As a landlocked region, Central Asia has always been dominated by powers to its west, east and south. The area has been controlled by ethnic Turkic peoples and has been the subject of conquests by Muslims, Mongols and Russians. Situated at the center of Eurasia, the region has been a thoroughfare for various expanding powers. The past quarter century, however, has been an anomaly in terms of the emergence of the five nation-states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan). The region is in slow meltdown because it has been largely left to its own devices.  

  • Given its location and historical evolution, Central Asia is perhaps among the most understudied regions of the world.
  • The region’s contemporary geopolitics is shaped in part by Turkic ethnicity, Islam, Mongol conquests and, more recently, Russian hegemony.
  • The regimes in the five “stans” are relics of Russian colonial rule and are at the mercy of geopolitical crosswinds blowing from various directions.
  • Central Asia’s future will be shaped by the crises in the Middle East, South Asia, Russia and China.


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Central Asia as we understand it today consists of five countries: Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But this configuration is only 25 years old, a result of the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1990-91. The countries’ present boundaries emerged from the way they were administratively divided within the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics after Moscow absorbed them in the 1920s.

These Central Asian Soviet Socialist republics were part of the Soviet Union for seven decades, but they had been under Russian imperial control going back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Over the past two centuries or so, these lands have been steeped in Russian influence. As they increasingly fend for themselves as sovereign states, especially with Russia on a path toward decline, each of the five “stans” grapple with issues such as national identity and regime posterity. Two key factors will play a role as they chart their future course: Turkic ethnicity and Islamic heritage.

It is, therefore, critical to understand how both of these factors, among many others, have shaped the region over centuries. But before we dive into that history, it is important to understand the region’s geography. Central Asia’s western border roughly consists of the line running from the Ural Mountains to the Caspian Sea, and its southern border is the disconnected mountain ranges running from northwestern Iran to the Hindu Kush in northeastern Afghanistan. The Tian Shan and Altai mountain ranges running along China’s western periphery constitute Central Asia’s eastern border, and its northern border is composed of Russia’s Western Siberian Plain. Most of the Central Asian territory consists of steppe. The bulk of its population lives in the southern half, in an area called the Fergana Valley, which runs across eastern Uzbekistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and northern Tajikistan.

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Turkic Ethnicity, Islam and the Mongol Invasion

While Turkic peoples spread across the Middle East, South Asia and the Caucasus during the medieval era to form many different empires, this broad ethnolinguistic group originally hails from Central Asia. In fact, the Persian word for much of Central Asia is Turkestan, meaning “the land of the Turks.” It was in the sixth century that the Gokturks formed the region’s first major polity, the Turkic Khaganate. Later, during the eighth century, the Arab Muslim forces that controlled Mesopotamia and Persia began to invade Central Asia.

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As a result, Islam spread through the various Turkic peoples during the ninth century. But it was not until the decline of the (Persianized Arab) Abbasid caliphate in the early 10th century that Muslims of Turkic ethnicity began to increase their influence and power in the Islamic world’s core. This happened with the emergence of competing Turkic emirates and sultanates that were linguistically and culturally Persianate. This marked the end of the Arab-led Muslim push into Central Asia.

When this happened, Turkic dynastical polities such as the Seljuk Empire (1037-1194) and the Khwarazmian dynasty (1077-1231) assumed greater control in the core of the Islamic world. There was even a westward expansion into Byzantine territory in Anatolia with the Sultanate of Rum (1077-1307). As the Turkic peoples who assumed leadership of Islam pushed out of Central Asia, another phenomenon struck both this region and the northern rim of the Middle East: the Genghis Khan-led Mongol invasion of Central Asia – a process that began in 1206 and reached fruition with the Khwarazmian Empire’s weakening in 1224. Central Asia then became the launchpad for the Mongol Empire to expand far and wide, west toward the Black Sea Basin and south into the heart of the Arab world.

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Ultimately, however, the Mongol Empire fractured among Genghis Khan’s various descendants. In addition, ruling over large Muslim populations led the Mongols themselves to convert to Islam. The rulers of three of the four khanates (Golden Horde, Ilkhanate and Chagatai) adopted Islam. Of these three, the Chagatai Khanate held most of the territory where modern-day Central Asia exists. The Chagatai lost land to rival dynastical polities, especially the Timurid Empire (1370-1507), but lasted until the 17th century. These various khanates underscored the great impact the Mongol invasion had on the region. Thus, three principal dynamics – Turkic ethnicity, Sunni Islam and Mongolian rule – shaped the region prior to the Russians’ arrival.

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However, Central Asia underwent greater fragmentation and saw the rise of various khanates even before the Russians arrived. These include the Kazakh Khanate, Kokand Khanate, Khiva Khanate and Bukhara Khanate. By the 16th century, the Uzbeks had established the Bukhara Khanate, and much of the southern part of Central Asia, centered in the Fergana Valley, was under their control. Central Asian khanates began to decline, however, after the 16th-century establishment of the Safavid Empire in present-day Iran and Iraq and after the emergence of Turkic polities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. By the time the Russians arrived in the 19th century, during the czarist era, the area was ripe for conquest.

