Traversed by conquerors ranging from Alexander the Great to 19th-century czarist colonialists, Soviet Central Asia is a vast, arid and mysterious area touching Russia, China, Iran and Afghanistan. In Tadzhikistan, the poorest of the five republics in the region, Maclean’s Moscow Bureau Chief Malcolm Gray recently explored the growth of an opposition coalition of democratic reformers and Islamic activists that has alarmed the Communist regimes still in power in the Tadzhik capital of Dushanbe and in the republics of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. His report:
Damir Nasredinov says that because of his fair hair and blue eyes, many people in Dushanbe routinely assume that he is Russian. In fact, the 23-year policeman is from neighboring Uzbekistan. But as attacks on Russians have mounted during the past two years, Nasredinov says that he has become increasingly concerned about the mistaken identification. “There is bad blood,” he said, “between the local population, almost all of whom are Moslems, and Russians, whom many people resent as colonialist exploiters sent out by the Kremlin.” Nasredinov added that his wife, Yelena, is Russian, “and as we have an 18-month-old daughter, Yelena wants us to move from Dushanbe to some place in Russia.” But, said Nasredinov, so many people want to get out that there is a shortage of containers to ship their belongings on trains. The Russian-speaking minority traditionally makes up about 10 per cent of the republic’s population of 5.1 million, and Tadzhik officials say that they do not know how many Russians have left. But state railway officials confirmed that cargo containers have been reserved well into 1992. In any event, Nasredinov has taken precautions against rising ethnic tension among Dushanbe’s 600,000 residents: he now carries a heavy, well-sharpened knife, as well as his service revolver.
To be sure, many local political and religious leaders in Dushanbe and other Central Asian cities stress their commitment to strong ties with either Russia or a renewed Soviet Union. They note that, just last month, Tadzhikistan and the four other Central Asian republics, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan, signed a union-wide treaty on economic co-operation. But just as clearly, many of the Russians who fill key jobs in the region’s factories, mines and electrical-power plants see no future for themselves. In Uzbekistan alone, where there are about two million ethnic Russians among the republic’s 20 million residents, 177,000 Russians left last year. Islamic scholars note that factors ranging from the Asian republics’ higher birthrates—about three times greater than the Russian average—to cultural differences and a long history of warfare have made for uneasy relations between Russia and its Asian neighbors. And within Russia itself, an independence bid by the largely Moslem region of Checheno-Ingushetia could inspire other separatist movements across the vast republic (see box).
Like Russia, Central Asia is now struggling with the potentially explosive legacy of Communist rule. Among them: borders that the Kremlin changed at will, and agricultural policies that have converted the most productive vegetable and fruit land in Uzbekistan and Tadzhikistan to the cultivation of a single crop—cotton. The volume of water diverted from rivers to irrigate vast cotton collectives in the region has helped shrink the Aral Sea by about 40 per cent over the past three decades. Local politicians say Moscow has done little to develop new water supplies. But the newly assertive republics have abolished the Soviet ministry that oversaw the distribution of scarce water among them—raising the threat of water wars among competing users as the region’s population nudges the 50-million mark.
In Dushanbe, a city of low-rise modem buildings where windowless huts stood just a halfcentury ago, pro-democracy reformers and Islamic activists have united into an opposition coalition. They are striving to replace the Communists, who still run a mountainous republic where many workers on cotton collectives earn less than 100 rubles per month. That is less than 25 per cent of the average Soviet wage, or about $2.40 at the tourist rate of exchange. Tadzhikistan’s retooled Communists have undertaken such cosmetic touches as changing the party’s name to the Socialist party. But they have tried to ignore the deeper political changes that have swept the Soviet Union in the wake of a failed national coup in August.
For one thing, the Communist-controlled legislature installed a hard-line govemment in September, prompting the fledgling democratic opposition to rally thousands of demonstrators outside parliament. The protesters stayed for 12 days and dispersed only after President Rakhman Nabiyev agreed to resign and face an election. In the vote scheduled for Nov. 24, Nabiyev is running against popular reformer Davlat Khudonazarov, who has some influential backers. They include the qadi, or spiritual leader, of Tadzhikistan’s Moslems, Khodzhi Akbar Turadzhonzada. In an interview with Maclean ’s, Turadzhonzada said that he was not counting on an opposition victory next week. “It is very likely that Nabiyev will win,” he said. “The Communists still control the power to grant favors.”
Such patronage can exert a powerful influence in a largely rural society. Republican officials acknowledge that less than 10 per cent of the villages have sewage systems and at least 50 of every 1,000 infants die before their first birthday—twice the Soviet average. In a crowd of visitors waiting to pay their respects to the qadi, one man provided a vivid illustration of the convergence of economic necessity and deep-rooted respect for authority in Tadzhikistan. Amirol Hakim, a 21-year-old laborer who earns 240 rubles per month, or $5.77, working in a milk plant, said that he would marry soon—to a woman chosen by his father. According to Hakim, his father used a powerful economic threat to convince his son to enter an arranged marriage: the loss of his father’s battered 11-year-old Moskvitch sedan, which Hakim uses to earn as much as 200 rubles per shift moonlighting as a part-time taxi driver.
Nearby, workers used power saws to shape marble tiles for the walls of a new medresheh— one of nine such Islamic religious schools that have been built in Central Asia dining the past two years. During that same period, the number of mosques in the region has grown to more than 5,000 from fewer than 200. That expansion underlines Islam’s growing strength—and its potential as a source of opposition to the entrenched Communists. But the qadi refused to endorse a leap in logic that is common among many Russians. Islam’s revival, he said, did not mean that theocratic states similar to Iran were about to spring into existence along Russia’s southern borders. Added Turadzhonzada: “Years of anti-Islamic propaganda have had a strong effect here, and now we have a secular society.”
Still, the qadi described the current regimes in Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan as Communist islands that will eventually disappear as free-market reforms spread throughout the old union. And he added: “Why should religion be a barrier to democracy? If the Baltic states can be democratic and Christian, surely we can have an Islamic democracy here.” To that end, he and other local reformers say that they want Russia to maintain strong economic links with Tadzhikistan and the other impoverished Asian outposts of Kremlin rule. But as the Communist illusion of a common homeland fades into history, many Russians have clearly decided that they no longer have a stake in maintaining the old bonds of empire. Like the continued shrinking of the Aral Sea, the depletion of one of Soviet Central Asia’s key resources—skilled workers from other parts of the Soviet Union—increases the odds that the region will remain mired in another shared legacy of the Communist era: widespread poverty.
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