The ‘-stans’: A Comprehensive Guide to Central Asia

The geography of Central Asia has always proven to be a conundrum to the majority of U.S. citizens. The five former Soviet republics that lie between the Middle East, Russia and the Caspian Sea have similar names — some of which, like Kyrzygstan, are simply unpronounceable in much of the world (in terms of geography, confusion often begets muddled classification). They are also relatively new; these republics all gained their independence when the U.S.S.R. split apart in 1991, and 20 years does not allow much time for a nation to establish itself with prominence on a worldwide scale. Finally, there is a sense of innocuous inactivity from the region; apart from abundant natural resources and occasional political upheaval, the “-stans” manage to stay out of the news for the most part. So, in the interest of broader global perspectives, here is a comprehensive guide to the quintet of nations that comprises Central Asia.

We’ll begin with the largest nation in Central Asia; in fact, Kazakhstan is the ninth-largest country in the world in terms of land area, with an overall size that dwarfs all of Western Europe. This landlocked republic is governed by Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled since 1989, and was awarded lifetime leadership privileges by the Kazakh Parliament in 2007; for this reason, he is regarded by many as an authoritarian. With Russia to the north and China to the east, Kazakhstan’s terrain is quite eclectic, ranging from flatlands and desert in the southwest, to steppes and snowy peaks in the east. The majority of the country’s population resides in the capital of Astana, which is considered the second coldest capital city in the world. Though Kazakh is the official language, Russian is considered an “equal,” and both are taught in public schools.

Kazakhstan is notable for its cultural diversity; approximately 130 ethnic groups have settled there permanently. Of the nation’s 16 million people, merely 62 percent are full-blooded Kazakhs. The rest fall into other demographics, such as Uygurs, Ukrainians, Tatars and Germanics. The country also allows freedom of religion. Three-quarters of Kazakh citizens practice Islam, and most of the remaining fourth claim Christianity as their faith. Perhaps most significant is the nation’s natural resource output. A rich source of petroleum, natural gas and other valuable minerals, 57 percent of Kazakhstan’s GDP is accounted for by these materials, and has earned the nation over $40 billion within the last 20 years. According to American officials, Kazakhstan generated 1.5 million barrels of oil per day in 2009.

Pronounced [keer-gi-stan], the word Kyrgyz is derived from the Turkic word for “forty,” in reference to the legendary warrior Manas, who united this number of clans in order to defeat the Uyghers in the 9th century. This number carries a significant etymology within the culture; it is frequently referenced in Kyrgyz literature, and the country’s flag depicts a sun with forty rays. Kyrgyzstan has assorted terrain; the southwestern Fergana Valley is quite warm and considered subtropical, whereas the Tian Shan mountains, located on the eastern border with China, are considered polar and the region annually faces up to 40 days of subzero temperatures. Equally varied is the population. While the majority of Kyrgyz citizens reside in the major cities of Bishkek and Osh, a significant contingent has made their homes in rural villages. While these rustic communities are characterized by traditional lifestyle and fascinating customs, such as the horsebound sport of Buzkashi, the areas are also home to some serious problems. Many of the natural resource deposits have been diminished, opium trafficking abounds and the barbaric practice of “bride kidnapping” is still seen in astonishing numbers.

City life in Kyrgyzstan is also difficult, but for different reasons. Sharing many of the same woes as their Uzbeki neighbors, Kyrgyz citizens have seen high levels of corruption within their government. Officials there are so crooked that the nation qualified as one of the 20 most corrupt nations in the world; Kyrgyzstan ranked just between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Venezuela. Their ousting of despotic President Bakiyev last year, which led to the violent June 2010 riots, was seen at the time as a bold move forward, but currently it seems the coup has only compounded Kyrgyzstan’s problems. The interim Parliament has been scrutinized for infighting, and is considered highly unstable, with a collapse predicted within the coming year.

The cultural dynamic of Tajikistan is unique to Central Asia; while the other republics are mostly comprised of populations that descend from Turkish culture, the Tajik ethnic group is most closely related to the Persians that founded Iran and Afghanistan. As a result, the official state religion is Sunni Islam, as 95 percent of the population adheres to it, while another 3 percent are practicing Shia Muslims. Unfortunately, this distinction has led to trouble for Tajikistan. Following its independence from the USSR, this smallest Central Asian nation served as a precarious buffer between Russia and Iran. From 1992-97, Tajikistan witnessed a massive civil war, pitting various factions of native citizens against each other; the widespread theory is that the Russians and Iranians financially backed the warring groups, and the internal conflict was merely a muscle-flexing competition between the two powers. When the fighting ended, stability was restored to the government, and the nation has been relatively peaceful since, despite its various alliances with the Ahmadinejad-led Iran.

