The -Stans of Central Asia: The Turanian Bioregion

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In Central Asia -- Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, all former USSR republics -- Europe and Asia meet, Islam and Christianity intersect, and West (North) and East (South) coexist. Central Asia's mountains and deserts are huge, teeming with snow leopard, hyena, argali, and hundreds of endemic plant and animal species. It is one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet. And, no less important, its people, representing a boundless spectrum of languages and nationalities, are capable of magnificent feats of song, feast, insight, and hospitality.

The "-stans" were the northern claim of Alexander the Great's conquests (even today, many Tajikistanis claim descent from Alexander), part of Chinggis Khan's empire, the heart of Tamerlane's realm and, through Babur, the source of India's Moghul Empire. The Silk Road wound through the ancient cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Khiva, which boast wonderful mosques, madrassahs, and monuments.

As Central Asia moves away from its submersion in the USSR, it both embraces the West and becomes more nationalistic, attracts foreign investment, and resists democratization. The five countries of the region and a host of internal and external commentators wonder what the future of Central Asia will be. Inextricably linked to the question of "What will be?" are the often-overshadowing questions of "Who are we?" and "What happened?" Regarding the (non-immediate) future, Central Asians are in consensus in wishing for economic growth, democracy, rule of law, and social harmony. Right now, the history that is of most interest to Central Asians is the pre-soviet past. Uzbekistan's government, for instance, has made a concerted effort to produce histories painting Tamerlane as a champion of civil society and social issues.

To accept modern Central Asia is to accept contradictions. Here are ten facts to get you started.

1 Central Asia has the third largest oil and gas reserves on the planet. While Uzbekistan is largely self-sufficient in hydrocarbons, Kazakstan and Turkmenistan will be major exporters of oil and gas. Yet, all the Central Asian states are undergoing processes of social stratification that make me suspect that these future petrodollars will not mean much for most people in the region.

2 Central Asia is immense -- roughly half the size of the continental US. Since Central Asia is usually viewed on maps of the former USSR, Russia distorts the immensity of the region. Indeed, Kazakstan is one of the ten largest countries in the world. Accordingly, the range of ecosystems and terrain, and the distances and difficulties of travel lend the region a character unknown to any other post-communist region, with the exception of Russia.

3 Central Asia is industrialized and has European levels of literacy and university education. Nearly universal literacy accords the region a potential that its neighbors to the south and east do not have. Most people in the region are bi- and trilingual, although for obvious historical reasons, there are few English speakers. Moreover, following Soviet norms, a very large number of the college-educated are engineers, doctors, and scientists.

4 Central Asia is the site of two of the four worst Soviet environmental disasters. Semi-palatinsk in Kazakstan was the main nuclear test site in the USSR, and fallout from its tests (nearby settlements were not evacuated) is blamed for health problems in Kazakstan, Russia, and beyond.

More dramatic, however, is the rapid desiccation of the Aral Sea on the border of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan. Wasteful and immense irrigation projects (largely for cotton) diverted waters from two rivers (the Amudarya and Syrdarya; aka the Oxus and Jaxartes) which feed the Aral, once the fourth largest inland body of water in the world. …