Steven SABOL

Steven Sabol, Associate Professor of Central Asian History, Department of History, University of North Carolina-Charlotte (Charlotte, U.S.)

In the months leading up to, and the first few years after, the Soviet Union collapsed numerous articles and books were published that claimed Islamic fundamentalism was likely to emerge in Central Asia. These fears were predicated on numerous scenarios, the most important being the ongoing political and military crisis in Afghanistan and Iranian attempts to increase its influence in the region. I will argue, however, that these concerns were premature and that the real threat to the stability and security of Central Asia, and the potential threat of Islamic radicalism, is more likely to be during the next transitional phase when the current repressive regimes are replaced by new leaders, what I refer to as the post-transition transition. I do not believe that Islamists and their actions are the threat, rather that the rhetoric coupled with actions will be used to discredit subsequent leaders and that internal, factional political rivalries will embrace whatever means necessary to eliminate opposition. In this scenario, the power of Islamic rhetoric and propaganda will influence and alter the political evolution in Central Asia and its devolution from authoritarian structures toward liberal democracies. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to posit an argument that early assessments were premature and rather alarmist based upon real and perceived weaknesses in Central Asia rather than a better comprehension of the strength and vitality exercised by the transitional regimes. At the conclusion, I have four (although more can be posed) questions designed to augment our assessments of the current social, economic, and political transition that is occurring in the region.

As we examine regime transitions in Central Asia, the hope that democratic principles will prevail quickly evaporates. In the two cases where regimes have fallen, both occurred due to violence or massive public protests. Tajikistans civil war resulted in thousands killed and even more displaced; whereas, in Kyrgyzstan, the regime fell not because of the ballot box but because of widespread protests that erupted throughout the republic and the fear of violent upheaval, which forced President Akaev to flee the country. The global reach of militant Islam has caused widespread concern that the former Soviet Central Asian republics are most vulnerable to its consequences and ramifications. Weak state and social structures, political leadership that has turned more and more repressive, and porous borders suggest that at the very least the region could become a sanctuary and as well as an incubator for Islamic extremism, terrorist activity, and anti-state insurgency. The likelihood seems real enough still, but did the early predictions fail to analyze fully the strength and..

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