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Opening Pandora's Box: Ethnicity and Central Asian Militaries

Authored by LTC Dianne L. Smith. | October 1998

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Summary

Race. Ethnicity. Religion. The decade following the collapse of the Soviet bloc has not witnessed the creation of a New World Order, but a New World Disorder in which conflicts involving race, ethnicity, and religion have resulted in the deaths of over one million people. Breaking the constraints of totalitarianism has opened a Pandora?s Box around the world. Early fears that the Central Asian states also would fall victim to ethnic hatred have so far largely proved false. But Central Asia is a region of great wealth and great instability?more so following recent victories by Afghanistan?s radical Taliban which shares a religious and ethnic heritage with many of its northern neighbors.

Ethnicity is defined as the basis for groups whose membership is determined by ties of kinship, language, religion, race, or culture. Supposedly the Central Asian states are ethnic creations, named after the ?titular? majority, e.g., Kazakhs in Kazakhstan. But that is a false illusion. Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan did not exist prior to the drawing of Soviet republican boundaries. Their independence in 1991 was just as artificial?the result of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the birth of sovereign states from internal Soviet administrative boundaries. As a result, each was faced with the immediate tasks of identifying its national identity and nation-building.

This study examines the impact of ethnicity on the armed forces of the Central Asian states by first summarizing the ethnic composition of the five new republics, then examining the legacy of Soviet ethnic policy upon Central Asia. It then considers ways in which different newly-independent states have created their military institutions and handled the issue of ethnicity within their armed forces. Finally, it examines the possible role the United States can play in assisting the armed forces of Central Asia to learn how to manage diversity and thus promote stability in this energy rich, but inherently unstable, region.

The ?nation-states? of Central Asia suffer from the dysfunction that occurs when territorial and ethnic boundaries do not coincide. All five republics are the artificial creations of Soviet cartographers who deliberately cut across nationalities to generate ethnic tensions, to make each republic a sort of Matreshka-dollwith minorities inside minorities inside minorities?all dependent on Moscow. Thus, the new republics created with the breakup of the Soviet Union reflect the tension between nation-building and self-determination?between making do with the hand dealt you and trying to reshuffle the deck.

?Making do? means trying to create viable armed forces from the remnants of Soviet forces stationed within the boundaries at independence. ?Making do? means trying to create a professional officer corps to reflect the titular nationality for which the state was named (e.g., Uzbeks in Uzbekistan) when the officer corps inherited at independence was not just ?predominantly? Slavic, but uniformly Slavic. ?Making do? means overcoming the Soviet heritage of ethnic stereotype and discrimination and the hatreds fostered during outbreaks of violence in the waning days of empire. ?Making do? means trying to identify a historical military heritage to build upon. ?Making do? means trying to recruit, train, house, feed, and field armed forces with Soviet leftovers. ?Making do? means trying to suceed at ethnic integration when a richer, more centralized, and more powerful Soviet Union failed.

But the Central Asian states do not necessarily have to ?make do? on their own. This region is becoming increasingly more important to the United States, both in terms of access to its energy and mineral resources and in securing stability in a central core around which regional powers such as Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey (and destabilizingregimes such as the Taliban) jockey for position. Alleviating ethnic tensions within the armed forces of the Central Asian states and helping them manage diversity, therefore, is of great importance to the United States. The U.S. armed forces, by providing a successful model for that process and engaging these forces during their formulative period, can promote regional stability.

Ethnic politics may yet tear apart the Central Asian republics as it has many of their neighbors (and the Soviet Union). Whether the Central Asian states can prevent ethnicity from shaping or distorting their armed forces will be a key indicator of their ability to manage diversity within society as a whole. Whether the Central Asian states can ultimately use the military as a force for social integration will reveal their ability to create tools to shape their own future.

Introduction

The collapse of the Soviet Union created five new republics in Central Asia: Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. They were ill-prepared for independence. Each possessed executive and legislative institutions (to include a Ministry of Foreign Affairs) as ostensibly self-standing republics voluntarily formed into a larger union, but there was no republican-level military framework, and local economies were all subordinate to centralized planning and direction from Moscow. Each state, therefore, was immediately faced with the serious business of nation-building.

