I sometimes feel that I am in a time warp when I pick up writings about Central Asia. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have all been independent and sovereign states for more than two decades. Yet, oftentimes analysts and frequently even policymakers write and talk about these countries’ problems as if they existed in a vacuum, paying little attention to how much has changed over the past two decades and to how the countries in the region have managed to find ways to move forward in spite of the challenges they still face.

In the days just after the dissolution of the USSR, discussions in Washington and Moscow were often filled with doom-and-gloom scenarios about the future of Central Asia. These states, it was said, were certainly not expecting independence and would be incompetent in sustaining it.1 

Martha Brill Olcott
Olcott is professor emerita at Colgate University, having taught political science there from 1974 to 2002. Prior to her work at the endowment, Olcott served as a special consultant to former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger.
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Today, discussions still focus on many of the same themes—the incompleteness of political and economic reforms in the countries of the region, the tension over water supplies, how to get energy to market and to the population—as if nothing has changed in the last twenty years or, if it has, it has only gotten worse.

Many of the current discussions about Central Asia do a real injustice to what has happened over the more than two decades of statehood in this part of the world and totally remove it from the context of global trends and problems more generally.

All five countries in the Central Asian region are dramatically different than they were in December 1991, when the USSR ceased to exist. Twenty years ago, if a Russian left Moscow and was blindfolded while flown and then driven to a suburb of a Central Asian capital, when unmasked that person would have had no idea where he or she was and would have found it hard to believe he or she was not still in the Russian Federation.

Now, the same person would immediately know not only that he or she was outside of Russia but probably also where, specifically, he or she was, as each country has developed its own architecture and unique cultural flavor. Almaty has branches of virtually all the same luxury stores that are present in Moscow and St. Petersburg and no shortage of top-end luxury cars as well. Ashgabat resembles a Gulf state capital more than it does its Soviet past, much as the new Kazakh capital of Astana resembles a Gulf capital more than its Soviet forebear, Tselinograd. Dushanbe and its environs have a distinct Iranian provincial feel, and once you leave Tashkent you are convinced that you are in a South Asian land.

Moreover, the stranded Russian might find it quite difficult to locate a Russian speaker to ask directions of, particularly if he or she were on the outskirts of Dushanbe or Ashgabat, quite probably also Tashkent, and maybe even Bishkek or Astana. Over half of the population in each of these countries is under the age of thirty, and most citizens have therefore received all of their secondary education in their national school system and had no direct exposure to shared “Soviet” values.2 Turkmen and Uzbek are both now written in the Latin alphabet, and the Kazakhs are transitioning to Latin script by 2020, which will sharply limit their exposure to literature published in the Soviet period and will give them easier access to Turkish-language translations than they have previously enjoyed.

All of these changes will have a compounding effect on the next generation of Central Asians. Soviet identities have clearly faded away, especially for anyone over the age of forty, and contact with the Soviet past is becoming more difficult, particularly as presented by sources from the Russian Federation. Access to Russian-language programming on state-run television has been sharply cut back, while cable television packages offer Central Asians international programming in the Russian language that originates outside of the Russian Federation. Members of the younger generation are also adept at using new media sources and, government-imposed restrictions on the Internet notwithstanding, are still exposed to a myriad of conflicting ideological stimuli from all over the globe.3

National identities are still in the process of being formed and are not yet uniform even within each country. Regional, ethnic, and religious identities mix with the model of a largely secular national identity that each of these governments is trying to instill. One consequence of this is that there is no particular sense of shared Central Asian identity, particularly among the members of the younger generation.

While the scholarly literature on national identity formation in all of these countries is growing, (albeit still largely fragmentary),4  a frequent traveler to the region will already recognize some discernible patterns. But while individual policymakers may recognize these changes, the giant foreign policy machines of the major foreign powers and international organizations that deal directly with the Central Asian nations seem little able to master factoring these developments into the policy choices they make. These choices, in any event, are more shaped by their understanding of their own national needs than by the needs of these five countries (even though they are “marketed” as being in the Central Asian states’ own national interests).

