Since the attacks of September 11, and the emergence of a U.S. security partnership with several of the states of the Central Asian region, there has been lots of speculation about what this means for the prospects of democratic reform in all five of these countries.
Now that there are US bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and the possibility of facilities in at least two more countries, there is concern that the US and other Western nations may be more reluctant to hold the states of the region to democratic norms and that, given the political uncertainty it could occasion, holding them to these norms may not be in our best interest. After all, as it is sometimes crudely put, better to deal with the "devil" you know than the unknown one which might be lurking out there.
Personally, I believe that this argument is very dangerous. In some cases, closer cooperation with the US is making these "devils" more willing to at least experiment with limited democratic reform, but in other parts of the region, the devils we know are becoming more rather than less recalcitrant political figures. This in turn seems likely to fuel and exacerbate the security risks that these states could pose to their neighbors in the future.
The power-void and collapse of civil society that made Afghanistan an attractive environment for the al-Queda network took years to develop and helped fuel instability in neighboring states. Cleaning out the remains of the terror network in Afghanistan gives the Central Asian states a brighter future, but this action in itself does not eliminate or even substantially minimize the dangers that they confront from their own largely internally generated security risks.
It is my deeply-rooted hope that we will continue to hold these states to these norms. This is the best way to advance U.S. national security interests, especially over the medium and long-term, and it is the best way for these states to secure their long-term survival.
This author vehemently rejects the often argued position that the people of Central Asian are somehow unfit to live in a democratic society, that they are unable to sustain democratic institutions because of their history or that it is too soon in their history of statehood to expect them to develop democratic norms. Ten years may be a short time in the life of a nation, but the rulers and the ruled seem to tell time in different ways. Most people need the hope that things will improve either in their lifetime or that of their children. Those born in the Soviet Union were raised on a diet of "deferred gratification," and all independence seems to have brought is a new version of the old dietary staple. Those born later are likely to have even less patience.
While independence may indefinitely benefit the ruling classes, over time, the masses are likely to see independence as something of a trick. For them, the only real difference in their lives is a change in psychological status, and the ephemeral benefits that it provides. But this perception of psychological empowerment is diminishing with time. Those who live in a country should feel some sort of stake in its future, or failing that, feel some hope for their own future or that of their children.
Decolonization in Central Asia is becoming increasingly more reminiscent of what occurred in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, where a number of states have spent the past forty years stepping backwards from the levels of development that characterized their country and its population at the time of independence or in the first decade after independence was achieved.
It is fashionable for Central Asian leaders to argue that it took over two hundred years for the US to develop its democratic form of government, that we must be more patient with them. It is true that every nation has to evolve democratic or participatory political institutions that are suited to their cultural and historical background, and that this is a slow and oft times messy process. However, these political systems must be based in large part on the prevailing democratic norms, and on a basic respect and observance of human rights.
Now, more than ever before, we live in a global information era, and people throughout Central Asia are able to tie into the political values of that global culture. Of course, people can be frightened into submission and if this generation of human rights activists in Central Asia are decimated, either literally or figuratively, it will be that much harder to create stable secular societies in this part of the world, not to mention democratic ones.
It is easy to find non-democratic or authoritarian episodes in the history of any people, and of course the histories of those living in Central Asia are no exception. But it smacks of racism to argue that one people is more or less fit for democracy than another, and such an argument is usually a convenient one for those who do not wish to share power. The Central Asian states could have had a pattern of political institutional development that was more like that of Russia and the other post-Soviet states (excepting the three in the Baltic region). After years of repression, even now, throughout Central Asia a committed minority remains in place, eager to see democratic development move forward. Nowhere is this more true than in Kyrgyzstan, where the informal political organization movement is much more firmly entrenched and widely dispersed than anywhere else in the region. But developments in Turkmenistan over the past eight months make clear that no country should be written off. This is a lesson that we should have drawn from the relative success of power-sharing relationships in Tajikistan, which is now experiencing a degree of political and economic recovery after several years of civil war.
The specter of the Tajik civil war continues to haunt Central Asian leaders. The current level, or illusion, of political stability will prove to be short-lived if the rulers of the region do not take seriously the need to create safety valves in their societies such as political institutions at the national and/or at the local level that create opportunities for ordinary citizens to become political stakeholders. This is all the more necessary given that the process of economic reform has had very uneven effects across society. Many more people have been denied the sense of being economic stakeholders than those who have felt increasingly empowered.
