Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 21

Internal Stability: The Key to Central Asian National Security

by Dr. Evgueni Novikov

The countries of Central Asia see internal political stabilityas their most important national security problem. In practice,this striving for stability slows the pace of reform of the oldpolitical and economic system which had been built up during theSoviet years. The reasons behind this often elude Western governmentsand international society, which are impatient to see liberaldemocracy implemented everywhere. But the situation in CentralAsian society, which has preserved many substantial traits ofMuslim civilization, demands a special approach.

It is well-known that all political power in the USSR was concentratedin the hands of the CPSU. But average party members were far removedfrom the making of the important decisions which defined the fateof the country, or which influenced the situation in the unionand autonomous republics, oblasts, rayons, and cities. Anyonewho joined the ranks of the CPSU was bound unconditionally tocarry out the will of the party, which in practice was embodiedby the party apparatus. The political power of the party apparatuswas maintained by the force structures, first and foremost bythe KGB. The economic status of the workers of the party apparatuswas supported, to a significant degree, by the "shadow economy."

One of the fundamental levers of control of the party apparatusover the life of the state was the party’s personnel policy. Notone of the many significant posts in a state or social institutioncould be filled without the approval of some party committee.Lists of such posts existed with instructions as to which levelhad to be approved by which party committee. Candidates for thesegovernment posts went into the so-called nomenklatura.

Of course the party apparatus could not poke its nose into allthe details of the enormous national economy. Therefore a certainconsensus existed between the nomenklatura and the partyapparatus. The nomenklatura did not meddle in the problemsof the political leadership. And the party apparatus did not meddlein the everyday affairs of government. But the party committeeswatched the nomenklatura’s behavior carefully, and to asignificant degree prevented it from pocketing state property.This whole structure of power was blessed by official communistideology.

This was the general scheme of the Soviet political system. Butthe power structures of the USSR, which appeared monolithic tothe outside observer, were not so in fact. The party apparatusin the union republics, and even in the oblasts, possessed significantautonomy from the Center, and could act practically without controlin the localities. And although the second secretaries of therepublic central committees and oblast committees were appointedin Moscow, it was difficult for them to establish total controlover the activities of the local leadership. All the more so sinceofficial Soviet ideology permitted the taking into account oflocal peculiarities.

The party leadership of the Soviet Central Asian republics quiteskillfully took advantage of their right to organize a Sovietpolitical system adapted to the national and cultural characteristicsof their peoples. They were able to introduce substantial elementsof Islamic civilization into the Soviet system, as the resultof which the system in Soviet Central Asia became not completelySoviet.

Thus, despite attempts by Moscow’s militant atheism to crushIslam and liquidate its influence on the Muslims of Central Asia,Islam (in contrast to Orthodoxy, which was crushed by Soviet power)endured and preserved its influence on the majority of the nativepopulation. Islamic traditions, unshakably rooted in the family,enabled the rearing of children within the framework of strictmorals, and a respectful attitude towards one’s elders, relatives,friends, and neighbors. Islam strengthened family and villageties, responsibility to relatives and friends, and readiness tocome to the aid of a Muslim fellow-countryman. Thanks to Islam,the moral code of a Soviet Muslim was much higher than the moralprinciples of a citizen of Russia, where Orthodoxy had been squeezedout, not only from the schools, but from the family as well.

The interpersonal relations encouraged by Islam could not buthave an effect on the functioning of the party and state systemsin Soviet Central Asia. There the human factor played more ofa role in the functioning of official institutions, personnelselection, the defining of responsibilities between superiorsand subordinates, than did formal directives. This is why theSoviet system in Central Asia had a more human face than in Russia.And the representative of the party or state leadership was closerto his neighbors than a Russian bureaucrat who emanated from theranks of the party apparatus or the nomenklatura.

In time, Moscow began to realize that the Central Asian republicswere developing in their own, not completely Soviet, way. Theorgans of the KGB sounded the alarm under the leadership of YuriAndropov. When Andropov came to power, a purge of national cadresbegan in the republics of Central Asia, which continued even underMikhail Gorbachev. The so-called "Rashidov affair"is characteristic in this respect. Dozens of "auditing commissions"descended on Uzbekistan. And the Uzbek leader at the time, Usmankhodzhaev,told the Center’s representatives approximately the following:"You don’t like how we’re running things here in the republic?Fine. Send us your people to put in leadership posts." Moscowsent hundreds of new party bureaucrats to the republic. But thenewly-arrived party bureaucrats soon felt that they had no roomto breathe. They could not function in the political system whichhad developed on the basis of Muslim morality, interpersonal relations,and informal mutual obligations. The newcomers failed, and soonhad to leave. And the system endured, and has proven that it meetsthe needs of local conditions. This is a major reason why themajority of the leadership and the population of the independentstates of Central Asia do not want to emulate Russia by rapidlycutting down the power structure which has developed over time.

