Defining Central Asia: A Region for the Modern Age?
Illustration: Georgina Crosby

Defining Central Asia

Deciding exactly what constitutes ‘Central Asia’as a geopolitical zone is complicated. Once Eurasia is carved up into its various collectives, five states remain unclaimed: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. The five ‘Stans’ can assert a shared history with three zones, namely East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. All five share a Mongolian past with East Asia as part Genghis Khan’s Khanate, which shaped both their ethnic compositions. Like many Eastern European states, all five became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union and endures their landscapes and lifestyles being shaped by Tsarist and Bolshevik ideals. Finally, they share an Islamic identity with the Middle East, though with differing schools of Sunni Islam, Hanafi predominant in Central Asia in contrast to the mix of Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shafi‘i in the Middle East. Differences still pervade, though. The five ‘Stans’ are culturally separated from East Asia through a lack of historic shared ancestry or experiences under Chinese and Japanese expansionism; they are cast out from Eastern Europe since they lie on the reverse of natural boundaries such as the Black, Caspian and Ural seas and the Ural and Caucasus Mountains; and they are not accepted as part of the Middle East due to a lack of Arabic identity.

The Mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Timir in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, is a pertinent reminder of Central Asia’s Turco-Mongul shared inheritance with the Middle East and South Asia. Image: Khusen Rustamov via Pixabay

The demarcation of the Kazakh-Uzbek border is still ongoing

Clearly, one can define the five Central Asian states negatively via disassociation. But how does one define Central Asia positively? The UNESCO History of the Civilisations of Central Asia in 1992 attempted, after the USSR’s collapse, to define the region not via geopolitics, but weather patterns; ‘Central Asia’ encompassed, in addition to the five ‘Stans’, all of Mongolia, half of China, and parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This definition, still, is unfit for geopolitics since it forgets politics and human civilisation. Geohistory Today recognises the obstructions to defining Central Asia: a “problematic diversity” exists, for example the Persian linguistic roots of Tajikistan contrasting to the Turkic tongues of the other four; moreover, “the idea of Central Asia is much more centred on history, culture and geography” – such as the majority Sunni Hanafi adherence or the Soviet Communist experience  – “than modern political borders.” Central Asian borders, with the region lacking a unifying force before the USSR, continued to be deliberated over. For example, the demarcation of the Kazakh-Uzbek border is still ongoing. (CIA).

Still, a positive definition can be reached. The five ‘Stans’ did not have any defined boundaries until the Soviet era; Stalin stressed the need for demarcation and the collectivisation of previously nomadic or rural peoples into farms; this cultural history unites the five states together. They have a shared Turkic-Mongolian ancestry, independent with such from northern Russia, Eastern Europe and, indeed, the Middle East and East Asia. Today, all five ‘Stans’ are attempting, some successfully and others to a lesser extent, to modernise their states. Risking the erosion of their nomadic lifestyle, energy sectors are constructed to capitalise on vast natural resources. Central Asia could thus exist as the natural centre of the Eurasian plateau. Nonetheless, despite its geographic centrality and historical links to three critical geopolitical regions, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan are often neglected by mainstream international media coverage. Thus, one must discuss why we should care about this region, still in the developmental stages of recovery after the fall of the USSR almost three decades past.

Energy or Authoritarianism?

Central Asia could offer vital energy and mineral resources to replenish dwindling oil stores.

A common misconception holds that Central Asia is just a vast, sparsely populated, mountainous, and barren landscape. In fact, Central Asia could offer vital energy and mineral resources to replenish dwindling oil stores. Investment in energy industries has the potential to change the region’s socioeconomic outlook. Kazakhstan is the exemplar. Holding the twelfth largest oil reserves globally, the $36.8bn Tengiz oil field should be completed by 2022, following the opening of the giant Kashagan field, with $55bn developmental costs, in October 2016 (CIA). There have been spirited FDI increases. As Rainer Michael Preiss reported in Forbes in December 2019, Turkish airport operator TAV bid to buy Kazakhstan’s Almaty airport in a joint venture with Goldman Sachs, investing $165, increasing passenger numbers by a million, and creating over 3,000 jobs. Meanwhile, food giant Tyson Foods invested in beef production to produce beef in Kazakhstan, to compensate for Chinese tariffs on US beef, with a tariff on Kazakh beef remaining at 12%, whilst Beijing imposed a 25% retaliatory tariff, bringing the total levy to 37%, on American produce (Forbes). 

