Normally the existence of the ‘stan’ countries of central Asia are of little interest to us in Europe or America. The recent death of — or, rather, an untidy succession to — Islam Karimov, President of Uzbekistan, is likely to change all that for several reasons.
One is that Uzbekistan is potentially politically explosive. It was only the brutal tyranny of Karimov that kept a restless Muslim majority of the population at bay. Now that Isil is being snuffed out in Syria and Libya will Uzbekistan extremists return home from abroad? Will the country become another Afghanistan?
Another is that Uzbekistan has huge fossil fuel and mineral interests — including the world’s largest gold mine — that will attract the major powers. Russia and China both have oil and gas pipelines running through Uzbekistan and will want them to be protected.
Another reason — and perhaps the most interesting — is that Uzbekistan with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on eastern and western sides of it, lies on what used to be the Silk Road. Not just lying on a trading route, several cities glowed with prosperity until about 1500 — manufacturing centres with products of the greatest skills. For several centuries Samarkand was one of the most advanced cities on earth equivalent to Rome or Baghdad.
And, as to its Silk Road past, Uzbekistan is going to feature importantly as part of a new expressway between northern China and Europe. This is the main project of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) authored by China and already subscribed to by all the countries along its route. Uzbekistan and its contiguous ‘stans’ are likely to be the fastest economic catch-ups of any so far.