Prospects for Plural Societies in Central Asia

Landlocked and lying at the heart of the Eurasian continent, Central Asia once served as a vital overland hub in the "Silk Route" that linked East and West for more than 200 years. It was a crossroads for the movement of whole peoples, cultures, and religions. New conquerors would replace old, but each soon absorbed the region's culture and melded with groups already there. While each ethnic group in Central Asia can truly claim some periods of glorious history, none has an absolute indigenous claim to the region: their histories all begin with the displacement or incorporation of some preceding group already occupying the land. The experience of living as plural societies is therefore not a recent disruption of an old way of life, but the historic pattern of life itself in Central Asia.


The Uzbeks were the last of the nomadic conquerors to establish control over Central Asia in the 16th century, which resulted in the creation of three regional Khanates: Bukhara (the Zarafshan and upper tributaries of the Amu Rivers), Khiva (the juncture of lower Amu River and the Aral Sea), and Kokand (the upper Syr River, centered in the Fergana Valley). Outlying regions of steppe, desert, and high mountains, especially those inhabited by nomadic peoples, were largely independent or loosely tied to these centers. The populations of the Central Asian khanates were composed of peoples whose origins and identities reflected the region's complex history. Most were Sunni Muslim and Turkish speaking with a strong Persian speaking minority. Beyond these commonalties lay a wealth of diversity.

The core of the khanates' population and productivity lay in the irrigated river valleys and cities, where the majority of people had no distinct ethnic identity. Generically labeled "Sarts" (a term that developed a pejorative connotation under Russian rule), they represented an amalgamation of the older sedentary Iranian population with the more recently settled Turks. Mostly biligual in Uzbek and Persian, often intermarried, they shared a common culture.

In the rolling hills above the river valleys and oases, lay semi-nomadic Uzbeks organized around genealogically based clans. Persian speaking Tajiks inhabited the still higher alpine mountain valleys in self-sufficient villages. Kazakh pastoral nomads controlled the immense steppelands to the north, the Turkmen the deserts to the southwest, and the Kirghiz the high Pamir mountain pasture. In addition to these major groups were many smaller minorities which claimed the right to be recognized as distinct: Arabs and Tatars, religious lineages who claimed descent from the Prophet or local saints, long established Jewish communities in Samarkand and Bukhara, and Ismaili Muslims in the high Pamirs speaking old Iranian languages extinct elsewhere. And yet these major glosses only served to outline the region's basic structure, for in everyday life and regional politics people organized themselves around much smaller and cohesive groups based on village location, urban neighborhood, religious affiliation, or kinship groups.

Political and economic relationshis were more important than ethnic affiliation, and none of the old khanates was established on an ethnolinguistic basis. Turkish nomad conquerors from the steppes could not have ruled effectively without the cooperation of their Persian speaking bureacracy which knew how to administer the territory and raise revenue from its inhabitants. Each contained overlapping ethnic groups, whose relationships were so intertwined, and often so symbiotic, that in the words of an old Central Asian proverb, "A Turk without a Tajik is like a head without a hat." Only nomads who lived in peripheral regions beyond the control of sedentary states, such as the Turkmen, Kazakhs, and Kirghiz, maintained a strong sense of tribal identity.

By the time of the Russian conquest of Central Asia in the 19th century, Central Asia had become a Eurasian backwater. The overland trade networks that had once supported a vital artistic and intellectual life had declined to the point of vanishing. After Russian forces defeated the Kazakhs and incorporated their territory, between 1830 and 1864, settlers seeking farmland on the northern Kazakh steppe arrived in large numbers. Conquest of Bukhara (1868), Khiva (1873), and Kokand (1876) followed. With the destruction of the Turkmen stronghold of Merv in 1888, Russian frontiers abutted Afghanistan and Iran. The Czarist regime then maintained Khiva and Bukhara as client states with their own governments, while the rest of the area was ruled from the colonial capital in Tashkent. Although rail lines, commercial cotton production, and new ideas penetrated the khanates, both the Uzbek amirs and Russian colonial officials were anxious to preserve the political and social status quo. Few Russians settled in the old Uzbek khanates, and then usually exclusively in new towns away from the local population.


Great change, but a new period of international isolation, began only after 1920 when Central Asia was incorporated into the Soviet Union. Contact with neighboring states was progressively cut off and the region's economy and politics focused exclusively on Moscow. The Soviets dismembered the old khanates in the 1920s and 30s and replaced them with "autonomous republics" based on ethnicity. This policy was based on the belief that the most natural administrative units consisted of peoples sharing the same language and racial identity. However, in Central Asia this form of ethnolinguistic nationalism was practically nonexistent. It was a common regional culture (Islam, Turkish, and Iranian languages, Arabic script, etc.) that gave people their distinct identity.

Nascent local voices tapping into these roots with calls for a "Greater Turkestan," which would incorporate the whole region into a single state, or a return to Islam as way to define community, were ruthlessly suppressed. Instead the new ethnic states divided the region's people into competing groups, in theory, homogenous groups with distinct languages and histories.

