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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part one. Regional dynamics and globalisation

A few words on Central Asia

Vincent Fourniau

Texte intégral

1August 2006

2Central Asian countries welcome observers, travellers and those who are curious, regardless of what mode of transport they use.

3However, in some of these countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and a part of Kazakhstan, which are close to China, the bicycle has curiously very little place in the societies of former Soviet Central Asia even though it was known to be the king of transport in China. In the city, it is rare to ride a bicycle, and in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, motorcycles are forbidden so as to prevent attacks carried out by motorcyclists from happening.

4These countries seem so far away to us, not so much because of the distance between them and Europe, but because of what we still do not know about them. However, travelling to Central Asia by bicycle represents a means of transport that is well adapted to the concept of crossing climatic, geographical and cultural barriers. Former Soviet Central Asia, near, yet far away from a western Europe that dreams of the East, is a world for which, in order to be understood, observation and analysis tools need to be developed further or have yet to be invented.

5Benjamin Guinot’s bicycle ride is symbolic of this determined and novel approach.

6Contemporary Central Asia has emerged on the global scene rich in diversity, but also complex in its many legacies and the different visions its historical and current partners (China, India, Iran, but also Russia, Turkey and Europe) have of it.

7The countries of former Soviet Central Asia come from a similar background, the decades of the Soviet period, which saw the very creation of these states under their current names and borders. There have always been differences between them such as their societies and lifestyles, and these have become more noticeable since their independence in 1991. There is therefore no unique paradigm that applies to all the countries in the region. However, these states share a common ground, which makes comparison between them inevitable and thought provoking.

8So what is Central Asia exactly? It is a region whose name is exogenous; a region whose entirety Westerners have only been able to study since 1991 after the USSR collapsed; a region whose definition in publications varies enormously, from country to author and from an era to another; its name in Russian and the fact that it does not correspond to its Western usage; it was never part of a single state; its boundaries, wide or narrow, are unlike state boundaries; its main cultural characteristics are its worldly associations, such as being a Sunni Muslim, with populations speaking Turkish or Iranian languages, a Turkish-Persian crossroad, which sees so many aspects shared by many other cultures around Central Asia.

9The term, “Central Asia” therefore defines a vast historical collection structured around several sub-units and covers many political, economic and cultural situations of ethnic communities and the identity processes. Central Asia was formed into a cultural region between the legitimate identity of each one of its elements and identity of the entire regional zones that they form, between local and global or universal aspects.

10This was a crossroad region linking various large Asian cultural areas between them. Its position as a melting pot for ethno-lingualism, religion domains and significant geopolitical and economic interests make it a region with exceptional historical depth, situated in the middle of important issues of the contemporary world.

The territory

11The territorial division and the administrative status of the entities forming Central Asia illustrate a certain heterogeneity – this region is made up of independent states and regions belonging to the central states (Xinjiang in China), or belonging to parts of countries situated in what is most generally designated by the term, “Central Asia” (the provinces of north Afghanistan).

12The independent states are the former republics that were part of the USSR as Federative Republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Their official names are the following: Qazaqstan respublikasy, Kyrgyz respublikasy, O‘zbekiston respublikasi, Gumhurijati Togikiston, Turkmenistan respublikasy.

13Kazakhstan (2,717,000 km²) consists of 14 regions (oblys in Kazakh, oblast in Russian), two cities “of national significance”, the former capital Almaty (or Alma Ata in Russian) and Astana, the new capital since 1997 and a city with special status, Baykonur. With 14,820,000 inhabitants in 2002 compared to 16,464,000 during the last general census in the USSR in 1989, Kazakhstan is the only country in Central Asia whose population had decreased since its independence until 2005, under the combined effect of a falling birth rate, a rising mortality rate and strong emigration, particularly among European nationalities. This trend began changing and its population is currently estimated at 15,250,000 inhabitants. Its population density is 5,6 inhabitants per km².

14Kyrgyzstan (198,500 km²) has seven regions (oblasty in Kyrgyz oblast in Russian). Its capital is Bishkek, which was called Frunze during the Soviet era. The total population of the country consisted of 5,200,000 inhabitants in 2002 and this is slightly more now, with the density reaching of 26 inhabitants per km².

