Review of Understanding Central Asia: Politics and Contested Transformations by Sally M. Cummings Routledge

Understanding Central Asia: Politics and Contested Transformations.  Sally M. Cummings. New York: Routledge, 2012.  ISBN: 9780415297035

In this book, Sally Cummings offers a sociopolitical orientation to Central Asia, focusing on five countries: Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. In the introduction, the author is quick to point out that the term Central Asia is defined in various ways. Some scholars, for example, include parts of Mongolia, China, and Siberia, while others include Afghanistan or the Caucasus region. Other terms (e.g., Inner Asia, Eurasia) are also used, further complicating the situation. Utilizing current research from a variety of nations, and citing her background in post-Soviet studies, Cummings is effectively convincing in her definition of Central Asia.  These five nations have been historically and culturally interrelated and, in the present, all five are confronted with similar challenges.

Understanding Central Asia contains eight chapters, two appendices (one for tables and one for maps), and an extensive list of works cited and suggested further readings. The United Nations and CIA maps in Appendix B are nice to have for reference, and are also easily accessed online in color via the links provided.

In the introduction (also Chapter 1), Cummings assesses the need for a book called Understanding Central Asia, citing UNESCO’s claim that “the role and importance of the various peoples of Central Asia are often inadequately represented in university courses, to say nothing of school textbooks” and also applying Edward Said’s claim about the Middle East that “people are ‘not quite ignorant, not quite informed’” (2). Additionally, “in-depth understanding of any region is worthwhile, since it increases our critical faculties for assessing often Eurocentric methods and methodologies” (5). Now released from the thumb of the Soviets and the other many empires that have historically made claims to them, Central Asian republics are emerging powers with significant natural resources, but widespread corruption, disorganization, and significant economic dysfunction. This makes them neither first, nor second, nor third world countries. For these reasons, Central Asia is not only an interesting region of study, but also a strategic one since cultural and political understanding of this region will be crucial in the future as economic development improves.

Cummings makes her goals for this book clear in the introduction:

In the following chapters six key themes that have served to strengthen
our understanding of newly independent Central Asia are discussed: its
regional classifications; its past; its culture, beliefs, and identity; its
politics; its economic transformation; its security and wider international
relations. These six areas help answer some of the political questions
that independence has brought (6).

The subsequent chapters, indeed, focus on these six themes. In Chapter 2 “The region of Central Asia”, Cummings discusses the issue of terminology, claiming that “Russian terminology is possibly the more straightforward” (11). She points out that the Soviets used the term “Middle Asia” to refer to four of the five countries (all but Kazakhstan), and the term “Central Asia” to refer to countries under Chinese authority (e.g., Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet). A quick Google search yields Russian definitions of both “Middle Asia” and “Central Asia” to mean all five countries in contemporary usage, which backs up Cummings’ claim that in Russia, the terms are increasingly synonymous. English terminology is more problematic, because “Central Asia” by some definitions can also include Turkey, Afghanistan, or even northern India. Cummings looks to geography, historic-cultural definitions, and borders in this chapter to further illuminate the complexity of terminological distinctions insofar as this region is concerned, but she still concludes that the region is difficult to define according to contemporary geopolitical standards because of its unique tendency to defy all seemingly typical norms for such definitions. Cummings’ discussion of leitmotifs in this region masterfully clarifies Western assumptions about the cultural and ethnic overlap in Central Asia, further persuading her readers that the region is not easily defined or “neatly compartmentalized” (31).

Chapter 3, “Empires, Soviet rule and sovereignty” discusses the Turkic, Iranian, and Russian colonizations of Central Asia. Russian expansion in the region began as early as the 16th century and maintained a firm hold on the region through annexation of territory, thus making its influence “pragmatic, not ideological” (36). Cultural norms did shift due to changes applied by the Russians to leadership organization, agriculture, and trade, and,  more generally, due to the increased Russian presence. Russia’s imperial presence set the stage for the establishment of Soviet dominance in the region after the Bolshevik Revolution, in part because of the existing acquaintance between the Russians and the region’s inhabitants, and also owing to Soviet communism, which “championed the rights of oppressed peoples, promoted national rights and declared itself as ‘the world’s first post-imperial state’(38).   The bulk of this chapter is devoted to the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, focusing primarily on Russian dominion over these five nations.

