Central Asia Explained

A few things you might not have learned from Borat

Image Source

Borat, the fictional Kazakh character, might have provided some people a first, if odd, introduction to Central Asia. Fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to the region (Tajikistan) as part of a social enterprise I’m involved in. Through such travel and by later reading more about the region, I have come across a great deal I wasn’t aware of and, like with my recent blog on Africa, I hope to share some of my learnings and findings.

At a personal level I can share that Tajikistan is a beautiful country with amazing people and a rich history and culture. I look forward to continuing to learn more about (and hopefully traveling more within) this incredible region of the world.

In this blog I’ll share a few basic things about Central Asia:

Geography

As seen from the map above, Central Asia is the region bridging Europe and the Middle East to the west and Southeast Asia and the Far East to the east. It’s comprised of the 5 countries of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. If Central Asia were combined as one country, it would be the 20th largest by population (74M which is more than France); and the 7th largest by area (4M km² which is more than India).

In terms of geography some general notable features about Central Asia:

  • All countries are landlocked, and Uzbekistan is one of 2 countries in the world that is double landlocked.
  • Very seismically active — a major earthquake zone.
  • Diverse topography ranging from flatlands and deserts to large mountain ranges and rivers. The Tian Shan mountain range goes through all 4 countries but Turkmenistan.

Some country specific features (in order of size of land mass)

  • Kazakhstan: huge, on its own is the 9th largest country by area (2.7M km², about the size of Argentina), and clearly the majority of land Central Asia. Borders Russia, China, and the Caspian Sea.
  • Turkmenistan: 80% comprised of the Karamkum Desert, 4th largest desert in the world. Borders Iran, Afghanistan and the Caspian Sea. About the size of California.
  • Uzbekistan: 80% flat, desert. Central to the region and the only country connected to the other 4. Borders Afghanistan. Largest population.
  • Tajikistan: 93% mountainous. The Pamirs are the third highest mountain ecosystem in the world, more than half the country is higher than 3000m (~10k feet) altitude. Borders China and Afghanistan. About the size of Greece or New York State.
  • Kyrgyzstan: 65% mountainous (Tian Shan and Pamir mountains). Borders China.
Picture of the Panj River and Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan

Population and People

Here’s a table to help understand the population, languages spoken, and key cities of the 5 Central Asian countries. I also attempt to compare the countries individually and as a combined region to the neighboring countries. You can see population-wise the whole region is similar to Iran or Turkey, and the major cities of each country are approximately 1–2M in population.

Table Created by Author

Ethnicity and Language

Central Asia was populated mainly by races that were admixtures of Europeans, Mongols, and Iranians. European-Mongol interbreeding had created Turks andTatars; Iranian-Mongol interbreeding Tajiks. The admixture of Turks and Mongols resulted in Kazakhs/Kyrgyzes, and that of Turks and Iranians in Uzbeks.

People from Around Central Asia Image Sources: 1, 2, 3

Tajiki is very similar to Persian/Farsi, but all the other languages are of the Turkic family. All languages have similar features and structures, but Uzbek for example is similar to Uyghur (Xinjiang, China), Kazakh and Krygyz are mutually intelligible, and Turkmen is more similar to Azerbaijani and Turkish.

As an interesting aside, currently spoken in the world today, there are over 6900 languages belonging to 94 different language families. Ninety-six percent (96%) of the world (~5.5B people) speak a language in the top 10 language families, meaning that the remaining 84 groups are spoken by less than 4%! The Turkic languages and the Indo-European (Persian/Tajiki) are both in the top 10. This is an amazing visual that shows the top 100 most spoken languages in the world.

Economy

In general, post the breakup of the Soviet Union, the economies of Central Asia have been attempting to move to a market economy with mixed results.

Much of the economy has been commodities-based — oil, gas, cotton for example, and also remittances from individuals working in Russia and elsewhere and remitting funds back home.

Here’s a brief table comparing the nominal per capita GDP in USD of the five Central Asian countries compared with the rest of the region and other reference points.

If you took the region’s overall GDP (~$300B), it's much bigger than the economy of the Caucuses countries (Azerbajian+Armenia+Georgia) and about half the size of the economy of Turkey or Iran. On a per capita GDP basis the region is in the bottom half of economies in the world but on par with Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Xinjiang province but less than Iran, Turkey, China, Russia.

