The new recommendation

On the 5th of Decem­ber, the Euras­i­an Coun­cil of For­eign Affairs (ECFA) pub­lished the recom­mend­a­tion for EU’s new strategy on Cent­ral Asia at the annu­al meet­ing in Cliveden House. As a stu­dent from Cent­ral Asia, I was extremely excited to be invited to the meet­ing as a part of the Cent­ral Asia For­um (CAF) del­eg­a­tion and to be one of the first few to get to know the poten­tial roadmap of the future EU-Cent­ral Asia rela­tion­ships.

The press con­fer­ence was presen­ted by ECFA Advis­ory Coun­cil Chair Dr Ben­ita Fer­rero-Wald­ner, Former For­eign Min­is­ter and Cham­ber Pres­id­ent of the Itali­an Coun­cil of state Mr Franco Frat­tini, the EU Spe­cial Rep­res­ent­at­ive for Cent­ral Asia H.E. Ambas­sad­or Peter Buri­an and the Man­aging Dir­ect­or of Rus­sia and Cent­ral Asia at EBRD Ms Nat­alia Khan­jen­kova. Deputy Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs of Kaza­kh­stan Mr Roman Vassi­len­ko also con­trib­uted towards the dis­cus­sion.

Dr Fer­rero-Wald­ner sum­mar­ised the main points of the newly pub­lished ana­lys­is: more focus on the ‘soft power’, the reduc­tion of the num­ber of pri­or­it­ies and the res­ults-driv­en, more prag­mat­ic approach – com­bat­ing traf­fick­ing, ter­ror­ism and tack­ling the chal­lenges of water and energy.

Mr Frat­tini noted that the recom­mend­a­tion is to learn from the past and step away from the ‘Christ­mas tree approach’, when too many goals are set, and the focus is widely dis­persed res­ult­ing in the low vis­ib­il­ity of the EU in Cent­ral Asia. Mr Frat­tini also poin­ted at the Euro­centric ‘Teach and Preach’ approach that  “ in some cases made our inter­locutors quite reluct­ant to fully engage in an open cooper­a­tion with European insti­tu­tions”. The recom­mend­a­tion is that the new approach should be more prag­mat­ic, state-by-state with great vis­ib­il­ity to ordin­ary people.

From the left to the right: R. Vassi­len­ko, N. Khan­jen­kova, P. Buri­an, B. Fer­rero-Wald­ner, F. Frat­tini — photo from Jibek Nur

Peter Buri­an reit­er­ated the need for the reduc­tion of the num­ber of pri­or­it­ies and poin­ted towards the main object­ives– secur­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity. He also raised thepoint that there should be great­er syn­ergy with Rus­sia and China as influ­en­tial act­ors in the region.

The rep­res­ent­at­ive of Kaza­kh­stan, Mr Roman Vassi­len­ko­ex­pressed the enthu­si­asm about the future part­ner­ship and the desire for more ambi­tious plans. The region­al pro­jects, he stated, arewel­comed, espe­cially on main­tain­ing the rule of law, edu­ca­tion, private enter­prises.

Rep­res­ent­ing the EBRD,which holds great interest in Cent­ral Asia, Ms Nat­alia Khan­jen­kovastressed the import­ance of the EU sup­port for the invest­ment espe­cially in private sec­tor devel­op­ment and edu­ca­tion or ‘capa­city build­ing’.  The devel­op­ment pro­jects, MsKhan­jen­kova out­lined, will also bene­fit from the great­er con­nectiv­ity of coun­tries in the region as well as from the great­er con­nectiv­ity of for­eign investors. She expressed pos­it­ive expect­a­tions for investors syn­ergy. Com­ing from the invest­ment for­um in Beijing, she claimed that the Chinese investors are open for the cooper­a­tion.

Over­all, the report is the res­ult of the eval­u­ation of the pre­vi­ous 2007 strategy which was very broad. The recom­mend­a­tion seems to primar­ily focus on the devel­op­ment approach which could be great for the cooper­a­tion as Cent­ral Asia nations greatly wel­come this tra­ject­ory of the EU sup­port. The devel­op­ment pro­jects, as the recom­mend­a­tion urges, should be in a great­er cooper­a­tion with Rus­sia and China, without the ‘unne­ces­sary com­pet­iton’.  After all the com­mon goal is to increase sta­bil­ity and secur­ity in the com­ing future of the region.

 

 

 

Central Asia Between Eastern Europe and the Developing Asia: Academic Invisibility from a World Systems Theoretical Point of View

World sys­tems the­ory (WST) dates back to Immanuel Wall­er­stein, who developed his under­stand­ing on world power rela­tions by build­ing on Marx­ist con­cepts of cap­it­al­ist world sys­tem and on the core-peri­phery mod­els of depend­ency the­or­ies.

WST sug­gests the divi­sion of the world (of any­thing) to cent­ral, peri­pher­al and semi-peri­pher­al agents. While most ana­lysts used WST to the descrip­tion of eco­nom­ic or polit­ic­al inequal­it­ies, I have suc­cess­fully adop­ted WST as a fram­ing tool for the descrip­tion of glob­al aca­dem­ic odds in many of my former ana­lyses. In this short post I will argue that, in terms of aca­dem­ic con­tri­bu­tion, Cent­ral Asia (CA) is a typ­ic­al peri­pher­al region of the world sys­tem of glob­al academy which has been impacted between semi-peri­pher­al world regions like East­ern Europe and the Devel­op­ing Asia.  I will use both his­tor­ic­al and empir­ic­al argu­ment­a­tion to show that CA is almost invis­ible in the map of glob­al sci­ence, and, which is a bad job, its min­im­al con­tri­bu­tion con­sists of mainly fake-inter­n­al­isa­tion.

Obser­vat­ory of Ulugh Beg ruler and astro­nomer in Samarkand

His­tor­ic­ally, from an aca­dem­ic point of view, the most import­ant fact about CA is that it con­sists of the former Soviet repub­lics of Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Turk­menistan, and Uzbek­istan, so it was part of the East­ern Bloc dur­ing the Cold War. The most obvi­ous con­sequences of this fact are, from our point of view, that 1) teach­ing and learn­ing of Eng­lish as the lin­gua franca of inter­na­tion­al sci­ence was con­train­dic­ated and, in some cases, even impossible; 2) the region was almost her­met­ic­ally excluded from inter­na­tion­al aca­dem­ic asso­ci­ations; 3) it was very hard to reach West­ern aca­dem­ic lit­er­at­ure, not to men­tion expens­ive West­ern peri­od­ic­als; and 4) the eco­no­met­ric indices includ­ing state fund on schol­ar­ship were way too low as con­tras­ted with those of the Glob­al North. As a res­ult, for almost 40 years, it was very hard or even impossible to keep up with West­ern or inter­na­tion­al stand­ards of research, meth­od­o­logy and pub­lic­a­tion habits. So it is not at all sur­pris­ing that after the end of the Cold War, all regions of the former Soviet Bloc found them­selves as peri­pher­al agents of glob­al academy, and – sadly, with the con­sent and even the act­ive oper­a­tion of the West – this sub­or­dained pos­i­tion hardly changed since then.

