Country Profiles: Central Asia

Afghanistan

Afghanistan, like most of the countries of Central Asia, is landlocked. With an area of 647,500 sq. km, Afghanistan is slightly smaller than Texas. The climate is arid to semiarid. Its terrain is mostly rugged mountains, although there are plains in the north and southwest. Portions of the country are subject to earthquakes and flooding.

Afghanistan's population of about 25.8 million people is from several central Asian ethnic groups, with the largest portion (38%) being Pashtun. Most of the population is Muslim (Sunni 84%, Shi'a 15%). About half of the people speak Afghan Persian, and about 35% speak Pashtu. Numerous other minor languages are spoken. Although this region is generally not as bad as many African nations, Afghanistan has social development indicators that are similar to many Sub-Saharan African nations. It has a high total fertility rate (5.9 children born per woman), very high infant mortality rate (140.6 deaths per thousand live births), a very low life expectancy (47.3 years), and very low literacy (31.5%).

Afghanistan's government appears to be transitioning to an Islamic State. The Islamic Taliban movement displaced the ruling members of the Afghan government in 1996. The country is essentially divided along ethnic lines, with the Islamic Taliban in control of the capital of Kabul and about two-thirds of the country's area. The opposing factions have a stronghold in the ethnically diverse north. There is no functioning government at this time.

Afghanistan's economy has suffered greatly due to the combined effects of ten years of Soviet conflict and occupation in the 1980s and the current political upheaval. As a result, Afghanistan is extremely poor and highly dependent on farming and livestock raising. Much of the population suffers from lack of basic needs, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care. Afghanistan's exports include agricultural products, hand-woven carpets, hides and pelts, and gems. Its imports include food, petroleum products, and most consumer goods. Its main trading partners include Germany, India, South Korea, and other Central Asian nations.

Afghanistan has only 24.6 km of railways. Only 2,793 km of its 21,000 km of highways are paved. It has about 1,200 km of limited-use waterways. Eleven of its 44 airports have paved runways, and it has three heliports.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan is a landlocked country in Central Asia. Its area is divided and, including the exclave of Naxcivan, includes 86,600 sq. km that makes it slightly smaller than Maine. Its climate is dry, semiarid steppe. Its terrain is mostly flat lowland (much of which is below sea level) rising to the Great Caucasus Mountains in the north. A portion juts out into the landlocked Caspian Sea. Some areas are subject to droughts.

Azerbaijan's population numbers about 7.9 million people. Its main ethnic group is Azeri (90%). Most of the population (93.4%) is Muslim. The main language spoken is Aseri. Although not as bad as many Sub-Saharan African nations, Azerbaijan has a moderately high infant mortality rate (82.5 deaths per thousand live births) and a moderate life expectancy (63 years average).

Azerbaijan is a republic. The chief of state is the president, who is elected by popular vote. The president appoints a prime minister as the head of government. There is a unicameral legislature and a judicial branch with several levels of courts.

The capital is Baku.

Azerbaijan is the least developed of the Caucasian states. Like many other Central Asian states, it has a majority Muslim population, high unemployment, and low standard of living. Its principal exports are oil, cotton, and natural gas. It suffers from many of the same problems as other former Soviet states in trying to change from a centrally planned economy to a market economy but is fortunate in that it has energy resources that help its future prospects. Azerbaijan's exports include oil and gas, chemicals, oilfield equipment, textiles, and cotton. Its imports include machinery and parts, consumer durables, foodstuffs, and textiles. Its main trading partners include other former Soviet states, Turkey, and European countries.

Azerbaijan has over 2,000 km of railways. Most of its 57,770 km of highways are paved. It has over 2,500 km of pipelines, and 29 of its 69 airports have paved runways.

