Central Asia: Old Communists Using Islam as New Bogeyman against Democratization

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Central Asia: Old Communists Using Islam as New Bogeyman Against Democratization

In several of the newly-independent Muslim states of the former Soviet Union, the old Communist elites still rule, though they have abolished the Communist Party and created new bodies with surprisingly familiar faces at the top. And in some of these states, they are seeking to defend their entrenched privilege by portraying themselves as the only bulwark standing between their societies and the chaos of an Iranian-style Islamic revolution.

When then-Secretary of State James Baker made his first post-Soviet-coup tour to Central Asia, he went to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the former a new nation possessing nuclear weapons, the latter an emerging democracy. This left the other Central Asian states, lacking either nuclear weapons or democracy, wondering how to win American attention. They found it as self-proclaimed bulwarks against Iranian influence and the expansion of radical Islamism. When Baker came again, it was to all the rest of the newly independent Muslim states, where he met with the old Communist guards in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

The attempt to identify the old Communists as the only hope for secularism has grown even more intense since the Tajik revolutions of this past summer. So far, two of the old Communist leaders have been toppled: Ayaz Mutalibov in Azerbaijan and Rakhman Nabiyev in Tajikistan.

In Azerbaijan, elections brought to power an Azeri nationalist of Pan- Turkist leanings, Abulfaz Elchibey. Tajikistan is another matter, and it is cited as the "nightmare scenario" by other entrenched leaders.

They claim that events of the past year in Tajikistan demonstrate that if Islamic fundamentalists have their way, every country in Central Asia will become another Iran or another Afghanistan.

And has Tajikistan become another Iran or another Afghanistan? To some extent it is becoming the latter, but reports that it is now ruled by Islamic fundamentalists are, like Mark Twain's obituary, greatly exaggerated. Policymakers in Washington seem to be a little confused, however, and those in Moscow seem in danger of reacting by using Russian troops still stationed in Central Asia to shore up the old Communist regimes. That would be a tragedy, and could provoke numerous civil wars and abort the democratic processes which are just now stirring in these new countries.

Tajikistan, where the fighting accompanying coups and counter-coups increasingly resembles that in Afghanistan, is a remote country, nestled up against the Pamirs. It also is a very ancient country, lying along the old Silk Road that connected the Middle East to China. Khodzhent, scene of much fighting lately, was the ancient "Farthest Alexandria," the most distant from Macedon of the many cities founded by Alexander the Great. A country divided by mountain valleys and ancient feuds, Tajikistan's Communist government was itself divided into "clans," not according to blood line but city of origin.

Tajikistan is cited as the "nightmare scenario" by entrenched leaders.

This country has a substantial Uzbek minority (Uzbekistan, next door, being much bigger and more populous), and this is further complicated by the fact that Tajikistan is the only Persian-speaking, rather than Turkish- speaking, country of the newly independent states. It also sees itself as an ancient center of Persian letters and culture.

As in so much of Central Asia, Sufi mystical orders of Islam have been of great importance in Tajikistan history. Some 70 years of Communist rule did not eliminate that, or the memories of the tenacious Basmachi revolt against the Bolsheviks through the 1920s.

As the Soviet Union came apart, Tajikistan began to destabilize. After the 1991 abortive coup in Moscow, the Communist president, Kakhar Mahkhamov, was ousted and a reformist regime came to power. But in September of 1991 the oldguard parliament stepped in and brought back Rakhman Nabiyev, a Communist leader ousted in 1985. …