Central Asia: The World’s Next Powder Keg
Suppose this: it is late 1991. Nirvana and Boyz II Men are on the radio. You decide to watch the news on your local television station. Unrest in Eastern Europe and Caucasus following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the subsequent fall of communism is on again. However, five countries got their independence and they are not making the news. I am referring to the “stans” of Central Asia, a presumably quiet part of the world. It is 2020 and they still do not make the news. Are we simply not interested or is the fog of war just too dense?
Firstly, we shall explain the geographic and historic situation background of Central Asia. The name is self-explanatory when referring to the location of the region but what stands out is the climate, history and demographics. The land is mostly arid and sparsely populated while the Northern part is dominated by the Eurasian steppe, a flat grassland which stretches from Ukraine all the way to the northeastern parts of China. Historically this steppe was inhabited by nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples whose economic activity was herding and one of their main assets was the horse. The region was dominated by Iranian peoples until the Turkic migration (some 1000 years ago) happened. The land was fought over multiple times in history as it was once seen as an important connection between East and West due to the Silk Road. The inhabitants earned a reputation as great warriors especially when riding a horse (horse archery was one of their strong traits). For reference, here is a brief listing of the most important empires who ruled over Central Asia: the Persian Empire, Göktürks, Mongol Empire (and its successor states), Seljuk Turks, Timurids, Russian Empire (later U.S.S.R.) and even incursions coming in from China.
Today, the area encompasses five countries: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. All of them apart from the latter are inhabited mostly by Turkic peoples. Some sources show Afghanistan, Mongolia as well as parts of Russia, India, Pakistan and China as being part of Central Asia but most people agree on the five countries mentioned earlier.
These five countries found themselves under Russian control for much of their recent history arriving at independence less than 30 years ago. The time under Russian (and later Soviet) rule was marked by forced migrations of people to and out of this region. To this day, a large portion of the Russian diaspora can be found here. The Cyrillic alphabet as well as the Russian language are still widely used and Orthodox Christianity represents an important minority (Islam being the most popular religion). In addition to this, there are Tajiks and Kazakhs living in Uzbekistan, Uzbeks living in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and the list goes on. These ethnic enclaves have a lot to do with Stalin’s ambitions to transform the demographic landscape of the Soviet Union. All these factors combined show that Central Asia is not homogenous by any means.
Some 100 years ago another region which was not homogenous and which was ruled by multiple empires throughout its history got the name of “Europe’s Powder Keg”. That region was called the Balkans. The Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia all fought for influence in this region while nationalism was on the rise, leading to conflicts. Two Balkan Wars and the origin of the Great War happened in the Balkans. Just 30 years ago, conflicts broke out again giving way to more nations forming. A troubled region indeed. Could we witness the same story in Central Asia?
Demographics of Central Asia, 1992
Source: vectorisation of CIA map
Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East. These regions brought unrest and stability on the world stage in recent decades so what do they have in common? As mentioned earlier, ethnic boundaries do not match political ones. Ethnic diversity combined with religious diversity can cause a permanent state of unrest but there are more factors at play. Communism and Soviet influence may have been contributing factors for the Balkans, Caucasus and even Afghanistan, which was invaded in 1979, but not for the Middle East (although Arabic Nationalism and Socialism dominated internal politics in most countries during the Cold War).
What they all have in common is the undemocratic nature of rule. Unrest in the Middle East skyrocketed following the Arab Spring which was a response to authoritarian regimes in that region. Yugoslavia (and later Serbia) was largely undemocratic during the Bosnian War. Ukraine suffered from riots and the ongoing conflict in the East mainly due to corruption and a flawed democracy. The Caucasus is no exception; it is here that we find the most recent example of a regional conflict, in Nagorno-Karabakh. It is here we should also mention the rest of the “Frozen Conflicts” such as Transnistria in the Republic of Moldova as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia.
Central Asia looks to be home to many of the world’s most undemocratic regimes. Most of them are dominated by Soviet era politicians and have been ruled by the same person since they become independent. Kyrgyzstan has been regarded as “an island of democracy” in Central Asia, but they still have a long way to go as human rights abuses and corruption still pose a big problem. On the other hand, Kazakhstan named its capital after the first president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who ruled the country from 1990 to 2019. Uzbekistan’s politics were dominated by Islam Karimov who ruled the country even before its independence from the Soviet Union until his death in 2016. We find the same situation in Turkmenistan, only with a small addition which is the cult of personality centered around the leader of the country. The first leader of Turkmenistan (who died in 2006) wrote a book (Ruhnama) which is treated the same way a Christian might regard the Holy Bible. In most of the cases, Turkmenistan is classified as a plain dictatorship. Tajikistan is on the same page, its president, Emomali Rahmon, being widely seen as an autocrat who has been ruling since 1992.
To summarize, the communist and/or imperial past combined with a flawed democracy and ethnic and religious tensions are important factors which managed to fuel the world’s past and current “powder kegs” but there might be one more factor which might contribute to unrest in Central Asia: the environment. Changes in the environment make the landscape of those five countries look more and more like a true desert. Water and fertile land become scarce resources. Some of the environmental changes were man-made such as the draining of the Aral Sea during the Soviet era, which now encompasses only 10% of its former area and is severely polluted.
One of the only regions where agriculture is widely practiced is the Fergana Valley which is shared by Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where the phenomenon of ethnic boundaries not respecting the political one is best seen. It is most likely that in the case of unrest or instability, this region will play a larger role.
It is possible that civil unrest will come first in the shape of protests similar to what we have been witnessing in Belarus. This unrest would likely be an invitation to foreign actors to step in to supposedly ease the situation using as pretext the aim of protecting co-ethnics or large concentrations of their citizens (as Russia invoked in the case of Crimea).
On the one hand, Russia is a stakeholder in Central Asia as it is still exercising influence there (all the “stans” except for Turkmenistan are members of the Commonwealth of Independent States) and the region is home to a large Russian minority left over from the Tsarist or Soviet Times. It depends on how eager Russia would be to protect its interests as there is now another big player looming on the horizon, which is China.
China has been trying to become a key player in the region for more than a millennium and this ambition would likely not disappear. Xinjiang (China’s westernmost province) is considered sometimes to be part of Central Asia as the land is inhabited by the Muslim Turkic speaking Uyghurs who are related to the other ethnic groups found in the region.
On the other hand, a local player might rise and that is Uzbekistan. Uzbekistan holds the largest population of them all, it is somewhat ethnically homogenous (82.9% Uzbeks) and it is located right in the middle, generating the prospect of creating its own sphere of influence. Uzbekistan also holds a great portion of the aforementioned strategically important Fergana Valley. Uzbekistan might use historical precedents to settle itself as the dominant force. Central Asia as well as a large portion of Persia and the Middle East was once ruled by Tamerlane, a great conqueror who was born in 1336 in present day Uzbekistan. Moreover, after the fall of the Timurid Empire, most of the region found itself under the rule of Uzbeks (the Khanate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva) until the southward expansion of the Russians.
We should not intend an apocalyptic or pessimistic view. It is not certain that Central Asia will succumb to unrest or instability in the future. However, the region as a whole has been too silent in the past 30 years and it is just a matter of time before we find out if it is just a peaceful part of the world or “a gathering storm”, in the words of Winston Churchill.