Central Asia may be the most important part of the world we know the least about.
The five countries of the region—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—are not usually headline news. There is the occasional story about the ongoing problems of the disappearing Aral Sea or a review of Kazakhstan's charming, Cannes award-winning film Tulpan, but otherwise, most Westerners probably cannot distinguish one "stan" from another.
Certainly, the current intensive debate between Kyrgyzstan and the United States over the future of the American air base in Manas, just outside the capital of Bishkek, remains out of the spotlight (despite the importance of the base to U.S. activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan).
This obscurity does not match up with the region's global importance. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Central Asia has become an increasingly important pivot in international relations and economic development.
These states represent new and unintended threats as well as important possibilities. They are sites for a potential rise in radical Islam; for a freer circulation of drugs, conventional weapons, and nuclear materials; and for greater regional unrest, and border and ethnic conflicts. At the same time, they are lands of economic opportunity—especially in oil, gas, uranium, cotton, and other agricultural trade—and many promoters tout the idea of recreating the old Silk Road.
Most immediately, this region is crucial to the Obama administration's plans to deal with a revived war in Afghanistan, and with an increasingly volatile Pakistan. For their part, Europe, Russia, and China all want stability in the region, and both Russia and China are actively nurturing economic and diplomatic ties with the Central Asian countries.
Almost two decades after these five nations achieved independence, they can no longer remain unknown to us.
Central Asia: People and Places
Central Asia is a large, landlocked region, with fewer than 60 million people spread over a generally desert and mountainous terrain.1 For centuries, the famous Silk Road passed through Central Asia bringing goods between China and Europe. Those trading routes also brought Islam, and places like Bukhara became globally renowned centers of Islamic culture and learning.
However, with the great European maritime discoveries of the fifteenth century, overland trading caravans were increasingly eclipsed by boats. By the seventeenth century, the formerly illustrious and powerful Uzbek khanates had all but been reduced to distant peripheries of the expansive Russian, British, and Chinese empires.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, Central Asia had entered into the sphere of influence of Russia, which had become the main power in the region.2 The focus of Russian imperialism, like in other European colonies, was the exploitation of natural resources. Raw materials (especially cotton) were sent to the metropole; administrators and finished products were sent back.
Russian domination only increased after the 1917 Revolution. For Central Asian societies, modernity arrived through the political and social experience of Soviet communism. The Soviet experiment involved massive investment in education and literacy (including the alphabetization of the major languages), opportunities for local elites to assume leadership positions as part of Soviet "affirmative action" campaigns, and the creation of the states we know today through the laying down of administrative borders for the republics.
The Soviet years also involved forced settlement of nomadic peoples, waves of ruthless destruction of official Islam, arrests and banishment as a tool of governance, economic relations that privileged Moscow not Central Asia, and an unending litany of ecological disasters.