Understanding Central Asia
Unfortunately, it seems that the American media tends to largely ignore
countries that our nation is not directly involved with. The events precipitated
by September 11, however, have sparked large amounts of interest in the
republics of Central Asia, many of whom are allowing the United States
to launch strikes against Afghanistan from their airfields and military
A forum, held Tuesday night, featured three speakers who shared their
personal, political, and economic experience with the region: Micheal
Wygant, Gulnara Abikeyeva, and Darren Gacicia. The goal of the forum,
as stated by mediator and government professor Marcia Wigle, was to help
members of the Bowdoin and Brunswick community understand the culture
of the Central Asian people and their emerging relationship with the U.S.
Wygant, a career diplomat with over 30 years experience, assisted in
the opening of the United State's first embassies in Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan
after the dissolution of the USSR. Recently, the Maine resident has devoted
endless amounts of time and energy to the Bowdoin and Maine communities.
Ambassador Wygant spoke on Central Asia's past historical role as a passageway
for people, such as Genghis Khan and Alexander and also about the way
the politics of the region are shaping asians' role in the world today.
Having been conquered by Tsarist Russia in the late 19th century, the
region was transformed into one of the main wheat producing areas in the
Soviet Union. The transformation was not without cost, however, as an
estimated 1/3 of the historically nomadic Kazak population died of starvation
during forced collectivization.
Since the dissolution of the USSR, the Central Asian nations have been
struggling to find direction and a sense of national identity. "I
think that it's fair to say that on the eve of [communism's fall] none
of these republics were prepared for independence," Wygant said.
Ironically, in most of the nations the government has changed very little-
Communist Party leaders have simply changed titles and kept almost authoritarian
Kazakhstan and the nations surrounding it are also fighting outside influences
from abroad and each other. "Before receiving independence it seemed
that all of us were Soviet People. After 1991, it is evident that there
is a great deal of interest [in the republics]," said Dr. Abikeyeva.
Dr. Abikeyeva recently arrived at Bowdoin from her native Kazakhstan,
where she serves as Arts and Culture Program Coordinator for the Soros
Foundation of Kazakhstan.
After independence, with Russia politically unstable, Chinese, Arabic,
and Western influences have been seeping into the cultures. Islamic influence
has been particularly strong. For example, under the USSR there was only
one Mosque in the Kazakhstan capital of 2 million. Since independence,
different sects of Islam have sent scholars and money to assist with the
construction of dozens of Mosques to stimulate the Muslim faith within
The status of women and children is also changing. Under Soviet Control,
women were expected and even required to receive a level of education
that was equal to their male counterparts. Now, Dr. Abikeyeva said, only
36 percent of teenage girls attend high school. Many can be found on the
streets peddling wares so that their family can have enough to eat. The
average monthly income in certain areas is enough to buy only 6 portions
That may change at least to some degree as western industry takes an
interest in the area's development. The sudden turning of heads is due
somewhat to the fact that the Central Asian Republics are an untapped
marketplace. More so, however, according to Gacicia, increasing western
economic influence is due to Central Asia's huge, untapped oil reserves,
who now works with CitiGroup Asset Management and specializes on firms
and industries involved in oil extraction in the former Soviet Union.
The former Soviet republics contain an estimated 2-8 percent of the world's
oil reserves and with North Sea reserves running dry and Western relations
with OPEC in question, multi-internationals are offering huge amounts
of money to governments for the rights to explore and drill within the
borders. According to Gacicia, the same big oil companies that own 83
percent of oil interests in the Middle East look to own a similar, if
not larger, share of the pie in Kazakhstan.
Hopefully, the investments that western industry is making in Central
Asia will improve the way of life, although according to Gacicia and Dr.
Abikeyeva it depends largely upon the way the governments of the different
countries spend the money they receive. Many allege that Uzbek president
Islom Karimov has more or less pocketed an extraordinary sum of money
given to Uzbekistan by the oil industry.
One thing, however, seems certain: life in Central Asia has changed drastically
and will continue to do so. "The newest history of Central Asia is
one of fighting, as the republics fight with each other for political
influence and people from other nations fight for [sway] over our culture,"
said Dr. Abikeyeva.