Policies of the Central Asian states themselves have shown signs of inertia as well. Central Asian leaders, still drawn exclusively from a Soviet-era elite, are often as unwilling as their foreign partners to recognize changes that have occurred in neighboring states while romanticizing those that have occurred at home.

The Problems

This said, as the papers in this volume eloquently detail, after twenty-one years of independence, the five countries that make up what is generally termed “Central Asia” face serious challenges in the future. Some are common global problems, like climate change or the vagaries of commodity pricing. Others are specific to the region, such as its interdependent water supply and the fact that it is landlocked and thousands of kilometers from open ports.5 Many other challenges are of the states’ own making.

The economies of all five countries still suffer the effects of having been smaller parts of an integrated and autarkic whole. All have tried to diversify their economies, and none has been too successful. Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were the quickest to open up and seek to integrate with the global economy. Tajikistan followed after its civil war ended in the late 1990s. Uzbekistan has remained the most closed, led by a president who is himself a former head of his republic’s Soviet-era Gosplan, the state-run economic planning agency, and sees a managed economy as the best guarantee of stability. Turkmenistan has also opted for a largely managed economy, though—as is also true for Kazakhstan, another major fossil fuel exporter—it is now considered a middle-income country by the World Bank.6

Many of the same social problems that were characteristic of the late Soviet period remain. There is a demographic bulge, and there are either too few jobs available or youth lack the skills necessary to compete for those in new, more technology-intensive economic sectors. Education systems, already under stress in the last years of Soviet rule, have the additional burden of teaching newly designed curriculums in national languages rather than in Russian. The gap between urban and rural has also increased, as the end of Soviet-era subsidies has changed the nature of the rural economy even more than that of the urban one. The old collective farm sector has been transformed into industrial farms, small private holdings, or just simply abandoned, depending upon how attractive or difficult to work the land is in the absence of state subsidies.

It is in rural areas that the region’s growing energy shortages are often most sharply felt, as the shortages leave the population completely isolated. Energy shortages have become commonplace in even the most energy rich of the Central Asian countries. They result not just from high prices—which plague Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in particular, given their need to import gas to produce electricity in winter—but also from the fact that grids and hydroelectric stations built in the 1960s and 1970s to last forty to fifty years are at the end of their lifespans. It often takes many years to introduce new grids to serve the new residential and small-scale enterprises created by the move to market economies, and sometimes they are not introduced at all.7

The gap between rich and poor has increased,8 and it has been made more obvious by the fact that all five countries are now connected to the global market, at least as far as access to luxury and other consumer goods are concerned. The sense of unmet social expectations has fueled distrust of democratic political solutions.

None of these countries has yet developed a stable and sustainable political system. The fact that all had the status of union republics gave them a real advantage over states that emerged when England and France gave up their colonies, as the newly independent states in Central Asia were created complete with full-blown ministry structures in place, even if most had to cope with new tasks and find new sources of financing.

But how to best govern citizens remains a real challenge. Two of these countries are still headed by the men who were in charge when independence was gained. Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan and Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan were appointed as first secretaries of their respective Communist parties in mid-1989 by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, following ethnic rioting in both of their republics. Both men were elected president in December 1991. And a third president, Emomali Rahmon, came to power in the midst of Tajikistan’s civil war, in late 1992. All three have determined that their countries need a strong presidential and weak parliamentary system, and none has sought to institutionalize any sort of succession process. Rahmon is currently preparing to run for reelection in autumn 2013, and Nazarbayev has signaled his intent to serve until his death as the constitution now allows him to run for president as many times as he wants.9 Only Islam Karimov, whose term ends in January 2015, appears to be considering leaving office in his lifetime.

