Where Brezhnev is still in vogue: Hugh Pope in Tashkent finds Central Asia's new republics slow to change

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WHEN Lenin Boulevard in the capital of Central Asia's biggest city, Tashkent, had to be renamed, the leadership of newly-independent Uzbekistan did not look for inspiration to a forward-looking Democracy Boulevard or back to one of the tyrannical old emirs of Bukhara.

The honour went instead to the late Asil Rashidov, Communist Party first secretary and viceroy of this cotton- rich country during what many ordinary Central Asians now see as the golden age of Leonid Brezhnev.

The choice spoke volumes about the ideologies developing in the five former Soviet Muslim states of Central Asia, each distinct but sharing a mostly Turkic Muslim culture and a crucial 150 years of national formation under Russian rule.

Communist parties have changed their names but the same old-guard elite has continued much as before: a well-entrenched alliance of regional clans, local Russian technocrats and Mafia-like business connections.

Mr Rashidov may have been disgraced by the early 1980s for what Moscow saw as corruption, nepotism and massive inflation of Uzbekistan's cotton production figures. But what matters to his proteges, who now hail him as a father of the Uzbek nation, is that he made the system work.

New Central Asian ideologies, such as they are, are elaborations on the 'Communist' model of Soviet days. Local nationalisms have been substituted for the former emphasis on Russianness, but still in the context of a multi-ethnic state. The overall idea seems more Chinese than Russian, emphasising a slow movement to market reforms and lip-service to democratic ideals while keeping a lid on any opposition activity.

In practice, the young, fragile and landlocked Central Asian states are maintaining Soviet-era commercial and defence relationships with Russia and former Soviet states while seeking to balance that with new links between each other and the outside world wherever possible.

All three main Central Asian countries - Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan - are still ruled by their former Communist Party first secretaries. Tajikistan once again has an old-guard government under a former collective-farm manager.

The more democratic exception is Kyrgyzstan, led by the open-minded former president of its academy of sciences, approving a new free-market constitution this month and issuing its own currency to shield itself from rouble inflation. But Kyrgyzstan is very small and could only stand by and watch when Uzbekistan secret police kidnapped opposition leaders attending a human-rights conference in its capital, Bishkek.

Two home-grown models stand as alternatives, one nationalist-democratic, the other Islamic-democratic. Their success seems to have as much to do with the weakness of particular former Communist leaders as the appeal of alternative ideologies.

In Azerbaijan in the Caucasus - not part of Central Asia but still a pioneer among the six Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union - a nationalist-democratic movement took power when Abulfez Elchibey was elected president last June. Central Asian states have applied a kind of cordon sanitaire against any contagion from democratic Azerbaijan which, like Moscow, has even been used as a place of asylum by dissidents fleeing repression on the eastern side of the Caspian Sea.

An Islamic-democratic 'opposition' alliance seized power in September in Tajikistan, but was ousted 10 weeks later by a revitalised coalition of old-guard interests, local militia gunmen and conservative regional powers led by neighbouring Uzbekistan. Fighting continues, but the Islamic-democratic failure there has shifted the Central Asian balance of power back in favour of the 'former Communists'.

The slow rate of change in Central Asia has a number of causes. Inviting as the region looked to players of the 19th-century Great Game between British India and the Russian Empire, the fact is that long before the Russians' eventual victory, the independent city states of Transoxania had lost the prosperity and cultural leadership seen by Marco Polo in the days when the Silk Road ruled trade between China and the West.

Especially in the Soviet period, it was Russian settlers and the local elites whom they trained in Russian- language schools who became the dominant force in building modern societies. They replaced ruling cliques, limited peasant agriculture, urban merchants and nomadic raiders specialising in slaves.

Those who resisted the new Soviet reality were dealt with severely. Some estimates say a quarter of the Kazakhs were killed under Stalin, either starving as he forcibly settled them on impossible collective farms in the desert or murdered in purges of the merchant or religious classes.

The old Islamic culture was obliterated or forced underground. Religious centres such as Bukhara were wrecked and then sidelined into slow decline. The region, most of which was once known as Turkistan, was divided into five pieces with diabolical borders full of potential for ethnic discord if anyone was rash enough to attempt to dismantle the system.

For the many who played along with the systemised corruption and official ideology, there were few problems in the Soviet era. With the breakdown of the former Soviet economy, Central Asians speak warmly of a time when everybody got enough to eat, when things were cheap and there was no lurking fear of civil war.

(Map omitted)