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Democratic Reform: Long-Term Answer To Ethnic Strife

THE Kazakh government eliminates Russian as one of the official languages of Kazakhstan. At the same time, the parliaments of the four Turkic republics announce they are coming together under one flag. As a response, the Russians, who form the majority in the northern provinces of Kazakhstan, vote for secession from the country in a referendum. Their decision is not recognized by the Alma-Ata government, and the Kazakh army is sent to the northern provinces to quell the disturbances there. The next day, Russia announces it is sending military forces as well to defend its fellow Russians.

This scenario might sound far-fetched to many in the United States, but to people here and elsewhere in the Central Asian republics, it sounds plausible; it is what two professors at the Alma-Ata University say will happen if Kazakhstan tries to unite with the other Turkic republics.

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The only reason the Kazakh government has not eliminated Russian as an official language, they say, is its fear of secession by the northern provinces.

"If we do it now, we'd lose the north in one day," says Makash Tatimov, professor of sociology. "We don't have enough forces to protect them now. But when we are more powerful, we'll do all this."

As the western world focused its attention on the ethnic violence in Bosnia, similar tensions rising in other parts of the world have gone unnoticed. And as Americans, turned inward to domestic issues during an election campaign that seemed to last forever, these ethnic bombs ready to explode any moment have piled up at our doorstep. The Clinton administration needs to defuse them.

Although Central Asia is not the only "ethnic bomb" that calls for US leadership, it provides a good example of tensions building in many regions around the world.

The rising Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Tajik, or Turkmen nationalism is, first of all, a backlash against years of cultural domination and oppression of one group of people by another group. The central government in Moscow not only exploited the region economically for the last 70 years; it also tried to extinguish the local cultures. The native languages of the people were pushed aside in favor of Russian in every aspect of life, from education and government offices to literature. Russians were moved to th e region and placed in key positions of local governments.

As in many other parts of the world, religion has also become a dividing factor when manipulated by inside and outside forces who benefit from such divisions. Islam has been growing among the people of Central Asia as they try to reclaim their religious traditions following 70 years of forced atheism. The Muslim/non-Muslim divide widens as religion is put forward as a reason to hate and separate.

The tragic economic situation in the former Soviet Union is another factor in the rising tensions. As resources get scarcer, people fight harder for them. And it becomes easier to blame others, especially if they are perceived as "different," for the problems.

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What can the US do?

It is more difficult to solve ethnic conflicts once they have degenerated into wars. Bosnia is the best example. Many people would like to see the bloodshed end, but few can answer "how?" It is definitely more beneficial to defuse the bomb before it explodes than to try to clean up the debris afterwards. The US cleaned up the debris in Kuwait, but some of it is still left in Baghdad. And wouldn't it have been better if we could have solved the conflict between the two countries before one invaded the oth er? At least hundreds of thousands would not have died.

The United States needs to take a leadership role promoting cooperation between nations living together in one state or in neighboring states. It needs to emphasize integration instead of separation in the upcoming century. While paying close attention to ethnic minority rights all around the world, it also needs to discourage secession as a simple method of self-determination. Secessionist tendencies spur ethnic oppression, which fuels secessionist tendencies. Both need to be discouraged.

Democratic regimes are the best guarantees that the voices of minorities will be heard and that every group will feel included. The US should encourage democracy and support democratic governments around the world and isolate nondemocratic ones. This must be done across the board, not selectively. In the past, the Reagan and Bush administrations gave support to too many nondemocratic regimes.

The successful global coalition that the United States built against Iraqi aggression two years ago suggests that the US can build a world coalition that will state its intolerance of aggression.

The new administration, while focusing on domestic economic problems, should not forget the global economy.

The US can provide leadership to the fledgling economies of the former Soviet Union and fix its own economy at the same time. The West needs to extend a hand to these countries despite the recessionary problems it is going through.

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