuse to avoid economic and political reforms that would mitigate the conditions under which militant Islamism takes root and survives.”

A December 22, 2003 study by the International Crisis Group titled “Is Radical Islam Inevitable in Central Asia: Priorities for Engagement”, suggested a similar conclusion. The study warned that “if Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are to avoid the fate of other countries in which terrorist or extremist movements have emerged … it is imperative to build open political systems … Authoritarian regimes relying on fear and repression, while stifling individual freedoms will only discredit democracy and push people to act outside constitutional frameworks.”
So the connection between IMU and Al-Qaeda is not well-proven, but believed. There is a possibility that Bush officialy stated that there are such connections and turned blind eye on the repressive methods of Karimov only as an exchange for the permission to open a military base in Uzbekistan.
I am not saying that Karimov is 100% responsible for the existence of IMU, but he is certainly partly responsible for the present kind of state.
As for adopting Islamic government, I don`t see it as a bad thing, nor good. If it would help stabilize the situation it`s better to turn islamic than to end up with civil war.

Bertrand December 29, 2005 at 7:57 am

I think it’s good that this kind of discussion is being stimulated by the initial post. I do think, however, that a central point should not be forgotten: Is Olcott’s view of Central Asia realistic and should she be viewed as an expert?

Personally, I think not, for some of the reasons outlined in my earlier post. The fact remains that too much is said and written about Central Asia by so-called “experts” who don’t really have a good sense of this region – its politics, its history, culture, government, and – especially – the contemporary situation, which darkens by the day. One cannot understand the situation here by spending a few days every year or so in the back of a presidential limo.

It’s a bit like the old John Godfrey Saxe fable of six blind men who touch an elephant. Each touches a different part of the animal and then describes a different perception of what they’ve touched. I wonder what kind of book Ms. Olcott would write if she actually lived her for a few years, and dealt on a daily basis with all aspects of the population – ministers, bureaucrats, farmers, traders, oppositionists, human rights defenders, NGO leaders, journalists, etc.

I continue to argue that while there is a clear threat from Islamic fundamentalists in Central Asia, that threat is in reality not much, if any, greater than in many other countries. They would include Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philipines. That list would also include Spain, France, England and the U.S., among other countries.

Breeding radicalism, and thus people who will undertake radical activities – including terrorism – is one thing. Leading the majority of a population to want a Celiphate is something else altogether.

Uzbekistan is a great example. There are – at least were – clear ties between the IMU and Al Qaeda. No question about it. In some respects, however, that’s like saying there are clear ties between chapters of the Hells Angels (both in the U.S. and in Europe). By saying that, I don’t mean in any way to diminish the powerful threat of Al Qaeda and others of essentially the same philosophy. This is not a membership organization, however, and its “structure” cannot be realistically put into a flow chart.

The fact is, however, that I believe anyone who has a good knowledge of Uzbekistan will tell you that the conditions here are not conducive to a Celiphate. For the greater part of the population, Islam in Uzbekistan is as much – or more – cultural than religious. I suspect the vast majority of people in Uzbekistan have no more desire to be ruled by a Celiphate that the populations of the US, UK, France or Germany do in being ruled by a government comprised of the Hells Angels (all of those countries have Hells Angels chapters).

Can you force more people into the margins through brutal repression? Yes, and the Uzbek regime is doing that. Does that lead to a Celiphate? No. Not now, at least. Nor, I think, for the foreseable future.

There is a Latin term, “Res Ipsa Loquitur.” The Thing Speaks for Itself. In the law, it means that the simple fact something exists, or something happened, is because the condition to make it exist or happen was already in place.

In Uzbekistan, the rise in interest in radicalism – such as it actually exists – is for the most part the result of a regime that leaves its population no hope. The reponse to that leads to many things, suicide (including self-immolation), substance abuse, just about every variety of criminal behavior, out-migration, and, yes, for some, radicalism. A small, brave few react by continuing open, public oppositional (political and human rights) activity at great personal risk.

If one follows the logic of the “Uzbekistan-may-soon-fall-into-a-Celiphate,” crowd then the same logic argues that “Uzbekistan-may-soon-fall-into-a-democracy.” Personally, I hope for the latter and expect that to be a bit more realistic, although I don’t expect either to happen suddenly or soon.

Celiphate? No. Mass discontent and growing unrest? Yes. Instability? Growing more likely every day, but not because of Islamic radicals.

Finally, to blame all of this on failed policies by the United States, the E.U., the U.N. or any other country or organization, is sophomoric – one more blind man holding the elephant’s tail.

