The Resurrection of Central Asia: a return to prominence for an historic region?

As the link between Europe, the Middle East and the Orient, Central Asia has historically been a region of great strategic importance. From the Mongol invasions, through the inception of the Silk Road and its trading networks, to the era of Turkic control, the Steppe-countries have played a vital role in international affairs.

That was changed, however, by the Soviet encroachment and resultant Cold War, which saw Central Asia hidden behind Churchill’s “Iron Curtain”. A new age of aviation and rapid sea transport further eroded the importance of the region as a facilitator of economic and communication links. Indeed, the contemporary view of Central Asian states is often one of grey, lifeless communist-era countries, culturally and economically dependent on Russia.

The reality is somewhat different and indicative of the resurgence of Latin America on the global stage. Whilst Central Asia remains inextricably linked to Russia through its recent past, a new future of commercialism and capitalism is threatening to take hold, built on windfall oil and gas revenues. Europeans and East Asians are beginning to re-establish an interest in Central Asia as a result of their insatiable desire for energy resources and this will undoubtedly have implications for regional states’ development. The question is will Central Asia be resurrected as a region of great influence and geopolitical importance, as it once was? Or will it remain a relative backwater in the modern world, destined to play only a minor rule in future international politics?


The Mongols Open up Central Asia

Central Asia – the territory stretching from the Caspian Sea in the west to China in the east, and from Russia in the north to Afghanistan in the south – was home to a myriad of tribal groupings and clans, mainly of Hunnic and Turkic descent, up to the thirteenth century. Societies were generally small and inter-tribal fighting a frequent occurrence, making the region one of great unrest.

It would take the stunning and rapid invasions of the nomadic Mongols throughout the 1200s for the region to assume a new place of importance in world affairs. Genghis Khan and his descendents fought and pillaged their way west from their homeland, exploiting their pioneering use of cavalry-based warfare to create the largest contiguous empire in history. The vassals the Mongols attained through their conquests ensured not only a constant flow of tribute to the Great Khan, but also a relative peace in Central Asia under their political and military domination. Termed by some as the Pax Mongolica, for the first time in history a safe route from Eastern Europe to China and its dominions opened up. The Mongols ensured secure passage for the right price, with the traditional warring tribes of the Steppes forbidden from disrupting any travellers under the protection of their overlords. Central Asia had within a century become the most important economic and cultural transit point in the known world.

Ghenghis Khan and his descendants brought Central Asia to prominence


Marco Polo and the Silk Road

The most significant consequence of the opening-up of Central Asia by the Mongols was the resurrection and expansion of the famous Silk Road, a series of trading routes between China and the Middle East.

The Silk Road ran through the heart of Central Asia

The rise to fame of cities such as Samarkand, Almaty, Kashgar, Bukhara and Merv was a result of their location on the now flourishing Silk Road. Instead of remaining deserted regional outposts, these settlements became crucial stopping off points for merchants plying their trade along the Road, and subsequently melting-pots of various cultures. With Chinese maritime expansion having created trading links with Java and the Spice Islands, the Silk Road even became indirectly associated with goods from Southeast Asia, ferried as they were through China’s hinterlands.

The mighty Registan in Samarkand was built as a consequence of the Silk Road

Furthermore, the commercial ambitions of several Christian states, including the Italian republics of Florence and Venice, brought significant numbers of Europeans into contact with Asian trading routes for the first time. Most famous of all these early pioneers was Marco Polo, a Venetian merchant who travelled along the Silk Road to China in the second half of the thirteenth century. Polo was even able to meet Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader, during his travels, and his account of his adventures inspired a brief period of enthusiastic trading between Europe and the East. Bringing back silk, ivory, jade, porcelain, and various spices, Marco Polo expanded European horizons about the luxuries and lifestyles of the Far East. None of his endeavours would have been possible had it not been for the peaceable nature of the Silk Road through Central Asia at this time.

From a region of nomadic herders, disparate Islamic caliphates and shamanistic warriors, Central Asia was transformed into a centre of cultural and scholastic exchange and economic importance, providing a wealth to regional towns that would otherwise have been impossible. However, the halcyon days of the Mongol Empire weren’t to last forever and a new force of Islamic imperialists was ready to cast its shadow over the Steppe-lands and its various peoples.


Mongol Disintegration and the Rise of the Ottomans

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the Mongol Empire had already passed its zenith. A series of dynastic struggles and fragmented vassal states led to the political and economic disintegration of the once mighty Mongol realm. Central Asia again became a land of rival tribal entities and nomadic bandits, making the region one of danger. Along with a series of small, relatively weak Khanates, these tribes created a buffer zone between the great powers of Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, effectively marking the end of the Silk Road in its original conception.

Simultaneous to the Mongol Empire breaking up into various weaker components was the meteoric rise of the Ottoman Turks. After establishing themselves as the preeminent force in the Near and Middle East, the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453, bringing a final end to the decaying Byzantine Empire. Control over the remaining trade routes between Europe and the East were now firmly under Turkish control.

Rather than facilitate cross-cultural trade, the Ottomans monopolised control of the flow of goods from the East, which were already in a permanent decline because of the instability of the Central Asian overland routes. China, for nearly two centuries an attainable land of luxuries, was cut off from the Europeans until the great Jesuit missions of the sixteenth century. The Europeans responded to the Ottoman blockade by launching an unprecedented period of maritime exploration. This inadvertently led to the founding of the New World (Columbus had been looking for a route to Asia) and the beginnings of Portuguese expansion into the Indian Ocean as a result of Vasco da Gama’s historic voyage.