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The Russian/Soviet Takeover

Over a period spanning seven decades, czarist Russia conquered Central Asia. The conquest was completed at the end of the 19th century. Because of its size and dispersed population, the area now known as Kazakhstan was a particularly time-consuming conquest. Once that was achieved, however, the medieval-style polities in what became Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan collapsed quickly. By the time imperial Russia consolidated its hold over these areas, the Bolsheviks had taken over, and it was the Soviets who gave the region its current geopolitical structure.

Josef Stalin, who would later become the leader of the Soviet Union during World War II, organized Central Asia along ethnic lines (Kazakh, Turkmen, Uzbek, Kyrgyz and Tajik) in the mid-1920s while he was a senior official during Vladimir Lenin’s rule. The modern states of the region were thus based on a communist model. The Russians were able to quickly take over these areas in part because Central Asia was separated from the rest of the Muslim world and in part because Russia faced no competition there. (Central Asia was beyond China’s western periphery and the Chinese core was along the Pacific Ocean, so China – which was not nearly as significant a power at the time – did not project any influence.) The various medieval warlord-style khanates were not able to resist the might of the Russians.

More important, there was a power vacuum in Central Asia that the Soviet model of governance was easily able to fill. By establishing socialist republics and a localized Communist Party structure, the Soviets created a local communist elite, loyal to Moscow, to rule each of these five republics. Though the five Soviet Socialist republics were administratively separate entities, they were integrated into the Kremlin’s civil-military structure. Able as the republics were to militarily suppress dissent and conquer the region, the Central Asian people’s combination of ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural differences required heavy assimilation from the Kremlin’s point of view.

The Soviets subsumed Central Asia into the Soviet Union during a time of global upheaval in the wake of World War II, which facilitated the process. Settling a large number of ethnic Russians in these republics was also a great help, as was using Russian as the common language and adopting Cyrillic for the local languages. Thus, the region was heavily integrated into the Soviet Union.

The transnational message of communism was useful to suppress national sentiments along ethnic lines. However, it created problems regarding Islam. Here, a mix of coercion and bringing religious institutions under state control proved helpful. The Islam of Central Asia, given the region’s relative isolation from the rest of the Muslim world, was quite different, which made it more malleable.

The Here and Now

When Moscow integrated Central Asia into the Soviet Union, Islamism (Islamic militancy or fundamentalism) was in its infancy, and the world was abiding by the logic of the Cold War. This was the heyday of left-wing ideology, which was gaining traction around the world. So firm was the Soviets’ grip over Central Asia that the region served as the launchpad for Russia’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan. However, the Soviets’ defeat in that war and, more significantly, the subsequent collapse of the Soviet political economy, forced the Central Asian republics to emerge as sovereign nation-states roughly a decade later.

The Soviet governing model in these Central Asian republics was such that the regional rulers became independent regimes essentially overnight. While the Communist Party structure collapsed, the states were sufficiently institutionalized and the local political strongmen and their associates faced little to no resistance as they fortified their power. The West was also enthusiastic about the Soviet Union’s downfall, which marked the demise of communism as an ideological rival. This enthusiasm played a key role in Central Asian countries – along with those in the Caucasus – gaining international recognition.

The challenge for these 25-year-old regimes, however, is how to embrace free market economics while avoiding enacting political reforms. In many ways, having Russia and China as major economic partners has helped. There is also the fact that Moscow has retained political and military influence over Central Asian countries through post-Soviet structures such as the Commonwealth of Independent States. However, both the global economic downturn following the 2008 financial crisis and, more recently, declining energy prices have increased uncertainty for these regimes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev enter a hall before their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 5, 2017. Photo by Pavel Golovkin/AFP/Getty Images

Aging leadership will also shape the future of Central Asia, as is evident from the transition underway in Uzbekistan after the death of its longtime dictator Islam Karimov as well as the pending change in Astana given the advanced age of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. We are also in an age in which Muslim societies are seeing religious revival along with the rise of radical and insurrectionist Islamism. This phenomenon is percolating in Central Asia – and in the areas that surround it.


Under the circumstances outlined above, it is unlikely that these Central Asian regimes will be able to escape social, political and economic upheaval. Furthermore, this region has never seen local political forces self-govern for long without succumbing to infighting. While there is no threat of any outside power invading, as has happened before, the weakening of the regional hegemon – Russia – poses a danger. Since Moscow is the only power that can help maintain stability in the region, Russia’s decline makes the “stans” far more vulnerable.

Central Asia is a complex region, one influenced by historical processes that have unfolded over the past millennium and a half. The consolidation of the Turkic peoples in the region and their conversion to Islam, along with subjugation by the Mongols, Russian colonialism and geographic surroundings, have shaped the region. This is the framework that we have developed to examine Central Asia, which remains among the world’s least-understood regions. In future Deep Dives, we will examine each of the five Central Asian countries in greater detail.