Central Asia between Bark and Wood Part I

By | October 23, 2021

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asia – for the first time in over a hundred years – came to light. The UN gained five new members – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – and the world was suddenly reminded that the Soviet Union was not a unified monolith, but a multi-ethnic empire. With fresh courage, but in economic ruin and with the legacy of the one-party state, the Central Asians took on the task of carving out modern nation-states …

  • What is Central Asia?
  • What historical heritage does the region have?
  • What challenges is the area struggling with after the dissolution of the Soviet Union?
  • What is the international significance of the region and the individual countries there?

The first decade of independence was difficult, and the Central Asian countries struggled with the same problems as the rest of the former Soviet Union: widespread poverty, social distress, and political unrest. At the same time, it seemed as if the outside world had forgotten Central Asia: Russia was severely weakened, China had still not achieved the status it has today, the United States had other priorities and Europe was absent.

The picture changed after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 and the war in Afghanistan: The fight against Islamist terrorism became a top priority in both the United States and Russia. The latter even opened its Central Asian “backyard” for the United States, which entered into agreements to lease military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

However, after a wave of democratically inspired ” color revolutions ” in the post-Soviet area in 2004-05, Central Asia became the arena for ideological competition between the West and a more self-conscious Russia. At the same time, an increasingly powerful and energy-hungry China competed with Western and Russian companies for oil and gas deposits in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. The increased interest has given the countries in the region an increased opportunity to maneuver between the great powers in order to preserve their newfound strategic and political independence, but at the same time they are weakened by mutual deep distrust of each other.

2: History and Soviet heritage

Its location in the middle of the Eurasian continent has made Central Asia both the starting point and destination for countless conquests. For a long time, the area went under the common name Turkestan . It reminds us that Turkish peoples, who invaded the area in the early Middle Ages, constitute the most important population element.

However, Iranian peoples are the oldest known population group in historical times. The Persian high culture was so important that Persian (also known as Farsi) until the 19th century was the dominant written and cultural language in the area. The ending -stan, Persian for land, still reminds us of this heritage. Tajik is a variant of Persian – the same language used in Iran and Afghanistan. It is currently the official language of Tajikistan, while the other four official languages, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Kazakh, are all related to Turkish .

Arabs, Chinese and Mongols are among the most important other ethnic groups that came into play at different times. The Arabs brought with them Islam, which eventually became the dominant religion in the area . In the 19th century, the whole area gradually came under the fold of the expanding Russian Empire. It was to be a milestone for further development. The region experienced extensive Slavic colonization , by Russians, but also by Ukrainians and Belarusians.

After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Communists launched a comprehensive modernization of the strongly traditional Central Asia. As part of the modernization, the region was gradually divided into five different Union republics based on a Soviet understanding of ethnicity and dividing lines. In line with the prevailing ideology, the culture was to be “national in form and socialist in content”, at the same time as the ultimate goal was to create a new, Soviet human being.

However, the demarcation was arbitrary : large groups of Uzbeks and Tajiks, for example, lived outside the area assigned to their group. The system worked well as long as the central government in Moscow put a lid on the conflicts. Since 1991, however, ethnic tensions have flared up, especially in the populous Ferghana Valley , which crosses the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The valley is populated by a patchwork of ethnic groups and is one of the most conflict-ridden areas in today’s Central Asia.

3: Government building and governance

70 years of communism did not succeed in creating “the new Soviet man.” On the contrary, the old emerged with all its might after the fall of communism. The power apparatus in Central Asia is perhaps the most perfect example of a symbiosis (fusion) between Soviet and local culture. With one exception, all the presidents have in common a background from the Soviet Communist Party. In 1991, Nursultan Nasarbayev and Islam Karimov both took the step straight from being general secretaries in respectively. the Kazakh and Uzbek Communist Party to become presidents of the new independent states. They still are – more than 70 years old.

If the legacy of the one-party dictatorship has left a lasting mark on the power relations in Central Asia, then more genuine Central Asian features have also clearly come to the surface after 1991. The clan system and large families , which many believed belonged to the past, have a new heyday. In some cases, one gets the impression that it is the family that controls the president and the power apparatus instead of the other way around.

In Tajikistan, the president surrounds himself almost exclusively with representatives of his own Kuljabi clan. In Kazakhstan, the Nasarbayev family controls significant parts of the country’s economy. In Uzbekistan, according to CAMPINGSHIP, the president’s glamorous daughter, Gulnora Karimova, has been named as a possible successor.

Everywhere, the broadcast media is under state control and the presidents are dominant in the news picture. Personal worship is most prominent in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. But portraits with words of wisdom and slogans from the presidents also adorn the cityscape in Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. All countries are characterized by political freedom : elections are manipulated and, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, no opposition forces are represented in parliaments. In Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all media are under total state control, and political opponents are imprisoned. In Kazakhstan, less visible but equally effective means of pressure are used, such as fines and bureaucratic obstacles of various kinds.

The youngest nations are often the proudest. In Central Asia, the sudden formation of new nation-states has led to hectic myth-building . The past is invoked to provide a firm foothold, and nationalism is strong, often at the expense of minorities.

The language issue is also heavily politicized. In Soviet times, Russian was the language that opened the gates to status and social advancement. Many do not speak any other language, and it is not uncommon for urban Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, but also Uzbeks, to use Russian on a daily basis. Despite the fact that they all make up the main group in their respective countries. Public administration, business and education still take place largely in Russian – and Russian-language schools are the most in demand.

Central Asia between Bark and Wood 1