“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.
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 aitysh, akyns 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.”
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.
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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.
Almost entirely covered by the Tian Shan range, around 90% of Kyrgyz territory rests over 1500m above sea level. Nestled beneath smog-shrouded summits of the Ala Too mountains, Bishkek acts as the cultural and political hub of Central Asia’s most open democracy. With a rich nomadic culture tangled with a Soviet history, Kyrgyzstan is in a period of cultural transition as it forms a new identity going into the twenty-first century.
Each society needs its foundation myth — where issues of what should have happened are priotised over what probably happened. This is no different in Kyrgyzstan: the forty rays stemming from the sun on the Kyrgyz flag represent the forty tribes united under the epic hero Manas, who (at some point between 1000AD and 1800AD), conquered the Uighur to the east and the Afghans to the south to define the land of the Kyrgyz.
The 500,000 line Epic of Manas, which outlines this tale, has been updated and changed at various points (especially during the early twentieth century), has been used as a tool to shape and mold Krygyz national identity through collective memory.
In 1876, the land that is now Kyrgyzstan was integrated into the Russian empire. Come 1917, this warranted a direct transition into the USSR — although given the remote nature of Kyrgyzstan, Soviet control didn’t reach Bishkek until 1919. During this period — agriculture was collectivised, education was standardised, and the ethno-cultural dynamics of Kyrgyzstan fundamentally changed; in 1989, only 22% of Bishkek was ehtnically Kyrgyz.
Following the implosion of the Soviet Union, the former USSR regional powers retained control of governance — yet in 2005, the ’Tulip Revolution’ saw the overthrow of the uncontested presidency, and the instillation of a more competitive democracy. Riots — fuelled by corruption allegations — led another president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, to flee the office. In 2017, Krygyzstan saw Central Asia’s first successful competitive democratic handover of power.
Focal to Kyrgyz culture is its nomadic history. Traditional sports — typically equine based — are still popular, with national holidays often entailing various horseback sports, such as Tyin Emmei, where riders attempt to pick up a coin from the ground at full gallop. Falconry, both for sport and as a part of life — remain central to Kyrgyz culture. Moreover, the yurt (an intricate nomadic tent), remains so integral to Kyrgyz identity that a bird’s eye view of a yurt is featured on the centre of the post-independence flag; indeed, the Kygyz nomadic games team holds the world record for yurt assembly, in just over two hours (knocking almost 24 hours from the previous record).
Nowruz, the Persian new year, is celebrated each year between 21 and 23 March, with a series of musical and culinary festivities. Typical central Asian dishes, such as plov and samsas, are popular throughout Kyrgyzstan — with the southern city of Osh acting as an official culinary capital. Moreover, certain Kyrgyz-specific meals, such as Naryn (something to the effect of horsemeat with noodles) bear a notable presence. Of the Kyrgyz national beers, Arpa, is surprisingly popular amongst beer connoisseurs — notably for its hoppy pale ale characteristics (rather than being a simple larger). Cognac is also very popular in Kyrgyzstan, yet given the expensive price of imports, Nash Cognac (‘our cognac’) is distilled in Kyrgyzstan. Naturally, vodka retains a strong presence as one of many Soviet hangovers.
Some corners of Kyrgyz culture remain somewhat controversial. Although not strictly ‘traditional’, bridal kidnapping remains prevalent throughout rural Kyrgyzstan, yet given its illegality and growing unpopularity, attempts have been made to eradicate the practice.
In 2017, Kyrgyzstan became the first Central Asian country to have a successful competitive election, with the ruling Social Democratic Party candidate won just over half of the popular vote in the first round of elections, meaning that there will be a peaceful handover of power in January of next year, a notable step for a country that has had two popular revolutions since independence in 1991. Kyrgyzstan formally operates as democratic unicameral government, however, pervasive Russian influence, restrictions to free speech (such as anti-gay rights advocacy laws) and certain weaknesses in the rule of law — cause Kyrgyzstan to be considered only a ‘partly free’ country by Freedom House, with an index score of 37 (compared to three in Uzbekistan, or 78 in Senegal).
Conflicts between Uzbek and Kyrgyz ethnic groups have often flared into violence over recent years — occasionally rising to a level that threatens civil war. However, these issues have been broadly quelled over recent years.
Kyrgyzstan remains the most open of central Asian countries, with comparatively expansive journalistic freedoms, and visa-free travel to and from many other countries. However, the state tax collection base remains slim, thus squeezing public expenditure possibilities and leaving open a large informal economy.