China (People's Republic of China)

China is the fourth-largest country in the world. With a total area of about 9.6 million sq. km, it is slightly smaller than the U.S. Due to its size, it has a highly varied climate and terrain. Its climate ranges from tropical in the south to subarctic in the north. Its terrain includes mountains, hills, desert, plateaus, coastal plains, and deltas. It is subject to a wide variety of natural hazards including typhoons, floods, droughts, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

China's population of over 1.2 billion people is over 90% Han Chinese in origin. Officially, the country is atheist, but many follow traditional Chinese philosophy (Taoism). There are small pockets of the world's main religions (Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist). The main languages are Standard Chinese and Mandarin, but several other Chinese dialects are also spoken. China has a strict policy prohibiting families from having more than one child. Consequently, abortion is widely practiced. As a result, the number of males born significantly exceeds the number of female babies born. Despite these policies, China's population is growing at a modest rate (0.8%).

China is a communist state. The government or the People's Liberation Army (PLA) controls most of the major means of production. The chief of state is the president, who is elected by the unicameral legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC). The premier is the head of government. He is selected by the president and confirmed by the NPC. There is essentially only one political party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There are additional small registered parties, but these are under the control of the CCP. There is also a supreme court. The capital is Beijing.

Beginning in late 1978, the Chinese leadership has been trying to move the economy from a sluggish Soviet-style centrally planned economy to a more market-oriented economy but still within a rigid political framework of Communist Party control. To this end, the authorities switched to a system of household responsibility in agriculture in place of the old collectivization, increased the authority of local officials and plant managers in industry, permitted a wide variety of small-scale enterprise in services and light manufacturing, and opened the economy to increased foreign trade and investment. The result has been a quadrupling of GDP since 1978. Agricultural output doubled in the 1980s, and industry also posted major gains, especially in coastal areas near Hong Kong and opposite Taiwan, where foreign investment helped spur output of both domestic and export goods. On the darker side, the leadership has often experienced in its hybrid system the worst results of socialism (bureaucracy, lassitude, corruption) and of capitalism (windfall gains and stepped-up inflation). Beijing thus has periodically backtracked, retightening central controls at intervals. In late 1993, China's leadership approved additional long-term reforms aimed at giving still more play to market-oriented institutions and at strengthening the center's control over the financial system; state enterprises would continue to dominate many key industries in what was now termed "a socialist market economy." China exports electrical machinery and equipment, machinery and mechanical appliances, apparel, and toys. It imports electrical machinery and equipment, mechanical appliances, plastics, iron and steel, scientific equipment, and paper. Its main trading partners include the U.S., Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Japan.

China has 64,900 km of railroads. It has 1.2 million km of highways, about one-quarter of which is paved. It has nearly 20,000 km of pipelines. It has several ports and harbors. It has 206 airports, 192 of which have paved runways.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan is a large landlocked country in Central Asia. With an area of 2.7 million sq. km, it is nearly four times the size of Texas. It has a continental climate that is mostly arid or semiarid. Kazakhstan contains plains, mountains, desert, and oases. Its low point is below sea level (-132 m) and its highest point is 6.995 m above sea level. Portions of the country are subject to earthquakes.

Kazakhstan has a population of about 16.8 million people. Nearly half of the people are Kazakh, but there is a large (34.7%) Russian population (mostly the result of Russians who moved in under Russification when it was part of the Soviet Union). Almost half of the population is Muslim (47%), and slightly less is Russian Orthodox (44%). The state language is Kazakh, but the official language used in everyday business is Russian.

Kazakhstan is a republic. The chief of state is the president, who is elected by popular vote. The president appoints a prime minister as the head of government. There is a bicameral legislature and a judicial branch with a supreme court. The capital is Astana (it was moved from Almaty in 1998).

Kazakhstan is rich in fossil fuel reserves and other minerals and metals. Furthermore, its vast steppes can accommodate considerable agricultural development. The government's challenge will be to continue development of these resources as well as continue the transition to privatization. Kazakhstan's exports include oil, metals, chemicals, grain, wool, meat, and coal. Its imports include machinery and parts, industrial materials, oil and gas, and consumer goods. Its main trading partners include Russia, Ukraine, UK, Germany, and Uzbekistan.

Kazakhstan has 14,400 km of railways (not including industrial lines). It has 141,000 km of highways (104,200 km paved). It has over 7,800 km of pipelines, and nine of its 10 airports have paved runways.

