Concept of Nation, Nationalism - Asia Essay Example

Concept of Nation, Nationalism, Nation States, Nation Building in Central Asia



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The leaders of the Central Asian republics were amongst the most conservative elements of the Soviet leadership cadres. From the beginning they questioned the worth of reforms and until the very end supported the continuance of the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union did lastly disintegrate, they were not pleased with the turn of events. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to say that independence was shoving upon the Central Asian leaders, if not peoples, almost against their will.

Since becoming independent, the Central Asian countries have faced a host of problems and challenges linked to the process of nation-building. These challenges have ranged from the need to find an substitute value system that would replace communism as the philosophical reinforcement for their societies and political institutions, to the require to revive and reform their economies as well as forge new relations amongst themselves, with their instant neighbors, and with the rest of the world.

Nation and Nation States

The history of Central Asia has been about empires and tribes. The idea of nation and nation-state to denote a triangular relationship amongst territory, ethno-cultural identity, and political authority is very modern in this region. certainly, the famous dictum of Camillo Cavour upon Italy’s unification — “We have formed Italy, now we must create Italians” — reveals the youthfulness of this notion even in Europe.

In Central Asia, this concept, even in a prehistoric and tentative form, has almost never existed. surely, the political traditions of the region’s Turko-Mongol peoples were of a tribal mode. The empires formed by Genghis Khan and Tamerlane were short-lived and were soon separated up after the deaths of their founders. Moreover, the Turko-Mongol dynasties quickly came under the influence of the region’s Irano-Islamic civilization. The descendants of Genghis Khan were Islamized and practical the rules of the Shari’a rather than those of “Yasa,” the Mongols’ legal system. In administration and letters, they imitated an Islamized version of the Iranian Sassanid traditions, which had been developed throughout the Abbasid Khalifat and expanded all through the eastern parts of the Islamic Empire.

By contrast, at least three times in their long history, the Iranian peoples of Central Asia had approximated the earlier explanation of a national entity, first during the Achaemenid Empire ( 550 B.C.-320 B.C.). though this empire comprehensive beyond the confines of the Iranian world and integrated many non-Iranian ethnic groups, its cohesion was based on the Iranian element the Persians, the Medes, and then other Iranian peoples (“Geographical and Administrative Divisions: Settlements and Economy,” p. 742).

This unity was devastated by the conquest of Alexander the Great. The second period was the Parthian Empire ( 249 B.C.-246 A.D.), when “a real, if delicate unity had again been established over the majority of Iranian speaking peoples . . . .” (“Geographical and Administrative Divisions: Settlements and Economy,” p. 743)

The relationship amongst ethnicity, language, territory, and political institutions was more evidently established during the Sassanid Empire and was summarized in its concept of “Eranshahr” (home of the Aryans). (“Geographical and Administrative Divisions: Settlements and Economy,” p. 743)

As the frontiers of Eranshahr were ceaselessly threatened by itinerant tribes and other powers, its confines fluctuated. Sassanid control extensive farthest during the reign of Shapur I ( fourth century A.D.) when it reached Kash (Kashgar, in the present day Xinjiang), but even throughout the periods of the empire’s territorial contraction, its frontiers extended to Marv — now in the republic of Turkmenistan ((“Geographical and Administrative Divisions: Settlements and Economy,” p. 744).

The Arab defeat of the Sassanid Empire devastated the unity of Eranshahr. What remained were diverse provinces ruled by either indigenous Iranian or foreign princes and potentates. For a period, most of these small kingdoms were in the suzerainty of Arab Khalifs. Gradually, though, Iranian dynasties were recognized over most of the territories of the former Eranshahr. Yet, the ideal of restoring Eranshahr continued to inspire many of these dynasties.

In Central Asia the Sammanids developed an individual that had some of the characteristics of a nation-state. Though, the Sammanids were the last of what a Western scholar has called “pan-Iranian empires.” (Teresa Rakowska Harmstone, 1970, 12).

throughout the following centuries, the greater Turkification and Mongolization of the region dissolved the region’s links to the momentous Eranshahr. The last push to reestablish the link was by Nadir Shah Afshar in the eighteenth century A.D. Though, he was more aggravated by personal ambition and desire for empire building than by any conscious plan for the restitution of Eranshahr. In modern times, with Iran’s decline and the imperial development of Russia and Britain, there has not been any attempt to restore ancient frontiers. Rather, consecutive territorial losses have critically contracted Iran’s frontiers and made the evading of territorial disintegration its overriding security concern.

