Re-Meet the Stans: How Post-Soviet countries in Central Asia are redefining their identities.

Although an external observer still tends to label the five major countries of Central Asia’s vast region (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) as ‘Post-Soviet’, it might just be the wrong prism to use.

The shift away from the ‘Post-Soviet’ and towards the long-hoped-for modernization, although not a rapid or uncontroversial one, is seen as a positive development by the countries’ younger generation.

‘No one can deny the importance of Soviet economic developments and our shared culture,’ – says a Kazakh student, who graduated this summer and is currently an assistant at a local accounting company, – ‘and with my grandparents still nostalgic about the Soviet times, all of the younger people are genuinely looking forward.’

Cultural and political battles between the Stans’ Soviet legacies, and the growing emphasis on national identities, have largely been won by the latter.

Modern Center of Dushanbe, Tajikistan – from flickr.com

This has been seen in the demographic changes. As the Kazakh census shows, ‘the number of Russians is on the decline’ (Dr. Merlene Laruelle, 2018)[: the percentage of Russians in the total population has fallen from ‘37% in 1989’ to ‘20% in 209’. The majority of Kazakh citizens – the overwhelming ‘95%’ – now identifies with their Pre-Soviet Muslim beliefs, moving away from Russians’ Christianity or Soviet atheism.

In Tajikistan’s capital – Dushanbe -, city planners tear down the buildings that once manifested Soviet presence in this trophy city.

In Uzbekistan, 25 years of Karimov’s dictatorship was characterized by attempts to present all Russian and Soviet in the most negative light, moving towards his own personal cult and nationalism. The new Mirziyoyev’s reforms aim to reshape the infrastructure and economy, try to polish Tashkent’s reputation and make the country more competitive for investment. The general political and economic trends show re-focusing on the future of the country and building on its Pre-Soviet culture, not the Soviet one.

Nur-Astana Mosque in Astana, Kazakhstan – from Wikipedia

While sharing the common Soviet culture, the five Stans are very different. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan’s land has seen one of the oldest civilizations, but Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures are that of nomads. Thus said, the evasion of the Soviet heritage can, to a certain extent, allow the countries’ historical identities to prosper and enrich the global understanding of their diverse cultural values. How the Central Asian countries’ differences are becoming more and more acknowledged is also emphasized in this article (on the EU’s strategy? The one That Gera wrote?).

However, it is not uncontroversial to suggest that all of these developments are positive: infrastructure projects in Tajikistan, for instance, lack proper city planning and consideration for the important Soviet era’s influence on the region. One might question whether it’s right to completely wipe out such a huge and influential part of the region’s history as the Soviet era, which did determine people’s lives and cultural awareness.

Moreover, ‘Post-Soviet-ness’ is still present in a few places: Russian is the most spoken language in both Almaty and Bishkek, while Stans still look up at Russia for economic support (Kyrgyzstan, in particular). Stans have a very long way to go.

Yurt, traditional form of housing in Central Asia – from US Air Forces Central Command

It is important that countries change to allow progress, and culture itself iss never a static concept – it is always in flux. With the Stans’ aspirations often held down by the fact that their independence has been so short and turbulent, this vast land of mountains, grasslands, and desert lying on Eurasia’s crossroads, should attract more foreign interest as important players with great potential.

More importantly, one might argue that Stans should no longer be defined by their ‘Post-Soviet-ness’, but by their distinct identities.

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