WASHINGTON, DC – Gradual and incremental changes will ensure greater popular participation in political processes, leading to evolutionary democratic changes in the countries of Central Asia as the middle class and new elites with modern educations will play increasingly assertive roles, said prominent American scholar on the region S. Frederick Starr. Starr also believes Afghanistan will not plunge into abyss once the majority of foreign troops leave that country by the end of 2014, as scheduled.
Starr, founder and chairman of the Central Asia and Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, shared his optimistic views on the future of the region in an interview with Kazakh reporters and bloggers in his office on Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue, filled with books, maps, handmade rugs and the two bicycles he uses to get to work. The 73-year-old proffesor is known for his keen interest in both history and present day of Central Asia, in which he includes Afghanistan, and has authored numerous books on the region, including the seminal 700-page work, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, published by Princeton University Press late in 2013.
Asked about political processes in Central Asia today and their future, especially in light of the ongoing upheaval in nearby Ukraine, the scholar said he was “confident of the normal evolution towards greater participation by the people in running their own countries.”
“I am not sure when or in which forms and through which organisations [this would be happening] but it certainly would be happening as the middle class increasingly realises its right to make its voice heard,” Starr said, making a caveat. “Since we are talking about democracy and democratic developments, I must say that, despite fundamental core commonalities, democracies in England or France or Japan are different and so will be democracies in Central Asia. And that is a healthy situation.”
Starr’s optimism is based on, among other factors, the rising level of education of Central Asians.
“I am amazed at the quality of young leaders, say, in Tajikistan. Of course, it is an extremely poor country, but there are extraordinarily talented, world-class professionals. And the same is true for Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, not to mention Kazakhstan,” Starr added, again explaining that he expects gradual changes in due course. “I am talking about mid-term to long-term evolution here, not about ‘pyatiletki’,” he said, using the oft-derided word for the five-year plans so favoured by the Soviet rulers.
“Look at Kazakhstan: 30 years ago there was an intelligentsia, there were specialists working in various industries, et cetera, but there was no middle class then in the proper sense of the word. But now there is, and you can feel it growing on a daily basis,” Starr said.
“I am absolutely optimistic about the region of Central Asia,” Starr said. “I am not naïve, but very sober and this feeling is based on the results of the new kind of education. And that is very strongly felt in 20-30 year olds.”
“You need to compare your friends to friends of your parents, and you will see the changes,” he continued. “I am not saying everything will go smoothly, as the developing culture has both positive and negative effects, such as, for example, computers or the Internet.”
“Compared to the lives of your ancestors in the region, you now have less contact, not more, with your immediate neighbours in Central Asia,” Starr said. And this, too, has both positive and negative aspects, according to the scholar, who highlighted the logistical difficulties of travel from, for example, Karaganda in central Kazakhstan to Khodjand in Tajikistan.
Another key component of Central Asia’s eventual progress, according to Starr, is developing, or rather recreating, trade routes of yore and reconnecting the region to the world and to its own elements, which used to be carved up into opposing spheres of influence by empires.
“Roman numbers were thought for a long time to have come from the Arabs, but it was not true, as they came from India via Central Asia. And how did they come from Central Asia?” asked Starr, before answering himself. “Through close trade relations.”
More evidence of close trade ties that predate even the Silk Road is, according to Starr, a turquoise mineral called lapis lazuli. It was found among the decorations of Tutankhamen and other pharaohs in pyramids in ancient Egypt as well as in India, yet it comes from Badakhshan, a region in Tajikistan, as well as from Afghanistan.
Starr said he was “thrilled” when President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan was received as the guest of honour at Indian Republic Day in January 2009. To him, this was “an echo of the long-gone past, and a modern-day reincarnation of the restoring ties between Central and South Asia.”
Starr, who is credited with [re]introducing the term “Greater Central Asia” into American foreign policy parlance first and then into the standard description of a region larger than the five countries in ‘central’ Central Asia, said the term still stands and is not meant to be political.
“By using the term Greater Central Asia, I only wanted to underscore that the present day definition of Central Asia [consisting only of five former Soviet republics] does not fit with historical definitions. Of course, Afghanistan should be included in this definition. As should be Xinjiang in China,” he said.
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese were quite clever in approaching Kazakhstan and the Asian Development Bank with a proposal to re-create the Silk Road, connecting themselves to the west,” Starr continued. “Yet the southern outlet [via Afghanistan] was still closed because of the Taliban. And it was a completely unexpected side effect of September 11  that it opened the borders between the former Soviet republics and Afghanistan.”
Only now, 10 years later, will southern corridors towards India open. “It is a new phenomenon now, yet historically there was such a route and it worked,” Starr said.
Obviously, for any such trade route to work again, there will have to be a stable and secure Afghanistan, to form the crux of a Greater Central Asia.
Asked about the future of that war-torn country post-2014, Starr said he was “very disappointed that [U.S. President Barack] Obama decided to cut short the military mission in Afghanistan and to withdraw troops so quickly and so irresponsibly.”
“Yet, this does not mean that America will not play a role there. To the contrary, we have promised billions of dollars in assistance for the next 10-15 years. In fact, post-2014, USAID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] already has $1.5 billion in funding for Afghanistan, while at the UN’s donor conference in Tokyo the U.S. committed some $4 billion annually for the next decade, and many other countries made serious commitments as well.”
“It is time for the U.S. administration to also clearly state, for our partners and foes alike, its position about what it is that the U.S. stands for in Afghanistan, not just what it is that we stand against,” Starr added.
He went on to share what he called “perhaps a somewhat crazy theory” regarding the successful future of Afghanistan, as opposed what quite a few other experts expect from a country that they say will not be able to withstand the return to power of the Taliban.
“Comparing Afghanistan today with, say, South Korea in the mid-1950s, one can see that the situation is more positive there now than it used to be 60 years ago on the Korean peninsula,” he said. “First, the history of statehood. Afghanistan has had a history of statehood for three centuries, while South Korea had none, and no ethnic group in Afghanistan, neither Pashtuns, nor Tajiks, nor Uzbeks, throughout all those recent decades of turmoil, had announced any secession intentions. Second, geography. Back in the 1950s, South Korea was on the periphery, on the outskirts of the underdeveloped Far East, whereas now Afghanistan is, and will increasingly be, in the middle of all the communications networks in the middle of Eurasia. Third, resources. South Korea then had no natural resources. Afghanistan is rich in such resources now. And fourth, education. Afghanistan now has a very well-educated group of youngsters, so I am very much optimistic about the future of that country.”
Generally, this American scholar believes the countries in the region would benefit from pursuing a foreign policy that does not overemphasise relations with one country or set of countries, but rather seeks a balance in such ties.
“I respect a lot the concept of the multi-vectoral and balanced foreign policy of Kazakhstan. This is a simple yet very reasonable concept which all countries in the region are now trying to do something similar to,” Starr said. “But it is not easy to pursue it now, as the Chinese are pursuing their own very strong policies, the Russians have their own concepts, and the West [and] the Americans are getting poised to withdraw [from the region].”
“I think this concept is very reasonable and I think throughout centuries, states or entities in Central Asia have mastered such an approach, and have mastered the so-called ‘Great Game.’ They knew how to play it then, they learn how to play it now. And the sooner they do that, the smoother their way to prosperity and progress will be.”