Commentary by Kirsten WILLIAMS
Apart from the odd sham election or a particularly horrific human rights abuse, the Central Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) garner little attention in Western Europe. Yet these elusive states benefit from a more thorough examination of their political cultures. The region ranges from fragile democracy in Kyrgyzstan to Turkmenistan’s bizarre personality cult, via repressive dictatorships in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This brief introduction will reveal the leaders of these highly strategic nations.
Kazakhstan is the ninth biggest country in the world. It is bordered by Russia to the north, China to the east, and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south. Just as the country’s economy is dominated by oil, the political scene has been controlled by the former Communist chief Nursultan Nazarbayev since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Nazarbayev relies on suppressing opposition and showcasing Kazakhstan’s impressive economic growth to retain his power over the country. Winning his most recent election with 98% of the vote, he enjoys international acceptance, if not outright praise. In November 2015, he met with British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, and Tony Blair has worked with the President in an advisory role.
Nazarbayev was originally highly popular in his highly diverse country, and was credited for keeping interethnic strife under control. However, resistance to Nazarbayev’s authoritarian rule has slowly risen, alongside growing racial tensions. Eleven months ago, clashes between ethnic Tajiks and native Kazakhs erupted after a Tajik man allegedly stabbed a Kazakh acquaintance to death.
Other problems are brewing, too. With the government budget dependent on oil, Kazakhstan has been badly hit by falling oil prices. Nonetheless, the 75-year-old Nazarbayev shows little sign of slowing up. Indeed, having recently appointed his daughter Dariga as deputy PM, he looks to be creating a dynasty. Nothing is set in stone, however. When Dariga was briefly estranged from her father in 2007, she was edged out of politics and media, with her then-husband fleeing to Austria. He was later charged with murder and died in prison in Vienna. With such a controversial background, it remains to be seen whether Dariga will be accepted as a suitable replacement for her elderly father.
While not as rich as its northern neighbour Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan is the most democratic of the ‘-stans’. This was not always the case. After independence from the Soviet Union, the country of 5.4 million found itself ruled by Askar Akayev, a politician from humble beginnings who had been considered a reformer in 1990 and 1991. In the years that followed, however, Akayev failed to reduce shocking income gaps and became increasingly authoritarian. In 2005, the populace rose up and demanded his impeachment in a revolution now known as the Tulip Revolution. Within two months, Akayev had resigned. The opposition who replaced him, having been swept to power on a tide of optimism, proved unable to resist the allure of powerful organised crime. In 2010, the previously popular President Bakiyev was forced to resign amid mass protests and violent riots in the south between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz.
There followed an interim government headed by Roza Otunbayeva, the first female president in post-Soviet Central Asia. Then, in 2011, Almazbek Atambayev was handed a comfortable majority in the first peaceful transition of power in Kyrgyzstan’s post-Communist history. Decidedly pro-Russian, Atambayev has signed his country up to Moscow’s Eurasian Customs Union and closed a US air base in 2014.
It is not only Western governments who are disappointed with Atambayev’s political direction. There is increasing disquiet about the creeping crackdown on freedoms through new legislation. The recent deportation of a British expat who compared the Kyrgyz national dish to a horse’s penis once again shone the spotlight on the government’s fierce nationalism.
Unlike Kyrgyzstan, very few people would describe Tajikistan as a democracy. Lying south of Kyrgyzstan, the population is more ethnically homogenous, but has experienced massive violence for different reasons. Shortly after the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Tajikistan was plunged into a civil war mainly dictated by clan loyalties. Over 100,000 people died.
In November 1992, Emomalii Rahmon came to power. Originally praised by the United Nations for his negotiation of the ceasefire in 1997, he drew criticism from opposition groups and external observers for his repression of dissent and suspicious election victories. Public criticism of Rahmon’s regime is not tolerated, and after an assassination attempt on the president in 1997, the media has been extremely restricted. Dissidents have been assassinated in recent years and opposition figures receive regular death threats.
Due to Tajikistan’s long border with Afghanistan to the south, the country faces growing security threats from Islamist militants who travel across Tajikistan. Among those militants is a group known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which could pose a real security concern in the coming years.
Rahmon, like the older Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan, is clearly reluctant to relinquish power. Last month, Tajik parliamentarians voted to name Rahmon the “Leader of the Nation” and grant him lifelong immunity from prosecution for any actions he has taken in office.
Like the much larger Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan benefits from large natural reserves – in this case, gas. Yet unlike Kazakhstan, this wealth is highly uneven, with much of the country eking out a pitiful living.
Turkmenistan’s trajectory after independence has been convoluted to say the least. From 1991 until recently, the country was far more isolated on the international stage than its neighbours, largely due to its bizarre dictator who ruled the country until 2007. Saparmyrat Niyazov, who died in 2006, created one of the strangest and most lavish personality cults of the 20th century. Calling himself Turkmenbashi (leader of all Turkmen), he tortured opponents, renamed the months of the year after himself and his mother, and spent the country’s gas revenue on personal vanity projects. In comparison, the current president Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is seen as a reformer, though neither of the elections he has won have been considered free or fair.
Berdimuhamedow, who has taken the title Arkadag (protector), has undone some of the more outrageous traditions invented by his predecessor, but retains an iron grip on media, politics and religion. The internet is heavily restricted and arbitrary detention is routine. Reports of torture are commonplace. Finally, though Berdimuhamedow may have dismantled the worship of Niyazov, he seems to be creating a cult of his own.
Uzbekistan was the USSR’s major cotton producer. Rampant corruption and over-farming has destroyed much of the once-fertile land, which is also bereft of a functioning democracy. Islam Karimov, the Uzbek President since 1989, is considered one of the cruellest dictators in the world. At the beginning of his long reign, however, he was enthusiastically supported by the US for clamping down on Islamism in the majority-Muslim country. What the US considered legitimate security concerns were exploited in order to arbitrarily round up and kill dissidents by boiling them alive, raping and forcibly sterilising women. Torture continues to be endemic in the country today.
Karimov’s cruel regime recently took an unexpected turn due to a feud with his daughter, Gulnara Karimova, long thought to be his future successor. Karimova was once Uzbekistan’s most successful businesswoman, but fell out of favour with her father over a messy fraud case in Switzerland and her public portrayals of family strife on social media. It has left the future of the Karimov dynasty on shaky ground, though Gulnara’s sister Lola could be groomed for the presidency.
Uzbekistan’s strategic location and strong position vis-à-vis Islamist militants mean that the country will continue to enjoy the patronage of the West and Russia. Human rights violations will continue unchecked. With no real opposition in the country, Uzbekistan’s leadership looks strong even twenty-seven years after independence.