The incursion of Arab and Turkic peoples led to a large-scale introduction of tribal ways of life, which had always been extensive in northern Central Asia and on the steppes, into the established urban and agrarian society of southern Central Asia and eastern Iran.

The evolution of Central Asia from empire to feudalism and tribalism has left significant political traditions still felt today — in elections, for instance. Even after elections are organized, candidates are often selected, certainly win or lose, on the basis of tribal affiliation (Kyrgyzstan: 1994, p. 43). Within tribal and feudal systems, the focus of identity and devotion is often confined to a particular tribe or region. Ahead of tribal and territorial loyalty, the person of the emir or the khan is the subject of popular loyalty. Even within the tribe, family or clan has the first assert on individuals’ loyalties.

This kind of system is managed through mechanisms built on local, family, and clan affiliations. Such systems, therefore, have more complicatedness in developing notions of identity and loyalty that could exceed such ties. Moreover, imperial, feudal, and tribal systems strongly stress personal rule. The character and excellence of the ruler, not independent sociopolitical institutions, most determine the excellence of governance. Such systems are also intrinsically unstable as they depend far too much on a single individual and his capabilities and personal attributes for smooth functioning.


As independence, an ethnocentric nationalism and the much narrower sense of identity, such as Uzbekness and Kyrgyzness, as opposed to ideas of Turkicness or Muslimness, have become well-built forces in Central Asia. This occurrence is reflected in a widespread trend toward nativization of culture and management all through Central Asia. For instance, the native tongue of the supposed nationalities of various republics has become the official language of state, and an enough level of fluency has become a major obligation for access to government jobs.

This fact can be partly explicated in terms of the region’s Soviet experience and the disagreements inherent in Soviet-era nation-building. Moscow dejected the development and use of national languages and attacked any terminology of nationalism as anti-Soviet chauvinism and as aggressive to socialist internationalism. Yet the very creation of entities that approached the idea of nation-state fostered the logic of separate national identities.

Nationalism in Central Asia and Kazakhstan by the fact that society relics traditional, the opposite is true, and nationalism there is more linked with still insufficient but ongoing modernization and with the appearance of new urban social strata (Martha Brill Olcott, 1987). As in many Third World countries, the competitive advantage of such elites has depended on their restricted positions in their republics, and they have become the major promoters of ethnic nationalism, much more than Communist political elites. Thus, matters of rights and identity have become intimately intertwined, and a liberal democratic system based on individual merit and capability, which would guarantee equal rights to all citizens despite of ethnic membership, is measured detrimental to the interests of the politically strong but economically disadvantaged indigenous ethnic groups.

Though, the formation of mass national movements in Central Asia and Kazakhstan took place under drastically more difficult conditions than in numerous other regions of the Soviet Union. The national intelligentsia there is a rather new phenomenon. Though its members now reveal the same “colonial ingratitude” that other colonial powers have faced in the recent past, they are a formation of the Soviet regime. They lack a common custom of democratic political process and often lack an obvious vision of the political future for their republics, whether in the type of Western-type liberal democracies or another system. in its place, they lean to incline towards ethnic nationalism because they regard the domination of their own ethnic groups in corresponding republics as the best protect of their own positions in society.

In the nineteenth century new concepts of nationalism and nation-state arose in Europe, fundamentally different from the considerate of political identity in Central Asia. These ideas reached the region slowly, and for the majority part not through contact with Russia, but rather throughout the broader Islamic community. In the second half of the nineteenth century new movements arose in the Muslim world, most particularly pan-Islam, pan-Turkism, and the initial stages of narrower ethnic or linguistic nationalism. These centered in the Ottoman Empire, most open to European pressure and ideas. They had their strongest authority on regions close to the Ottomans or powerfully influenced by Europeans and amongst groups educated either in Istanbul or in Europe, and reached Central Asia itself comparatively late.

Pan-Islamists called on the Muslims to descend their sectarian and political differences and restructuring society and religion so as to stand against the encroachments of European states. This platform was passionately adopted by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul-Hamid (1876- 1909) who now recalled the Sultan’s right to the title of Caliph, ruler of all Muslims, and asserted the duty to protect Muslims outside Ottoman territory. Emissaries to foreign lands, including Central Asia, urged this doctrine, and students coming to Istanbul to study religious sciences were as well affected (Jacob M. Landau, 1990).

New idea of identity and organization soon gained control with the reformist intelligentsia developing amongst the Tatars and later the Azerbaijanis. These men, many educated in Russian schools, in Istanbul, or even in France, were open both to new currents of restructuring in the Islamic world, and to the rising nationalism of the Ottoman and Russian empires. This was the era of pan-Slavism, of “orthodoxy and nationalism,” and one in which the Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea were anguish considerable discrimination (Zenkovsky, 1960). The panTurkic movement began among the Tatars of the Russian Empire, and gained wider exposure in 1905, with the publication in Cairo of an article by a Tatar reformer, Yusuf Akchura, proposing the union of the Turks of Ottoman and Russian lands (Zenkovsky, pp. 38-9).