Al-Far­abi Kaza­kh Nation­al Uni­ver­sity ranked as 10th best uni­ver­sity in Emer­ging Europe and Cent­ral Asia by QS World Rank­ings 2018

Kaza­kh­stan, that is, the biggest and aca­dem­ic­ally most suc­cess­ful coun­try of CA was placed ninety-ninth among 144 coun­tries in terms of qual­ity of sci­entif­ic research insti­tu­tions in 2014, while the oth­er three coun­tries, Uzbek­istan, Kyrgyz­stan and Turk­menistan, had even worse pos­i­tions. The Kaza­kh Min­istry of Edu­ca­tion and Sci­ence tried to raise the level of aca­dem­ic qual­ity by a rel­at­ively stricter pub­lic­a­tion require­ment for Kaza­kh PhD stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers, but, as we will see soon, these attempts have not res­ul­ted in ser­i­ous incline in terms of aca­dem­ic out­put. Table 1 shows that if we con­sider the total sum of aca­dem­ic art­icles, CA trails after not just the devel­op­ing Asia but after East­ern Europe and even some Afric­an coun­tries.  Since we are dis­cuss­ing on glob­al sci­ence, we con­sidered only Scopus-indexed art­icles. Scopus (with Scim­ago) is the most widely used inter­na­tion­al data­base for the com­par­is­on of aca­dem­ic per­form­ance, and it is more inclus­ive than ClarivateAnalytics’s Web of Sci­ence.

Table 1 World regions in sci­ence and their aca­dem­ic out­put. H-index refer to the num­ber of art­icles with at least a giv­en num­ber of cita­tions so, for example, H-index 81 means that the coun­try has 81 art­icles in Scopus with at least 81 cita­tions.

RegionCoun­tryDoc­u­ments (in Scopus)citation/documentH-index
Cent­ral AsiaKaza­kh­stan19,4443.6181
 Uzbek­istan10,5206.0983
 Kyrgyz­stan2,0399.1955
 Turk­menistan3469.4224
     
Devel­op­ing AsiaChina5,133,9247.64712
 Malay­sia248,4576.50249
 Indone­sia75,2206.20196
 North Korea74616.6455
     
Developed AsiaJapan2,539,44115.38920
 South Korea1,004,04212.25576
 Hong Kong263,60219.06479
 Singa­pore265,45218.03492
     
AfricaSouth Africa241,58712.94391
 Tunisia76,7917.20157
 Ethiopia18,73810.48125
 Chad49515.2339
     
East­ern EuropeRus­si­an Fed­er­a­tion956,0257.07503
 Hun­gary174,35114.91390
 

 

 

Mol­dova7,1969.2697
 Montenegro3,3454.7745
     
The CoreUS11,036,24324.252077
 UK3,150,87421.841281
 The Neth­er­lands886,13525.58893
 Switzer­land650,07926.50866
 Israel346,37222.54624
     

Our empir­ic­al data clearly show that even a small East­ern European coun­try like Hun­gary has almost 5 times stronger inter­na­tion­al con­tri­bu­tion than the whole CA region, and semi-peri­pher­al coun­tries of the devel­op­ing Asia like Malay­sia or Indone­sia have even bet­ter per­form­ance. As a mat­ter of fact, even the sci­en­tific­ally abso­lutely insig­ni­fic­ant North Korea has more than 2 times more Scopus-indexed art­icles than Turk­menistan. The most suc­cess­ful coun­try of the region, Kaza­kh­stan, has the same aca­dem­ic out­put that the extremely poor Ethiopia. The abyss that divides CA to the core regions is unut­ter­able: the small West­ern coun­try, the Neth­er­lands has more than 25 times big­ger sci­ence out­put than the whole CA region.

As a sum­mar­isa­tion of this present post I would con­clude that, from an aca­dem­ic point of view, CA could be con­ceived as a rel­at­ively unnotice­able peri­pher­al region of the world sys­tem of glob­al sci­ence and it seems like it hasn’t yet recog­nised that in order to brake out from the peri­phery it should get to the centre by pub­lish­ing in core journ­als. I hope that the data provided here could help CA schol­ars and their ment­ors con­front­ing these facts and they will try to set out more suc­cess­ful strategies in order to raise the vis­ib­il­ity of this very import­ant and pre­cious region of the world.

An optimist about Central Asia – and for good reason

Suma Chakra­barti is pres­id­ent of the European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment

Pres­id­ent of the European Bank for Recon­struc­tion and Devel­op­ment (image source: EBRD)

I am, by tem­pera­ment and out­look on life, an optim­ist. That makes me a strong enthu­si­ast for all the dif­fer­ent regions where the EBRD works.

I am, how­ever, par­tic­u­larly excited about the future of Cent­ral Asia – and not just because I was recently in Beijing for a region­al invest­ment for­um which we organ­ised there and which attrac­ted hun­dreds of seni­or busi­ness exec­ut­ives and poli­cy­makers.

Today, Cent­ral Asia really is one of our world’s most dynam­ic regions. This year, for example, we expect its eco­nom­ies to grow at an over­all rate of 4.6 per­cent. That’s the highest growth in 2018 of any of the regions where we oper­ate.

But my optim­ism is based not so much on fore­casts of what is likely as on the sub­stan­tial achieve­ments we have already achieved on the ground.

The EBRD and our part­ners take con­sid­er­able pride in our record in Cent­ral Asia. We have been act­ive in Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan Tajikistan, Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan ever since they gained their post-Soviet inde­pend­ence, and in Mon­go­lia from 2006.

We are the largest single investor there — with the cumu­lat­ive sum now stand­ing at US$ 14 bil­lion. Our loc­al know­ledge is pro­found and, I would argue, without equal – which gives me even more cause for optim­ism about the future.

At the same time, stand back from the here and now for a moment and you can see how quickly the momentum for still more change is build­ing.

Giv­en its loc­a­tion, the region has always been cent­ral to the world’s geo­graphy. But for much of the last cen­tury — and indeed fur­ther back in his­tory — it was a land apart, one largely isol­ated and cut off from the glob­al eco­nomy.

Its status today is quite dif­fer­ent. Cent­ral Asia is assum­ing, once again, its ancient role as the bridge join­ing Europe with East Asia. A new Silk Road is tak­ing shape before our very eyes, one con­sist­ing of trade routes which are, of course, not so much new as redis­covered. And thanks to these new trade routes, the region will be bet­ter con­nec­ted to and integ­rated with oth­er regions than ever before.

This Cent­ral Asia will, I am con­vinced, be cent­ral not just in geo­graph­ic terms but to glob­al pro­spects for eco­nom­ic growth as well.

For now we at the EBRD are hav­ing major impact across sec­tors and bor­ders there: strength­en­ing fin­an­cial sys­tems; pion­eer­ing renew­ables; pro­mot­ing energy effi­ciency; mod­ern­ising infra­struc­ture; boost­ing small busi­nesses and advan­cing the cause of eco­nom­ic inclu­sion.

Note that none of this activ­ity is in the ‘tra­di­tion­al’ sphere of car­bon energy-based and nat­ur­al resources. Instead, Cent­ral Asia is the region where we are rolling out some of our most innov­at­ive products, ser­vices and ini­ti­at­ives.

They include: fin­an­cing wind and sol­ar power in Kaza­kh­stan and Mon­go­lia; provid­ing cred­it lines and empower­ing female entre­pren­eurs in Tajikistan; enhan­cing access to health care in Kyrgyz­stan; help­ing SMEs in Turk­menistan and pilot­ing a Cul­tur­al Her­it­age pro­gramme in Uzbek­istan to pro­mote sus­tain­able tour­ism.