Turkmenistan outranks Kazakhstan in owning the world’s fourth largest estimated combined natural gas and oil reserves; natural gas exports to China made up 25% of Turkmen 2019 GDP (CIA). But, export and industrial expansion, including the construction of new trans-Eurasian/Caspian and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan gas pipelines, have been perpetually delayed by transnational security and political issues. This has caused the national economy has collapsed since the mid-2014 slowdowns, severely reducing government revenues through its public sector and state-owned monopolies on the energy and formal labour markets. Employment opportunities would be revitalised through these pipelines; yet delays have left almost half the Turkmen workforce employed in agriculture, despite accounting for only 8% of national GDP. Only one crop, cotton, is exported (CIA). The authoritarian government of Berdimuhamedov, meanwhile, has forcibly evicted citizens without adequate compensation and as well as enforcing arbitrary detention; this is contrary to the human rights reforms promised in 2007. Turkmenistan’s 2019 Corruptions Perception Index score measured at 19/100, with Human Rights Watch commenting further that it remains an extremely repressive country.

The success of oil industries plays a crucial role in Central Asian economics. Illustration: Georgina Crosby

C. J. Chivers commented that “Kazakhstan has never held an election that met international standards” in 2005; nothing has changed since.

Corruption has not vanished, however, from Kazakhstan as a result of its economic success. Its respective CPI score for 2019 was as low as 34/100. The nation’s first President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, after holding power for just over 27 years, resigned in March 2019; Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, his successor, acceded office in June 2019 with 71% in a snap election. Despite Tokayev’s past office as Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe held concerns about the election’s validity; it stated, in their Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, that that “significant irregularities were observed on election day, including cases of ballot box stuffing, and a disregard of counting procedures meant that an honest count could not be guaranteed and further that “there were widespread detentions of peaceful protesters on election day in major cities”. This thus continued the trend of sham elections under Nazarbayev, as reported by the Guardian in 2015  – “elections often come early and are not always fair”, Bruce Pannier commented  –  and the New York Times a decade earlier – “Kazakhstan has never held an election that met international standards”, wrote C. J. Chivers.

Russia: Looking Beyond the Elephant in the Room

Kyrgyzstan was considered the last bastion of Central Asian democracy. Yet, she has grown increasingly dependent on trade with Russia after joining the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) in August 2015, alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan. The international community had been warned about Kyrgyzstan’s precarious position. Alexander Cooley, a leading professor in Central Asian studies at Barnard College remarked in the Financial Times in June 2014, that the closure of the United States’ Manas airbase outside of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek in July 2014 marked the end of Kyrgyzstan’s multivector era, consolidating Russia as the country’s dominating security patron”. The highly mountainous nation has been left reliant on Russian trade, an increasingly problematic (post-joining the EAEU) energy export to its eastern neighbour China, and remittances from Kyrgyz working abroad. In 2019, remittances from Kyrgyz employed in Russia measured equivalent to 28% of national GDP; meanwhile, exports from a single gold mine, Kumtor, dependent on Russia, formed 8% of GDP. (World Bank). A shrinking Russian economy in 2020 could cause real GDP growth in Kyrgyzstan to contract to 0.4% this year (World Bank).

