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The -stans of Central Asia

In Central Asia-Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all former USSR republics-Europe and Asia meet, Islam and Christianity intersect, and West (North) and East (South) coexist. Central Asia's mountains and deserts are huge, teeming with snow leopard, hyena, argali, and hundreds of endemic plant and animal species. It is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. And, no less important, its people, representing a boundless spectrum of languages and nationalities, are capable of magnificent feats of song, feast, insight, and hospitality.

The "-stans" were the northern claim of Alexander the Great's conquests (even today, many Tajikistanis claim descent from Alexander), part of Chinggis Khan's empire, the heart of Tamerlane's realm and, through Babur, the source of India's Moghul Empire. The Silk Road wound through the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, which boast wonderful mosques, madrassahs, and monuments.

As Central Asia moves away from its submersion in the USSR, it both embraces the West and becomes more nationalistic, attracts foreign investment, and resists democratization. The five countries of the region and a host of internal and external commentators wonder what the future of Central Asia will be. Inextricably linked to the question of "What will be?" are the often-overshadowing questions of "Who are we?" and "What happened?" Regarding the (non-immediate) future, Central Asians are in consensus in wishing for economic growth, democracy, rule of law, and social harmony. Right now, the history that is of most interest to Central Asians is the pre-Soviet past. Uzbekistan's government, for instance, has made a concerted effort to produce histories painting Tamerlane as a champion of civil society and social issues.

To accept modern Central Asia is to accept contradictions. Here are ten facts to get you started.

  1. Central Asia has the third largest oil and gas reserves on the planet. hile Uzbekistan is largely self-sufficient in hydrocarbons, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan will be major exporters of oil and gas. Yet, all the Central Asian states are undergoing processes of social stratification that make me suspect that these future petrodollars will not mean much for most people in the region.

2. Central Asia is immense-roughly half the size of the continental US. Since Central Asia is usually viewed on maps of the former USSR, Russia distorts the immensity of the region. Indeed, Kazakstan is one of the ten largest countries in the world. Accordingly, the range of ecosystems and terrain, and the distances and difficulties of travel lend the region a character unknown to any other post-communist region, with the exception of Russia.

3. Central Asia is industrialized and has European levels of literacy and university education. Nearly universal literacy accords the region a potential that its neighbors to the south and east do not have. Most people in the region are bi- and tri-lingual, although for obvious historical reasons, there are few English speakers. Moreover, following Soviet norms, a very large number of the college-educated are engineers, doctors, and scientists.

4. Central Asia is the site of two of the four worst Soviet environmental disasters. Semi-palatinsk in Kazakstan was the main nuclear test site in the USSR, and fallout from its tests (nearby settlements were not evacuated) is blamed for health problems in Kazakstan, Russia, and beyond.

More dramatic, however, is the rapid desiccation of the Aral Sea on the border of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. Wasteful and immense irrigation projects (largely for cotton) diverted waters from two rivers (the Amudarya and Syrdarya; aka the Oxus and Jaxartes) which feed the Aral, once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. As salts accumulate and the sea recedes, health effects in the Aral region have been disastrous. On the other hand, the Caspian Sea (the largest inland body of water in the world) is rising, flooding residential and industrial areas and creating new pollution dangers.

5. Central Asia has a rich history as a birthplace of higher mathematics and modern medicine. In the medieval period, the region's scientists, legal scholars, historians, and poets were among the greatest in the world. Among these were Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Abu Nasr Muhammad al-Farabi, Ulugh Beg, and Muhammad b. Musa al- Khuwarazmi, who made important contributions to medicine, physics, mathematics, and astronomy.

6. Central Asia is crucially located between Russia, China, Afghan-istan, and Iran. Geopolitically, Central Asia engages the whole world. How independently it can operate from Russia, what it has to fear from China, to what degree it can remain separate from Afghani-stan's conflicts, and whether it will be able to transport hydrocarbons through Iran are only some of the key questions being resolved now in the region.

7. Central Asia is a major source of cotton, uranium, and many precious and non-ferrous metals. While the region has substantial industrial infrastructure and an educated populace that could support service industries, local eyes are focused primarily on exports of natural resources and ensuring agricultural self-sufficiency.

8. Central Asia voluntarily relinquished its Soviet nuclear arms, but still has nuclear capability. While some Central Asian places and practices situate the area clearly in the developing world, Central Asia also holds military and civilian monuments and hardware that serve as reminders of the unique history and potential of the region. Among these is the nuclear power plant on Kazakstan's Caspian coast that desalinizes water for human consumption, and two more planned nuclear plants in Kazakstan.

9. Central Asia is arguably the most secular, westernized part of the Islamic world. While the region is largely Islamic, for the bulk of the region's inhabitants Islam is a cultural identifier, not an ideology. Islamic law is nowhere threatening to replace civil law, and society in general is tolerant of a range of behavior and practices not so tolerated in other Islamic areas. In this way, Central Asia's recent re-entrance into the Islamic world could bridge current gulfs between the West and Islamic states.

10. Central Asia suffers developmentally from being overshadowed by Russia and Eastern Europe. While the post-communist world receives European and American aid to facilitate the transition from communism, Central Asia has pulled the short straw in the distribution of such assistance, especially assistance related to environment and civil society. Even worse, with the exception of the Soros Foundations, private organizations in the West have almost entirely ignored the region, preferring instead to work in richer and more European states such as Russia, the Czech Republic, and Poland.