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  Ethnic tensions in Central Asia: autochthonous and Russian minorities (1)

Fabio Belafatti, Coordinator of the Centre of Contemporary Central Asian Studies (Vilnius University, Oriental Studies Centre) and lecturer of Central Asian Politics
2014 03 10

A common prophecy about Central Asia was that after independence the region would rapidly fall into ethnic-based violence that could potentially tear it apart. Over twenty years after the fall of the USSR, this is yet to materialize. Instead,Central Asia shows a proneness to small-scale tensions over resources that take an ethnic form, but seem incapable of causing full-scale security threats and state collapse. This article analyses both the dynamics of inter-ethnic tensions between local minorities and the role of the Russian minority in Central Asia.

Ethnicity in Central Asia

When assessing the impact of ethnicity in Central Asia, one should remember that many of the ethnic definitions in the region are consolidated in the way they are only as a result of Soviet nationality policies. Pre-Soviet identities had very little to do with contemporary ethnic definitions, which largely resulted from a complex policy of “creation of nations”, seen by the Soviets as a necessary, albeit unwelcome step towards Socialism and consistently implemented in different forms throughout Soviet Central Asia.

However artificial these ethnic definitions may be, the fact remains that Central Asian people now feel them as real and existing. This brings them to define themselves according to such definitions and opens the space for ethnic-based group identity, which, in turn, can develop into competition or even conflict over resources along ethnic lines when the conditions allow it.

Autochthonous ethnic minorities

Ethnicity in Fergana

The Fergana valley is often seen as a source of ethnic conflict: this once-prosperous, diverse region at the heart of Central Asia suffered considerably from the fall of the USSR and its now-struggling economy puts different groups in competition against one another for control of resources and political power. This issue is particularly serious in ethnically mixed regions of southern Kyrgyzstan, which saw at least two major episodes of ethnic-based violence, in 1990 and 2010, between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks (Uzbeks constitute 14.4% of Kyrgyzstan’s population and are mostly concentrated in the South). Minor clashes between different groups happen regularly in the valley.

What is important to notice, though, is that virtually all cases of ethnically-motivated tensions, including those in 2010, were not caused by a primordial, supposedly irresolvable ethnic hatred but by very practical competition over scarce resources or disagreement over the role of minority groups in local politics. Essentially, what is often regarded as “ethnic tension” is simply group competition that takes an ethnic form in a context in which the state cannot deliver services and resources to its citizens.

Large part of these issues could be solved with more accountability in decision-making processes at a local level, which would in turn result in better administrative performance and limit the scarcity of resources behind many of the recent clashes. However, even if these are caused by very practical concerns and take place between somehow artificial ethnic definitions, they still dig gaps between communities that end up consolidating ethnic contraposition and fuelling desires of revenge which may prove extremely hard to quell.

Tajiks and Uzbeks

Besides the Fergana Valley, there are other parts of Central Asia where ethnicity may come to play a disruptive role for state security and social order. All over central-southern Uzbekistan as well as north and western Tajikistan, Uzbek and Tajik communities live mixed with titular nationalities: Uzbekistan’s Tajik minority accounts for around 20% of the population according to most research, while Tajikistan has large Uzbek minorities especially in the north, where Uzbeks may be 30-40% of the population. This would not be a problem if it wasn’t for the fact that both governments (and particularly the Tajik one) are promoting aggressively nationalist ideas that intend to present their nation as historically, culturally or even racially superior.

This policy is used to promote internal regime legitimacy, but as both states are failing to put in place measures to ensure economic security for their population as well as national minorities, the risk is that radical ideas of national/racial superiority merge with grievances over lack of resources and power sharing, causing far more violent ethnic clashes than those taking place in Fergana. Both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan seem to be playing with fire with ideas and feelings that might be still embryonic but could later become all too real.