15Uzbekistan (447,400 km²) has 12 regions (viloyat in Uzbek oblast in Russian) and it is a republic. Since independence, the old autonomous republic (ASSR) of Karakalpakstan became the Republic of Karakalpakstan. It has a surface area of 164,900 km², for 1,400,000 inhabitants. The smallest region is the viloyat of Andijan, which has a surface area of 4,200 km² for more than 2 million inhabitants, with a density of 512 inhabitants per km², the most dense region in Central Asia. The total population was 25,000,000 inhabitants in 2001 and it is currently estimated at more than 27,000,000 inhabitants, meaning that the density of the country today has reached 60 inhabitants per km², which is the mots dense in Central Asia. The capital of Uzbekistan is Tashkent.

16Tajikistan (143,100 km²) is made up of 2 regions (viloyat in Tajik oblast in Russian) and the autonomous region of the Upper Badakhshan. Its capital is Dushanbe. The surface area of the region of Upper Badakhshan is 63,700 km², which represents almost 45% of the Tajikistan surface area; its capital is the small town of Khorog. The total population of Tajikistan consisted of 6,200,000 inhabitants in 2001 and its population is currently estimated at more than 7,000,000 inhabitants, with a density of 49 inhabitants per km². The Upper Badakhshan alone had 206,000 inhabitants in 2000.

17Turkmenistan (488,100 km²) consists of 5 regions (welayet in Turkmen; oblast in Russian). Its population was 4,800,000 inhabitants in 2001 and it is currently estimated at just over 5,000,000 inhabitants, the density is therefore only 10 inhabitants per km². Its capital is Ashgabat (Aşgabat in Turkmen). The names of several cities were changed the last few years, particularly those of two of the five county towns of oblasts: Cardzou in the west of the country has become Turkmenabad and Krasnovodsk of the Caspian Sea has become Turkmenbashi.

18Their position at the heart of Eurasia results from the fact that these Central Asian countries had to address the issue of their extremely long borders. Kazakhstan’s border, for example, is more than 12,000 km, of which is shares 6,800 km with Russia, 1,500 km with China, 1,000 km with Kyrgyzstan and 380 km with Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan’s border is more than 6,000 km, which its longest part (2,200 km) is shared with Kazakhstan. Tajikistan’s border, however, measures 3,300 km, while its surface area is only 143,000 km².

  • 1 The civil war from 1991 to 1994 in Tajikistan was provoked by another cause.

19Territorially speaking, the region has been stable since 1991 and the countries that formed it did not have to face internal political crises, which would have focused on territory or borders issues1. The civil war from 1991 to 1994 in Tajikistan was provoked by another cause. The borders were subjected to only very little changes, but their status changed greatly with the 1991 independence process. On the one hand, independence changed the borders between former Soviet republics into international borders, and on the other hand, redefined the balance of power between these new states and their former non-Soviet “external” neighbours, which made almost all of them stronger after that. Every country in Central Asia therefore had to open up to a demarcation followed by a delimitation that was of its borders. Today there are hardly any areas that still need negotiating.

A landlocked region

20All the states of the region are landlocked. There are about forty landlocked states in the world, compared to about thirty before the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Since then, Central Asia has become the most vast ensemble of landlocked states in the world, with the 5 states of former Soviet Central Asia, Mongolia and Afghanistan, representing 7 of the 11 landlocked states of Asia. Finally, Kazakhstan belongs to the world’s 13 landlocked states, with 5 states as neighbours.

21One of these countries, Uzbekistan is doubly landlocked, i. e. countries that are themselves landlocked surround it. In addition, it is the only one to be adjoining a former non Soviet State that is poorer than itself – Afghanistan – while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are neighbours to China, Turkmenistan and Iran.

22The strategic and economic aspects of landlocking are crucial, particularly that which concerns the connections of these countries with the Muslim world, to which they belong and which surrounds them in the south. For Westerners, the understanding of Central Asia is based on problems of security, hydrocarbons economic strategy and the creation of areas of influence next to Russia, China and Iran.

23The problem of landlocking is of upmost concern for countries looking for strong alliances beyond the area of influence in which they are traditionally committed to. The issue of the relationship that they share with their neighbours has also significant importance for their stability and development. Could there be positive aspects and consequences to landlocking?

Unity and diversity

24What we call “Central Asia” is the large area in the centre of Asia for which there are two types of definitions. An undisputed “first circle” brings together regions that were outside the empires at least until the middle of the 18th century, consisting of distinct and independent entities. From the Caspian Sea to Xinjiang, from the Kazakh steppes to the north of Afghanistan. A “second circle” adds Mongolia to this core towards the east, the whole of Afghanistan to the south, and beyond, adding linguistic and cultural continuities to historical situations.