Kyrgyzstan remains the second-poorest Central Asian nation, and despite comparatively high levels of equality, per-capita income remains low. This is largely a consequence of having lost the Soviet Union as a large export market. Moreover, it seems that most Kyrgyz people have not benefited from the transition to a market economy, indeed, many have found their standard of living to have fallen as public service quality has declined. Nonetheless, profitable Kyrgyz export industries, such as a mining and prospecting, have allowed for the inflow of foreign currency, if not foreign investment. It remains to be seen whether this capital inflow will generate many jobs.
As the largest, richest and most well-known of the Central Asian nations, Kazakhstan is often referred to as ‘land of the wanderers’.
From the icy-climate of Kazakhstan’s industrialised north to the oil-rich lowlands of the country’s western frontier, the country’s geographic diversity has been a blessing and a curse. The country’s enormous mineral wealth, despite the challenges presented by its vastness, have helped to off-set some of the pains of a post-Soviet integration into the global economy. Greater ties to the US and China have followed investment in the oil-economy.
The national flag of Kazakhstan, chosen in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was designed by Kazakh artist Shaken Niyazbekov. It depicts a golden sun shining above a golden steppe eagle in full flight. The steppe eagle is an important cultural symbol for the Kazakh people. It is a migratory species, but breeds on the central Kazakh plains. As for many nations, it represents freedom, strength and dignity. Both symbols are placed on a sky-blue background, a colour central to Ancient Turkic religious belief. On the hoist-side, a ‘koshkar-muiz’ (the horns of the ram), a traditional ornamental patter, is presented.
A short history
Between the first and eight centuries both Turkic-speaking peoples and Mongol tribes settle in modern-day Kazakhstan.
By the late fifteenth century the Kazakhs emerge as an identifiable ethnic group.
During the eighteenth century the Khans of the Three Zhuzes become a de facto Russian protectorate.
In 1917 following the October Revolution in Russia, civil war breaks out in Kazakhstan.
By 1920, Kazakhstan becomes a self-governing republic of the USSR.
Between 1954–62 around two million people, mainly ethnically Russian, settle in Kazakhstan as part of Soviet-leader Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘Virgin Lands’ project.
In 1986, thousands protest the appointment of an ethnic Russian as head of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan by Mikhail Gorbachev.
In December 1991, Kazakhstan declares independence from the USSR following the landslide presidential election of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has remained in power since.
May 2004 sees a deal signed with China over the construction of an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China.
With just under 18 million people, comprised of 131 ethnic groups, spread out over a million square miles (making Kazakhstan the largest landlocked country) — Kazakhstan understandably has a remarkably diverse cultural composition. Despite a brief interlude of state atheism under the Soviet Union — Islam has remained the dominant religion in Kazakhstan since the eight century AD. Islam, however, is one of many tenets that comprise a Kazakh cultural history rooted both in its position as a global crossroads, and the distinctly nomadic and pastoral quality of historic Kazakh life. As such, while globalised sports, such as football, are popular (the Kazakh football team came twenty-second at the 2016 Rio Olympics, narrowly beaten by Uzbekistan), traditional nomadic sports — typically equine based — remain alive in Kazakh society. One such game, Kyz kuu, (chase the girl) is an elaborate game of kiss chase on horseback.
Kazakh cuisine often reflects nomadic traditions centered around the rearing of livestock; with meat and dairy acting as the lynchpin of typical dishes. Variations on pilaf (plov) are popular in Kazakh meals, and are usually accompanied by soups and various appetisers. Fermented mare’s milk is a popular alcoholic beverage — the Central Asian Forum makes no judgement as to its taste
Kazakhstan operates as a bicameral unitary republic — with the president Nursultan Nazarbayev as the head of state. The president is required to renew their mandate through national elections every five years. Whether by charm, luck, skill or otherwise, Nazarbayev — the former Soviet première of Kazakhstan — has won each election since independence with over 90% of the vote. Nazarbayev’s Otan party currently hold a majority of seats in both houses.
As the economic powerhouse of the Central Asian region, Kazakhstan carries significantly more economic clout in the international scene than her neighbour stans. Economic growth has been driven primarily by exports of minerals and fossil fuels. However, efforts have been made post-independence to break Kazakhstan’s reliance on external demand for raw materials by diversifying their economic activity. One such effort has been the Nurly Zhol ‘path to the future’ policy, which has sought vastly increased infrastructure spending so as to foster economic rigidty in the face of changing global circumstances. Kazakhstan 2050 is an economic development project announced in the 2012 annual presidential address — it is a multifaceted programme which seeks to establish Kazakhstan amongst the world’s ’top-30’ economies by 2050, it follows on from a similar Kazakhstan 2030 scheme.
Bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and the Caspian sea, present-day Turkmenistan has been at a crossroads of world civilizations for a millennium. The city of Merv was one of the great Islamic cities, and until the fifteenth century was an important stop on the Silk Road, a trading route that connected Europe, Asia, and Africa. This region of cultural milieu was further emphasised by a history of different rulers, including Alexander the Great’s Persians, Islamic rulers, Turks, Mongols, and finally Russians in the eighteenth century. Despite figuring prominently among regions opposed to Bolshevism, Turkmenistan became a Soviet republic in 1924 and only gained independence at the break-up of the USSR in 1991. A recent history of Russian rule has meant that like other central Asian states, Russian language has remained the Lingua Franca post-independence.
Although there have been attempts to homogenise Turkmen identity since the 1930s, culture still has distinct unique clan-based characteristics, each with their own dialect and style of dress. As a nation, Turkmenistan’s most famed cultural export is its Turkmen rugs (often known as Bukhara rugs in the rest of the world). Throughout Turkmen material culture, clan differences can be observed in the styles and colours employed, most obviously in clothing, jewelry, and domestic decorations. Another distinctive manifestation of Turkmen culture are the large black sheepskin ‘Telpek’ hats often worn by men, somewhat resembling an afro hairstyle. Although the national cuisine of Turkmenistan possesses strong continuity with the rest of Central Asia, one unique element is the elevated position of melons; once the major supplier to the Soviet Union, melons are a subject of national pride, and are commemorated during the Melon Day holiday.
Despite elections taking place in 2012 and 2017, it is widely agreed that Turkmenistan is an autocratic single party presidential republic, demonstrated by current president Berdimuhamedow’s ability to win over 97% of the vote. A constitutional amendment in 2016 allows lifetime presidency. Human Rights Watch have designated Turkmenistan as ‘among the world’s most repressive and closed countries’, where the ‘president and his associates have total control over all aspects of public life’. This includes access to information, where the state controls all print and electronic media, and where journalists who attempt to publish material contrary to government sentiment are at risk of imprisonment and/or violence. Political dissidents are commonly incarcerated or forced into exile, and even in exile, there is risk of government reprisals for continued open government dissent. A supreme legislative body known as the Halk Maslahaty, comprised of up to 2,500 delegates (some of whom are elected by popular vote) is entirely made up of members of the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan, and is chaired by the president for a life term.
Extensive natural gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world, mean that since 1993 citizens have received electricity and natural gas free of charge by the government. These vast reserves also dictate the country’s international relations. A pipeline connecting China and Turkmenistan has ensured China is the nation’s most important economic partner, however plans for a trans-Caspian pipeline that would carry gas to Europe and a pipeline heading towards South Asia are demonstrating a desire to expand exports beyond Iran, Russia, and China. Despite these ambitions, and a positive balance of trade, Turkmenistan is still considered a particularly isolationist state. However, Turkmenistan remains one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and has become one of the top ten global producers of cotton in an attempt to diversify. Centralised state ownership of the economy pervades most large industries including finance and natural resources, however since Turkmenistan’s independence there has been a movement towards privatisation in trade, catering, and consumer services, and private sector ownership forms the majority in agriculture, trade, and transport.
Bordering the other four Central Asian “Stans”, Uzbekistan has a rich and colourful history of movement, conquest, and resistance. After Alexander The Great conquered the region in fourth century BC, Uzbekistan witnessed several distinct phases of external influence. Turkic nomads arrived in the sixth century AD and by the eight century Islam was introduced by the Arabs. Perhaps most famously the Mongol Empire, under Genghis Khan, consumed the region in the thirteenth century. With the steppes united, trade, communication and even diseases spread massively in the following centuries. Uzbekistan’s major cities, such as Bukhara, reaped the benefit of reinvigorated East-West trade links.