However, Tajikistan remains the poorest country in the region, though a generous outpouring of foreign aid assistance has somewhat improved conditions there. Also helping is the Tajik government’s inclusion in the Economic Cooperative Organization, a 10-nation assembly that facilitates discussions related to international trade and the formation of a single market (The other four Central Asian nations are members, as well). The critical factors playing into Tajikistan’s poor economy are related to geography. Famine and drought are common occurrences, as half the country is located 9,800 feet above sea level, which compromises any expansive agricultural venture. The two main exports, cotton and aluminum, are vulnerable commodities in the international market, so any economic headway made by Tajikistan is considered unstable. Healthcare is also a concern; currently, there are only 200 doctors for every 100,000 people, and infant mortality and polio are leading causes of death. The root cause of this fundamental lack is accessibility, and the Tajik government, led by President Emomalii Rahmom, is working to increase the scope with which medical workers are able to reach and treat sick people.

Turkmenistan has a rich history. First conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C.E., the area was subsequently held by the Arabs, Turks, Persians and, finally, Tsarist Russians. It was one of the last Soviet republics to secede, declaring its independence only a day before the USSR dissolved; it joined the United Nations the following year. At this time, Turkmenistan was led by its self-imposed ‘President for Life,’ Saparmurat Niyazov, an autocrat who proceeded to, among other things, ban activities related to opera and the circus. Following his death in 2006, leadership was bestowed upon Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, who has taken a more progressive stance with the government; he has formed strong ties with the Western world and created a more comprehensive education system for the Turkmen people. He has been criticized, however, for spending too much of the national budget on the renovation of major cities, and for stashing the country’s currency reserves in the vaults of the Foreign Exchange Reserve Fund in the Deutsche Bank of Frankfurt, Germany.

Though most of Turkmenistan is covered by the Black Sand Desert, it is a rich source of natural gas; it is home to the fourth largest reserve in the world, behind Russia, Iran and the United States. This equates to roughly 21 trillion cubic meters of extractable gas. As a result, this nation has profited greatly, and seen its GDP grow annually at a rate of 6.1 percent. Turkmenistan is one of the driest places in the world; the average annual precipitation is only 12 mm, and the highest reported temperature, in the capital of Ashgabat, was recorded at 118.4 degrees Fahrenheit. This heat has not stifled cotton production, however; half the country grows the crop, and it is the 10th-largest producer of it in the world. The biggest fault of Turkmenistan is the livelihood of its people. With an unemployment rate of 60 percent, nearly two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. As a concession, Turkmen government officials signed a decree with the People’s Council in 2003, which effectively subsidizes electricity, natural gas, water, salt and a monthly allowance of 120 liters of petrol to the nation’s citizens.

Though it has the highest population, Uzbekistan is arguably distinguished as the most troubled nation in the region. Economic, environmental and human rights woes have plagued the small republic for years. Most of the GDP is generated internally by the production of such commodities as cotton, gold and uranium. Though Uzbeki government officials have proposed a market economy in the past, the country refuses to concede its strict trade limits, and consequently foreign investors have foregone doing business there. As a result, the country is dirt-poor; nearly half of the population lives on earnings equivalent to $1.50 a day. Air and water pollution are also problematic issues, caused by poor agricultural practices related to cotton manufacture. The Aral Sea, bordering the country to the north, has also been subjected to chronic misuse; scientists estimate its size has been halved, and its volume has been reduced to a third of its original quantity at the hands of exploitative mineral extraction. In turn, salinity from the body of water has had detrimental effects on the soil quality.

But the most disconcerting aspect of Uzbekistan is the treatment of its people by government leaders. Targeted by watchdog groups such as Amnesty International and the US State Department, Uzbekistan has been characterized as an autocratic state that routinely violates the basic liberties of its citizens. Torture, unwarranted arrests and limited press freedoms are commonplace, and the country was included in Freedom House’s list of “The World’s Most Repressive Societies.” The most victimized group is the Tajik people, who make up roughly 3 percent of the population, but are not allowed to teach in their native language. Cultural tensions culminated in violence during the civil unrest of 2005, in which hundreds of Uzbekis lost their lives. However, the nation does have its good points. There is a 99-percent literacy rate among adults, thanks in part to the free education system provided within breakaway Soviet republics. In addition, the capital city of Tashkent is considered to be a cosmopolitan center of art and architecture, and was recently named the Islamic cultural capital of the world.

Central Asia is a vast, ever-expanding territory that is rich in history, culture and natural resources. Though each of these five nations has experienced a lion’s share of political and economical hardships, they are all young countries. As each evolves into a modern, fully-functioning entity, the region stands to shed the collective obscurity that has shrouded it from the eyes of the international community.

By Brad Nehring