Central Asia: The Heart of Eurasia

In this chapter I focus on the five independent republics of Central Asia, the five “-stans” (stan means “state” in Turkic). Collectively known as “Turkestan,” they have much in common: an arid physical environment, Turkic languages (except for Tajikistan), Sunni Islam, and Asian cultural traditions. All five are also landlocked, if one discounts access to the inland Caspian Sea for Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Whereas Uzbekistan is the biggest of the five by population, Kazakhstan is both the largest by area and the most prosperous. Kazakhstan is just a little smaller than Argentina and is the ninth largest country worldwide; more than 80% of its territory is steppe or desert. Tajikistan is both the poorest and the smallest by area, while Kyrgyzstan has the smallest population. Unlike the rest of the former Soviet Union (FSU), all of the Central Asian states have growing populations, with the annual growth rates ranging from +0.4% in Kazakhstan to +1.9% in Tajikistan.

Physical Geography

Most of the region has semidesert or desert climate, with high mountains rising in the south and east. The flattest and most desert-like is Turkmenistan, with 80% of its territory occupied by the sands and gravel of the Kara Kum. Uzbekistan is home to the Kyzyl Kum desert, while Kazakhstan has the Moynkum and Saryesik-Atyrau deserts near Lake Balkhash. The highest mountains are the Pamirs in Tajikistan, reaching 7,495 m above sea level, and the second highest are the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan, reaching 7,439 m. The amount of arable land varies from 3% in Turkmenistan to 11% in Uzbekistan. The most productive area of the region is the fertile Fergana Valley along the upper Syr Darya River, which is shared by Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It is easy to find it on a map; just look for the jigsaw-puzzle-like pattern made by the borders of the three countries where they meet in Fergana. Located along the northern branch of the famous medieval Silk Route, the valley has been a magnet for settlement since antiquity.

All five “-stans” are deficient in water and timber. Water is greatly needed for irrigation and is likely to become increasingly scarce in the course of the 21st century's warming. Timber has to be imported from outside the region, mainly from Russia, although some can be produced domestically in the mountains. Kazakhstan is a mining giant, with substantial deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, gold, uranium, manganese, chromium, copper, and other metallic ores. Uzbekistan has gold and limited petroleum and natural gas resources. Turkmenistan has a lot of natural gas and some petroleum as well along the Caspian Sea coast. In contrast, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have few commercially exploitable mineral resources except construction stone. All five countries have plentiful rangelands for sheep, goats, and cattle. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are major cotton producers on irrigated lands south of the Aral Sea. Wool is a major export for Kyrgyzstan. All five countries have fertile valleys where orchard and vegetable crops can be grown, including peaches, plums, apricots, quince, watermelons, melons, and grapes.

Kazakhstan is a large producer of wheat, growing about 2.2% of the world's wheat in 2006. Much of it is grown in the area that was plowed under during Khrushchev's Virgin Lands campaign in the 1950s, around Tselinograd (now the new capital, Astana). Fisheries of the Caspian Sea and Balkhash Lake are locally important. Regrettably, the formerly rich Aral Sea fisheries are almost gone now because the lake is drying. The steppes of Central Asia are still inhabited by endangered taiga antelopes, wild donkeys, camels, and a few smaller species of game that are trophy-hunted. The elusive snow leopard of the Central Asian mountains is the largest predator in the region now that the Central Asian subspecies of tiger is extinct.

Cultural and Historical Features

Four of the five Central Asian states speak Turkic-based languages of the Altaic family. Kyrgyz and Kazakh are very close, mutually intelligible languages. The Turkmen language is closest to Turkic and Azeri, whereas the Uzbek language is closest to Uygur of northwestern China and also incorporates many Persian words. During Soviet times all countries were forced to use the Cyrillic alphabet, but some are now in the process of changing it either to Latin (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) or to Arabic (Tajikistan) script. The Tajik language is Indo-European and is closely related to Farsi of Iran and to the languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan (Pashtu and Urdu).