By the Sixteenth Century the Ottomans had isolated Central Asia from Europe

Whilst a tenuous relationship in historical terms, the Age of Exploration can be linked back to the decline of the Mongols in Central Asia and the subsequent Ottoman control it allowed. Had the Pax Mongolica and its associated trade benefits persisted, the urgency to explore the unknown world would not have been so great.

That is not to say that Central Asia completely diminished in importance in European eyes. With maritime trade-routes to the East still not firmly established by the sixteenth century, or remaining exclusively in the hands of the Portuguese, attempts were made to resurrect the overland routes through Central Asia. The most pioneering enterprise was led by Anthony Jenkinson, an employee of the English Muscovy Company. Having begun trade negotiations at Ivan the Terrible’s Moscow court in 1558, Jenkinson pushed further south to Astrakhan, where he managed to secure passage across the Caspian Sea. Progressing as far as Bukhara, a bastion of the old Silk Road, Jenkinson was thwarted in his attempts to reach India and China by the persistent banditry and regional warfare that had plagued the Steppes since the Mongol decline.

Jenkinson depicted the Tartar nomads he encountered as pagans

Central Asia had become an isolated backwater, its fragile states and peoples trapped between the Ottoman wall and an inward-looking China. Its place in the world had become almost irrelevant, a status largely maintained until the present day.


Soviet Rule

Through the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century, the people and resources of Central Asia were fought over by a variety of Shahs, Emirs and Khanates, all seeking to expand their influence and increase their tribute revenues.  Isolated from the rest of the world, these landlocked territories had little autonomy of their own and continued to function in a non-statal manner. As a consequence, they were largely disregarded by global forces, leaving their populations impoverished and technologically backwards.

As the Ottoman Sultans and Persian Shahs began their own inexorable declines from the mid-nineteenth century, the potential to re-open Central Asia to the wider world emerged. However, before significant trade links with Europe and the Far East could be established once again, the onset of World War One distracted any serious economic suitors. To compound matters, in 1917, Russia underwent a communist revolution that sought to include the Central Asian nations as republics within the new Soviet system. The Russification of the region had occurred slowly in the century beforehand, with Tsarist expeditions to map the land and its resources combining with the migration of thousands of impoverished peasants looking to escape a life of serfdom.

By 1936, the tenuously-demarcated lands that had come to be known as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan were fully-incorporated into the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. Rather than opening-up the region to foreign trade, the Soviet leaders sought to farm the Central Asian states for their own benefit. Resources and manpower were utilised mercilessly in exchange for a comprehensive and rapid programme of industrialisation that effectively turned the cities of each Republic into factory zones.

Cities like Almaty in Kazakhstan became imbued with the architectural tenets of Socialist Realism

With loyal Communist Party comrades in charge of each semi-autonomous region, the Central Asian people were subjected to the same fear and propaganda that was perpetuated throughout Russia proper. Having been cut-off from the world by Ottoman control and internal dissension for centuries, Central Asia was now firmly isolated behind the “Iron Curtain”, to be called upon by Moscow alone.


The Fall of Communism and the Re-Emergence of Central Asia

Given the iron grip with which the Communists held the Central Asian states in their grasp, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 came as a particularly significant shock to the people of the region. Almost out of the blue the “Stans” were independent and set about trying to create a national unity and identity that they had never before possessed. Independence was not only a cultural challenge but also an economic and political one. Reliant on the revenue streams and aid of Russia for decades, and unused to governing themselves, the Central Asians quickly became subjected to a new form of dictatorship: that of the strongman.

Ex-Soviet officials retained power in all of the newly-independent nations. Some, like Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan, ruled in a brutal fashion, creating bizarre personality cults and ruling by decree. Even today, the democracy rankings of the states in question remain extremely low:

Country Ranking
Kyrgyzstan 121
Kazakhstan 127
Tajikistan 129
Uzbekistan 147
Turkmenistan 149

Source: World Audit Democracy

This is hardly surprising, given the lack of precedent for statehood in the region, as well as the continuing influence of an undemocratic Russia.

Yet though not particularly free, the global importance of Central Asia is on the rise for the first time in centuries. Huge reserves of oil and natural gas – together with other rare minerals and stones – have again made the region one of great strategic importance. Foreign direct investment is pouring in, not only from the old patron Russia, but also the democratic West and the rising dragon of the East, China. Instead of a series of overland routes once known as the Silk Road, Central Asia is now criss-crossed by pipelines, transporting vast quantities of energy resources to far-flung destinations. The revenues generated from these much-desired riches have allowed modern infrastructure to be built in the country’s capitals, along with resplendent cultural works that are essential in developing a national identity.

A network of energy pipelines have opened-up Central Asia to the world once more

Whilst Russia is undoubtedly still the senior partner of the Central Asians, the influence of other countries is likely to rise. As large multinationals from the West, China and India begin to invest more in the region, cultural norms may spill-over. Furthermore, the growing prosperity of the people in the Steppe countries will see the emergence of a burgeoning middle class, who will become the obvious targets of global consumer brands. No longer an impoverished backwater in the Cold War, Central Asia is resurgent and gaining momentum. As the world was forced to take notice of the Mongol invasions in the twelfth century, so too will it have to be aware of these slumbering giants. In an era when the energy crisis dictates foreign policy around the globe, Central Asia has to be taken seriously.

Bayterek has become a symbol of Kazakhstan's "new wealth"

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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