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.