Central Asia is a mishmash of ethnic and cultural groups–Turkmen, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Tajik and others–and suffers from the same problem that many other parts of the previously colonized world suffer–poorly drawn boundaries. It likely wasn’t possible to draw the borders of Central Asia such that ethnic groups are entirely contained within one state–nor is it, I suppose, necessary to do so–but the Soviet Union deliberately delineated the various Central Asian republics as to divide and keep subdued. The boundaries are not only peculiar and irregular but also at times seemingly illogical and nonsensical, with disregard for not only natural features but the ethnic makeup of various regions.
At a purely geographical or cosmetic level, the epicenter of the odd boundaries is the largely Uzbek-ethnic Fergana Valley, which was carved up by the Russians among three countries, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrygzstan, in part due to the region’s reputation as a historical center of rebellion (apparently deserved–think 2005 Andijon massacre). Take a look at a map–the borders are comical. As if the general outlines were not strange enough, there are several enclaves/exclaves in the Fergana Valley resulting in little “islands” of Uzbekistan in Kyrgyzstan, and of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in Uzbekistan. Not having visited any of these exclaves, we are not quite sure how formalized the boundaries are, but given that the Central Asian states as a general rule do not have great relations with each other, we imagine that there are at least passport checks at each, clearly a great impediment not only to commerce but problematic for any who live in an exclave or have reason to visit one. On the other hand, from what I hear, the large number of Fergana Valley Uzbeks who ended up in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have not suffered greatly from their minority status, as both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have to some extent protected their cultural/linguistic identity.
In terms of history and present-day difficulties, I think that the Tajiks have the greatest complaint. Perhaps the two greatest cultural treasures of Central Asia and the Silk Road as a whole are the cities of Bukhara and Samarkand, which have been important centers of Tajik/Iranian culture, from Sogdian and Achaemenid through Samanid times (see my posts of 6.12 and 6.19). Even though in later periods most of Central Asia was overwhelmed by Turkic peoples, and became part of Turkic states, the centers of Bukhara and Samarkand themselves remained culturally Tajik cities populated by Tajiks. Nevertheless, they are now squarely within Uzbekistan. Given that Samarkand and Bukhara are probably the second and third largest cities in Uzbekistan, this means that a substantial portion of Uzbekistan as a whole is Tajik–I have heard estimates of up to 50%. Perhaps because they are so numerous as to be threatening to national identity, the Tajik minority in Uzbekistan seems to suffer the greatest mistreatment by the government of any Central Asian minority group. The Uzbek government, not known for being the most democratic or, shall we say, human rights-oriented regimes of Central Asia, deliberately suppresses Tajik language and cultural identity. We were repeatedly told, for example, that many ethnic Tajiks are identified as ethnic Uzbeks in their papers, artificially inflating the official count of the ethnic Uzbek population. Tajiks from Tajikistan complained that it is very difficult to obtain visas to visit Uzbekistan–the Uzbek government prefers to minimize contact between the ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan and Tajiks outside Uzbekistan.
The many pockets of minority-majority regions affect travelers’ experiences as well. One of the most colorful pockets of Uzbek culture that we encountered was not in Uzbekistan but in the Uzbek village of Arslanbob in western Tajikistan and the best Uzbek market in Central Asia is in Osh in Kyrgyzstan. By far our most memorable and culturally dense Kyrgyz experience will have been in the eastern Pamirs in Tajikistan, and not in Kyrgyzstan. And, as I mention above, the great centers of ancient Tajik culture are located not in Tajikistan but in Uzbekistan. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it didn’t matter so much that the boundaries were so odd–the republics were all part of the greater whole anyway. Thankfully, while the republics have been forced to rebuild/reroute railroads, roads and other infrastructure that zig-zagged across national boundaries, the poorly drawn borders have not led to any full-blown wars since the independence of the Central Asian republics.