Central Asia is, by its most common definition, those five “stans” that were formerly Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. However, this has not always been the case and there are credible arguments for using other definitions.
Geographically, the Central Asian region is centered on a pocket of relatively flat land bordered by mountain ranges on the east and south and the Caspian Sea on the west. These loosely contained natural borders create a bowl in which weather patterns, plant and animal species, and human populations have all interacted and mixed for centuries. Thus, all five countries have come to share many similarities; for instance, all are majority Muslim, most speak Turkic languages, and many culinary staples (such as plov) are shared.
However, there is considerable diversity within the grouping. Challenges also arise in that, for simplicity, nearly all common definitions use modern political borders while the idea of Central Asia is much more centered on history, culture, and geography – concepts whose “borders” tend to flow into one another rather than starting in one place and ending in another.
Central Asia pre-1990: adding Kazakhstan
Ancient Turkic and Persian empires left lasting early impressions on Central Asia. Their varying borders often covered what is today Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were more likely to be outliers – in whole or in part. Linguistic and cultural influences spread throughout the area, but these outlying countries were able to continue traditional nomadic lifestyles well into the modern era; the others converted to (more easily ruled and taxed) settled agriculture and city life.
This split continued after the term “Central Asia” gained wide English-language usage in the mid-1800s. Then, “The Great Game,” a power struggle between Russia and Britain, centered on Russia’s desire to gain access to the Indian Ocean and Britain’s desire to maintain its dominance there and control of India itself. Russia annexed Kazakhstan very early and thus the struggle focused on lands further south. The area that became modern Kazakhstan appears on maps at that time as part of Russia, not Central Asia.
Only after Kazakhstan gained independence did the modern grouping come into use. Based on shared culture and language, it makes sense. It can also be argued geographically as Kazakhstan is on the flat northern end of the Central Asian core, whose lands flow into Siberia. Kazakhstan is geographically connected as much to one as the other.
Grand Visions: Central Asia in the vastness of Eurasia
In the vastness of Eurasia, the challenge of placing borders on human populations and cultures becomes particularly problematic. Multiple cores have influenced and interacted with each other for millennia. Countless geographic, historical, genetic, linguistic, and cultural threads overlap over thousands of miles of territory.
As Central Asia’s post-Soviet borders were taking shape, UNESCO established a non-political definition of the region based on weather patterns. That map engulfs not only the five “stans,” but also extends well into Siberia, covers all of Mongolia, half of China, and parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.
Generally, the same geographic forces (e.g. bodies of water, mountains, etc.) that govern weather also affect human migrations. Thus, much of this area shares overlapping historical threads – like Mongolian invasion routes and Silk Road transport lines. Further, much of the area is dominated by Turkic languages and Islam, including much of western China, the homeland of the Uighurs, a people that had wide influence on early Central Asian culture and whose history is tied to both China and Central Asia.
Yet, UNESCO’s map also draws in considerably more diversity, opening it to more debate. For instance, Mongolia has shared migration patterns and some cultural heritage with the more nomadic parts of Central Asia. However, it is neither Turkic-speaking nor majority-Muslim. Stretching into East Asia, Mongolia shares more cultural connections with Korea and China than does most of Central Asia. In fact, many see Mongolia as a different core altogether: one which influenced Central Asia as much as East Asia and where the influences of those regions converge.
A similar ambitious to UNESCO’s is that of Inner Asia. This map draws most of Central Asia (sometimes without Turkmenistan) into a mass that stretches from Mongolia to Nepal. This can be seen on one level as mapping the far reaches of Chinese influence. Proponents of the grouping argue it is useful in mapping areas where “settled civilization” was slow to take hold. However, this overlooks, for instance, Uzbekistan’s ancient cities and agricultural practices. It also, again, draws in populations that are not likely to see themselves as part of a single geographic or cultural unit.
Another larger concept for Central Asia is the Greater Middle East. This map, at its largest, unites a vast swath of traditionally-Muslim lands under a single label. The core of the map is centered on the Turkic and Persian empires that once ruled or greatly influenced this part of the world. It also, however, draws in diverse languages and cultures that are not likely to self-identify with a single, sweeping label. This is problematic as the Kyrgyz and Libyans, while both majority-Muslim, are otherwise quite distant from each other in geography, language, and culture.
