Nations and Nationalism in Central Asia

Anatoly Khazanov. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Central Asia has always been an ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse region. Periodic invasions and infiltrations of nomads complicated and often disrupted ethnic integration in its sedentary areas. Processes of assimilation lasted for centuries there and often had many local and temporal peculiarities (Khazanov 1992: 73ff.; Subtelny 1994: 45ff.). In pre-revolutionary Central Asia, prevailing identities were religious, political, regional and tribal, to some extent ethnic, but in no way national. Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Uzbeks (in the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, this term was mainly applied to the descendants of those who migrated to Central Asia proper from Dasht-i Qipchaq steppes during the Shaybani Khan conquest, in the sixteenth century), and some other ethnic groups retained a segmentary kinship and descent-based organization.

Thus, the Uzbeks of Dasht-i Qipchaq origin were subdivided into different tribes, clans and sub-clans that maintained their separateness and were often rivals with one another. Their ethnic self-identification may be at best characterized as a hierarchical one. An individual thought of himself primarily as a Mangut, a Kungrat, or a Keneges, that is, as a member of an individual tribe; and only secondarily and in specific situations did he acknowledge that he was also an Uzbek. The same can be said about Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen.

The urban and sedentary population of Central Asia was known variously as Tajiks or Sarts. For the most part the direct descendants of the indigenous, sedentary, Iranian-speaking population in Central Asia were called Tajiks. However, up to the first half of the twentieth century, the term ‘Tajik’ sometimes also had strong economic and social connotations. In some regions it was applied to any sedentary population, even the Uzbek-speaking one. This was a continuation of the old tradition according to which any Muslim population in Central Asia, Iran and even in several Caucasus regions, which had been non-tribal and sedentary for a long period of time, was called Tajiks.

Another numerous sedentary group was the Sarts. They were similar to the Tajiks in their economic activities and way of life, however most of them spoke Uzbek. They were either Turkicized descendants of the Iranian-speaking population of the Central Asian oases, or detribalized descendants of Turkic migrants who had settled there before the arrival of the Dasht-i Qipchaq Uzbeks. The Sarts did not consider themselves even nominally to be Uzbeks. Both groups lacked kinship-based segmentary organization. The Tajiks had a rather weak sense of ethnic identity; the Sarts lacked it completely and did not perceive themselves as a distinct ethnic group. In addition, Turkic-Tajik bilingualism was quite widespread in many sedentary regions of Central Asia (Fragner 1994: 15ff.).

Thus, the ethnic map of pre-revolutionary Central Asia lacked modern nations with clear self-consciousness and self-identification. Ethnic borders in the region never coincided either with political-administrative or with cultural-linguistic ones, and as a rule ethnicity was not perceived in terms of language, territory, polity or even common historical experience. Only in the late nineteenth and in the early twentieth century did some members of small educated strata under the influence of the Young Turk movement in Ottoman Turkey begin to promote identities that transcended narrow tribal and regional boundaries. But to a large extent the new identities were not national but rather pan-Turkic, pan-Turkestani, or pan-Islamist. Nevertheless, the communists boldly initiated a project of ethnic engineering and nation-building out of this diverse and fragmented material in line with the nineteenth-century European model.

The Soviet Period

The construction of the Central Asian nations was mainly the outcome of the Soviet nationalities policy, and inasmuch as it was based on ethno-territorial and primordialist principles, the new nations in the region, just as elsewhere in the USSR, were designed as ethnic ones. Each republic had to have a titular ethnic nation pivotal to its very creation. In Central Asia, this policy included political delimitation and creation of Soviet republics with titular nations, ascriptive ethnic identities, manipulative census and ethnic registration policies, forced assimilation of some smaller ethnic groups into the titular ones (called ‘ethnic consolidation’ or ‘coalescence’ in the official Soviet parlance), corresponding educational, cultural, linguistic and social policies, and many other measures. As a result, in Uzbekistan, the Sarts had already disappeared as an officially recognized separate category by 1924 (Ilkhamov 2004a: 296ff), while later many Tajiks were pressured to register themselves as Uzbeks. In Tajikistan, a campaign of forced assimilation of the Pamiri ethnic groups had been pursued, although the latter spoke languages quite different from Tajik and have many significant cultural differences. In principle, this policy, amongst other goals, was aimed at obliteration of sub-national divisions.

