Central Asia: A Political History from the 19th Century to Present

Map of Central Asian States
Map of Central Asian States

by Alexander Cooley

An in-depth look at the geo-politics of Central Asia, from the Great Game to present-day political power struggles in the regions. This is an excellent essay to be used in the context of a world history class. Did you know that the U.S. Civil War influenced supply and demand that led to power struggles in Central Asia? And that Kabul and Kandahar were strategic cities long before the 21st century. Read on!

Central Asia has always been left out in the study of politics. For the Cold War, it basically means US-Soviet Union—the Soviet Union was ruled by the Russians—in fact, the term “Soviet” and “Russian” were often used interchangeably. No one really cared about these Central Asian republics, except for a small group of Central Asian sociologists. But in term of mainstream press coverage, Central Asian has been off the map.

Central Asia, while probably in the news about 100-120 years ago, has only been in the news because of 9/11 and the current military built-up. In fact, it is remarkable that how many people want to know about the politics of Uzbekistan, foreign aid, technical assistance to the Kazakhs and the democratization of Central Asian states.

This essay will lay out three frameworks for understanding the comparative, historical, and political framework for understanding Central Asia, including the competition over the region by various great powers in the 19th century (the Great Game), the period of the Soviet rule, and the current trends of the region.

Historical Background
The metaphor of “the Great Game” describes the power competition between Russia and Great Britain in the 19th century over the future of Central Asia. It describes a period of Russian expansion and the moves made by Britain to counter what they thought was Russian aggression in the region. Indeed, the Great Game had a stake that was much greater than Central Asia. The stake was India. There was a perception that Russia’s ambition would not limited to incorporating Central Asia. Central Asia was the gateway into Afghanistan, and Afghanistan was the gateway into India (via Khyber Pass for example).

A lot has been said by the British about the viability of such a conquest. There was, in fact, a lot of war hysteria and ignorance on both sides. Ignorance can be seen in the Russo-phobic publications in 19th century in which the authors had no idea of the terrain of Central Asia. The actual terrain of Central Asia is barren and rough. In fact, the Russians had attempted to enter this area in numerous occasions in the 18th century and failed, mainly due to weather.

There are a number of reasons why the Russians wanted to move southward into Central Asia. First, there was an economic reason, that is, to create markets for Russian goods. This motive became even more acute in 1860s as a result of the U.S. Civil War, when the south was isolated and cotton was in short supply. Cotton was a prime motive not only in initiating expansion, but also to consolidating the territory of the Russian political and economic system as rapidly as possible.

The Russians also saw the expansion into the east and the south as their civilizing mission, their version of “Manifest Destiny,” in order to bring the savages of the Central Asian people under control.

There is also an issue of slavery. Certain Khanates had regularly raided in the Russian area around the Caspian Sea. They brought back Russians and sold them as slaves. This was the public motive to justify the expansion in Central Asia. This is something that the British had caught on to and actually vigorously lobbied for the release of the Russians.

The Russian administration of Turkestan at the time was actually quite similar to the strategies employed by the European powers. One similarity is the military was in charge of the territory and politically organized them. But this created tension between authorities in Moscow and regional commanders who always wanted military solutions and expansion. It is unclear how much tension there was in India between the two. The over-zealous aggressive military (by local commanders) was an excellent excuse for politicians in St. Petersburg to apologize to the world when they conquered new territory. It must be remembered that communication in that period was poor. Military governors could do all they wanted to do in their communities.

In the British side of the equation, the British were split between the Hawks who favored forward strategies in the region as a mean to preempting any Russian maneuvers; and there were defensive positionalists who believed these strategies might do more harm. The basic concern here is the Russian had gained a foothold in Central Asia, and hence they had gained a foothold into Afghanistan, the critical buffer state. Cities like Herat, Kandahar, and Kabul were considered to be key cities. In the two Afghan Wars (1840s and 1870s), the British attempted to dethrone the then Afghan regime and installing a compliant puppet that would ally with them rather than the Russians. However, the British were forced out.

Persia or Iran was the second component in the Great Game. Persia was also served as a link to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The British were concerned the Russians would do deals with the shah. The Russians also had concerns over the British over a few incidences; one of which was the Persian venture into Afghanistan. This was the prelude to the first Afghan War.

The Great Game came into a dramatic halt in the early 20th century as a result of external events, one of which is the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5. The Japanese destroyed the Russian navy, but also damaged the Russian pride and prestige in the international community. Also, with the outbreak of WWI, the Russians and British were fighting as allies against the Germans and so forth. With the new geo-political alignment, the antagonism and the rivalry created by the Great Game was no longer productive for either side. They switched their focus from Central Asia to Europe.

Soviet Rule
The Soviet rule had some striking similarities and differences to the Russian imperial rule, and also to European colonial power. In the 1930s, there were oppositions to Soviet rule, came in the forms of Muslim movements, pan-Turkic movements, and Jadid movements. The last were attempts to synthesize Islam with socialism to create a national type of communist party in these regions. The problem was that these movements were not very organized and they were fought in the context of Russian civil wars.

The map of Turkestan basically resembles the borders of the former Russian empire. In the 1920s and 30s, five Soviet republics were formed. They were co-equal members of the Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrghyzstan. Along these administrative lines, we have independent states today.

