TASHKENT, Soviet Union — In the remotest corner of the world, on the plains where Tamerlane and Genghis Khan once ruled, an empire is on the verge of civil war--with the potential to transform the map from the Middle East to the gates of China.
Pitting Kirghiz against Uzbek and Uzbek against Meshketian, the new ethnic battles of Central Asia are being fought among places most Americans have never heard of. Yet more than 1,000 people have died in the clashes, according to Soviet estimates, and more death and destruction appear inevitable.
"The world should prepare itself for . . . the bloodiest ethnic, cultural and civil conflicts," warned Valeri Tishkov, one of the leading Soviet experts on such strife.
But even as each group in this ethnic crazy quilt arms itself for war, an unprecedented effort is also under way to unite all the peoples of the region in a Muslim federation that could stretch from European Turkey to the far side of the Himalayas--the age-old dream of "Turkestan."
The Communist governments of the five republics of Soviet Central Asia have met together to plot a common destiny; so have the dissident movements that want to throw the Communists out. The region's Muslim fundamentalists have joined in an Islamic Democratic Party to promote religious rebellion against Soviet rule. And to the east, in China's Xinjiang region, Muslim Uighurs seek independence--and new links with their Soviet cousins. They staged an uprising last spring that was quelled only after an airlift of thousands of Beijing's troops.
As exotic and remote as Uzbekistan and Xinjiang are, they play a central role in a process that will ripple across the globe: the disintegration of the last two empires on Earth. "All great empires collapsed when the center was dying and the periphery became stronger," reflected Tishkov. "It looks as if that is what we have now."
The collapse of these empires could destabilize large parts of the world. The Soviet Union sprawls from Scandinavia to Iran, from the Balkans to Alaska. China, the world's most populous country, is the key to stability in all of East Asia. Both still boast huge armies with giant nuclear arsenals.
An independent Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, for example, would threaten the safety of neighboring Armenia and the stability of Iran, whose population includes 14 million ethnic Azerbaijanis. Or an independent Uzbekistan under fundamentalist rule could align itself with Muslim Iran, posing a new challenge to the West.
And if the Muslim republics of the Soviet Union slide into war--against Moscow or against each other--the effect on neighboring areas and on the often-prickly relationship between Moscow and Beijing could be dangerous and unpredictable.
On one hand, the peoples of Central Asia are in conflict as never before in modern times. Some of the conflicts are touched off by squabbles over scarce resources: In the mixed Kirghiz-Uzbek city of Osh, more than 300 have been killed in ethnic clashes over land. Others are over questions of identity and political power; the Tadzhik minority in the ancient caravan cities of Bukhara and Samarkand is increasingly resentful of the more powerful Uzbeks. "We are lucky that it hasn't exploded," said Tishkov.
On the other hand, the same loosening of Soviet rule that unleashed this internecine strife has paradoxically also given a boost to the idea of Turkestan: the dream of unifying about 135 million Muslims who speak languages related to Turkish under a single, independent political umbrella.
Long divided and widely scattered, the Turkic-language communities are now tapping into ancient roots of a common identity to seek a more prominent place in the new world order.
"The Central Asian republics will find rapprochement and cooperation in their own union, because our cultural, economic and ecological problems are too close for us not to find a kind of cooperation," said Abdul Rahim Pulatov, the ebullient chairman of Birlik, Uzbekistan's main nationalist group. "We are (already) close to the people of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey, and we should cooperate more closely."
Will those mutual bonds prove stronger than the forces for division? Pulatov and his followers will be among those who determine the answer.
Birlik, the Uzbek word for "unity," is just one of a handful of new pan-Turkic or Islamic groups in Soviet Central Asia. Its principal goal is an independent and democratic Uzbekistan, whose 20 million people make it the most populous of the area's republics.
But Birlik's long-term dream can be viewed on the faded blue wall of its headquarters, an old mud-brick house with uneven wood floors and high ceilings in the ancient Muslim quarter of Tashkent. Prominent among the posters, charts and anti-Russian banners is a simple map of the area from Turkey to China. It shows no borders. "Turkestan," the caption reads.