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Refugees Magazine Issue 143 ("After Andijan: Tensions Mount in Central Asia") - Editorial: The troubled heart of Central Asia

Refugees Magazine Issue 143 ("After Andijan: Tensions Mount in Central Asia") - Editorial: The troubled heart of Central Asia

1 July 2006

When the five Central Asian republics rose from the ashes of the Soviet Union in 1991, they inherited immense problems that would have tested the resilience of any government and its people - let alone that of five countries that had never existed as independent states before.

Ten years ago, a conference was held to discuss some of those problems and see what could be done about them. The May 1996 CIS conference on refugees and migrants placed a spotlight on a number of major issues caused by the sudden implosion of a huge and - as it turned out - short-lived superpower.

These ranged from environmental disasters such as the shrinking of the Aral Sea - which directly affects three of the countries - to the complex legacy of Stalin's bizarre and ruthless policy of deporting millions of people, including eight entire 'nationalities', from western areas of the USSR to Central Asia and Siberia.

The conference also exposed the extraordinary scale of involuntary movements of people in the CIS region - more than 9 million in all between 1989 and the beginning of 1996, the bulk of them from, to and within Central Asia. All this against a backdrop of economic meltdown.

One state - Tajikistan - could not bear the strains and tumbled precipitously into a vicious and highly destructive civil war that displaced some 700,000 people.

Ten years on, some states have seen improvements - in particular the economy of Kazakhstan, which has been transformed by relatively liberal economic policies and by the booming value, and increasing accessibility, of its huge oil reserves.

Tajikistan, though still extremely poor, has also improved immeasurably from its devastated state in the early 1990s. On 30 June 2006, Tajiks who fled their country because of the 1992 civil war were scheduled to lose their refugee status after UNHCR applied the so-called "cessation clause." This is only used when the circumstances under which refugee status was granted have ceased to exist - and is a clear marker that considerable improvement has taken place.

But even as Tajikistan continues to grapple its way slowly towards a brighter future, a new shadow has been cast across the heart of Central Asia. Uzbekistan is the only one of the five Central Asian states to share a border with all the others. Rich in gas and mineral resources, host to the legendary cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, and - because of its location - in pole position to be the trading powerhouse of the region, Uzbekistan could be rivalling Kazakhstan on the economic front.

Instead, since the slaughter of hundreds of civilians in the eastern Uzbek town of Andijan on 13 May 2005, Uzbekistan has been steadily closing in on itself, in an apparent attempt to turn back the clock. In the process, it has rejected many of the states and organizations that have been working to promote civil and human rights and economic development across the region.

And once again - for the first time since a 1997 UN-brokered peace agreement officially brought the Tajik civil war to an end - refugees from one Central Asian state are flowing across the borders into the others. So far the numbers have been small, but tensions remain high and those who hope for peace in this varied, little known and stunningly beautiful region are looking on anxiously.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 143: "After Andijan: Tensions Mount in Central Asia" (July 2006).