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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 13:39 GMT 14:39 UK
Meet the Stans
By Simon Reeve
In Central Asia

After a long journey through Central Asia, journalist Simon Reeve gives a personal view of the many challenges facing countries in the region.

The underpaid scientist opens the fridge door and pulls out a tupperware jar containing vials of anthrax for me to inspect. Behind us a row of ancient refrigerators contain vast quantities of plague.

The scientist pulls out a tray of diseases, then accidentally whacks the fragile glass vials as she puts them away. One of her colleagues gasps in fear. Everybody in the room freezes. Nobody dares to breathe.

Welcome to a former Soviet biological weapons laboratory in Kazakhstan, abandoned by Moscow when the USSR collapsed in 1991, and now a plague research institute.

I was visiting the lab during a long journey through Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, collectively known as the Central Asian "Stans", with a BBC television crew for a documentary series.

Plague research institute in Kazakhstan
A former Soviet biological weapons lab has become a plague research institute
It was an extraordinary tour of a beautiful, bizarre and unpredictable region.

Although Central Asia is larger than Western Europe, it is probably the most obscure area of the world. A glance at an atlas suggests no area of comparable size about which so little is known in the West.

Because we know little about the Stans, we care little about their problems. Yet we should pay Central Asia more attention, because this is a region that matters to the West.

In the late 1990s I wrote a book on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda which warned the group was becoming a global threat. In the aftermath of 11 September, I believe Central Asia, a region afflicted by poverty, corruption and despotic regimes, could be a future flashpoint for the "war on terror".

Soviet legacy

Our Central Asian journey began in the far north-west of Kazakhstan, by the Russian border.

A lake in Tajkistan on the way to the Afghan border
An extraordinary tour of a beautiful, bizarre and unpredictable region
We travelled by plane, train, helicopter, horse and four-wheel-drive east across the vast Kazakh steppes to the Chinese border, then south through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to the Afghan border, and west through Uzbekistan to the ancient Silk Road cities of Bukhara and Samarkand.

Central Asia was a remote corner of the Soviet Union before it collapsed in 1991, and the Soviets left a painful legacy.

In the west of Kazakhstan fishing boats sit rusting on the dry bed of the Aral Sea, which used to be the fourth-largest inland lake in the world until Soviet planners pumped chemicals into the sea and deliberately diverted rivers to irrigate thirsty cotton fields.

The Soviet legacy also includes radioactive waste dumps, which are scattered across the region.

In Kyrgyzstan I visited several which have contaminated local villages and threaten an environmental catastrophe if they flood, or a terrorist threat if their contents are plundered for a radioactive "dirty" bomb.

Aral Sea
Fishing boats lie rusting on the dry bed of the Aral Sea
Wearing chemical and biological protection suits to guard against radioactive particles, and hoping we were avoiding "hot-spots" where radiation spiked to more than 1,000 times normal levels, BBC producer Will Daws and I chanced upon a hole somebody had been digging at one radioactive site.

Yet the main consequence of the end of the Soviet Union was economic collapse.

The Stans were left reeling, and most people I met longed for a return to the financial security of Communism. "At least we knew where we were then," said Kadyr Toktogulov, my Kyrgyz guide.

Unemployment is now rampant in Central Asia; poverty, censorship and government repression are the norm. As a result, militant Islam is on the rise.

'America will die'

New groups are emerging in Central Asia which support al-Qaeda and could one day launch devastating terrorist attacks on the West. American political support for the authoritarian regimes in Central Asia is further fuelling anger and hatred of the West and driving more young men into the arms of new and established groups.

Heading south-west across Kyrgyzstan, an activist from the shadowy banned militant Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is becoming active across the whole region, assured me "America will die".

Simon Reeve with statue of Lenin
Most people I met longed for a return to the financial security of Communism
Militancy has raised its head in Central Asia before. In the 1990s the battered state of Tajikistan, the poorest of all the former Soviet states, endured a violent civil war between government forces and a coalition of rebels and Islamic militants in which between 100,000 and 200,000 died.

Now neighbouring Uzbekistan risks armed conflict.

Uzbeks are angry with their authoritarian leader Islam Karimov and talk of revolution. In response, thousands of government opponents have been tortured, jailed or executed. Many have disappeared simply for growing their beards and being pious Muslims.

Militancy is not the only reason for us to take more of an interest in Central Asia.

The Stans are home to the largest untapped energy reserves on the planet, and international firms are battling for drilling rights to exploit oil reserves in a replay of the 19th Century "Great Game".

Daily drugs raids

Drug smuggling is also a massive problem in Central Asia, much to the annoyance of the Tajik secret police colonel who guided me along the dangerous, porous border with Afghanistan and fed me pilchards and a prized bottle of vodka.

About 90% of heroin in Europe comes from Afghanistan, and much of that is smuggled via Central Asia to Russia and the West.

On a drugs raid in Dushanbe, the Tajik capital, I watched as the police seized 1.5 kg of high-grade heroin from a mother-of-six. The police just shrugged.

It is a daily occurrence, they said, and showed me a secret storeroom containing about 500 kg of captured heroin worth nearly as much as their entire government budget.

Tragically, Tajikistan may become a failed "narco-state" in the future.

But the region is so obscure, I fear few in the West would really care, or even notice.

Simon Reeve is the author of The New York Times bestseller The New Jackals: Ramzi Yousef, Osama Bin Laden and the Future of Terrorism, and the presenter of Meet the Stans, to be broadcast on BBC Four on 29 and 30 September at 2100 BST, and on BBC Two from 3 to 6 November at 2320 BST.

Country profile: Kazakhstan
27 Jun 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Kyrgyzstan
24 Sep 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Tajikistan
24 Jun 03  |  Country profiles
Country profile: Uzbekistan
17 Sep 03  |  Country profiles


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