Further recessions – likely brought by 2020’s cataclysmic economic conditions – cannot be adequately borne by Tajikistan

Tajikistan repeats this awkward Russian reliance. About 1 million out of her 9.1 million population work abroad (90% in Russia), as a consequence of low domestic employment opportunities (CIA). The Tajik economy depends on remittances, equivalent to 35% of GDP, themselves conditional on Russia (CIA). Recent Russian slowdowns has hampered Tajik economic growth; this will be accentuated by the COVID-19 Pandemic, with GDP growth predicted to contract to 1% or lower, as a combination of a sharp decline in trade, lower commodity prices, and bleak prospects for investment and the transport and tourism industry contributing (World Bank). This is troubling for Tajikistan; its poverty rate stands at 27.4% of the population with extreme poverty at 12%; access to drinking water cannot be guaranteed. Moreover, civil freedoms and liberties are repressed by the government in order to maintain control (World Bank). Further recessions cannot be adequately borne.

Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 17, 2018. Image: U.S. Department of State via Flickr.

Uzbekistan’s economic policy espouses the advantages of looking beyond Russia. Though COVID-19 decreased trade and investment opportunities, the fresh leadership of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, replacing the autocratic Yurtboshi Karimov in December 2016, has yielded significant fiscal benefits. A considerable focus in the private sector, through accepting international investment, combined with higher agricultural output and construction activity, has accelerated real GDP growth. The International Finance Corporation manages a $53 million investment portfolio in Uzbekistan, which provides advisory services in privatising state-owned banks, transforming the cotton sector, developing and diversifying the financial market, and piloting public-private partnership transactions in the energy and health sectors. As reported by Forbes, $2.3 billion investments were secured in December 2018 from China, Korea, Japan, as well as Russia, to build a synthetic production facility in the southeaster Kashkadarya region. Rainer Micheal Priess commented in December 2019 that the state “looks set to spur a ‘healthy rivalry’ in Central Asia [with Kazakhstan] which will make both countries policymakers work harder to further improve transparency, their policy frameworks and business environment.”

The success of oil markets in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have caused a sharp decline in nomadic lifestyle – in contrast to Kyrgyzstan, which is seeing reinvestment into ancestral traditions. Illustration: Georgia Crosby

Indeed, Uzbek government has been able to adopt successful anti-crisis policy measures following the Coronavirus pandemic to offset the virus’ immediate health, economic and social implications. A $1bn package has been released to increase health/social care spending and ease tax, debt and cashflow constraints on businesses. Even though the World Bank recognises that more support could be given to poorer Uzbek citizens, this is predicted to alleviate the crisis’ effects on many households and firms, personally invested in the Uzbek economy. Thus, investment from the international community beyond Russia can a beneficial effect for human life and create a Central Asian state fit for the modern age.

Uzbekistan has been able to release a $1bn package to increase health/social care spending and ease tax, debt and cashflow constraints on businesses in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Ecological Balance

International investment in Central Asian natural resources must be balanced, though, with climatological concerns. The region’s physical geography is extremely diverse and challenging for business and growth. In Tajikistan, for example, agriculture is the third largest sector of the economy. But, after the devastating 1992-97 Civil War caused less than 7% of terrain to be arable, Tajikistan is forced to import approximately 70% of her food (CIA). Climate change exacerbates this issue: between 1992 and 2016, natural and climate change disasters caused roughly $1.8bn in GDP losses, affecting around 7 million (World Bank).

The poppy fields of Kyrgyzstan are one of many stunning natural sights in Central Asia. Illustration: Anna Kerr.

