BOOK REVIEW / Genteel compliments from Central Asian bandits: 'Between Marx and Mohammed' - Dilip Hiro: HarperCollins, 25 pounds

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The Independent Online
CENTRAL ASIA is a place that conjures up images of adventure, as a landlocked region of foreign meddling, subversion and invasion now ruled by socialist bureaucrats, mafia bosses and politicians from the would-be democrats to the downright feudal.

Dilip Hiro has produced the first and only book to summarise Central Asian history following the collapse of the Soviet Union until late 1993. The bare-bones style of the narrative, however, makes heavy going for even a determined reader. Hiro leaves to others any passion about the region's national awakening, ethnic bloodshed and ecological disasters.

Between Marx and Mohammad is nevertheless a useful survey of the six new mainly Muslim republics that emerged blinking on to the world stage in 1991: Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Hiro sensibly includes parallel surveys of related developments in neighbouring Muslim states such as Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Hiro explains how Stalin carved up the borders of Central Asia to create new nations, but also to keep them at each others' throats. He details how Soviet rule first brought education and development, but later brought murderous purges and suppression of the traditional Islamic elites.

Hiro documents the increasing involvement of neighbouring states as Soviet power deteriorated into underhand military intervention. He concludes that Moscow will continue to have an even greater say in regional affairs than, for instance, the United States in Central and South America.

Hiro also argues that a new relationship between secular Turkey and Islamic Iran has been misrepresented in the West, and that the two states are now realising they have more to gain by co-operating.

Turkey learnt the limits of its influence when the pro-Turkish President Abulfez Elchibey was ousted in Azerbaijan: but despite the supposed 'secular Turkish model', Hiro underlines the little-noticed fact that some of the Turks' main policies in Central Asia have been to finance Muslim schools, to send Korans and rebuild mosques.

Iran was certainly disappointed by the failure of the Islamicists in Tajikistan. But although Tehran was built up in the West as a dangerous fundamentalist bugbear, Hiro rightly points out that Tehran has mostly acted merely pragmatically, notably in helping out Christian Armenia.

The strength of Hiro's book is the effort he has spent on tracking down hard-to-find elements of the region's history: the book will be invaluable to businessmen, diplomats or journalists as a reference work on political events. Hiro has not set out to say anything new, however. Most of his sources are secondary. There is little that amounts to an argument about the future course of events, the overall direction of Islamic fundamentalism or post-Soviet economic restructuring.

The narrow political narrative does not make easy cover-to-cover reading. As each chapter takes each of the nine countries through its basic chronology an uninitiated reader is likely to become overwhelmed by dates, politicians' names and acronyms at the rate of a dozen a page. Footnotes indicate that Hiro spent a few months in the region, but there are virtually no physical descriptions.

Introducing one of the men who changed the course of events in Central Asia - a colourful Tajik bandit who ruled towns devastated by his militia from a bullet-chipped office, exchanging genteel compliments with foreign lady visitors and animal roars with his henchmen - Hiro does note that the Soviet Union had jailed him for a murder. But his definition of the local mafia is typically understated: 'a network of men possessing administrative-economic influence.'