|The mountain ranges of Central Asia with tribal horsemen|
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 a broad buffer zone where Europe meets Asia, mostly straddled by Turkic populations was re-discovered. Turkic-populated lands have not drawn intense Western interest since the rivalries of 19th century empires.
Five hundred years ago, Turkic people ruled much of Eurasia. The Turkic dynasties held sway over India, Persia, North Africa, the Balkans, Russia and parts of China. Arab caliphs hired tough Turkic fighters as mercenaries for the armies of Islam from the 7th century onwards, and soon afterwards Turkic warriors became the military backbone of the Muslim world. From the tenth through the fourteenth centuries, Turco-Mongolian horseback fighters and their families spread westwards across the Middle East under conquerors such as the Genghis Khan.
Khazak Nomadic family tents in 21st century
During the 19th and 20th centuries Turkic ascendancy ended but the Turkic people remained. Turkic customs, language and identity has remained throughout these lands despite Soviet rule. The Turkish language and its dialects is still a rite of passage for the traveller who wishes to trade along the ancient Silk Road from Iran to the Western provinces of China.
A new 21st Century Power Game in Central Asia
Central Asia has become an area of increasing strategic competition to secure access to the region's oil and energy resources. China, Russia, US, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are locked in a tightly contested competition.
China has been building new security relationships to match its growing economic ties with the Central Asian countries through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a six-member group founded in 2001 that includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. China has committed itself for the first time to a regional collective security agreement focused on enforcement of borders. Beijing has already conducted joint military maneuvers with Kyrgyzstan.
The United States has not been absent from this competition, having acquired a military base, known as Camp Stronghold Freedom, in Uzbekistan, as well as a presence in Afghanistan.
Trade between China and Kazakhstan has increased substantially as China's economy has become more dominant regionally, but Russia still remains a significant trading partner too. The Russians are trying to set up an OPEC-like cartel to tie down gas in Central Asia.
China has been seeking to increase its influence in a part of the world long dominated by its historic rival, Russia. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have followed the Kazakh example in looking toward China, rather than to Western-dominated international financial institutions, for development funding and economic thinking. China's politics and central planning policies have a strong appeal for many of the former Soviet republics of the region.
Government in Central Asian Republics
The Central Asian Republics are largely ruled by autocrats and strong men to varying degrees. The regimes generally restrict the freedom of speech, put down any opposition fiercely and fix elections. Uzbekistan, the most populous has been ruled by Islam Karimov, Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan, both since 1989. Emomali Rakhmon has run Tajikstan since 1992. Turkmenistan had a colourful dictator known as Turkmenbashi (Head of the Turkmans) until 1996. Only Kyrgyzstan has the region's first experiment in parliamentary democracy since last year.
There has also been conflict in recent years in China's most far-western province, Xinjiang between the Uighur people and the Chinese Government. The Uighur people whose Turkic language and Islamic faith draw them toward kinsmen in Kazakhstan and other Central Asian Republics have been seeking a Turkic leader and their independence from China.
It is unclear if the Turkic peoples will re-assert themselves to play a leading role, again, in the 21st century, although what is clear is that they are a large group of people, 140 million people worldwide, not to be underestimated, that will form an important part in shaping the region that lies between Europe and Asia, the lands they have inhabited for centuries.