Saturday, August 24, 2019

Tribalism across Central Asia Threatens Russian National Security, Zapolskis Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 22 – The peoples of Central Asia have continued to be organized on tribal lines, Aleksandr Zapolskis says. “Even the Soviet Union was not able” to transform the situation, although it was able to manage it. But now with the decline of Moscow’s influence in the region, tribalism has become a serious threat to Russian national security.

            The Regnum commentator says that this issue has come into sharp relief because of the conflict between the northern and southern “tribes” in Kyrgyzstan, but he argues that no one should think that this is an issue confined to that republic or a superficial one that can be easily ignored (

Since the 15th century, Zapolskis says, tribalism, not nationalism, has been the basic political feature of the region. Today, “the clan structure of state power underlies “all of Turkestan” which has never undergone the industrialization that broke down tribalism in Europe.  That clan basis of political life was hidden in Soviet times perhaps, but it was never defeated.

“Even after suppressing the Basmachi,” he continues, “the Soviet Union over the course of seven decades was not able to reorganize local social views in a serious way.” In public, of course, “Moscow talked about internationalism but in fact all key positions were filled in strict observation of the balance among clans” in the Central Asian republics.

If a member of one clan was given the top job, then his deputy would have to come from another and so on, Zapolskis says. “As long as Moscow was dominant in the framework of a common state, the situation remained quite stable, but after the disintegration of the USSR and the active expulsion of Russians, the situation returned” to what it had been in the 19th century.

Some Russian analysts suggest that Moscow can ignore all this because the Central Asian countries still look to the Russian Federation because of its economic dominance. But that is a mistake for three reasons, Zapolskis continues, one that is fraught with dangers to Russian national security.

First of all, Russians are not the only outsiders who are capable of playing one clan against another to advance their interests. The Chinese, the Turks and the Americans are all doing so, exploiting divisions that some in the Russian capital aren’t even taking into consideration and stealing a march on Moscow.

Second, the clans within the Central Asian countries not only compete among themselves for power within the countries but often have very different views on the direction their states should pursue internationally and the allies they should make. Some look to Moscow; others to China or the West.

And third, in many cases, the clans finance themselves by illegal activity including the drug trade from Afghanistan. They are sufficiently strong as a result that the governments of the countries in which they operate aren’t able to put a stop to this. Such trade has radically increased, Zapolskis says, since the defeat of the US in Afghanistan and the rise of Islamist radicalism.

The existence of these tribalist arrangements will be reduced but not eliminated by economic development alone.  And consequently, “whether we want it or not, without the creation of an attractive image of the Russian world, we won’t be able to deal” with what is an old but often neglected obstacle to progress.

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