Post-Imperial Nation-Building in Central Asia: Issues of National Identity, Political Psychology and Migration

15 April 2010
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We have been witnessing a remarkable development of nationalistic trends in the beginning of the XXI century. These trends have been influencing all kinds of social facilities of nation-states. Especially it is true for newly emerged post-Soviet countries in their search for national identity. Identity negotiations have gone beyond the scope of political discussions in parliament and social reforms, and have been reflected in media, literature, cinema and theater. The film “Nomad” with Hollywood stars playing main personages could be perceived as cultural reflection of nationalistic ideas in the cinema production of Post-Soviet Kazakhstan.

Historically the definition of nationalism included positive context which had changed eventually. Nationalism has been handled as a negative appearance under light of ethnic conflicts after II World War when lots of “nation-states” emerged in Asia and Africa. Power of nationalism is related to emergence of identity – people could not live without, because people have extreme need to define themselves with means of whatever it could be: a clan, tribe or ethnic group. In case of Central Asian nation-states, they have defined geographical borders, dominant ethnic identities transformed to national identities and societies tend to be more homogeneous in respect of nationalism theory. However there are some problems with borders and national minorities, which emerge from time to time.

Most underdeveloped countries had been colonized by imperial states and gained their independence just in the second half of XX. Century. Ex-colonial regions had difficulties to create feelings of being a nation and acquire national identity when they got their independence. Nations and nation-states in various parts of world have not formed yet, despite some writers began arguing an “end of a nation-state” in age of globalization. Japanese writer Kenichi Ohmaye argues “we are living in a world without borders with weakened national identities as a result of globalization”.

There are some crucial points to mention about post-Soviet countries. The Soviet Union had harbored a lot of various antagonistic identities; despite Soviet ideology tried to implant “homo sovieticus” identity and had succeeded in some cases. Religious identities such as Islam, Christianity and Shamanism; multiplicity of ethnic identities like Turkic, Slavic and Roman groups show us complicated diversity of identities. Therefore, we should make allowance for some special features as traditional Turkic-Islamic roots of regional culture, tribalism institute creeping to political power and eastern mentality of newly emerged republics in analysis of the Post-Soviet Central Asia. Nonetheless we are discussing the scattered nations with high percentage of educated people and pro-dynamic category but had lived under suppression from generation to generation.

So here we witness two types of psychological behavior between the politics of former Soviet Central Asian states and Russian Federation: post-colonial and post-imperial attitudes. Post-colonial psychology shows itself when Central Asian states unconsciously trying to order their economies and politics according to Russia’s policy. Especially this phenomenon has bright examples in the Kyrgyz republic and Tajikistan; it may be caused by their restricted financial sources and political vulnerability. Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are more confident in this case and succeeded to make politics of own interests in some cases. However, Russia has prominent influence on 50 million Post–Soviet people living in Central Asia.

Post-imperial psychology is a political attitude of Russian Federation towards newly independent states. CIS – Commonwealth of Independent States was established after collapse of the Soviet Union, which was named by Manuel Castells as Commonwealth of Impossible States because of its formal nature. By this way Russia tried to preserve its leadership position in the post-Soviet area; however ethnic conflicts in Chechnya and economic crisis in 1993 had destructive effects on foreign affairs, especially towards post-union states. New generation had grown during transition period, however disputes in Russian parliament shows us enduring imperial mind of Russia as it was since 1876 . Political development of Russia towards “nationalization” are bright symptoms of imperial psychology.

Emergence of such consequences as weak government, lack of budget/exhausted budget, distribution of ethnic conflicts because of land and water, drug trafficking, growing gap between different layers of society, labor migration and low quality of education were results of critical social problems arose after 1991 in Central Asia. There were offered a model of cooperation as integration of Central Asian region and establishment of united political area - Central Asian Republics’ Union.

Analysis of integration factors as common historical – cultural heritage,   common geographical area, giant neighbours like China, Russia, India, Iran and Pakistan especially their desructive influence points that there are no hard reasons to impede integration of Central Asia.

After the sudden and unexpected disintegration of the Soviet Union in September 1991, all 15 Soviet republics became independent countries. Since the Soviet Union had been administratively divided into republics according to ethnic principles, the new successor states soon turned into ethnically based societies. Major ethnic groups suddenly became dominant ones, while Russians, who had been seen as a ruling nationality, became a subordinate minority.

The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917, which at first sight completely destroyed the Tsarist regime, in fact continued many legacies of imperial authoritarianism. However, among the new forms of social control introduced after the revolution was the ethnically structured system of territorial administration. Following various ideological and political motives, the communist government eventually divided its territory into 15 ethnically-defined Soviet republics. Borders were drawn in a way that only vaguely reflected the borders of the previous state entities. While prior to the emergence of the Soviet Union in 1922, several new union republics had a history of statehood at some point in history, others were not part of larger nation-state and were completely new political creations. New ethnic identities were formed, especially in Central Asia. When central Soviet authority collapsed following the aborted anti-Gorbachev coup attempt of August 1991, union republics became independent from Moscow de jure. The internal administrative borders became international borders overnight, and ethnic identity became (which in some cases was created by purely political decisions) a strong political factor in the newly independent states especially in Central Asian republics.

These developments sent a shock wave among millions of people. All they had and all they relied on were destroyed and the most terrible thing they were unnecessary any more. In period since 1991 until 2006 Post-Soviet countries were born again indeed. Transformation of once great Soviet Union into 15 independent republics and their adaptation to market conditions naturally emerged a lot of difficulties. Central Asian countries were generally raw materials suppliers during the Soviet time therefore it was difficult to transit to market requirements. The main income of Central Asian region comes from exportation of natural resources but they will end one day while problems will exist.

Post-Soviet countries couldn’t avoid migration issues, which emerged drastically after the collapse in 1991. If migration processes in the first decade of independence were generally caused by ethnic factors , later it became more complicated. At this time labor migration from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan etc. threats national security of immigration countries and became actual national problem of immigration states.

The collapse of communism encouraged a massive increase in geographic migration in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region, including internal movements, cross-border migration within ECA, outflows from ECA, and some inflows from other regions. The formation of many new countries following the breakup of the Soviet Union “created” many statistical migrants—long-term, foreign-born residents who may not have physically moved, but were defined as migrants under UN practice.


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