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National Consolidation

By Olcott, Martha | Harvard International Review, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

National Consolidation


Olcott, Martha, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

The 5 states of Central Asia, whose borders were artificially imposed long before the emergence of well-developed and mass-supported movements of national self-determination in the region, have begun to develop genuinely distinct national identities only in the past decade. Even now, as ethnicity in the region is increasingly taking on a political face, the process of state-building is dominated by economic and social rather than nationalist concerns. Nevertheless, ethnic and national identities may prove to be the biggest obstacles to the consolidation of these states.

Text:

Ethnic, Regional, and Historical Challenges

The five states of Central Asia, whose borders were artificially imposed long before the emergence of well-developed and mass-supported movements of national self-determination in the region, have begun to develop genuinely distinct national identities only in the past decade. Even now, as ethnicity in the region is increasingly taking on a political face, the process of state-building is dominated by economic and social rather than nationalist concerns. Nevertheless, ethnic and national identities may prove to be the biggest obstacles to the consolidation of these states.

As each state tries to work out its national identity, it is forced to confront the efforts of its neighbors to do the same. Tensions over water usage between Uzbek farmers and the Kyrgyz upstream could lead to interethnic fighting between the two communities, or even between Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. More immediately, the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks clashed in Kyrgyzstan's Osh region in summer 1990 over the distribution of land and housing. Riots left more than 200 dead and several hundred wounded. War--torn Tajikistan could never successfully conquer Uzbekistan, but armed Tajik groups could further destabilize an increasingly fragile situation there. These are only two of Central Asia's many potential flash points.

Possibilities for Ethnic Conflict

The legacy of Soviet policies heightens the risk that ethnonational claims among the five post-Soviet Central Asian states will incite conflict. Contrary to their intended purpose, Soviet policies such as listing nationality on passports and maintaining a federative state structure actually served to increase awareness of national and ethnic identity. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, a strong sense of territorial homeland and the desire for greater political, economic, and cultural control have come to the fore.

As Soviet power receded in Central Asia, national movements became more powerful, but they were quite different in scope and support from nationalist movements in the Baltics, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In Central Asia, these were largely movements for cultural autonomy, political reform (such as the Democratic Front in Tajikistan), or most importantly, religious revival (such as the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan).

Despite small outbreaks of interethnic violence in Ferghana in 1989 and in Osh in 1990, the collapse of Soviet rule did not lead to mass interethnic conflict in Central Asia. The most violent event in post-Soviet Central Asian history, the 1992-1997 civil war in Tajikistan, was not an interethnic conflict, but a struggle between regional groups for control of the state, magnified by disagreement over the role of religion. The ethnic Uzbek-Tajik dimension to the war has been limited to an attempt by Tajik leaders to minimize the political role of ethnic Uzbeks from northern Tajikistan's Khojand province. Leaders in both countries have successfully prevented ethnic rivalry from becoming a mobilizing force.

Historic Roots of Conflict

Today's conflicts and tensions in Central Asia reflect shifting historical patterns of ethnonational settlement. Beginning in the late 1890s, ethnic Russians and other Europeans were encouraged to move to Central Asia to occupy "excess" lands used as pastures by Kyrgyz and Kazakh nomads.

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