Shamil Zhumatov / REUTERS Construction sites are seen through the heavy smog over Almaty, Kazakhstan, February 2011.

Central Asia’s Precarious Path to Development

Will Today’s Projects Repeat Soviet-Era Mistakes?

More so than at any other point since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the countries of Central Asia seem poised for a major economic transformation. Chinese investment is tying the region together through its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative and reviving long abandoned industrial and extractive projects. Uzbekistan’s opening up under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, in power since the death of dictator Islam Karimov in 2016, has removed one of the key obstacles to regional integration, and there are many other reasons to be optimistic. There are also signs, however, that the projects currently being pursued will repeat the worst mistakes of the Soviet era without restoring the standard of living and income security that the majority of the region’s population enjoyed in the final decades of the Soviet Union.

Understanding the Soviet development legacy in Central Asia is crucial for two reasons: many of today’s projects revive or build on Soviet-era ones; and the Soviet record still shapes the expectations of elites and ordinary citizens regarding what the state should do and what development is.

THE SOVIET LEGACY

The Russian empire conquered much of Central Asia in the nineteenth century, but it was only in the 1950s that local politicians and economists were able to convince their counterparts in Moscow to invest in the region’s industrialization. In the postwar decades, industrialization was the measure of development and modernity, associated with higher standards of living and a virtuous cycle that included a more skilled work force, greater gender equality, and an improving life expectancy. Moscow agreed to build large hydropower dams in places such as Nurek in Tajikistan and Toktogul in Kyrgyzstan, meant to expand agriculture and power new territorial-production complexes—linked industries that would integrate peasants into the industrial work force and help raise standards of living.  

The results of these new investments were mixed. Central Asia remained one of the poorest regions in the Soviet Union. Many of the new industrial jobs were filled by Russians and

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