The Ascendancy of Nationalism in Central Asia

On October 7, 2014, Russell Zanca, Professor of Anthropology at Northeastern Illinois University, gave a REEEC Noontime Scholars Lecture. Russell Zanca received his PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1999. Over the years he has published works mainly on the country of Uzbekistan, covering topics such as collective farming, the cotton monoculture, cuisine, religion, gender, and Soviet history. He co-edited Everyday Life in Central Asia with Jeff Sahadeo (2007) and wrote Life in a Muslim Uzbek Village: Cotton Farming after Communism (2011).

russell zanca

Professor Russell Zanca

His talk, entitled “The Ascendancy of Nationalism in Central Asia,” examined the state (or status) and intra-regional conditions of political sovereignty in post-Soviet Central Asia. The argument he made is not exactly one of success or failure, but rather examines the very successes and failures that exist in Central Asia from the standpoints of political integrity and political development—despite or because of dictatorial rule and concomitant degrees of freedom of conscience and economic decision-making. The latter Central Asian political development subsumes economic and cultural development.

Recently, scholars and pundits have meaningfully examined many hyper-nationalist aspects of the Central Asian countries’ politics. The basic argument here is that nationalism has prevented the kind of intra-regional cooperation that would have fueled greater development and freedom throughout Central Asia. Generally speaking, nationalism may be necessary to independence, but it is rarely considered positive in terms of development and human freedom by most social scientists. While there may be much to recommend this position, Zanca looked to data and analyses history from more than 20 years prior to compare different visions of independence, areas for national and regional comity and strife, and treaties and agreements that have fostered and foiled individual and regional growth and freedom.

An interesting point professor Zanca made was that the Central Asian republic’s ethnic territorialization projects did not occur directly after the collapse of the USSR. He suggested that scholars look back to the state-socialism of the USSR for explanations of post-Soviet occurrences.

Another interesting point he discussed concerned political and economic relationships within the Central Asian states and Russia after 1991. His argument was that these states function under state networking interdependence in the areas of economics, labor, residential flow, and a wide imbalance of power between the states. He deduced that because of these factors there is a much lower risk of conflict between ethnicities and of territorial disintegration.

Zanca concluded that while relations between the five Central Asian states are unhealthy, nationalism has helped keep an uneasy peace. Due to this, he stated that we are likely to see greater nationalism in Central Asia in the future. He attributed this future nationalism to Central Asian political leaders working to make sure that there is continuity in their government after they are gone. He connected this ‘top down’ nationalism to the legacy of Soviet Rule. With this continuity, he predicted that there will not be many significant, violent conflicts in the near future.

After professor Zanca concluded his presentation a lively discussion about his research was produced by both faculty and students alike.

Bethany Wages is a graduate student in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her current focus of study is History. She received her B.A. in Honors/History and English Literature in 2014 at Wright State University.

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