A contemporary map of the five Central Asian states (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A Brief History
Historically, the Central Asian region--bordered by Iran and the Middle East to the southwest, Afghanistan and South Asia to the southeast, China to the east, and Russia to the north--was associated with the Silk Road network of trade routes, which was most famously traveled by Italian merchant Marco Polo in the fourteenth century. For example, Bukhara and Samarkand, both located in modern-day Uzbekistan, were widely known as two of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world at the time. After around 1500 years of robust trading, however, trade routes through Central Asia were disrupted due to devastation caused by the Black Plague (which was originally spread to Europe on the Silk Road itself), the disintegration of the Mongol Empire in Eurasia, and the rise of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires in the Middle East. At the same time, gunpowder-based weapons began to spread in the region, and some portions of the Central Asian population, which was historically largely nomadic, began to settle in towns, especially in contemporary Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. By the early nineteenth century, the territories of Central Asia, with the exception of Kazakhstan, which remained populated by nomads, were consolidated into three powerful khanates, or principalities: Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand.
Around the same time, the Russian Empire began its piecemeal expansion into Central Asia, beginning with the acquisition of modern-day Kazakhstan. The Russian tsars then moved to conquer each of the three khanates; by the late 1880s, Russia had control of the territory of Central Asia up to present-day Afghanistan. Broadly speaking, Russia’s conquest of Central Asia can be explained as much by its own imperialistic drive as by its ‘Great Game’ contest with the rival British Empire, which at the time controlled South Asia and was itself considering expanding into Central Asia. A few years later, with the signing of the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, Russian influence in Central Asia was officially delineated as ending at the northern border of Afghanistan. However, Russia was perceived by local Central Asians as a faraway power with little actual control in the region, which remained largely self-governed until the end of the Russian Civil War in the mid-1920s.
After the end of the Civil War, Bolshevik authorities sought both to (re)assert Russian influence in the region and spread communism, and to this end, they established a series of Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics (ASSRs) in Central Asia. By the 1930s, the modern borders had been largely set, with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan forming five of the Soviet Union’s fifteen union republics. During their seventy years of control, the Soviets pursued massive projects of ‘modernization’, industrialization, urbanization, and development in the region. Oil and gas were drilled in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. Rivers were dammed in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for hydroelectric power. The Soviet nuclear and space programs were both based in Kazakhstan. Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, grew rapidly, becoming the fourth largest city in the entire Soviet Union by the late 1980s. At the same time, nomadic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen tribes were forced into cities, while Uzbek and Tajik women were forcibly unveiled. Ethnic Russians and Ukrainians moved to the region en masse, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; in Kazakhstan, Kazakhs even became a minority population in their own republic.
In 1986, peaceful demonstrations called ‘Jeltoqsan’ were violently suppressed in Almaty, then-capital of Kazakhstan, presaging similar events throughout the Soviet Union as it began to disintegrate in the late 1980s. 1989 and 1990 in Central Asia saw violent riots in other major urban centers, including Tashkent, Osh, and Dushanbe. In August 1991, a group of hardline Communist Party members in Moscow failed in their attempt to oust reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a coup d’état. As it became clear that the ‘August putsch’ had failed, the Central Asian republics began declaring independence one by one, starting with Kyrgyzstan. By December 1991, the Soviet Union had officially dissolved.
In the post-Soviet period, the trend in Central Asia has largely been to Soviet-style, authoritarian, strongman rule, with some notable exceptions. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have all retained such political structures to this day; Uzbekistan and especially Turkmenistan remain closed to the outside world. Tajikistan experienced a brutal civil war from 1992 to 1997 between the old Soviet government, liberal democratic rebels, and Islamist rebels; with the conclusion of the war, Tajikistan, too, reverted to one-man rule. Only Kyrgyzstan has witnessed some semblance of democracy and participatory politics, including two revolutions in 2005 and 2010, respectively. Economically, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and especially Kazakhstan have continued to grow, due to their extensive hydrocarbon reserves, while Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan both struggle with widespread poverty and underdevelopment. Ethnic conflict remains an issue, especially between Uzbeks and Tajiks and Uzbeks and Kyrgyz, and Islamic extremism represents an increasing concern.
