Central Asia

Xinjiang, China: Ethnicity and Economic Development

China GDP by Prefecture MapAn impressive map of China’s per capita GDP by prefecture, reposted here, appeared in late 2012 on the website Skyscraper City, posted by user “Chrissib” Cicerone.  According to the map, the two poorest parts of China are in southern Gansu province, an area demographically dominated by Han Chinese, and in southwestern Xinjiang, an area demographically dominated by Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking, Sunni Muslim people.

As noted in the previous GeoNote, the level of economic development in Xinjiang as a whole is slightly lower than the Chinese average, as measured by per capita GDP. But as Chrissib’s map shows, Xinjiang shows striking disparities in its own regional economic patterns. As a comparison of a detail of his map with a Wikipedia map of ethnicity in Xinjiang shows, areas dominated by Han Chinese have much higher levels of economic productivity than those dominated by Uighurs. Also essential to note is the fact that the Han Chinese domination of eastern Xinjiang largely stems from relatively recent immigration to the region, a process much resented by Uighur activists.

Xinjiang GDP and Ethnicity mapChina is currently seeking to enhance the economic development of Xinjiang, along with the country’s other western regions. But as Preeti Bhattacharji explains in a recent article published by the Council on Foreign Relations, the project faces a number of ethnic issues:

Xinjiang’s wealth hinges on its vast mineral and oil deposits. In the early 1990s, Beijing decided to spur Xinjiang’s growth by creating special economic zones, subsidizing local cotton farmers, and overhauling its tax system. In August 1991, the Xinjiang government launched the Tarim Basin Project to increase agricultural output. During this period, Beijing invested in the region’s infrastructure, building massive projects like the Tarim Desert Highway and a rail link to western Xinjiang. In a 2000 article for the China Journal, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch said these projects were designed to literally “bind Xinjiang more closely to the rest of the PRC.”


Ethnic tension is fanned by economic disparity: not only are the Han-dominated areas more productive, but the Han individuals tend to be wealthier than the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Some experts say the wage gap is the result of discriminatory hiring practices. The CECC reported in 2006 that the XPCC [Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps] reserved approximately 800 of 840 civil servant job openings for Han. This policy was changed in 2011, however, and the XPCC “left almost all positions unreserved by ethnicity.” But the 2011 CECC says both government and private sectors had discriminatory hiring practices against the Uighurs and also denied them religious rights such as observing Ramadan and allowing Muslim men to wear beards and women to wear veils.


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Zoï’s Fantastic Central Asia Water Map, and Turkmenistan’s Geo-Engineering Projects

Aral Sea Water MapThe Geneva-based Zoï Environment Network has created some detailed and well-designed environmental maps. Available through flickr photostream along with many other images, the maps are not very well catalogued. Regardless of such organizational problems, the site is well worth exploring. The map that I have posted here, moreover, is the best presentation of the Central Asia’s water crisis that I have seen.

Note on the map how the Amu Darya no longer reaches the Aral Sea, which as a result has largely turned into a dry salt-flat. As can be seen as well, the much-diminished Syr Darya still does reach the Northern Aral Sea. Kazakhstan has recently built a series of dikes to keep water from flowing out of this restricted northern lake onto the dry southern lake-bed, thereby keeping the water level high enough and the salt content low enough to allow fish to survive and indeed to thrive. The so-called Aral Sea is thus not entirely dead, although the vast bulk of it is.

Other interesting developments are also evident on the map. Note, for example, the label “Golden Age Lake (under construction)” in northern Turkmenistan.

According to the Wikipedia:

Golden Age Lake known as Altyn Asyr locally, is the name of a man made lake under construction in the Kara Kum Desert of Turkmenistan.  Upon completion, the lake will span 770 square miles (2,000 km2) with a maximum depth of 230 feet (70 m), and hold more than 130 cubic kilometers (4600 billion cubic feet) of water. Filling the lake could take 15 years and cost up to $4.5 billion. According to government plans, it is intended to be filled by a 2,650-kilometer (1,650 mi) network of tributary canals.

However critics point out that much of the water pumped into the searing desert will evaporate, adding that it is likely to be contaminated with toxic pesticides and fertilisers. It is also feared that Turkmenistan may seek to siphon water from the Amu Darya river, which runs along the country’s northern border with Uzbekistan. That could trigger a dispute between the two countries and inflict further damage of the environment.

Although Turkmenistan claims that the lake will provide wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits, any such gains will likely be short-lived. This “lake” is perhaps most accurately described as a waste-water sump. Irrigated lands in desert environments must be over-watered and then drained in order to prevent the accumulation of salt in the soil. The resulting drainage sumps can initially provide fine wildlife habitat, but the salt content will gradually increase, eventually eliminating most life. California’s Salton Sea is a prime example of such a process. Tellingly, The Guardian referred to the construction of Turkmenistan’s Golden Age Lake as “a logic-defying feat that might have appealed to Stalin.”

Note also that some of the drainage water from the agricultural lands of the lower Any Darya Valley ends up in Sarygamysh, a large, undrained lake that fluctuates significantly in area. Last summer, Turkmenistan announced another quixotic project in this area. As reported by TerraDaily:

Turkmenistan is allocating tens of millions of dollars to plant trees in a region neighbouring the stricken Aral Sea, state newspaper Neutral Turkmenistan said Tuesday. “A project has been developed to target environmental problems in the Aral Sea zone, which entails planting greenery over 20,000 hectares on the eastern bank of the Sarygamysh lake,” the newspaper said.

Considering the harsh environmental circumstances in the area, it is questionable whether this artificial forest will survive.  Unfortunately, information on the project, and on the lake more generally, is difficult to find.