Ethno-territorial delimitation of the region took significant time, from 1920 through 1936, and was complicated by many factors, such as the fluidity and uncertainty of many ethnic identities, economic rationality, external and internal political considerations, conflicting interests and rivalries of indigenous politicians, and so on. Nevertheless, in general, the Soviet policy was quite successful (Roy 2000: VIIff.). To some extent, it resulted in interiorization of the very notion of a nation in the minds, attitudes and behavior of members. In this regard, just as in cases of many other nations worldwide, education, mass media, the promotion of national histories, and last but not least, functional administrative structures and institutions played an important cementing role. Territorialization of new nations, institutionalization of ethnic identities as an important criterion for social and political advancement in the Central Asian republics, and cultural standardization were but some of the measures aimed at shaping new allegiances.

Each nation was provided with quasi-state structures and political apparatus, and, thus, with a model of the ethnonation-state. Each nation was provided with its own officially designated and standardized literary language based on dialects at the maximum linguistic distance from other related languages, which substituted for previous overarching literary languages, like Farsi and Chagatai (Turki, called Old Uzbek in the Soviet period to conceal the historical roots of the modern Uzbek language).

The Soviet scholarship was preoccupied with ethnogenesis, that is, the origins of contemporary ethnic nations. It was perceived as an almost teleological, spontaneous, essentialist and timeless process which had been going on since the most ancient times. Correspondingly, each Central Asian nation was provided with its own version of ethnic history, or rather mythistorical past, since, not infrequently, these histories smacked of mythologies. The uniqueness, separateness and allegedly primordialist character of the Central Asian nations was overstated, while their commonalities and a history of the region in general were played down. This was a difficult endeavor, especially with regard to Uzbeks and Tajiks, who for a long time shared the same territories and states, and, to a large extent, the same cultural heritage. Moscow retained ultimate control over the writing and re-writing of national histories and the selection of national heroes, since by no means should these be antagonistic to the Russians and to the official Russian/Soviet narrative (Smith et al. 1998: 71). However, it was much more condescending to the fierce competition between narratives of individual Central Asian republics, which, not infrequently, acquired a certain nationalistic dimension. National historiographies invented in the Soviet period were aimed at forging new identities and led to the compartmentalization of the ethnic and cultural history of the region. At the same time, they tended to stress an ethnic and cultural continuity between ancient and medieval populations of the region and the newly created nations, thus justifying the Soviet nationalities policy as the culmination of long historical processes.

Still, a congruence of political and ethno-linguistic borders has never been achieved in Central Asia, first, because of significant ethnic mixture and intermingling, mosaic settling patterns and widespread bilingualism which was characteristic of its many regions; and second, because of a certain arbitrariness of national delineation in the region. Many Tajik-populated regions were included into Uzbekistan, while some Uzbek-populated regions were included into Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. In addition, the Soviets brought to the region a significant number of Russians and other Slavs, as well as many exiled peoples and groups, which further complicated its ethnic composition. By 1989, the titular nation constituted 72 per cent of the whole population in Turkmenistan; 71.4 per cent in Uzbekistan; 62.3 per cent in Tajikistan; 52.4 per cent in Kyrgyzstan; and 39.7 per cent in Kazakhstan.

Subnational identities

The consolidation of Central Asian nations should also not be overestimated. Ethnonational identities in the region were of a clearly hierarchical character. An individual considered him-or herself a member of a given ethnic nation via-à-vis other ones, but within the individual’s nation, local, regional and/or kin- and descent-based clanal and tribal identities retained significant meaning and played an important role in his or her loyalties. Whether all these identity groupings go back directly to the pre-revolutionary period, and to what extent some of them were reordered in the Soviet period (Roy 1997: 137) are still open questions that demand special scholarly attention. These groupings are not infrequently (but erroneously) called by the umbrella term ‘clans,’ which obscures their real varieties and differences. In any case, they remained very much alive and conspicuous in the public consciousness, attitudes and behavior: from personal relations and marriage arrangements, to the ways of social and political advancement and career promotion; and, especially, to the in-fighting within the political elites in Central Asian republics. However, the ordinary population, which was denied any participation in political life and was poorly protected by the state, also tended to rely on traditional institutions, such as kin, descent and other groups, and on their old rules of mutual aid and reciprocity.