These mega-maps are somewhat useful in exploring the far reaches of certain historical, political, or cultural influences. However, they are unwieldy in terms of trying to understand a specific area or population in any practical sense.
More Common Additions to the Central Asian Map
Most commonly used additions to Central Asia are much smaller and hold closer to the core.
Afghanistan is the most common addition. Geographically, this includes much more of the mountain range that engulfs Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and which helps form the tangible borders of the core. Historically, human migrations from Central Asia have flowed into Afghanistan since about 2000 BCE. Afghanistan was also within the borders of many Turkic and Persian empires, was a central foci for the Great Game, and was heavily influenced, though not directly ruled, by the Soviets. Thus, it has much in common with the other five “stans.”
The inclusion also makes Tajikistan less of an outlier. Tajikistan and Afghanistan are majority-Muslim, but speak forms of Persian, rather than Turkic. Given close links between Tajik and Afghan cultures and histories, there are arguments to include both if one is included. That said, those that do usually refer to the grouping as “Central Asia and Afghanistan,” acknowledging that a change has been made to the commonly-accepted definition.
Another common addition creates “Central Asia and the Caucasus.” Across the Caspian Sea from Central Asian, the countries of Caucasus Mountains share Turkic, Persian, and Soviet influences. Central Asia and the Caucasus both continue to be heavily influenced by Russia. Azerbaijan, specifically, is majority-Muslim, speaks Turkic, and forms a sort bridge between Turkey and the Central Asian states its ancient empires influenced. However, the other two Caucasus states, Armenia and Georgia, are historically-Christian states. Further, their languages are neither Turkic nor Persian and their identities are decidedly separate from those of the Central Asian core. This makes directly combining the two groups difficult.
Thus, while some similar threads can be found in terms of history and modern diplomacy, Central Asia and the Caucasus are usually considered separate entities, even when they are considered as part of the same study.
Conclusion: Understanding Central Asia
The partially-enclosed geography shared by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan has led to a shared history and shared cultural elements. Further, the geographic proximity of the peoples there has allowed practical and visible cultural, economic, and political ties to develop. These encourage the residents of Central Asia to see themselves as part of an integrated unit – even when the diversity within that unit causes misunderstandings or rivalries.
The influences that helped form Central Asia are still very much in evidence. For instance, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, often outside the boundaries of empires, have typically shared a certain “brotherhood” in their traditions and similar languages. Further, the traditionally nomadic Kyrgyz have a long-standing rivalry with the more settled Uzbeks. Today, this feud centers on territorial claims and water rights and has extended to cultural and ethnic rivalry as well.
The relatively compact geography of the Central Asian core also creates a shared geopolitical reality. The core is situated between Russia and China, two powerful and often-rivalrous countries, as well as the ambitious but more regional powers of Turkey, Iran, and India. These civilizations have long influenced Central Asia. Their continued influence presents modern challenges and opportunities for investments while balancing perceived threats to their cultural, political, and territorial sovereignties.
Central Asia’s position near the center of the world’s largest land mass also creates shared developmental challenges. It is deeply landlocked a great distance from lucrative and efficient sea routes. Thus, even those Central Asian states endowed with significant agricultural capacity or mineral wealth have struggled to get their product to market and remain competitive with non-landlocked states. For these countries, developing transportation routes and other infrastructure is key; most of the powers seeking influence there have, in fact, directly contributed to local infrastructure in some way. This is especially true of China’s massive Silk Road Initiative.
In 2017, Central Asia has also been the site of rapid change. Kyrgyz politics, traditionally marked by instability and revolution, have settled into institutions – which may be heading for either democratic development or dominant-party rule. Accusations of Kazakh political meddling in the 2017 Kyrgyz presidential race have deteriorated relations between the two “brother” nations. Meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s new president has led a thaw in Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations and pushed reforms that may open Uzbekistan to more international investment and influence. Lastly, falling energy prices have forced Turkmenistan’s strong rulers to reconsider both the populist programs and grandiose monuments that they have traditionally funded from the country’s rich natural gas deposits.
In short, the core of Central Asia has become an agreed-upon standard because it makes logical sense in terms of history, culture, and geography. It also corresponds with the lives and identities of those that live there. At the same time, one cannot fully understand Central Asia without understanding that its history, culture, and geography spills over the current political borders. To understand Central Asia, one must understand the much wider influences that have affected and continue to affect local economies, cultures, and geopolitics.