Even before the attacks of September 11, the leaders of the Central Asian states all championed the cause of stability over that of democraticization or political reform. None of the country's have yet to hold a free and fair presidential election, although all but Niyazov of Turkmenistan have competed in "contested" elections.
Over the past decade, much of the stated reason against political liberalization on the part of Central Asia's leaders has been the risks posed by the region's religious revival, and the increased popularity of radical Islamic groups, which might be further empowered by a more open political process.
Uzbek fears date from the time of the Tajik civil war, in the early 1990s. These fears were compounded as the situation deteriorated in Afghanistan, which was a source of seditious ideas, arms and narcotics even before the Taliban took power and allowed al-Queda to establish a training ground for international terrorism. The disorder in Afghanistan complicated the process of state-building throughout Central Asia. In general, Uzbek domestic and foreign policy was probably most shaped by the developments in Afghanistan, especially after the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent. The Uzbek government was determined that IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) militants should never be able to enter their country at will and they recognized that the training that they were receiving in Afghanistan was transforming the nature of the Islamic threat confronting the regime. This further hardened the Uzbek government's determination to both delineate and defend its national boundaries (which were mined in some areas inhabited by Tajiks and Kyrgyz). The Kazakhs and Kyrgyz also began to better protect their borders (although they did not mine them).
Not all of Uzbekistan's fears were imaginary. The threat from Juma Namangani and his IMU were real, although quite possibly exaggerated, as many have held that the February 1999 bombings would not have occurred without collusion of those close to Karimov himself.
Namangani may or may not have been killed in Afghanistan and the camps of the IMU were at least partially destroyed. However, all of Central Asia's leaders are warning of the possibility of new IMU incursions and, should these occur, not only the regimes, but the cause of democratic reform will also be further imperiled.
The Karimov regime has agreed in principle to support democratic reforms as part of the strategic partnership framework. While the US agreed to "regard with grave concern any external threat to the security and territorial integrity of the republic of Uzbekistan," and promised the country "dynamic military and military-technical cooperation," the Uzbek government made a lot of political promises. In the area of political relations, "Uzbekistan reaffirmed its commitment to further intensify the democratic transformation of its society politically and economically." The United States will provide the Government of Uzbekistan assistance "in implementing democratic reforms in priority areas such as building a strong and open civil society, establishing a genuine multi-party system and independence of the media, strengthening non-governmental structures and improving the judicial system." In the area of legal cooperation, the Uzbeks recognized "the need to build in Uzbekistan a rule by law state and democratic society," and agreed to "improve the legislative process, develop a law-based government system, further reform the judicial system and enhance the legal culture."
Most of these reforms remain for the future. The Uzbek government has made a lot of promises about what it will do at a later date, including the election of a bicameral legislature elected in 2004, but the President did extend his term to 2007 through the use of referendum. The government has promised to eliminate formal press censorship, has registered at least one previously banned human rights group, and has made other small symbolic steps showing the Uzbek government's commitment to introducing rule by law, including the prosecution of police officials for the use of excessive force in interrogating accused religious extremists.
However, the Uzbek government's policy toward religion remains largely unchanged, and it has been behaving much like its Soviet predecessors, believing that it can dampen the fires of religious ferment by state regulation of religious practice. This has served to push extremist groups underground. Given Uzbekistan's current demographic and social situation, the potential for new recruits remains high.
The government in Tashkent faces the challenge of educating, integrating and employing a new generation of Uzbeks----nearly forty percent of the population is under 14---and given how little economic reform has occurred in the country it really still is the government's challenge, as there is still only a tiny private sector to draw on for assistance. Today's Uzbek youth is generally poorer and sicker than their parents were. Although less well educated, they are far more knowledgeable about Islam and far better integrated into global Islamic networks. The same pattern is repeated everywhere in the region, except in Turkmenistan, where there is no shortage of poverty, but where the country's Islamic revival has proceeded in more traditional channels.