The best-case scenario in all three countries is that there will be a consensus among the ruling elite on a candidate for succession, preferably negotiated while the leader is alive, as insiders report was the case in Turkmenistan. Saparmurad Niyazov died in December 2006, but he is said to have had a succession plan in place since summer of that year.10

Of course, there is great concern virtually everywhere that unsuccessful political transitions could serve to provoke civil unrest in at least a mild form, as in Kyrgyzstan, where two presidents were relatively bloodlessly ousted and where even the related June 2010 ethnic unrest in Osh was mild by comparison to the revolutions in Libya or Syria. This specter haunts all in the region, and each of Central Asia’s leaders thinks that it is more likely in a neighboring state than in his own.

Proffered Foreign Solutions

This is also a vision that frightens observers in the international community. But while the United States and the European Union counsel that only greater democratization will prevent this, Russian and Chinese policymakers warn that better security policies are necessary and that opening up societies too quickly is the cause of unrest rather than the way to prevent it.

Yet it is far from clear how much outside actors will be able to influence these developments or how deep their commitments to do so are. When looked at rather cynically, it appears that most international actors have sought to influence developments in Central Asia to advance their national agendas or in pursuit of their own ideological goals.

There is nothing strange in this, but it has helped foster what is obviously a degree of skepticism and distrust among leaders in the region. Many of them may well feel that they have traded one “big brother” for a much larger group of older siblings, each of whom wants to tell them what to do while each of the regional leaders feels sufficiently adult to make his own choices.

This is true not only of states but also of the four largest international financial institutions, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Development Bank, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. All of these institutions have sought, and have in fact played, a major role in the region.

They have been responsible for reforming the financial sectors of all five countries to some degree, although Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have maintained the most “go it alone” attitudes in the region.11 As the latter is now preparing to seek entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), however, even Ashgabat is engaging more closely with these institutions.12

The banks have also been actively involved in helping the states work out ways to finance the social safety nets that populations in Central Asia had come to depend on in the post-Stalin era of Soviet rule. Policy recommendations in this area have often been a source of controversy,13 as were the efforts of international donors to get the Kyrgyz Republic to accept debt relief as an HIPC—a heavily indebted poor country. Kyrgyz nationalists in particular did not want to accept the designation of “poor.”14

The World Bank faces its greatest test in the region as it prepares to publish its technical and environmental feasibility studies for the Rogun Dam project on the Vakhsh River in Tajikistan, a project that is strongly favored by Tajikistan as the solution to its economic woes and vigorously opposed by Uzbekistan as a threat to its water supply and its ecology more generally.15 Failure to accommodate both sides, something that is nearly impossible, could leave the World Bank’s prestige in the region severely damaged and could threaten security as well.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has had a very mixed reputation in the region, having been seen both as doing too much and doing too little. It has been roundly criticized in most of the Central Asian countries for the standards it seeks to uphold in the conduct of elections.16 It has also been criticized for giving the OSCE chairmanship to Kazakhstan and for its inability to prevent ethnic violence in southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.17

The United States and the European Union have come in for their fair share of attacks for what many in Central Asia have termed their double standards. Kazakh politicians can cite the chapters and verses of the laws that govern religious organizations in the EU, including dress standards for public places, which they do repeatedly when EU officials or U.S. congressmen criticize them for Kazakh laws governing religious affairs.18

And now many in the leadership of these countries fear that insult is about to be added to injury as the United States and NATO are slated to withdraw the overwhelming majority of their forces from Afghanistan in 2014. After years of pressing the Central Asian states to participate in their military buildup, the current “mantra” is regional self-help, with the New Silk Road or Heart of Asia policies advanced by the United States and Germany designed to encourage the fifteen or so states in reasonable proximity to Afghanistan to shoulder more of the burden for that country’s economic recovery.19 No one in Central Asia seems to believe that this strategy will be successful rapidly enough to defuse the security threats that might radiate from Afghanistan.