Table Created by Author

Some country specific economic attributes (ordered by economic size/GDP):

  • Kazakhstan — Huge oil reserves: 12th largest oil producing country. Leading producer of Uranium — 35% of the world’s production. Not many remittances. The economy is by the far the biggest in Central Asia (about the size of the Ukraine) and real per capita GDP is similar or in the range of Iran, Turkey, Russia and China — 72 in the world out of 189 according to the World Bank (72/189).
  • Uzbekistan — 8th largest producer of cotton in the world. Natural resources also include gold, uranium, and natural gas. 15% remittances. Although it has twice the population as Kazakhstan, it has 1/3 the GDP and correspondingly much lower per capita GDP (149/189).
  • Turkmenistan — Huge natural gas reserves. Not many remittances. A small GDP overall, but given the much smaller population, the per capita GDP is on par with Kazakhstan and others in the region. Per capita GDP (89/189)
  • Kyrgyzstan — Primarily agricultural — cotton, wool, tabacco. 29% remittances. Small GDP and small per capita GDP on par with Uzbekistan. Per capita GDP (159/189).
  • Tajikistan — Primairly agricultural as well — potato and wheat. 29% remittances. Small GDP and very small per capita GDP. Per capita GDP (169/189).

Whereas Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, powered by energy commodities, are in the middle of the countries of the world in terms of per capita GDP, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are amongst the poorest countries in the world.

History

The region has a long history with ancient cities such as Samarkand dating back to the same time as Ancient Rome (2500 years ago). I won’t aim to be comprehensive just to provide what I thought were some interesting highlights — and, if interested to dig deeper, this book provides a nice reference.

Historically the region of Central Asia used to be known as Transoxiana. And Transoxiana plus Xinjiang province used to be known as Turkestan.

Here’s a high-level timeline of some of the important events in the region.

Timeline of Central Asia.

Prehistory. The region was nomadic with people ranging from Huns, Turks, to Mongols. Having domesticated the horse (5000BC), the people made use of yurts, collapsible “tents” — that could be used for mobile housing.

Ancient: In the last millennium BC, with the rise of stronger nations and empires the region felt the influence of the Chinese, Persian, and Macedonia with invasions by Alexander the Great (334BC). This era also saw the emergence of the Silk Road (~130BC) and trading from China through Central Asia to the Mediterranean which helped give rise to historic trading cities like Samarkand and Bukhara.

Silk Road and Registan Complex in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Image Credit: Britannica, Wikipedia

Turkic expansion began in the 6th Century. The general migration of Turkic people across Eurasia estsbalishing early Transoxania.

Arrival of Islam took place in the 8th century.

The Samanid Empire (Persian) emerged 820–999 and included the birth of Nasir Khusruw, the great Persian Poet and Ismaili Scholar, in 1004.

The Seljuk Dynasty (Turkic) emerged in 1030–1150.

The Khwarazmian Dynasty (Persian) emerged in 1077–1231 include the birth of the famous Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Rūmī.

Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire invaded and conquered much of Central Asia in 1220.

Timur or Tamerlane as he’s known in the West gave rise to the Mughal Empire starting from present day Uzbekistan. This enlightening blog describes how his armies killed 17 million people — 5% of the world population at that time!

I was also surprised to learn that many of the food traditions that arrived with the Mughal empire emerged from Central Asia:

Tandoori cooking had traveled from Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent with the armies of Emperor Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire in the mid-sixteenth century. So, too, had the cooking of samosas.

One lesser know food tradition I knew about was qurt.

Russia and the Soviet Era

It's hard to overstate the incredible impact Russia and the former Soviet Union have had and continue to have on the region.

The formation of the Republics of Central Asia was deliberate and with the intention to shape and separate the communities:

[They] defined a nation as “a stable and historically developed community” based on four criteria: a common language, a united territory, a shared economic life, and a shared psychological outlook manifested in a common culture…. This led the policy makers in Moscow to exaggerate the differences between several Central Asian languages that were written in the Arabic script and rooted mainly in Turkic.