In Tajikistan, the notion of a single Tajik nation remained in flux, while localized cultural and regional identities remained very strong. These differences were conspicuous even in the intra-ethnic division of labor. The natives of the northern Leninabad province, primarily from Khujant (formerly Leninabad) and to a lesser degree from Kanibadam, had come to dominate the Communist Party apparatus and government in the late 1930s; descendants of migrants from Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as people from Garm and the Pamirs, made up a significant part of the intellectual elite; natives of Kuliab and Badakhshan regions represented a majority in the law enforcement bodies; and Garm natives were entrenched in trade and the shadow economy (Bushkov and Mikulski 1993: 26).

In Kazakhstan, the importance of belonging to a certain zhuz (‘horde’ in the past, something similar to a tribal confederation), as well as to a certain tribe and clan, was well known by all Kazakhs. Although there was an unwritten rule about maintaining a certain balance between members of different zhuzes among the republican nomenklatura, those who were in power tended to recruit, support and promote people of their own zhuz (Dzanguzhin 1993: 179). Members of the Middle zhuz were overrepresented in the first generation of the indigenous communist leadership, however all these people were exterminated during Stalin’s purges. After Almaty became the capital of the republic, members of the Elder zhuz began to gradually increase their number in the governance and administration. Since the 1960s, members of the Elder zhuz and their allies from the Junior zhuz became overrepresented in the power structures, while the intellectual and cultural elites to a large extent remain constituted of members of the Middle zhuz. in Kyrgyzstan, the struggle for power between northern and southern tribes was characteristic of most of the Soviet period. From the 1930s through the 1950s, the majority of the leading positions were occupied by the southern Kyrgyz from the Kypchak tribe; then the balance of power began to change in favor of the northern Sary-Bagysh and Solto tribes (Filonyk 1994: 158). When Akaev, a member of Sary-Bagysh, became president in October 2000, his election was connected with struggles not only between reformists and conservatives, but even more so between northern and southern Kyrgyz (Ponomarev 1989: 9-10).

In Turkmenistan, tribal loyalties remained a major factor of social life. One witnessed a constant competition for lucrative positions between members of different tribes, especially the largest ones: Teke, Saryk, Goklen, Salyr, Yomut and Ersari. It became common for the first secretaries of the republican Communist Party immediately after their appointment by Moscow to put their tribesmen in prominent and important positions in the government, administration and even in the scientific and cultural establishments in the capital of the republic Ashghabad. At the same time, regional party organizations sometimes resembled tribal fiefdoms. An ordinary Turkmen who settled in the territory of an alien tribe had no prospects for social and economic advancement. In everyday life he felt the scornful attitude of his neighbors. Marriages between members of different tribes were very rare (Demidov 2002: 9ff.).

In Uzbekistan, regional identities rooted in different historical experiences, ethno-cultural traditions and socio-economic conditions remained very strong. They were reflected in the struggle for leading positions in the republican party organization and government. The period from 1937 until 1957 was marked by the dominance of the Tashkent and Fergana factions, while members of the Samarkand, Bukhara and other factions were relegated to positions of secondary significance. In about 1957, the balance of power changed, and the central and western factions became the main source of leading cadres. In the early 1980s, the Tashkent and Fergana factions restored their supremacy within the republic’s political elite, but in 1989 another shift brought to power the Samarkand faction (Carlisle 1991).

Thus, the Soviet nationality policy was very contradictory. While having constructed ethnic nations, it simultaneously was very suspicious of their nationalism. While aimed at the modernization of the new nations, it dismissed the very concept of nationalism as a concomitant product of modernity. These inconsistencies and their consequences became fully revealed in the post-Soviet period.

The Post-Soviet Period

After independence, communist ideology as the legitimation of power was thrown overboard and was replaced with the ideology of ethnic nationalism, indigenization and ethnonation-state building (Koroteyeva and Makarova 1998; Adams 1999; Kuru 2002: 73f.; Manz 2002; Olcott 2002: 58ff.). Propagated by the ruling elites and many in the intellectual and cultural elites, it is considered instrumental to the societal consolidation of the majority population. Actually, it helps the political elites to neutralize, or to convert to their cause, some strata of the indigenous populations.

