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Turkistan: A patchwork quilt of people and traditions

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February 25, 2002 Posted: 3:56 PM EST (2056 GMT)
Turkistan: A patchwork quilt of people and traditions

By Joel Hochmuth

(CNN) -- It is a part of the world few could have predicted would be thrust into the international spotlight.

The Central Asian region known as Western Turkistan is gaining international scrutiny these days, largely because of its proximity to Afghanistan.

The region, north of Afghanistan, and wedged between Russia and China, is home to a variety of Turkic-speaking tribes who have lived in the area for more than 1500 years.

Today, Turkistan is threadbare in terms of economic riches, but it was once a flourishing trade center. Famed merchant and explorer Marco Polo crossed the region in 1273 on his voyage from Italy to China. He helped establish the "Silk Route" -- an ancient trade route that linked Rome and China. Not only were silk, gold and silver exchanged using this road, but ideas behind Christianity and Buddhism were freely traded as well.

"Historically … the Silk Road cities were fabulously wealthy, and you go back there now and your eyes are just opened in wonderment," said Charles Marvin, professor of law and an expert on Central Asia at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia.

CNN's Alessio Vinci reports on how a Uzbekistan family views the U.S.-led war on terrorism (October 17)

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It was the Soviet Union that divided Turkistan into the republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in the early 1920s.

Marvin compares the Soviet Union’s dicing up of land to those divisions made in Africa in the latter part of the 1800s.

The Western colonial powers in Africa "almost deliberately set up borders in certain ways between different colonies to split up major tribal groupings," he said.

When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, the five republics gained their independence, and so far they have generally been able to control the ethnic strife that has torn Afghanistan apart, with some exceptions.

"Tajikistan … is pretty much a tribal mess. There’s a very large contingent of Russian troops still in Tajikistan trying to keep order there," said Marvin.

Uzbekistan struggles with a contingent of Islamic Fundamentalists who are sympathetic to Osama bin Laden. The guerilla activity in that nation may be one reason Uzbekistan’s government is cooperating with the United States, and giving it permission to use its military bases, said Marvin.

"They relish getting the attention and they relish getting the … support for … the current regime," he said.

"On the other hand," Marvin said, "you’d be wary if you had the 500-pound gorilla coming in. How long is the 500-pound gorilla going to stay around?"

But the fact that the United States is developing relationships with countries in the region would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent visit to Uzbekistan is just another sign that Cold War animosities are fading under a new global threat.

• CIA -- The World Factbook

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Updated September 21, 2002

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