Culturally, the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz were nomadic people traveling with their herds across the vast Kyrgyz steppe. The Uzbeks, Turkmens, and Tajiks led more sedentary farming lifestyles. The cities of Bukhara and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, along the Zeravshan River, were centers of powerful emirates formed in the 18th century as Islamic states. Samarkand's most famous ruler was Tamerlane (Timur), a man who was not afraid to challenge rulers from Turkey to India in the mid-14th century.

Besides the main five ethnicities, there are many others; for example, Karakalpaks, Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, Jews, Chinese, and Koreans live in the region. Outside the region, many Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmens live in Afghanistan, and some Kazakhs live in northwestern China and in the Altay in Russia. More recently, many thousands of Tajiks and Uzbeks have migrated to Russia's big cities in search of employment.

Probably the best-known creative works originating in Central Asia are the medieval poems and philosophical works of Alisher Navoi, who lived in Herat (now in Afghanistan) in the 15th century. He wrote in two languages, Persian and Old Uzbek. The Uzbek government named a city after him in 1958, and many monuments are dedicated to him in the region. An earlier writer, Firdousi (10th century), wrote in Persian, and is well regarded as a father of the literature in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. More recently, the poet and thinker Abay Kunanbaev (1845–1904) greatly influenced Kazakh literature. Prior to his period, virtually all Kazakh literary genres were oral tales or songs. He made major efforts to reach out to the society at large with his own poetic and philosophical works and with his translations from other languages (e.g., the poems of Pushkin and Byron). Although he criticized Russian colonial policies, he strongly believed that Russian cultural influences were beneficial for Kazakhstan and would open up the world to the young nation.



Kazakhstan currently has by far the largest economy in Central Asia, accounting for two-thirds of the regional gross domestic product (GDP) and having a per capita income twice as high as the second highest, Turkmenistan's. In addition to the natural resources mentioned above, it has a well-developed industrial sector, including machine and tractor building, steel and nonferrous metallurgy, construction, and financial and high-tech services. Kazakhstan also leases the Baykonur launch pad to the Russian space agency. Like Ukraine, it gave up its nuclear arsenal to Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but continues to mine uranium. Russia is Kazakhstan's largest trade partner, providing over one-third of its imports and receiving 12% of its exports. The two countries border each other over 5,000 km. Germany is the biggest trade partner of Kazakhstan in Europe, and China is the biggest in Asia. The country's most discussed development issue is of course Caspian Sea oil, of which Kazakhstan has about two-thirds of the total reserves. Many conflicting estimates exist for the Caspian Sea petroleum reserves (Dekmejian & Simonian, 2001), but a recent independent report from the Energy Watch Group suggests that the total reserves of Kazakhstan are likely to be about 33 billion barrels of oil—about three times as large as those of Azerbaijan, and just a little less than the revised reserves of Kuwait (usually reported at close to 100 billion barrels, but probably only 35 billion barrels).

Kazakhstan's petroleum is produced mainly in Atyrau and Mangistau Oblasts in the western part of the country. The largest onshore field, Tengiz, was discovered in 1979. It is the sixth largest oil field in the world, about the size of Alaska's Prudhoe Bay (9 billion barrels), and is currently developed by an international consortium in which Chevron and ExxonMobil are heavily involved. The even larger offshore Kashagan oil field, discovered in 2000, will require major investments in underwater drilling technology and is not likely to begin producing oil for several years yet. Unlike Russia, Kazakhstan invited major Western oil companies to develop its oil fields at an early stage. Today it is estimated that almost 80% of all petroleum produced in the country is produced by U.S. and European companies, although Russian and Chinese oil companies also participate. A new pipeline from Kazakhstan into China's Xinjiang region was completed in 2009 and can handle 120,000 barrels per day. However, talk about renationalizing some of these assets is making investors nervous (Olcott, 2002).