To sum up, the oppor­tun­it­ies to be involved in the suc­cess story that is Cent­ral Asia have, to my mind, nev­er looked more attract­ive. I would thus urge any­one with a taste for adven­ture, optim­ist or not, to ‘Go East’.

A Thousand and one nights at the crossroads of the universe

Baghdad – A City of the Silk Road

By the river of Tigris, home of the myth­ic­al mer­chant and sail­or Sin­bad, Bagh­dad was at the heart of a com­plex net­work of trade routes and mar­kets: the Silk Road. This is rep­res­en­ted in the vari­ous sources and des­tin­a­tions of the trade activ­ity of the city includ­ing China, India, Ceylon, Japan, Korea, Rus­sia, Sicily, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Samarkand, Egypt, East­ern Africa, Yemen, Hejaz. But how this met­ro­pol­is emerged from the sand of desert to be one of the cap­it­als of the Silk Road in the medi­ev­al age?

The city of Bagh­dad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 AD) from Muhammadan­ism

Ambition of the Abbasids

The his­tory of Bagh­dad (also known as Mad­in­at al-Salam, the City of Peace or Round City) starts with an assas­sin­a­tion and ends with the down­fall of the Assas­sins.

After Omar, the Great had been assas­sin­ated by a slave, one dyn­asty rose to power from the escal­at­ing con­flict: the Umayy­ads. As they gained most of their sup­port from Syr­ia, they moved the cap­it­al of the Caliphate from  Med­ina, the Islam­ic reli­gious centre, to Dam­as­cus. The House of Abbas, oppos­ing the Umayy­ads, retired to Per­sia to wait for the right time to over­throw the Umayy­ad rule.

This moment has arrived with Abu Abbas Abdul­lah who foun­ded the Abbasid dyn­asty as the ruler of the Caliphate. His suc­cessor in power was his broth­er, Jafar Abdul­lah al-Mansur, who exten­ded the rule of the empire to Per­sia, Meso­pot­amia, Ara­bia and Syr­ia. To rep­res­ent the tri­umph of his dyn­asty, he wanted to cre­ate a new cap­it­al, close to his Per­sian allies some­where at the heart of his empire.

As he sailed down the Tigris to find the per­fect place, he was advised of the most suit­able loc­a­tion by Nestor­i­an monks, who had lived there earli­er than Muslims. Abund­ance of water and the pos­sib­il­ity of con­trol over stra­tegic and trade routes of Tigris determ­ined the loc­a­tion of the new cap­it­al: it was estab­lished on the coast of Tigris at the point where it is the closest to the Euphrates, the oth­er main river of Meso­pot­amia. These two rivers linked the city to north with upper-Syr­ia and Asia Minor, and south with the Gulf of Basra and fur­ther to India. It faced east towards the Ira­ni­an plat­eau and Cent­ral Asia. There­fore, it is not sur­pris­ing that accord­ing to ninth-cen­tury Arab geo­graph­er and his­tor­i­an Yaqubi, author of The Book of Coun­tries, the pos­i­tion of Bagh­dad on the Tigris close to the Euphrates gave it the poten­tial to be “the cross­roads of the uni­verse”.

Suq-al-Ghazal Min­aret in 1911, the old­est min­aret in Bagh­dad from MidEast Image

It is the ambi­tion of the Abbasids which erec­ted Baghdad’s towers and walls and temp­ted mer­chants and adven­tur­ers to its bazaars and ports. This is the city from which myth­ic­al hero Sin­bad set sail and where some of the tales of A Thou­sand and One Nights takes place. But how did the scene of Ara­bi­an Nights look like?

Inside the circle of flames

Reflect­ing Per­sian and Sas­ani­an urb­an design, the city was built in a circle sur­roun­ded by walls. Con­struc­tion works star­ted on 30 July 762 as roy­al astro­nomers pre­dicted this day as the most favour­able for build­ing work to begin. Mansur super­vised the whole pro­ced­ure rig­or­ously: to ensure the most pre­cise work he placed cot­ton balls soaked in naph­tha along the lay­out on the ground and set alight to mark the pos­i­tion of double out­er walls. Being around a circle three miles in dia­met­er, it was con­sti­tuted by two-hun­dred-pound blocks of stones in a height of 90 feet and width of 40 feet. As Yaqubi men­tions, 100,000 work­ers got involved in the con­struc­tion pro­cess.

The round design was unique in that time and it proved to be effect­ive: four equidistant gates led to the city centre through straight roads. The four gates are: Khor­asan Gate to the north-east, Sham (Syr­i­an) Gate to the north-west, Basra Gate to the south-east and Kufa Gate to the south-west. Kufa and Basra opened at the Sar­at Canal, a key part of water­ways that drained the waters of Euphrates into the Tigris. Sham Gate led to the main road to Anbar, and across the desert to Syr­ia. Khor­asan was close to the Tigris and ensured the con­nec­tion with boats on the rivers.

The main roads start­ing from the four gates lead­ing to the city centre were con­nec­ted with arcades crowded by shops and stands of mer­chants from all along the Silk Roads. How­ever, the heart of the city was a roy­al pre­serve with the Great Mosque and the caliph’s Golden Gate Palace an expres­sion of the uni­on between tem­por­al and spir­itu­al author­ity. Only the caliph had author­ity to ride with­in this area. His palace rose above the build­ings with its emer­ald-col­oured dome in 130 feet high, nick­named ‘The Green Dome’.

Buniya Mosque in Bagh­dad in 1973

As the city expan­ded with bazaars and shops set­tling out­side the walls, Al-Karkh dis­trict was formed at the south. The prosper­ing city reached its zenith in the eighth and ninth cen­tury where poets, schol­ars, philo­soph­ers, theo­lo­gians, engin­eers and mer­chants raised the intel­lec­tu­al and eco­nom­ic of the city. Wealth poured from every corner of the world to its mar­ket and build­ings, erec­ted high above the desert and the waters of Tigris. Its lib­rary had the largest repos­it­ory of books which later could be the ground of the great achieve­ments of Arab­ic and European sci­ence.

Court­yard of Mus­tansir­iya madrasa, an insti­tu­tion of high­er edu­ca­tion, estab­lished by Al-Mus­tansir in 1227

Hülegü and the end of an era

In the tenth cen­tury, caliph Mu’tasim moved the centre of the empire from Bagh­dad to Samarra, and the once cent­ral­ised empire began to demol­ish. Bagh­dad has nev­er reached that status it had under the early-Abbasids.
It was 1257 when the greatest polit­ic­al event first reached Bagh­dad – the Mon­gols. In Septem­ber, Mon­gol Hülegü Khan sent an ulti­mat­um to the caliph bid­ding him to sur­render him­self and demol­ish the out­er walls of the cap­it­al. As the caliph rejec­ted, the Mon­gol con­quer­or set forth to pun­ish the city. He arrived to Bagh­dad in Janu­ary 1258 and defeated the city in a month, which fell to the Mon­gols. Bagh­dad faced massive destruc­tion of its build­ings and mas­sacre killing 800,000 of its inhab­it­ants.

This is how the medi­ev­al glory of Bagh­dad passed away. It later suffered from Tam­er­lane and the war of two nomad­ic Turkic clans, the Black Sheep and the White Sheep. From 1534, after hun­dreds of years of Otto­man rule, the city became able to devel­op rap­idly again in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury, but that is anoth­er story.