The ?nations? of Central Asia had no tradition of statehood prior to their creation by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s. Each Soviet Socialist Republic was named after one specific (supposedly predominant) ethnic group, but in reality, as a result of centuries of transmigration, the republics instead bore a decidedly multi-ethnic character. Moscow?s attempts to create a ?Soviet? identity which transcended ethnicity, nationality, and religion failed. When Boris Yeltsin unleashed and encouraged ethnic nationalism to wrest central power from the Communist Party, he succeeded instead in destroying the Soviet Union and breaking it along ethnic lines.1 Thus, as the new states try to come to grips with their own identity, each struggles to build institutions that integrate and assimilate often antagonistic ethnic groups. The armed forces are particularly affected by this process.

Studies flourished during the Soviet era on ethnicity and the armed forces, but relatively little attention has been paid to the issue within the successor states. Ethnicity (here defined as the basis for groups whose membership is determined by ties of kinship, language, religion, race, or culture) interacts with other sources of identification? gender, class, occupation, locality, and institutional affiliation?to produce the complex social and political fabric of the new republics.2 Ethnicity is passive, like gender or race. When cognizance of ethnic background becomes a vital part of self-identity, ethnicity is elevated to ethnic consciousness. When ethnic consciousness becomes an active factor in decisionmaking, it then becomes ethnic politics. Ethnic politics is reflected within Central Asia in four main areas: between Moscow (which has appointed itself defender of diaspora Russians living outside Russia?s borders) and the new republics; among the five republics; among ethnic groups within each republic; and among individuals in their neighborhoods, schools, military units, and workplaces.

The issue of ethnic politics and the armed forces can be considered from two perspectives. How does ethnicity influence the armed forces? Does ethnic consciousness affect military service or the specific roles played by ethnic groups within the armed forces? On the other hand, how have military institutions affected ethnicity? Are the armed forces a tool to break down ethnic divisions or a vehicle for social integration? Or do they reinforce ethnic consciousness within minorities and therefore sharpen ethnic polarization?3 The military can play a variety of negative or positive roles when the state is playing ethnic politics?as an integrating institution, as a force to suppress ethnic unrest or secession, as a participant in unrest, or as a political force to intervene in civilian politics (especially if its ethnic composition does not mirror that of the existing regime).4

This study examines the impact of ethnicity on the armed forces of the Central Asian states by first summarizing the ethnic composition of the five new republics, then examining the legacy of Soviet ethnic policy upon Central Asia. Next, it considers ways in which different newly-independent states have created their military institutions and handled the issue of ethnicity as it relates to their armed forces and explores the use of armed forces as a tool of ethnic politics. Finally, it discusses the implication to the United States of ethnicity within Central Asian armed forces and suggests ways in which the U.S. military can engage these forces and help them to learn how to manage diversity.

Conclusion

Military forces recruit, train, assign, promote, evaluate, retain, compensate, and retire the personnel who serve within them. Each personnel action is affected by the prejudices and value judgements of those in authority. Manpower decisions may be the result of stated policies or the unconscious (or conscious) bias of those in their chain of command. Ethnicity will always be a factor in personnel actions no matter how ?color-blind? or impartial the stated objective. But methods can be provided to lessen the impact of such prejudices and to manage diversity wisely. You cannot control what people think, but you can control behavior.

The states of Central Asia are the hostages of their Soviet legacy. They struggle to create nations within borders artificially drawn as much to divide as to unite. They struggle to integrate diverse cultures into a new national identity. They struggle to create armed forces from building blocks shaped by discrimination and prejudice. They struggle to make dysfunctional economies pay for these forces. They struggle to train their new cadres and develop domestic institutions separate from Russia. They struggle to free themselves from reliance on expatriate Russians.

Ethnic politics may yet tear apart the Central Asian republics as it has many of their neighbors (and the Soviet Union). Whether the Central Asian states can prevent ethnicity from shaping or distorting their armed forces will be a key indicator of their ability to manage diversity within society as a whole. Whether the Central Asian states can ultimately use the military as a force for social integration will reveal their ability to create tools to shape their own future.

Endnotes

1. See Roman Laba, ?How Yeltsin?s Exploitation of Ethnic Nationalism Brought Down an Empire,? Transition, Vol. 2, No. 1, January 12, 1996, pp. 5-13.

2. Ellen Jones, Red Army and Society: A Sociology of the Soviet Military, Boston: Unwin & Allen, 1985, p. 180.

3. Ibid., p. 180.

4. Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 434-444.