“A Western View of Central Asia”

by Joshua Foust on 7/12/2007 · 1 comment

Early last month, I criticized a polemic written by RIA Novosti reporter Fakhriddin Nizamov (go ahead and read that for the required context). I thought he needlessly over-simplified the region, and got a few basic things about it wrong. On July 10, Mr. Nizamov emailed me a response. My Russian skills are not nearly up to the task of translating such a thing, but one of our friends at neweurasia.net, Vadim, kindly agreed to translate it for me. I have reposted it below, and will add some of my comments after. I would also love to hear your opinions as well.

A Western view of Central Asia

On 1st of June on the website of “RIA Novosti” I published my article “Central Asia confronting the global threats”. After few days on one of the English language websites appeared a narration of Mr. J. Foust “Threats to Central Asia?” where the author blames me for being biased. Polemic of views – something appropriate and useful. If the point of view of Foust could claim for objective approach.

By all appearances, he was offended by a term “democratic fundamentalism” and the statement that the not a simple situation in the region “is being exploited by big geopolitical players for strengthening their influence”. That is why he thinks that my implications are “permeated by rough stereotypes and inappropriate generalization”.

To be honest, term “democratic fundamentalism” which shocks ears– is not something that I created on my own. It occurred several years ago in response to constant interference in internal affairs of the countries in the post Soviet space disguised by the idea of promotion of democratic values. Actually, I think that there is nothing in common between the genuine democratic values and strive of western politicians to impose them on others. This strive is defined as democratic fundamentalism. Doesn’t Mr. Foust really notice that people in the region where the interests of superpowers are confronted, pay dearly for the so called “promotion of democracy”, not only by their resources but their lives?”

You don’t have to go far in search of examples. It is enough to mention the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. The results of forced export of democracy are well known. And the daily killing of people is perceived as something natural and self-evident. If during the attacks on 11th of September 2001 in US died around 3000 people, then according to the statistics of the end of 2006 the number of deaths during the Iraq campaign surmounted 30 thousand.

When I was writing about the threats, I did not think about the “threats to governments of five stans” (as Mr. Foust disdainfully calls the CA countries.) or their legitimacy”. That is why I consider the threat from Afghanistan as one of the main destabilizing factors in the region. From that country comes not only the drug-traffic threat, but also international terrorism, which is excluded not only by the experts from CA but also the west.

Everything that is related to the definition of threats, I mentioned all of them. If to the internal threats are attributed such threats as, separatism, interethnic problems, violation of political right of citizens, underdevelopment and poverty of majority of people, then to external threats can be attributed besides the drug-traffic and the international terrorism, with good reason we can attribute also the interference of external geopolitical players into the internal affairs of countries in the region through performance of “color revolutions” and other social convulsions.

Why I didn’t refer to Russia, India and China as geopolitical players?

Implicitly they are geopolitical players and play an active role in attempting to remake the geopolitical map of the region, no less than the US is interested in presence in Central Asia. In addition to that, the number of players in the “New Great Game” is much bigger. Here can be added such countries as Japan, South Korea, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Obviously, all of them have different leverages of influence in the region: one has the investments, the other has resources for the support of religious extremist and others have a close language and cultural links, and historical commonness. But if to consider the current period, then in distinction from the western countries they do not try to interfere in political processes and do not impose their models of reforms.

The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama compares the neoconservative policy of Bush administration with the power which tries to accelerate by force the process of democratization in the whole world. Now let’s try to find differences between such forceful inculcation of democracy and the actions of Islamic fundamentalists, who even blame their religious brothers (brothers by religion) for heresy and wishing to impose their world view? I’m afraid that at close comparison their similarity will be right side up.

However much sneers mr. Foust about the “Russian paternalism in regards to former Soviet vassals” or about the “specific type of activity, performed by the Russian state information agency” and however much tries to attach to me the so called “colonialist mission”, I don’t write my articles relying on someone else’s words or according to someone’s prescriptions. I’m an Uzbek journalist, I expose my own view on the current processes, which are going on in the region, and I’m grateful of RIA Novosti which takes it to the readers around the world.

In my article I emphasized the idea of “absence of coordination and multi-directionality in the countries of Central Asian region which creates a good soil for acceleration of geopolitical struggle between the external centers of power”. It is worth admitting, that the effectiveness of coordination of efforts in provision of security in Central Asia within the frameworks of Organization of Collective Security Agreement and Shanghai Organization of Cooperation desires to be better. It makes the region more vulnerable before the external and internal threats and risks. The countries in the region are interconnected not only in terms of security but also economy, communication, cultural and religious commonness. But these factors do not sufficiently facilitate the transformation of this interdependence into full-fledged integration. In most of the cases the political elite of some countries do not wish to meet halfway even in sake of sustaining the stability and security. Actually this is the main common interest that they have.

I’m far from the idea, that the European Union or US do not have to present in the region. However, if the political dialogue of leaders every time ends up with “color revolution”, then it is hard to believe that it will solve the existing socio-political and economic problems, rather they can explode the whole region and endure the process of problem salvation for decades. In my opinion, this format of dialogue with the West is hardly appropriate.

That is why in the last the Kazakh experts in these latter days are talking about the applicability for Kazakhstan on the classic, and not the European, but the Asian model of democracy. They think that the South-East Asia “declined the western recipes of political and economic development in 70-80s of the last century and achieved more economic successes than their former metropolis”. So, the dilemma which sets Mr. Foust – “either China, or US” – for the Central Asian countries, could be easily disputed. The analysis of the real situation has different conclusions, than the statements of Mr. Foust.

