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.
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
Cultural and political battles between the Stans’ Soviet legacies, and the growing emphasis on national identities, have largely been won by the latter.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Creative Bishkek: Aida Sulova is the second interview of the series introducing the lives and work of talented and creative people from Bishkek, who are helping to establish Kyrgyzstan’s capital as the region’s cultural hub
Kyrgyz artist and curator, Aida Sulova, developed Bishkek’s leading art centre: Asanbay.
She has helped produce public art in the Kyrgyz capital and been involved in art education in the city. She is currently working in New York.
How did Asanbay originally get created and
what have the early challenges been?
I returned to Bishkek after finishing my undergraduate degree in New York and soon after I started working for Henry Myerberg, HMA2 Architects, who is the architect of the new campus of the American University of Central Asia (AUCA), in Bishkek. While at the AUCA, I was engaged in a public art programme with local curators and artists, in this time we produced a number of pieces and had an exhibition curated by Ulan Djaparov. This was how my engagement and collaboration with local artists started. Not long after this, I was approached by local entrepreneurs and investors in the development and restaurant business who showed me a 1800 square metre space, which they intended to use for a brewery business with a dance space. My proposal was to found a flexible multi-purpose place which can transform its space and resources for various events. The main activity of the Center are a strong art and education programs that are supported by side commercial activities such as a restaurant and event hall. This was the original idea for creation of multi-disciplinary Asanbay, which now has event spaces, a gallery and a Georgian restaurant.
The mission of the center is to be a flexible space for art, education, and entertainment programs for communities to enrich their cultural life. However, not everyone reacted enthusiastically after we opened Asanbay. Some people, for example, accused me of commercialising art by making it too accessible and by serving food and drink in an art space. After I explained to them that most museums in the world work like this, and have an additional entrance fee, they started to listen, so I think it’s mainly a cultural thing. People need to understand that due to the cost of production and rent, it is only possible to have free exhibitions alongside these commercial activities.
Asanbay is but one of Bishkek’s many exciting
new creative projects – do you think the culture of the city is changing and
where do you see the city heading?
There’s been a dramatic change in the last couple years and I see it as largely positive. There is a real thirst and strife for a better life and the civil community has become much stronger in recent years. There are now lots of people who are launching their own creative projects and the city’s start-up culture is improving. There is now even speculation that Bishkek is becoming the Berlin of Central Asia. My only concern here is that there is no central vision or mission, so I hope the younger generation will be able to provide this. I really hope that education and culture are seen as priorities – culture is so underestimated in my opinion and I think it is really important for people to understand that it is an effective tool to bring social changes.
I think collaborative initiatives are extremely vital – and not just from artists, but also from businesses, the government and the creative community. I’ve already seen the challenges involved in these initiatives at the Asanbay centre, as people often have conflicting interests and ideas. Nevertheless, as Asanbay shows, such collaborations can produce very positive results. I’m also happy that there are more initiatives like co-working spaces, urban talks, research labs, etc. and that people in culture are starting to bring international artists, curators, and art managers to the city. Cultural exchanges such as these are groundbreaking and so I think the city is heading in the right direction, all things considered.
How different is the process of being an artist in Central Asia compared to Europe or the United States?
The contemporary art scene is strong in Bishkek and I can see the thirst that artists in the scene possess. Artists there are constantly producing art and the fact that there isn’t funding and support isn’t really an obstacle for them. An artist in Kyrgyzstan is an artist, whereas an artist in the States is an artist, manager, curator, specialist and PR manager – as such, artists in New York have much more knowledge about the art market and they are more experienced in promoting themselves. I think this is about survival though – the context in Kyrgyzstan is different as artists there are less focused on personal promotion. It is probably more genuine in Kyrgyzstan and their message is stronger. I have tried to promote some Central Asian artists by making websites for them – not everyone understands the value in this though.
Do you think Central Asian artists will
soon start to have this broader defined set of attributes?
Surprisingly, it is the older generation in Central Asia that have started to get involved online and especially on Facebook. There are now artist groups like the Central Asian pavilion of contemporary art – this shows that there has been a shift. Younger artists have increasingly started to self-promote on Instagram also. This is of course largely about economics and it is generational. What makes Central Asian contemporary art different from the rest of the world is that artists in the region are not forced to come up with an issue because the issues are already all over – social issues, personal issues, gender issues. The artists there truly reflect openly and freely and this is channelled in their art. Most of the work I see at Art Basel and the Venice Biennale, for example, strikes me as lacking substance or a strong idea, which I don’t often find in Central Asian contemporary art.
Have you personally curated any Central
Asian artists to show them to a broader audience?
I have a foundation called “Kachan?” (translated from Kyrgyz as “When?”) and through this I managed to bring a few Central Asian artists to Washington a couple years ago. In Washington, there is little cultural knowledge of Kyrgyzstan and so I wanted to display the works of two provocative artists from the region – one was about the revolution and was called the ‘Kinematics of Protest’ by Eugene Boikov, while the other was called ‘Perestroika’ by Shailo Djekshenbaev . This was the start of my cultural exchange programme.