Historically, Central Asia was populated through a mix of sedentary (Tajiks and Uzbeks) and nomadic (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen) peoples. Stalin, in the early-to-mid 20th Century, drew national boundaries for the five SSRS and introduced collective farming to exploit the land available for agriculture. Nomadism now remains mostly as a relic for tourism. This has been uncovered by Sophie Ibbotson for Outlook India, experiencing Uzbekistan’s Nurata Yurt Camp here ethnic Kazakhs lived in traditional yurts and continued nomadic customs. Contrastingly, in Kazakhstan proper, nomadism has been on the whole abandoned in favour for urbanisation. This increase in urban living has compounded air pollution; a 2019 study by the Annals of Global Health found that “unacceptable carcinogenic risk levels have been determined for professional groups and the whole population with respect to cadmium in Shymkent, Almaty, Balkhash; arsenic in Shymkent, Almaty, Balkhash; lead in Taraz; chromium – in Shymkent, Aktobe, Almaty and Balkhash”. Over two million Kazakhs reside in Almaty, just over 10% of the country’s overall population, whilst Shymkent and Taraz place as the third and fourth most populated settlements. Many lives are at threat.

Many Kyrgyz might think, “maybe our way worked” in responding to a global climatological crisis.

Amanda Wooden, UN Dark, 2018.

Kazakhstan’s pollution could impact other Central Asian countries. Kyrgyzstan lies between Kazakhstan and China, another significant polluter. Ariel Bardi, reporting in July 2018 for UNDARK, acknowledged that many Kyrgyz have revived traditional nature-based knowledge systems and animist-influenced attitudes towards nature. Aigine, a Bishkek-based research centre, catalogues the nation’s sacred geography in order to reform attitudes towards nature; meanwhile, the Rural Development Fund documents traditional grazing methods from village elders to educate shepherds in assessing the health of grass vis-à-vis the customs of their nomadic ancestors. Amanda Wooden, an environmental studies professor from Bucknell University, commented in the same piece that many Kyrgyz might search for alternatives” during an economic and climatological crisis; [they are] going to think, ‘maybe our [ancestral nomadic] way worked”. A revival in nomadic lifestyles, vital for the Central Asian ecosystem’s survival, must be assisted by global initiatives and aid from economically secure states and NGOs; this could build, for example, on the work of Bio KG, an agriculture NGO that runs organic farming trainings in Kyrgyz villages.

Moreover, decreasing pollution in Kazakhstan is urgent, too; its emissions outrank its fellow Central Asian countries significantly. Kyrgyzstan is one of the world’s smallest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but the Asian Development Bank notes that “the average annual temperature has risen by 0.8°C over the 21st century”. Action needs to be taken, fast. Otherwise, “the seasonal distribution of water flows will change considerably, affecting hydropower generation potential, water supply for human consumption and irrigation, and crop yields,” through an estimated temperature increase of two degrees centigrade by 2050. A situation mirroring that of Mongolia, as documented by the UN Development Programme, could prevail: a third of its population are nomadic herders, but their livelihoods are under threat from drastic coal burning in Ulaanbaatar during winter; a single capital district exceeded 60 times the World Health Organisation’s safe limit during a single week in December (Mongolia Meteorological Agency).

The shrinkage of the Aral Sea, lying between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, has been termed “one of the planet’s worst environmental disasters” , with its surrounding region suffering immense health problems. Image:  P. Christopher Staecker via Wikimedia and Creative Commons.

Creating a Modern Central Asia

If the international community does not support these five ‘Stans’, then a collage of lifestyles and landscapes could be lost.

Central Asia lies in an uncertain but exciting position. The Coronavirus pandemic may deliver another economic crunch to send some nations into freefall. We must stop thinking that the five ‘Stans’ exist exclusively in Russia’s sphere of influence sphere of influence and overlooking their humanitarian issues. If the international community does not support these five ‘Stans’, then a collage of lifestyles and landscapes could be lost. Kazakhstan desires to become the gateway between Europe and Asia; Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan offer fresh hopes for democratic and safe governmental practices; Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have great potential with their energy resources, potentially yielding much needed domestic employment opportunities. If provided, international investment could allow the states of Central Asia to unlock their obvious potential, strengthen the fight against corruption if carefully managed, protect their crucial natural environments, and, most importantly, create a progressive modern lifestyle which combines nomadic ancestral ideas with new technologies and lifestyles. Only by paying attention to Central Asia can a region for the modern age be realised.

Cover Image: Georgina Crosby.