Modern Coinage of the Central Asian 'Stans'|
March 25, 2013
In looking at the nations born from the implosion of the USSR, perhaps the most confusing to people in the West are the new nations of Central Asia, those that are sometimes simply called “the Stans.” An easy way to translate “stan” at the tail end of a nation’s name might be “the land of.” Thus, Afghanistan is the land of the Afghans, and the rather large Kazakhstan is the land of the Kazakhs. Likewise, Uzbekistan is the land of the Uzbeks. The five nations we will look at here all were incorporated into a growing Russian Empire in the 19th century, or the young Soviet Union in the beginning of the 20th. All proclaimed independence shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. All have some amazing history, but not as independent nations with their current names and boundaries.
The largest of the central Asian republics, Kazakhstan’s national bank was organized shortly after the break-up of the Soviet Union, in 1993. It issued a series of circulating coins immediately afterwards, using a system in which 100 tiyin were equal to 1 tenge. The first series of coins ranged from the small 2 tiyin pieces up to 50 tiyin, all in bronze, then from 1 up to 20 tenge, all in a cupronickel.
Unfortunately, high inflation rates in the 1990s chewed up the value that these coins had, and a new series with higher denominations was issued in 1995. If there’s any silver lining to that, it’s that these first circulating coins are now priced so that they reside in dealers’ bargain bins.
The web site for the national bank (www.nationalbank.kz/?docid=1) can be accessed in English, and like many of the websites of central banks in former Soviet republics, displays a rather large assortment of commemorative coins covering quite the spread of themes. Curiously, the commemoratives of Kazakhstan fall into two broad categories: those made of precious metal and those designed to circulate. While there are plenty of 500 tenge and even 1,000 tenge precious metal commemorative pieces out there for the patient collector, there are also quite a few 50 tenge pieces made of copper-nickel. This makes for a wonderfully inexpensive set of coins, if you have the patience to hunt them down. Themes and designs are eclectic, to say the least, but there are quite a few that are space-related. The reason is that the Baikonur Cosmodrome, built by the Soviets in the 1950s, is located in Kazakhstan and remains something of a point of pride.
Not to be left out of the bullion coin market, Kazakhstan has also recently started its Silver and Golden Irbis series. Sometimes called snow leopards in the west, these coins are issued in the usual 1/10-ounce, 1/4-ounce, 1/2-ounce, and 1-ounce sizes and trade at or just above the prices for their precious metal. While they have not yet become a big player on the precious metals market, the vast mineral wealth of the region may change that in coming years.
Just south of Kazakhstan and sharing a border with it is Uzbekistan, which may seem like just another new nation with an odd name, but which is actually a confederation of 13 smaller lands, some of which are almost completely autonomous under the Uzbek flag. For instance, what is often called Karakalpakstan is actually an autonomous region that shares the borders of what is left of the Aral Sea with Kazakhstan to its north. While it does use the same coins as all of the rest of Uzbekistan right now, the irrigation that drains the major rivers going into the Aral Sea makes the drying and disappearance of that sea over the past 50 years a cause that is far more important to the people of Karakalpakstan than to anyone else in the nation. Environmental issues like this, as well as other regional concerns, mean there already appears to be a loose movement to independence in some areas, which may ultimately produce yet another set of coins for collectors.
Right now, the Uzbek monetary system remains one in which 100 tiyin make up 1 som. The word “som” apparently derives from the word for “pure,” implying pure gold or silver. Like many of the countries in the area, coins were produced soon after independence. But here as well, inflation consumed any value the first issues had, making them inexpensive items in dealers’ stocks today. The most recent circulating pieces start at a small denomination of 5 som, meaning the tiyin are pretty much a thing of the past.
When it comes to commemorative coinage, some good news is that Uzbekistan has gotten into the game, both in circulating commemoratives and in silver. The bad news is that the web site of the National Bank of Uzbekistan (www.cbu.uz/) is only in the local languages and Russian. There does not yet appear to be a translated version of it in English. Collectors will probably have to stick with buying from well-stocked dealers or from large shows, at least in the immediate future.