Despite individual variations, the disjunction between ethnic identities, the notion of civil nationhood and citizenship is evident in all Central Asian states. From the very beginning they rejected a double-citizenship option for their Russian minorities (Turkmenistan abolished double-citizenship in 1993), but simultaneously they granted citizenship to all their residents. In principle, this implied legal equality in terms of rights and duties. However, the new states did not embark on a venture of civic nation-building, which in any case seems impossible at the moment. If one assumes that the concept of civic nation implies more than simple membership in a political community, but is connected with the acceptance of shared values, norms, rituals, symbols and, last but not least, historical narratives and myths, which are linked with a notion of patria and are acceptable to the multi-ethnic majority, one should conclude that the gulf between dominant ethnic nations and those who have turned out to be minorities is too big to be bridged in the near future. This is especially evident with regard to Russians and other Europeans.

Occasional lip-service notwithstanding, civic nationhood is not on the agenda of the new Central Asian states, since they are not interested in, nor capable of, unifying integration. Following Brubaker (1996: 76ff), they can be characterized as nationalizing states, for example as the states of and for particular nations, yet not actualized to a sufficient degree. In such states citizenship is divorced from the membership in the nation, since the latter is perceived as an ethnic one. In one way or another, the constitutions of all Central Asian states imply the priority rights of dominant nations on the territories of corresponding countries, which are claimed to be their homelands. Kazakhstan grants citizenship to all ethnic Kazakhs from abroad, but denies it to co-ethnics of its minorities. Special clauses in constitutions of Central Asian countries stipulate that their presidents should be fluent in the state languages, which practically guarantees that they should be members of ethnic majorities. Besides this, the nationalizing policies include overt or covert measures aimed at assertion of the dominance of the titular nations in the governance, administration, educational and cultural spheres, judiciary and law enforcement agencies, and in the economy. In all privatization schemes an advantage is given to members of titular nations.

Language Policy

The policy of linguistic Russification promoted in the Soviet Union was detrimental to the development of indigenous languages. One of its consequences is that the minorities of European origin, as a rule, do not speak local languages. Even a significant number of members of indigenous political and cultural elites, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have an insufficient command of their languages. After independence, all Central Asian countries adopted special language laws granting the status of state languages to titular ones with the further aim of making them the sole languages of governance and administration. One should also mention the replacement of many Russian loan words with Turkic and Farsi terminology. However, the practical implementation of the language laws turned out to be more difficult than had been anticipated, and it was slowed down. Across the region, Russian remains necessary for many daily interactions and retains a strong position in inter-ethnic contacts, business, science and professions. This is evident not only in the most Russified countries of the region, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but also in such countries as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Still, the lack of proficiency in indigenous languages further limits the possibilities of employment in the state sector for the members of ethnic minorities.

To further distance themselves from the Russian language, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have adopted the use of Latin script instead of Cyrillic, though at the moment Cyrillic is still widely used in Uzbekistan (Kosmarskii 2003). Latin scripts as opposed to Cyrillic ones serve as markers of new post-Soviet identities.

National Historiographies

National historiographies continue to serve political causes, nowadays those of the new states (Bregel 1996). While reiterating many concepts developed in the Soviet period, especially with regard to ethnogenesis, they have become not only nationalistic but also explicitly statist (Uyama 2003: 51). They contain the same substitution of histories of titular nations for histories of corresponding countries and territories based on arbitrary manipulation of archaeological data and written sources. The origin of contemporary nations is perceived as an almost teleological process. The nationalist components of the somewhat revised historiographies of the Soviet period have become much more conspicuous and are propagated without any constraint. They include the following.

Autochthonism The example of Central Asian states confirms the significance of notions of territory and homeland in the formation of national identities. In the Soviet Union, the autochthonous theory had first been developed in the 1940s. It claimed that all ancient and medieval inhabitants of corresponding republics were the ancestors of their contemporary titular nations or participated in their ethnogenesis. Nowadays, the Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek nationalist narratives appropriate Iranian-speaking populations that in the distant past peopled the territories of the new states. In addition, autochthonism is used to confirm the historical rights of ethnonations on territories of their states and whenever it is considered expedient to deny these rights to ethnic minorities. Thus, in 2000, Kyrgyzstan celebrated with great pomp the supposed three thousandth anniversary of the city of Osh. This was done in a way that presented the city as an indivisible part of Kyrgyz history and culture and to bolster Kyrgyz legitimacy over the mostly Uzbek territory.

