There are OSCE missions in each of these five independent republics of Central Asia:
Borders, politics and geography
All these republics are modern creations. Soviet officials brought them into existence as union republics of the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s, drawing the boundaries between them to correspond roughly with the pattern of ethnic settlement. These boundaries do not correspond either to natural or to traditional cultural divisions, nor do they correspond to the borders of states that existed before the Soviet period.
Central Asia has four basic natural landscapes:
- Northern Kazakhstan is steppe—that is, open grassland. Further south, the steppe gradually turns into semi-desert scrub and finally into desert.
- Desert covers most of Turkmenistan and much of Uzbekistan and southern Kazakhstan.
- The fertile areas of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and southern Kazakhstan are saved from the desert by being close to large rivers, the Syr Darya, the Amu Darya, or the Zeravshan, or a big canal such as the Kara Kum Canal in southern Turkmenistan. One such area is the Fergana Valley, which extends from eastern Uzbekistan into northern Tajikistan and southwestern Kyrgyzstan.
- To the east and southeast, mountains occupy most of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as the southeastern fringes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Nomadic or Settled Cultures
The oldest division was between the nomadic herders of the steppe and desert and the settled farmers and city-dwellers of the river valleys and oases. Nomads traveled with their livestock—sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels—in search of water and new pasture. (In addition, there was a third intermediate way of life. Many mountain dwellers migrated between high summer pastures and protected winter pastures at lower altitudes.)
Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen were traditionally nomadic, while Tajiks were settled. Uzbeks were also originally nomadic, but have been settled since the 16th century.
Turkic and Persian influences
A second old division is that between people of Turkic origin and language and people belonging to Persian culture. All the languages of Central Asia belong to the Turkic family except for Tajik, which is close to Persian.
Russian and European impact
The 19th and 20th centuries brought Russian and European cultural influences into Central Asia. This gave rise to new divisions within each ethnic group. Those who have been deeply affected by European culture are divided from those who remain loyal to tradition, while those attached to European culture in its Russian-Soviet form are divided from those more influenced by the West. So far the Russian language has retained its position as the main common language used in inter-ethnic communication, but it is being studied and spoken decreasingly by youth.