This is true even of Kazakhstan,20 which has been an enthusiastic leader of the Istanbul Process,21 a political confidence-building effort that originated at a foreign ministers’ conference convened by the presidents of Turkey and Afghanistan in Istanbul in November 2011. The Kazakhs are placing greater importance on tighter borders and new security efforts, and they gave public notice of this by holding their first military parade since independence on May 7, 2013.

The Russian leadership has also made statements about the security risks emanating from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawal from Afghanistan. But Russia’s desire to have the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO, or ODKB in Russian) serve as the regional security force does not seem to be appeasing everyone’s security concerns. Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are cooperating closely with Moscow to help facilitate this, but they have little choice given the dependence of both countries on the remittances sent home by the many hundreds of thousands of migrant workers living in Russia. From Tajikistan’s viewpoint, having Russian troops on the Tajik-Afghan border again also reduces the degree of responsibility they will have vis-à-vis their neighbors if terrorists cross from Afghanistan through Tajikistan and into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Both Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also in the process of joining Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus in the Eurasian Customs Union, although Tajikistan managed to join the WTO first (and Kyrgyzstan is already a WTO member). But for its part, Kazakhstan’s leadership is very unhappy about what the Customs Union has and has not meant for its economy.22 The union has brought higher food prices and increased tariffs on consumer imports more generally, but it has not brought a boost in demand for Kazakh-produced goods. Although there is no talk of Kazakhstan leaving the Customs Union and Astana continues to endorse the goal of deepening integration, the Kazakh leadership shows no sign of actually moving closer to this Russian-sponsored plan.

Then, of course, there is China, too generous to rebuff and too large to ignore. Over the past several years, China has become a major economic partner of each of these five countries through its low interest loans, capital investment in infrastructure, and natural resource extraction projects. China’s economic position is increasing exponentially each year, largely because of Beijing’s vast resource needs and its keen desire to have the economic capacity to exert control in Central Asia and make it something of a buffer against the potential fractiousness of China’s own minority populations living across the border in Xinjiang.

The Future

It is interesting that while there is often a sense of doom and gloom about what might happen in Central Asia, none of the most concerned outside actors are particularly motivated to do much to deflect anticipated problems. Even China, with its vast investment, has not demonstrated a real hunger for direct engagement in the region’s security problems, contenting itself with what Russia and the United States have both done and with what prospects the Shanghai Cooperation Organization might offer.

One often hears both in Washington and in the region that the United States and NATO will respond if there is serious unrest in Afghanistan or in Central Asia that, like the attacks of September 11, 2001, directly threatens U.S. security. But it is far from obvious that this is the case.

When the United States pressed for ISAF forces to be introduced in Afghanistan, it had not yet engaged in the nearly decade-long fight in Iraq that ousted Saddam Hussein but otherwise had very mixed results. Nor had it experienced the crumbling of regimes in Egypt, Libya, and especially in Syria, with the uncertainties, loss of life, and near total devastation that these three examples of regime collapse brought to each of these countries. This will be the backdrop upon which any future U.S. decisions about intervention in the domestic affairs of another state will be made. And this will be the picture that Central Asian leaders and their citizens will keep in their minds as they decide how to go about building their political futures.

This article was originally published in Russian in the January–April 2013 issue of Pro et Contra.


1 Martha Brill Olcott, “Central Asia’s Catapult to Independence,” Foreign Affairs 71, No. 3 (Summer 1992): 108¬–130.

2 According to UN estimates, the percentage of population under thirty years old in each country as of 2010 is as follows:

Tajikistan—68.6 percent; Kyrgyzstan—61.4 percent; Uzbekistan—60.8 percent; Turkmenistan—60.0 percent; Kazakhstan—51.7 percent. Given the high birth rates in the region, in 2013 the percent of population under thirty years of age is likely higher still.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects, the 2010 Revision, 2010, http://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Excel-Data/population.htm.

