W hen the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Central Asians had no popular national movements to thank for the independence of their republics. If anything, their separation from Russia was reluctant, and it left the new states uncertain how to proceed. Russia, after all, had been “protector” of most of that territory since at least the mid-nineteenth century, and the influence of tsars and commissars in Central Asia stretched well beyond imperial borders. After independence, the Central Asia lacked any leaders who possessed the moral weight and international stature of a Vaclav Havel or Lech Walesa. What they did have, for the most part, were entrenched Communist Party bosses with sturdy power bases throughout their countries. The leaders of the new republics, not willing to abandon Soviet-style rule by intrigue, simply brought it in truncated form to their now-sovereign states. Perhaps most problematic was that the Central Asian countries, after three generations of communism preceded in turn by the despotic and corrupt rule of emirs, had no collective memory of private enterprise beyond the black market and no tradition of meaningful popular involvement in governance.
Aware that Central Asia faced a difficult path, and eager to see the changes in progress, I undertook a seven-week trip through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, travelling by bus, car, train, airplane, and even horse-drawn cart from capital cities to isolated villages. The hardships experienced by the vast majority of Central Asians were everywhere evident, but they constitute more than a now-familiar tale of post-communist woe. Rather, they help to explain both the relative calm in those countries at present, and the pervasive corruption and weak popular attachment to the state that threaten that calm. Ultimately, competing claims to identity, which have remained latent in the face of economic concerns, may undermine one or all of these states.