Kyrgyzstan

A landlocked country in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan gained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. With an area of 198,500 sq. km, it is slightly smaller than South Dakota. Kyrgyzstan's climate is continental, but because of its large range in altitude (132 m to 7,439 m), it actually varies from polar in the high Tien Shan to temperate in the northern foothills to subtropical in the Fergana Valley.

Kyrgyzstan's population of about 4.5 million people is mostly Kirghiz (52.4%) with significant Russian and Uzbek populations. About three-quarters of the population are Muslim, and most of the rest are Russian Orthodox. The official languages are Kirghiz and Russian. Kyrgyzstan has a moderately high infant mortality rate (75.9 deaths per thousand live births) and a life expectancy of 63.6 years.

Kyrgyzstan is a republic. The chief of state is the president, who is elected by popular vote. The president appoints a prime minister as the head of government. There is a bicameral legislature and a judicial branch with several levels of courts.

Kyrgyzstan is a small, poor, mountainous country with a predominantly agricultural economy. Cotton, wool, and meat are the main agricultural products and exports. Industrial exports include gold, mercury, uranium, and hydropower. Kyrgyzstan has been one of the most progressive countries of the former Soviet Union in carrying out market reforms. Its imports include grain, lumber, industrial products, ferrous materials, fuels, machinery, and textiles. Its main trading partners include China, UK, Turkey, and Germany.

Kyrgyzstan has 370 km of railways (not including industrial lines). Most of its 18,500 km of highways are paved. Fourteen of its 54 airports have paved runways.

Mongolia

Mongolia is a fairly large landlocked nation in Central Asia. With 1.6 million sq. km, it is slightly smaller than Alaska. It has a continental climate but is mostly desert. Much of its terrain is desert or semi-desert with mountains in the west and southwest. The Gobi Desert is in the southeast. It occupies a strategic location between China and Russia.

Mongolia has a population of about 2.6 million people. Most of the population is Mongol (90%). The main religion is Tibetan Buddhism. The main language is Khalka Mongol. Like many other nations in the region, Mongolia has a moderately high infant mortality rate (64.6 deaths per thousand live births) and a moderate average life expectancy (61.8 years).

Mongolia is a republic. The chief of state is the president, who is nominated by the unicameral legislature and elected by popular vote. The prime minister is the leader of the majority party or majority coalition following the general election. There is a supreme court. The capital is Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia has embraced free-market economics but is hampered by its scattered population, severe climate, and vast expanses of unproductive land. The mining and processing of minerals and metals account for a large part of Mongolia's industrial production. Mongolia's main exports include copper, livestock, animal products, cashmere, wool, and hides. Its main imports include machinery and equipment, fuels, food products, industrial consumer goods, and chemicals. Its main trading partners include Russia, China, South Korea, and the U.S.

Mongolia has nearly 2,000 km of railways. It has 46,470 km of highways, but only 3,730 km of it are paved. It has 34 airports, but only eight have paved runways.

Tajikistan

Tajikistan is a landlocked nation in Central Asia with 143,100 sq. km of area (slightly smaller than Wisconsin). It has a continental climate that ranges from semiarid to polar in the Pamir Mountains. These mountains dominate the landscape, interspersed with several valleys.

The population of Tajikistan numbers about 6.1 million people. Tajik peoples make up more than half of the population (65%) with Uzbeks making up the next largest group (25%). Most of the people are Sunni Muslim (80%). The official language is Tajik, although Russian is widely used in government and business. Tajikistan has a high infant mortality rate (114.8 deaths per thousand live births) and an average life expectancy of 64.3 years.

Tajikistan is a republic. The chief of state is the president, who is elected by popular vote. The president appoints a prime minister as the head of government. There is a unicameral legislature and a judicial branch with a supreme court. The capital is Dushanbe. Tajikistan has experienced three changes of government and a civil war since it gained independence in September 1991, when the USSR collapsed. A peace agreement was signed in June 1997, but implementation is progressing slowly. Russian-led peacekeeping troops are deployed throughout the country, and Russian-commanded border guards are stationed along the Tajikistani-Afghan border.