One main concern of the new reformists of the Russian Empire was education, and their overture of a new system, known as the usul-i jadid, won them the designation of “Jadids.” While the Jadids often promoted ideas of unity among Turks and Muslims of the Russian Empire, their work as well led in a different direction, towards the expansion of separate written vernacular languages. Up to almost the middle of the nineteenth century, four written languages in the Arabic script had served the Muslims of the Russian kingdoms and the central Islamic lands. These were Arabic and Persian and two forms of Turkic, both distant from daily speech and strongly inclined by Persian and Arabic. One written Turkic language was Ottoman, used outside the Ottoman Empire primarily in Azerbaijan and the Crimea, and the other was eastern literary Turkic–Turki or Chaghatay–used by the majority other regions of the Russian Empire, Central Asia and Eastern Turkestan. Any well skilled person was expected to know two of these four languages, and many knew three. In an effort to educate a broader public, many Jadids sought a simpler medium closer to the daily speech of the local population. In Azerbaijan a vernacular language developed in the second half of the nineteenth century, with written grammar and school texts. In the later nineteenth century the Tatar Jadid, Abdul Qayyum Nasiri, promoted written Tatar, as the famous Crimean Tatar panIslamist Isma’il Bey Gasprinskiy advocated a basic version of Ottoman as a common literary language (Zenkovsky, pp. 25, 32).

As Edward Lazzerini has written, it was mainly through the agency of the Tatars that the Jadid movement spread to the east. Here it established mixed reactions. The most receptive to nationalistic ideas were the Kazakh intellectuals. several of these men were Russian educated; they lived under direct Russian rule, and saw their lands disappearing to Russian colonization. The antipathy this caused was a spur to nationalistic feelings (Zenkovsky, pp. 59-69). In Transoxiana extend of the reformist movement was slow, even though early pan-Islamic ideas had achieved some getting. In the areas which the Russians controlled openly officials left religious educational institutions intact. All through this area the conservative ulema remained the preponderant power in education up to the Russian revolution. In Khiva and Bukhara, rulers and ulema retained a hostile attitude to Jadid activities.

The use of nationalism to promote unity among peoples and enhance governmental legitimacy has depended mainly on the Central Asian states’ ethnic and linguistic makeup. Those states with a large Russian minority have felt more inhibited to follow a nationalist path than have the others. But still such countries as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have shown a marked leaning toward nativization. Uzbekistan has gone farthest in this direction in trying to “Uzbekize” and incorporate other minorities, especially the Tajiks.

Nation Building

In Central Asia, before the Soviets commenced the nation-building process in the 1920s, the devastating majority of indigenous inhabitants measured themselves part of the Muslim community but also saw that community as subdivided into groups which were different and, not rarely, mutually hostile.

Among the criterion for these divisions was ethnicity, although this was hardly ever linked to the political quest for nation-states. Yet other bases for dissection at times conflicted with religious or ethnic ties; these integrated loyalty to dynasties, local political chiefs, tribes or clans, economic interests, geographic subdivisions of the region, and political ideologies.

These days in Central Asia, there are several diverse ways of defining one’s identity in addition to the religious-national fusion. Every person can choose to stress any of a number of traits to which he or she can lay assert on the basis of environment and environment. Numerous of these have survived since before the revolution, while others became significant in the Soviet era. Anya Peterson Royce’s observation on the functional nature of ethnicity applies evenly well to other kinds of identity, which as well reflect people’s needs as they deal with society.

Ethnic identity is one of many identities accessible to people. It is developed, displayed, maneuvered, or ignored in unity with the demands of particular situations…. At the level of the individual, ethnic identity is both a mental state and a potential strategy…. In a very real sense, ethnic identity is obtained and used feature of human identity, subject to display, avoidance, exploitation, and exploitation. ( Royce, 1982: 1 185 )

All of Central Asia’s nationality-defined republics are formations of the Soviet regime for purposes of its own, not least of which was divide et impera. though various Central Asian groups had contending plans for the political structure of the region, the creation of separate states for each nationality was not amongst them.

The area which became Tajikistan had never subsisted as a single, independent state in its own right. Over the centuries, it had at times been element of large empires and, at other times, had been alienated between regional powers based in Central Asia or Afghanistan. Often, local rulers in what are now central and southern Tajikistan profited from the relative aloofness of the mountainous terrain to make themselves sovereign or independent.