There are three features in the strategies of colonialism in the Soviet empire:

  1. Like other colonial powers, or imperial Russia before, the Soviets really took Central Asia and turned it into a site for extraction of raw materials, for example cotton in Uzbekistan, oil from Azerbaijan and mining in northern Kazakhstan. Cotton production in Uzbekistan has dire environmental consequences, such as the shrinking coastline of the Ural Sea. In addition, other ill effects like from pesticides that contributed to the alarming rate of cancer in the region. In northern Kazakhstan, there were nuclear test sites.

  2. Strategy of divide and conquer installed by the Soviets in the region. The Soviets did not try to compartmentalize individual ethnic groups like other colonial powers. Instead, they did the opposite by dividing ethnicity and creating large minorities with an administrative unit. The Soviet concern in the 1920s and 1930s was that there might be a unified movement (pan-Islamic movements or pan-Turkic movements) that would lead the various people to oppose against Soviet rule. So they deliberately drew up these large republics with the aim of having a dominant ethnic group, but not too dominant, to play them off one against each other.

  3. The last similarity is the ideology of a superior civilization. It was true that the Soviets wanted to sovietized the region, but they didn’t really manage in the end. On the other hand, the Soviet authority did not really care as long as these Central Asian regions did not come out of line.

There was no compromise on the part of the Soviet on the issue of religion. They saw it as a potential uniting political force. As a result, religion was banned. The practice of Islam was banned with a few exceptions. Mosques were destroyed.

They were some differences between Soviet colonial rule and the others. One was the Soviets had a peculiar policy that would subsidize the budgets of these republics to a great degree (25-50%). They did this as part of the equalization policy. This is uncommon among other colonial powers. On the other side, there were a great of autonomy and unofficial networking that the Soviets could not really eradicate. A lot of these Central Asian officials managed to graft the social structure upon the institutions of communism. For example, allegiances of clans, kinship network, extended families fit in very well with collective agriculture. This is something the Soviets could not handle very successfully.

The Present Era
The independence of 1991 is really an unwanted independence, because of the Russian financial and security support. These republics were originally designed to be ruled and were not designed as independent countries.

There are a few trends to be discussed in the post-Cold War era. The first is the international dimension. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet system in the early 1990s, Turkey and Iran were believed to be the major players in this region. The logic was that the population in these Central Asian republics was Muslim. This argument is weak since it assumes these Central Asians have no identity. But Turkey and Iran also do not have the resources to exert that kind of influence in the region. Instead, the rulers of these republics portray themselves as whatever the external powers want them to be in order to obtain support.

The other aspect is the realization of oil deposit in the region, particularly around the Caspian Sea. The notion of pipeline politics as the new Great Game, however, is premature. First, the Caspian oil price has to be relatively high in order to be economically viable. Second, the regional infrastructure is too poor to support the industry. For example, Turkmenistan has a large deposit of natural gas, but the Turkmen cannot get it out to obtain hard currency. There is also a 200-mile pipeline from the region to Iran, but it is of low capacity.

Domestically, there are five authoritarian dictators ruling these republics. Three of them (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) are Soviet era officials who have retained the presidencies. All three are nominally democratic, but freedom has certainly been curtailed. Kyrghyzstan at first seemed to be an exception, but its president eventually did not want to relinquish power. The rating of Turkmenistan in a number of socio-economic indicators is very poor. Its population has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the entire world.

Another distinguishing event of the region is the complete breakdown in Tajikistan into virtual anarchy. It disintegrated mainly because 50% of its budget was subsidized by Moscow. It was instantaneously curtailed when it became independent. It is not quite true that it was the Islamic fundamentalists trying to overthrow the Tajik government. The civil war pitted an opposition coalition of ethnic Pamiris, Tajik nationalists, and Islamists against the ruling Communist government that was backed by Russia and Uzbekistan.

Another aspect of the region is the Islamic fundamentalist in the Ferghana Valley. This region has a lot unemployed young men, and it has received a lot external influence like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This area has become a base of Islamic agitation. The current Central Asian regimes actually encourage the growth of Islamic fundamentalism by treating the local population badly. The regimes also use Islamic fundamentalism as an excuse to arrest and imprison their political enemies in order to consolidate their rule in the region.

After 9/11, external powers, like the US, try to exert influences in Central Asia. Russia is not at all pleased with this development since this area is former Soviet territory. However, Russia is tolerating it for two reasons. First, this will divert the attention from Chechnya; and second, Russia has become a good ally as an oil producer.

The presence of foreign powers in the region, such US military troops, will have social ramifications for this region. It is likely that this development will create tension.

Another potential social and political problem is illegal drug smuggling, such as opium in southern Kyrghyzstan. Warlords would raise money to finance their activities through drug trade.

It does not seem that foreign aids and assistance have done a lot to the region. The idea of foreign aids is to promote democracy and free market. However, the Central Asian leaders, who do not have serious intention to change, simply see us as a source of resources. If we continue to support them unconditionally, we might be sowing the seeds for future problems. Furthermore, if these dictators continue doing what they are doing and if we get associated with them, the domestic local oppositions might use anti-Americanism as what Khomeni did to the shah in Iran.

In this light, the scenario in Central Asia, in some aspects, fits nicely with colonial history in general.