In Uzbekistan these problems can be clearly laid at the feet of corrupt, power-mad leaders who have no more interest in the needs of the serfs they rule than the worst of the feudal lords of the middle-ages, who divided their time warring with one another and seeking ways to derive even more income from their vassals. An exagerration? I think not.

While it may be convenient to try and sugar-coat this, or try and put it into a more contemporary context, it simply doesn’t work. To try and shine a gloss on people like Islom Karimov by shrouding him in excuses, and blaming conditions or outside interests is poppycock.

The real problem with western countries is not what they have done, but what they haven’t.

Karimov’s own population gave him a pass for a long time, thinking he really wanted to make things better, but just wasn’t being told how bad things were. Now they know differently. Just talk to them. The West excused Karimov because he made promises, waiting and hoping he would keep them. It’s clear now he has no intention of doing so.

I haven’t read Ms. Olcott’s book yet, but based upon Laurence’s references, and things she’s said and written in the past, I suspect it is at best irrelevant and, at worst, detrimental to understanding Central Asia in general and Uzbekistan in particular.

David L December 30, 2005 at 1:43 am


You should not judge Olcott’s views merely on the basis of Laurence’s bizarre ‘book review’, which merely reiterates his own view of Uzbekistan, rather than outlining the arguments of the book. He has simply searched through the book to try and find snippets that back up his own opinion, that Karimov was, is and always will be, right. Having failed to find any evidence, he uses ‘silences in the text’ to back up his viewpoint. It may be a very post-modern approach, but it is not particularly useful to any readers who would like to know what is actually in the book.

Karakum December 30, 2005 at 10:04 am

Bertrand wrote:
“I haven’t read Ms. Olcott’s book yet, but based upon Laurence’s references, and things she’s said and written in the past, I suspect it is at best irrelevant and, at worst, detrimental to understanding Central Asia in general and Uzbekistan in particular.”

Sounds pretty much like “Never read Pasternak, but strongly condemn him!” (quote from Pravda in 1950s, subsequently mainstreamed into Soviet folklore).

Alexander Morrison January 14, 2006 at 10:18 pm

Olcott is a second-rate hack, a Sovietologist who in the late 80s re-invented herself as a Central Asian ‘Expert’ without any of the necessary qualifications as a linguist or historian (a breed that is still all too common amongst academics who work in this field). For those not familiar with it the best demolition to date of her execrable work ‘The Kazakhs’ (which made her reputation) is to be found in Yuri Bregel’s pamphlet “Notes on the Study of Central Asia” (Bloomington: Indiana) 1996. See also Devin DeWeese “Islam and the Legacy of Sovietology” Journal of Islamic Studies Vol.13 №.3 pp298-330. Ah yes, and who could forget her cameo role in “fahrenheit 9/11”, where she appears as adviser to a major Anglo-American Arms firm? I doubt if the opinions she expresses are quite as pro-Karimov as Lawrence suggests, but I question the value of most such semi-journalistic analyses of contemporary Central Asian politics by those who do not live and work in the region. Even if it is accurate, within a year or two their information will be out of date. Stick to newspapers, websites, and, of course, blogs…….

Nathan January 15, 2006 at 5:05 pm

Ex-Sovietologists may produce extremely poor work when wading into cultural studies and pre-Soviet history, but I haven’t found her too bad when it comes to political science. And yes, work in political science does often go out of date rather quickly, but does that mean there’s no value in it?

Thanks for the citations, by the way. When I manage to find a bit of time, I’m going to read both of them. Incidentally, I’m reading DeWeese’s book on Islamization in the Golden Horde right now.

Alexander Morrison January 15, 2006 at 10:46 pm

I suppose I’m allowing my prejudices as a historian to get the better of me – I find political science a frustrating discipline precisely because nothing seems to stay pinned down for more than a couple of years, and sometimes even less. That’s why I’m not sure books are the best medium for people to publish their results and analyses, particularly given the time which tends to elapse between submission of the manuscript and publication. You’re right though – I object mainly to Olcott’s pretensions to being a historian. DeWeese is the real thing, a man of quite remarkable erudition (although not intimidating personally – I met him at a conference at Bloomington once, together with Bregel). “Islamisation and Native Religion in the Golden Horde” is quite heavy going, but a really magnificent piece of work which will still be read in a hundred years’ time, unlike Olcott’s stuff.

Manuchehr June 21, 2006 at 12:00 pm

Another ‘outsider’, who claims expert on Central Asia – without qualifications to support that claim

Manuchehr June 21, 2006 at 12:05 pm

Alexander Morrison – good points, how can someone be an expert without living and working in the region. By the same token, I, the Tajik from Tajikistan, can write books about the politics in the USA and claim the label of expert in the US politics – how logical is that…

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