What Leverage in Central Asia?

NEWS reports from the six mostly Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union often have concentrated on the competition for influence over them by Middle Eastern states. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan constantly dispatch diplomats to Central Asia and Azerbaijan. They sign cultural, trade, or security protocols almost daily. They beam radio and television broadcasts. They provide loans, and they train students.

But activity alone does not guarantee influence. Middle East states exert little real authority in any area of life in the former Soviet Union, from military affairs to religious practice. This generalization holds especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous and powerful states; it also applies to Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, where (respectively) Turkey and Iran enjoy greatest strength.

Why so little impact? Because Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan all suffer from severe limitations. Not one of them has the cultural, economic, or military means to carve out a large sphere of influence. Even President Turgut Ozal has acknowledged that Turkish commitments of aid are "beyond our means."

Each state also has its own special shortcomings. Despite Western notions to the contrary (that Turkey has the strongest historical and cultural links), Turkey is not only geographically remote from Central Asia, but it enjoys few historical or cultural ties to that region. Istanbul never ruled Central Asia; conversely, Central Asia ruled Anatolia only briefly under Tamerlane. Ottomans concentrated attention on their vast empire from Hungary to Yemen, not on distant Turkistan. Consequently, they had litt le cultural impact there until the decades just before World War I. Similarly, Kemal Ataturk's reforms had almost no impact.

As for Iran, its international isolation much reduces that country's attraction for states just emerging from three generations of colonialism and political quarantine. At the same time, its severe, unremitting Islamic order puts off peoples accustomed to secularism.

Pakistan suffers from perpetual instability and wrenching poverty, and so can neither project power nor serve as a convincing model for others to emulate.

The lack of Middle Eastern leverage also reflects the wishes of the ex-Soviet Muslims themselves. They do not seek to fall right back under the tutelage of some distant capital. "We reject foreign influence, whether Turkey's or Iran's, in our lives and politics," Foreign Minister Khudoyberdy Kholiqnzarov of Tajikistan has asserted. "After years of Russian imperialism we just want to live free in an independent country called Tajikistan." Further, ex-Soviet Muslims take pride in their own accomplishments.

They see themselves as no less civilized than their southern neighbors and reject notions that they need to learn from the latter. Where are literacy rates higher and infant mortality lower? Who hosts a cosmodrome and advanced military industries? And which countries until recently contributed to the Soviet superpower? Symbolic of ex-Soviet pride, Tashkent in August 1992 announced the granting of a hundred scholarships for Turkish students to study in Uzbekistan, signaling that aid will not go in just one direction.

THIS said, ex-Soviet leaders are quite willing to play along with Middle Easterners - for a profit. Their region urgently needs capital and training; flattery is a small price to pay for these gains. The apparatchiks yet running Central Asia and Azerbaijan made their way up the slippery hierarchy of the Communist Party by pleasing their superiors; they have no scruples about pleasing new potentates. It's simply a matter of adapting their verbiage: democracy takes the place of socialism, Islam replaces at heism, the market replaces central planning, Turkish and Persian languages replace Russian. Reality changes very little, however.

Thus, the deputy prime minister of Uzbekistan had no problem appealing to Turks, "Teach us the Turkish language and culture." Islam Karimov, the tough ex-Communist leader of Uzbekistan, referred unblushingly to "the holy land of Iran" on arrival in Tehran. If Turks wish to suffuse their politics with emotions, Central Asian Muslims happily respond in kind. Thus, in reply to Prime Minister Demirel telling a Central Asian audience: "Your name will be registered in a golden page in the history of the great Turkic community," Uzbekistan's president ended a speech with a rousing, "Long live the unity of Uzbeks and Turks."

The right prize will prompt almost any words. On the other hand, these words will cease if suitable rewards are not forthcoming.

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