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How Russia's invasion of Ukraine changed its standing with other former Soviet republics

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's war in Ukraine is causing a geopolitical earthquake across much of the world. The former Soviet republics of Central Asia are watching closely and wondering what this means for them. Over the centuries, the region has seen mighty empires rise and fall, including their own. NPR's Philip Reeves sent this report from the Silk Road city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE SCRAPING)

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Morning begins in Samarkand after a night of heavy snow. Workers scrape away ice from the feet of this ancient city's favorite son.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: They're clearing the area around a giant statue of Timur, the 14th century warrior-emperor also known as Tamerlane. Historians over the centuries often portrayed Timur as a butcher, a marauding warlord from Central Asia who laid waste to cities from the Mediterranean to North India, sometimes piling up his enemies' skulls.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

REEVES: Samarkand was the capital of his empire. Here, Timur is viewed rather differently.

MASTONA HAYDAROVA: This is our hero, Amir Timur.

REEVES: Mastona Haydarova is trudging through the snow on her way to college.

HAYDAROVA: I think that he was a good person. He was very kind, as well.

REEVES: Kind?

HAYDAROVA: Yes. For his family, for his - the country, for the people.

REEVES: Laziza Nosirova's on her way to work. She's a teacher.

LAZIZA NOSIROVA: He is very great person, great and wise person, smart person.

REEVES: I mention Timur's reputation for violence.

NOSIROVA: This person was a very great person in our Uzbekistan, and that's all.

REEVES: That's all. OK.

When Uzbekistan gained independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its government used Timur to try to unify the nation. He was promoted by the then-president, the dictator Islam Karimov, as the symbol of national identity, a heroic ruler from a golden age whose legacy in this city includes some of the world's most exquisite Islamic architecture.

One example is the mausoleum in Samarkand where Timur's tomb lies under a bright blue dome. A group of tourists is lining up to go inside.

MADIMA SALIMOVA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "He was a great commander, a just emperor and a patron of science," says Madima Salimova, who's a guide. Here there's only one version of the Timur story. It's that of a great Islamic conqueror who put Central Asia squarely on the map.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Once upon a time, Samarkand became the capital of the world on the Amir Timur ruling.

REEVES: That map has changed entirely since then. These days, many struggle to pinpoint Uzbekistan on it. Central Asia tends to be viewed as a playing field on which others, especially Russia and China, compete for influence. The Soviet Union's long gone, yet Moscow still has huge economic and political clout, at least until now. Some here believe Russia's reach is weakened by the Ukraine war and that, while that map bears no resemblance to Timur's day, the wider world is beginning to pay more attention to Central Asia.

We're driving through Samarkand in a taxi to a place that symbolizes these changes. It's a lavish complex of eight hotels that opened in September to host some of the world's most powerful leaders - President Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and a dozen others. In all, they govern half the population of the planet. They gathered here for a security summit that the Kremlin hopes proved to the West that Russia is far from isolated.

As we gaze at these sparkling new structures on the old Silk Road, our Uzbek driver, Sherzad Azimov, is full of pride.

SHERZAD AZIMOV: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "Before, people often didn't know where Uzbekistan is," he says. "Now they do."

Since that summit, there's been a parade of senior foreign visitors to Uzbekistan from the European Union, Turkey, the U.S. and elsewhere. The Russians have dropped by to press the case for even deeper economic integration.

OTABEK BAKIROV: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "Our politicians used to go there," says Uzbek economist Otabek Bakirov. "Now the Russians come here." Bakirov believes Moscow's attempting a larger geopolitical play.

BAKIROV: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "Russia has become weak in the West," he says. "So it wants to be strong in the East."

Yet the invasion of Ukraine has changed opinions here, says Abdulla Abdukadirov, an economist and former Uzbek government official.

ABDULLA ABDUKADIROV: That was a tremendous shock to everyone, and that has changed the attitude and that has changed the mindset of millions in here, including me.

REEVES: Central Asians are tired of giant neighbors trying to muscle in and impose their geopolitical wishes, says Abdukadirov.

ABDUKADIROV: They may have whatever they want in their wish list, but we also have our wish list to change our society, to change our mindset and to change our destiny.

REEVES: Abdukadirov says the time's come for Central Asian countries to unite and put their collective interests first in order to have a voice. It's now or never, he says.

ABDUKADIROV: This kind of chance comes out maybe a hundred years, once. If we lose that momentum, then we will lose everything again.

REEVES: Unity is a tall order. Central Asia is notorious for border disputes and rivalries. Yet, as the people of the land of Timur know better than most, history is full of surprises.

ABDUKADIROV: We have to just wake up. It's time.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Samarkand.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DURUTTI COLUMN'S "SKETCH FOR A SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.