In Chapter 4, “Authoritarian alternatives”, the author addresses the topic of the sudden independence gained in these five nations after 1991, the role of authoritarianism in the immediate post-Soviet period, and more current leadership. The timelines provided in this chapter of Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution and2010 coup and the Tajik Civil War are especially useful reference guides, particularly for those who know little about these events, or who seek to understand them more deeply.

Chapter 5 tackles issues of identity in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan, with special attention to Islam. The data on religion in the region during the Soviet era are unreliable at best, and even current data are difficult to interpret. The practice of Islam truly differs in Central Asia because of Soviet influence. Cummings states “the Soviet, or post-Soviet Muslim drinking alcohol or eating pork may still be a believer” (98). Cummings’ description of Central Asian Islamic practice from country to country is highly informative. Equally useful is her discussion of identity and statehood, which integrates Islamic practice but details the self-identifying principles of each nation as well. Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s daughter defends  her father’s concept of Eurasianism, stating that Kazakhstan is not part of Central Asia: “[W]e are not another stan. Saudi Arabia is not our historical landmark: we look to Norway, South Korea, and Singapore” (109).

The themes present in Chapter 5 successfully segue to Chapters 6 and 7, which deal respectively with economics and security. Post-Soviet economy is always a complex topic, and as each Central Asian nation gained independence from the USSR, distinctive economic challenges were present in each nation. Unique to former Soviet states is the following situation described by Cummings in this chapter:

Conditionality of reform was accompanied by, and sometimes linked
to, development aid. Despite this marked social stratification, develop-
-ment programmes have shown that this region is not a Third World
region, but instead home to industrialized countries with high rates of
literacy and education and a sizeable professional class of doctors,
teachers, and scientists. Catapulted from the ‘Second World’ that
‘vanished’ with the collapse of the Soviet Union, representatives from
international aid agencies often ‘alienated local representatives by
comparing their concerns to those of Third World countries’. At the
same time, although on many scales these countries would be
considered ‘highly developed’, the recently socialist societies remained
undeveloped in the structures characterizing a market economy. Despite
development programmes to assist in such necessary restructuring,
Central Asia has substantial pockets of poverty (123-4).

In terms of daily life, Cummings points out that as a result of this poverty, in some of the Central Asian countries, there is a strong return to “kinship and social networks” (124). Each country handled the economic transition differently, and as a result, experienced differing outcomes.  While the wealth of natural resources in the region suggests that rapid economic growth is entirely possible,  Cummings observes, “While resources give countries leverage domestically and internationally, their effects on economic performance and political transformations have often been couched negatively” (131). Graphics in Chapter 6 are highly illustrative, including a table of economic organizations in Central Asia, a comparative global table of oil and natural gas reserves across the world as well as in Central Asia, a map of the planned and existing pipelines in the Central Asian countries, and a table of the major export and import partners for each of the five Stans. China’s role in the region cannot be overlooked and, in this Chapter, Cummings addresses China’s need to have a presence in Central Asia because of the vast resources there. Chapter 7 discusses threats to security and stability in Central Asia, including terrorism, trafficking, and environmental concerns.

The concluding chapter gives the reader a “state of the State in Central Asia”, summarizing points already asserted and also emphasizing the continuing and future challenges for each country in the region. She closes this chapter stating: “It is not entirely as yet post-Soviet, with traces of this past era remaining infused in patterns of governing and state imaginations. At the same time, the state has changed. It has been forced to loosen its grip on society even in the most authoritarian of regimes. Its future trajectories remain uncertain” (180). Understanding Central Asia fulfills the promise of its title for any reader, no matter how unacquainted with the region he or she may be. This is a stunningly well-researched, astutely organized, and exceptionally well written book that may be of use for teachers in secondary and post-secondary classrooms looking to familiarize themselves with this fascinating and widely misunderstood part of Asia.


Reviewed by Rachel Stauffer, University of Virginia
Edited by Tracy C. Barrett

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]