The Russian minority in Central Asia


Considering the underlying similarity between Central Asian ethnic groups, one may wonder how the local population relates with the Russian minority, which stands out for cultural, linguistic and religious uniqueness in a landscape of Turkic- or Persian-speaking, Muslim populations. It would be normal to expect significant issues to exist between Russians and local ethnic groups. Instead, what is interesting about the Russian minority is how scarcely problematic its presence is inCentral Asia.

Most of the Russians moved to Central Asia in Soviet times to work in key sectors such as engineering, medicine and education. Since the 1970ies they started leaving, but it was only with independence that this became an irreversible, mass-scale emigration. This, and the high birth rate of local nationalities, caused the percentage of Russians on the Central Asian population to plunge: from 42% in the 1960ies to 23.7% in the late 2000s in Kazakhstan; from 30% to 6.6% in Kyrgyzstan; from 13.5% to 2.7% in Uzbekistan; from 17% to 3-4% in Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, because of the civil war of 1992-1997, the drop was even more serious, from 13% to less than 1%.

Why there are no tensions with Russians?

Some Central Asians, especially in conservative, patriarchal societies, have a low opinion of Russians: they dislike their drinking habits on religious ground or despise Russian women’s lifestyle for not being “modest”. But overall, feelings towards Russians are largely positive and even some of the Central Asians themselves, especially from urban classes, prefer to communicate in Russian.

The departure of huge numbers of skilled Russian workers left a devastating impact on Central Asian societies: understandably, therefore, many locals miss the Russians sorely. This, together with the association of Russians with the USSR, a political system that many in Central Asia still regard as prosperous age, protects the Russians from hostile feelings.

At the same time, the impossibility to organize in Central Asia’s rigidly authoritarian context, while leaving the Russians totally deprived of representation, “protects” them from the risk of being seen as political adversaries. Only in Kazakhstan did the Russians manage to organize and the early years after independence saw significant ethnic-based political rivalry, but the closure of political space slowly neutralized this factor as free political expression became more and more difficult for all ethnic groups.

More importantly, the majority of Russians are disconnected from informal networks such as clans and patronage that are crucial to access resources and political power in Central Asia: in a context of informal politics, they remain marginalized and are not seen as competitors by local nationalities. Autochthonous ethnic minorities on the other hand do belong to clans and patronage networks and can therefore compete with titular nationalities over scarce resources, which in turn makes them potential targets.

The Russians of Central Asia: potential for economic integration?

Despite positive feelings towards the Russians of Central Asia, it would be unrealistic to think that they do not suffer from discrimination or that their presence can promote economic integration between Russia and Central Asia. Discrimination is not a result of racism but rather an unavoidable effect of the social system of Central Asian countries, which leaves Russians outside of patronage. Colonization of the state by powerful political clans excludes large portions of the local population itself from power, let alone members of an exogenous ethnic minority.

This condition of marginalization makes the Russian minority an essentially negligible factor in Russian-Central Asian cooperation. Russia itself does not seem to care much about political and economic discrimination suffered by the Russians of Central Asia. The five “Stans” are large markets and important elements in Russia’s energy strategy and it would not be worth undermining the relationship with them to protect the rights of the Russian minority.

Ultimately, the existence of cooperation between Russian and the Central Asian states depends more on internal priorities of Central Asian regimes than on the presence of a Russian minority. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are telling examples, with their small Russian minorities but very close ties and economic dependence on Russia. With or without a Russian minority, Central Asian governments and common people still try to maintain a connection if and when needed, for personal or state reasons.


Both the case of autochthonous minorities and the Russian one show that ethnic conflict is far from unavoidable in Central Asia. Most of the times, tensions are caused by scarcity of resources and lack of economic opportunities, which lead individuals from different ethnic groups to unite to advance group interests and increase their chances to succeed in gaining control over sources of relative economic prosperity.

The Russian minority is an interesting case, for its exclusion from clan-based patronage networks and consequent inability to seriously compete with autochthonous group makes it a negligible threat to titular nationalities and, unsurprisingly, leaves it outside of ethnic tensions. This also makes it hard for it to play any role in promoting economic ties betweenRussia and Central Asia, though.

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