Tajikistan has the lowest per capita GDP among the former Soviet republics. Agriculture dominates the economy, with cotton the most important crop. Mineral resources, varied but limited in amount, include silver, gold, uranium, and tungsten. Industry consists of only a large aluminum plant, hydropower facilities, and small obsolete factories mostly in light industry and food processing. The Tajikistani economy has been gravely weakened by five years of civil conflict and by the loss of subsidies from Moscow and of markets for its products. Tajikistan thus depends on aid from Russia and Uzbekistan and on international humanitarian assistance for much of its basic subsistence needs. Tajikistan's exports include cotton, aluminum, fruits, vegetable oil, and textiles. It imports fuel, chemicals, machinery and transport equipment, textiles, and foodstuffs. Its main trading partners include members of the former Soviet Union.

Tajikistan has 480 km of railways and 13,700 km of highways (11,330 km paved). Fourteen of its 59 airports have paved runways.

Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan, landlocked itself, is a Central Asian country bordering the landlocked Caspian Sea. With an area of 488,100 sq. km, it is slightly larger than California. Most of its climate is subtropical desert. Its terrain is mostly flat or rolling desert with mountains in the south.

More than three-quarters of Turkmenistan's population of 4.4 million people are Turkmen. Most of the remainder are other Central Asian ethnic groups. Most of the population (89%) is Muslim. The main language is Turkmen. Like many other nations of the region, Turkmenistan has a relatively high infant mortality rate (73.1 deaths per thousand live births) and a moderate average life expectancy (61.1 years).

Turkmenistan is a republic. The president is the chief of state and the head of government. There are two parliamentary bodies and a supreme court. The capital is Ashgabat.

Turkmenistan is largely desert country with nomadic cattle raising, intensive agriculture in irrigated oases, and huge gas and oil resources. One-half of its irrigated land is planted in cotton, making it the world's tenth-largest producer. It also possesses the world's fifth-largest reserves of natural gas and substantial oil resources. With an authoritarian ex-communist regime in power and a tribally based social structure, Turkmenistan has taken a cautious approach to economic reform, hoping to use gas and cotton sales to sustain its inefficient economy. Privatization goals remain limited. Its principal exports include natural gas, cotton, petroleum products, textiles, electricity, and carpets. It imports machinery and parts, grain and food, plastics and rubber, and consumer durables. Its main trading partners include countries of the former Soviet Union, Germany, and Turkey.

Turkmenistan has 2,187 km of railways. It has 24,000 km of highways, of which about 19,488 km are paved. It has just less than 5,000 km of pipelines for crude oil and natural gas. It has 64 airports, 22 of which have paved runways.

Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan is one of the former Soviet states. It is a landlocked nation in Central Asia with an area of about 447,400 sq. km that makes it slightly larger than California. Its climate is mostly midlatitude desert with semiarid grassland in the east. It also includes the southern portion of the shrinking Aral Sea. Most of the terrain is marked by sandy desert. The river valleys are intensely irrigated.

Uzbekistan's population of just over 24 million people is mostly Uzbek (80%). Most of the population (88%) is Muslim. The main language is Uzbek, although Russian and other Central Asian tongues are spoken. Like other nations of the region, Uzbekistan has a moderately high infant mortality rate (71.6 deaths per thousand live births) and a moderate average life expectancy (63.9 years).

Uzbekistan is a republic, although there is little power outside the executive branch. The Supreme Soviet elected the president when Uzbekistan was still part of the Soviet Union and was extended until 2000 by a public referendum. The president appoints the prime minister. There is a unicameral legislature and a supreme court.

Once one of the poorest areas of the former Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is now the third-largest cotton exporter. It is also a major producer of gold and natural gas. However, it has tried to maintain a Soviet-style command economy that has resulted in economic difficulties. The government has made some reforms designed to aid privatization, but it still maintains significant control in the economy. In addition to the items mentioned above, Uzbekistan exports mineral fertilizers, ferrous metals, textiles, food products, and autos. It imports grain, machinery and parts, consumer durables, and other foods. Its main trading partners include Russia, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and other members of the former Soviet Union.

Uzbekistan has 3,380 km of railways. It has 81,600 km of highways, 71,237 of which are paved. All three of its airports have paved runways.