Monday 14 June 2010

The Shadow of Stalin

Sometimes news reports offer information without enlightenment. The case I have in mind is the present ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, the former Soviet republic in Central Asia. So off I went looking for roots in history, for roots in history there surely are.

The main point is that this country, like its neighbours, is essentially an artificial creation, carved out, so to say, by the Soviet authorities in the early twentieth century; carved out by Stalin in his role of Commissar for Nationalities. The Russians had originally expanded into this area as part of a colonial drive in the nineteenth century, there to counter British expansion in India towards the frontier of Afghanistan, an act in what was known as the Great Game. At the time the area was made up of three long-established political units - the Khanates of Kokand and Khorezm and the Emirate of Bukhara, all of which were abolished. It was the Soviets who turned what was effectively an undifferentiated Tsarist colony into a series of 'countries', Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan along with Kyrgyzstan. It was an entirely arbitrary exercise based purely on the language and character of the dominant ethnic group.

The problem here was a simple one, sublimated by the Soviet dictatorships: these countries, created by bureaucratic edict, had virtually nothing in the way of national consciousness. They really only existed, in other words, by the exercise of strong central control, which continued even after the collapse of the Soviet Union when various authoritarian regimes and dictators emerged.

The instability in the region is one of the abiding legacies of Stalin. Not only did he help draw up the borders but he was later responsible for the almost total destruction of the local elites, the very people vital in the creation of any kind of national consciousness or legitimacy. He compounded the problem by destroying local Islamic tradition, a relatively liberal school influenced by developments in Turkey and India, opening the way to the import in the present day of more extreme missionaries in the fundamentalist mould.

So, with no national tradition, a weak elite, no coherent faith-based identity the Kyrgyz and the Uzbeks, the main minority group, are like oil and water, existing side by side but never blending. The overthrow of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev in the April riots against corruption and increased living expenses effectively brought to an end the central control that managed to hold the country together. The situation was similar in some respects to that in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, particularly in the state of Bosnia, where ancient rivalries emerged with the end of political unity. In Kyrgyzstan, around the southern city of Osh, the minority Uzbeks have become a target of Kyrgyz gangs with the government losing control. In essence we have a nation that never was a nation disintegrating into its constituent parts.

As I write the prospects are unclear with a full-scale civil war a distinct possibility in what is one of the most politically and ethnically sensitive regions on earth. So far the Russians have refused to intervene in spite of requests from a government that has effectively lost control. I honestly don't see how they can stay out for much longer given the implications for their own security if instability spreads throughout the whole southern region. In a sense Vladimir Putin was right that the disintegration of the old Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster, but perhaps not in the way that he meant. The Soviets both created a problem and offered a solution to a problem. Stalin casts a long shadow.


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  4. Hmm. I agree about the enduring presence of Stalin (and his sheer shrewdness in drawing up of boundaries in the initial construction of the USSR in such a way as to make far more difficult any secession from the Union, by inhibiting meaningful strains of nationalism from being able to unite people in the ensuing non-nation states). Naxcivan, Kaliningrad, Abkhazia, the two dual-shared-ethnic republics in the North Caucasus within Russia stand alongside the odd boundaries near Osh in the Fergana Valley as prime examples of this. (But as for Khrushchev's move in transferring Crimea to Ukrainian jurisdiction? Maybe an untypical act of genius on his part, from the perspective of Russian nationalism, or a further "hare brained scheme" from msot other perspectives)

    But the prospects for Kyrgyzstan? Seeing how Tajikistan disintegrated rapidly into a tribal AND ideological based civil war, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility. (There has been a resurgence in the last couple of years of extreme, fighting, Islamist groups just over the border in Tajikistan too).

    Although I would posit that the tensions between ethnic groups are rather less institutionalised and historically rooted, than in Bosnia. And that Islam is worn too lightly by most in Kyrgyzstan, for that to serve as a rallying cry. Although, true, a small radicialized group - which does exist in the Ferghana valley - could cause much trouble.

    (Maybe the basis of the conflict is more between a historically settled and a until recently nomadic people- I have often wondered if this history is why Kyrgyzstan has avoided, and proved allergic to, extreme authoritarianism as practiced in all the neighbouring states since independence)

    There was also a period of inter-ethnic violence specificially in Osh at the time that the USSR collapsed too, with Uzbeks and Meshketians and Crimean Tatars as the principal targets. The consequences of which was that most of the latter two groups (who were largely only there because Stalin had had them deported in the first place) emigrated - the latter to their "homeland", and the former to...anywhere that would take them - notably, not Georgia; mostly, initially the regions of Russia around Stavropol & Krasnodar, and then, ultimately, to the USA).

    I imagine the principal consequence of all this (regardless of whether the Russian army really does intervene or not - there is a school of thougtht that suggests they are staying out so that the chaos serves as a warning to others in the "post-Soviet space" as the consequences of "democracy" or at any rate non-authoritarian rule) will be effectively an intensification of the "ethnic cleansing" (most of which has been, and probably will continue to be acheived without bloodshed) that has characterised the region since the end of empire.

    Sorry. I really ought to set up my own blog to write at such length.

  5. The nations are as you say, artificial constructs and like all artificial constructs, they will be torn apart by the people they are built to contain.
    Its as true for them as it was for the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and the Habsberg Empire.

    I dont believe Russia will enter, Mad Vlad isnt stupid enough, but if I'm wrong, it will be a disaster. For how long can Russia afford to maintain armies abroad? Even in the near abroad?
    This isnt like Georgia where they're protecting a break away group and can do so with a quick intervention.
    Its like Afghanistan.

    Hey, if they're stupid enough to deploy an army to maintain the central government, once we're out of Afghanistan, it'll give all the jihadis somewhere to go.

    "According to the Telegraph, the mighty Russian army are going to come in and attempt to establish peace, something they're rather better at doing than NATO."

    The mighty Russian army was stonewalled by 10,000 Georgian light infantry.
    It wasnt until they started carpet bombing cities they were able to push through.

    Russia was fighting bloody campaigns in parts of Afghanistan where Americans can walk around villages off duty.
    Rape and murder were the cornerstones of Russian peacekeeping.

  6. Look at the area with a little wider focus. The problem for Russia is not Kyrgyzstan, It's Uzbekistan. There are more Uzbeks in Central Asia than there are Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Tajiks and Russians combined. The Uzbek intelligence services are modeled after their Russian counterparts, withagents throughout the region. It is the only country in the region that actually has a military that can engage in military action. It is the only one whose cities are linked by a decent infrastructure. It is politically stable and has the ability to project power. It is self-sufficient in both food and energy.

    Uzbekistan intervened decisively in Tajikistan’s civil war and thinks most Tajik, and especially Kyrgyz, territory should belong to Uzbekistan, particularly the territory of southern Kyrgyzstan, where the current violence is strongest.

    In the last three months Uzbekistan mobilised its reserves and reinforced the border with Kyrgyzstan. Moscow is probably right in assuming that sending Russian peacekeepers to Kyrgyzstan would provoke a direct confrontation with Uzbekistan.Kirgyzstan is a long way from Russia, and most of Russia’s military is static, not expeditionary. Russian supply lines would be thousands of kilometers long.

    Uzbekistan could cut the flow Central Asian natural gas to Russia.

    Russia is likely to calculate that they would win a war with Uzbekistan, but that it would be both hard and costly. Watch this space.

  7. Dominic and Bravo, thank you both for your tremendously well-informed contributions.