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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The natural and unnatural wonders of Central Asia

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

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

Pamir Mountains (Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan)

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

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

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

Gates of Hell (Turkmenistan)

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

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

Aral Sea (Kazakstan and Uzbekistan)

The famous ‘dis­ap­pear­ing lake’ act.

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

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

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

Fedchenko Glacier (Tajikistan)

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

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

Sharyn Canyon (Kazakstan)

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

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

Chuy Valley (Kazakhstan)

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

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

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

Fact File: Kyrgyzstan

Name КыргызстанQırğızs­tan
Pop­u­la­tion 6,019,480 (2016)
Cap­i­tal city Bishkek
Offi­cial language Kyr­gyz (offi­cial), Russian
Reli­gions Islam (80%), Russ­ian (17%), oth­er (3%)
Life expectan­cy 67.2 (men), 75.1 (women)
GDP $7.061 bil­lion (2017)
HDI 0.655 (120th)
Gini 27.4
Pres­i­dent Sooron­bay Jeen­bekov (incom­ing)

 

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.

A track leads to Issyk-Kul, a Kyr­gyz land­mark and endorhe­ic lake, which sits beneath the Tian Shan moun­tain range.

History

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.

Bishkek’s pala­tial state-run bus ter­mi­nal lies most­ly unused now that enter­pris­ing mini­cab oper­a­tors have out-priced inter­ci­ty buses.

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.

Culture

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).

A hunter takes a mid­day break in the high­lands above Issyk-Kul with his horse, hound and eagle.

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.

Politics

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.

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.

Rice fields near the vil­lage of Choyunchu, Leilek Dis­trict, Kyr­gyzs­tan. Agri­cul­ture remains a back­bone of the Kyr­gyz economy.

Fact File: Kazakhstan

Name Қазақстан Республикасы
Pop­u­la­tion 17,987,736 (2016 estimate)
Cap­i­tal city Astana (moved from Almaty in 1997)
Offi­cial language Kaza­kh (offi­cial), Russian
Reli­gions Islam (70%), Chris­tian­i­ty (26%), other
Life expectan­cy 62 (men), 73 (women)
GDP 133.7 bil­lion USD ‎(2016) (42nd)
HDI 0.788 (56th)
Gini 26.4
Pres­i­dent Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev

 

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 Mau­soleum of Kho­ja Ahmed Yasawi in Hazrat‑e Turkestan, one of only three UNESCO World Her­itage sites in Cen­tral Asia.

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.

Culture

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.

Rid­ers play the tra­di­tion­al Kaza­kh game of ‘Catch the Girl’ in a demon­stra­tion of their eques­tri­an her­itage at the open­ing cer­e­monies of Cen­tral Asian Peace­keep­ing Bat­tal­ion, 2000.

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

Politics

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.

For near­ly two decades of his twen­ty-six year tenure, Nur­sul­tan Nazarbayev’s (cen­tre) Russ­ian coun­ter­part has been Vladimir Putin.

Economy

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.

Min­ing and steel pro­duc­tion remain impor­tant in Kaza­khstan, and are dom­i­nat­ed by Arcelor­Mit­tal — a com­pa­ny with strong British ties.

Fact File: Turkmenistan

Name Түркменистан
Pop­u­la­tion 5,662,544
Cap­i­tal city Ash­ga­bat
Offi­cial language Turk­men (offi­cial), Russian
Reli­gions Islam (89%), East­ern Ortho­dox (9%), other
Life expectan­cy 65.74 years
Pop­u­la­tion growth 1.7%
GDP $36.18 bil­lion (2016)
HDI 0.692 (2015) (111th)
Gini 0.41
Pres­i­dent Gur­ban­gu­ly Berdimuhamedow

The ‘Doors to Hell’ — a col­lapsed Sovi­et oil rig — has been burn­ing for over 40 years, far longer than the antic­i­pat­ed few weeks.

History

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.

Culture

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.

A woman dis­plays a series of intri­cate car­pets at a mar­ket in Balka­n­abatt. Car­pet weav­ing forms such an impor­tant part of Turk­men cul­ture, that car­pet design is even fea­tured on the nation­al flag.

Politics

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.

A giant gold­en stat­ue to Turk­menistan’s first pres­i­dent — Saparmu­rat Niya­zov — stands over­look­ing Ashgabat.

Economy

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.

Fact File: Uzbekistan

NameOʻzbek­iston Respublikasi
Pop­u­la­tion32,979,000 (2017 estimate)
Cap­i­tal cityTashkent
Offi­cial languageUzbek (offi­cial), Russ­ian, Tajik
Reli­gionsIslam (88%), East­ern Ortho­dox (9%), other
Life expectan­cy68.45 years
Pop­u­la­tion growth 1.7%
GDP $67.22 bil­lion (2016)
HDI 0.701 (105th)
Gini 0.45
Pres­i­dent Shavkat Mirziyoyev

History

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.

Art­work on the rooftop of the Tilla Kari madrasa in Samarkand, Uzbek­istan. Pho­to by Patrick Riggenberg.

Economy

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.

Food

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.

Pilaf (plov) is a pop­u­lar dish through­out Uzbek­istan and the Cen­tral Asia region. Pho­to Jar­da Pulao.

Music

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.

Customs

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.

Politics

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.

Fact File: Tajikistan

Name Repub­lic of Tajikistan
Pop­u­la­tion 8,734,951
Cap­i­tal city Dushanbe
Offi­cial language Tajik, but Russ­ian is wide­ly used in the gov­ern­men­tal and busi­ness sphere
Reli­gions Sun­ni Mus­lim (85%), Shia Mus­lim (5%), oth­er (10%)
Life expectan­cy 69.7 Years
Pop­u­la­tion growth 1.62%
GDP $6.9 bil­lion
HDI 0.627 (129th)
GINI 30.8 (133rd)
Pres­i­dent Emo­ma­li Rahmon

Geography

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.

The Pamir Moun­tains, viewed from the Pamir High­way, Tajikistan.

History

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.

Culture

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.

An ear­ly colour pho­to­graph by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky shows Tajik boys and men, prob­a­bly around 1910.

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.

Politics

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.

Economy

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.