Where is Central Asia heading?
Kazakhstan, which has been ruled by Nursultan Nazarbayev since 1989, has seen the most economic progress in all of Central Asia, although it has made little progress on human rights since Soviet times. Kazakhstan’s oil, natural gas, and coal reserves are among the largest in the world, and Western firms have invested heavily in the country. In 1997, a glittering new capital city was built in Astana, largely using hydrocarbon revenues. Kazakhstan is a massive country by territory, the ninth-largest in the world. Traditionally, the Kazakhs were a Turkic-speaking, nomadic people divided into three tribal groups: the senior, middle, and junior clans. Today, Kazakhs are mostly urbanized and again form a majority in Kazakhstan; Russians form around a quarter of the country’s population. It seems as clear that Kazakhstan will continue to develop economically in the near future, given its resource endowment, as that Kazakhstanis must wait for the post-Nazarbayev era for any type of democratization or political liberalization.
Kyrgyzstan, in some senses, encapsulates the hopes and failures of post-Soviet Central Asia as a whole. On the one hand, despite widespread poverty, Kyrgyzstan is a multi-party democracy with competitive elections and political participation by the citizenry. The Kyrgyzstani government works with foreign governments and organizations to promote both democracy and development in the country. At the same time, poverty persists, and ethnic tensions between the Kyrgyz majority and Uzbek minority, especially in the south of the country, remains a serious issue. Traditionally, the Kyrgyz were a Turkic-speaking, nomadic people divided into forty tribes; the urbanization rate of the country today is less than 35 percent. Kyrgyz culture is largely based on the Epic of Manas, a traditional Kyrgyz poem that celebrates the legendary warrior Manas, who united the forty Kyrgyz tribes to fight the Chinese and the Mongols.
Uzbekistan, for most of its post-Soviet history, has remained an authoritarian and largely closed country, although there are some recent signs of change. The country, which includes large swaths of the fertile Fergana Valley, has by far the largest population of any Central Asian state, with around 30 million inhabitants. Uzbekistan is a major cotton producer for world markets, despite widespread concerns over human rights abuses in the industry. The Uzbeks, a Turkic-speaking people who were traditionally sedentary and whose culture contains both Turkic and Persian influences, form a large majority in the country, with minority of Russians and Tajiks, among others. Uzbekistan was led from 1989 to 2016 by Islam Karimov, who ruled by widely crushing dissent and opposition. After his death, Shavkat Mirziyoyev was ‘elected’ president and has began implementing cautious changes, including tax reform and amnesty for some political prisoners; he has also advocated for better bilateral relations with Tajikistan. However, only time will tell if Mirziyoyev’s reform projects succeed.
Turkmenistan generally takes Uzbekistan’s repressive politics to the extreme. From 1985 to 2006, the country was ruled by the eccentric and authoritarian Saparmurat Niyazov, who, among other things, banned or discouraged opera, ballet, recorded music, long hair and beards on men, gold teeth, and dog ownership. Upon Niyazov’s death, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took over the country’s leadership and largely continued his predecessor’s policies of political repression and development of a personality cult, albeit to a lesser extent than before. The country remains isolated and is often considered the second-most closed country in the world after North Korea. Turkmenistan has some of the world’s largest natural gas reserves, the revenues from which have been put to building the capital city of Ashgabat, among other projects. Traditionally, the Turkmens were a Turkic-speaking, nomadic people with a culture strongly influenced by Persian traditions.
Tajikistan, as previously mentioned, experienced a bloody civil war in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Emomali Rahmon, who emerged as the country’s leader during the war, has led the country since 1994. During that time, he has taken a hardline stance on certain aspects of Islam and Islamic practices, including banning or discouraging beards for men and hijabs for women, as well as all mosque attendance by women and children, even though Rahmon is himself a practicing Muslim. Tajikistan is highly mountainous and the poorest of the Central Asian countries; its economy is largely dependent on remittances from Tajikistanis abroad, many in Russia. Corruption, economic mismanagement, and routine human rights violations remain serious issues. The Tajiks, a Persian-speaking people who were traditionally sedentary, form a large majority in the country, with a minority of Russians and Uzbeks, among others.