Nations and Postcolonialism in Central Asia: 20 years later.

This extract is taken from Sergei Abashin’s chapter in Julien Thorez (ed.) Development in Central Asia and the Caucasus: Migration, Democratisation and Inequality in the Post-Soviet Era
(London: I.B. Tauris, 2014). Footnotes are not included.

The collapse of the USSR and the appearance in its stead of some 15 new states, not counting several territories declaring themselves to be states, has raised the inevitable question of how this space might now be reconfigured for analytical purposes. Should it, as used to be the case, be considered as an indivisible whole (as ‘post-Soviet countries’ for example, or as ‘Eurasia’2)? Or would it be better divided into separate parts, each correlated with other, wider delineations (‘North/South’, ‘West/East’, ‘the Christian/Islamic worlds’ etc.)? Both solutions have their reasons and goals, and, naturally, their pros and cons. In the first case, there is the risk of ascribing certain unique and uniform features to this space, while ignoring on the one hand its internal complexity and on the other its interaction with the rest of the world. In the second case, the opposite danger arises: of ignoring shared historical experiences and essentialising the borders, first and foremost the cultural borders, between the various communities which inhabit the space in question. Evidently, then, any strategy for analysis must be developed around the possibility of combining and aligning these two perspectives.

This article is an attempt to blitz through an overview of contemporary processes in Central Asian countries, along with a critical look at the analytical categories used to describe these processes.

Of course, ‘Central Asia’ is itself a somewhat arbitrary frame for scrutiny: it could be narrowed by splintering the territory into smaller parts (for instance ‘Ferghana’, ‘The Pamirs’, ‘The Caspian Area’ and so on) or, on the contrary, it could be expanded and reconfigured, resulting in different outlines to be analysed (for example ‘The Muslim Regions of the USSR’). This article, nonetheless, assumes ‘Central Asia’ to be a place that, for the greater number of readers, is already defined and already endowed with a whole range of features, even if only in their imagination.3 It is familiar in the guise of an administratively-outlined territory comprising of the five former ‘Asiatic’ republics of the USSR, which at one time formed a distinctive Soviet ‘Other’, being simultaneously ‘exotic’ and ‘backward’. This place, being ‘different’, was — and still is — frequently absent from of any discussion of the Russian Empire, the USSR and the post-Soviet period; only a few rare voices carry from ‘over there’. Central Asia remains a (post-)Soviet backwater, on which the attention of scholars and lay people rests only infrequently, and then not for long.4 This absence is another peculiarity which makes it possible to talk of an imagined unity within the region, at least from the point of view of those who continue to experience their own ‘Europeaness’ and ‘centrality’ in relation to it.

This article will centre its attention on three categories commonly applied to the new Central Asian states: ‘Nation’, ‘Postcoloniality’ and ‘Post-Sovietness’. It will consider the following: the ways in which these three categories are used to help describe modern Central Asian society (or societies); which schemas, classifications, and models are applied to it (or them); and the similarities, dissimilarities, new questions and further lines of inquiry which may arise.

Nations and their fragments?

The collapse of the USSR and the entire subsequent period are often perceived as the long-awaited triumph of the idea of the nation; a triumph which all preceding history (or all of the twentieth century, at least) had been preparing for, which sustained and intensified the consolidation of strong national states, national ideologies and national identities. Indeed, in Central Asian countries, the following phenomena have been observed: the creation of national mythologies and rituals; the rewriting of textbooks and the recasting of museum exhibits in the spirit of national histories; the strengthening of (or, at any rate, attempts to strengthen) the role of national languages; acute anxiety regarding demographic and cultural threats posed by foreign ethnic minorities etc.1 Conflicts and contradictions can likewise be seen within Central Asian countries and between them, which take place under the banner of national interests (or the interests of the ‘titular’ nations), while in bitter clashes in the media and on the internet nationally-charged accusations and insults, along with promises of victory and revanche, are hurled in the name of the nation.

This article aims not so much to undermine this perception as to show various facets of the process in which nation-states are consolidated. This process should not be seen as developing of its own accord, nor as teleologically preordained, but as the sum of the effects from varied and, at times, chaotic events and actions. These effects interlink with, structure and intensify one another, they are relayed into other spheres, and they shape not only the way in which one set of events or another are remembered, but also the way in which they are explained.