A celebration of history and culture: the World Nomad Games

Nomad­ic cul­ture leaves a deep and col­our­ful imprint on Euras­i­an his­tory. Nomad­ic empires first arose as shad­ow empires in response to the cent­ral­isa­tion of China accord­ing to one of the main aca­dem­ic debates.

On the east­ern side of the steppe, neces­sity forced the nomads into cre­at­ing a cent­rally-admin­istered Mon­go­lia to con­duct poten­tially viol­ent busi­ness with China in order to main­tain their exist­ence. They did not have the capa­city to fight China head-on as their exist­ence was built around their mobil­ity in small num­bers — entirely dis­tinct from the sedent­ary cit­ies of the Chinese empire. Nomad­ic groups aimed to pre­serve their mobile life­styles, yet not in conquered lands. They adop­ted an imper­i­al-style admin­is­tra­tion sys­tem where they ruled indir­ectly through boy­ars or Rus­si­an noble­men col­lect­ing taxes for them.

Some argue that the arrival of the Mon­gol Empire con­trib­uted to the emer­gence and con­struc­tion of the European nation state. In con­trast, to the west of the steppe, nomads made a liv­ing not by viol­ent nego­ti­ations but by dom­in­at­ing the trad­ing net­work. These groups cre­ated the polit­ic­al frame­work for the Silk Route through policies provid­ing secur­ity to the cara­vans cross­ing Euras­ia, ensur­ing the smooth work­ing of the trade net­work that poten­tially con­trib­uted to European unity.

The World Nomad Games thrives to revive, pre­serve and devel­op this unique his­tory and eth­no­cul­tur­al par­tic­u­lar­it­ies of the nomad­ic civil­isa­tion in order to foster more tol­er­ant and open rela­tion­ships between people in the age of glob­al­isa­tion and amidst the polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic region­al trans­form­a­tions.

Turkmenistan’s per­form­ance at the open­ing cere­mony of the II World Nomad Games

Every two years, begin­ning from 2014, the Games take place in the lakeside town of Chol­pon-Ata, in the Issyk-Kul province of Kyrgyz­stan, although the host­ing loc­a­tion is set to change for future games. This year, ath­letes from 74 coun­tries par­ti­cip­ated in 37 tra­di­tion­al nomad games, involving horse games, wrest­ling, mar­tial arts, arch­ery, hunt­ing and intel­lec­tu­al games. The zeinth of strength and show­man­ship is found in horse game of Kok Boru (some­times known as Buzkashi). The game is described as a fusion between rugby and polo, with two teams com­pet­ing to throw a head­less car­cass of a goat into a goal at each end of the field. Tra­di­tion­ally the win­ner would take the car­cass home and cook it up in a feast.

Er Ern­ish, anoth­er Kyrgyz sport, sees two ath­letes wrestle on horse­back seek­ing to dis­mount their oppon­ent. Wrest­ling is the most rep­res­en­ted sport at the Games with fif­teen dif­fer­ent types on offer from the par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries, includ­ing Alyh, or belt wrest­ling, where the par­ti­cipants throw the oppon­ent on the ground by grabbing their belt around their waist.

Par­ti­cipants do not only com­pete in eth­no­s­ports but also in every­day activ­it­ies of nomads, such as yurt build­ing, hunt­ing with a golden eagle (Burkut Saluu), fal­conry (Dal­ba Oynotuu), dog racing, and hunt­ing (Taigan Jary­sh).

Kaza­kh ath­lete with his golden eagle

While Chol­pon-Ata hosts the sports games, the cul­tur­al base is the town of Kyrchyn Jail­oo in the moun­tains, dis­play­ing per­form­ances of Kyrgyz cus­toms, enter­tain­ment and games and those of the par­ti­cip­at­ing coun­tries. These eth­no­cul­tur­al shows intro­duce the dances, fash­ion, bazaars, and music of the nomads — embra­cing their ori­gin­al­ity and diversity. In the extens­ive yurt camp set up both by the offi­cial organ­isers and loc­al Kyrgyz fam­il­ies as accom­mod­a­tion, guests can exper­i­ence Cent­ral Asi­an hos­pit­al­ity, tra­di­tion­al cuisine, horse tax­is, and hot air bal­loon rides in the moun­tains.

Nomad­ic yurt vil­lage at the Games

Unsur­pris­ingly, the 2018 World Nomad Games were won by Kyrgyz­stan, with Kaza­kh­stan in second, and Rus­sia on the third place. At the clos­ing cere­mony, Kyrgyz­stan cere­mo­ni­ally handed a ves­sel of gla­cial water -the totem of the Games sym­bol­ising sim­ul­tan­eously both life and the dif­fi­culty of find­ing fresh water — and the book of great win­ners to Tur­key, who will host the next Games in 2020.

The World Nomad Games were broad­cas­ted all over the world in over 60 coun­tries, the sports, tra­di­tions, cul­tures and lives of nomads reached hun­dreds of mil­lions of people. With such an extens­ive cel­eb­ra­tion of the nomad­ic cul­ture and his­tory the com­ment­at­or of the second Games was right: ‘If Genghis Khan were alive, he would be here’.

Walking in forgotten lands: conservation in Kyrgyzstan

The rur­al climbs of Kyrgyz­stan are legendary. They are also under threat. Brett Wilson has been work­ing as part of an inter­na­tion­al effort to secure the future of Cent­ral Asia’s unique nat­ive flora.

One of many stun­ning views encountered in Kyrgyzstan’s Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve.

Cent­ral Asia was once the focus of trade across the world. The Silk Road ran from China across into Europe span­ning the moun­tains and val­leys of Asia’s cent­ral region. How­ever, as this region became absorbed into the USSR, its links to the West­ern world were broken and the trans­fer of know­ledge regard­ing this region’s biod­iversity was, unfor­tu­nately, lim­ited due to rising ten­sions between coun­tries. Today, after the break­up of the Soviet Uni­on and the inde­pend­ence of coun­tries such as Kyrgyz­stan and Kaza­kh­stan, the sci­entif­ic and envir­on­ment­al depart­ments of these coun­tries are grow­ing and the amaz­ing spe­cies diversity that these areas hold is becom­ing appar­ent.

I worked in the Repub­lic of Kyrgyz­stan in one of the biod­iversity hot­spots of the world, the wal­nut-fruit forest. These forests are thought to be the ori­gin of an incred­ible vari­ety of fruits and nuts such as apples, pears, apricots, wal­nuts, and pista­chio nuts as well as a range of flowers includ­ing tulips. Due to the his­tory of these coun­tries, little research has been car­ried out in these forests espe­cially with regard to some of the more Endangered spe­cies. The land­scapes where these spe­cies are found are heav­ily util­ised by the loc­al human pop­u­la­tion. The resources gathered from these forests have helped sup­port loc­al com­munit­ies for thou­sands of years and con­tin­ue to be an excep­tion­ally import­ant part of loc­al cul­ture and life.

Farm­ing and forest are nev­er far apart in the Kyrgyz land­scape. 

