Ongoing transformations:  Reflections on Central Asia 

Madina Myngaiymbek is Projects Coordinator at GPG. She provides support to our Central Asian projects, with a particular focus on research. In this blog, she reflects on the region’s image and geopolitical influence across time, and the recent socio-economic changes it has been experiencing.

Regrettably, the global audience is not well familiar with Central Asia and its countries. Whilst some people associate the region with the Soviet Union and often view it as an extended territory of Russia, the rest lump Central Asian states together in the group of “Stan” countries. It would not be apt to completely dismiss these statements, since Central Asia’s history is indeed intertwined with that of the “Stan” countries and those 15 communist states that constituted the Soviet Union. However, it is important to highlight that prior to these events, Central Asia by itself profoundly impacted world history. Notable examples include the Turkic Khanagate, the first Central Asian transcontinental empire stretching from Manchuria (present day China) to the Black Sea; the great Mongol and Mogul Empires, neither of which need introducing; and the Golden Horde, which spanned from the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe to the steppes of Siberia. Furthermore, Central Asia played an essential economic role during the early- to late-medieval period by linking the East and West through the Great Silk Road. Central Asia is also the cradle of the ethnic Turkic people, who expanded from the Altay mountains as far as the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  

Unfortunately, over the course of the 20th century, knowledge on the Central Asian civilisation vanished as a result of the colonisation policy of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union.  

After the collapse of the USSR, the Central Asian states remained politically and militarily dependent on Russia. This resulted in restrictions on the implementation of independent internal and foreign policy for those countries. That said, it has been necessary to maintain a careful equilibrium in the bilateral connections between Western nations and Central Asian states for regional geopolitics, ensuring the relations focused primarily on trade and development areas. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the rise of China’s global influence, the strategic significance of Central Asia, which borders China, Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan, has increased for international actors.  

Beyond geopolitical matters, the region is receiving growing attention due to the complex social developments occurring in all five countries: generational change and the fast-growing emergence of national identity. People born and raised during the Soviet Union, who currently hold power in the Central Asian states, have seen their numbers decline over the past 30 years of independence. Conversely, young people born after independence have gradually acquired more power. These young Central Asians, raised by parents shaped by Soviet values but growing up in the era of globalisation, embodying a mixed education influenced by Western and Soviet models, and exposed to religious influences from Turkey and the Middle East, are grappling with a complex and evolving identity. Unfortunately, there are very few studies on the contemporary identity of young Central Asians. It is therefore challenging to envision the direction in which the younger generation intends to steer their countries and how this will affect the future of the region.  

War in Ukraine has had a striking effect on Central Asian countries. It provoked unprecedented inflation rates, disruption in trade, and significant migratory influx. Being landlocked, Central Asian states used to conduct their export through neighbours, especially Russia. For instance, Kazakhstan used to export an annual 90% of its oil and gas via Russia before the war. Similarly, the shortest route and the main corridor for international rail freight from Uzbekistan to the Baltic countries passed through Russia. This ended when Central Asian countries imposed sanctions on Russia, leaving them without alternative routes through which to access the Western market. The region is encircled by sanction-affected countries: Iran, Russia, and China (partly), which in turn hampers the economic growth of the region. As a result, state officials are compelled to diversify their countries’ economy and explore alternative avenues to unlock their economic potential.  

To address this challenge, Central Asian states have initiated efforts to strengthen economic partnerships with the European Union and the United Kingdom. To give an example, in November 2022, the first EU-Central Asia Connectivity Conference was held by Global Gateway in Samarkand, where both sides agreed to collaborate closely on sustainable transport and energy connectivity. Another important high-level visit took place in May 2023, when the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee travelled to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Chair of the Committee Alicia Kearns emphasised in a speech that the region has been neglected for too long and that this was the first time this century the Foreign Affairs Committee visited it. These recent positive advancements signify a shift in the approach of Western countries towards Central Asian states. Instead of dealing with them individually, Western countries have begun recognising the region as a unified entity that requires a coordinated regional policy. Additionally, it became evident that both parties are inclined towards strengthening political and economic cooperation in order to find solutions to minimise the involvement of Russia and China in future interactions.  

GPG’s trip to Central Asia  

GPG has extensive experience operating in some of the world’s most complex and sensitive political environments as well as delivering parliamentary support programmes in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Building on this, we embarked on further exploration of the Central Asian region by undertaking research on regional security, women’s rights and gender equality, and parliamentary development.  GPG’s brand-new Research and Analysis unit was tasked with conducting a substantial research project. It focused on Central Asia’s shifting regional geopolitical situation in the context of the war in Ukraine and the aforementioned wave of social and cultural change. As a part of the research project, GPG’s team and our Associates delivered a field trip to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, where we conducted interviews and focus groups with the support of our local partners to examine the socio-political changes triggered by the war and analyse their possible repercussions.  

GPG’s research team spent five days in the beautiful city of Bishkek. We were able to engage with local young people during our visit to the American University of Central Asia and the OSCE Academy in Bishkek, where enlightening discussions on current developments in Kyrgyzstan were held with leading academics. Another notable encounter involved a meeting with leading women’s NGO “Mutakallim”, who focus on the protection and promotion of the rights of religious women while fostering connections between secular and religious segments of society. Visiting Mutakallim’s headquarters allowed the GPG team to witness group lectures and gain insight into the organisation’s mission. Mutakallim stands as the sole religious organisation in the region that advocates for women’s rights and builds connections between secular and religious groups of people by breaking stereotypes about Islam.  

Continuing the journey, the GPG team arrived in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan – a city brimming with ancient history and boasting a captivating blend of Soviet and national architectures. Besides the delicious local cuisine, it was great to notice the improved economic well-being and the increasing willingness of people to express their opinion on current social changes. We visited the Research Centre at the University of World Economy and Diplomacy, where we had an insightful discussion on the recent developments in regional politics and potential avenues for research collaboration. Furthermore, we had the privilege of meeting with the Director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, providing an opportunity to learn about Uzbekistan’s progress in the field of human rights, and particularly women’s rights. 

GPG’s field trip to Central Asia yielded fantastically helpful material for our research study, which was completed in March 2023. The ground data we acquired enabled us to understand that Central Asia is undergoing important social and political changes that should be thoroughly examined, not only by conducting focus groups, but also quantitatively, in order to more precisely assess the region’s development – we look forward to exploring those questions in the future.