Central Asia is probably best known for two things: Afghanistan and The Silk Road. While both were important to the creation of the contemporary world, they have the effect of overshadowing other aspects of Central Asia that are just as important to our future.
The main issue with the region, which many people overlook, is the abundance of dictatorships in the area, and their relation to the regions future stability. People were so elated with the collapse of the Soviet Union that as international monitors were observing the transition to democracy in Eastern Europe, former Soviet strongmen were establishing themselves as authoritarian rulers of their respective “republics.”
The way these leaders came to power was by working their way up through the old Soviet system, and when the collapse of the Soviet Union came about, they simply transferring their power to the new republic they were in charge of ruling. All five of these men made the shift from totalitarianism to democracy by establishing presidential systems of government.
Many elements of the new governments have been criticized as being authoritarian and corrupt, an example of which includes the presidency of Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan. After running unopposed in a national election regarding independence, he began tailoring the constitution in a way that corresponded with his “liberal vision” of Kyrgyzstan.
I use quotes for liberal vision because Kyrgyzstan is involved in an international monitoring operation aimed stopping police officers and government officials from torturing, discriminating against, and depriving the civil rights of minority groups. In addition to state-sponsored torture, the government has been accused of election fraud, corruption, and suppression of non-violent dissent.
You may be asking yourself right now what relevance these people half way around the world in a mineral rich desert have on your life. The most topical point is, again, the subject of terrorism. Central Asia is predominantly Muslim although there are a great number of atheists and non-practicing Muslims due to the anti-religious campaigns carried out during the Soviet period.
Militant Islamist groups are beginning to develop in the region however, and continue to pose a threat to the currently stable region. The policy of all Central Asian governments, except for the previous rulers of Afghanistan the Taliban, has been to maintain a secular government with tight restrictions being placed on Islamist groups. And, if their economies fail, these repressed groups will likely be the fastest groups to come to power.
That is why Russia and the United States need to continue investing in the region, intertwine their interests and involvement in it, and maintain their integration of the countries economic, military and educational ties to keep it economically healthy and domestically secure.
The Soviets left an industrial base and infrastructure comparable to other modernizing states like Argentina and Mexico, and it would be an awful loss to allow a region that has developed so much, to fall behind thanks to something like lack of interest.
The former Soviet Republics, while possessing their own problems with authoritarianesque presidents, have an educated, modernized population (much like Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion). They would make great partners in the extraction of their massive petroleum deposits and other natural resources.
Should the region fail, however, you will see a replay of Afghanistan were a relatively secular society was catapulted, after years of instability, into the hands of terrorists and a hive of instability.