The Mongols and the Silk Road put the country firmly on the map, but it wasn’t until the early sixteenth century was invaded by the Uzbek. Under the leadership of Abdullah, the empire took in parts of Afghanistan and Persia, but soon broke down. That lack of unity left the Uzbekistani principalities at the mercy of the expanding Russian Empire in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Russian Revolution, the Uzbek fractured between Soviet supporters and the Basmachi, with the latter eventually succumbing to Stalinist policies. Collectivisation, industrialisation, and indigenisation were all pursued by the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic during the twentieth century. Soviet industry shifted from vulnerable positions in Western Russia to Uzbekistan during WWII, whilst in the post-war years a drastic drive toward mass production of cotton led to several major ecological disasters. With the collapse of Communism in 1989, Uzbekistan eventually secured its independence in 1991, after several centuries of Russian rule.
Uzbekistan is currently witnessing a momentous period economic growth. According to the World Bank, Uzbekistan’s economy is set to grow faster than any Central Asian or Eastern European nation between now and 2019. State investment in gas, gold and cotton production has created a booming export economy. The future fortunes of exports are largely tied to the performance the Chinese and Russian economies, and their general downturn has concerned Uzbekistani policy makers. Yet even with that considered, a strong small business sector has lifted large sections of the population out of poverty and into employment, a sign that the country’s economy is shifting toward a greater reliance on internal rather than external markets.
The meal is a central pillar of Uzbek culture. Tandoor baked bread (tandir) holds a sacred place at the meal, and can only be torn by hand and never thrown out. Palov (plov or pilaf) is perhaps the most famous dish in the region—and across Central Asia. Often considered to be the oldest dish in Uzbek cuisine and it is believed Alexander the Great was served palov after capturing Marakanda. Cooked in a large pot, palov is a rice based dish cooked with lamb, raisins, and entire bulbs of garlic, seasoned with turmeric, coriander, and cumin.
Music is omnipresent in Uzbek society. Whispers of the ancients can be heard in traditional recitals at funerals and commemorative ceremonies, distinct from European music in its monophonic texture. Uzbekistan boasts some incredibly influential musicians in the region. Ari Babakhanov is amongst the most famous. Known for his immense contribution to traditional Bukhara music, he also transcribed and noted down extensive amounts of Persian poetry and popular Uzbek and Tajik works. Today, Uzbekistan has a diverse music scene, with rock and rap the most popular forms.
Close friends or family of the same sex greet each other with a kiss on both cheeks. At a meal, guests are expected to take a turn as toastmaster, praising the host for welcoming them into their home. Family and community is of immense value in Uzbekistan. Communities are governed by the mahallya, a self-governing unit of neighbours and families supporting one another. Most girls marry before the age of 21, and weddings involve the entire community; hundreds of guests are typically invited.
2016 witnessed the election of a new president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan. Prior to Mirziyoyev’s election, the nation had been ruled by Islam Karimov, a deeply controversial who was consistently criticised by the international community for extensive human rights abuses in the country. For example, the United Nations has found torture to be institutionalised in the country. Press censorship remains a major issue and many western news outlets are not allowed to function in the country. However, whilst human rights abuses remain a key issue, the government has taken steps to eradicate human trafficking and cultivation of opium for export purposes.
Situated in the heart of Central Asia, the Republic of Tajikistan is bordered by Uzbekistan from the west, Kyrgyzstan from the north, China from the east, and Afghanistan from the west, which provides a politically significant location to the country. Its complex landscape is paired with a sharply continental climate, including areas with desert and subtropical climate. Ninety-five per cent of the surface is covered with mountains, the two most significant being the Pamir and the Alay Mountains, which are the sources glacier fed rivers, upon which the country’s hydropower economy is built. Tajikistan is rich in other natural resources as well, such as uranium, which allows for an influential political standpoint, a variety of precious metals, namely gold and silver. Its environmental features considerably influence the challenges Tajikistan faces, particularly frequent flooding and landslides coming from the melting glaciers due to climate change.
Tajikistan has always been at the crossroad of magnificent cultures. The Tajiks emerged as a distinct ethnic group in the eight century. At the same time, Arab invaders conquered Central Asia, introducing Islam to the region, which still has a prominent influence today. Eastern, especially Chinese cultural effects influenced the region through the trade on the Silk Road, which had three main routes crossing the current territory of Tajikistan. During the course of centuries a wide variety of cultural forces influenced the area as a result of its annexation to the Persian, the Mongol, and the Timurid Empire, before falling under Russian rule in the 1860s, and becoming part of the Soviet Union in 1921.
