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A useful overview of recent Central Asian history
on July 21, 2009
This provides a thorough and often insightful account of the recent history of today's five Central Asian states: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The main focus is on the post-Soviet history of the new nations, but Hiro begins with an introductory chapter on the history of the region, starting from the earliest times and then providing increasingly detailed coverage through the Tsarist and Soviet periods up to 1950.
Each of the five nations is then covered in its own chapter, starting with its development in the final years of the USSR, then with its leap to independence, and then the subsequent years of nation building. There are many common themes, including the struggles to reassert (or create) a unifying national identity, to create functioning economies after the post-Soviet economic collapse, the tensions of overlapping ethnic groups, the resurgence of interest in traditional Islam, and a strong tendency towards authoritarian one-party rule.
The last twenty years have not always been easy in this region, and Hiro is willing to be fairly hard-hitting in discussing some of the difficulties, including the outright megalomania of Niyazov's personal rule in Turkmenistan, the regional rivalries behind the Tajikistan civil war, and the allegations of high-level corruption in Kazakhstan. He explains the background and consequences of ethnic tensions and Islamic movements in the Fergana valley, including the tensions that led to the tragic Andijon incident.
As well as the chapters on the five Central Asian nations, Hiro also includes chapters on Turkey and Iran. These are both useful short histories in their own right, but unfortunately the Turkish chapter is mostly unrelated to Central Asia, other than a few paragraphs noting Turkey's limited influence. The Iranian chapter is much more relevant, with an insightful explanation of how shared fears over the rise of the radical Sunni Taliban led to rapprochement between the generally secular Central Asian regimes and the strongly Shiite Iran.
While I found this work generally useful and readable, there are also some weaknesses. The writing quality is sometimes rather uneven and I got the impression that various parts of the book may have been written at different times, for different purposes. Especially in the chapter on Turkey, Hiro sometimes wanders off into strange side topics, such as the introduction of yogurt to 15th c. France. The two included maps are very weak (Kazakhstan's current capital is missing from both!).
But these quibbles aside, this is generally a very readable overview of the region. This is an area with a complex recent history, so having a single tightly written account is valuable.