I've been reading Colin Thubron's travel book, The Lost Heart of Asia, which he wrote in 1994, three years after Central Asia gained its freedom from the Soviet Union. In addition to its being beautifully written, I'm finding his discussions related to the area's future interesting, having now seen it almost 20 years later. He comments throughout the book on several aspects: the long term economic impact of the various countries' new nationalism, the influence of Islamic zealotry on a population 90 percent muslim, and the continuation of reconstruction of the antiquities. Some of his thoughts have been prescient, others have been without ground.
In terms of the impact of nationalism, he was on target. Thubron worried that with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, the individual countries would become nationalistic and would create divisions within the area just as the various areas within Yugoslavia split into Croatia and Serbia. By the time I arrived, this separation was in full swing. As the countries have acquired their own identities and, with that their own boundaries and supplies of natural resources, they have become increasingly possessive, less willing to share with the countries contiguous to their own. Where formerly, people from the various Stans could cross from one country to another to see family and friends, now they are required to obtain passports and visas and go through customs. Whenever we crossed a border, we would pass a long line of local people waiting for relatives to arrive.
As for the economy, one of the ways the Soviets united the area was by forcing the coutries to rely on each other by separating the resources from their production. Kyrgystan produced electricity but the water supply came from Turkmenistan. Today, Turkmenistan is building its own power plants but it is also building dams along the river, depriving Kyrgystan of its water supply. The Russian government has promised to provide Kyrgystan with water if Kyrgystan will get rid of the US army base located on its territiry.
While Thubron's concerns over nationalism have proved to be well founded, his belief that the area might become a muslim stronghold has proved false. Seventy years of Soviet atheism has quenched the thirst for religion in the area. In Kyrgystan, they call themselves "faux muslims." According to our guide, after the Soviet Union departed, Saudia Arabia sent the country a great deal of money to build mosques. We could see many of these small mosques as our bus drove us through the countryside. "But" our guide told us, "nobody goes." In Turkmenistan, there is a law similar to that in France, the forbids women from covering their faces.
As for the antiquities, UNESCO has taken control of some of the archaeological sites in the region and is continuing to preserve them. The various countries have also continued to engage in reconstruction in an effort to bring in tourism.
Thubron's book is well worth reading. My blogs provide an update. But the future of this region remains to be seen.