CENTRAL Asia has long been one of the key fronts in America’s ideological battle and information war against Russia.
A year ago, the American geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor published its forecast for US policy in Central Asia, which focuses much attention on Russia. Analysts from this agency, which is dubbed the ‘Shadow CIA’, indicated in this forecast that the United States is looking to strengthen ties with countries along the periphery of the former Soviet Union — from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and Central Asia — in an effort to put more pressure on Russia. A geopolitical war is going to be waged against Russia, or a multi-domain battle to use the American military terminology, affecting the political, economic, energy and military spheres.
Washington has long identified the Central Asian republics and Afghanistan a ‘zone of US national interests’, which is why this region is targeted with the full spectrum of American information campaigns. In order for these campaigns to be effective, not only have so-called ‘independent’ media outlets and pro-western NGOs, been making a massive contribution in Central Asia over the past number of years, which the US has been busily implanting in the region, but military specialists in information warfare have also been recruited — servicemen from the United States Army’s 4th Psychological Operations Group. The 8th Psychological Operations Group is responsible for work in Central Asia, which runs the Caravanserai information portal, a website specifically created to counter Russia, sponsored by the United States Central Command and targeted at residents of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
The main aim shared by most of the information campaigns Washington supports is to separate the regional population from Russia, mentally and psychologically, and to undermine Russia’s position in Central Asia. The campaigns mainly target young people in the hope that the leaders of the future in these countries will have been brought up on western ‘democratic’ ideals and will therefore be less inclined to partner with Russia.
Special programs are being launched and implemented by NGOs and ‘independent’ media outlets in order to counteract Russia’s influence in the CIS countries. For instance, a new five-year program called MediaCAMP was presented at the end of last year in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, which is run in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan by an American NGO called Internews Network (California, USA), and receives heavy funding from the United States Agency for International Development. The program has a budget of $15 million. Its official goal is ‘to develop a more balanced information environment’, but in reality, it is used for intensive anti-Russian propaganda. Internews Network had its activity suspended in Russia back in 2007, but it has continued to operate efficiently in most Central Asian countries up to this day. The USAID Agency, funded by the United States federal government, also ran programs in Russia up until 2012 when it was banned.
One clear example of the United States’ involvement in this anti-Russian information war in Central Asia would be the material that was published at the end of January by the Pentagon’s Caravanserai information portal mentioned earlier, pushing Central Asian countries to switch to the Latin alphabet. At the same time, Washington does not try to hide the fact that specialists in information warfare are pushing people to use the Latin alphabet instead of the Cyrillic alphabet, and it is part of their plan because it primarily acts as a tool to drive a cultural wedge between Russia and the Central Asian republics, and would erase the Russian language’s historical presence in Eurasia, constricting and shrinking the Russian-speaking cultural sphere and sphere of information.
It is important to remember that the extensive process of transcribing almost all the languages spoken in the Soviet Union into Cyrillic, which began in 1935, was one of the measures the Soviet government took to unite people in the former USSR. This included transliterating languages with a rich written tradition, interrupted by the reforms of the late 1920s, and languages that had only recently adopted a written form. By 1940, the ‘Cyrillization of the entire country’ was largely complete. Dozens of languages acquired a writing system which united them with the Russian cultural sphere, and it was essentially the first time speakers of these languages received access to a single Eurasian space to share information. After the Second World War ended with Soviet victory in 1945, the Cyrillic alphabet was further consolidated as the main alphabet in the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc which was beginning to take shape (for example, the Cyrillic alphabet was introduced in Mongolia).
That is why Caravanserai’s sponsors not only see replacing the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin alphabet as a kind of symbolic act; it is also meant to drive a mental and psychological wedge between Central Asian countries and Russia. This is the precise aim of the language conflict and Russophobia Washington has been encouraging in the Baltic States, Ukraine, and in some countries in the Caucasus.
It was Washington that began stirring things up, stressing the need for Latinization in Central Asian countries through various channels under its control in Kazakhstan, where Russian is not only a native language for the ethnic Russians who live there, but also for many of the Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Germans and Koreans living in Kazakhstan. Now the Russian language has even been erased from Kazakhstan’s national tenge banknotes. Around 300 thousand people have emigrated from Kazakhstan over the past 10 years, most of them Slavs, and to some extent, it is due to this policy. As it was put in an article published in the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita in November 2017, ‘by abandoning the Cyrillic alphabet, Nazarbayev is cutting the umbilical cord with Russia.’
Latinization has also been foisted in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
However, as we have seen in recent years, switching to the Latin alphabet has clearly been an unhappy experience in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Thus, it is worth recalling that Uzbekistan looked to the Turkish model in its first years of independence, and switching to the Latin alphabet was viewed a sort of ‘basis for unity’. Transitioning to the Latin alphabet also came to symbolise national identity and independence for the new Uzbek authorities. At the time however, no one stopped to consider the financial side of this transition, the costs associated with transliterating a huge archive of literature from Cyrillic into Latin script. Another thing no one saw coming was the conflict between generations reading in different alphabets. Relations between Uzbekistan and Turkey cooled within a very short space of time, the alphabet stayed the same, but the country’s education suffered a significant loss, which even affected basic literacy.
Attempts to switch to Latin have unleashed significant problems in Kazakhstan. In the 80 years since Kazakhstan made the transition from Arabic to Cyrillic, a huge network of libraries was created in this country, even in remote villages. The country had already achieved a literacy rate of 100 per cent, which meant that the whole ‘matrix’ of thinking for the entire population would need to be changed in switching to a new alphabet, and that would not only entail significant financial costs, but would also create generational conflict.
People in the region have responded to the attempts the west has been making to replace the Cyrillic alphabet with the Latin alphabet in Central Asian countries as fast as possible. They have increasingly begun to realise that there is no point in making this transition. Russian is a second language in Central Asian countries anyway, these states are geographically, economically, politically and linguistically distant from the west, and they are members of the Eurasian Economic Union, where the working language is Russian. Given these circumstances, there is a growing understanding that this issue requires a logical approach and some common sense, and linguistic problems should not be politicised.
Various foreign NGOs, such as Freedom House and other similar organisations, have been interfering in the domestic affairs of Central Asian states, destroying the linguistic and cultural heritage of the people who live there, and clearly pose a threat to their constitutional order, a threat coming from outside the region, so it is therefore unsurprising that this issue has been discussed more and more heatedly over recent years, with an increasingly resounding negative tone.
New Eastern Outlook, December 4. Vladimir Odintsov is a politologist.