Central Asia and the Caucasus-The Central Asian States: Discovering Independence

By Atkin, Muriel | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Central Asia and the Caucasus-The Central Asian States: Discovering Independence


Atkin, Muriel, The Middle East Journal


The Central Asian States: Discovering Independence, by Gregory Gleason. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997. xix + 186 pages. Chron. to p. 204. Bibl. to p. 209. About the Book and Author, p. 211. Index to p. 220. $70.

Westview Press made a revealing decision in structuring its series of books on the Soviet successor states. Two small Baltic republics, Latvia and Estonia, were each made the focus of a book, but the five diverse Central Asian states, with ten times the population, were consigned to a single volume.

Gregory Gleason, author of The Central Asian States, has made a virtue of necessity by arguing for the cohesiveness of the region. Yet he does not do so convincingly. First there is the problem of how he defines Central Asia, admittedly a vague concept. Initially he chose one reasonable option, the formerly Soviet republics of Kazakstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and adjoining parts of Iran and Afghanistan, and Xinjiang in China. Later he included Mongolia and, later still, Azerbaijan. The problem goes deeper as the author argues for the importance of the common bonds among the region's indigenous peoples. Although these do exist, they are counterbalanced by considerable differences. The book itself demonstrates these differences on occasion, in discussions of competing political, environmental and economic interests among the states and the fact that Islam means different things to different believers in the region. Pan-Turkism recurs as an important unifying factor without a mention of how few Central Asians past or present have worked for this goal. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938) even appears as a supporter of pan-Turkism when, in fact, as Turkish president (1923-38) he opposed it vigorously.

Although the book provides discussions of the region's history as well as cultural and social traditions, these are marred by numerous errors. For example, the Islamic calendar does not begin with the Prophet Muhammad's death (A.D. 632) but with his hijra (migration) a decade earlier. Badakhshan is not a city in Turkmenistan but two separate provinces in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. There was, according to the author, no "major wave of Turkic influence" (p. 29) in the region until the 13th century; before then the "Turkic intrusions were destructive, their lasting impact was minor" (p. 29). This ignores the enormous significance of the Seljuk Empire, which arose two hundred years earlier. The author also seems unfamiliar with the names of contemporary figures. Some names are simply wrong (such as Usmon Davlat for Davlat Usmon). …

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