Kazakhstan's new capital, Astana, has a population of only half a million, with glitzy skyscrapers and a brand-new airport impressing its first-time visitors. It is designed as a city for the modern business and government elite, and styles itself as a Dubai of Central Asia. However, the former capital, Almaty (population 1.2 million), remains the business and banking hub of the country. It also attracts numerous foreign visitors, especially from China. The eastern mining centers of Ekibastuz and Karaganda (coal) and Oskemen (nonferrous metals) remain heavily Russian populated, whereas the cities in the rural south (Shimkent and especially Kyzyl-Orda) are over 60% Kazakh populated.


Uzbekistan has a much bigger population than Kazakhstan's, but has a smaller economy, mainly because of a lack of economic and political reforms. Although both countries have had authoritarian leaders since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. (Islam Karimov and Nursultan Nazarbayev, respectively), Kazakhstan has largely followed the Russian model in rapidly privatizing its economy, reforming its banking sector, and making major investments in education and infrastructure. This did not happen in Uzbekistan, where a much larger agricultural sector was particularly hard to reform, and the local corrupt Communist bosses remained unchallenged and unchanged from Soviet times. Other problems in Uzbekistan have included the presence of a militant underground Islamist movement and a lack of direct access to Russia or Western markets. Moreover, Uzbekistan's leading export is not oil, but cotton; its major industry is not machine building, but textiles. It does have limited natural gas supplies, but very little petroleum. In short, it has relatively little to offer to the world and has a long way to go to become another important economic producer in Central Asia. Nevertheless, it is strategically located in the very middle of the region and is the only country to border all four of the others.

It is the logical central location for pan-Central Asian functions. Uzbekistan opened its airspace and airfields to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces bound for Afghanistan in 2002, but more recently has restricted access to these as a backlash against Western demands for more human rights in the country. In fact, Uzbekistan has some of the worst corruption in the world as measured by Transparency International, and it also has one of the most brutal and least transparent judicial systems. In particular, opposition journalists are persecuted and sometimes disappear without a trace.

The capital of Uzbekistan, Tashkent, is a large city of over 3 million. Originally founded in an oasis along the Silk Route, it was greatly expanded during the Soviet period. Tashkent was devastated by an earthquake in 1966, but was quickly rebuilt. It has lavish tree-lined streets, fountains, large government buildings, hospitals, schools, and even its own subway. Tashkent remains the center of Uzbekistan and is the most cosmopolitan city in the country, with many nationalities peacefully living together. It also remains the largest industrial center in the country, with tractor and airplane factories, as well as a number of enterprises making equipment for the cotton industry. Much of the new construction since 1991 has been done to accommodate the modest increase in international business, including office towers, banking centers, plazas, and malls—not only in Tashkent, but in smaller cities as well. Daewoo has opened a car factory in Asaka near Andijan in the extreme east of the country. There is significant gold and uranium production in the Kyzyl Kum desert.

Historical Samarkand and Bukhara attract thousands of tourists to their World Heritage Sites, which include mosques, religious schools, and mausoleums. Samarkand is at least 2,750 years old, which makes it one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities worldwide.


Kyrgyzstan is another struggling economy in the region. Although it was the first Central Asian state to launch market reforms and political democratization in the early 1990s, it soon fell out of pace with Kazakhstan and Russia because of internal political tensions. After the 2005 ouster of President Askar Akaev (who had provided the impetus for many of the earlier reforms), the new, more nationalist President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, had to deal with a declining output, corruption, and lack of foreign investments (Marat, 2006). As this book was being prepared for publication, a public uprising in April of 2010 ousted President Bakiyev. Initially peaceful protests turned into a bloody revolt when security forces close to the president were ordered to shoot into crowds. The revolt was mainly precipitated by the deepening economic crisis, a lack of economic opportunities, earlier increases in utility costs, and overall public dissatisfaction with the pervasive corruption in the circles close to the former president. Bakiyev fled the country in a Kazakhstan-brokered escape attempt and found asylum in Belarus. A new transitional government composed of diverse opposition figures was formed in Bishkek and a new constitution was drafted. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the fall of 2010. While the new government has expressed its political neutrality with respect to both the United States and Russia, it is clear that the new regime is likely to prove more pro-Russian than that of its predecessor. At the same time, the United States and China are strategically interested, along with Russia, in Kyrgyzstan's future prosperity and stability.