The forest eco­sys­tem, how­ever, is under pres­sure due to over­har­vest­ing of resources and excess­ive live­stock graz­ing with­in the forest land­scape. This is greatly lim­it­ing the regen­er­a­tion capa­city of the forest and may mean that these areas are not sus­tained for future gen­er­a­tions. As the loc­al pop­u­la­tions con­tin­ue to increase, this prob­lem also escal­ates. The remain­ing hab­it­at frag­ments are becom­ing more dam­aged and pop­u­la­tions of many fruits and nuts are declin­ing dra­mat­ic­ally. Numer­ous spe­cies loc­ated in these forests have been iden­ti­fied as threatened and in need of urgent con­ser­va­tion action. How­ever, lim­ited inform­a­tion on these forest sys­tems and the spe­cies with­in greatly inhib­its the tar­get­ing and there­fore the effect­ive­ness of any action planned.

I stud­ied the apple spe­cies Malus niedzwet­zky­ana, already on the Endangered list, with the hope of redu­cing the know­ledge gaps sur­round­ing threats to this spe­cies and its eco­logy. The apple is unique as it has a red pig­ment which per­meates through its leaves, flowers and fruit leav­ing red-tinged leaves, a deep red fruit from its skin through to its flesh, and pink flowers. This red pig­ment is a type of antho­cy­an­in which has been shown to have bene­fi­cial health prop­er­ties, with anti-inflam­mat­ory and anti-vir­al being two of the most sig­ni­fic­ant. Its unique genet­ic makeup high­lights it as a crit­ic­al spe­cies to pro­tect as it has import­ant poten­tial use in devel­op­ing new apple vari­et­ies.

The red fruit of the Niedzwetzky’s apple tree. The unique pig­ment­a­tion of this spe­cies makes it iden­ti­fi­able against oth­er apple spe­cies.

Work­ing with Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, I col­lec­ted data in four forest frag­ments that were known to be strong­holds of the wal­nut-fruit forest eco­sys­tem and where loc­al com­munit­ies were will­ing to provide sup­port to con­ser­va­tion prac­tices. Dur­ing my trip, I loc­ated around 150 indi­vidu­als [the largest data­set known glob­ally] and recor­ded the extent of threats from live­stock graz­ing and fire­wood col­lec­tion across these areas. I also explored the basic eco­logy of the spe­cies and developed a spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el to invest­ig­ate his­tor­ic­al forest cov­er and try to devel­op evid­ence for past hab­it­at loss.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies.

My research high­lighted that all forest frag­ments were greatly affected by humans.  How­ever, in the sites of Sary-Chelek Bio­sphere Reserve and Kara-Alma Forestry Unit, there was poten­tial to strengthen excep­tion­ally stressed pop­u­la­tions through sap­ling plant­ing pro­jects. I iden­ti­fied south-west slopes with rel­at­ively open can­opy as good areas to plant sap­lings. Using the spe­cies dis­tri­bu­tion mod­el, I provided evid­ence that the his­tor­ic­al range of this spe­cies was much lar­ger than its cur­rent range, high­light­ing the effect of hab­it­at loss. This affects not only Malus niedzwet­zky­ana but the whole com­munity found in the wal­nut-fruit forests.

By gath­er­ing this inform­a­tion, I have been able to con­trib­ute to the pro­tec­tion of an icon­ic Cent­ral Asi­an land­scape and change the fate of one of its more unique spe­cies. This work is crit­ic­al in design­ing the con­ser­va­tion actions that will pro­tect this spe­cies in the future and the com­munity in which it grows. To have been able to explore a scarcely known corner of the world, walk­ing through the forests where few have been before, was a truly remark­able exper­i­ence. The con­trast of Rus­si­an and Turk­ish influ­ences along­side the unique tra­di­tions of the region make this a ver­it­able cul­tur­al melt­ing pot. This region, hid­den from the world I grew up in, is full of incred­ible people, excit­ing nature, and won­der­ful oppor­tun­it­ies, a land which I hope the rest of the world will come to appre­ci­ate as I have done.


Brett Wilson car­ried out his research with the sup­port of Fauna and Flora Inter­na­tion­al, The Roy­al Botan­ic Gar­dens, Kew, and Imper­i­al Col­lege Lon­don, with fund­ing from the Glob­al Trees Cam­paign. His interests lie in tree con­ser­va­tion research and he is cur­rently an intern at Botan­ic Gar­dens Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tion­al where he works on pro­tect­ing tree spe­cies world­wide.

All pho­to­graphy by the author.

Europe and Kazakhstan

This art­icle ori­gin­ally appeared in the Novem­ber 2017 edi­tion of Poli­tique Inter­na­tionale. Per­mis­sion to repub­lish has been kindly gran­ted by the author.

Dr Benita Ferrero-Waldner, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for Austria, outlines the growing interdependence of Kazakhstan and the European Union.

In 1991, as the USSR broke up, the repub­lics in Cent­ral Asia found them­selves in a new and chal­len­ging world. The region as a whole has advanced in leaps and bounds since then. Each year, the five nations of Kaza­kh­stan, Kyrgyz­stan, Tajikistan, Turk­menistan and Uzbek­istan are mak­ing great­er con­tri­bu­tions to glob­al dia­logue on issues of crit­ic­al import­ance to the coun­tries of Europe. For almost every major sphere of inter­na­tion­al policy — from energy secur­ity to the envir­on­ment, com­bat­ing people and drug traf­fick­ing, and counter-ter­ror­ism — there is an ever-grow­ing alli­ance with Europe, and the poten­tial for fur­ther col­lab­or­a­tion is enorm­ous.

A Soy­uz space­craft is trans­por­ted by train to its launch pad at Kazakhstan’s Baikon­ur Cos­modrome, where many European Space Agency launches take place.

I have taken a great per­son­al interest in the region since my first vis­it in 1999 ahead of Austria’s chair­man­ship of the OSCE, dur­ing which we focused on the region in par­tic­u­lar.   I was struck then, as I still am today, by the industry and ambi­tion of the Cent­ral Asi­an states, and of Kaza­kh­stan in par­tic­u­lar. These qual­it­ies have seen the coun­try rise from a very chal­len­ging start to become the con­fid­ent play­er on the world stage that we see today.

From the early days of its Inde­pend­ence Kaza­kh­stan has adop­ted a mul­ti­di­men­sion­al for­eign policy, and recently set out a “2050 Strategy” which aims to make the coun­try one of the 30 most com­pet­it­ive nations in the world by the mid-point of the cen­tury.

Con­sidered as a whole, the European Uni­on is Kazakhstan’s largest for­eign trade part­ner, account­ing for 50% in of its total extern­al trade, and the largest investor in Kaza­kh­stan, with a 60% share in its FDI. As for Kaza­kh­stan, it exports 60% of its oil to Europe, mak­ing it Europe’s third largest pro­vider of hydro­car­bons among non-OPEC coun­tries. In 2015 Kaza­kh­stan and the European Uni­on signed an Enhanced Part­ner­ship and Cooper­a­tion Agree­ment — the strongest pos­sible frame­work of bilat­er­al cooper­a­tion between non-neigh­bour states, which assesses 29 poten­tial areas of cooper­a­tion.

The part­ner­ship is set to grow fur­ther, as wit­nessed by Kazakhstan’s join­ing the Asia-Europe Meet­ing (ASEM) in 2014, the first Cent­ral Asi­an coun­try to do so. Kazakhstan’s land­mark elec­tion as a non-per­man­ent Mem­ber of the United Nations Secur­ity Coun­cil in 2016 will have greatly strengthened the country’s stand­ing in Europe; as will its acces­sion to the World Trade Organ­isa­tion in 2015, a devel­op­ment which was strongly advoc­ated by the European Uni­on through­out nearly two dec­ades of nego­ti­ation.