The proceeds of Central Asia's burgeoning drug trade, the source of which is being revitalized from the current harvest of poppies in Afghanistan, has help fund the perpetuation of militant Islamic groups that have been proliferating in Uzbekistan and throughout Central Asia. The largest of these, the Hezb-ut Tahrir, call for believers to unite and return Islam to the purity of its founding through the creation of a new Caliphate. It is outlawed everywhere but Turkmenistan, where it seems to lack a significant presence (unlike the drug trade, which does have a significant presence and is said to be directly benefiting the leader of the state).
Following massive arrests, adherents of the movement have gone underground in Uzbekistan, but their numbers are increasing in the border regions of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, particularly among unemployed youth who are paid to distribute the movement's religious tracts. These people are poised to return to Uzbekistan if any opportunity to do so appears.
Throughout the region, groups like the Hezb-ut Tahrir are benefiting from the failure of all of these countries to create any real secular institutions for channeling opposition. The case of Turkmenistan is most extreme as the national authorities have been determined to carve out a model of political and economic development that is supposedly in keeping with national cultural specificity's and largely focuses on making a secular religion or cult around the person of the country's first president.
Throughout the region, failures of state-building are creating future security risks. Unlike a few years ago, when the situation in Afghanistan could be blamed as a root source, the current crisis in political institution-building is very much a product of decisions made in the national capitals themselves. It would be a very large mistake on the part of the governments in the region to assume that the growing US security presence in the region will serve to shield them from the consequences of their decisions.
The honeymoon period associated with independence is coming to an end and, comparatively speaking, it has also been a honeymoon period here. Notwithstanding the civil war in Tajikistan, the situation in Central Asia has been far more peaceful over the past decade than many observers initially anticipated. However, as the region's leaders age and tire, the frustration of their politically isolated and, in some cases, increasingly impoverished populations seems sure to grow.
Advocates of democracy building may be frustrated by some of the changes occurring in Russia or in Ukraine, but the situation there is quite positive in comparison to that found in Central Asia. Governments in states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan which had initially given at least limited endorsement to the ideals of democratic reform are now sharply restricting the freedom of action of their citizens and are eliminating any meaningful role political opposition groups can play. As a result, many are growing more frustrated by the increasing social and economic inequalities that now characterize their societies and by the diminishing opportunities to express their dissatisfaction through legal channels in the existing political system.
In recent months, we have seen signs of restiveness among the elite and masses in several Central Asian countries. The situation in Turkmenistan is most noteworthy. There is little prospect of even symbolic change in Turkmenistan as long as Niyazov remains in office, something that is leading to the mobilization of the Turkmen elite. Like Stalin, Niyazov fears disloyalty on the part of his government and rotates state officials in and out of office with regularity. Moreover, when someone is let go, the full savagery of the President's power is unleashed on him.
A good example of this is the campaign against Niyazov's former security chief, Muhammad Nazarov, dismissed in March 2002, and charged in May 2002 with "premeditated murder, procurement of women, abuse of power, bribe-taking, illegal arrests, the manufacture and sale of counterfeit documents, seals, stamps and blank forms, embezzlement and the abuse of power," charges which collectively could get him 25 years in prison. Moreover, 22 men formerly under his charge also face prosecution. In March 2002, the head of the border guards, Major General Tirkish Tyrmyev, was also dismissed. In May 2002, the Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister in charge of the financial sector, Khudaiberdy Orazov, and the head of the Central Bank, Seitbai Kandymov, were both dismissed. The latter faces a host of criminal charges, including that of "immodesty," according to the country's official newspaper "Neitralnyi Turkmenistan" (Neutral Turkmenistan). Niyazov also announced plans to increase the size of the national security service to some 5000 people in a reorganization that will both expand its reach and make the existing leadership more vulnerable to removal in rather Stalinesque ways.
Turkmenistan's government has been almost inflexible on issues of political and economic reform. Moreover, those who formally break with Niyazov, like former foreign minister Boris Sheikhmuradov who resigned from his post as Turkmenistan's Ambassador to China in October 2001, have a price put on their head. Since going into opposition Sheikhmuradov has formed a political party, The Peoples Democratic Movement of Turkmenistan, which manages a very active opposition website. This opposition group seems to have much greater energy, and hence potential, than earlier opposition efforts in Turkmenistan. A small group of pro-democracy activists known as Azadliq (freedom) was organized during the Gorbachev reforms, and the United Turkmen Opposition, was formed in Russia by Turkmenistan's first Foreign Minister, Abdi Kuliev and former Oil and Natural Gas Minister Nazar Suyunov. While these two groups failed to gain support from Turkmenistan's ruling elite, Sheikhmuradov's movement now includes Turkmenistan's former ambassadors to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, a former deputy prime minister, and the former number two man in Turkmenistan's embassy in the US.
