Central Asia may be the most important part of the world we know the least about.

The five countries of the region—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—are not usually headline news. There is the occasional story about the ongoing problems of the disappearing Aral Sea or a review of Kazakhstan's charming, Cannes award-winning film Tulpan, but otherwise, most Westerners probably cannot distinguish one "stan" from another.

Certainly, the current intensive debate between Kyrgyzstan and the United States over the future of the American air base in Manas, just outside the capital of Bishkek, remains out of the spotlight (despite the importance of the base to U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan).

This obscurity does not match up with the region's global importance. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asia has become an increasingly important pivot in international relations and economic development.

These states represent new and unintended threats as well as important possibilities. They are sites for a potential rise in radical Islam; for a freer circulation of drugs, conventional weapons, and nuclear materials; and for greater regional unrest, and border and ethnic conflicts. At the same time, they are lands of economic opportunity—especially in oil, gas, uranium, cotton, and other agricultural trade—and many promoters tout the idea of recreating the old Silk Road.

Most immediately, this region is crucial to the Obama administration's plans to deal with a revived war in Afghanistan, and with an increasingly volatile Pakistan. For their part, Europe, Russia, and China all want stability in the region, and both Russia and China are actively nurturing economic and diplomatic ties with the Central Asian countries.

Almost two decades after these five nations achieved independence, they can no longer remain unknown to us.

Central Asia: People and Places

Central Asia is a large, landlocked region, with fewer than 60 million people spread over a generally desert and mountainous terrain. For centuries, the famous Silk Road passed through Central Asia bringing goods between China and Europe. Those trading routes also brought Islam, and places like Bukhara became globally renowned centers of Islamic culture and learning.

However, with the great European maritime discoveries of the fifteenth century, overland trading caravans were increasingly eclipsed by boats. By the seventeenth century, the formerly illustrious and powerful Uzbek khanates had all but been reduced to distant peripheries of the expansive Russian, British, and Chinese empires.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, Central Asia had entered into the sphere of influence of Russia, which had become the main power in the region. The focus of Russian imperialism, like in other European colonies, was the exploitation of natural resources. Raw materials (especially cotton) were sent to the metropole; administrators and finished products were sent back.

Russian domination only increased after the 1917 Revolution. For Central Asian societies, modernity arrived through the political and social experience of Soviet communism. The Soviet experiment involved massive investment in education and literacy (including the alphabetization of the major languages), opportunities for local elites to assume leadership positions as part of Soviet "affirmative action" campaigns, and the creation of the states we know today through the laying down of administrative borders for the republics.

The Soviet years also involved forced settlement of nomadic peoples, waves of ruthless destruction of official Islam, arrests and banishment as a tool of governance, economic relations that privileged Moscow not Central Asia, and an unending litany of ecological disasters.

The Soviet Legacy in Central Asia

When the Central Asian states were thrust into independence in 1991, they felt abandoned by Moscow and the "Slav republics" (Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus). It was a generally unwanted independence, given to them in an unstable and largely unfavorable context. Their elites were ill-prepared, their economies dependent on Russia, and their borders complex.

Still, in the 1990s, there was much cause for optimism concerning the region's potential development.

Central Asia inherited many assets from the Soviet regime. Each state was equipped with a relatively well-developed industrial and/or agricultural sector (such as cotton in Uzbekistan)—even if the end of Moscow's subsidies for unprofitable factories put the local economies in a very difficult position.

The region also enjoyed literacy rates close to one hundred percent, as well as a relatively high level of education, particularly in the technical sector. The health system was also well developed and endemic diseases had generally been wiped out during the Soviet period. It was taken for granted that women were in the workforce, and child labor remained minimal.

Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan had a vast wealth of raw materials—gas and oil in particular, but also strategic minerals such as uranium. Many international investors looking to reduce their dependence on the politically unstable Middle East became very interested in the Caspian Sea petroleum resources.

Thus, immediately after independence, Central Asia managed to avoid the typical problems that afflict many less developed countries. Most significantly, the Central Asian states (with the exception of Tajikistan from 1992-1997) have successfully managed to prevent their societies from sliding into civil war or violent interethnic clashes of the likes seen in the Caucasus [For more on recent violence in Georgia, see "Clash in the Caucasus"].

Finding Its Place in a Complex World

Upon independence, all five countries tried to free themselves from Russia's influence. They initially established relationships with states considered culturally similar, like Turkey and Iran, or with Islamic powers, like Pakistan and the Gulf countries.

But these ties did not last very long. Fearing danger from a burgeoning and uncontrolled Islam, the Central Asian authorities restricted their links with Arab countries as early as the mid-1990s. In addition, trade with Turkey turned out to be less profitable than the two parties had imagined in the heyday of their "renewing of ties" in 1991-1992. The economic structures of the new states made it difficult for them to exit the Russian sphere of influence, and Moscow remained their primary partner in many sectors.

Indeed, Moscow has recently made a return to the region and is now considered a legitimate strategic and political ally. Even though Russian politicians at times speak with grand references to the imperial legacy, Russia's actual economic and security practices are doggedly pragmatic. Russia's ability to co-opt rather than coerce Central Asian elites, its political legitimacy, and its cultural values all comprise significant factors that work in favor of its continued dominance in Central Asia.

