Need to build inclusive and tolerant societies in Central Asia, difficulties and method of action

Despite of the fact that Central Asian nations have common ancestry, close blood relations (e.g. intermingled and intermarried in the course of centuries in some regions), common pre-Soviet and Soviet history, intimate cultural, religious and linguistic affinities, unfortunately, the political and intellectual elites of these countries have adopted to one degree or another an exclusivist discourse of national identity which not infrequently contradict with those adopted by other states in the region. Therefore, the ongoing processes of building national identity in the region let alone facilitate, they, conversely, appear to impede the perspectives of building friendly relations as well establishing regional integration and security.

At the root of the current problems concerning interethnic and inter-communal relationship, regional integration and security in Central Asia lies the tendency to form exclusivist perceptions of identity which are constructed in opposition and in the worst cases against the “others” that are in fact neighboring Central Asian ethnic groups. According to this line of thinking other ethnic groups tended to be perceived and evaluated in negative terms, usually through the prism of “his/her own” culture, traditions and social values, while “own culture, language and history” elevated to the rank of the most “civilized” or “developed”.

The classic Central Asian civilization served like “immune system” against any kind of social conflict or tension and Soviet system by deactivating it laid grounds for building “exclusivist identities” in the region.

The ideational basis of building exclusive identities had already been formed by Soviet system, despite of all its pretentions of being internationalist and integrationist. The emergence and upholding of narrowly defined exclusivist identities is the direct result of totalitarian period, the lack of stable institutions, ‘citizenship deficit’, the prevalence of Soviet primordialist understanding of identities, legal relativism (a phenomenon of the deficit of the rule of law and undeveloped legal consciousness). Last but not least exclusivist identity is a result of underdevelopment of humanistic liberalism.

As the ways in which people form perceptions of others and themselves constitute one of the leading root causes of conflict, I argue that inter-communal conflicts erupted in the region in recent times, primarily the civil war in Tajikistan, the series of violent clashes in Fergana region of Uzbekistan and South Kyrgyzstan were all generated by exclusivist identities. In other words, the violence against neighboring brethrens was a byproduct of building exclusivist identities in the region.

However, traditional Central Asian perceptions of each other did not strictly link “ethnicity with statehood and culture with territory”. For instance, interethnic “Six Alash” concept of Kazakhs, three multi-ethnic Central Asian Khanates defined and maintained Central Asian identities (from familial to regional) within the larger context of Muslimness, regionnes and ways of life (nomadic, semi-nomadic or sedentary). The classic Central Asian civilization served like “immune system” against any kind of social conflict or tension and Soviet system by deactivating it laid grounds for building “exclusivist identities” in the region.           

The main driving force behind the phenomenon of forming exclusivist identities is the tendency of local intelligentsia to create narratives of nation-state to justify its ethnically defined national identity and to elevate a titular ethnic group by re-making/ re-writing/ re-shaping history. However, not all states in the region pursue this policy at the same degree, for instance Kazakhstan is to great extent exempt from the above-mentioned process.

On the whole, the phenomenon of re-evaluating historical processes through the prism of today’s ‘necessities’ and retelling history with the aim to reshape common for all Central Asians past are underway. Only few dare to dispute such ‘scientific ideas’.

Retelling history gave birth to the concomitant problem of ‘privatization of prominent personalities’. Never- ending process of determining who of the common ancestors were ‘Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik or Kyrgyz’ by his or her origin, when the clear-cut ethnical divisions were not articulated or today’s ethnic groups were not formed or, at least, were not consolidated yet, is considered, as one the tools of claiming autochthony over territory and cultural supremacy.

Building sustainable peace and security, as well as genuine “within-in” democracy in Central Asia, can be possible only through building inclusive identities, civic nationalism, and soft secularism.

It is tragic-comic to observe the situation when “deeply entrenched into localized narrow perceptions of history” intellectuals want to make Central Asian people more divided and feeling alienation towards each other, while ordinary people may feel more brotherly sentiments to each other, intermarry and make business.

The more strict secularism model and more exclusionary national identity adopted by a Central Asian country, the more problematic relations it has with other states in the region, especially with its neighbors. This situation negatively influences regional security. Similarly, adoption of passive secularism and building inclusive national identity will lead to more friendly and sustainable relations with other countries in the region, which will inevitably influence the regional security in positive direction.

Building sustainable peace and security, as well as genuine “within-in” democracy in Central Asia, can be possible only through building inclusive identities, civic nationalism, and soft secularism. Consequently, the promotion of exclusivist identities in the region is more dangerous than authoritarian regimes as such, since these regimes can be replaced in the prospect. However, negatively established and internalized national identity must be reformulated, then the people must be reeducated, their minds and hearts must be cleared of biases leading to the clashes with “their others”, all these necessitate considerable time and efforts. In other words this is a long process.

Central Asian countries have to introduce new policies. Yet the outcome will depend on a complex composition of factors that states can or cannot control down the road. However, education and science-making play crucial role in the formation of identity. Soviet system could transform Central Asian societies by using this method.

We can briefly list some kinds of reforms that Central Asian countries must adopt to address these issues: reform of educational sector, promotion of Human Rights education in entire society; reappraisal of school information, preparing textbooks and books of history in cooperation with the specialists of neighboring Central Asian countries; increase awareness about the necessity of civic nationalism and passive secularism among intelligentsia, who is a key driving force of building exclusivist identities. Academia in the region has to be de-coupled from politics and whole system of education, especially the higher education with the emphasis on humanities should undergo critical reappraisal to promote the ideas of pluralism and establish inclusive identities, which expected to be essentially human-centered, fostering tolerant political culture and patriotic commitment to a country.

Inclusive national identities, which are compatible with the historical, cultural and civilizational heritage of Central Asia and which are strengthened by properly understood liberal values will serve as a source of unity, cohesion of its ethnically and culturally diverse societies.



Galym Zhussipbek

Independent Scholar, Almaty


PhD in International Relations, Ankara University

Masters and Bachelor degree in International Relations, Ankara University

Research Interests

EU and post-Soviet area

Regional integration

Orientalism, critical approach

Critical theories in IPE

Login to post comments

Reflections Research Center ©


Go to top