A new EU strategy for Kaza­kh­stan and oth­er Cent­ral Asi­an Coun­tries was announced in 2015, emphas­iz­ing areas for eco­nom­ic and social devel­op­ment. Since then, European lead­ers have lauded the improve­ment in busi­ness con­di­tions in Kaza­kh­stan and pushed for fur­ther invest­ment and trade in the coun­try. An improved visa regime has been mooted, as has fur­ther cooper­a­tion in edu­ca­tion.

A major pri­or­ity for both Kaza­kh­stan and Europe has been estab­lish­ing a part­ner­ship in the energy field. Kazakhstan’s vast energy resources are deemed to have played an import­ant role in the devel­op­ment of the South­ern Gas Cor­ridor (SGC) pro­ject, set to bring vast quant­it­ies of gas from the Caspi­an Basin to Europe. European coun­tries are also aware of the great poten­tial for the pro­duc­tion of green energy in Kaza­kh­stan, a ter­rit­ory well-suited for sol­ar and wind energy pro­duc­tion. “Future Energy” was the theme of EXPO 2017, which con­cluded recently in Astana.

Cooper­a­tion in inter­na­tion­al and domest­ic secur­ity is anoth­er key com­pon­ent in the Europe-Kaza­kh­stan part­ner­ship. Kaza­kh­stan has been fully sup­port­ive of EU region­al pro­grammes aimed at coordin­at­ing efforts in the field of counter ter­ror­ism, counter-nar­cot­ics and bor­der man­age­ment. The country’s pion­eer­ing policy of nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment, and the con­crete steps it has taken to pre­vent nuc­le­ar pro­lif­er­a­tion world­wide, have con­tin­ued to receive the EU’s full back­ing since the early 1990s.

As a European dip­lo­mat who has fol­lowed the rise of Cent­ral Asia since the fall of the USSR with great interest, the mutu­al bene­fits of an ongo­ing part­ner­ship between Kaza­kh­stan and the coun­tries of Europe seem self-evid­ent. From a European per­spect­ive, it is now cru­cial to build on the momentum for engage­ment with Kaza­kh­stan afforded by these pos­it­ive recent devel­op­ments, and keep strength­en­ing a fruit­ful part­ner­ship based on com­mon interests and shared val­ues. I look for­ward to see­ing what pro­spects the future holds in this respect.


Dr Ben­ita Fer­rero-Wald­ner is a prom­in­ent Aus­tri­an dip­lo­mat and politi­cian. Fer­rero-Wald­ner served as For­eign Min­is­ter from 2000 to 2004 and was the ÖVP’s can­did­ate in the 2004 Aus­tri­an pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, which she nar­rowly lost with 47.6% of votes. She has served as the European Com­mis­sion­er for Extern­al Rela­tions and European Neigh­bour­hood Policy, and as the European Com­mis­sion­er for Trade and European Neigh­bour­hood Policy, and is cred­ited with being the key dip­lo­mat in the 24 July 2007 release of five Bul­gari­an nurses and a Palestini­an doc­tor imprisoned by Libya. She also worked to improve con­di­tions for chil­dren infec­ted with HIV/Aids.

Wu-Stan Clan: Central Asia’s ancient rap tradition

It’s all about improvising. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit?”

That’s Alagushev Balai, a Kyrgyz inter­viewed thir­teen years ago by the author Peter Finn. He’s describ­ing aity­sh, Cent­ral Asia’s adversari­al, ad-libbed per­form­ance tra­di­tion that’s half music and half sick flow.

Did­ar Qam­iev, born 1988, is a cel­eb­rated mem­ber of Kazakhstan’s new gen­er­a­tion of akyns.

Aity­sh is a con­test between two par­ti­cipants, or akyns. They sit across the room from each oth­er, impro­vising rhythmic, rhym­ing rebut­tals on sub­jects sug­ges­ted by the audi­ence. Though good-natured and often comed­ic, aity­sh has teeth. When one akyn needs to diss anoth­er, noth­ing is off lim­its: there’s a long-stand­ing cus­tom that allows akyns all forms of slander. They make back­han­ded polit­ic­al state­ments, cri­ti­cise each other’s style, flirt, and flat-out insult one anoth­er.

Dur­ing an aity­shakyns sing their songs in turns,” said Balai. “It is a music­al dia­logue, like a debate. When one akyn starts an argu­ment, the second one should con­tin­ue it start­ing a new rhyme or fol­low­ing the competitor’s one.”

The akyn’s goal is to con­vince his audi­ence that’s he is the bet­ter per­former. Just as in a rap battle, a crowd of onlook­ers is cru­cial in decid­ing the vic­tor.

The tra­di­tion is art­ful too, and often cut­tingly satir­ic­al. Polit­ics and mor­als have alwasy been cent­ral to aity­sh, and it’s as philo­soph­ic­al as Dylan, as gritty as Nas, and — some­times — as ego­ma­ni­ac­al as Kanye.

No one seems to know exactly where aity­sh came from, but it’s been a fix­ture for at least a thou­sand years. In the pre-Soviet days of major­ity illit­er­acy, akyns played a vital cul­tur­al role. They were the agents of social and his­tor­ic­al iden­tity, but also helped each gen­er­a­tion to expound its zeit­geist, cel­eb­rate its her­oes and hold its lead­ers to account.

Dur­ing the Soviet peri­od, unusu­ally, aity­sh wasn’t entirely scrubbed from Kaza­kh and Kyrgyz cul­ture, but requisi­tioned as a way to adapt old legends to the new rulers.

A lot of atten­tion was paid to akyn and the com­mun­ists used it as a pro­pa­ganda loud­speak­er,” said Balai. “Akyns sang about Len­in and the revolu­tion and the achieve­ments of the party.”

It was dan­ger­ous to be an akyn in Com­mun­ist Cent­ral Asia.

Dur­ing the Soviet peri­od, akyns and their poetry were strictly con­trolled,” the young per­former, Aaly Tutkuchev, told author, Elmira Köchümku­lova. “The KGB told them to write down the text of their poetry before they went out to sing in front of people.”

So tightly did aity­sh come to be asso­ci­ated with com­mun­ism, that by the col­lapse of the Soviet Uni­on the akyn art was almost extinct. Accord­ing to Finn, Kyrgyz­stan had only four akyns left in 1991. An influx of West­ern music — some of it, let’s hope, from Queens­bridge and Compton — gave aity­sh all the cachet of mor­ris dan­cing and oom­pah.

As the new nation states matured, how­ever, young people began to redis­cov­er the tra­di­tion. Across the board, by the early 2000s, Cent­ral Asia’s cul­tur­al her­it­age gained a new import­ance. In 2003, UNESCO added the akyns to its list of intan­gible cul­tur­al her­it­age. In 2001, Kyrgyz pub­lic fig­ure, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, estab­lished the Aity­sh Pub­lic Fund, a char­it­able organ­isa­tion that pub­li­cises the art and has trained over a hun­dred new akyns.

Now, Kyrgyz and Kaza­kh akyns par­ti­cip­ate in the demo­crat­ic polit­ic­al pro­cess — passing from vil­lage to vil­lage to deliv­er a com­ment­ary, soap­box-style.

