Central Asia Explained

Image Source

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).

  • 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.
  • 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

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

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.

Table Created by Author
  • 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).

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.

Timeline of Central Asia.
Silk Road and Registan Complex in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Image Credit: Britannica, Wikipedia

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.

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.

Strategic Significance in Geo-Politics

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

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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Zubair Talib

Zubair Talib

Loves Technology, Startups, and Tacos.