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Ethnic Conflict in Modern Central Asia  

Sergey Abashin

Pre-modern Central Asia saw a lot of violence and wars that had religious underpinnings or originated from genealogical claims. The colonial and Soviet reforms brought about reconsideration of cultural diversity in the logic of ethnic division. In the 20th century, reference to ethnicity became the main language of spontaneous violence escalation and explanation. With the weakening of Soviet rule, the region saw a series of heated conflicts. The most massive of them were the 1989 pogroms against Meskhi Turks in Uzbekistan and the 1990 clashes in Kyrgyzstan that took the shape of ethnic confrontation between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. Lesser disturbances also emerged in the borderlands and in mixed-ethnicity villages. After the collapse of the USSR, the 1990s saw an increase in social and religious violence in Central Asia. However, despite the violence being different in character, Central Asia had already gained a reputation of a very conflict-ridden region precisely in the ethnic sense. Many experts and politicians listed manifold potential ethnic conflicts about to break out in the region. In 2010, one of these predictions came true in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where a clash erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These expert assessments were also borne out by occasional conflicts over land and water arising between communities that live in the border areas. Nevertheless, the label of ethnic conflict does not always explain the reasons for violence. The conflicts in Central Asia arise and develop as a variety of local actions, which have different sequences, logic, and motivation. These actions are performed by very different agents—people, groups, and institutes that have their own interests and dispositions. Social and political slogans sound during the events, while the line of confrontation lies between local communities and particular groups of people, not between “nations” or “ethnic groups.” The label of ethnic conflict simplifies all these entanglements; there is usually a political interest or a certain intellectual tradition behind it, which essentializes and historicizes the reasons for aggression.

Article

The Soviet Legacy in Central Asian Politics and Society  

Vincent Artman

To trace the Soviet legacy in Central Asia is to trace the contours of a complex, multifaceted, and in many ways unfinished process. Between the advent of Russian imperial rule in the late 19th century and the collapse of Soviet power in 1991, the dynastic monarchies and nomadic federations of Central Asia were subdued, and the region was refashioned first into a European settler colony and then into industrialized national republics. Everything from political geography and institutions, economic patterns, urban patterns, and normative identities were indelibly shaped by the Soviet experience. Despite the legacies of the Soviet period, however, each of the states of Central Asia has also followed its own distinct trajectory since 1991, complicating the search for a coherent regional narrative. All of the post-Soviet states of Central Asia share certain common political, economic, and cultural “inheritances,” but their divergent histories since 1991 highlight not only the enduring significance of this shared patrimony, but also their remarkably different responses and trajectories since 1991.

Article

The Shifting Commercial Economy of Post-Soviet Central Asia  

Regine Spector and Aisalkyn Botoeva

Since 1991, commerce and trade in Central Asia have changed significantly. Prior to 1991, Soviet Central Asia had been incorporated into centralized production, distribution, and retail networks, and regional borders were formally closed to many outside products and exchanges. Upon independence in 1991, these integrated production, distribution, and supply chains collapsed, and the new Central Asian countries—to varying degrees—liberalized their economies and opened their borders to flows of goods and people. Domestic manufacturing and production slowed dramatically. Citizens of these countries initially turned to barter and trade of basic consumer goods as a survival strategy to feed themselves and their families in the midst of evaporating wages and disappearing jobs. While traders forged regional and global trading networks connecting local villages and cities in Central Asia with manufacturing and re-export hubs in China, India, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey, among other places, over time, the new post-Soviet elite gained ownership and control over lucrative bazaar land, cargo companies, airline agencies, and other logistics nodes. Soviet-era roads and railways initially dominated trade networks; later, airline routes and new land-based infrastructure built through intergovernment agreements and international development projects afforded new commercial possibilities. China became one of the central nodes in trade networks for consumer goods and has invested significantly into building regional infrastructure, while Russia has remained an important supplier of hydrocarbon and other commodities. Amid these changes, self-understandings of trade have shifted; for example, as Soviet-era stigmas against trade have receded, religious-based and other moralities condoning trade have ascended. While commercial activity was a significant survival strategy and served as a launch pad for other businesses in the region, trade and commerce patterns have been subject to financial crises, political upheavals, and border closures in the 1990s and 2000s, and in 2020, to a global pandemic, illuminating the precarity of reliance on trade and commerce in contexts that do not otherwise have robust state-based social support mechanisms.

Article

Post-Soviet Koreans  

Matteo Fumagalli

Korean communities have lived in the territory of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and successor states for over 150 years. The history of the post-Soviet Koreans has been shaped by multiple transnational mobilities, including a dispersal across a wide territory. As of 2021, two-thirds of approximately half a million post-Soviet Koreans are settled in Central Asia, primarily in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan; one-third is in Russia, and a growing community of several tens of thousands is working and residing in South Korea. The ethnonym subsumes three distinct sets of sub-ethnic communities. The largest group includes the Koryo Saram (i.e., the descendants of those who migrated from the northern part of the Korean Peninsula to the Russian Empire from the second half of the 19th century onward). Most were deported to Central Asia in 1937. The second much smaller group includes the Sakhalin Koreans. Originally from the southern part of the Korean Peninsula, they had migrated to the southern part of Sakhalin Island (then under Japanese colonial rule) between 1939 and 1945. In addition, some students and contract workers from North Korea decided to remain on Soviet territory, where they had moved between 1946 and 1949, instead of returning to their country of origin. Despite some commonalities across these groups, the notion of Soviet and post-Soviet Koreans bundles together peoples of different origins, patterns of settlement, identities, and even the type and density of links to the Korean Peninsula. The collapse of the Soviet Union and greater engagement by South Korea in the following decades ushered in an era of significant challenges and opportunities for post-Soviet Koreans. It also brought about new mobilities and revealed growing inter-generational differences in terms of language and broader cultural loss, maintenance or erosion of group boundaries, and degrees of integration into local societies. Traditionally, scholarship has focused on the 1937 deportations, the different historical geographies of the group, and evolving conceptions of home and homeland. In the opening decades of the 21st century, scholars have also explored issues of status, citizenship, and subjecthood in the evolving imperial formations straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, and have highlighted intra-group heterogeneity and the hyphenization of identities in the contemporary period.