After the disintegration of the USSR, the leaders of the CentralAsian republics were horrified by the reform activities of bothRussian and non-Russian democrats. As the rector of the Kyrgyz-RussianUniversity, E. Karabaev, noted, "It is now obvious that seriousmistakes were made by the political elites of the CIS countries,in the strategy of market transformation. They turned out notto be prepared, or more accurately, could not have been prepared,to regulate and solve the problems which arose. The sharply-contrastingmethods of transition from an authoritarian state socialism toa pluralist society called to life contradictions unknown before,which quickly grew into conflicts on a micro and macro level,on the horizontal and the vertical, between subjects and objectsof power, between individuals, groups, ethnic groups, and states."("The CIS: Conflict or Peacemaking?" E. Karabaev, G.Pyadukhov, Aziya No. 33, February 8, 1995)

It became clear to the leaders of the Central Asian republicsthat the mere liberation of the Soviet nomenklatura fromthe party or any other form of control would in no way lead tothe real transfer of economic power into the hands of the widepopular masses, nor to the many honest Russians who wanted toengage in entrepreneurial activity. On the contrary, the old Sovietnomenklatura, freed from its former control and beautifullyadapted to the embryonic new forms of control from the parliamentand the press, began to plunder Russia’s national wealth. A specialsystem of tax privileges, and export and import licenses, wasworked out which permitted the fattest pieces of the former stateproperty pie to end up in the hands of "our people."The whole program of privatization of state property, and itstransfer into the hands of corporations, was designed to transformthe distributors of that property — bureaucrats, the nomenklatura— into its owners.

Simultaneously, the old nomenklatura blocked the freeentrepreneurial activity of average Russians, suppressing themby various administrative measures, primarily by taxes. Thesetaxes reach such levels that any honest entrepreneurial activitybecomes impossible. And the private entrepreneur is forced eitherto close up shop or to look for help from the mafia, which islinked to the very same nomenklatura

The leaders of the Central Asian republics have also become convinced,from the Russian example, that the coming to power of so-calleddemocrats to power does not at all mean the broadening of genuinedemocracy in the country. Such "democrats," after prevailingin battles in meetings and earning through their noisy activitiesa measure of authority from the voters, have gotten into the legislativeorgans of government. But in spite of that, in the best of cases,they have turned out to be incompetent and unprepared to performtheir state functions, and in the worst cases they behave justlike the representatives of the old nomenklatura. Takingadvantage of the absence of real control over their activity,they exploit their new position to enrich themselves.

The Central Asian states have refused to throw themselves afterRussia into the whirlpool of unprepared reforms, and have notbegun to destroy the political and economic ties which formedover the years within their republics. Moreover, as was pointedout above, the very system of these ties substantially differedfrom that which existed in Soviet Russia, and it suited localconditions much better. "Rocking the boat" with reforms,as in Russia, would be all the more dangerous, because the economiesof the Central Asian republics suffered much more than Russia’seconomy did from the collapse of the USSR and the destructionof the all-Union economic ties which had formed.

Therefore, the leadership of practically all the Central Asianstates has placed internal political stability as its fundamentalinternal political priority. In the republics, they havemoved away from the official ideology, mixed with Marxism-Leninism.It has been replaced by an ideology of national renewal and prosperity,using in its postulates the language of Islam. But the politicalsystem, and the control over the activities of the nomenklaturahas not been abolished. Some things have changed. The republics’communist parties have changed their names, but they have losttheir absolute plenitude of power. The presidential structureshave been strengthened greatly, and the presidential apparatushas broadened and strengthened. Control over the press and theactivities of the opposition has been preserved. But serioussteps have been taken to create real preconditions for democracy,corresponding to national traditions.

The leaders of the Central Asian states face complicated problemsof nation-building, the creation of new legislatures, the securingof national unity, the satisfaction of new demands from the massesfor participation in political activity, the creation of legalconditions for free economic activity. And they are hamperedby opposition groups, whose activity could destabilize the internalsituation in the state. True, the activity of these oppositiongroups so far do not represent a danger to the republics’ governments.In and of themselves, these groups (except for the Tajik opposition),so far are small in number and do not represent significant strataof the population, but more likely represent the interest of theradically-inclined intelligentsia. However the real problem mightarise in the future, when opposition groups become more numerousand unite, at least with those strata of the population dissatisfiedwith the course of economic reforms, or who will bear the burdenslinked with these reforms.

The task of these leaders is to find the paths of dialogue withthe opposition consistent with local conditions. Because theleadership of all states in the region claim that the buildingof a democratic society is their long-term goal, they must bydefinition permit opposition. The government and the opposition[as in any truly democratic society] must act within the frameworkof a social contract, a constitution, and generally accepted normsof political dialogue. It is imperative that this process be allowedto work itself out, because if and where it fails, the dialoguewill be replaced by the language of violence and arms. And theexample of Tajikistan will suffice to show where that will lead.

Dr. Evgueni Novikov is a professor at the George C. MarshallCenter for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.