SEnECA Blog Post: 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