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Russian Military Bases and Other Geopolitical Maneuverings in Tajikistan

After much wrangling, Tajikistan and Russia recently agreed to a 49-year extension of Russia’s military base in the strategically situated Central Asian country. The roughly 6,000 Russian troops stationed in the country, constituting Moscow’s largest foreign deployment, will thus remain in place. As Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin framed the issue, “The forces of NATO in Afghanistan are not eternal but Russia will be an eternal partner of these countries and if, God forbid, the situation deteriorates for security and the people of the countries, they will remember Russia.” Tajikistan recently rebuffed efforts by the United States to negotiate for military bases of its own; the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw from its Manas Transit Center in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2014, and is keen to maintain military logistical facilities near embattled Afghanistan.

Although the U.S. was turned down, India has been allowed to upgrade its own military facility in Tajikistan, Farkhor Air Base, located adjacent to the Afghan border. India’s strategic relations with Tajikistan are apparently deepening; in early July, as noted in eurasiareview, “Indian External Affairs Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna flew … to Tajikistan for a two days visit planned to discuss bilateral issues such as trade, energy and counter-terrorism.” Although most analysts frame India’s efforts in Tajikistan in the context of Afghanistan, others claim that New Delhi is actually seeking to “encircle China.” Not surprisingly, China is also courting Tajikistan. According to a recent Daily Times (of Pakistan) article:

Beijing [is] to extend $1 billion to Dushanbe in grants and credits. Some $600 million dollars alone would go towards building a cement factory in the south of Tajikistan. “Relations with China have the position of priority in Tajikistan’s foreign policy,” [Tajik President Emomali] Rakhmon told Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Tajikistan is also reaching out to other nearby countries on issues of economic and strategic cooperation. Azerbaijan recently announced that it would invest in oil-refining facilities in the country, and the Tajik government is currently negotiating with Kyrgyzstan to build a “rail link connecting Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.”

Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet countries, and it relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. It is also known for its harsh and often repressive internal policies. Amnesty International recently condemned the “routine use of torture and beatings at detention facilities in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan,” which are said to entail “electric shocks, boiling water, suffocation, beatings, burning with cigarettes, rape and threats of rape.” Tajikistan has also stepped up its restrictions on information access, seeking to create “a volunteer-run body to monitor Internet usage and reprimand those who openly criticize President Emomali Rakhmon.” On the other hand, the Dushanbe government does claim that it will loosen its strict anti-libel laws, which have been widely used to repress journalism.

On the lighter side, the international athletic community was recently surprised by Tajikistan’s announcement that it would be sending a female boxer to compete at the London Olympics. Reportedly, Mavzuna Choriyeva, age 19, is “on a mission not only to win but to smash gender stereotypes in the religiously conservative ex-Soviet state.”


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The South Korean Push into Central Asia

The governments of Kazakhstan and South Korea signed an investment deal this week worth US$ 7 billion, focused on petrochemicals, electric power generation, machine building, and construction. South Korea is now the top investor in Kazakhstan’s state-led industrial development program.


South Korean investment in Central Asia has been growing for some time. In the summer of 2011, South Korean president Lee Myunb-bak undertook a tour of Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. In Ulan Bator, he signed a “memorandum of understanding” with the Mongolian government focused on Korean participation in mining, the development of the electricity sector, and the building of infrastructure. In Uzbekistan, he made economic deals valued at $4.2 billion, centered on the development of the Surgil natural gas field near the remnants of the Aral Sea. It was also agreed that South Korea would transfer information technology to Uzbekistan and help modernize its stock exchange system. In Kazakhstan, Lee signed deals for South Korean firms to construct two power plants in the city of Balkhash, which will eventually supply more than 7 per cent of Kazakhstan’s electricity, and build a major petro-chemical complex near the Caspian Sea.

Kazakhstan’s government foresees deepening economic ties with South Korea. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has long regarded South Korea as a model for economic development. In the early 1990s, a South Korean economist, Chan Young Bang, drafted the original design for Kazakhstan’s economic privatization program. In 2011, Kazakhstan’s Deputy Prime Minister Asset Issekeshev reportedly commented that, “After signing the agreements, South Korea will become number one investor in Kazakhstan within the process of industrialization of the country.”

Critics contend that South Korea’s growing economic ties with Central Asia have some troubling political complications. South Korea recently deported several Uzbek refugees, even though it is suspected that they will be subjected to torture in Uzbekistan. According to U.S. embassy cables made public by WikiLeaks, Uzbekistan and South Korea agreed in 2006 to root out illegal Uzbek laborers in South Korea. Several thousands of workers from Uzbekistan are still believed to live in South Korea, but the number had been significantly larger in the early 2000s.

South Korean economic ties with both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are facilitated by the large numbers of ethnic Koreans living in those countries. As many as 200,000 Koryo-sarams—as ethnic Korean living in Central Asia are called—reside in Uzbekistan, with another 100,000 living in Kazakhstan. The Koryo-saram are the descendents of Koreans who were deported by the Soviet Union from the Russian Far East to Central Asia in the 1930s. The deportations were brutal, resulting in an estimated 40,000 deaths. Eventually, however, many of the ethnic Koreans in the region acquired high levels of education and reached positions of economic responsibility.

By 1989, the majority of the ethnic Koreans in Central Asia considered Russian to be their first language. Many members of the community, however, are trilingual to some extent, speaking Russian and Korean in addition to either Uzbek or Kazakh. Such widespread linguistic capabilities help smooth the progress of South Korean firms investing in Central Asia.


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Turkmenistan’s Renewed Personality Cult

The death of Turkmenistan’s president Saparmurat Niyazov in 2007 was widely viewed as a boon for his country but a loss for comedians worldwide. Niyazov, or “Turkmenbashi” (Leader of the Turkmens) had constructed a personality cult so lavish that it verged on self-parody. He put up a massive gold-plated statute of himself in Ashgabat that rotated 360 degrees during the course of the day so that it would always face the sun, and he renamed the months and the days of the week after his heroes, his family members, and himself (thus January became “Türkmenbaşy”). All students in the country were required to study Niyazov’s book, the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul), in great depth. Lack of familiarity with its contents could cause someone to lose his or her job.

When Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov assumed the presidency on Niyazov’s death, many observers thought Turkmenistan would become a more normal country. The signs were encouraging at first; statues came down, the names of the months were restored, and shuttered schools and hospitals were reopened. But over the past few years, Turkmenistan has returned to its old ways. In the presidential election of February 12, 2012, Berdymukhammedov, a former professor of dentistry, received 97 percent of the vote, an impossibly large margin in a truly democratic election. He is also busily constructing his own personality cult. He is now officially called “Arkadag” (the Protector), and he is supposedly writing his own spiritual guide for the nation, to be called either Turkmennama (Book for Turkmens) or Adamnama (Book for Humanity). Villages, streets, and buildings are being renamed for his relatives, and a more specific cult is being developed around the his favorite horse breed, the Akhal-Teke.  Although the breed is noted for its toughness, it also suffers from a large array of genetic abnormalities.



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Hazara Exodus from Quetta

A recent UN report indicates that the Hazara people of Quetta Pakistan are living in such terror that the entire community may abandon the country. The Hazaras, Persian-speaking, Shiite group reputed to have Mongolian ancestry, are concentrated in central Afghanistan, but 6,000 to 7,000 live in Pakistan. As more than 600 have been killed since 2000, Hazara leaders in Pakistan claim that the community is facing a genocidal situation. Sunni extremists target Hazaras largely because of their faith, although their ethnic identity also is also said to play a role.

In recent years, many Pakistani Hazaras have attempted to flee to Australia.  Fifty-five perished last December, however, when the boat carrying them capsized in Indonesian waters.

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The Defeat of Anti-Bride-Abduction Legislation in Kyrgyzstan

Bride Kidnapping Kyrgyzstan Film Poster

Bride Kidnapping Kyrgyzstan Film PosterThe forcible abduction of women for the purpose of marriage has long been common in Kyrgyzstan. According to a recent Eurasia.net article, almost half of all wives in some provincial towns were “non-consensually kidnapped.” The practice is illegal in Kyrgyzstan and violates Islamic law, but many local Muslim clerics are willing to legitimize such unions. A bill in the Kyrgyz parliament designed to eliminate the practice recently went down to defeat, in part because many legislators remained absent. The bill reportedly failed to gain widespread support because male members of parliament feared that it would also be used to crack down on polygamy. Polygamy is also illegal in Kyrgyzstan, but it is increasingly common among the wealthier members of the society.

According to the Eurasia.net article, clerics usually bless such “marriages by abduction” after the kidnapped women agree to it, but such “agreement” often follows rape and other acts of violence and coercion.

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The Complex and Contentious Issue of Afghan Identity

Nigel Allan's Map of Babur's Use of the Term "Afghanistan"“Afghanistan” is an oddly constructed place name. It is usually said to be a Persian word meaning “land of the Pashtuns.” The widely used suffix “stan” is Persian for “place of” or “land of,” cognate with the English “stead” (as in “homestead”) and ultimately with “stand.” “Afghan” is usually considered synonymous with “Pashtun.” From the Pashtun perspective, “Afghanistan” is an exonym, a geographical term of foreign origin. For Pashto-speakers to call their country “Afghanistan” would be a bit like Germans calling their country not Deutschland but Germany, or the Japanese calling theirs Japan instead of Nihon or Nippon. But Pashtun-speakers in Afghanistan, unlike German speakers in Germany, do not form the majority linguistic community. In Persian (or Dari), the country’s most widely used language, “Afghanistan” is native term, but one that refers to a different people and to some extant a different place. (In Pashto, the official name of the state is Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jomhoriyat, translated into English as “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”; in Persian it is Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Afġānistān.)

The identification of “Afghan” with “Pashtun,” however, turns out to be a knotty issue. Geographer Nigel J. R. Allan of the University of Nevada at Reno has examined this subject in detail. The earliest use of “Afghanistan” that he has found is in the Baburnama of the early 1500s, the autobiographical story of Babur’s creation of the Mughul Dynasty of northern India. In this account, “Afghanistan” denotes a limited area south of Peshawar in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Subsequently, “Afghan” came to denote a handful of Pakhtun/Pashtun tribes living in and around the Vale of Peshawar. The designation was gradually generalized to cover all Pashtun people, but the idea lingers that the “real Afghans” are still those of Peshawar, arguably the most important Pashtun city (although the multi-ethnic metropolis of Karachi now has the largest Pashtun population). With the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, “Afghan” was extended to cover all residents of the country, regardless of their language or ethnicity. Allan associates this usage with 19th century British imperial agents. As a place name, “Afghanistan” is thus both exonymic and geographically displaced, having originally denoted an area outside of the borders of the modern country of that name.

To be sure, Allan’s narrative would be challenged by a few Afghan nationalists, who see earlier versions of “Afghan” in historical place names such as “Abgan.” A few have gone so far as claim a geo-historical essence for the Afghans and their country. In 1969, Abdul Hai Habibi argued that, “The word Afghan … represents an indivisible unit under all historical, economic and social conditions in the heart of Asia … with a historical background of one thousand and seven hundred years.” Yet, as usually the case, such an insistently nationalistic interpretation twists the past in accordance with modern-day dreams of national unity. The result leans more toward wishful thinking than scholarly analysis.