Exports of gold, tin, and antimony are significant sources of foreign revenue. Traditional exports also include wool and mutton, cotton, tobacco products, and limited uranium and natural gas exports. Kyrgyzstan has surplus hydropower from dams on the Naryn. The biggest station, Toktogul, has a respectable capacity of 1,200 megawatts (MW). The country also exports 75% of the water in its reservoirs to the neighboring states. Its main trade partners are Russia, Kazakhstan, and China. Kyrgyzstan remains one of the most heavily Russian-speaking countries of the post-Soviet region, and the Russian language is recognized as a language of intercultural communication; in fact, it enjoys broader recognition than in any non-Russian FSU republic except Kazakhstan and Belarus.

One of the potential bright spots on the generally bleak economic map of Kyrgyzstan is Lake Issyk-Kul, with its associated tourism development. The high mountain lake is one of the largest and purest in Asia (180 x 60 km in area, and over 600 m deep). It never freezes in winter and provides wintering grounds for millions of migratory birds. Backpacking, mountaineering, and horseback tourism are well developed in the mountains around the lake, especially in Karakol. The lake has a few endemic and endangered species of fish. It is mildly saline, however, and its water level is dropping slightly in response to the warming climate.

Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, is a primate city with over 600,000 residents; it is home to the main government institutions, as well as industrial enterprises, banking, universities, and hospitals. Manas Airport nearby has served as a major logistical air hub for the NATO efforts in Afghanistan. The second biggest city, Osh, is in the south of the country and is poorly connected to the north. It has been inhabited for about 3,000 years, being located along the strategic Ak-Burra River as it enters the Fergana Valley. Osh is a major cotton textile center.


Tajikistan is the least developed, poorest, and most mountainous country in the FSU. Like its neighbor to the south, Afghanistan, Tajikistan experienced a bitter civil war, although this war lasted for a much shorter period of time (1992–1997) as the progovernmental Kulabis (south central) fought the Garmis (central) and the Gorno-Badakhshanis (southern mountains) over political control. The government in Dushanbe was supported by Russia and Uzbekistan, while the mountainous united opposition had supporters among Islamist movements in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The war ended with the signing of a truce in 1997, but the situation today is not absolutely stable. Besides ethnic Tajiks, about one-quarter of the population consists of Uzbeks (who are very similar to the Tajiks in customs, diet, and dress, but speak a Turkic rather than an Iranian language). The rapid emigration of qualified Russian teachers and engineers since independence has resulted in a dearth of professional workers in the republic.

Although officially a secular state, Tajikistan has an increasingly vocal Muslim population divided into Sunnis, Shiites, and a few other sects. Russian military units located along the border with Afghanistan help prevent infiltration of extremists from the south and at least partially maintain internal law and order. There are unresolved border disputes with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the Fergana Valley, resulting in frequent border closures among the three. Despite the poor economy, 98% of Tajikistan's population is literate, a legacy of the Soviet period.

Tajikistan's economy is dominated by an aluminum smelter, Talco (aluminum accounts for almost 60% of Tajikistan's export revenues), and by hydropower facilities on the Vaksh River. The Nurek dam is the highest in the world at 300 m, producing 3,000 MW of power (about 50% more than Hoover Dam on the Colorado). The Nurek station alone can supply most of the nation's need for electricity, but new dams are being built with Russian, Iranian, and Chinese involvement. Another major source of income is cotton exports; Tajikistan also grows a lot of wheat. In addition, the country is similar to Armenia and Moldova in the FSU (and to El Salvador and the Dominican Republic in Latin America) in its reliance on remittances sent back home by migrant workers who are employed outside the home country. The remittances are thought to be one of the top three sources of foreign revenue, accounting for about one-third of the country's GDP. A major problem for Tajikistan is the increase in production and transport of opiate drugs from Afghanistan through Tajik territory. Located across the Panj River from Afghanistan, a country that grows 80% of the world's opium, Tajikistan is the logical gateway for traffickers en route to Russia and Europe.