3 2011 figures indicate that in nearly all Central Asian countries, Internet usage has nearly or more than doubled since 2008. In 2011, the estimated percent of individuals accessing fixed Internet connections are as follows: Kazakhstan—45 percent, Kyrgyz Republic—20 percent, Tajikistan—13 percent, Turkmenistan—5 percent, and Uzbekistan—30.2 percent. (See: International Telecommunications Union” Percent of Individuals Using the Internet,” http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-D/Statistics/Pages/stat/default.aspx, accessed May 01, 2013.) In reality, even more individuals are likely accessing the Internet as many people go online on their cellular phones. Access to cellular phones is very high in the region. All of the countries save Turkmenistan, which has a mobile subscription rate of 68 per 100 inhabitants, have a rate of 90 or more subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. (See: International Telecommunications Union, “Mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions,” http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye/Reporting/ShowReportFrame.aspx?ReportName=/WTI/CellularSubscribersPublic&ReportFormat=HTML4.0&RP_intYear=2011&RP_intLanguageID=1&RP_bitLiveData=False, accessed May 01, 2013.) Although information for Tajikistan and Turkmenistan was not available, for the other three nations the top recorded visited sites in the country included Youtube.com, Facebook.com, Wikipedia.org, Yandex.ru, Vk.com, and Odnoklassniki.ru (both social networking sites). (See: http://www.alexa.com/topsites/countries.)

4 See for example: Laura Adams, The Spectacular State: Culture and National Identity in Uzbekistan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010);

R. S. Khakimov and R. M. Mukhamitshin, Islam, identichnost I politika v postsovestkom prostranstve: sravnitelnii analyz Tsentralnoi Azii I evropeiskoi chasti Rossii (Islam, identity, and politics in the post-Soviet space: a comparative analysis of Central Asia and European Russia) (Kazan: Master Line, 2005).

5 The shortest road routes from Central Asian commercial capitals to the port of Bandar Abbas, Iran, and the port of Karachi, Pakistan, respectively, are as follows:

Ashgabat: 1,695 km/2,316 km; Tashkent: 3,004 km/2,812 km; Bishkek: 3,713 km/3,434 km; Almaty: 3,993 km/3,708 km. See: United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, “Chapter 4: Comparison of Land Transport Routes to Sea Ports in the South and the East” in Land Transport Linkages from Central Asia to Seaports in the South and the East (New York, NY: United Nations, 1995), http://www.unescap.org/ttdw/Publications/TIS_pubs/pub_1560/pub_1560_fulltext.pdf.

6 The World Bank estimates Turkmenistan’s 2011 GDP as $5,497 per capita. See: World Bank, “Turkmenistan World Development Indicators,” http://databank.worldbank.org/data/views/reports/tableview.aspx.

7 Martha Brill Olcott, Tajikistan’s Difficult Development Path (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2010).

8 Kazakhstan’s 2009 GINI coefficient was 29.0. By comparison, the Kazakh SSR’s GINI coefficient was 25.7 in 1988. Kyrgyzstan’s GINI coefficient rose to 30.8 in 2009 from 26.0 in 1998; Tajikistan’s 2009 coefficient was 36.2, with no available data in 1988. There is no current data for Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
See: World Bank, “GINI Index,” (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI?page=4).

9 “O vnesenii izmenenii I dopolnenii v Konstitutsiyu Respubliki Kazakhstan” N 254 (On the amendment and expansion of the Constitution of the Republic of Kazakhstan), May 21, 2007, http://adilet.zan.kz/rus/docs/Z070000254.

10 I have heard from authoritative sources that Niyazov let his close associates know he wished Gurbangogly Berdimukhammedov to replace him, following a trip to Turkmenistan in August 2006 by Niyazov’s son Murad during which Niyazov’s son is said to have refused to come back and train to be his father’s successor.

11 Uzbekistan backed away from the International Monetary Fund’s macrostabilization program in 1996 and has continued to maintain a strict currency regime ever since.

See: Leif Hansen, Robert Christiansen, Yan Sun, Vassili Pokopenko, Tatsuya Kanai, and Christoph Rosenberg, Republic of Uzbekistan: Recent Economic Developments, (Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund, 1998), http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/1998/cr98116.pdf.