In the past few years, China has also gained significantly in importance in Central Asia and is now in a position to pose a threat to Russian preeminence, particularly on a commercial level. Perceived as the number one enemy at the time of independence, China is gradually winning sympathizers among the Central Asian political elites. A feeling of mistrust about Beijing's "hidden" objectives remains and there is no shortage of public critiques of the Chinese presence. Yet, many regional leaders can barely conceal their admiration for Beijing's dynamism.

Shortly after independence, most Central Asian states turned markedly toward the European Union and the United States. The U.S. and EU were keenly interested in the process of denuclearization and in the region's vast oil and gas resources. They were also happy to gain sway in a region formerly in Russia's sphere.

Nevertheless, economic relations remained relatively weak and cooperation gradually shifted to the military domain. This was particularly true after September 11, 2001 when the U.S. installed two bases in the region, one in Karshi in Uzbekistan and the other in Manas in Kyrgyzstan.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, however, the United States' influence in the region is waning. By 2005, Washington had become increasingly disenchanted with Uzbek authoritarian policies. At the same time, under pressure from Moscow, Bishkek has demanded the closure of the last American base in the region (although negotiations continue). The European Union's strengthened presence since 2006-2007 has not been enough to provide western countries with any meaningful influence compared to that of Moscow and Beijing.

Political Power and Corruption

After that initial period of post-independence optimism, Central Asian nations have reverted to the worst aspects of one-party dictatorships.

Over the past few years, citizens in all five states have seen a reduction in their political freedoms. Opposition parties have either been placed in very difficult situations (Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan) or are unable to exist (Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan). The media has also had limits placed on its freedom of expression. Reports of human rights abuses are widespread.

All the heads of state, many of whom were former first secretaries of the Communist Party of their respective republics, have used and abused the principle of the referendum to extend their presidential mandates.

Multi-party elections, when they occur, are largely devoid of any democratic meaning. The fairness of most elections held in the region since 1991 has been challenged by foreign observers, particularly by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Central Asian heads of states have also succeeded in securing power for their own families and favorites. All the presidents have personally misappropriated a part of the country's resources, and have charged foreign investors exorbitantly for the privilege of doing business.

This patronage-based system, deeply rooted in the daily reality of Central Asia, contributes to widespread corruption at all levels of society. All administrative posts have to be bought, not only in key fields such as justice and the police but also in small public services, education, agriculture, and industry. The population can be charged for even the smallest administrative procedure, and the financial demands of the police are particularly feared. As for teachers, they compensate their mediocre wages by bribing pupils at exam sessions.

Islam and Authoritarian Secularism

Once a locus of Islamic learning renowned the world over, the Central Asian states now struggle to find a place for religion—and Islam in particular—in their new political and social frameworks. Hoping to have their cake and eat it too, they have worked to construct a secular framework that expunges Soviet atheism, and privileges Islam while simultaneously keeping a grip on certain Islamic practices.

Almost immediately, Central Asian states were quick to restrict religious freedoms when confronted with religious movements that the regimes deem "dangerous" to social and political stability, "extremist," or "terrorist."

In particular, the last ten years have been marked by multiple attacks against so-called "Wahhabi" Islam, a derogatory name used to condemn any politicized movement or any Muslim community that refuses to submit to the "Spiritual Boards," the official institutions of religious control.

Ironically, the events of September 11, 2001 and the American-led international "war on terror" have made it easier for the ruling elites to justify greater repression of religion. Central Asian leaders have encouraged not only the international community but also their own populations—which are fearful of the possibility of civil war or the coming to power of religious extremists—to turn a blind eye to the regimes' abuses of power.

In Uzbekistan in particular, any form of opposition, even secular, has been liquidated on the pretext of religious fundamentalism. The authorities have officially banned external signs of religiosity, such as wearing a beard for men or a scarf for women. They also put pressure on state employees by forcing them not to join religious associations if they hope to be promoted.

These harsh tactics have often not achieved the government's aims—and, quite the opposite, have served to link Islam with popular strivings for greater political participation and power.

Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government is locked in confrontation with Islamist parties. Uzbekistan, which was considered the most stable state in the region throughout the 1990s, has become a cauldron whose explosive potential is feared by everyone. With every act of opposition or political destabilization, state repression has increased.

Drug Trafficking and Narco-States

Until the end of the 1990s, Central Asia played only a transit role in the global drug trade, but this situation has changed. Today the five states are also becoming sites of production, refining, and consumption.

If Central Asians aspire to reconstruct some new version of the trade networks of the old Silk Road, so far they have found themselves caught instead in the middle of a "drug road." More than one third of the record-levels of opium grown in Afghanistan reaches Russia and Western Europe via one of the two major Central Asian roads.

Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and even more so Tajikistan can in fact be classified as "narco-states." State representatives, at each administrative level, from the directors of collective farms to regional authorities and the highest-ranking state officials (i.e. the presidential families), are directly involved in the drug trade. It has corrupted the entire state structure, in particular customs officers and the police corps.

