From Kazakhstan to Kyrgyzstan, there are five countries in Central Asia. Here’s everything you need to know.

When I first set foot in Central Asia after crossing the Caspian Sea by cargo ship from Azerbaijan to Kazakhstan, I knew instantly that this is a region steeped in geopolitical history. Kazakhstan’s Caspian Sea coastline is lined with oil platforms, while mosques and Orthodox churches in the frontier city of Aktau told of a nation on the crossroads of East and West.

It’s the same story across Central Asia, where nomadic cultures were resettled in Soviet towns and where Emirs once ruled vast empires that have since turned to desert. A crucial route on the ancient Silk Road, Central Asia’s strategic importance has never diminished, and with the rise of China and the fragmentation of Russia, it’s unlikely to do so anytime soon.

That’s why I urge you to visit the region now, to better understand the countries that make up Central Asia, and to see firsthand how their borders have been shaped (often irregularly) by outside political forces like the Soviet Union. Now, Central Asia is rising, and it’s important to know exactly where this region begins and ends and which countries are found within its boundaries.

In this article, I’ll examine the traditional and competing narratives that define this region, as I answer the question, ‘How many countries are in Central Asia?’.

How many countries are in Central Asia?

Central Asia currently comprises five distinct sovereign nations. In alphabetical order, these are:

  • Kazakhstan
  • Kyrgyzstan
  • Tajikistan
  • Turkmenistan
  • Uzbekistan

This definition of Central Asia is largely defined by its historical political ties, and all of the five countries listed above were republics of the former Soviet Union. Many international organisations, including the World Bank and the United Nations geoscheme, define the region by these five countries, which is why I believe it to be the most reputable definition.

Map of Central Asian, also highlighting Afghanistan. Map by Cacahuate.

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Competing definitions of Central Asia

However, alternative definitions sometimes expand to incorporate additional areas based on cultural, historical, or geopolitical considerations outside of the former Soviet ties. Possible definitions of Central Asia include the following:

  • Extended Geopolitical Definitions: Some geopolitical analysts and international organisations include Afghanistan and Mongolia within Central Asia due to their historical connections, cultural similarities and strategic importance in the region.
  • Cultural and Historical Perspectives: From a cultural or historical viewpoint, parts of northern Iran, western China (specifically Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), and southern parts of Russia (Siberia) could be considered part of Central Asia. These areas share historical ties through the Silk Road and exhibit cultural and ethnic affinities with the Central Asian republics.
  • UNESCO’s Definition: UNESCO includes Afghanistan in its definition of Central Asia, recognising the shared cultural heritage and historical links that tie it to the Central Asian countries.

The competing definitions of Central Asia underscore the region’s fluidity and the interplay of various geographical, cultural and political factors in shaping its boundaries. This diversity in definitions reflects the complexity of regional identity in Central Asia and the varied lenses through which it can be viewed, whether through the prism of post-Soviet statehood, historical trade routes or cultural and ethnic kinship.

Samarkand Uzbekistan Travel Silk Road
The ancient Silk Road city of Samarkand is one of the best sights in Central Asia.

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A brief history of Central Asia

To better understand why these competing definitions of Central Asia exist, it helps to understand the basics of Central Asian history. Shaped by its position as a crucial crossroads of the ancient world, the region has witnessed the rise and fall of empires and the flourishing of trade along the Silk Road.

