The Collapse of the Soviet Union
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Central Asian states had independence thrust upon them. They did not actively seek it. Furthermore, there no were strong nationalist movements in Central Asia seeking independence. None of the Central Asian states had a history of national existence prior to either the Soviet Union or that of the Tsarist Empire. Hence, the primary source of loyalty of Central Asian peoples under the Soviet Union was not the Communist State. Rather, a multiplicity’s of loyalties existed and continue to do so. These loyalties range from the clan, tribe, family, republic and to Islam, with Islam having a powerful influence on social mores and identity. Upon independence, Islam competed with peoples loyalties to the new states.
Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP)
One of the most striking outcomes of the Gorbachev period was the formation of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP). The IRP was officially set up in 1991. It grew out of a desire to protect the Islamic identity of the Soviet Union’s Muslims during the 1980s. As such, the party gained a great deal of publicity both within the Soviet Union and amongst policy makers and academics in the West. Initially the party had some noteworthy ideas, such as raising the Islamic awareness and understanding among the Muslims of the Soviet Union, as well as representing them and co-ordinating a united stance towards the Communist regime. However, the party fragmented since it had regional branches for each republic of the USSR. The IRP in Tajikistan has received a great deal of attention, primarily because of the Tajik civil war (1992 - 1997). Mistakenly, many labelled the party as ‘fundamentalist’. The IRP used Islam as a vehicle to mobilise regional and clan support in the Tajik civil war, and not to try and establish and Islamic polity.
The IRP began as an educational group, not a political party, hence it had limited aims and objectives. The IRP leader in Tajikistan, Akbar Turajanzode, frequently stated that the IRP was not seeking the establishment of an Islamic polity, but a secular democracy. Thus the IRP has not tried to ‘Islamize’ Tajikistan. The IRP’s initial importance stemmed from emphasising that Islam was more important than regional or national affiliations. However the IRP’s development of regional structures undermined this. In Tajikistan, the IRP has been co-opted into the regime and fundamentally weakened by this. It has fragmented over its standing in the present Tajik coalition government. The same has happened in other countries such as Jordan, where the state actively seeks to co-opt such movements in order to weaken them and ensure they pose no threat to the regime or the status quo.
Central Asian Regimes Since Independence
The elite’s of Central Asia, by and large are Soviet legacies, as are the new states. Since independence Central Asia’s former Soviet elite’s have clung to power ruthlessly. Many leaders used the outbreak of the Tajik civil war in 1992 to justify the outlawing of all forms of political opposition. Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan epitomized this trend. Beginning in 1992, Karimov clamped down upon all forms of opposition. He has reserved all his ferocity for the Islamist opposition and all Muslims ‘….who practice their religion beyond the tight restrictions imposed by the government…’. Since the Uzbek regime has failed decisively answer the Islamists intellectually or politically, the regime has used mass arrests and torture in order to silence its critics. All the Central Asian regimes have reverted to the policies that the Soviet Union adopted in dealing with Islam. Each regime has sponsored a particular version of Islam which the state approves of and is non-threatening to the status quo.
Problems of State Building
Central Asian states are still embryonic and fragile. They are trying to cope with massive political, economic and social problems brought to the fore by independence. These states are extremely weak states in terms of organising principles, ideologies and institutions. The Central Asian elite’s have not been able to coherently form a national identity, or form cohesive nation-states. They have adopted a top-down policy of state building. Hence there is intense competition in state’s like Uzbekistan between the secular elite’s and the Islamist opposition which has arisen over the course of the 1990s over the nature of the new state’s; their identity, and future course.
The Soviet period has left a lasting legacy upon the region of Central Asia and its peoples. The present ruling elite’s are a legacy of a bygone era, clinging ruthlessly to power. The political trajectories of these new states is in flux. Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were noted during the 1990s for their pro-Russian stance and orientation. However, during the late 1990s, other major powers have entered the fray, in particular the United States. In the wake of the events of September 11 the United States has furthered its political, economic and now military presence in Uzbekistan, Kyrgzstan and Tajikistan. These states are presenting themselves domestically as well as internationally as ‘front-line states’ in American-led war against terrorism.
Yet the average Muslim within Central Asia has not received much respite. Many thought the collapse of the Soviet Union would permit them to return to Islam as they whole-heartedly desired. The regimes though have had other ideas. The repression the Muslims suffered at the hands of the Soviet Union, continues in a new guise under the newly independent Central Asian regimes. The ‘war against terrorism’ is now permitting states like Uzbekistan to continue its campaign against Islam, albeit now with greater international backing.
13. Suny (1999), pp. 167 - 168
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