Allan’s finds similar complexities with other ethnic designations used in Afghanistan. Most texts and maps divide the country into roughly a dozen ethnicities. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The ethnic groups of the country are as follow: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri and some others.” The term “some others” indicates uncertainty, which is indeed warranted. Following the Ethnologue and Erwin Orywal, Allan discerns forty-five languages and fifty-five ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Several conventional groups turn out to be composite units composed of distinct peoples speaking separate languages; “Nuristani,” for example, encompasses five languages. “Tajik” is an especially a fraught category. It too is foreign, derived from the Turco-Mongol term for “non-Turk.” Although it has long been used by Persian speakers for self-designation, “Tajik” retained pejorative connotations until recent decades. The institutionalization of the term has been linked to the Soviet manipulation of ethnic categories in Central Asia. As Allan shows, most of the current ethnic designations of Afghanistan were imposed by outsiders on the basis of limited knowledge. The resulting scheme ignored the indigenous concept of manteqa, used to divide most of Afghanistan into ethno-geographical units. As the Wikipedia puts it, “In Afghanistan, the Tajiks … refer to themselves by the region, province, city, town, or village they are from; such as Badakhshi, Baghlani, Mazari, Panjsheri, Kabuli, Herati, Kohistani.”

            As a term of self-designation, “Pashtun” stands on stronger grounds than “Tajik. “Pashtun identity tends to be pronounced, and is often a source of considerable pride. But the mere fact that this ethnic group spans the border challenges the national formations of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan also signals a claim to Pashtun territory by way of the word “Afghan.” The “A” in “Pakistan”—an acronymic country-name—refers to “Afghania,” just as the “P” refers to Punjab, the “K” to Kashmir, and the “S” to Sindh.

Map showing different definitions of the term "Pashtunistan"The Pashtun people themselves have on occasions hoped to break out of this geopolitical bind, proclaiming their own separate nationality and agitating for the creation of a new state. The proposed boundaries of an independent Pashtunistan, however, vary significantly, as can be seen in the maps posted to the left. In one version, Pashtunistan would be limited to the Pashto-speaking areas of both countries; in another it would add Pakistani Balochistan and a few other areas; in another it would encompass all of Afghanistan as well as the western half of Pakistan; and in yet another it would include only the western half of Pakistan. Although the idea of Pashtunistan is often considered dead, some maintain that the fear of its revival pushes policy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. As stated recently in the anti-militarist World War Four Report, “Kabul and Islamabad both feel the need to appease Pashtun tribal leaders, fearing the specter of an independent ‘Pashtunistan’—which would take a critical chunk of both states’ territory, and widen the war yet further…”

As a final note, it has long seemed odd to me that Afghanistan is usually portrayed in the U.S. media as a Pashtun-dominated country, even though most of its residents belong to other ethnic groups, and even though Persian is more widespread and more prestigious than Pashto. Nigel Allan links this habit to U.S. diplomatic and military maneuvering in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost all American developmental projects in Afghanistan focused on Pashtun areas. In the 1980s, the U.S. military embraced a “southern strategy” based on alliances with Pashtun militias aimed at expelling Soviet forces from the country. This Pashtun focus, Allan argues, stemmed in part from the British imperial designation of the Pashtun people as one of South Asia’s “martial races.” Whether the U.S. reliance on such Pashtun leaders as Hamid Karzai has been an effective strategy is a different matter altogether.

For more information, see Nigel J. R. Allan, “Defining Place and People in Afghanistan.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, 2001, 42(8), 545-560. (Note: the journal is now called Eurasian Geography and Economics.)

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The Afghan “Graveyard of Empires” Myth and the Wakhan Corridor

Map of Greek Kingdoms in Afghanistan and India, Circa 150 BCEThe idea that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires,” a country that perennially entices imperial conquerors only to humiliate and expel them, is often encountered.  This potent cliché has been thoroughly debunked, yet it refuses to die. An October 7, 2011 Time magazine article, for example, opens with the provocative headline, “Afghanistan: Endgame in the Graveyard of Empires.” And as we saw in Sunday’s GeoCurrents post, the same idea was recently invoked by Thomas Freidman, although he avoided the cemetery analogy.

The “graveyard of empires” idea rests on a shallow understanding of world history. It proponents point to the fact that many empires have tried to conquer Afghanistan, yet none has been able to maintain permanent rule. In its stronger version, the thesis holds that no foreign power has ever subjugated Afghanistan, even temporarily. As a 2009 Cato Institute report put it, “Although Afghanistan has endured successive waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it.” Others allow that conquests occurred, but maintain that the conquerors always came to grief, sometimes losing not just Afghanistan but their entire empires in the process. As a 2009 CNN report put it, “And can it only be coincidence that in the wake of their Afghan disasters both the British and Soviet empires … crumbled?” In both versions, the syndrome is depicted as one of long-standing, extending “throughout [Afghanistan’s] history” according to a 2009 Guardian article. Many authors stress the difficulties faced by two of the world’s most formidable empire-builders, Alexander of Macedon and Genghis Khan. As stated in a 2009 article in the New York Times:

Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army suffered staggering losses in fierce battles against Afghan tribes. His astonishing conquest of Eurasia became bogged down in Afghanistan …. Over the next two thousand years, the region was deeply problematic for major empires from the West and the East — from the Arab armies to such legendary conquerors as Genghis Khan, Timur (more commonly known as Tamerlane), and Babur.

           Map of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in Afghanistan and Environs, Circa 180 BCE The “graveyard of empires” canard does rest on a few factual supports. The rugged, mountainous areas of central and eastern Afghanistan have historically been difficult to conquer and control—as is the case in many rugged and mountainous areas across the world. The Pashtun people, moreover, who form roughly half of Afghanistan’s population, do seem culturally predisposed to resist foreign rule, and they have produced more than their share of doughty warriors willing to die for the cause. The British Empire in the mid-1800s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s proved incapable of subduing the region, and the current military efforts of the United States do not seem any more sustainable in the long run. But beyond these limited instances, the “graveyard thesis” does not withstand scrutiny.