Akyns have always giv­en heart to the Kaza­kh people in times of hard­ship and misery,” Kazak akyn, Did­ar Qam­iev told the research­er, Jangül Qojakh­met­ova. “Dur­ing the Great Pat­ri­ot­ic War, in 1943, an aity­sh in Almaty raised people’s spir­its and hopes. Con­tem­por­ary aity­sh enlight­en people and enrich them spir­itu­ally.”

The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

In terms of space, Central Asia has a lot of it.

With a com­bined land area of 3,926,790 square kilo­metres, the Five Stans cov­er 2.63 per­cent of the world’s land­mass. Although that is an area far lar­ger than India, Cent­ral Asia has a pop­u­la­tion dens­ity of just eight­een people per square kilo­metre. India, by com­par­is­on, is 25 times as densely pop­u­lated. What is in all of that space in-between the people? What does the nat­ur­al world con­jure across Cent­ral Asia? In this art­icle we take a trip to six of the most extraordin­ary centres of the nat­ur­al (and unnat­ur­al) world of Cent­ral Asia, to dis­cov­er how the people of Cent­ral Asia are both shaped and shap­ing the vast envir­on­ment around them.

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

It makes sense to begin with the “Roof of the World” — the Pamir Moun­tains. Writ­ten about in the West since the time of Ptolemy, cen­tur­ies ago three branches of the Silk Road used to cross the Pamirs. Whilst most of the range lies with­in Tajikistan, its fringes seep into Afgh­anistan, China and Kyrgyz­stan. A diverse array of soci­et­ies live in semi-autonom­ous and autonom­ous areas of the moun­tains. Many are small nomad­ic com­munit­ies of Tajiks, but size­able pop­u­la­tions live in small cit­ies such as Kho­rog.

Climbers in 1978 pose for a pho­to­graph with ‘Peak Com­mun­ism’, as the highest point in Cent­ral Asia was then known.

The tallest peak of the Pamirs — Kongur Tagh — is not in Cent­ral Asia, but China. Ismoil Peak is the highest in the region, at a mod­est 7,495m — the fiftieth tallest moun­tain in the world. Formerly known as Peak Com­mun­ism, the moun­tain was more formerly still named after Joseph Stal­in, but gained its cur­rent name in the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury to com­mem­or­ate the Saman­id emir, Ismail Samani.

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

‘The Gates of Hell’, which for the past four dec­ades has been a bench­mark for ‘The hot­test thing in Turk­menistan since…’

From the heights of heav­en, we jour­ney to the Gates of Hell. Yes, the door to the under­world can be found in Turkmenistan’s Karak­um Desert, 275km north of the country’s cap­it­al. The Dar­vaza Gas Crater emerged in 1971 fol­low­ing a Soviet drilling acci­dent. In an attempt to extract oil, engin­eers rup­tured a nat­ur­al gas pock­et unearth­ing an enorm­ous crater, and swal­low­ing up the rig. Imme­di­ately, tox­ic gas spewed from the 230 feet-wide crater and anim­als in the area soon began to per­ish. In an attempt to cull the spread of meth­ane, geo­lo­gists opted to set the crater on fire, and thus the Flames of Hell came to Earth. It is not unusu­al for gas craters to be set on fire but, usu­ally, they extin­guish with­in a few weeks, months, or at most, years; no one knows when, or even if the Dar­vaza Crater will stop burn­ing. Today, the Gates of Hell is a pop­u­lar tour­ist attrac­tion, which Google help­fully informs us is “Open 24 Hours”.

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The fam­ous ‘dis­ap­pear­ing lake’ act.

Tragedy hit Cent­ral Asia in the 1960s, in what many experts believe to be one of the greatest eco­lo­gic­al dis­asters of all time. The Aral Sea was one the world’s fourth-largest lake — the second largest in Asia. Cov­er­ing 26,000 square miles, it truly was one of the nat­ur­al won­ders of the region, divid­ing a chunk of bor­der between Kaza­kh­stan and Uzbek­istan.

Fish, and thus the loc­al fish­ing industry, has declined immensely since the dis­ap­pear­ance of water. This pho­to­graph of a beached fish­ing ves­sel in the Bay of Zhalanas, Aral­sk, Kaza­kh­stan, illus­trates the point.

Today, that bor­der requires not a boat to cross, but feet. In the 1960s, as part of the Soviet eco­nom­ic plan to make Cent­ral Asia the world’s largest pro­du­cer of cot­ton, the two great rivers of Cent­ral Asia were diver­ted for an irrig­a­tion pro­ject. The Amu Darya and the Syr Darya had fed the Aral, but cata­stroph­ic neg­li­gence rap­idly depleted the sea’s water sup­ply. By 1990, the sea split in two, and by 2003, the depth had fallen by 72 feet. Even­tu­ally, the Aral held just one-tenth of its ori­gin­al volume. Fish­ing ports turned to bar­ren waste­lands and dust bowl­ing swept up sand and chem­ic­al residues from the now exposed seabed. Although a glob­al effort led by the World Bank has sought to rein­vig­or­ate the North­ern Aral Sea, many experts believe that the vast major­ity of this once great lake will remain bar­ren. The Aral Sea dis­aster provides a stark and rather apo­ca­lyptic pre­quel to the world’s loom­ing water crisis.

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

At elev­en times the length of Canada’s Ath­abasca Gla­ci­er, the Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er is the world’s longest non-polar Gla­ci­er.

2000km away from the Aral is Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er, the world’s longest non-polar gla­ci­er. First dis­covered in 1878, it is by far the biggest gla­ci­er in the Pamir range and its run­off even­tu­ally trickles into what is left of the Aral Sea. The ice on Fed­chen­ko Gla­ci­er, found in the east of Tajikistan, is 1000m thick in parts and meas­ures 77km in length. Put in per­spect­ive, Canada’s fam­ous Ath­abasca Gla­ci­er is just 7km long. The source of Fed­chen­ko is found in Gorno-Badakh­shan province upon Revolu­tion Peak, the highest point in the east­ern part of the Yazgulem Range.

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

Kazakstan’s great Canyon will most likely become grand in the next few hun­dred mil­lion years.

Close to the bor­der with China is one of Cent­ral Asia’s more unusu­al sites: Sharyn Canyon. The val­ley began to be formed rather recently — just 90 mil­lion years ago. Its most fam­ous point — The Val­ley of Castles — provides the off the beaten track tour­ist with some truly epic pho­tos for their Ins­tagram. Although it is dwarfed by the Grand Canyon for length, it is still nearly 100km long, and holds some remark­able eco­lo­gic­al sites. A pre­his­tor­ic forest, for example, con­tain­ing a large num­ber of Sog­di­an Ash, a par­tic­u­larly rare spe­cies of Ash. Sharyn Canyon Nation­al Park is 120 miles east of Almaty and the stag­ger­ing views of the ancient dust-orange rock canyon walls are a key attrac­tion for Kazakstan’s incip­i­ent tour­ist industry.