After more than a hundred years of Russian domination, pro-democratic protests emerged in Dushanbe, and with the fall of the USSR, Tajikistan declared independence on the 9 September in 1991. As a result of the protests, the first direct presidential elections were held. However, a year later, anti-government protests swept through the streets of Dushanbe escalating into a civil war which took 20,000 lives, and demolished the industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Subsequently, Emomali Rahmon became the new head of state, and is still serving as president to the present day.
The government actively promotes defining and defending the traditional Tajik culture. Russian-style surnames are outlawed, and even though 85% of the population is Sunni and 5% is Shia Muslim, Arabic-style beards and hijabs are banned, as they don’t reflect religiosity, and people should ‘love God with their hearts’. Women are encouraged to dress in traditional, bright coloured cotton dresses and long skirts, while men wear caps lined with black lamb skin.
The Tajik culture, with its legendary hospitality, is very family centric. Weddings were historically celebrated over the course of seven days, however this is now restricted by the government as a result of the huge expenses such festivities incur. Today, the most widely celebrated festivals are religious ones, such as the Muslim New Year, or Qurban Eid, for which entire villages get together and prepare traditional dishes, such as the ‘kabuli pulao’, which is a rice based dish with shredded yellow turnip or carrot, meat, and olive oil. The Tajik culture has different music for different occasions, but traditionally, there is a solo instrument, such as the ‘daf’, for percussions, that can be traced back to the fourteenth century, accompanied by singing. The classical national dance, which is emotions driven and energetic, is also an essential feature of celebrations.
The Tajik literature is a prominent component of the culture too. Whilst during Russian rule, literature had to comply with the official views; producing pieces about the civil war, industrialisation and collectivisation; the most well-known epic poetry originates back to long before the USSR, to the tenth century. Shahname, translated as the Book of Kings. It is the world’s longest poem created by a single poet, Firdowsī. His piece has been the inspiration for many Tajik movies made in the country’s own film studio, which was established, along with numerous theatres and museums, by the art-favouring Soviet Union. Tajik people are fond of sports as well, the most popular being football, with the national team competing in FIFA. Given the geographical conditions, hiking, climbing and skiing are favoured as well.
The state of Tajikistan is a presidential republic with a dominant party system. The head of state is Emomali Rahmon sice 1992, who has recently declared himself a Leader of the Nation. Originally, presidents are elected for a maximum of two terms, each which lasts seven years, however, Rahmon has held a referendum which allowed him to serve four consecutive terms. Elections are internationally criticised as neither fair, nor free, especially since banning the main opposition party. The president captures every opportunity to consolidate his power, which is also expressed by building a tea house worth 1% of GDP, a new city in the desert, and setting up the tallest flag pole. Moreover, independent press is restricted, along with web content.
Due to the unstable domestic politics, education and public healthcare are not sufficiently supported. Access to education is limited by individual resources, and healthcare is only present in the urban areas, pushing most people into primitive living conditions. With regards to international politics, Tajikistan is geopolitically significant. The state has co-operated both with Russia, with respect to counter-extremist and drug-trafficking measures; and the United States, in providing non-military assistance for their operations in Afghanistan. Moreover, their trade in resources with China has perked both political and economic interest in Tajikistan. Islamic extremism — especially as a result of spillover from the Afghan war, has become an increasing security threat in Tajikistan. Counter-measures, such as curtailments of cultural expression, have often been repressive, and potentially counter-productive.
Tajikistan is the poorest country in the Central Asian region. However, it has secured an exemplary track-record in alleviating poverty, having halved rates of indigence since independece. Almost half of its GDP is made up of remittances sent home from over a million Tajiks working is Russia and Kazakhstan, making Tajikistan the most remittance-dependent country in the world. Hence, the economic uncertainty of Russia poses a great threat to the Tajik economy, leading to socio-political instability, if the migrant workers have to return home.
The main economic sectors are agriculture and industry. Two-fifth of the population works in agriculture, which is mainly focused on cotton production, raising livestock, and cultivating fruits, vegetables, grains, and rice. In spite of the significant role of agriculture, food insecurity is a fierce challenge for the country, relying highly on food import. With regards to industry, light industry is centered around agricultural production; hence, textile and food-processing sectors are critical to the internal economy. Heavy industry predominantly concerns coal mining and oil extraction. The energy sector is the principal investment sector in the Tajik economy, and it has garnered increasing international attention over recent years, especially from China. Chinese investments have promoted economic development and trade in the region, largely in order to promote and maintain socioeconomic stability. One recent projects to this end is the One Road, One Belt project, which aims to reconstruct the Silk Road, and build up a trading link running from China to Europe, through Central Asia.