The failure of the thesis as a trans-historical generalization is evident in almost any historical era one chooses to investigate. Take, for instance, the forays of the ancient Macedonians and Greeks. Certainly Alexander had troubles in the Hindu Kush, as he did in a number of other areas that he and his troops vanquished. But conquer and rule the region they did. Greek power remained ensconced in the area now called Afghanistan for roughly two hundred years, contributing to an interchange of ideas and practices that enriched South Asian, Central Asian, and Greek civilization. The so-called Greco-Bactrians did fall eventually, succumbing to Yuezhi (Kushan) invaders who absorbed much of their culture. But this was to be expected; great powers ebb and flow, and no empire lasts forever.

Serious authors such as Christian Caryl and Thomas Barfield have turned the graveyard cliché on its head, arguing that Afghanistan is better interpreted historically as both a “highway of conquest” and a “cradle of empires.” Even the British failure to subdue the region has been much exaggerated. As Caryl cogently notes:

[In the] Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), [Britain] succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. … London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain’s foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that  Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.

            The fact that an independent Afghanistan served British interests as a buffer state is evident in the very outline of the country. Northeastern Afghanistan features a curious panhandle, the Wakhan Corridor, that extends all the way to the border of China. Negotiations during the late 1800s, first between Britain and Russia and then between British India and Afghanistan, ensured that the territories of the British and Russian empires would never directly touch each other. As a result, Wakhan was appended to Afghanistan. Today it is a sparsely populated and generally peaceful region eager to welcome tourists, at least according to a recent BBC report.

Map of Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan In 2009, both Afghanistan and the United States asked China to open its border along the Wakhan Corridor to provide an alternative supply line for the embattled Afghan government. China responded to the Afghan request with vague promises of increased cooperation. Its response to the American appeal was less accommodating, noting that it would not consider opening the border unless the Unites States were to agree to change its stance on such issues as Taiwan and the Uyghur militants held at Guantanamo. An October 12, 2011 Strategy Page report, however, claims that China is now reconsidering the issue, promising to open the border provided that “a sturdy road [is] built along the length of the 210 kilometer long corridor.”

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The Korea-Uzbekistan Connection

Both North and South Korea are among the most ethnically homogenous and strongly nationalist countries in the world, but that does not mean that they are nation-states, in the strict definition of the term. In an ideal nation-state, the state and the nation cover the same territory, but the land of the Korean nation is governed by not just two but three states: North Korea, South Korea, and China. The contiguous Korean culture area extends well beyond North Korea, encompassing more than two million Koreans living in northeastern China, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

The Wikipedia language map posted above also shows a tiny Korean zone in southeastern Russia, a remnant of what was once a large area. In the 1930s, roughly a quarter of the rural population in the Vladivostok region was ethnically Korean. By the end of the decade, the community had been scattered across Central Asia in the first of several Stalinist waves of mass deportation. An estimated 40,000 of the almost 200,000 deportees died in the process, but the community eventually adapted to its new environment and began to expand. Today their descendants number roughly half a million, with almost 200,000 in Uzbekistan and more than 100,000 in both Russia and Kazakhstan.

When Russia pushed its southeastern boundary into Chinese territory in 1860, it found only a few thousand Koreas living in the area. Korean migration accelerated over the next several decades, owing both to poverty and oppression at home and to opportunities in the resource-rich, sparsely populated Russian Far East. The migration stream intensified after the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910. By the 1920s, the community supported almost 400 Korean-language schools and seven Korean newspapers.

Soviet authorities initially viewed Koreans positively, favorably contrasting their position under Soviet rule with that under Japanese authority. Accommodation ended in the 1930s, as Stalin’s paranoia increasingly set Soviet policy. In 1937, fearing Japanese influence through Korean agents, the Soviet government opted for mass exile. The idea that local Koreans would have served the Japanese cause is ludicrous; in any struggle with Japan, the population would almost certainly have been a Soviet asset.

Koreans in Central Asia acculturated into the Russian-speaking culture of the Soviet Union, not to that of the Turkic-speaking peoples of the union republics. By the end of the Soviet period, Russian vied with Korean as the community’s main language. As tensions between immigrant and indigenous peoples mounted after independence in 1991, many Koreans followed other Russian speakers in moving to Russia. As a result, Russia now has more Koreans than does Kazakhstan.

The position of Koreans in Central Asia has improved markedly in recent years, propelled in part by Korean corporate expansion. Korean firms are attracted both by the markets and resources of Central Asia and by the presence of local Koreans, who can serve as cultural intermediaries. Thousands of Uzbekistani Koreans have also been recruited to work in South Korea; in 2005, their remittances reportedly injected $100,000,000 into Uzbekistan’s economy. The Korean image in Central Asia has also been enhanced by the wave of South Korean popular culture that has washed over the region, just as it has over much of the world. By 2005, Korean had reportedly become the second most popular foreign language among college students in Uzbekistan, trailing only English. As South Korea’s ambassador in Tashkent put it, “Young people in Uzbekistan dream of driving a Daewoo car, and watch Korean television shows on an LG TV set hooked up to a Samsung DVD player.” Since then, South Korea’s connection with Central Asia has strengthened. Korean firms, like those of China, are thirsty for the energy and mineral resources of the region, leading reporters and government officials alike to write about a “new Silk Road.”

Such developments could influence global geopolitics. As Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College argued in March 2010, “The growing East Asian projects in and with Central Asia come at the expense of Russia, which has steadily sought to monopolize Central Asia’s international relations and serve as an interlocutor between those governments and the world. These projects highlight both Central Asia’s heightened ability to diversify its individual and collective foreign and foreign economic relations beyond Moscow and even Beijing.” If Blank’s thesis is correct, the decision by Soviet leaders to exile the Korean population to Central Asia is now helping to sap Russia’s influence in the region. Meanwhile, Russia’s Far East continues to lose population, leading to long-term concerns about Russian control over the area.