Moscow harbors an innate, though exaggerated, fear of PanTurkism inherited from the tsarist empire. Members of the Tajik elite have tried to develop that fear to their own advantage, making planned use of the fact that the Tajiks are an Iranian rather than a Turkic people.

Substantial ethnographic evidence supports the argument that, regardless of the disparity of language, there are numerous cultural similarities between Uzbeks and Tajiks, who have for centuries lived in close contact in cities similar to Samarkand and Bukhara and settled agricultural communities in what are now Tajikistan and eastern Uzbekistan. However, some Uzbeks carried this much further, refuting the existence of a separate Tajik people and arguing that Tajiks are really fellow Turks who have forgotten their original language. Thus the 1920 constitution of the short-lived Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, in which Uzbek and other Turkic Communists had considerable influence, renowned only three “indigenous nationalities,” the Uzbeks, Kirghiz, and Turkmens, denying the Tajiks any status apart from Uzbeks ( Bart hold , 1963:468). Some Uzbek Communists later opposed the creation of the Tajikistan republic and continued to rebuff the concept of a Tajik nationality for many years thereafter ( Ra kowska-Harmstone , 1970:19, 240-41).

Nowadays, members of the Tajik elite seek to play on the inner leadership’s fears of Pan-Turkism by arguing that they have a general interest in opposing it. According to this argument measures which strengthen the Tajik sense of individuality in a political or a cultural sense benefit Moscow by deflation the alleged Turkic threat to the Soviet regime. Tajik sources have frequently described Pan-Turkism as vehemently anti-Tajik, or, as one writer put it, the Pan-Turkists were the “mortal enemy of our people” (Ghafforov, 1987). Furthermore, this argument contends that the creation of the Tajikistan republic in the 1920s dealt a blow to Pan-Turkism ( Istoriia, 1983:139; ” Panturkizm,” 1984:469). Since that time, this argument holds, the publication of studies praising Tajik literature and the spread of Tajik-language instruction have demonstrated the falsehood of Pan-Turkist claims that all the peoples of Central Asia are Turkic and must be united in one greater Turkic state ( Ghafforov, 1987).

The temporal weakening of Central Asia into a region of albeit diverse forms of authoritarianism can be construed by the culturalists as predetermined. From the culturalist viewpoint, it was only a matter of time before all five would become authoritarian. therefore, if in the early 1990s the states were boardong on different nation-building and state-building efforts, by the end of the 1990s the region is distinguished by a uniformity of authoritarianism; Kyrgyzstan, for example, could no longer keep its title of ‘island of democracy’. Two contributors, Huskey and Kangas, strongly endorse the cultural line of argument.

At one hand, Authoritarian presidentialism has appeared in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan with important geopolitical and economic differences. Kazakhstan is the main, spanning an area eleven times the size of the United Kingdom but with a population of under 15 million; its geopolitical destiny is primarily shaped by the two neighbouring great powers, China and Russia. By contrast, its major regional competitor, Uzbekistan, has the highest population density in the region, and borders on the unbalanced states of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Tajikistan has recently partially emerged from a civil war that has been continuing between 1992 and 1997; like Kyrgyzstan it is mountainous and inaccessible. Turkmenistan is equally isolated; in fact, it was the most cut off of all Soviet republics in the Soviet period. Its border with Iran is a significant geopolitical influence. While Turkmenistan and Tajikistan have appeared the poorest of the post-Soviet economies, those of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan benefited significantly from Soviet rule. As Caspian littoral states, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan stand to profit considerably from oil revenues if transport can be found. Like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan has gas as well as a considerable cotton crop. Both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have hydroelectric power and mineral resources.

On the other hand, Pakistan also wants a share of prospective economic gains in the region. Since the time of glasnost, then, Pakistan has vigorously marketed itself to Central Asia as a valuable partner, an alternative model of development to Iran and Turkey, and an opening to the outside world. Pakistan’s liabilities have been its insufficient transport infrastructure, its limited financial resources, and its role as competitor in resource base and economy with Central Asia. Pakistan and most Central Asian countries are main producers of cotton and competitors in the textile industry.

Pakistan’s own political and economic difficulties further lessen its attraction as a potential regional power. This would be predominantly so if the ethnic and sectarian conflicts, which have bedeviled the Sindh province and Pakistan’s commercial capital Karachi, persist or even worsen. Nevertheless, Pakistan has become involved in the region’s major political issues, such as the intra-Tajik talks, and hosted one of the sessions in Islamabad. Pakistan is also engaged in an understated act of competition and limited cooperation with Uzbekistan over Afghanistan’s political future. Pakistan and Uzbekistan both oppose any considerable role for the Afghan Tajiks and the Hazora Shi’as in any future Afghan government and seek to limit Iran’s regional influence. In these goals, they are maintained by Saudi Arabia.


