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  • Central Asia on Its Own
  • Martha Brill Olcott (bio)

"Independence came to Central Asia too quickly and too easily," observed Abduhrahim Pulatov, the leader of Uzbekistan's Birlik (Unity) movement, in October 1992.1 He offered this remark while recuperating from skull fractures inflicted by "unknown assailants" who set upon him in broad daylight as he emerged from questioning at a police station in the Uzbek capital of Tashkent. Throughout 1992, Birlik, a legally registered civic organization which opposes many of the policies of Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, has been the target of an increasingly nasty public campaign.

This campaign caught Birlik leaders by surprise. The peaceful way in which political power was dispersed during the Gorbachev years and the orderly dismantling of the USSR in December 1991 had led Pulatov and other Central Asian political activists to assume that the further devolution of power could also occur in an orderly fashion.

A cyberneticist by profession, Pulatov is committed to breaking the monopoly of power held by the "partocrats"—the still reigning political and economic elites who originally rose to power as members of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). This, by his own reckoning, makes Pulatov a "democrat," a term he also uses to describe the leaders of all the secular opposition parties and groupings in the four other ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan).

Pulatov now thinks that he and his fellow democratic leaders (with whom he remains in frequent contact) were naive in their belief that democracy would come easily to Central Asia, a region that covers 1.5 [End Page 92] million square miles and contains almost 50 million people. He no longer expects to see a democratic society arise in Uzbekistan during his lifetime, nor does he believe that democracy—when it does come—will be achieved without major bloodshed. Democrats, he fears, will prove easy prey for the more experienced partocrats.

The Birlik leader maintains that he himself is and will remain committed solely to a nonviolent transfer of power. But he fears that the next generation of opposition leaders will not be so peaceable. Pulatov is a secular man, though his organization has worked together with moderate Islamic leaders. Future oppositionists are likely to be more closely tied to religious leaders, Pulatov feels, because current restrictions on freedom of assembly leave mosques as the only places where people are free to organize themselves.

In Pulatov's opinion, the civil war that is currently raging in Tajikistan came about because of the greed of its ruling elite and the inexperience of the opposition. He worries that Western observers and local politicians alike are drawing the wrong lessons from events in this neighboring republic, and will consequently shy further away from dealing with democratic opposition figures in order to forge closer links with the autocratic or quasi-autocratic figures who now dominate Central Asian politics.

If there is a flaw in Pulatov's analysis, it is that he overestimates the political skills of the ruling political establishment throughout Central Asia. Each of the current republic presidents is a skilled political infighter; none, however, was prepared for the task of governing a fully independent country.

Karimov of Uzbekistan, like his counterparts Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Sapurmurad Niazov of Turkmenistan, was first secretary of the Communist Party in his republic when its Supreme Soviet elected him to the presidency in the wake of Mikhail Gorbachev's March 1990 election as president of the USSR by the Congress of People's Deputies in Moscow. Tajikistan's first secretary, Kakhar Makhkamov, was chosen as that republic's first president by a procedure similar to those in the other republics, only to be ousted by his predecessor as first secretary, Rahman Nabiyev.

In Kyrgyzstan, Communist Party first secretary Absamat Masaliev, whose popularity had been undermined by fighting that broke out in June and July of 1990 between Uzbeks and Kirghiz in the city of Osh, initially declined to seek the post of president. When he did finally did so, in October 1990, an intraparty putsch within the legislature brought Academy of Science head Askar Akayev to power instead.

Masaliev, Niazov...