Lastly, the director of the Central Asian department and Caucasus at Harvard University Shawn Shobernlen recently presented his report “The rise and development of survey on Central Asia in the West” in the French Institute of Research of Central Asia in Tashkent. According to him after the beginning counterterrorist campaign in Afghanistan in 2001 the interest in Central Asia has increased. If in the beginning of 90s the number of specialists, who studied the region was equal to 400, today the number is more than 20 thousand, which has a negative effect on the survey of the region. Even those who are specialized in Islam in the Arab world, by one head over heels became specialists on Central Asia. I do not want to see mr. Foust to be amongst them.

Fahriddin Nizamov
The member of the expert committee of RIA Novosti

First off, I want to thank Mr. Nizamov for responding. It is this kind of back-and-forth between journalists and bloggers (where such a distinction can be made reasonably) that I think adds a great deal of value to the way the Internet works, and, ultimately, to journalism itself.

I think Mr. Nizamov is correct in that the Western push for democracy (he probably means “American,” as few of the other western countries seem as interested) is little more than rhetoric. This has always been the case, and has said nothing of the benefits or pitfalls of a Western-style liberal democracy. I also share his dislike of my government’s choices.

However, Mr. Nizamov seems to have made some assumptions about American actions, and my own beliefs, that are simply not true. For one, he seems to confuse the invasion of Afghanistan—a universally supported action in response to a direct attack on our country (which killed several friends)—and Iraq, which was not. Afghanistan is still supported and at least in name derives deep support from the International Community. Iraq never was, and it never did. So Mr. Nizamov would do well to distinguish them, as they are fundamentally different.

Further, Mr. Nizamov seems to think I am being disdainful when I refer to “the five ‘stans.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a neologism of sorts, a shorthand for “the five former Soviet states in Central Eurasia that aren’t Mongolia,” or “the former Soviet republics east of the Caspian,” or some similarly wordy phrase. I write about Central Asia because I love it and want to see it prosper, not because I look down on it in condescension (perhaps Mr. Nizamov could look at Russia next time).

That being said, it’s curious that Mr. Nizamov shares me belief (and Nathan’s) that Afghanistan should be considered as the same region or area as the other five former Soviet states in Central Eurasia—a position in sharp contrast with some of the barbed comments I’ve received as a result of my reporting on the country.

Mr. Nizamov asserts I ignore his mention of separatism, ethnic tensions, and so on. I did indeed ignore it, because he mentioned them casually only in relation to their supposed manipulation by those scary big geopolitical players. Similarly, despite even the recent bombing in Dushanbe, I consider the risk from International terrorism in, say, Kazakhstan, marginal at best. Similarly, both Nathan and I consider the chance of interethnic tension turning into a serious threat, or even being exploitable by outside players, marginal at best (and this is despite the recent rounds of violent rioting with Chechens in Almaty). These internal pressures, which Mr. Nizamov seems to cling to in his defense of the rest of his piece, aren’t mentioned elsewhere, except in passing—hence my decision not to focus on it.

Similarly, I will disregard his own sneering over using “someone else’s people words” and relying on “someone’s prescriptions.” Not only is this the substantive portion of the first half of his own piece, but it is more commonly known as “basic research and quotation.” In that vein, given that Mr. Nizamov takes issue with my calling Russia’s revived interest in Central Asia paternalist, I think it’s worth pointing again to Vasili’s excellent analysis of how Russia is going about re-establishing itself as the primary foreign power in the area. If Nizamov, who is an Uzbek, feels Russia is not doing so (which is probably the case in his country, given President-for-Life Karimov’s stabs at “multi-vector” foreign policy), I would appreciate knowing how he came to that conclusion.

I think Mr. Nizamov and I are in agreement that blithely mouthing the words “democracy” while dealing with countries that have much more fundamental issues warranting greater urgency is counterproductive. So, while I would like to see my friends in the area not forced to live under petty and brutal tyrants, I concede that at the time being there is little alternative. What I don’t understand is why, if Mr. Nizamov thinks countries such as Kazakhstan are going after the Asian Model, the national models I chose, of China or the U.S., is wrong. China is the classic example of the Asian Model, while the U.S. is still, barely, the gold standard of the Western Model (the EU might be gaining in prominence, and I must confess it’s been a while since I was last digging through all the academic literature on the subject).

Mr. Nizamov’s last point is deeply confusing (this could be an artifact of the translation, or the sentiment he was conveying might not be easily translatable). I believe he’s saying there are a lot of “specialists” in region, though of what sort he doesn’t say (this could be why the number is so high it seems unreal). This flies in the face of the very existence of this website (and many similar ones)—indeed, the most common complaint of people who study the region, and one of the reasons Nathan cheekily gives when asked why he studies it, is that so very few do. There actually are not too many specialists on Central Asia, at least anywhere in the West, and it has led to bad policies and bad politics… including the dread “Democratic Fundamentalism.” And, though I honestly have no idea

One last point I don’t understand. Why would having 20,000 specialists in a region of strategic importance to at least three Great Powers be a bad thing? And how could that have a negative impact on a survey of said region? Like the last piece Mr. Nizamov wrote about the region, it just doesn’t quite add up.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Nick July 13, 2007 at 4:24 am

I will add more detailed thoughts later, but ‘the director of the Central Asian department and Caucasus at Harvard University’ is not Shawn Shobernlen but John Schoeberlein – however, I appreciate the difficulties of transliteration.

I’ll get my coat.

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