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.

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.