What other projects have you been working
A few years ago, I did quite a few urban art projects on the street – as I didn’t go to art school and am not trained I prefer these kinds of projects to more classical gallery pieces. One of my major projects was about how people react to surprises on the street and in the city environment, an idea which is known as hijacking the space. For example, I decorated trash cans and bus stops in Bishkek as a response to the city’s garbage problem.
I’m also currently working for an architectural firm, helping on projects in both Kazakhstan and in the States, which I have been doing for a little while. Recently, I have started working on a project to change the role of libraries in Bishkek, which I see as really important. The library has changed its role and has become more of a community centre. As a result, librarians can become more like curators and event organisers – people who provide more knowledge than just giving out books. I find this especially important as Bishkek’s libraries are empty currently, even though they could be used by new startups, for example, who currently rent expensive studios in order to be more like Silicon Valley startups. I’m convinced the role of libraries can be enlarged and they can be used to create a stronger and happier community.
Have your projects been particularly
inspired by any cities you’ve lived in or visited?
Of course my projects have been inspired by places I’ve visited but I do think that most of my ideas are fairly universal, rather than geographically bound. People will say that I copied the idea of Asanbay, but every large city has an art centre with activities. The concept behind Asanbay was naturally also influenced by experiences I have had in New York, Berlin and Tbilisi.
On a more
personal note, leaving to study in New York had a major impact on my outlook
and personality. I like the fact that I was able to express myself the way I
wanted there, which hadn’t been the case before. In that sense, I was able to
follow my own American dream. Nevertheless, I always felt that I wanted to
return to Bishkek, in order to help develop the city. The international
experiences I gathered before returning were crucial in knowing how to enact
positive changes there.
Any final comments about Bishkek’s future
and its creative scene?
When I talk about
my country, I don’t want to talk about it in black and white terms – it’s cool
and it’s doing well but sometimes it gets the wrong leaders – I am however
hopeful for the future and think we’ll see more positive changes soon.
Creative Bishkek: Maksat Sydykov is the first interview of the series introducing the lives and work of talented and creative people from Bishkek, who are helping to establish Kyrgyzstan’s capital as the region’s cultural hub
‘I am trying to bring the world here’ – Maksat Sydykov reflects on his role in the world of contemporary Kyrgyz ballet.
Maksat Sydykov is a Kyrgyz choreographer based in Bishkek, who has performed in ballets for many of the world’s leading companies. He is currently also the head of the Kyrgyz public foundation Pro Art, which supports art and culture in Central Asia, especially in Kyrgyzstan. While at Pro Art, Sydykov has been responsible for putting on several ambitious productions, such as Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev and The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky.
Since Pro Art’s launch in 2016, the foundation has invited many of the world’s leading choreographers to the Kyrgyz capital. Due to financial limitations, many young Kyrgyz dancers are unable to travel, and so Sydykov set out to ‘bring the world to Kyrgyzstan’. After many years of experience studying and working in the UK at the English National Ballet and Europe, Sydykov decided to return to his native land to ensure that Kyrgyzstan’s next generation of artists would stamp their mark on the world map.
How was your experience studying in London and how has it affected your career and later creative projects?
Studying in London was a great experience. The city really opened my eyes to a lot of things, which was in large part to its being alive 24 hours a day. It is a fantastic cultural hub and I was fortunate to see a lot of great premieres, shows and museums. London showed me the size of the world and how much is going on and it definitely allowed me to become more creative and open as a result. This has definitely influenced my career and subsequent projects.
Thanks to my experience studying in London and working in Europe, I have been able to collaborate with many crazy and creative people, which has especially been the case in Germany. I was never afraid to try new things and try to meet new people and this has also been beneficial to me, through collaboration with many different people you can create something amazing.
This has inspired me with my aspiration for Bishkek. I hope that my city will turn into a small Central Asian Berlin. Berlin isn’t a beautiful city but the people make it special: they provide it its spirit and atmosphere and are the reason why so many people have fallen in love with the city. A similar phenomenon exists in Barcelona and Portugal, where artists have helped create creative hubs. Hopefully one day more people will start to creative small creative spaces in Bishkek and will spark a creative shift in the city – this is why I believe artists and creatives are so important to cities.
What do you
see as the fundamental differences in creative education in Central Asia and
Europe and what do you see as Kyrgyzstan’s potential in this area?
The English system is very open and teachers in the UK tend to give their pupils maximum freedom to experiment. The focus is on guiding pupils while leaving them their freedom. In Kyrgyzstan, there is an older system where a teacher tells you what to do and guides you within certain rules, which leaves pupils with less freedom. One of my motivations in returning to Kyrgyzstan was to try to encourage young dancers to go beyond this strict system and to try something new.
I want to bring
choreographers to the country that can get young artists to experience a
different approach. This has been slightly tricky at times as some of the young
dancers are very young – only 16 or 17 – and are often, as is common in
Kyrgyzstan, somewhat shy and conservative. The artists are very talented and
driven, however, and thanks to the internet and the region’s
internationalisation, people in the region have started to become a bit more
open, as they can see what’s going on in other countries.
I do however think that Kyrgyz young people could do with more international experiences and a more open mindset. Sadly, due to the region’s economic situation this is not possible as many people cannot afford to travel. As a result, I am trying to bring the world here.
