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Nationalists Are Getting Restless in Soviet's Central Asia : USSR: The largely Muslim republics of Central Asia have long been politically docile, but now they also look toward independence.

May 12, 1991|Thomas Glotz | Thomas Glotz, formerly a journalist based in Turkey, is now in Central Asia as a Crane-Rogers fellow of the Institute of Currant World Affairs

TASHKENT, UZBEKISTAN — Even as the Baltic States and the Ukraine demand independence from the Soviet Union, there exists a deep ambivalence--and confusion--among the population of Central Asia about what continued association with Moscow might mean.

For years, the "stans," the five mainly Muslim republics of Central Asia--Kazakistan, Uzbekistan, Kirgizia, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan--have been the most docile of the 15 republics that make up the Soviet Union. This political position was confirmed in the recent referendum--roughly 90% of the voters in the five Central Asia republics supported the union.

But for anyone who has recently spent time on the streets of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Mikhail S. Gorbachev's political "victory" seems more a red herring than a vote of support. Rather than affirming the Big Brother relationship between Central Asia and Moscow, Central Asians seemed to be voting for time to put their house in order before joining the other resistive republics in their quest for independence from Soviet authority.

The signs of change are everywhere, nowhere more profoundly than in Uzbekistan, the most central and important of the largely Turkic-Muslim republics, where nationalism and regionalism have taken on a new, high pitch.

The movement has both economic and cultural aspects. In the former, law-makers once subservient to the Kremlin have now initiated a policy of no export of cotton to the central authorities in Moscow. Foreign cotton merchants are encouraged to wait around the bleak corridors of the Hotel Uzbekistan for permission to be granted--thus breaking Moscow's hold on the region's chief cash crop and means of bartering for Western goods.

Traffic policemen have reportedly been instructed to stop all exports of food-stuffs from the republic north into Mother Russia until a "reasonable price" can be obtained. Given the cornucopia of foodstuffs in bazaars of Tashkent and Samarkand and the paucity of food in Moscow, this rumored blockade might well be true.

Even tourism has become an area where Uzbek nationals are demanding a greater piece of the pie. The two-year-old Uzbekistan National Travel and Business Agency, Sayakh, located in buildings associated with the previously moribund but now surprisingly active Ministry for International Trade and Economics, is feeling its oats. It is conducting direct negotiations with private, Western travel agencies, cutting Intourist out and collecting revenues directly.

In the cultural sphere, 70 years of Russification appear to be on the way out. Following the declaration of "sovereignty" in 1990, the Uzbekistan parliament instituted a policy of "Uzbek only" in debates in the legislature; a movement is now afoot to keep all official records, including medical forms, in Uzbek instead of Russian.

But the Uzbek language itself is a potential target of nationalists, as is the concept of Uzbekistan. Both Uzbek and Uzbekistan are recognized by most natives as the creation of the early Soviet commissars who were intent on enforcing a policy of divide and rule in Central Asia, divorcing one group of Turkic-speaking Muslims from others.

As with the other "national" languages of Central Asia--Kazak, Turkmen, Kirghiz and Tadjik, for example--Uzbek is increasingly seen as a local dialect elevated by outsiders to the status of the national tongue. It follows that Uzbekistan itself is also increasingly seen as a Soviet creation with little or no basis in history--as are the rest of the Central Asian republics.

Making the subject more complex is the fact that Uzbek--and the other Central Asian languages--has also seen two major modulations, the first from Arabic to Latin characters in the 1920s, and then to Cyrillic in the 1940s. Now, reflecting the growing resentment against Moscow, there are hints of a new reform to return to the traditional Arabic-based script.

"It (Arabic script) is the most natural alphabet for our language," says Abduljan, a writer of grammar books published by the Uzbek Academy of Science, "And I do not mean Uzbek, but Turki."

Turki, sometimes referred to as Chaghatay, or the court language of Timur (Tamurlane) and very similar to Ottoman Turkish, is the historical glue that unites Central Asians across the "national" frontiers established by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s, and beyond, to Turkic speakers as far away as Azerbaijan and even the Republic of Turkey.

Curiously, while many ethnic "Uzbeks" are reaching for a greater, pan-Turkic identity, many other ethnic groups in Uzbekistan increasingly see themselves as Uzbek nationalists, with a greater stake in Uzbekistan proper than in Gorbachev's Soviet federation.

"We have instituted Uzbek language classes for all our employees," said an ethnic Russian who heads a growing concern with an interest in everything from computer software to international management training, "We intend to stay and prosper as a part of Uzbekistan.'

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