Here’s a brief overview:

  • Ancient Period: Central Asia’s history begins with the early nomadic tribes, such as the Scythians and the Turkic tribes, who mastered the vast steppes. These nomadic peoples played a crucial role in the development of the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that facilitated unprecedented cultural and economic exchange between the East and West.
  • Classical Antiquity: The conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE introduced Hellenistic influences to Central Asia. Following Alexander’s death, the region saw the emergence of the Greco-Bactrian and later the Kushan Empire, which played significant roles in the spread of Buddhism along the Silk Road.
  • Medieval Period: The Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries brought major changes to Central Asia, as Islam gradually became the dominant religion. The region became a centre of Islamic culture and scholarship during the Golden Age of Islam. The Samanid Empire, for instance, was notable for its contributions to Persian literature and culture.
  • Mongol Empire: The 13th century saw the arrival of the Mongol hordes led by Genghis Khan, whose empire eventually encompassed much of Central Asia. The Mongol era facilitated trade and cultural exchange but also brought destruction and upheaval.
  • Early Modern Period: In the subsequent centuries, Central Asia was divided among various khanates, such as the Khanate of Bukhara and the Khanate of Khiva. These states navigated complex relationships with neighbouring powers, including the Russian Empire and the Qing Dynasty.
  • Russian and Soviet Era: The Russian Empire expanded into Central Asia in the 19th century, incorporating the region into its territory. The Soviet period (20th century) brought significant political, social, and economic changes, including efforts at modernisation and the suppression of local cultures and languages.
  • Post-Soviet Era: With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Central Asian republics gained independence, opening a new chapter in their history. The post-Soviet era has been marked by efforts to navigate the challenges of nation-building, economic development, and regional cooperation, while also grappling with issues of governance, human rights, and environmental concerns.
A statue of Lenin in Osh, Kyrgyzstan.

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Is Afghanistan in Central Asia?

Sharing land borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan can be considered part of Central Asia, particularly in discussions involving cultural, historical and geopolitical contexts. The country shares significant historical, cultural, and economic ties with Central Asian nations, especially through its role as a key crossroads on the ancient Silk Road.

In geopolitical and strategic studies, Afghanistan’s inclusion in discussions about Central Asia often reflects its importance in regional security, economic, and political dynamics. UNESCO, for example, includes Afghanistan in its Central Asia Programme, acknowledging the shared cultural heritage and historical links with the region. This illustrates how Afghanistan’s role and identity in relation to Central Asia can be context-dependent.

Bamyan, Afghanistan, was once known for its Buddha carvings. Photo by Zabihullah Habibi on Unsplash.

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Is Mongolia in Central Asia?

Mongolia is often associated with Central Asia due to its historical, cultural, and geopolitical links to the region, yet it is not typically included in the strictest definitions of Central Asia, which focus on the five former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Mongolia is situated to the north of these countries, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south.

Historically and culturally, Mongolia shares deep ties with Central Asia, particularly through the Mongol Empire in the 13th and 14th centuries, which at its zenith was the largest contiguous land empire in history and included much of Central Asia. These historical connections have fostered cultural and ethnic affinities between Mongolia and the Central Asian states.

Geopolitically, Mongolia can be included in discussions about Central Asia due to its strategic location between Russia and China and its involvement in regional initiatives aimed at addressing common challenges such as economic development, security, and environmental issues. Despite these connections, Mongolia’s distinct national identity and the fact that it was never part of the Soviet Union distinguish it from the Central Asian republics in many international contexts.

The Mongolian Steppe is similar to Central Asian landscapes. Photo by Bolatbek Gabiden on Unsplash.

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Is Iran in Central Asia?

Iran is not typically classified within the Central Asia region when referring to the modern geopolitical boundaries that define Central Asia. Iran is situated to the southwest of these countries, sharing borders with Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan to its east, which places it more accurately within the Middle East region.

However, Iran has historical, cultural, and linguistic ties with Central Asia, reflecting a deep interconnection that predates contemporary geopolitical definitions. These connections are evident in the shared heritage of Persian culture and language across much of Central Asia, especially in Tajikistan and parts of Uzbekistan, where Persian influence remains strong due to historical interactions.

During various periods in history, particularly under the Persian Empire and later during the Islamic Golden Age, the regions that are now Iran and Central Asia experienced significant cultural, religious, and political exchanges. The influence of Persian art, literature, and architecture is evident across Central Asia, demonstrating the historical connections between these areas.