Dushanbe (population 680,000) is the capital of the country and its primate city. It is a center for cotton and silk production; it is also home to the main government institutions, universities, and museums. Tajikistan's biggest geographic liability is the fact that the country is landlocked and very mountainous. Future development of ecotourism in the mountains is possible, however. The country has the majority of the FSU's mountains above 6,000 m; the FSU's longest glacier, Fedchenko, in the central Pamirs; and the FSU's highest summit, Ismail Samoni (formerly Peak Communism) at 7,495 m.


Turkmenistan is the most closed society of Central Asia. Its development was severely hampered by 15 years of the autocratic rule of Saparmat Niyazov, who even had his image printed on banknotes. Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan pursued increasingly isolationist policies; for example, instruction in both Russian and English was forbidden at most universities, and few foreigners were allowed into the country. President Niyazov spent much of the country's revenue on extensively renovating cities—particularly the capital, Ashgabat, where lavish palaces and monuments were erected in his honor. After Niyazov's death in 2006, his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, began cautiously easing some of the restrictions of the former regime. Turkmenistan's two economic staples are cotton (10th largest producer in the world) and natural gas (5th largest producer). Other exports include wool (including famous wool rugs), vegetable oil, and fruit (Turkmen melons are of legendary quality). Its economy, however, is one of the least privatized in the FSU, with about 70% of all assets still state owned. Russia is one of its leading trading partners, along with Ukraine, Turkey, Iran, Germany, and the United States. Future development is to a large extent tied to planned pipelines for natural gas into Iran and Turkey in the west, and into Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east.

Challenges and Opportunities in Central Asia

The countries described in this chapter are diverse and yet in many ways alike. All of their economies have been recently growing at a rapid rate, attracting much-needed foreign investments, and opening up to the rest of the world. But geographic limitations cannot be ignored: Central Asia remains one of the remotest areas of the world, far away from the economic powerhouses of Asia, Europe, or North America, and is entirely landlocked. The future of the region depends on a few key external players—particularly Russia and China, but also Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the European Union and the United States. For example, Iran has a natural interest in Turkmenistan, because the two countries share a border, and Iran has some Turkmen population. Turkey is also heavily involved in Turkmenistan. Saudi Arabia is keen to be involved in promoting Sunni Islam in all of Central Asia.

At the moment, Kazakhstan's prospects appear particularly shiny, Sasha Baron Cohen's insinuations in the movie Borat notwithstanding. If you travel to the region, visits to the architectural gems of Samarkand and Bukhara in Uzbekistan should be at the top of your list. Central Asia has a wealth of cultural and natural tourism opportunities awaiting exploration in every country, and at present only a fraction of its vast potential is utilized.


  1. Create a table comparing and contrasting the five main ethnicities of Central Asia with respect to their languages, religion, diet, dress, music, main economic activities, and any other characteristics that you think may be appropriate.
  2. Investigate recent political developments in the Fergana Valley, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Do any common underlying themes seem evident in each one of these conflicts? Would you characterize these conflicts as primarily shaped by local forces, or by forces outside the region?
  3. Make an inventory of the protected natural areas of any Central Asian republic. (Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have some of the most famous parks, including Repetek Preserve in the former and Almatinsky Zapovednik in the latter.) What can visitors to these parks see and do? What are the main threats to the ecosystems of the parks?
  4. Make a study of the economic, political, and cultural connections between Russia and Kazakhstan, both historical and current. To what extent may Kazakhstan be likened to Canada, and Russia to the United States? Produce a policy statement that argues for or against tighter integration between Kazakhstan and Russia.
  5. Which cities of Central Asia may be directly traced to the Silk Route?
  6. Use Google Earth to track a segment of the border between Turkmenistan and Iran or between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. What role does topography play in delineating the border?