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The Tragedy of Karakalpakstan and the Fall of Khwarezm

The destruction of the Aral Sea has disproportionally hit one ethnic group, the Karakalpak, a people roughly half a million strong whose name means “black hats.” The Karakalpak homeland is the region where the Amu Darya River once flowed into the Aral Sea. The Karakalpak traditionally farmed the fertile delta soils, fished in the river channels and the vast lake, and pastured cattle in the formerly extensive marshlands. Today the fisheries are gone and farming and herding suffer from the toxic dust clouds blowing from the dry Aral seabed. Anemia, respiratory diseases, and other diseases are ubiquitous; according to some accounts, Karakalpakstan has the worst public health figures of the former Soviet Union. It is hardly surprising that a separatist group, known as the Free Karakalpakstan National Revival Party, has arisen in the region. This small organization accuses the government of Uzbekistan of waging a genocidal campaign against the Karakalpak people.

The lower Amu Darya forms a sizable area of irrigated agriculture and relatively dense population. It is an ethnically mixed area, inhabited by Turkmens and Uzbeks as well as Karakalpaks (see map). The Karakalpak language is closely related to Kazakh, lacking the Persian influence found in Uzbek. Some Kazakh nationalists claim that the Karakalpak were merely a subgroup of the Kazakhs who were granted their own ethnic status by Soviet authorities eager to divide and rule. But if language did not strongly differentiate the two groups, mode of life did; whereas the Kazakhs traditionally practiced pastoralism on the open steppe, the Karakalpaks farmed, fished, and herded in a wetland environment. Under the Soviet nationalities policy, the Karakalpaks were granted their own “autonomous republic” within the Union Republic of Uzbekistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not substantially change this arrangement, as Karakalpakstan remains an “autonomous republic” – albeit with little real autonomy – within Uzbekistan.

Although the Karakalpak language shows little Persian influence, the lower Amu Darya was once a key part of the greater Persian cultural region. Prior to the 14th century, the large oasis region of the lower Amu Darya, called Khwarezm, had its own Iranian language, Khwarezmian. Around the year 1200, Khwarezm was the seat of a large if short-lived empire. Its downfall seems to have come at the hands of two brutal conquerors, Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane). Timur viewed the region as a rival to his own power-center at Samarkand; through five campaigns in the late 1300s, he systematically destroyed its cities and irrigation networks. During this chaotic period, the Turkic languages of the pastoralists spread, eventually replacing the original Iranian tongue. Khwarezm gradually recovered political and economic power, although never to its former extent. Its last state, the Khanate of Khiva, was subdued by the Russian Empire in 1873. It lingered on as a Russian protectorate until its final dissolution in 1920; in 1924, Khiva was formally annexed by the Soviet Union.

In its heyday, the lower Amu Darya was a major cultural and intellectual center. Its former significance is reflected in the world “algorithm,” which derives indirectly from Khwarezm by way of the Latin translation of “al-Khwārizmī,” the ninth century founder of algebra. Although al-Khwārizmī’s name indicates that he hailed from the region, he gained fame in Baghdad. Two other scholars of equal renown were more closely associated with Khwarezm. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna, c. 980 – 1037), the leading philosopher and physician of his age, taught for a while in the lower Amu Darya, where the local vizier supported an impressive assemblage of scholars. His contemporary, al-Biruni (973-1048), was born and educated in the region. Al-Biruni’s first language was Khwarezmian, but he wrote in Persian and Arabic—and was conversant in Greek, Syriac, and Sanskrit. Noted for his work in astronomy, chemistry, geography, mathematics, geology, medicine, physics, and history, al-Biruni’s greatest accomplishment was perhaps his pioneering work in what we would today call area studies. He traveled to northern India to sit at the feet of local scholars, learning not just their language, but their cultural mores, religious ideas, and scientific and mathematical systems. He wrote about Indian culture with respect, striving to convince his fellow Muslims that Hindus belonged to a sophisticated and ancient civilization. If asked to name the greatest scholar of all time, I would have to nominate a son of Khwarezm, Abu Raihan Mohammad Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni.

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The Death, and Partial Rebirth, of the Aral Sea

After touring the remains of the Aral Sea by helicopter in April 2010, U.N. secretary general Ban-Ki Moon expressed shock at the scale of devastation. “It is clearly one of the worst environmental disasters of the world,” he reported. “It really left with me a profound impression, one of sadness that such a mighty sea has disappeared.”

The Aral Sea was until recently the world’s fourth largest lake; in 1960 it covered 26,000 square miles (68,000 km. sq.) – an area larger than Sri Lanka. But as the waters of Tien Shan and Pamir mountains flowing down the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers were increasingly diverted for irrigation, the lake began to shrink. Soviet planners maximized the production of cotton and other warm-season crops, knowing that it would doom the lake. As the Aral’s waters diminished, they grew increasingly salty and foul. By the 1970s, former shoreline villages were 40 miles inland. Fish species disappeared as the lake began to die. New islands emerged, and Vozrozhdeniye Island, where the Soviets had conducted biological warfare tested, joined the mainland. When the Soviet Union collapsed, destruction accelerated. By the 1990s, the Aral Sea had been divided into two separate lakes, and by 2003, into three. In 2009, the southeastern Aral basin dried up completely.

The end of the Aral Sea brought economic and cultural devastation. Fisheries that once employed 40,000 people shut down and local agriculture suffered. As the lake retreated, large salt flats emerged. Windstorms pick up the salt, along with silt and excess agricultural chemicals, and deposit it in local farmlands. The resulting dust storms are thought to transport up to 100,000,000 tonsof particles each year. Crop yields declined and public health suffered, particularly in the densely populated and formerly rich delta of the Amu Darya River.

The tragedy of the Aral Sea is relatively well known, unlike the more recent rebirth of the Northern Aral. In 2001 the oil-rich government of Kazakhstan set about reviving what had been the much smaller of the two successor lakes. Through more efficient irrigation and the construction of modern waterworks, the flow of the lower Syr Darya River was significantly augmented. A massive dike was thrown across the lakebed to prevent the additional water from flowing wastefully across the salt flats of the former Southern Aral Sea. By early 2010, the northern lake had expanded roughly 50 percent, its salinity dropping enough to allow the return of fish. The World Bank and the government of Kazakhstan are currently considering an extension of the project, hoping to bring the lake back to the former port city of Aralsk.