The fact that both the political leadership and the oppositional Islamist circles receive considerable revenues from the drug trade makes it difficult for anyone to apply effective counter measures.

With the Soviet Union's policing authority gone, drugs that previously had been limited to traditional and local usage have been commercialized as big business and controlled by organized criminal groups. These crime networks have developed into highly integrated commercial ventures, managing transport networks, chemical and pharmaceutical products, money laundering companies, and banking structures.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Chui valley is reported to grow close to 5 million tons of hemp, which is capable of producing nearly 6,000 tons of hashish, as well as more than 2,000 hectares of poppies capable of yielding 30 tons of opium per year. The four other states have followed suit.

Refining laboratories are sprouting up rapidly in Central Asia, making it possible to rake in huge profits prior to sending stocks to Russia and Europe. More than a hundred opium processing laboratories, each capable of producing twenty kilograms of heroin per day, are reportedly active.

The trade boom with China has played a major role in the development of these laboratories, since the Chinese chemical industry was the first to furnish the chemical products necessary for the transformation of opium into heroin, notably acetic anhydride.

Central Asia has also become a zone of drug consumption. The few figures available indicate that urban jobless youth are not the only users, but that the scourge has also affected rural milieus and in dramatic proportions. This is particularly so in Turkmenistan, where over 100,000 people are affected, but also in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley, in the south of Kyrgyzstan, and throughout practically all of Tajikistan.

The Poverty of Independence

Drug trafficking, corruption, and repressive politics have led predictably enough to the impoverishment of Central Asia's people.

The implementation of a market economy has been accompanied by a radical disengagement on the part of the state in key sectors such as social protection, the health system, and public education. The result is massive pauperization that only Kazakhstan is currently in a position to address. Land redistribution efforts have also been generally ineffective at improving conditions in rural areas.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan rank among the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per inhabitant of approximately USD$350 per year. According to UN figures, approximately 70 percent of Tajikistan's population lives below the poverty line on less than a dollar per day. Entire regions of people suffer malnutrition and even near-famine. In Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan this figure drops to 50 percent, but numerous zones remain on the verge of economic strangulation.

The 2008 world financial crisis has dramatically weakened these already fragile economies, and intensified general social discontent. In particular, the large numbers of Central Asian migrants (nearly three million Tajiks, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks) that go to work in Russia and Kazakhstan each year, mostly on construction worksites, returned to their countries of origin this year without the expected money.

In some sense, the Central Asian economies are still based on the colonial model: over-dependent on the export of natural resources. Kazakhstan is reliant on its oil, which represents more than 20 percent of its budget revenues and 58 percent of its exports; Turkmenistan on its gas, which accounts for 57 percent of its exports, while its cotton makes up 25 percent of state revenues; and Uzbekistan on its cotton and its gold, which represent 17 and 25 percent of its exports, respectively.

The two poorest states, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, have neither hydrocarbon reserves nor exportable agricultural products, and have to make do with a few mono-productions of precious metals. The region's development is thus subject to the ups and downs of world prices of oil, gas, metals and cotton.

The poverty is made all the worse by a widening gulf of social inequalities, weak administrative structures, and an absence of either real legal constraints or institutional mechanisms to ensure that economic decisions are made in the public interest.

Kazakhstan is the only state to have any real economic dynamism, primarily in oil production. Its rates of growth, which have reached between 5 and 8 percent a year since the beginning of the 2000s, have made it possible to half the number of persons living beneath the poverty line (the figure has lowered to about 20 percent) and a GDP per inhabitant estimated at US$9,400 in 2006.

A Central Asian Future

The great international fear of the 1990s that Central Asia would slide into a mafia-style economic system financed by drug traffic networks, and characterized by the connivance between the ruling political circles and clandestine economic structures—into which radical Islam is trying to insert itself—appears to have become reality.

Though the risks of civil war—which were real after the disappearance of the USSR—have seemingly faded, the political and economic achievements of the region remain far from outstanding. With the exception of Kazakhstan, the Central Asian states have been sliding steadily into economic crisis.

In addition, again with the sole exception of Kazakhstan, political stability ought not to be regarded as a certainty in the region, despite the authoritarian nature of the regimes.

Kyrgyzstan is probably the most troubling case. The Kyrgyz state only exercises limited authority over its territory, is divided into clans defending particular interests, and is undermined by the shadow economy, while in the country's south Islamists publicly preach to the Uzbek and Kyrgyz minorities, and some of the youth are rapidly radicalizing.

In Uzbekistan, Hizb ut-Tahrir—an international, pan-Islamic Sunni political party—is taking root by setting up clandestine structures that make up for the lack of state presence: it gives financial aid to pauperized rural milieus, to single mothers with children, for free education, and for the organization of political discussions to develop criticisms of the established authorities.

The domestic tribulations of the Central Asian states could reverberate throughout the entire region, foremost in Afghanistan, but they could also have a negative impact on Pakistan, Iran, Chinese Xinjiang, and Russia. The effect of "losing" Central Asia will likely be detrimental to world politics for years to come.

Though they seem remote and poverty-stricken, it has never been so urgent that we pay greater attention to these poorly understood places.