Ethnic identity is a fuzzy concept for several reasons. On the one hand, the very question of what is an ethnic group is not an easy one to answer. On the other hand, once this is established for a specific case, it is yet another task to define who belongs to it, and who does not, and how stable such assignments actually are. This is as true for Central Asia as for any other place in the world, and the fact that, for earlier periods of history, the records—both native ones and others—use a great variety of terms for human populations, does not make it any easier. Thus, it is largely unclear, which of the tribal groups or early statehoods correspond to a contemporary understanding of ethnicity. Anthropological scholarship on Central Asia has, by contrast, stressed the rather vague and floating categories that people in the region used to define themselves and others. According to this view, the creation of ethnic groups was largely a product of more or less artificial engineering during Soviet times. Before, local communities and extended kin groups, regularly reshuffled and redefined in history, were of much greater importance for people’s identification and alliances than language or assumed genetic ties. While there is some truth in that, the picture is more complex. Particularly among the Turkic-speaking groups in the region, a steady process of consolidation set in following the decline of the Mongol Empire, resulting in the emergence of contemporary ethnic groups out of earlier configurations. The underlying concepts of attachment and self-understanding vary, however, and can be distinguished in two different modes, roughly corresponding to the divide between nomadic and sedentary groups. Among the former, the idea of patrilineal descent, or a genealogical model, is at the bottom of internal divisions as well as external demarcation; in the oases, the prime criteria are proximity and shared culture, or a territorial model of ethnic identity. Kazaks and Uzbeks respectively represent examples of these two models. Processes of ethnic demarcation have, however, been greatly accelerated during the Soviet period and its aftermath. Today, a hasty search for national identities can be observed across the region; while following lines of Soviet ethnicity concepts, these identities fundamentally change their understanding as well as inter-ethnic and majority-minority relations. This is still a very open and dynamic process leading to new (inter-)ethnic constellations and political power relations.
The Armenian people entered the modern era with their historic lands of more than three millennia divided between two empires—the Ottoman and Persian empires. The Ottomans ruled the western and larger part, while the Persians ruled the eastern lands. Ottoman rule extended from the fourteenth century to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The latter inherited the historic Armenian lands as a successor state to the Ottoman Empire. The Persian Empire ruled Armenian lands in the east until the signing of the Treaty of Turkmenchai in 1828, which, in the aftermath of the Russo-Persian wars, fulfilled Russian imperial expansionist objectives into the Caucasus by replacing Persian rule. For centuries, therefore, Armenians experienced the various aspects and phases of modernization—the Enlightenment, the emergence of capitalism, urbanization, nationalism—as a subject people. They did not achieve modern statehood until 1918 as the Ottoman and Russian empires collapsed under the weight of the First World War. Modern Armenia emerged when the Republic of Armenia was established as a sovereign state in May 1918, after centuries of foreign rule but in the midst of war and the ongoing genocide by the Young Turks ruling in Constantinople (now Istanbul) against its Armenian population. The fragile Republic of Armenia could not withstand the calamitous consequences of war. Moreover, thousands of Armenian refugees generated by the genocidal policies of the Young Turk regime arrived in the republic. The new government lacked the resources necessary for a functioning economy and polity, and the unfolding military conflicts led to its demise and sovietization after the Bolsheviks consolidated power in Yerevan in 1921. The Communist regime established a dictatorial system in Soviet Armenia and across the Soviet Union, but the severest brutalities were experienced under Joseph Stalin in the 1930s, as his government forced agricultural collectivization and rapid industrialization at the expense enormous human sacrifices. Despite the political difficulties, Soviet Armenia registered successes in the areas of economy and culture in the long term. Armenians benefited from the cultural development witnessed in the 1950s and 1960s, largely as a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s reform oriented policies. By the 1970s, however, the economy had grown stagnant under Leonid Brezhnev, and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, in the early 1980s failed to ameliorate the conditions, while the Soviet regime experienced a political legitimacy crisis. In the meantime, nationalism had emerged as a powerful force across the Soviet Union, and calls for secession from Moscow grew louder. Mikhail Gorbachev’s experimentation with perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) could not reverse the loss of legitimacy, a situation further exacerbated in Soviet Armenia in the aftermath of the earthquake in December 1988 and the escalating military conflict in Nagorno-Karabagh. The Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, creating an opportunity for a second declaration of independence for Armenian sovereign statehood in the 20th century. Although independence from the Soviet Union energized the Armenian people and gave rise to expectations concerning their economic and political well-being in post-Soviet Armenia, the country became mired in the twin crises of recovering from the earthquake while at the same time surviving an undeclared war with Azerbaijan, the latter being supported by Turkey. The economic blockade they imposed on Armenia further exacerbated the situation. Since independence, the Republic of Armenia, under its four successive leaders—Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan, Serge Sargsyan, and Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan—has struggled to develop its economy and infrastructure and to address the chronic problems of poverty and unemployment. The country lacks the economic and financial ingredients necessary to develop a modern, competitive productive basis for competition in global markets. Further, systemic corruption has obstructed efforts to improve the situation, while various government agencies have routinely engaged in violations of human rights. Efforts by nascent civil society to advance civil and political rights and democratization in general have been undermined by state policies, including gross violations of citizens’ rights in time of elections. The experiences gained after twenty-five years of independence pose major challenges for economic development while offering little hope for democratization. It remains to be seen whether the “velvet revolution” (March 31–May 8, 2018) led by Nikol Pashinyan can introduce fundamental changes in the Armenian political system. Former opposition activist and member of the National Assembly, Pashinyan emerged as the country’s prime minister after the “velvet revolution” forced the resignation of Serge Sargsyan on April 23, 2018.
