The New Muslim Nations
of Central Asia
The dissolution of the U.S.S.R. added to the global community six new sovereign and independent nations with predominantly Muslim populations. This chapter examines the five nations that form a compact, contiguous geographical and cultural bloc in Central Asia. The sixth, Azerbaijan, is a special case by virtue of its separation across the Caspian Sea; its distinctive historical interaction with the Muslim and Christian peoples of the Caucasus, Turkey, and Iran; its Shi'a religious tradition; and the modern tragedy of its war with Armenia.
How will the new Central Asian Muslim presence affect the balance of power in the world? Will the "New Five," with a combined population of more than fifty million, emerge on the global scene as a new political bloc? Will they cause a tilt in favor of Islam? What will be their relations with Iran on their southern border, with Turkey (which is for most of them an ethnic kinsman), with Saudi Arabia (which even before their independence was encouraging Islamic revival in the region), with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and with other Muslim states in the world?
Each of the five began their independent existence with a political culture shaped by decades of Soviet rule and economies debilitated and thrown out of balance by years of exploitation at the hands of Moscow's central planners. Their economic problems were compounded by the additional shock of suddenly collapsing trade ties with Russia and other ex-Soviet republics. Since independence, some have been further weakened by internal strife, especially Tajikistan's civil violence and the potential of ethnic unrest in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. In all five, the leaders have paid lip-service to democracy and transition to market economy, but progress has been halting.
Yet these states have assets that endow them with the potential to become formidable actors on the world scene: population; territory; rich resources of