There have been disturbing developments in Kyrgyzstan as well. Although President Akayev promises that he will step down when his term expires, the range of acceptable political activity has been narrowing. The trial of a Kyrgyz legislator, Azimbek Beknezarov, led to peaceful demonstrations in his home town of Dzhellabad in March 2002, that were broken up by the police leaving seven dead. A month later, one of the demonstrators died of a stroke during a hunger-strike. The district administrator, Shermamat Osmonov, of the village where the demonstrations occurred, Aksu, was fired by President Akayev, almost immediately, despite repeated protestations by the State Secretary, Osmonakun Ibraimov, and the Minister of Interior, the newly appointed Temirbek Akmataliev, that the police opened fire in self-defense. As a result of international pressure, the police officers themselves now face prosecution. In what definitely has the feel of an official cover up, Beknazarov was arrested in January 2002 and charged with exceeding his official powers seven years before while he served as an investigator in the Toktogul regional prosecutor's office. Beknazarov, who was Chairman of the Jogorku Kenesh (parliament) committee on Judicial and Legal Affairs, had been a very vocal critic of the Akayev government's negotiated border with China, in which the Kyrgyz ceded 125000 hectares of previously disputed territory to Chinese control, and had called for Akayev's impeachment. This treaty, and the fate of Beknazarov and the pro-Beknazarov demonstrators, has become a cause celebre in Kyrygzstan and has led to mounting numbers of demonstrators in southern Kyrgyzstan in particular, who gather daily to call for President Akayev's resignation. In May 2002, the Prime Minister resigned and in June a new government was named, but this itself has not led to an appreciable change in the political environment.
Although there has been strong pressure from the various OSCE states on Kyrgyzstan to have President Akayev pardon or otherwise release his former Vice President, Feliks Kulov, now head of the Ar Narmys party, just the opposite has occurred. Kulov, whose family now lives in exile, was convicted in May 2002 of three separate charges of embezzlement, and sentenced to serve a new 10 year term, concurrent with his previous seven year sentence, for abuse of an official position. Kulov was also barred from holding office for 3 years following his release.
The situation in Kyrgyzstan is probably the most disturbing, as it seems to have few easy solutions. The ideal would be for the US to work with the current Kyrgyz government to help it find ways to successfully increase public confidence, through the release of Kulov and the creation of a broader coalition, etc. If Akayev is able to get to the end of his term, there is a very good chance that the country will stage something which at least has some of the features of a free and fair election, providing an important example for the rest of the region.
Hopefully, this would be a situation that would have some influence on both Kazakhstan's and Uzbekistan's rulers. Despite the fact that Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has continued to provide strong rhetorical support for the need for democraticization in Kazakhstan, actions taken by Kazakhstan's president and the country's senior officials provide little evidence that the country's leaders intend to take seriously a commitment to democratic reform.
A group of key reformers left the government in November and formed a political movement called Democratic Choice, in part over a spat with the president over the role played by one of his son-in-laws, Rakhat Aliyev. Aliyev himself was pushed out and lost a number of his holdings. His media holdings Karavan and Kazakh Commercial TV (both owned by Alma-media) were temporarily suspended and the chief editor of the former, Aleksandr Shukhov, has been brought in for questioning by the Almaty police.
The Democratic Choice movement itself proved relatively shortlived as two of its organizers, Mukhtar Ablyazov and Gaklimzhan Shakiyenov, former Akim of Pavlodar Olbast, were arrested for various forms of malfeasance. Two other organizers, former first deputy Prime Minister Uraz Zhandosov and Alikhan Beymanov, created the "Ak Zhol" (White way) party, but it has yet to be demonstrated that this is a credible and independent opposition force.
