Central Asia’s Past as Perpetual Prologue

The Ferghana valley is beautiful, even where it is not fertile. Where it is fertile, the jagged skyline is clear and the ground beneath a comforting wash of bright color.

It is also where the next Central Asian war is likely to happen.

Gunfire erupted on January 11 in southern Kyrgyzstan’s Batken Province, which surrounds Tajikistan’s village of Vorukh. That statement only makes sense because Vorukh is not unique; like a handful of other enclaves, Soviet whimsy and brutal control shifted the borders of these states somewhat frequently, so that when the Soviet Union broke up, many former Soviet Republics found themselves the owners of and targets of claims of others’ territory.

As most of these states are ruled by former Soviet strongmen or their less-intelligent but cannier successors, there has been no democratic common ground on which to resolve these disputes; instead, in typical Soviet fashion, extensive conferences are held in which the participants do not agree on first principles and any agreements are ignored as soon as they are signed.

Yet the history of the whole valley and immediate area shows why only a brutal empire like the Soviets, or the Tamurids, or the Mongols, can rule here. Over the last thousand years and more, this vital staging-point on the Silk Road has shifted hands countless times, sometimes peacefully and sometimes at sword-point. The small fertile areas in the valley are where farming and grazing happen, and here at the roof of the Earth, those two activities constitute a large part of the daily economy.

That in turn means that everyone — Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, possibly Timur himself — want a piece of the valley and have legitimate and highly contested claims to it. There is no mechanism to resolve this dispute, and so the security forces are on constant high alert. If it sounds like a bad international affairs thriller novel, that’s only because we are so long divorced from blood and soil fights that we forget how these work.

No one here has, and so yet another tragedy of the Soviet era looks ready to open up again, part of an endless series of conflicts none of the region’s rulers have wanted to end, or have been capable of ending.

Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons