Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 2

By Dmitry Trofimov

One result of the establishment of new independent states in Central Asia was the revival of Kazakh-Uzbek rivalry for supremacy in the region–in a decidedly more bitter form than was seen in Soviet times. In the USSR, practically the only manifestation of this rivalry was a determination to secure from Moscow the status of exclusive representative in the region, with all the ensuing consequences with regard to staffing and budget policy in Moscow. On the whole, the Soviet leadership maintained relative parity between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, though the fact that Uzbekistan was tacitly acknowledged to play the role of plenipotentiary for the remaining three Central Asian republics clearly gave it the edge. To all intents and purposes, Uzbekistan lost its leadership status in the subregion following the death of Sharaf Rashidov, a long-term decline in the Uzbek cotton industry and the gradual collapse of the centralized hierarchy by which neighboring Kirgizia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan had once been economically and politically bound to Uzbekistan.

The bloody ethnic clashes of the late 1980s and early 1990s (the events in Osh and Fergana and the interethnic war in Tajikistan in which the Uzbek ethnic factor played an active role) only served to reinforce the anti-Uzbek feeling which traditionally existed both in the political elite and in the minds of the population of neighboring countries. Attempts by Uzbekistan to reassert its former status of regional leader in the early 1990s did not meet with success. Uzbek (and indeed Kazakh) leaders quickly grasped the obvious fact that no individual Central Asian state had sufficient economic or political potential to secure it total ascendancy in Central Asia. This became all the more evident as the contours began to be defined of the new macro-regional system, which embraced not only the five former Soviet republics but also Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and part of China (at least the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region). The disappearance of the Soviet Union, with its powerful stabilizing function, accompanied by the above-mentioned stretching of the borders of the Central Asia region, considerably reduced the level both of regional stability and of the national stability of each individual state in the region. An understanding of what was happening, as well as an appreciation of their own vulnerability, made Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan all equally active champions of maximum integration within the CIS. And for a while Russia was readily seen as the preferred moderator capable of replacing the center of Soviet power.

This did not represent (at least in the case of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan) abandoning the struggle for regional dominance: Russia was simply being asked to use its economic and political weight to support one of the two contenders. Unfortunately, however economically justified its policy at the time of "divorcing" itself from Central Asia, Russia’s leaders did not show the appropriate interest (and flexibility) in maintaining the necessary political relations with the countries in the region. As a result we missed a golden opportunity to establish–at minimum expense–a balance of forces and interests in post-Soviet Central Asia which would have been advantageous to us.<iframe src=’’ border=0 name=’inner_menu’ frameborder=0 width=1 height=1 style=’display:none;’></iframe>