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Majlis Podcast: Central Asia At 25

Kazakhs lay flowers to the Independence Monument in Almaty on December 17.
Kazakhs lay flowers to the Independence Monument in Almaty on December 17.

The Central Asian states marked 25 years of independence this year. Kazakhstan was the last of the five countries to celebrate its 25th anniversary as an independent country on December 16.

There have been some good articles already published looking at a quarter-century of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

The Majlis, RFE/RL's weekly podcast about Central Asia, wanted to do its part to mark the anniversary also, and to mark it in a unique way.

So, with RFE/RL Media Relations Manager Muhammad Tahir moderating, the Majlis brought in two of the legends of Central Asian studies: Gregory Gleason, currently at the Germany-based Marshall Center for Security Studies, and Nick Megoran, professor at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

Gleason and Megoran, besides contributing a voluminous amount of material on Central Asia, have been watching the region since the first days of independence. They remember what was happening in the early years of independence, they were there, and they continue to follow events in the region.

On a personal note, I will add that Gleason and Megoran were among the first Western scholars writing about Central Asia in the era of independence. I knew their names in the early 1990s, and I benefited greatly from their articles.

So they were exactly the guests the Majlis needed to provide some insight about where Central Asia is today and how it got to this point.

I have a few decades of experience with Central Asia myself, so I was happy to take a place around the campfire, reminisce, and talk about some of the things that shaped the course of a region.

The topic -- Central Asia's 25 years of independence -- is a thick subject. This is a longer Majlis than usual and therefore we decided to break it up into two parts.

The guests explain how they came to be involved in Central Asian studies, and recall the situation in the early days. For example, Megoran lived in the Uzbek section of the Ferghana Valley in the mid-1990s. Commenting on the border situation, Megoran says, "When I first went there 20 years ago, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were more theoretical realties...."

That border is very different today, a sign of the disintegration of Central Asia that has characterized the region for most of the last quarter-century. The panel notes that Uzbekistan played a large role in preventing regional unity and looks at how that affected the evolution of Central Asia.

The first contacts with the West are also discussed. Megoran recalls that "NATO had formed some partnership agreements, so I would occasionally meet NATO soldiers in Ferghana."

These soldiers were visiting Central Asia as part of NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Turkmenistan was the first country to join the program in May 1994 and Tajikistan the last in 2002.

And Gleason explains the West's understanding of Central Asia in those early years was "a kind of unjustified...unchallenged assumption that the countries were in what was called 'transition.'" This misperception would often lead to complications in relations.

The Central Asian states generally welcomed ties with the West in those early days. Relations with Washington and European countries provided a counterweight to the former colonial master, Moscow.

But as Gleason points out, not long after Central Asia's independence, Moscow would make clear that Central Asia would never stray too far from Russia's orbit. "In explicit form in 1993, [Russia's very first Foreign Minister] Andrei Kozyrev talked about the border of the Soviet Union being the limit of Russia's sphere of influence."

That, and much more are in the first part of the Majlis.

Part 2 of the Majlis looks at the systems of government that developed in Central Asia and explores some of the possible reasons for these evolutions.

The panel delves deeper into the relations between the West and Central Asia, particularly in the post-9/11 era and obviously with special attention to the United States' role, the souring of those ties in recent years, and what the West's expectations for ties with Central Asia look like in the future.

And the Majlis also looks at the arrival of China, and Russia's reinvigorated efforts to assert influence in the region through Russian-dominated organizations such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union.

We couldn't get everything in, but much ground was covered, and the opinions being expressed represent about 100 years, combined, of experience with Central Asia. Here is the full audio recording of the discussion, in two parts:

Majlis Podcast: Central Asia's Last 25 Years, Part 1
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Majlis Podcast: Central Asia's Last 25 Years, Part 2
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0:00 0:25:26 0:00
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    Bruce Pannier

    Bruce Pannier writes the Qishloq Ovozi blog and appears regularly on the Majlis podcast for RFE/RL.