Central Asia is seldom covered in the international press and when it is, it is often condensed politically, geographically, and economically into a single unit — an amalgamation that does the job but doesn’t do it well. In 2016, the region’s states will celebrate 25 years of independence — it’s high time we discuss them individually and collectively with more nuance. The first step to achieving that will be to abandon the cliches and tropes of the past. In the spirit of the annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness, I humbly submit the following for exclusion from 2016 Central Asia coverage:
Great Game: Everyone loves a great game — Monopoly, Risk and Civ 5 come to mind — but in Central Asia this tired phrase stands in as a substitute for explaining modern geopolitical dynamics. The Great Game is, first, a reference to a specific historical period during which both Imperial Russia and the British Empire were expanding their influence in South and Central Asia and vying with each other for dominance in the areas between their empires. In modern usage, it’s applied to the perpetual contest — real and imagined — between external powers for influence in Central Asia, with the regional states cast as pawns or mere scenery. The problem is that this phrase robs regional states of their own role in events.
Yes, Russia and China have huge interests in Central Asia (some of which align and others which don’t) but coverage like this recent article in the Washington Post that looks at “Chinese inroads in Russia’s backyard,” ignore the interests and machinations of regional powers themselves. The article discusses Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping and the interests of Moscow and Beijing, but never once mentions a Central Asian leader by name.
If there is a game in Central Asia, it is a game of many players. It’s not a football match between two teams — in which the region itself is merely the pitch — but rather more like a lopsided, multiplayer version of chess in which two players have significantly more pieces than the rest but can’t run roughshod over the board without consequences. The smaller players have their own goals and ambitions and use the larger players to achieve them. Even that analogy is lacking to a certain extent, but at least grants the countries of Central Asia a degree of autonomy in their own affairs.
Spillover: After Great Game, spillover is perhaps the most-used phrase regarding Central Asia. But the imagery is inaccurate and so too is the implication. First, on imagery. Spilling over is what happens when a glass is too full; liquid breaks past the rim and the cup runneth over. In a political context, it refers to the spread of a conflict from one area to another. People have been discussing the spillover of violence and extremism from Afghanistan into Central Asia as long as there has been unrest in Afghanistan. This became particularly in-vogue in the 1990s and hasn’t gone away.
To demonstrate, guess when the following headlines and statements were published:
AFP headline: “Putin warns of spillover from Afghanistan fighting”
ITAR-TASS headline: “Afghanistan: Uzbek president on possible spillover over of fighting”
Washington Times lede: “The United States is likely to be no more anxious to see the disintegration of central authority in Afghanistan — Marxist or not — than are the Central Asian nation’s immediate neighbors, who fear a spillover of violence and Muslim fundamentalism.”
AP lede: “Islamic terrorism, partly a spillover from Afghanistan , poses a threat in Central Asia…”
This isn’t to say that persistent instability in Afghanistan shouldn’t worry the state of Central Asia — every state should be worried by a war next door — but it’s time to retire the phrase “spillover.”
And a special mention for the word election (and its derivatives elected and re-elected). Central Asia held four elections in 2015 and only one actually resembled a democratic election. We really need a different word for the “re-election” of Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev in 2015.