States before the Soviet period

The nomadic peoples had tribal leaders, but they did not have states in the modern sense. However, the core area of Central Asia, the land along and between the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya Rivers that used to be called Transoxiana, is home to an ancient civilization that has known many kingdoms and empires. These states were generally based on dynastic loyalty, not ethnic identity.

Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand

In the period preceding the Russian conquest, there were three states, ruled from the cities of Khiva, Bukhara, and Kokand. Although all these cities are situated in present-day Uzbekistan, the territories controlled by the states straddled the borders of neighboring states.

When Czarist Russia conquered these parts of Central Asia in the 19th century, the Khivan Khanate and the Bukharan Emirate were left in place as Russian protectorates. Only the Kokand Khanate was destroyed (in 1876). The Khivan Khanate and the Bukharan Emirate were abolished in the early 1920s, when the Soviet regime redrew the map of Central Asia to the pattern it still has today.

The impact of "national delimitation"

This Soviet redrawing of the map, known as the process of "national delimitation," involved two kinds of decisions. First, it had to be decided which ethnic groups would receive a union republic, and which would get only an autonomous republic. However, this designation was somewhat artificial, since people in the region did not possess ethnic identities as understood today.

At the initial stage, Soviet ethnographers created Kazakh, Turkmen, and Uzbek union republics, and several autonomous republics: they were designated for the Kyrgyz within the RSFSR (Russia), the Tajiks within Uzbekistan, and the Karakalpaks within Kazakhstan and later Uzbekistan. The Tajik autonomous republic was upgraded to a union republic in 1929, followed by the Kyrgyz autonomous republic in 1936, while the Karakalpaks never got a union republic of their own.

Borders roughly fixed along ethnic settlement lines

Second, the borders between the new republics had to be fixed. This was done in a way that corresponded roughly with settlement and based on linguistic and cultural commonalities. It was impossible to make the correspondence exact because of the region’s diversity and lack of ethnic identity. In some cases, people were given a group label but placed in the “wrong” republic. For example, the mixed Uzbek-Tajik areas in south-central and southeastern Uzbekistan remained within Uzbekistan even though they included Bukhara and Samarkand, the traditional centers of Tajik culture. Many Tajiks argue that this is why the Tajiks failed to develop a cohesive national identity, which might have saved them from the tragedy of civil war. Over several generations, people began internalizing the national identities imposed by the Soviet system.

Nine enclaves in central Asia

There are nine enclaves in the region that are within the borders of one country, but with residents from a different ethnic group and which is politically a part of another country.

Tajikhistan has 3 enclaves: Sarvan (3 sq. km.) in Uzbekistan, Vorukh (30,000 people in 130 sq. km. in Kyrgyzstan, and Kaigarach (1 sq. km.) in Kyrgyzstan.

Uzbekistan has 5 enclaves in Kyrgyzstan: Sokh (70,000 people in 325 sq. km.), Sakimardan (90 sq. km.), Qalacha (less than 1 sq. km.), Dzhangail (les than 1 sq. km.), and Tayan (less than 1 sq. km.).

Kyrgyzstan has one enclave in Uzbekistan, the village of Barak.

The enclaves are flashpoints that have set ethnic groups and states against each other.

Inter-ethnic tensions

In several other places—southern Kazakhstan, eastern Turkmenistan, northern Tajikistan, and southwestern Kyrgyzstan—substantial Uzbek populations remained outside Uzbekistan. In southwestern Kyrgyzstan, a conflict over land between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks exploded in 1990 into large-scale ethnic violence (reoccuring in 2010). By establishing political units on a mono-ethnic basis in a region where various peoples have historically lived side by side, the Soviet process of national delimitation sowed the seeds of today's inter-ethnic tensions.