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The Soviet Heritage in Central Asia

In the European public view, the five Central Asian states Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are perceived as post-Soviet countries still struggling to manage their economic and political transition – as many former Eastern Bloc countries did and still do.

Certainly, besides cultural and historical aspects, the common Soviet past is one of the constituent elements of Central Asia as a region today. However, this attribute seems to be mostly assigned by others and not by Central Asian countries themselves. But what does the Soviet heritage mean for the five countries concerned? How have Central Asians experienced the times when they were part of the USSR, and how is that era perceived now? Is the Soviet heritage an obstacle for today’s development or a fruitful ground- in terms of regional integration for instance? These questions are interesting to me not only as a European ‘post-Eastern Bloc citizen’, but also – in the light of a ‘new regionalism’ in Central Asia – to me as a researcher.

It is no secret that for Central Asia the Soviet rule mainly meant communist rule with Moscow as its political centre, a centrally planned economy with an artificial and high interdependence within the different entities of the USSR. Further, Soviet rule is associated with an industrialisation that pushed back traditional and nomadic life in many parts of the region, a skewing of their ethnic mixture through Stalin’s ‘national delimitation’ that was characterized by significant national migration and resettlements, a ‘russification’ and suppression of local languages and cultures.

After their independence in 1991, Central Asian countries saw territorial, political and ethnic conflicts resurge that had been kept down during the Soviet rule. Examples of such conflicts are especially the civil war in Tajikistan 1991-1997, unrest in Andijan/Uzbekistan 2005, and the revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. Also, the disputes over water resources rekindled after the Soviet Union fragmented into separate national entities which first of all focused on their own further development. Prominent examples are the controversies over the Aral Sea located in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, or the Rogun dam project of Tajikistan that provoked opposition of neighbouring Uzbekistan and, to a minor extent, Kazakhstan. After Uzbekistan’s recent “regionalist turn”, many see a chance to further pacify the region. One might consider at least the positive experiences of technical and economic cooperation during the Soviet period as a starting point after years of non-cooperation and regional disintegration of the post-Soviet period.

Today, the Soviet past widely seems to be perceived as negative, focusing on the lack of freedoms and the suppression of the local peoples. However, being confronted with the economic and social constraints of a globalised economy, the citizens of Central Asian countries experience a nostalgic desire for certain aspects of Soviet life such as stability, the quality of human relations, and social security. They also experience the desire for the feeling of pride that stands in sharp contrast to the economic and political decline of their countries’ economies after independence that had shaped the past quarter-century.

Undoubtedly, the issue of Central Asia’s Soviet past cannot be deliberated without touching upon Russia’s role in the region then and now. The Soviet past is an important aspect of Russia’s Eurasian integration ambitions via the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). From a Russian perspective, nostalgic desires are probably a helpful tool to advance this kind of integration. Insofar, Central Asian states should be aware of the manipulability of collective memory, and reflect about how to perceive and present the Soviet stage of their national histories. A conscious commemorative culture would also contribute to reviewing their relations with Russia, a process that is still hampered by the unsettled view on the past.

Studying the Soviet past and issues of nostalgia is often regarded as being oriented towards the past and as not yielding new incentives for the future. The elderly people’s nostalgia about the past is comprehensible, but seldom constructive. Nevertheless, as Central Asia is still struggling with its identity, political orientation, relationship with its neighbours and in particular its relation to Russia, it seems crucial that the region’s countries come to terms with their past in order to be able to create their future.

SEnECA Blog Contribution by Dr. Susann Heinecke, CIFE