Arguably, an account of modern Georgia is one about the country’s emergence as a political nation (independent republic and nation-state) in the region of the Caucasus—geographically straddled in between the Eurasian landmass—and the challenges of redefining, developing, and preserving itself. It is also about how it was forged under and often against its powerful neighbors, most notably the tsarist Soviet and Russian state, and about its equally uneven interactions with other neighboring nations and nationalities within its political borders. And while one cannot put a precise date on the cultural and political processes as to when this modern Georgia emerged, the late 19th century is that period when people within the two tsarist governorates of Tbilisi and Kutaisi interacted more intensively among themselves, but also within the imperial cultural and political centers of St. Petersburg and Moscow as well as beyond the imperial confines, in Central and Western European capitals. This in turn—following impactful events: the 1861 tsarist Emancipation of Serfs, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the First World War, the February and October Revolutions of 1917, the brief making of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (1918)—led to a diffusion of and reaction to political, economic, and cultural ideas from European and imperial metropoles that on May 26, 1918, culminated with the establishment, for the first time, of Georgia as a nation-state: the Georgian Democratic Republic. A social democratic nation-state in its political content, the political life of this first republic was cut short on February 25, 1921, by the Red Army of a re-emerging Russian (Soviet) state. In the ensuing seventy years in the Soviet Union—initially, from 1922 to 1936, as a constitutive republic of the Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic and then as a separate Soviet Socialist Republic until the implosion of the union in 1991—the republic and its society experienced the effects of the making and unmaking of the Soviet Marxist-Leninist modernization project. Especially impactful for the republic and its society was the period of the 1930s and 1940s under the hyper-centralized rule of the Georgian-born Soviet Communist Party leader Joseph V. Stalin: a period marked by implementation of a centrally planned economic model and political purges as well as a consolidation of the nation’s ethnocultural and territorial makeup. Also important was the late Soviet period, particularly that under the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whereby thanks to the economic and political reforms undertaken in the later 1980s, calls for the recovering of the republic’s political independence were intensified and ultimately realized. This happened on April 9, 1991—with the first Georgian president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, declaring the independence of the Republic of Georgia before the Soviet Union’s dissolution on December 26, 1991—and its international recognition would come easily and fast. But what would prove difficult and slow, from the outset, was building a European-style nation-state—meaning a liberal democratic order based on the rule of law and a market society—as was the case in the brief presidency of Gamsakhurdia (1991–1992). The latter’s term was marred by an ethnopolitical war in the South Ossetian region and brought to an end by a civil war fought in the capital city of Tbilisi and the Megrelian region. It continued to be difficult during the long and interrupted presidency of the former Georgian Communist Party boss, Eduard Shevardnadze (1995–2003)—the 1995 Constitution established a semi-presidential system of government—in which an ethnopolitical war with Abkhazia started and ended (1992–1993), state institutions stabilized, and a pro-Euro-Atlantic as opposed to a pro-Russian foreign policy was articulated, but state corruption also thrived. A European-style republic appeared closer during the full-term “hyper-presidency” of the Western-educated president Mikheil Saakashvili (2004–2013), marked by concrete steps toward Euro-Atlantic integration (NATO membership and EU partnership/toward membership) and a distancing from Russia as well as top-down neoliberal domestic reforms. But the republic was scarred by a war with Russia in August 2008 and a growing authoritarianism at home. It remains so despite a shift, since 2013, from a presidential to a parliamentary republic with the last directly elected president being the first woman president, Salome Zurabishvili (2018–). Since 2012, the Georgian Dream Party—established by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (prime minister, 2012–2013)—governs the republic by pursuing Western-oriented domestic reforms, EU and NATO integration, and a nonconfrontational position against Russia. The latter continues to undermine the country’s territorial integrity, having recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s independence in 2008 and maintaining its military bases there.
The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.