Some interesting facts I learned were about the involvement of Central Asians in WW2:

Both the troops and civilians of Tajikistan also performed well, with more than 50,000 of them winning awards and medals. It was in the military that Central Asian Muslims got their first taste of vodka and learned to drink it as Russians do — raising their glasses in a toast, and then emptying them wholesale in one gulp. Turkmenistan and all other Central Asian republics continue to celebrate May 9 as the Victory Day.

The other interesting fact was that the Space Race (e.g. Sputnik launch 1957) and Nuclear Arms Race all took place in Kazakhstan — an obvious fact in retrospect but something that I had just never thought about. The impact of nuclear testing in Central Asia was surprising and saddening:

During the next four decades, 753 nuclear explosions would take place there — 27 in the atmosphere, 78 on the ground, and the rest underground. These tests left 300,000 square kilometers (115,800 square miles), inhabited by 2 million people, contaminated with radioactive material, resulting in many cases of birth defects and mental illness.

Modern Era

With the formation of the republics in the 1920’s and then China annexing Xinjiang in the 1940’s — the region started to take its modern shape. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the countries took their own independence and formation in 1991.

Misperceptions of Islam and its Influence

As discussed in this blog about Africa and the references to radical Islam, the role that Islam has played in recent years in the region have been unfairly vilified.

The story has a similar refrain: religion was suppressed by the incoming empire (Soviets) so as not to have a competing power structure.

When the Soviet Empire fell, the countries of Central Asia were left with a power vacuum, paucity of civil society and democratic/institutional infrastructure, and poor economic prospects.

The gap in power was filled by power hungry individuals which led to nepotism and corruption.

Sickened by the stench of scandals, many Uzbeks took to religion. Unemployed youths became ready recruits for extremist parties, which resorted to violence for political purposes.

Islam was not the cause of the violence or difficulties — but the convenient reference and rallying cry for individuals to organize around. The message by those seeking political power was: “Let's harken back to the days when life was good in the early Islamic days. If we can organize and become more Islamic life will be good and we can live as we did in the good old days again.” Their version of Make Central Asia Great Again.

Strategic Significance in Geo-Politics

Hydrocarbons and their central geography are two main reasons countries have a strategic interest in Central Asia.

Over the past 100 years, there have been a number of world power influences in the region including Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, USA, and China.

Historically Turkey and Iran share a common language and ancestry with the people of Central Asia and Saudi Arabia a common language and history. Turkey and Saudia Arabia have attempted to exert their influence through money and media in efforts to create a Pan-Turkic or Pan-Islamic region. Iran has been less deliberate in trying to create a power center, more trying to empower the countries to be independent and less dependent on the West and foreign powers. This passage gives a bit of color on the type of influence the Saudis have attempted:

The group, funded generously by the Saudi Arabia-based Ahle Sunna movement, used the same tactic to win important sites in Andijan, Kokand, and Margilan — as part of their plan to establish madrassas to teach 15,000 students.Wahhabi preachers remained silent on the subject of “military training” for their students. By striking roots in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan, Wahhabis were positioning themselves to spread quickly to the rest of the valley in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. worried about the Wahhabi movement as the government because the movement was sectarian, rabidly anti-Sufi and anti-Shiite, and received funds from Saudi Arabia.

The bigger powers of Russia, USA, and China have all tussled for power in the region with Russia from the North, China from the East and the US attempted to thwart them both. All countries have given incentives (carrots and sticks) to attempt to secure the hydrocarbons of the region and strategic military bases. In the US case here’s an example of such conditions:

Washington had listed five conditions for establishing diplomatic links with CIS members: acceptance of all U.S.-Soviet Union agreements, respect for human rights, a free market, democratic elections, and a functioning multi-party political system.

Conclusions

It's difficult to make any broad conclusions about a large geographic region that is so relatively new (40 years old) and still in much poverty and difficulty. From the little I’ve seen in Tajikistan, there are reasons to be encouraged. These countries are blessed with beautiful geography and people, bright young minds eager and ambitious to contribute, and with a world that continues to flatten and globalize coupled with pioneering investments such as those in the University of Central Asia, I’m hopeful for a bright future for the region.

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