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

Kaza­kh­stan is the alleged birth­place of can­nabis, and in the Chuy Val­ley, 400,000 hec­tares have grown wild in amongst the Tien-shan moun­tains. Ever since the restrict­ive drug policies of the Soviet Uni­on, this has been some­thing of a polit­ic­al head­ache; where­as nature was defeated in the Aral Sea, the hardy nature of wild can­nabis has allowed the crops to sur­vive mul­tiple erad­ic­a­tion attempts, mak­ing can­nabis Kazakhstan’s most potent per­en­ni­al weed. Under the cov­er of night, loc­als are known to des­cend into the val­ley to col­lect small quant­it­ies of wild can­nabis — which is famed for a low potency and con­sequent lack of hangover effects. Large-scale har­vest­ing is inhib­ited by an annu­al police crack­down on efforts to organ­ise col­lec­tion efforts — as such, organ­ised crim­in­als rub shoulders with bohemi­an enthu­si­asts, with no groups hav­ing a mono­poly on the region of nat­ur­al abund­ance.

A ‘high’ val­ley in Kaza­kh­stan. Photo: Mari­usz Kluzniak.

There is your heav­en to hell then — a whistle-stop tour of the nat­ur­al won­ders of Cent­ral Asia. Though it would rarely come to mind when we think of the epic of our nat­ur­al envir­on­ment, Cent­ral Asia pos­sesses some of the most remark­able examples of the undis­covered, the unbe­liev­able, and unfor­tu­nately, the unnat­ur­al. Whilst the Dar­vaza Gas Crater is an example to poke fun at, the Aral Sea dis­aster is not. Per­haps the great meas­ure Cent­ral Asia’s nat­ur­al won­ders is, then, humankind’s utterly fra­gile rela­tion­ship to the nat­ur­al world.

Cheques through the mail: the changing nature of Central Asia’s remittance economy

Central Asian nations must supersede historic economic ties with Russia both by fostering employment and investment links elsewhere, and by generating a meaningful internal economy.

A work­er moves fish at a pro­cessing plant in Aral­sk, Kaza­kh­stan.

The eco­nom­ies of Uzbek­istan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyz­stan are heav­ily depend­ent on remit­tances from migrant labour­ers in Rus­sia. Tajikistan is the most remit­tance-depend­ent coun­try in the world, with four in ten adult males seek­ing employ­ment abroad. The increased move­ment of people across post-Soviet Euras­ia echoes the his­tor­ic­al con­nectiv­ity and cross-cul­tur­al inter­ac­tions with­in the region. These young work­ers have found employ­ment in low-income jobs indus­tries such as con­struc­tion sites and nat­ur­al resource extrac­tion.

Accord­ing to the World Bank, remit­tance inflows in Tajikistan rep­res­en­ted 42% of the country’s GDP in 2014. At an indi­vidu­al level, remit­tances sup­port the daily sub­sist­ence of poor fam­il­ies, and act as a medi­um for domest­ic con­sump­tion. In turn, this improves the bal­ance of pay­ments by provid­ing gov­ern­ments with tax from goods pur­chased through remit­tances. How­ever, remit­tances to Cent­ral Asia have begun to dimin­ish.

Coun­try 2015 2016
Uzbek­istan $3 bil­lion $2.74 bil­lion
Tajikistan $2.2 bil­lion $1.9 bil­lion
Kyrgyz­stan $1.5 bil­lion $1.7 bil­lion

Remit­tances from Rus­sia to Cent­ral Asia, www.eurasianet.org

The above fig­ures demon­strate the decline of remit­tances from Rus­sia to Cent­ral Asia. This fall is linked to devel­op­ments in the glob­al eco­nomy. The glob­al plunge in oil prices has caused a slump in the Rus­si­an eco­nomy, trig­ger­ing a reces­sion.

Migrant workers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan face tougher immigration laws as the two countries do not belong to the Eurasian Economic Union”

West­ern sanc­tions imposed after Moscow’s annex­a­tion of Crimea has fur­ther com­poun­ded the eco­nom­ic crisis. These two devel­op­ments have res­ul­ted in a devalu­ation of the Rouble and thus the value in dol­lars of remit­tances. The weak­ness of the rouble has res­ul­ted in the fall­ing of real wages in Rus­sia. Eco­nom­ic deteri­or­a­tion in Rus­sia has, in turn, lowered demand for Cent­ral Asia labour, for­cing migrant work­ers to return home. Moreover, migrant work­ers from Tajikistan and Uzbek­istan face tough­er immig­ra­tion laws as the two coun­tries do not belong to the Euras­i­an Eco­nom­ic Uni­on. This phe­nomen­on has also affected migrant work­ers from the Cau­cas­us. It will be inter­est­ing to see if the lack of employ­ment oppor­tun­it­ies in Rus­sia pre­cip­it­ates a flow of migra­tion to oth­er coun­tries in Europe or Asia.

Bey­ond Russia’s eco­nom­ic trav­ails, a remit­tance-depend­ant eco­nomy sig­nals low levels of invest­ment (and thus a lack of pro­duct­ive non-primary jobs), declin­ing terms of trade, and per­sist­ent vul­ner­ab­il­ity to the vicis­situdes of the glob­al eco­nom­ic cli­mate. Moreover, the iter­at­ive waves of emig­ra­tion serve to under­mine the fra­gile nation­al con­scious­ness in nas­cent demo­cra­cies and cause a vari­ety of social frac­tures as a con­sequence of wide­spread absent­ee­ism. Hence there is a need both to move away from Rus­si­an depend­ence, and the remit­tance eco­nomy itself.

Increased foreign direct investment (FDI) from China and Turkey highlight the geopolitical shifts occurring in the region.”

The struc­tur­al over-reli­ance on remit­tances have cre­ated an eco­nom­ic dilemma for Cent­ral Asi­an gov­ern­ments. Lower remit­tances have engendered a fall in eco­nom­ic growth as the pur­chas­ing power of cit­izens dimin­ish. Tak­ing into account the excess­ive debt affect­ing these coun­tries, gov­ern­ments are forced to increase spend­ing, thereby exacer­bat­ing fisc­al defi­cits.

How­ever, the com­bin­a­tion of estab­lished migrant com­munit­ies from Cent­ral Asia in Rus­sia and the ease of assim­il­a­tion via a shared lan­guage act as recal­cit­rant bar­ri­ers to swift trans­itions in the nature of Cent­ral Asi­an remit­tance eco­nom­ies.

Clearly, these coun­tries must seek altern­at­ive solu­tions and diver­si­fy their eco­nom­ies. Increased for­eign dir­ect invest­ment (FDI) from China and Tur­key high­light the geo­pol­it­ic­al shifts occur­ring in the region. Increased invest­ment in infra­struc­ture will reduce the depend­ency on remit­tances and stim­u­late the employ­ment mar­ket in a region that offers cheap­er labour than its neigh­bours. The pur­suit of altern­at­ive cur­rency inflows sig­nals a region will­ing to adapt and evolve to changes in the glob­al eco­nomy.

China is cur­rently the largest investor in the region. Its Silk Road Eco­nom­ic Belt (SREB), estab­lished in 2013, offers an altern­at­ive to eco­nom­ic strategies ori­ented towards Rus­sia. Like­wise, the Beijing-led Asi­an Infra­struc­ture Invest­ment Bank rep­res­ents a nov­el source of fund­ing for eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment and infra­struc­ture-build­ing in Cent­ral Asi­an states. As Cent­ral Asia re-ori­ents itself in the glob­al eco­nomy, it is faced by a pleth­ora of oppor­tun­it­ies, chal­lenges, and poten­tial traps. Will lead­ers look bey­ond Moscow and seek friend­ship else­where?