Ethnic Nationalism: a barrier for Central Asian cooperation

Bianca Cristina Pârvu

The Central Asian region, which includes Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, incorporates in its structure a large number of different ethnic groups scattered throughout the territory. Due to the area’s long history of tribalism, changing geopolitical influences, border demarcation woes and competition among local groups, Central Asia’s development was consistently slowed down by a lack of intra-regional cooperation, accentuated in 1991 by the newly independent states’ search for an identity. The essential factor standing at the basis of a reluctance for regional cooperation is the omnipresence of nationalism and ethnic tensions.

For one, Central Asia’s modern regional architecture was highly influenced by its Russian neighbour. Under Czarist power, in the 19th century, Central Asia was divided in two main areas: Turkestan (Governor-General of Turkestan) and Steppeoblasti[1], which was dominated by tribalism. Later on during Soviet regime[2], borders were retraced in 1936 for new divisions – Khiva, Bukhara and Kokand.

Joseph Stalin’s politics had an important role in the formation of the identity of  present day nation-states – the first administrative units appeared, where ethnic groups were given hierarchical preferential positions in each state according to their historical dominant areas of activity. Moreover, belonging to an ethnic group entailed different policies on cultural and territorial issues while increasing the overall regional complexity.[3] As a result, the nationalist sentiment started to develop in Central Asia, while simultaneously impacting negatively the relations between the different ethnicities.

The impact was sensitive and intricate in nature- tensions thrived both internally, as tribes were disputing the new areas of influence, as well as regionally, between the newly contoured areas.

After the fall of the USSR and the official emergence of newly independent Central Asian states, the beforementioned effects deepened, the struggles resulting in political instability, border demarcation conflicts, regional competition.[4] For example, in the case of Tajikistan, the internal tribal fights for dominance under the new framework led to a war whose effects are still present.


At a regional level, the Pan-Turkic doctrine was not strong enough to influence Central Asia, just like Eurasianism which did not fully expand into the region, supported only by Kazakhstan.[5]

In contrast to these doctrines, Nationalist impetus were adopted from the beginning by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Eventually, ethnic nationalism was adopted by all five republics to distinguish their own ethnic group from the minorities in the area, based on official language laws, historical reinterpretations, the creation of myths that reflect the cult of the personality of political leaders and many more.[6]

Unlike in the Soviet period, ethnic nationalism after 1991 was a reaction from inside the states rather than an imposed stance from outside. Also, it determined both the feeling of belonging to a dominant ethnic group, and the exclusion of minorities. Moreover, ethnic nationalism was the evidence that Soviet practices were still present and manifested through the suppression of the rights and freedoms of both institutions and citizens, and through non-democratic elections.

Ethnic nationalism can be considered to be directed towards both externals (mainly Russians and Chinese) and towards internals (citizens of the country) alike. Different practices determine what kind of restrictions will most likely be applied.

Effects of ethnic nationalism directed externally

Nowadays, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan could be considered as the most authoritarian states, having eliminated political opposition and created state-controlled opposition parties.[7] According to Freedom in the World 2017, Kazakhstan[8], Kyrgyzstan[9] and Tajikistan[10] are not completely free-states, and the only republic closer to the principle of freedom is Kyrgyzstan. An example in this regard is Kazakhstan, which refused to offer dual citizenship to the Russians on its territory while the diaspora Kazakhs enjoy this privilege. Another example is the requirement to know Uzbek, which is the official language, decided by law, and which is a major impediment for ethnic Russians and Tajiks in getting jobs.[11]

Effects of ethnic nationalism directed internally

Modern realities were marked by economic and social inequalities based on close cooperation between political elites and groups of influence. Central Asia was a region traditionally made out of tribes. As a consequence, the political elites, initially high-ranking members of an influential tribe (zhuz) whose resources helped them get in power, maintained the ties, and often gave special preference to their group of origin once settled in their positions. For instance, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov was a member of the Samarkand group, who supported his political endeavours. During his presidency, Karimov also supported the tribe by limiting the influence of other tribes in the government or his decisions, such as Fergana, Bukhara, Khwarazm and Surkash. The same scenario repeated in Kyrgyzstan, where President Askar Akayev was supported by the Sary-Bagysh clan of the Karaka Valley, which led to the marginalization of the southern groups. As we already mentioned, these practices resulted in a civil war in Tajikistan between the Khudjant, Kuliab, Badakhshan and Gissar regional tribes as tensions grew after the country gained independence.

One of the strategies adopted by the new states to mitigate the effects of ethnic tensions was to encourage the formation of a new national identity based on common traditions.


To sum up, the ethnic nationalism encouraged during Soviet time to diminish tribalism and ease control, along with the competition for influence between Central Asian states, had negative consequences from an ethnic, religious, social and political point of view which persist and affect the level of trust between regional players.

To address this on the long term, political decision-makers need to be aware of the effect of current problems on the regional stability and sustainability of development projects where cooperation is mandatory to solve common issues.


[1] De Paul Georg Geiss, Pre-tsarist and Tsarist Central Asia: Communal Commitment and Political Order in Change,Routledge, 2004, p.155.

[2] Uriintuya Batsaikhan și Marek  Dabrowski, Central Asia at 25,  Policy contribution, 2017, p.3

[3] Robert L. Canfield și Gabriele Rasuly-Paleczek, Ethnicity, Authority, and Power in Central Asia, New Games Great and Small, p.86- 99.

[4] Uriintuya Batsaikhan și Marek  Dabrowski, Central Asia at 25,  Policy contribution, 2017, p.11.

[5] Marlène Laruelle, Russia’s Central Asia Policy Russia’s Central Asia Policy and the Role of Russian Nationalism, SILK ROAD PAPER SILK ROAD PAPER April 2008, p. 56-57.

[6] YILMAZ BINGOL, Nationalism and Democracy in Post-Communist Central Asia, Asian Ethnicity, Kocaeli University, Volume 5, Number 1, February 2004, p. 44.

[7] idem, pp. 47-52.

[8] Freedom in the World 2017, Kazahstan, .

[9] Freedom in the World 2017, Kyrgyzstan, .

[10] Freedom in the World 2017, Tajikistan, .

[11] YILMAZ BINGOL, Nationalism and Democracy in Post-Communist Central Asia, Asian Ethnicity, Kocaeli University, Volume 5, Number 1, February 2004, pp.53-56.

Published by Chamber of Commerce and Industry Romania-Turkmenistan

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry Romania-Turkmenistan (CCIRom-Tkm) is a non-governmental organization of public utility, autonomous and apolitical, founded in 2009 to promote the economic cooperation between Romania, Turkmenistan and other countries in the Central Asian region.

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