The success of the North Aral restoration project should not take our eyes away from the larger disaster. The renewed Aral is a fraction of the original, and the surviving portion of the southern lake is toxically saline. Nor should we only focus on the Aral, as Central Asia has other environmentally stressed if not devastated lakes. Lop Nor was once larger that Puerto Rico; its desiccated bed later became China’s main nuclear testing ground. Massive Lake Balkhash stretches 376 miles, the distance between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Balkhash, which formed the northwestern boundary of Qing (Manchu) China at its height, is a most unusual lake — salty in the east, but essentially fresh in the west. Compared to the Aral, Balqash may be pristine, but it too is shrinking.

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The Cold War Between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

In August 2008, the New York Times described Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as being locked in a “cold war.” Recently, the conflict has warmed up. In early 2010, Uzbekistan imposed a partial blockade on Tajikistan, a much poorer country poorly tied into global transportation networks. Uzbek authorities have been holding freight cars at the border, stifling Tajikistan’s economy. Uzbekistan’s government counters that technical and logistical difficulties have merely slowed traffic over the border. But Tajik authorities are so concerned that they are considering taking the issue to international courts. They are also talking about alternatives for their cargo. Tajik Transportation Minister Olim Boboev has specifically advocated “a 250-kilometer rail link connecting Tajikistan with Turkmenistan via northern Afghanistan,” not an easy project. As anger against Uzbekistan mounts in Tajikistan, anger at Tajikistan rises in Uzbekistan. In March 2010, around 1,000 university students and professors marched in the Uzbek city of Termez to protestTajikistan’s plans to expand a highly polluting aluminum smelter near the Uzbek border.

A root cause of the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan feud is water. Former Soviet Central Asia is a dry region that depends on the snow-fed rivers flowing out of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains. Mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contain its major headwaters, thus potentially controlling the water supply. Downstream Uzbekistan is water-short yet highly dependent on irrigated agriculture. It is hardly surprising that its government fears potential upstream water diversions. Energy-poor Tajikistan wants to build dams primarily to generate hydroelectricity. In 2009, Uzbekistan partially cut off natural gas supplies to debt-strapped Tajikistan, almost shutting down its aluminum smelters — one of the Tajikistan’s few competitive industries. Dam-building would not only protect the industry from such threats, but would allow it to expand.

The dam in question is the Rogun on the Vakhsh River, an important tributary of the Amu Darya. If it is ever completed, Rogun will be one of the world’s highest dams. Work began in 1976, but the unfinished project sank with the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2007, Russia partnered with Tajikistan to complete the dam, but the two parties soon fell out. The Tajik government announced in early 2010 that it would try to raise by itself the $1.4 billion needed to finish the dam. Uzbekistan demanded an independent study to prove that its own water supplies would not be adversely affected, and when Tajikistan refused, cross-border traffic came to a crawl. If it is to complete the Rogun Dam, Tajikistan will need to import vast quantities of construction supplies and heavy equipment.

Uzbekistan’s water concerns are understandable. Water shortages not only threaten its agriculture, they have also almost destroyed the Aral Sea. But Uzbekistan’s sclerotic economy wastes vast quantities of water, and its government shows little interest in conservation. Uzbekistan’s portion of the Aral Sea continues to disappear; its entire eastern basin is expected to dry out this summer. Kazakhstan’s northern Aral Sea, on the other hand, is making a significant recovery, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

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Ethnic Strife and the Reinvention of Uzbek Identity

Ethnic conflicts have periodically broken out in former Soviet Central Asia. Clashes between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz in the Fergana Valley took hundreds of lives in 1990, and discord between Uzbeks and Tajiks in Uzbekistan continue to simmer. Yet ethnic strife of this sort is not a long-standing feature of the region. Central Asia’s various peoples have relatively long histories, but they are convoluted and intertwined. The current identity groups of the region – particularly Uzbek and Tajik – reached their modern forms only in the Soviet period.

The conundrums of ethnic identity in Central Asia stem from a long history of interaction. A thousand years ago, farmers and urban dwellers in the fertile belt to the west of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains spoke Iranian languages, related to Persian. Pastoral nomads speaking Turkic languages, however, were becoming militarily and politically dominant, and as their power spread, so did their speech. Across much of the region, the sedentary peoples gradually came to speak Turkic dialects heavily infused with their original Persian and lacking the vowel harmony typical of Turkic and other Altaic languages. In the 1400s and 1500s, a literary language called Chagatai emerged on both sides of the Tien Shan, named after one of the successor states of the Mongol Empire. In the older cities on the western side, such as Samarkand, as well as in the south (modern Tajikistan), Persian (Tajik) remained dominant. In the northern grasslands, Western Turkic languages prevailed, including Kazakh and “Old Uzbek.” Beginning in the 1500s, the nomadic Uzbeks began to gain control over the agricultural and urban areas, without substantially spreading their language. In the Tien Shan highlands, another group speaking a Western Turkic language, the Kyrgyz, remained separate, differentiated in part by their practice of transhumance (moving their herds to different elevations with the seasons).

When the Russian conquered the area in the late 1800s, they discovered a fluid ethnic environment in which mode of life was often more important than language in determining identity. Chagatai had essentially died out, but its daughter tongues were spoken over most of what is now Uzbekistan as well as China’s Xinjiang province. In Russia’s new Central Asian territories, people speaking such dialects were generally called Sarts. But “Sart” was more of a lifestyle than a linguistic term; sedentary farmers and town-dwellers were often classified as Sarts even if they spoke Persian (Tajik). Multilingualism was common, and identity malleable, as reflected in a local saying: “A bad Kirghiz becomes a Sart, while a bad Sart becomes a Kirghiz.”