The search for glorious ancestors This also existed in historiographies of the Soviet period, and was supposed to boost national pride. Since independence, the privatization and valorization of particular historical periods, states and historical and cultural personalities continue unrestrained, and wherever it is considered expedient, the concept of autochthonism is supplemented by concepts of political and ethnic continuity. Not infrequently, ancient and medieval states and peoples are claimed as predecessors and ancestors of the new states and nations even in cases when they emerged in quite distant territories. This approach makes possible the spatial and temporal extension of national histories and makes them more glorious. Tajik nationalist narrative, for example, tends to blur the differences between the Iranian-speaking populations of Central Asia and of other regions, such as Iran and Afghanistan. This allows Tajiks to claim the cultural and other achievements of virtually all Iranian peoples as Tajik ones, and to refer to many famous Farsi-language writers, like Rudaki, Firdawsi, Nizami, Sa’adi, Hafez and Iqbal, as Tajiks even if they never lived in Central Asia. Tajiks are presented as legitimate heirs to 2500 years of Iranian civilization in both its Persian and Central Asian varieties. In the same fold, the Sogdians, one of the major peoples in ancient and early medieval Central Asia, are defined as the direct ancestors of Tajiks, and the Samanid state (819-992) is perceived as a Tajik state; its 1100-year anniversary was celebrated in the country in 1999. Tajik scholars continue to compete with Uzbek ones for the right to claim the philosopher and physician Avicenna (10-11th centuries) as their own, although he wrote mainly in Arabic.

In 2003, Kyrgyzstan celebrated the 2200-year anniversary of Kyrgyz statehood, which allegedly emerged in Inner Asia in 201 BC. Likewise, some historians call the Kyrgyz polity of the Yenisei, in the early medieval period, the ‘Great Kyrgyz empire.’ A famous writer of the eleventh century, Yusuf Balasuguni, is called a Kyrgyz only on the grounds that he was born in the city of Balagasun, situated on the territory of contemporary Kyrgyzstan.

In the Kazakh historiography, the concept of Turkism (not to be confused with pan-Turkism in its Turkish meaning) has become very popular. The early medieval Turkic empire that had emerged on the territory of contemporary Mongolia and its cultural heritage, as well as some other Turkic polities, are perceived as direct predecessors of the Kazakh state.

In Uzbekistan, all famous personalities who ever lived on its contemporary territory are appropriated as the ‘great ancestors of the Uzbek people.’ Timur has become a national hero and a ‘great Uzbek statesman,’ and huge monuments to him have been built in Samarkand and Tashkent. Remarkably, the latter replaced the demolished monument to Karl Marx.

In this regard, however, nobody can compete with Turkmenistan. Its dictator boldly claims in his book, Rukhnama—which is obligatory reading for all of his subjects—that the Turkmen nation has existed already for five thousand years, and that the Parthian, Hsiung-nu, Karakhanid and many other states were actually Turkmen ones (Turkmenbashi 2002: 86, 165, 190, 207ff.).

Victimization New historiographies have embraced the rhetoric of postcolonialism and victimization, which should foster a sense of unity among the nation. A lot of attention is paid to real or perceived historical injustices for which the Russians, as the embodiment of Tsarist and Soviet rule, are mainly blamed. In Uzbekistan, the ‘Museum of the Victims of Repression’ (tsarist and Soviet) was opened in 2001, and in Kazakhstan, along with several monuments, the ‘Museum of the Victims of Soviet Oppression’ was opened in 2003 in Almaty, in the building that once housed the KGB. While the tsarist period is depicted in black colors everywhere in the region, the overall negative attitude to the Soviet period is remarkably characteristic of the most authoritarian countries in the region, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In other countries this attitude is more nuanced and ambiguous. In Kazakhstan, the forced collectivization and sedentarization of nomads in the early 1930s, and the famine that followed, during which some 1.7 million people perished, are included in the master narrative, while the Virgin Lands campaign of the 1950s is also often criticized.

