At the end of 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union transformed the fifteen republics of that union into independent states with various capabilities for survival. Among them were the five republics of Central Asia: Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Until that time, Central Asia had received less attention from the outside world than most of the other Soviet republics, simply because it was the most remote part of the Soviet Union.

Since their independence, these republics have attracted considerable attention in the West, largely because of the improved opportunities for exploitation of their rich natural resources, notably oil and natural gas. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Adjectives derived from the name of a republic ("Kazakstani" and "Uzbekistani," for example) are used in all cases except where such a term denotes persons or groups of a specific ethnic origin. In the latter cases, the adjective is in the form "Kazak" or "Uzbek." The same distinction applies to the proper nouns for citizens of a republic ("Kazakstanis," for example) as distinguished from individuals of an ethnic group ("Kazaks").*

With the arrival of independence, the new Central Asian nations had deal a host of problems: 1) tension between Russians and the majority ethnic group, 2) the migration of Russians and other minorities out of the country, 3) the arrival of ethnic kin from elsewhere in the former Soviet Union, 4) the establishment of an independent market economy out of the shackled Soviet economy, and 5) the creation of a sense of unity and defining national goals. In many cases, the initial primary concern was of the leaders was maintaining order.

Central Asian Countries and Independence

The Central Asia republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. When independence came they for the most part were totally unprepared for it. None of them had ever existed as a true nation-state before 1991 and none of their citizens considered nationhood a real possibility until Gorbachev came to power. They lacked basic things like banking systems, defense ministries and postal system.

The economies of the five Central Asia nations all had performed specific tasks in the Soviet system, mainly the supply of raw materials; only outdated Soviet-era political structures remained behind in the five republics, with no tradition of national political institutions; and the end of the union fragmented the armed forces units of the former Soviet Union that remained on the republics' territory. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the 1990s, the progress of the five republics toward resolving these problems has been quite uneven. The republics with the richest natural resources — Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — have developed the strongest economies — albeit with serious defects in each case — and have attracted substantial Western investment. In all cases, movement away from the Soviet model of strong, one-party central government has been extremely slow. Some degree of military autonomy has appeared in all republics save Tajikistan, which still is bedeviled by rebel forces and a porous southern border. At the same time, the strategic doctrine of all Central Asian countries remains based on protection from Russia's military. *

Russian Migration Out Picks Up in Post-Soviet Central Asia

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “ Despite the upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s, Central Asia still counted 9.5 million Russians in the 1989 census. But the unexpected disappearance of the Soviet Union caused many questions and concerns that considerably hastened migratory flows. The movements originating in Central Asia were significantly larger than those from other republics. The five states accounted for more than half of the migrants heading to Russia, compared to just 17 percent from the Caucasus, 20 percent from Ukraine, and 3 percent from the Baltic states. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“People emigrated from the republics of Central Asia in particularly high numbers in the first half of the 1990s. Emigration from Kazakhstan reached a peak in 1994, with nearly 500,000 people leaving the country, including some 300,000 Russians. In Kyrgyzstan, 100,000 Russians left in 1993 alone. In Uzbekistan, the principal Russian outflows were most concentrated during 1992–93 and 1993–94, with 170,000 and 200,000 departures, respectively. The pace of migration subsided in the second half of the 1990s and the following decade, for several reasons. For one thing, the vast majority of people who wished to emigrate succeeded in leaving during the first years following independence. Also, until 2006, new laws complicated the emigration process, especially with regard to obtaining citizenship in the Russian Federation. Finally, Russia’s difficult economic situation in the 1990s and accounts of integration failures weakened the will to return of some Russians still present in Central Asia, who were not sure they would find improved living conditions in Russia. The repatriation program launched by Putin in June 2006 anticipates the return of about 300,000 people by 2009, mostly from Central Asia and the Caucasus. The number of volunteers seems to be more important especially in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, but the authorities have not yet released any official data for 2007.^^

See Russians Under Minorities

Challenges and Prospects for Post-Independent Central Asia

The republics of Central Asia emerged from the Soviet Union with a combination of assets and handicaps. Their geographic isolation has complicated establishment of commercial relationships, and even name recognition, in the West. The complete lack of democratic tradition has kept the republics from complying with Western legal and commercial standards, and the expression of political dissent has been erratic and sometimes costly to dissenters. Serious deterioration of the Soviet-era education systems in all five countries threatens to diminish the capabilities of the next generation to contribute to the national economies at a time when those economies may be ready to flourish. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

At the same time, ample natural resources hold out the prospect that at least the republics most blessed in this way — Kazakstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — may ultimately enrich their economies and hence the standard of living of their people. The prospect of full regional cooperation remains only theoretical, in spite of numerous bilateral and trilateral agreements. And relations with Russia, traditionally the dominant outside force in Central Asia's geopolitical situation, remain close and vital, although fraught with misgivings. In early 1997, the future of the region remained nearly as unclear as it was in 1991, the year of independence.

Legacy of the Soviet Period in Central Asia

Throughout the Soviet period, the Central Asian republics participated in the life of the union in a rather peripheral sense, and many phases of cultural life were unaffected by Soviet rule. Local communist parties suffered the same purges as those in other republics, but they exercised little political influence in Moscow. Regional economies were stunted by increased demands for production of cotton and other specifically assigned items. As was discovered in the 1980s, decades of Soviet intensive cultivation caused massive pollution, from which the region still suffers. Interrepublican animosities over access to scarce resources went largely ignored by Soviet authorities. The more liberal Soviet regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev (in office 1985-91) saw increased airing of grievances that long had been withheld by the peoples of the Central Asian republics, but before 1991 no organized movement for independence had evolved from that discontent.*

The five post-Soviet states of Central Asia still are defined by the arbitrary borders created in the early years of the Soviet era, and the demarcation among them still fails to correspond to the ethnic and linguistic situation of the region. Thus, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have substantial Uzbek minorities, and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have large numbers of their respective neighbor's people. Kazakstan has few Central Asian people of other nationalities; its largest minorities are Russian, Ukrainian, and German.*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2016

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