The Other ’stans of Asia

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A history of everything you might have ever wanted to know about the countries of Central Asia
Inside Central Asia | Dilip Hiro | Harper Collins | 480 pages | Rs 599

For most of us, the Central Asian region has little real meaning. We know it as a place from where Babur came to India and set up the Mughal Empire. Cities like Istanbul, Samarkand, Bukhara or Baikunur may occasionally ring a bell, but largely, Central Asia occupies a blank space in Indian public consciousness.

This vacuum has been aptly filled by Dilip Hiro’s new book. The author brings to the reader the history of the countries of Central Asia, their political situation, and the role that the region will play in the emerging multi-polar world order. He also demands dedication and curiosity of the reader. For, this is a scholarly book to be read by those who want to know about these ‘exotic’ countries in detail. 

Those undertaking the effort will be well rewarded by detailed insights into the region’s history and geo-politics. We discover how Turkey, a country that has made secularism its bedrock from the 1960s onwards, is tilting towards militant Islam and seeking an Asian identity to replace the largely Western one it has had since joining Nato. The pathos of Soviet rule over countries such as Uzbekistan is also brought out in detail. The Uzbek people were not allowed to speak their own language, had to largely give up their nomadic ways to collective farming, and the Soviets imposed Slavic migrants on Uzbekistan in order to change its ethnicity. Most damagingly, Islam was suppressed, with the result that now, akin to Turkey, political Islam is a major threat in Uzbekistan. 

The chapter on Turkmenistan is fascinating. This country is rich in natural gas resources and could have been the Saudi Arabia of Central Asia, but under communism, it had to sell gas at one-twentieth the market price. Under the current regime, corruption and crony capitalism has ensured that gas is the personal asset of the ruling party. There are also interesting insights into the eccentricities of its late president, Saparmurat Niyazov. One of the dictator’s legislative endeavours was to ban cinemas and replace them with puppet shows. In another diktat, he instructed universities to ensure that all students had the same hairstyle. Then, while cutting the nation’s health budget, he replaced 15,000 health and medical staff with untrained army conscripts. The list goes on. The country was finally saved when he had a heart attack in 2006. The per capita income of this oil-rich republic at the time of his death stood at $60 per month. 

The largest country in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, has a detailed chapter, but the story is sadly almost a copy of  Turkmenistan’s. Only the scale is grander, the dictator this time Nursultan Nazarbayev. The Soviets ensured that this ethnically diverse country was made slavish, with the result that 48 per cent of the country today has an ethnic Russian population. The county has enormous hydrocarbon reserves, oil, gas, coal, etcetera, but is also mired in corruption. The result is a rich clique of about 200 people, with the rest of the country sunk in poverty. 

The book also has an analysis of the role China played in the region by inking deals with corrupt regimes for oil and gas, while dominating markets for finished goods. Meanwhile, the US presence has been mainly military, through bases in Uzbekistan. The shadow-boxing between the US and China in Central Asia is one of the interesting asides of this book.