12 “Turkmen leader sets up special commission on joining WTO,” Universal Newswires, January 25, http://www.universalnewswires.com/centralasia/economy/viewstory.aspx?id=13531.

13 For example, the World Bank provided support for a radical reform of Kazakhstan’s pension system in 1997–1998, which remains controversial to date, largely because of the low returns given by the private pension funds the reforms created. (See: : I. Galat, “Kak mozhet vyglyadet pensionnaya reforma v Kazakhstane” (How pension reform may look in Kazakhstan), Vlast, October 15, 2012,http://vlast.kz/?art=898.) The Kazakh government’s announcement in 2013 that it intended to consolidate all private pension funds into a single state fund was also met with criticism from some sides, including a widely republished open letter to President Nursultan Nazarbayev from the Association of Pension Funds of Kazakhstan and the Independent Association of Entrepreneurs referring to the planned reforms as a “systemic mistake.” (See: “Otkrytoe pismo prezidentu Kazakhstana ‘Sozdaniye edinogo pensionnogo fonda – sistemnaya oshibka Kazakhstana’” (Open Letter to the president of Kazakhstan “The creation of a unified pension fund is a systemic mistake for Kazakhstan”), February 12, 2013, http://today.kz/ru/news/kazakhstan/2013-02-12/81902.)

14  A. Kachiev, “Kyrgyzstan: Molodezh Bishkeka aktivno protestuet protiv vstupleniya strany v HIPC” (Kyrgyzstan: Young people of Bishkek actively protesting the country’s inclusion in HIPC), Ferghana News, December 13, 2006, http://www.fergananews.com/articles/4780.

15 World Bank, “Assessment Studies for Proposed Rogun Regional Water Reservoir and Hydropower Project in Tajikistan,” http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/ECAEXT/0,,contentMDK:22743325~pagePK:1467 36~piPK:146830~theSitePK:258599,00.html;

Eli Keene, “Solving Tajikistan’s Energy Crisis,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 15, 2013, http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/03/25/solving-tajikistan-s-energy-crisis/fta8.

16 See, for example: “Kazakhstan mozhet otkazatsya ot missii nablyudatelei ot OBSE” (Kazakhstan could refuse OSCE observer mission), Tengri News, March 2, 2012 http://tengrinews.kz/kazakhstan_news/kazahstan-mojet-otkazatsya-ot-missii-nablyudateley-ot-obse-209388/;

Associated Press, “Uzbeks Vote, but There's No Opposition,” Los Angeles Times, December 27, 2004, http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/27/world/fg-uzbek27.

17 Kyrgyzstan Inquiry Commission,  Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry into the Events in Southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, May 3, 2011, http://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Full_Report_490.pdf.

18 Martha Brill Olcott, Alexey Malashenko, Thomas de Waal, and Fatima Kukeyeva, “Videoconference: Is Religion a Security Threat in Central Asia?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 9, 2011, http://carnegieendowment.org/2011/09/09/is-religion-security-threat-in-central-asia/57qo.

19 Hillary Clinton, “Remarks at the New Silk Road Ministerial Meeting,” New York, September 22, 2011, http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/09/173807.htm.

20 Almaty Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan, Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the United States, April 29, 2013, http://www.kazakhembus.com/article/almaty-ministerial-conference-of-the-istanbul-process-on-afghanistan.

21 “Declaration of the Istanbul Process on Regional Security and Cooperation for a Secure and Stable Afghanistan,” Istanbul, November 2, 2011, http://www.cfr.org/afghanistan/declaration-istanbul-process-regional-security-cooperation-secure-stable-afghanistan/p26434.

22 K. Kelimbetov, “My khotim byt partnerami, a ne subsiderovat drug druga” (We want to be partners, not subsidize each other), Kommersant - Vlast No 8 (March 4, 2013), http://kommersant.ru/doc/2137306.