The rising pattern of the Central Asian states’ external ties has both established and confounded earlier assumptions concerning their behavior. The balance, however, has been more on the side of the latter. Rather than subsequent a general pattern based on any particular trait or issue, these countries’ external relations have developed in different ways, dazzling their specific geopolitical situation, their ethnic and linguistic composition, and the character of their leaderships. The way of their foreign policies has also been formed by the more enduring determinants of foreign policy, such as geostrategic considerations, economic needs, ideological preferences, and the dynamics of regional and global power equations.

Ethno-cultural similarities have proved to be a much less significant determinant of foreign policy than had been earlier assumed by various analysts. The most important external players have not been those with the majority linguistic or cultural affinity with the region, but rather main global military and economic powers. Certainly, the regional countries’ influence in Central Asia has largely depended on the state of their relations with the big powers.

Systemic influences originating from the character and dynamics of the international political system and of regional subsystems have assisted to determine the Central Asian states’ foreign policy options and choices. Of vital significance has been Russia’s and the West’s priorities and policies, as well as the state of their relations with one another. Relations with Russia still comprise the most significant aspect of the Central Asian countries’ foreign relations, but ties with the West, the emerging Asian powers, and neighboring states are growing in consequence. These new ties may very well contend with and perhaps even surpass those with Russia, depending on the evolution of events in Russia — particularly the speed of its economic recovery and the degree of its ability and enthusiasm to implement the many security and economic agreements it has reached with these states, either bilaterally or within the framework of the CIS.

Each Central Asian state will vary, however, in its capability to secure itself from Russian domination. For the predictable future, Kazakhstan’s destiny is linked with Russia’s. But under certain situation, Uzbekistan could become more autonomous from Moscow, although at the cost of becoming reliant on the West. The smaller states sandwiched between larger ones have little option but to balance relations amongst their stronger neighbors by way of sustaining some measure of independence.

The post-independence record of Central Asia has been mixed. Most of the regional countries have evaded some of the pitfalls that have marred the post-independence nation-building process in other former-Soviet republics, such as frequent transforms of government throughout unconstitutional means and serious interethnic tensions and even civil wars. But their own progress in this area has remained limited. Subsequent to years of independence, the Central Asian countries are still in a state of transition. Nevertheless, certain basic patterns in their inner development and external relations are beginning to emerge and will probable prove decisive throughout the next several years.

Work Cited

“Geographical and Administrative Divisions: Settlements and Economy,” Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 3, p. 742.

“Panturkizm” ( 1984), Entsiklopediyai Sovetii Tojik. Vol. 5, 468-69. Dushanbe, Sarredaktsiyai ilmii Entsiklopediyai Sovetii Tojik.

Barthold, V. N. Four Studies on the History of Central Asia. Vol. 3, Mir ‘Ali-Shir [and] A History of the Turkman People. Trans. from the Russian by V. Minorsky and T. Minorsky. Leiden, 1962.

Bregel, Iu. Dokumenty Arkhiva Khivinskikh Khanov po istorii i etnografii Karakalpakov. Moscow: Nauka, 1967. ——. The Role of Central Asia in the History of the Muslim East. Afghanistan Council, the Asia Society of New York. Occasional Paper #20, 1980.

Ghafforov, R. ( 1987), “Nakhustin ‘Sarfu nahv’-i zaboni tojiki,” Adabiyot va san”at, 25 June:11.

Istoriia kul’turnogo stroitel’stva v Tadzhikistane ( 1917-1977 gg.) ( 1983). Vol. 2. Dushanbe: Donish.

Jacob M. Landau, The Politics of Pan-Islam ( Oxford, 1990), pp. 13-65.

Kyrgyzstan: “Legacy of Tribalism in Political System,” FBIS/SOV-95-250, December 29, 1994, p. 43.

Martha Brill Olcott, The Kazakhs ( Stanford, 1987), pp. 101-9.

Rakowska-Harmstone, T. ( 1970), Russia and Nationalism in Central Asia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Royce, A. P. Ethnic Identity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Teresa Rakowska Harmstone, Russia and Nationalism in Central Asia: The Case of Tajikistan ( Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 12.

Zenkovsky, Pan-Turkism and Islam in Russia ( Cambridge, Mass., 1960), pp. 27, 37.

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