Thursday, September 1, 2011

Celebrating Twenty Years of Independence

During the fall of 1991, the world witnessed the collapse of the world’s last great empire, the Soviet Union. One by one, beginning with the Baltic States and ending with Kazakhstan, the fifteen republics voluntarily seceded from the union. Today, September 1, 2011, marks twenty years of independence for Uzbekistan, while Kyrgyzstan celebrated its independence yesterday, Tajikistan celebrates on September 9th, Turkmenistan on October 27th, and Kazakhstan, the last republic to secede, on December 16th.

Twenty years following the fall of the “evil empire,” the triumph of capitalism over communism, and the inauguration of a “new world order,” does the reality on the ground reflect the academic theory and diplomatic rhetoric? Is life really better for the people of Central Asia?

These questions are too big to answer in one blog post and I will spend the next few weeks exploring this question. For now, I will make the argument that generally for the people of Central Asia, life is better in 2011 than in 1991. The region’s economies are transitioning to a free-market system. In Uzbekistan, 2011 is the year of small businesses and entrepreneurship.  Kazakhstan, an ardent supporter of free trade, is in a customs union with Russia and Belarus. While Kyrgyzstan is the only Central Asian state with full WTO membership, all of the CARs belong to the UN, and retain either full or observer status in the SCO, CSTO, CIS, and WCO, among other IGOs. In 2010, Kazakhstan marked a turning point in its diplomatic history, serving as chairman of the OSCE.

I gained a fresh perspective on the true meaning of twenty years of independence for the CARs over the summer in Kazakhstan. While dining on manti, baursak and chai, in an Uzbek choikhana with my Kazakh friend, we discussed the country’s politics and role in international relations. My Kazakh friend commented how Western states over-exaggerate Kazakhstan’s “oppressive” regime. “The people in the West do not understand how far Kazakhstan has come since independence. One of my earliest childhood memories was waiting in line for bread. Today, you can easily walk into any store and buy food.”

She makes a valid point. While the Central Asian regimes may not uphold freedom of press, speech and organization, certainly Kazakhstan has made remarkable progress in providing basic services to its people. When compared to Somalia, the crystallization of a weak and failing state where thousands of people die everyday from starvation, or Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea, where hundreds are imprisoned for political crimes and live in a constant state of starvation, the CARs appear relatively well off. Sure, the CARs have their problems, as all countries do. When people have food to eat, which is really all that matters on a day-to-day basis.

To their credit, the Central Asian states, with an exception of Tajikistan during the civil war, have managed to maintain their statehood, as defined by Max Weber as an entity that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence within a given territory. While there are continuing, almost intractable conflicts, such as the recurring clashes in the Ferghana valley, the June 2010 violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan and the porous Tajikistan-Afghanistan border, the fact that the Central Asian regimes have preserved their statehood as defined by Weber, as Machiavellian as the region’s leaders governing techniques may be, deserves to be noted.

Twenty years of independence, the Central Asian republics are secure in their statehood. Their people can eat without waiting in line for hours and their government officials can participate in the international system. Bravo.

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