Everywhere revolts and resistance movements against Tsarist and Soviet rule, condemned as reactionary in the Soviet historiography (for example, the Khan Kenesary rebellion in Kazakhstan in 1837-1847; the 1879 battle of Geok Tepe, in Turkmenistan; the Andijan uprising, in 1898; the uprisings of 1916; and the Basmach movement, in the early Soviet period) are hailed now as anti-colonial movements. Intellectuals of the pre-revolutionary and early Soviet periods, like Jadids or the members of the Alash Orda movement, executed in the 1930s as ‘bourgeois nationalists,’ are rehabilitated and glorified.

Other characteristics Ethnic and national iconography are salient and important because they are both inclusive and exclusive, marking ‘us’ from ‘them’ very clearly and on a regular basis. Independence has brought to the fore the manufacture of state symbols, which allegedly reflect the ethnic iconography of dominant nations. The flag of Kazakhstan is blue, a color associated with early medieval Turks, and contains a traditional Kazakh ornamentation at the side. The roof of a yurta, a nomadic felt tent, appears on the flag of Kyrgyzstan. Sometimes new symbolism also includes Islamic elements (Bohr 1998: 145, 160-1), for example the green parts and crescents of the national flags of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. Islam and Islamic heritage are recognized as a part of national identities, but by no means as the main one. The widespread celebration of historical anniversaries is also quite common and is playing an important role in the legitimation of contemporary political regimes. One is also witnessing the restoration or substitution of indigenous toponyms for the Russian and Soviet ones, celebration of new holidays, as well as some traditional ones, like Navrus (Adams 1999: 364ff.), which were forbidden in the Soviet period, and indigenization of political and administrative terminolgy.

Subnational Identities

The somewhat modernized tribalism/regionalism still plays an important role in the political process and contributes to structural weakness of Central Asian states. Exploited by the ruling elites, it helps to play down social and economic differences in the interests of local loyalties and makes more difficult the emergence of a liberal national consensus. It is difficult to mobilize citizens on the basis of nation-wide appeals or organizations, when most of them are involved in personal patron-client relationships and in conditions when their allegiance goes first to various sub-national groupings. Power is confined to rather small elites which are not sufficiently consolidated and lack a nation-wide support base.

During the entire independence period, Tajikistan has experienced a power struggle between Khujant, Garm, Kuliab, Badakhshan, Gissar and other factions. At times, the struggle was so fierce that it resulted in civil war. This war is sometimes perceived as the struggle between ex-communists and secularists, on the one hand, and Islamists, on the other. However, it can be better explained as the struggle of regional factions that for various reasons have chosen different political orientations and political garments (Bushkov and Mikulski 1996; Djalili et al. 1997; Niiazi 1997; Zviagelskaya 1997). Thus, the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan was comprised mainly of inhabitants of Garm and Karategin. Eventually, the Kuliab-Khujant-Gissar alliance, with the assistance of Russia and Uzbekistan, defeated the Garm-Karategin-Pamir alliance. At the moment, the leading positions in the country belong to the Kuliab faction, despite the fact that Kuliab is one of the poorest and the most backward regions in the country. This situation is much resented by other factions, especially the Khujant one, to the extent that one may wonder if the Kuliab faction would be able to remain in power without Moscow’s military support.

In Kazakhstan, according to a 1995 opinion poll, 39 per cent of the respondents believed that belonging to a particular zhuz was important in getting a job or a promotion (Olcott 2002: 185). Just like in the late Soviet period, the dominant positions in the country’s leadership are occupied by members of the Elder zhuz, who still have to share power with members of the Junior zhuz, since the country’s main oil deposits are located on the territory of the latter. At the same time, most of the opposition consists of members of the Middle zhuz (Masanov 1996: 46ff; Khliupin 1998: 7ff.).

In Kyrgyzstan, President Akaev increasingly relied on the support of his own and his wife’s tribesmen, while members of the tribes located in Chuisk, Naryn, Osh and Dzhelal-Abad regions were dissatisfied with their shares of power and national wealth (Anderson 1999: 39-42). In his ousting from power in 2005, tribal loyalties retained their importance for all factions involved.

In Turkmenistan, even the national flag contains five carpet designs that are characteristic of the main tribes in the country. President Niiazov belongs to the most numerous Teke tribe, from which, especially from its Akhal subdivision, he recruits many of his subordinates (Dudarev 1998: 169; Akbarzadeh 1999: 282-3; Kadyrov 2001: 6ff.). Remarkably, even some members of the opposition to Niiazov perceived democratization of their country only in terms of the substitution of a federation of tribes for the current hegemony of one tribe (Kadyrov 2001: 22).

