Central Asia’s Lesson for the Middle East

by Nathan Hamm on 1/10/2012 · 9 comments

Apparently, it’s kind of like soylent green; it’s people. Specifically, it’s about where those people are.

At least, that’s according to this article at FrontPage in which the authors use Central Asia to argue that a one-state solution for Israel and Palestine is simply impossible.

Just as the new calendar year was about to begin, new violence broke out in the village of Andarak in southern Kyrgyzstan. Internecine violence among the ethnic groups of Kyrgyzstan has been flaring up periodically for years with the worst outbreaks in 2010. Kyrgyzstan may be the closest thing to be found in Central Asia to a “bi-national state,” the sort of state that some are proposing be imposed upon the Middle East as a “solution” to replace Israel. …there are lessons to learn from the violence there about the viability of multi-ethnic states in the Middle East.


I’ll plead complete ignorance on anything to do with Israel and Palestine if only because then we can all avoid having a discussion about it. However, the incidents of communal violence in Central Asia over the last two decades — including Tajikistan’s civil war, to which the authors make reference — say very little about the viability of mutli-national states in the abstract. To collapse violence in poor, corrupt societies with fragile governments down to the sole factor of ethnicity is a step beyond ignorant; it’s lazy. Kyrgyzstan’s internal faultlines cut many different ways, and even the ethnic faults are more complicated than they might seem. Similarly, Tajikistan’s civil war was not simply one region against another.

The Middle East, let alone Israel and Palestine, can probably move on.

But sally forth is what our authors do and come up with a surprising lesson from Central Asia:

Ironically, there is a related positive lesson for the Middle East from the same region. While relations between ethnic Slavs and local Muslims in Central Asia have often been tense and can be potentially explosive, recent violent confrontations have been relatively rare largely because of the massive out-migration of the Slavs to Russia and the Ukraine. Ethnic Germans also largely emigrated. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians simply moved to those nation-states in which their kin are the dominant majority.

Could not the Arab-Israeli conflict be resolved at least partly through a similar out-migration of “Palestinians” and their relocation into the predominantly Arab ethnic “homelands,” much like the resettlement of Central Asian Slavs?

It’s not even worth commenting on the factual claims. Just take it in, be unsurprised that FrontPage published it, and appreciate the irony of the authors including a line about American ignorance of Central Asia.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Dan January 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

So next on Frontpage: a discussion of how the term “Concentration Camp” got a bad rap. I mean, it’s got the name of a game in it, and who doesn’t like to go camping?

Just unbelievable. Well, not really. Which makes this worse.

upyernoz January 11, 2012 at 10:16 am

why exactly are they looking to central asia for an example of a binational country? isn’t the world filled with countries with more than one ethnic and linguistic group, from switzerland to bosnia to rwanda to bolivia to singapore? frontpage is really just a platform for demagogues, but even for them it seems like an odd choice to look to kyrgyzstan to analyze the israeli-palestinian issue

Nathan Hamm January 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm

I figured it was because one of the authors is Uzbek.

Grant January 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I just love how they completely ignore the fact that most nations, including those in the Middle East and Central Asia, have multi-ethnic populations. Do they presume that there are only Arabs in Oman, Persians in Iran or Turkmen in Turkmenistan?

Nathan Hamm January 11, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Hey. Now those are just inconvenient facts…

Grant January 11, 2012 at 7:12 pm

In my opinion that’s the best kind. I’m actually a bit sadistic with them, I love being the jerk that asks something hard to explain away.

anan January 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Wow. Let’s leave it at that.

Sarah W January 15, 2012 at 5:19 am

Still waiting to hear what you found to be incorrect in their piece. Aside from your snarky jibes at it. Or any evidence you know anything about the subject

Nathan Hamm January 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Sarah, pardon me for stereotyping, but based on where you’re visiting from, I can’t help but assume the credentials you are using to assess the validity of this piece are your political views rather than familiarity with the region.

The entire piece is riddled with distortions and errors. So I’ll just stick with the most important one. The main argument — that bloody civil war between Slavs and the titular nationalities was only avoided by outmigration of Slavs — is laughable. The only place where one could make an even partially reasonable claim that there existed a risk of something resembling civil war between Slavs and a Central Asians was in Kazakhstan, where there still exists a significant population of Slavs. While there probably was little risk of civil war, Kazakhstan’s inclusive identity and language politics defused tensions, made Slavs and the Russian government more comfortable, and made Kazakhstan a destination for at least some Slavs who wanted to leave one of the other Central Asian republics but not return to Russia. (I won’t call myself an expert on Kazakhstan’s identity politics, but I do know a thing or two about it.)

So, if you think about it, Kazakhstan at least, is not an argument for population transfers so much as it is an argument for a broader definition of who is and is not a full citizen. One could just as easily misuse the historical record to argue Israel should fully embrace Palestinians.

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