25This expanse is not a result of an immense past or a current political construction, as is the case with Chinese, Russian or Ottoman studies. There was never a single state (that was Central Asia) in history, they were all unified by the invasion of outside forces. This region was either included in the world’s empires, during short periods (to maybe that of a century, or even less), or divided, for longer periods. The entities that make up this region are often successor states of these world empires (such as how the sovereign states of today are the successors of the Soviet republics) and all of them smaller than what was loosely understood as “Central Asia”.

  • 2 The most significant effort was Great Britain’s attempts in Afghanistan, Bukhara and Xinjiang.

26Access to sources was difficult and, for a long time, most sources came from outside the region because Central Asia is probably the only cultural area of this scale not to have been subjected to strategies through relations or influence from Western Europe since the 15th century until 1991, the year that the USSR collapsed2. There was never any permanent or temporary setting-up of embassies, religious missions or otherwise, neither Western or Russian before the colonial era, such as that which existed in the Ottoman empire, Persia, Japan, China, India and Indochina before their colonisation. Suddenly, the region opened itself up to the world in 1991. Its present states were part of the group of entities that have recently become sovereigns. Finally, among the post-Communist states, those of Central Asia are the only ones that did not have any significant contact with the West before 1917.

27Even today, the majority of work on Central Asia is published in this area, rather than in the five countries of the former Soviet Central Asia, with publishing being the most active in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. But in which languages?

28There are 7 “national” languages in Central Asia (the languages of the 5 republics of the former USSR, Uyghur in Xinjiang in China and Persian in Afghanistan) in which a part of local work is published. The rest is written in the two imperial languages of the region – Chinese and Russian.

29The Russians and the Europeans at the end of the 18th and at the beginning of the 19th century coined the term, “Central Asia”. This concept was not therefore borrowed from local categories and, unlike the terms that it replaced (“Tatar” for Russians and Westerners), it was first of all created as a geographical concept. Much time was required for it to have the possibility of being specified in cultural, historical and political terms. This explains the numerous definitions for this term, completed by synonyms, designating neighbouring regions, such as Inner Asia, Ancient Asia, Upper Asia, Central Eurasia, Asia-centre, Median Asia etc. It must also be noted that these expressions were subjected to change in each language according to the author and time. Knowledge traditions in Russian and western European languages have encountered the most variations in their meaning.

30In Transoxiana, in the historical region between the rivers Amu Darya and Syr Darya, we encounter most of the major traits making up the entire region of traditional Central Asia. In economic terms, it was the only region among its neighbours to uphold nomadic traditions in the arid steppe lands, intensive irrigated agriculture, pluvial agriculture and mountain nomadism. Its cultural diversity is also indicative of the Turkish-Persian crossing of traditions. In the north or east, there are the Kazakh steppe and the chain of oases in Xinjiang, which have been dominated by the Turkish population for centuries in the south, Afghanistan and Iran have remained inhabited by a majority of Iranians, bringing with them their language and culture. Between the two, Transoxiana and northern and Afghanistan, there are Uzbek and Tajik speakers who have been living together for centuries in irrigated areas and where bilingualism was a social phenomenon until the 20th century. Uzbekistan, situated in the central part of Transoxiana, is, in reality, even though it does not claim to be, a country where the main traits of the entire Central Asian region are evident.

31Despite the lack of direct relations, Europeans have formed their own tradition of studying different parts of “Tatar”. Today, Western Europe is home to the first “centre” in world for teaching and training on Central Asia, outside of the region itself, including the most diverse teachings on Central Asia. The United States has also conducted work on this region, with leading research in certain areas. Paris is well known for its work on Central Asia, a city where valuable research dynamics can be nurtured.

32Rich and diverse in its history, Central Asia also boasts an explosion of traditional heritages. The history of China, Russia, Islam, Buddhism and Communism is extremely vast and varied and is not easy to take in at once.

33Since 1991, Central Asia’s thirst for scientific collaborations with large countries in experimental sciences and human sciences remains ambitious. It has led to the establishment of many programmes, regular exchanges and the training of young specialists, but much is yet to be achieved in many areas. French specialists on Central Asia and their professional structures still have many new areas to work on with their colleagues and corresponding organisations in Central Asian countries.


1 The civil war from 1991 to 1994 in Tajikistan was provoked by another cause.

2 The most significant effort was Great Britain’s attempts in Afghanistan, Bukhara and Xinjiang.


École des hautes études en sciences sociales

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