Sat, Aug 11, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Researcher sees nomadic hurdles in modern political systems

By Ilan Greenberg  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , ALMATY

Yet, despite calls for a deeper appreciation of cultures far from the mainstream, "the United States government hasn't been willing to pony up the money to educate" policymakers on "these areas with deep nomadic traditions," said a Central Asia specialist working for the US government.

The official requested anonymity because he was not cleared to speak with reporters.

"It takes a half a million dollars and four or five years to train a specialist in these parts of the world," the official said. "Even now we hardly have anyone up to speed about the border areas of Pakistan or the tribal politics of Somalia."

And in Central Asia, recent US foreign policy setbacks -- such as a deal in May between Turkmenistan and Russia to build a new gas pipeline, widely viewed as a rebuke to US interests -- can be traced partly to a US misunderstanding of how nomadic traditions shape attitudes in the region.

In that case, said Sean Roberts, a Central Asia researcher at Georgetown University, US negotiators mistakenly emphasized the benefits of joining the orbit of Western nations. With its nomadic traditions, he said, Turkmenistan placed a far higher emphasis on independence.

"If there's anything for American policymakers to understand about formerly nomadic people is that they generally place an all-important pride in their independence," he said in a telephone interview.

Pride in nomadism itself is on the upswing, with many countries using what is an increasingly glamorous historical inheritance as an important nation-building tool.

When Kazakhstan's government-subsidized film company decided last year to film a national epic that would galvanize the population around a unifying myth, studio executives reached into the country's past and produced Nomad. The movie has been a huge hit across the former Soviet Union.

In some instances, politicians seek to use nomadic traditions to justify their policies, just as US politicians try to exploit nostalgia for the US' rural past to justify farm subsidies, said Robert Rotberg, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, who studies failed states in Africa and Asia.

"Take Gadhafi in Libya," Rotberg said. "He would say, you Westerners don't understand us because we have a nomadic ethos that is essentially socialist, and so we have to nationalize our country's oil industry to be true to our tradition."

Nomads continue to hang on in a substantial area of Central Asia, especially in Kazakhstan and neighboring Kyrgyzstan, and in many cases are prospering. But in evaluating the influence of nomadism on contemporary politics, it is important to look past superficial elements, Roberts said.

"What's almost as dangerous as ignoring the cultural context of politics is misinterpreting it," he said. "The policy community just doesn't have a background at looking at cultures' differences. So even if they do the right thing and start to look at cultural intelligence, the result is they will take stereotypes of Kazakhstan's nomadic past and call it a complete truth."

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