Will Pro Art
continue to focus on Bishkek or are you looking to expand into other areas?
We will just stay
in Bishkek for now. It is a young foundation and so we should focus on turning
it into a success here for now. If the programme goes well, I think we can and
should look into expanding, though. I would like to move it into Uzbekistan,
for example, which has an even more conservative culture than here. The focus
for now is on Bishkek though.
How do you
fund the foundation?
I stage ballets in different parts of the world and get paid for them. I then use this money to help fund the projects here. I also sometimes get support from friends. Sadly, supporting the arts is not so common in Central Asia, unlike in the United States or Europe, and so it can be a struggle sometimes, but we get by.
What success has the foundation had so far?
We have staged a
lot of productions already and have always used dancers from the big ballet
school in Bishkek, which has around 400 students. We always try to work with
people that want to be artists in the future, to help further their careers and
provide financial support. We have staged some more classic productions, like
Romeo and Juliet and the Nutcracker, as well as more contemporary pieces. Sadly
we have had difficulties raising money for the project at times, such as when
our ambitious charity gala, for which we invited 14 of the world’s best
dancers, was unable to raise any money for future productions. The Swiss
embassy really helped a few years ago and thanks to their funding we were able
to fund future productions.
In general, is there a lot of support for what you are doing?
I think so, yes.
People like what we are doing but we can’t always ask supporters for money and
so we need to work towards becoming self-sustainable. That’s why we always try
to reinvest the money we get from ticket sales into new productions. It will
take a few years for major productions to be financially viable and so I want
Pro Art to work and I want it to be sustainable. I want more financial support
for the project but it is working well so far.
How much of an
impact has your strategy of ‘bringing the world to Bishkek’ had?
It has been
crucial. I am currently the only modern choreographer in the city and modern
dance does not really exist in Kyrgyzstan. I am also the only Kyrgyz, as far as
I’m aware, that has worked in big international companies, such as the Deutsche
Oper, and so nobody else has the required know-how here. It is thus also
difficult to form local partnerships with other groups, and so most of our
local collaborations have been with local designers, costume makers and
composers, rather than other dance groups.
It was a slight shock for the dancers, as well as the audience, when I started to introduce contemporary dance into the repertoire. In the Soviet Union, the priority was always classical ballet and there was never any experimental dance, a legacy that has carried on. As a result, it was a challenge for dancers initially, as you have to move differently in modern and contemporary dance. A good case in point was when I invited choreographers from New York, Switzerland and Germany for a performance. Their creativity and freedom in the studio shocked the dancers initially. The dancers were taught to listen to the music and to use objects to really go into the piece – they were all trained dancers but had never done anything comparable. The effect was remarkable, especially mentally. Their level improved by 200% after and it has also enabled them to become better classical dancers, funnily enough.
Do you know many other people that have spent many years abroad that have then gone back to launch their own projects in Bishkek?
unfortunately. Most people that leave Kyrgyzstan want to stay abroad and don’t
want to return. I do love meeting the rare exceptions, however. If you return
to Kyrgyzstan you tend to do so because of passion rather than money, due to
the country’s tricky financial situation.
My parents always ask me why I come back for example. I had a good salary and the freedom to travel everywhere and I worked hard for many years to get to that level. I didn’t come back to Kyrgyzstan for the money but rather to do something good for my country and the country of my ancestors. I want to help it develop. I want my children to be in a prosperous, nice, friendly and open country and I feel that it is partly my responsibility to create this future Kyrgyzstan for the next generation and I wish other Kyrgyz would think about it in the same way.
Is there a
brain drain away from Kyrgyzstan? How could this situation be improved?
Kyrgyzstan there is not an equivalent of the Kazakh Bolashak programme, where
students receive funding to study abroad on the condition that they return to
the country for five years after. This could be a good programme for my country
also – if you want prosperous, creative and driven youth they should explore
the world and learn abroad and then return and share this information with
Luckily I do feel
that the country is becoming more international – more people have started to
come and the country is becoming more open. The youth here is hungry, people
want to learn and become part of the global society. This is in large part thanks
to the internet – they want to see what the world is like in other countries
and are now also global citizens and want to see what happens elsewhere.
There is also always a difference between urban and rural areas and so I want Pro Art to start to expand into rural areas, as they are often neglected. Then youth can also see what happens in cities. In general, I have a positive outlook for youth in the country though. I work a lot with them and have noticed that they don’t need a lot and are happy – I just think that they need to choose a good profession and focus their attention on this.
How easy is it
to run creative projects in Bishkek?
I don’t see many barriers. There is a very open youth culture, young people just need to get involved in projects – once they get involved in projects they can follow their own dream. This approach has been successful at Chicken Star, a local Bishkek restaurant, where the youth are encouraged to launch their own projects after Chihoon, the owner, has trained them. This is why he is so popular, as he helps a lot of people develop through a kind of employee educational programme. People in Central Asia need an environment like Chihoon’s.
*answers have been lightly edited for readability
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Suma Chakrabarti is president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development
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’.
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?
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”.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 régime 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.