While these developments do not in and of themselves change the face of poliltical life in the region, they do show that the alliance with the US has done little to make the region's leaders feel compelled to introduce democratic reforms in their societies. Partly this is because they feel that they are largely able to get away with whatever behavior they want----that there will be neither internal nor external consequences. They might be right about the latter---the international community might quietly sit back and let these men do as they wish as the priorities of the US in particular currently lay elsewhere---but international inactivity is not synonymous with indefinite local acquiescence.
Over the past several years, the region's leaders have begun to age and in some cases become noticeably physically frailer, but the pace of institutional development has slowed in key countries like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. As already noted, there are some hopeful signs in Kyrgyzstan, which if born out would have enormous impact on the entire region. President Askar Akayev has been signaling that he doesn't plan to press for further constitutional modifications to enable him to continue to run for reelection. However, the only way that Akayev can convince observers of his sincerity is to make determined steps to free up the political process and create new institutions for elite recruitment.
Positive too are plans to turn ever more control in the country over to popularly elected local governments. This would have enormous benefit in Kyrgyzstan, creating new arenas of competition throughout the country and reducing the expectations of the central government. It too would serve as a model and potential spur to reforms throughout the region.
At the same time, all in the region are watching with interest efforts by Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliev to have his son, Ilham, designated as his heir. Many in Kyrgyzstan believe that President Akayev will also try to arrange a transfer of power to one of his children, especially if distant relative Nursultan Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan successfully pursues such a strategy. Akayev is rumored to be grooming his young son, Aidan, who was educated in the United States.
Efforts to reinstate some sort of modern-day princely system are very dangerous. Over the past five years, Central Asia's leaders have been honing their "winner-take-all" philosophy. But the societies that they rule are complex, filled with populations that are reluctant to accept a loss of the benefits that they are used to enjoying and former political and economic stakeholders who are used to being accommodated. Throughout Central Asia, members of the elite from disfavored clans and families have been sitting by, waiting for the opportunity to grasp more economic and political power. As institutions to ensure a peaceful transfer of power do not exist, there is no foundation on which for them to rest their hopes.
In the absence of a civil society, there are few secular political institutions around which opposition can coalesce. Islam, especially the mosque and the medresseh, is increasingly becoming a more attractive organizational center for ethnic Kyrgyz as well as ethnic Uzbeks, and it is very difficult to restrict popular access to it. As a result, the advocacy of Islamic goals can be useful for both the regime's supporters as well as for its detractors. Everything depends on the rules of the game and these are still in flux.
The challenge posed by Islam remains particularly acute in Uzbekistan. Islam is particularly deeply rooted in many parts of the country, and the precedent of competition between Islamic fundamentalists, modernists, and Islamic conservatives is a well-established one. All three traditions withstood the vicissitudes of Soviet rule. Some of today's radical groups even have their roots in an anti-Russian uprising that occurred in the Ferghana Valley in 1898 and a few of the leaders have even studied with a "holy-man" who witnessed the revolt as a young child, and who - much to Soviet displeasure -survived to a very old age. This revival easily reaches into Kyrgyzstan, through the Ferghana Valley. Throughout the region, governments mistakenly believe that religion can be managed by the state, as can the development of Islam, and that governments are competent enough to influence the social evolution of society.
The Central Asian elite, of course, is not formally against Islam, but is very wary of revivalist or fundamentalist Islam and people who are eager to live by "the exact teachings of the book." What they want is to keep these republics as secular states and to prevent devout Muslims from forcing all of their co-religionists into public observance of the faith. Even in Kyrgyzstan, pressure on secular elements to conform to religious precepts is strong.
The relationship of religion to mass belief is much more complex and interactive than the region's leaders credit it with being. Though the governments of Central Asia are in no position to regulate the religious beliefs of the masses, they may exert their influence on social processes. But in trying to do so, these governments could inadvertently trigger social explosions.
It is for this reason that Central Asia's governments must once again broaden the political sphere available to most ordinary citizens to include a host of secular alternative. For without this, the country has no real safety valve to use to release social pressure.
But political liberalization alone is not the answer. The region's social pressure cooker must be dealt with more directly as well, through programs that will effectively help alleviate the region's poverty, through nationally based economic projects, and an effort to capitalize on the potential of a Central Asian regional market. Moreover, economic reform will create a new and more persistent group of claimants for the extension of rule of law into the political sphere as well and the kind of popular support base that is necessary for sustaining democratic political developments over the long haul.