In Uzbekistan, President Karimov rules with the support of the Samarkand faction and its allies from the Tashkent faction, while the members of the Fergana, Bukhara, Khwarazm and Surkash (Surkhan-Daria and Kashkar-Daria regions) factions are pushed aside to less prominent positions (Petrov 1998: 97).

The tenacity of subnational identities and allegiances is sometimes explained as a usual center-periphery competition (Ilkhamov 2004b; Jones Luong 2004). However, in Central Asia it should be better perceived not only as a struggle of peripheral political elites for their share of scare resources and spoils, but also for dominant positions in the center. It is worth noting that, contrary to some other regions of the world, there are no secessionist or autonomist movements amongst sub-national groups of titular ethnic nations in Central Asia. Instead, their members are involved in power struggles within the ethnic nation-states’ borders. In any case, the salience of subnational groupings and identities is detrimental not only for the emergence of civil society, but even to consolidation of ethno-nations. The majority of indigenous populations take for granted a social hierarchy passed off as a traditional one. Individuals who are not included into kin, clanal, tribal and regional networks, which perpetuate the authoritarian model of power, are doomed to a kind of social vacuum.

Ethnic Minorities

Nationalizing policies, as well as economic crisis in the region, have resulted in a significant out-migration of members of ethnic minorities, which has contributed to a certain homogenization of the ethnic composition of the new states. Out-migration was most significant amongst the Russians and other Slavs, Germans, Meskhetian Turks and Jews, while the members of other dispersed groups, like Tatars and Koreans, and especially indigenous Central Asian ethnic groups, do not tend to emigrate. By 1989, Russians constituted 37.6 per cent of the whole population of Kazakhstan, 21.4 per cent of Kyrgyzstan, 9.5 per cent of Turkmenistan, 8.3 per cent of Uzbekistan, and 7.6 per cent of Tajikistan. Their number decreased in Uzbekistan by 2000 to 4.0 per cent; in Turkmenistan by 1995 to 6.7 per cent; in Kazakhstan by 1997 to 32.2 per cent; in Kyrgyzstan by 1997 to 15.3 per cent; and in Tajikistan by 1996 to but 3.2 per cent.

Still, ethnic minorities remain quite numerous in most Central Asian countries. With the exception of Tajiks in Uzbekistan, so far the Central Asian regimes are not pursuing a policy of assimilation of ethnic minorities in any consistent way. However, nationalizing policy and ethnicization of political discourse puts ethnic minorities at a disadvantage in all Central Asian countries. This is especially resented by Russians who were used to the status of the dominant nation in the whole Soviet Union, and considered all its territory as their vast homeland; hence their widespread grievances about discrimination, circumscribed social mobility, injustice, violations of human rights, colonial ingratitude, and so forth.

Still, the response of ethnic minorities is rather muted, and mainly is limited to the cultural sphere. So far, the autocratic rulers in the region have successfully prevented attempts at political mobilization of ethnic minorities, which were rather weak in any case. Ethnic clashes between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and Tajiks, in Kyrgyzstan in 1989 and in 1990, were of spontaneous character, and were sparked mainly not by political but by economic issues. In the 1990s, a poorly organized separatist and irredentist movement was noticeable amongst some Russians in the northern parts of Kazakhstan, however it lacked the support of the Russian government and was easily suppressed. During the perestroika period some Tajiks in Uzbekistan stepped up their cultural and educational demands, but the government responded negatively, and it seems that at the moment these demands lack mass support from the bilingual Tajik minority. There is little room for irredentist movements in any case, since all Central Asian countries support the principle of inviolability of state borders.


A widespread but far from always precise term ‘nation-state’ can be applied to the new states in Central Asia only with reservation. It is still more a project than reality. There is no consistent policy of assimilation or acculturation of ethnic minorities. Nationalizing and homogenizing policies pursued by political classes are aimed not at their incorporation into a civic nation, but at asserting the dominant positions of titular ethnic nations. In this regard, the new states may be characterized as ethnocracies, and this factor contributes to their stable instability.