BOOK REVIEW / Russian salad, Turkish delight: 'Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia' - Dilip Hiro: HarperCollins, 25 pounds

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NOT LONG after Armenia launched its war to 'liberate' Nagorno Karabakh from Azerbaijan, two men walked up to me in the central square of Stepanakert, the enclave's putative capital. Grad missiles had crashed onto the town a few hours earlier and a trail of distraught and shoeless refugees - Armenian victims of a failed Armenian offensive - stood around us weeping. The two men were shouting and waving a tatty piece of paper. 'See what the Turks are planning for us - we are the last bastion of Christianity against Islamic holy war,' one shrieked. The crude document - probably produced by the local version of the former KGB - contained a map of Stalin's most familiar central Asian nightmare.

From the left, a massive arrow soared out of eastern Turkey, smashed through Armenia and then snaked across Azerbaijan and northern Iran and on into Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In Turkish, the words 'Greater Turkic Plan' had been printed unconvincingly over the map - left behind, they insisted, by retreating Azeris. But the message was clear. The Muslims were coming. Turkey's grey wolves were about to overwhelm central Asia. 'Help us, help us,' the two men chorused to a western television crew.

But the West, as Dilip Hiro's latest monster tome makes clear, long ago decided to leave these fractious ex-Soviet colonies to the mercies of their former masters. Henry Kissinger, one of the more ruthless of the world's surviving brokers, summed it up this month in a few unctuous phrases: 'Iran and Turkey are seeking to increase their roles in the largely Muslim Republics of Central Asia,' he wrote, 'but the dominant geopolitical thrust has been Russia's attempt to restore its pre-eminence in all the territories formerly controlled by Moscow in the name of peacekeeping. The US, focussing on the 'goodwill' of a reformist government (in Moscow). . . has acquiesced.'

Poor old Muslims, you can't help thinking, as you follow Hiro's dismal trail across the steppes of Asia. There is something sadly familiar in the accounts of Muslim insurrection against the Tsars, of 19th-century calls for government by 'sharia' law. Lenin briefly took advantage of these emotions: 'your beliefs and customs . . . are free and inviolate,' he announced. But Stalin saw it as communism's duty to crush the 'counterfeit autonomy' of Muslim nationalism, and he purged the Imams of central Asia with just as much savagery as he did the counter-revolutionaries of Georgia and the Ukraine.

But it was the Tsar's own defensive wall of Russian immigrants around the motherland that originally destroyed the ethnic continuity of the would-be Islamic republics. Kazakhstan's Nursultan Nazarbayev - a 'balanced thinker', in one of Hiro's rasher assessments - today rules a nominally independent nation whose ethnic Khazaks make up only 43 per cent of the population. Last week, the CSCE declared his latest elections unfair, partly because many ethnic Russian candidates (representing 36 per cent of the population) had been barred from the poll. No wonder Alexander Solzhenitsyn recently urged Boris Yeltsin to grab back the northern (Russian) half of Kazakhstan.

Democracy has generally run a poor second in the old southern republics. A coup d'etat in Baku, massacres in Dushanbe - with Islamic rebels hunted down in the wilds of Badakhshan - and the continuing civil war in Afghanistan (a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia) show just how much the Muslims of central Asia 'need' Russian military peacekeepers. As Hiro cynically notes, the victors of the Afghan war - after their titanic battle against the Soviet army - were incensed to see Russian troops lining their northern frontier to 'protect' the supposedly independent, Muslim-majority state of Tajikistan.

If only Hiro was up to the task of recounting this epic tragedy. But his is a passionless schoolbook of almost incomprehensible detail, whose occasional historical flaws - a disgraceful glossing of the 1915 Armenian Holocaust, for example, in which the Armenians are portrayed as bringing about their own destruction - are matched by an awesome use of cliches, and readers are confronted by sentences like this: 'Following the Tsarist practice of calling Kazakhs Kyrgyzs, and Kyrgyzs Kara-Kyrgyzs, the Soviet authorities named the Kyrgyz-majority areas of Turkestan the Kara- Kyrgyz Autonomous Province . . .'

No wonder they called it the Great Game.