Soviet planners charged with identifying which ethnic groups should be granted their own union republics found the situation perplexing. As a result the political divisions of Soviet Central Asian changed several times in the early communist period. In the mid-1920s, the term “Sart” was officially declared pejorative and eliminated from the state’s ethnic taxonomy. Turkic-speaking settled peoples in the region were henceforth to be classified as Uzbeks, even though the Uzbek language at the time belonged to a different branch of the Turkic family (the original Uzbek tongue is now called “Kipchak Uzbek”). The new official language of the Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan was based on the dialect of the central Fergana Valley. Henceforth, this standard language was to spread through the republic, institutionalized in schools, government, and the media.

The invention of the new enthno-national category of Uzbek transformed the human geography of Central Asia. Peoples speaking Persian (Tajik) and those speaking Persian-influenced Turkic language had often been classified together as Sarts; now they found themselves assigned to different ethnic groups endowed with real political significance. Tearing the Sarts into two groups was not easy, resulting in convoluted boundaries as well as large minority populations in border areas. Uzbekistan has long tried to force its Tajik residents to drop their identity and become Uzbeks, resulting in considerable strife. Although official statistics maintain that only five percent of the people of Uzbekistan are Tajik, many think that the figure is much higher. According to the Tajikam website, “the real number of Tajiks living in Uzbekistan is believed to be nearly 42 percent (11-14 millions) of the population.” Meanwhile, as Uzbekistan was created, a region of common culture that formerly spanned the mighty Tien Shan range was coming to an end. What was once the Chagatai area, named for the second son of Genghis Khan, was now divided into quite distinctive Uzbek and Uyghur zones.

Although ethnic tensions have troubled Central Asia, conflicts between countries over resources, especially water, are now more significants, as we shall see tomorrow.

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Bakiyev’s Gambit and Kyrgyzstan’s Geographical Division

After being forced out of the capital city of Bishkek in early April, 2010, Kyrgyzstan’s president Kurmanbek Bakiyev sought refuge in the south, first in the city of Osh and later at his family compound near Jalal-Abad. A southerner, Bakiyev hoped to rally local supporters, even at the risk of inciting civil war. While some southerners did come to his aid, others pushed against him. On April 15, Bakiyev was forced to flee his country and take refuge in Kazakhstan.

Bakiyev’s southern strategy sought to take advantage of the geographical division of his country. Kyrgyzstan is a rugged land; like Afghanistan, its central region is mountainous and lightly inhabited, its centers of population separated by multiple ranges (see map). Overland transportation from the Bishkek in the far north to the Osh region in the south is slow and arduous, challenging national integration. Bakiyev hoped that Kyrgyzstan’s southerners would back their native son, and that the south’s isolation from the national core around Bishkek would buy him time.

Although Bakiyev did gather some support in the south, local ethnic divisions played against him. Uzbeks are a major presence in the Osh region, and Kyrgyz-Uzbek relations remain strained. While a few southern Kyrgyz rallied around Bakiyev, Uzbeks came out strongly against him. Ethnic tensions evidently infused local rallies. “Impassioned supporters of ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev,” writes a local blogger, “upstaged a rally … by mostly ethnic Uzbek opponents in his southern power base.” Although the author of the post allowed that the “issue is mostly Kyrgyz vs. Kyrgyz at the moment,” he went on to warn that there “is no guarantee that Uzbeks won’t be drawn in…”

Ethnic tensions in Kyrgyzstan date partly from the Soviet era. Lenin’s blueprint for the Soviet Union called for the main non-Russian nationalities to be granted quasi-autonomous Union Republics, but Moscow-based leaders were wary of giving such regional governments too much authority. One way to curb their power was to separate them with convoluted boundaries. Such geopolitical intricacies reached their height in the Fergana Valley, an 8,500 square mile (22,000 square km) expanse of intensively farmed land surrounded by lofty mountains. Although Fergana forms a seemingly natural political unit, Soviet authorities divided it in three. The core went to Uzbekistan, the lower valley to Tajikistan, and most of the periphery to Kyrgyzstan. Several enclaves in the area added to the complexity (see map). With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, what were now three new countries inherited a problematic political geography.

The problems inherent in the division of the Fergana Valley among Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan are compounded by the fact that the core areas of all three are located on the far sides of wide and towering ranges. Such a situation often encourages regionalism, and in Fergana anti-governmental sentiments tend to be pronounced. In 2005, demonstrations against Uzbekistan’s government in Andijan were met with reprisals so violent that they undermined U.S.-Uzbekistan relations, resulting in the expulsion of American bases from the country. Radical Islamism is more firmly rooted in the valley than in any other part of former Soviet Central Asia. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, although no longer a potent force, has long planned to use the Fergana Valley as the nucleus of an eventual Caliphate.

The constituent republics of the Soviet Union were supposed to be based on ethnicity. Political borders, however, rarely followed ethnic boundaries with any precision. To be sure, zones of ethnic overlap and mixture prohibited any exactitude, but some critics contend that the Soviet Union deliberately weakened its republics by excluding key areas. In Fergana, sizable Uzbek zones – including the city of Osh – were awarded to Kyrgyzstan. As many of the local Kyrgyz people abandoned their traditional pastoralism in the uplands and moved into the fringe of the Fergana lowlands, ethnic tensions mounted. The conflict came to a climax as the Soviet Union began to collapse. In 1990, rioting in Osh pitted Kyrgyz against Uzbeks, resulting officially in 300 deaths and more than a thousand injuries; some observers believe that the actual casualties were much higher. It is thus hardly surprising that local bloggers are concerned about ethnic tensions in Osh and Jalal-Abad in the wake of Kyrgyzstan’s political crisis.

The Soviets not only manipulated the boundaries between ethno-national groups, they also intervened in the development of the very identity of those groups, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

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