Farther east, right up against China, Kyrgystan is a mountainous land with more potential than existing wealth. One of the poorest countries in Asia, Krygystan did not issue circulating coins until 2008, while at the same time being an exporter of gold for several years. Once again, 100 tiyin make 1 som, and if you can find the base metal circulating coins today, they don’t usually cost too much.
Kyrgyzstan also has produced a series of commemorative 1 som pieces, and a series of 10 som silver commems that span a wide variety of themes and designs, and even a few gold 100 som pieces. One that may be of particular interest to collectors is the 2003 silver 10 som piece that commemorates the 10th anniversary of the som itself, and thus is a coin featuring coins as the reverse design.
Believe it or not, this poor nation has a national bank with a website that can be accessed in English (www.nbkr.kg/index.jsp?lang=ENG). Put together and run as professionally as that of many larger banks and financial institutions, it isn’t hard to see the entire spectrum of Kyrgystani commemoratives, and to find numerous images (although not all of the coins at the website have accessible photos as well).
Continuing our jaunt through Central Asia brings us next to Tajikistan, another nation with an ancient tradition, but only modern coins for its modern borders. This time the monetary system is 100 dirams that make up one somoni, and the official website of the National Bank of Tajikistan does a very good job of showing even the base metal, circulating coins, from the lowly 1 diram up to the 5 Somoni, at www.nbt.tj/en/banknotes_coins/coins.php.
While Tajikistan also has a series of commemorative coins, it does not seem to be as extensive as that of its neighbors. But the silver 1, 3, and 5 Somoni pieces do seem to be well focused, with designs commemorating national events, such as the 10th anniversary of the constitution or the 15th of independence.
Moving to the final of our five “Stans,” we come to Turkmenistan and a monetary system that encompasses 100 tenne (sometimes spelled “tenge”) into 1 manat. Like most of the post-Soviet republics, Turkmenistan produced a series of coins rather quickly. The first series, dated 1993, spanned from the little 1 tenge all the way up to the 50 tenge. But like so many other of the coinage systems of the new republics, the inflation that hit after independence wiped out the value of these coins. By 1999, another set of manat coins was issued, this time with values of 500 and 1,000 manat. The smaller tenge were long gone. But today, coins from both of these issues are not too expensive, assuming you can find them.
In 2009, Turkmenistan tried again, reforming its coinage and producing another series that went from 1 tenge up to 50 but now with 1 and 2 manat bimetallic pieces, which were introduced in 2010. These new coins all sport a map of the nation, while the older ones were all required to show the head of state.
Once again, there is also a central bank of Turkmenistan with a web site at www.cbt.tm/index.html, and again, this one does not seem to have a button to translate it to English. Intriguingly, though, the written native language is close enough to our standard, Western script that some curiosity-driven clicking will yield a great deal of information. For example, under “milli pul birligi,” one can find pictures and descriptions (if you can read them!) of many of the current, commemorative gold and silver coins.
The commems of Turkmenistan are as plentiful as a collector could want, and not only span the issues of the last few years, but go back over a decade, through an array of themes that often have a common obverse, but multiple reverses. Getting hold of them might be the biggest challenge, at least for collectors in the West.
It seems obvious that one of the continuing troubles of the “Stans” is that inflation has repeatedly eaten up the value of their monetary systems, keeping the financial leaders constantly in a bind when it comes to producing coins (and currency) for their peoples. The oil and mineral wealth of the area means the international community will probably continue to forge business connections with these five nations and pump in hard currency in the process. Indeed, there was a major, “EU – Central Asia Energy Finance & Investment Summit” held in Vienna in late 2011 to discuss these very problems. This may help stabilize the money of these nations. Right now, though, these growing pains mean the “Stans” may continue to produce new coinage systems or continue to build extensive, often beautiful series of commemoratives in base metals or in silver and gold.
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On May 4, 2013 Stanislav Podlevsky
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