In practice this proved difficult. It was relatively simple to ascribe identity for peoples who had retained a form of tribal organization and nomadic way of life, such as the Turkmen, Kirghiz, and Kazakhs. Assigning an ethnic identity to the much larger sedentary populations of the old khanates was much more problematic. Was a Sart a Tajik or Uzbek? What about the plethora of smaller groups such as the Karakalpaks, Arabs, Uighurs, and Tatars? In the end Sarts became Uzbeks by default unless they opted to declare themselves Tajiks. Many smaller groups simply amalgamated into larger ones for administrative convenience. Members of the same families often declared different nationalities based on potential benefits rather than any objective criteria.

Of necessity the boundaries of these new ethnic republics were arbitrary. No matter how you defined the ethnic groups, in most places you could never draw a line cleanly because the population was so mixed. Even where you could, as among pastoral nomadic Turkmen and Kirghiz, such a clean border would leave the territory without a viable agricultural base. As a consequence people and places with intimate connections were split, and places with no previous links were lumped together. The most productive part of Khiva on the lower Amu River was divided among Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Neighboring villages with close economic and social ties suddenly found themselves in different republics, each with a different capital far distant from the region. The centers of Persian culture, Samarkand and Bukhara, fell to Uzbekistan while Tajikistan and Kyrghyzstan inherited mountain areas with no existing urban centers. Soviet policy had ripped a vibrant human tapestry into pieces and then attempted to sort the resulting threads by their primary colors.


The collapse of the Soviet Union reintroduced Central Asia to the world, but in a form very different from what had historically existed in the region. Unlike many other parts of the old Soviet Union, Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan had not sought independence. Independence had been thrust upon them. By default the old Soviet era leaders found themselves leaders of new nations. When their states were component parts of the Soviet Union the arbitrary boundaries between them, their weak historical and economic foundations, and unresolved disputes over land and resources had been muted. People moved back and forth freely, and because policy was set in Moscow, regional leaders were not responsible for justifying economic planning or resource use to their own people. But with independence the new governments suddenly needed to establish their legitimacy and viability as nation states in a radically changed world. Republic borders were now guarded as international borders with all that implied for trade and movement of people. Internally the titular nationality in each republic found itself in the unexpected position of real political dominance, setting the agenda in areas such as national language, political patronage, and citizenship requirements. It was at this point that the new nations began to feel the consequences of their origins most acutely, for whatever decisions they made were bound to have economic and political consequences that affected their neighbors, and not always favorably. And while to the outside world all these Central Asian "-stans" might appear to be the same, in fact they faced quite different problems and future prospects.

Kazakhstan is the largest country in Central Asia by area and the second most populous, with 16.5 million people, although most of its territory is sparsely settled. Oil and gas deposits, an industrial base, and extensive farmland, give Kazakhstan the most diverse economy in the region. It is the only country in Central Asia where the titular ethnic group is a minority (40-42%). Ukrainians and Russians, 44% of the population, dominate the wheat growing areas of northern Kazakhstan and the urban industrial areas. Because the northern Kazakh steppe abuts Russia, the question of the country's boundaries is a sensitive one. If the Kazakhs insist on using their political power to discriminate against the Slavic population, through language policy for example, it could induce an irredentist movement demanding that the area revert to Russia. Russian nationalists have been particularly critical of allowing such a large Russian population to remain under the control of a Central Asian regime. Kazakhstan cannot survive within its present boundaries without multinational model, but of all the Central Asian states it faces the greatest challenge in creating a Kazakh identity for Kazakhstan without alienating the Slavic majority.

Uzbekistan is the most populous country in Central Asia with 20 million people. It inherited most of the key agricultural areas of the old Bukharan, Khivan, and Kokand khanates. In the Soviet period its economy became almost completely dependent on irrigated commercial cotton cultivation, a development that both damaged the land and led to a number of financial scandals in the Soviet period. Although it has the region's major cities of Tashkent, Kukhara, and Samarkand, it has only a very limited industrial base staffed mostly by Russians. The Uzbeks make up the overwhelming majority of the population (71%) although it has been estimated that this figure hides a much larger Tajik population. Of all the new nations Uzbekistan has moved most aggressively in implementing laws requiring the use of the Uzbek language, which most Russians inhabitants do not speak. Although only a small percentage of the population, they and other European groups have been leaving Uzbekistan at a high rate not because of overt hostility but because they see little future there. Other minorities, such Caucasian Turks and Crimean Tatars, forcibly transported to Uzbekistan under Stalin, have also been leaving the region for their old homes. Uzbekistan is often seen as the most powerful state in the region, and the Uzbeks have occasionally advocated a unified Turkestan state that neighbors fear is a ploy for a "Greater Uzbekistan."