In contemporary times, Iran engages with Central Asian countries on a range of issues, including economic cooperation, energy resources, and security concerns, further highlighting the connections between Iran and the Central Asia region. Despite these interactions, Iran’s geographical placement and distinct historical trajectory generally categorise it within the Middle East rather than as part of Central Asia.

Persian art in Isfahan, Iran. Photo by Shahab Zolfaghari on Unsplash.

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Is Xinjiang in Central Asia?

Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, is not traditionally considered part of Central Asia based on contemporary geopolitical definitions. It is located in the far northwest of China, sharing borders with several countries, including Mongolia to the northeast, Russia to the north, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan to the west and southwest, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south, and India to the south and southeast.

Despite not being geographically classified within the Central Asian region, Xinjiang shares deep historical, cultural, and ethnic ties with Central Asia. Its significance as a critical junction on the ancient Silk Road facilitated extensive cultural and economic exchanges between China and Central Asia. The region’s demographic composition, including a significant population of Uyghurs, a Turkic ethnic group, as well as other Central Asian ethnic groups, further highlights its cultural and historical linkages with Central Asia.

Xinjiang’s connection to Central Asia is underscored by shared traditions, languages, and religious practices with its western neighbours, making it a region that straddles the cultural and historical boundaries between Central Asia and East Asia.

Xinjiang Province, Western China. Photo by Lin Lone on Unsplash.

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FAQ: How many countries are in Central Asia?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic: ‘How many countries are in Central Asia?’:

Q1. What is the traditional definition of Central Asia?

The traditional definition of Central Asia includes five countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. These nations are often collectively referred to due to their shared historical, cultural, and geopolitical characteristics.

Q2. Why are these five countries considered part of Central Asia?

These five countries are considered part of Central Asia because of their geographical location in the heart of the Eurasian continent, their historical connections through the Silk Road, and their cultural and linguistic ties. Additionally, all five were part of the Soviet Union, which influenced their post-Soviet development and international relations.

Q3. Are there any competing definitions of Central Asia?

Yes, there are competing definitions that sometimes include other nations such as Afghanistan, Mongolia, and parts of neighbouring countries like Iran and China, particularly the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. These broader definitions consider historical trade routes, cultural exchanges, and geopolitical strategies.

Q4. Is Afghanistan considered part of Central Asia?

While Afghanistan shares significant historical, cultural, and economic ties with Central Asian countries, it is not typically included in the narrowest definitions of the region. However, some broader definitions and geopolitical analyses do consider Afghanistan as part of Central Asia.

Q5. Does Mongolia belong to Central Asia?

Mongolia is often associated with Central Asia due to its historical ties and cultural similarities, particularly stemming from the Mongol Empire. However, it is not traditionally counted among the Central Asian countries in most geographical and political definitions.

Q6. How do international organisations define Central Asia?

International organisations may have varying definitions of Central Asia, often based on the context of their work. For example, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) includes Afghanistan in its Central Asia Programme, reflecting a broader cultural and historical perspective.

Q7. How has the definition of Central Asia evolved?

The definition of Central Asia has evolved due to changes in political boundaries, economic integration, and cultural exchanges over the centuries. The region’s strategic importance along the Silk Road historically, and its geopolitical significance in contemporary times, have influenced its perceived boundaries.

Q8. Why is the precise definition of Central Asia important?

The precise definition of Central Asia is important for academic, geopolitical and economic reasons. It affects regional cooperation, development programmes, security alliances, and the study of historical and cultural developments across these territories.

Q9. Can the countries in Central Asia be categorised in any other regional groupings?

Yes, countries in Central Asia are often also considered part of broader regional groupings such as the Eurasian region, the Silk Road region, or the post-Soviet states, depending on the context of the discussion or analysis.

Q10. How do the Central Asian countries view their own regional identity?

The Central Asian countries often embrace a regional identity that reflects their shared history, culture, and challenges. This identity is continuously shaped by both internal developments and external relations with major powers in the surrounding regions.