In contrast to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the other three countries in Central Asia have small populations and, with the exception of Turkmenistan, very weak economic foundations. Kyrghyzstan lies in a mountainous region. The Kirghiz form only a bare majority of its 4.3 million inhabitants. There is a substantial Russian population in the cities and the main agricultural land is controlled by Uzeks who make up 13% of the population. While Kirghiz and Uzbeks have clashed over land rights, in general the Kirghiz government has been the most solicitous about maintaining a mixed population because each group provides a different set of skills needed by the nation. Kyrghyzstan's only current resources are hydroelectric power and control of one of the region's main watersheds, but it has reached out aggressively to the international community for investment to build a stronger economic base. Turkmenistan has the smallest and most homogeneous population in the region (3.5 million, 72% Turkmen). The Turkmen probably have the strongest sense of identity, a legacy of their tribal nomadic past. One of the first independent acts of the government was to reach out to Turkmen in other countries and commission a national genealogy. Although it was deemed the most economically backward republics in the old Soviet Union, Turkmenistan sits on huge deposits of oil and gas and the Turkmen assume that this will eventually make them rich, the Kuwait of Central Asia. By contrast, Tajikistan, with a population of 5 million, is the basketcase of Central Asia. Created by uniting the mountainous Tajik hinterland of Bukhara and Kokand into a single district, it was a hinterland with no center. Its capital, Dushanbe, named for a day of the week (Monday), was no substitute for Samarkand and Bukhara, the heart of the Tajik urban culture. As a result its relationship with neighboring Uzbekistan has always been troubled by debates on the legitimacy of borders and the status of ethnic counterparts in each state. Tajikistan was never economically viable and upon independence it fractured and fell into civil war. Although outsiders described the warring factions in ideological terms of old communists versus Islamic fundamentalists, in fact these factions coincided rather closely with the older regional divisions between Kokand and Bukhara that were at odds long before the Soviet period. Only the Russian army currently holds Tajikistan in one piece.


Of all the difficulties faced in Central Asia, on the surface none would appear to be more intractable than disputes between ethnic groups. Every dispute seems to have an ethnic component and critics have pointed to a rash of incidents as omens for more trouble ahead: Russians and Ukrainians versus Kazakhs over land rights and jobs in Kazakhstan, Uzbeks versus Tajiks over the status of Samarkand and Bukhara, conflict between Kirghiz and Uzbeks in Kyrghyzstan, and riots between Caucasian Turks and Uzbeks in the Fergana Valley of Uzbekistan. On a broader scale the attempts by each nation to have its own language replace Russian in government and education have been controversial. But because the Soviet Union set up these states upon ethnic lines, it is all too easy to assume that all such problems have ethnic roots. A closer look, however, shows that the concept of a functioning plural society is more firmly entrenched in Central Asia than anywhere else in the old Soviet Union. Unlike the Baltic states, the Central Asian nations granted citizenship to all inhabitants with out a second thought. Although Russians no longer retain privileged positions, there have been no calls for repatriation because Russians have valuable skills that will not be replaced soon or easily.

Such acceptance of diversity follows an old central Asian pattern: ethnic groups still fill different economic slots. One cannot rid oneself of another group without losing a vital resource. The ethnic disturbances that have arisen reveal not hatred for other groups per se, but rival claims to resources and power, suppressed during the Soviet period. For example the worst conflict in Central Asia so far has occurred within Tajikistan, where violence erupted among rival regional Tajik factions and led to widespread killings of Tajiks by other Tajiks. Elsewhere ethnic disputes and riots seem to have occurred most frequently between local inhabitants anxious to reclaim lost land and other resources from more recent immigrants, groups that were often forcibly settled in Central Asia by Stalin. However, such disputes are generally confined to relatively small areas, and, unlike in Azerbaijan and Armenia, the status of coethnic minorities in neighboring countries has not provoked any national conflicts.

The real heart of coming disputes is not ethnic, but rather the product of an artificial division between centers, and hinterlands in Central Asia. Uzbekistan has most of the cities and irrigated farmland, but is dependent on water resources that are in the hands of weak small states such as Kyrghyzstan and Tajikistan. Similarly Turkmenistan's inheritance of vast oil and gas riches make it in inviting target to more powerful neighbors dependent on these resources for their economic survival. No ethnic catalyst would be needed to provoke conflict in such situations; simple need or greed would more than suffice.

Prospects for pluralism cannot be focused entirely on questions of ethnic identity, however. Central Asia is also seeking new models of political, economic and social identity that will provide structures for the future. Historically the region moved straight from the grip of the Uzbek amirs in the grip of the Soviet Union. At that time debates about Central Asia's identity and role in the modern world had barely emerged before they were smothered. It is not surprising then that so many of the issues in Central Asia today are reminiscent of the era following the first world war in the Near East: nationalism, self-determination, national language and alphabets, the role of religion, national models of development, and relations with old colonial powers. Some leaders look to Turkey as an example of strong secular government, democracy, and a nationalism based on Turkish identity. Others, looking particularly at Iran and Afghanistan, seek to rediscover their Islamic roots and, the Tajiks in particular, seek new ties to a greater Persian speaking world. Still others seek to preserve the old authoritarian Soviet system with a central Asian face, with the return of corrupt new model amirs, dressed in suits as befits leaders of progressive states. Without a doubt Central Asia will remain the home of many nationalities; what is at issue is the type of states and societies that will emerge there; for the first time in many centuries, the outcome of this struggle will have a real impact on the world.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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