The Central Asian region has been a disappointing one from the point of view of democracy-building. In fact, the situation appears to grow worse with every passing year. Initially Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan seemed to be making steady progress toward the development of democratic or quasi-democratic polities, but in the past two years the regimes in each country have become more autocratic. Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have had strongman rulers since the outset. Hopes for achieving a political opening in the former case were largely dashed after the February 1999 bombings in Tashkent. The one "bright light" is Tajikistan, where part of the opposition has been brought into government and the role of non-governmental groups has expanded in recent years. However, the government in Dushanbe is not yet in control of this war-torn country, and leaders in neighboring states see the "victories" of democracy in Tajikistan as further destabilizing the situation in their own countries.
The main reason why democracies have not developed in Central Asia is that the region's leaders don't want them to. However, the region's rulers would like us to believe that the failure of democracy-building in the region is a good thing, not a bad one. They portray their populations as unready for democracy, politically-immature and capable of being swayed by extreme ideologies. In addition, they say that their people respect strong rulers and like them and that as traditional Asians they are ill-disposed to democracy.
Most importantly, they argue that their neighborhood is too dangerous to allow them the risk of empowering the people. The latter explanation has become more popular over time, given the obviously deteriorating security situation in the countries in and around the region. The region's leaders all argue that security concerns are paramount, and that the first challenge before the state is to maintain stability and social order. Decisions about economic reform and political institution building are regularly subjected to the litmus test of whether policy initiatives are likely to help the government keep the peace.
Invariably, though, those in power view their continuation in office as inseparable from the cause of stability. Partly this is because they view themselves as most fit to rule, but in many cases it is also because they do not want to lose the perquisites of power. The latter has allowed each of these men to enrich themselves, their families and their cronies. The abuse with which this has occurred has varied from country to country, but the pattern is a region-wide one. This certainly put the governments at potential risk from their populations, especially if living conditions deteriorate. Alternative elites that are denied any possibility of economic and political power sharing can take advantage of popular dissatisfaction. Thus the behavior of the leaders can have a potent effect on the nature of the region's security risks.
However, for now the population of the region generally tolerates the actions of their leaders, the civil war years in Tajikistan (1991-1993) being a conspicuous exception. This does not mean that the population was unprepared for democracy, or that they will forever accept the current situation. At the time of independence it was by no means foreordained that this region would stay undemocratic.
The level of preparedness for democratic institution building and level of public engagement on civil society issues varied dramatically from country to country. Unfortunately many of the support structures necessary for democracy-building are disappearing in these countries with each passing year, this includes a committed elite and the institutions necessary to sustain pluralistic or democratic societies. The consequences of this decision are still unclear, but they will receive their test when each of the current leaders inevitably departs from the political scene. The responses of each country to this challenge are likely to be quite distinct.
The State of Democracy-Building in Central Asia
With time, these five countries are each growing more unique. This is largely because of the different choices that are being made with regard to political, economic and social reform. Decisions to restrict democratization have reduced the number of political stakeholders in each of these societies. There is also an implicit relationship between political and economic reform. Economic reform also creates new political stakeholders, and the pattern of economic restructuring has varied considerably. So too have decisions about the empowerment of traditional institutions and local governments. Thus the potential consequences of the current failures in democratic institution-building vary from country to country. In general what goes on inside the country is more important than events beyond its borders. However, there are also important interdependencies throughout the region, and failures in one state can create new risks in neighboring countries.
These patterns of interdependency make Uzbekistan a critical nation to watch. Developments in Uzbekistan will influence those in the surrounding states. Ironically, developments in a neighboring state have played a disproportionate rule in influencing political institution-building in Uzbekistan. The civil war in Tajikistan dealt a critical blow to democracy-building efforts in Uzbekistan. There were many signs of political ferment in Uzbekstan in the late Gorbachev years, and the regime felt pressure from both secular nationalists and religious activists. Uzbekistan (and especially the Ferghana Valley) was the center of Islamic revivalism for the entire region. There were two large political groupings, Erk and Birlik, each of which was a nascent political party. In addition there was a great deal of dissention within the top ranks of the communist party elite, with most of the groupings mirroring regional divisions.
In this regard the political map of Uzbekistan was quite similar to that of Tajikistan, although the economic, political and social structure of the Uzbeks was more complex than that of the Tajiks. Most importantly, though, the quality of leadership exerted by Islam Karimov, who was already president of Uzbekistan at the time of independence, was far superior to that of his colleague in Tajikistan (Khakhar Makhkamov) who resigned from office in September 1991, after mass political protests crippled political life in the nation's capital. Political unrest in Uzbekistan has never reached that same fevered pitch. At the same time, the government has pursued a highly focused campaign against secular and religious political activists, dating back to 1992-1993.
In many ways Uzbekistan has the most thought-out model of state-building in the region, although it is far from clear that it will be able to meet the challenges that this state faces. Karimov has been looking to institutionalize a system where there is a strong man on top, who chooses regional rulers but then allows a certain range of autonomous action, and re-empowered traditional institutions. This model is designed to create a wide range of stakeholders in the regime, particularly at the local level. Key to the model is Karimov's support for the maintenance of a strong social welfare net, which is designed to stimulate mass political allegiance. Local institutions (the mahalles) have much of the responsibility for supervising payments to and disbursements from the welfare system, which makes these local officials important stakeholders. At the same time, though, it allows the Karimov regime to cast blame on regional and local officials when the welfare delivery system fails.
The system though, is dependent on the state maintaining a certain threshold of economic productivity. While official Uzbek figures on GDP would suggest that this country has not suffered the same precipitous economic decline that many neighboring states have experienced, conditions on the ground tell a different story. The Uzbek government has managed to maintain a minimum standard of living across society by sharply restricting the convertibility of the national currency, the Uzbek som, and by maintaining price supports on strategic commodities well beyond the time that they were in effect in most neighboring countries.
These decisions about economic reform are creating their own form of political risk. At the time of independence Uzbekistan was one of the most entrepreneurial of the post-Soviet states, with a thriving "black" or "second" economy. However, economic conditions in the country in recent years have led to the thwarting of many thousands of these potential entrepreneurs, ranging from small business owners to powerful economic and political figures. In other words, the number of potential economic stakeholders in the country has been sharply reduced, and with them the number of potential political stakeholders.
By holding up on economic reform the government has increased elite dissatisfaction in favor of meeting a perceived mass demand. They have also made it more difficult for alternative political elites to achieve economic power, something that has increased their frustration. It is also not clear that they have set up the preconditions necessary to meet mass demand in the future, and if they have not they have simply transferred the period of maximum political risk from the years just after independence to a period further down the road.
At some point Uzbekistan is going to have to make its currency convertible and engage in systematic economic reform. They promised to do the former in 2000, although it does not appear likely that they will. However, Uzbekistan cannot continue its economic isolation indefinitely, as foreign reserves are dropping and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to attract foreign investment into the country. The reform process is sure to create renewed hardship for the Uzbek people, and to fuel the fans of opposition against the regime.
The forms that this opposition will take are likely to be quite different from the methods adopted by opposition groups in the previous decade. Secular nationalists have suffered from the restrictions that have been placed on the development of independent civil and political institutions. Independent media exists in name, but not in fact, as the combination of formal and self-censorship limits the exercise of the existing rights of self-expression. Multi-candidate and even multi-party elections were held for parliament in 1999, but only pro-regime forces were permitted to participate, and the range of political debate is sharply restricted.
Islamic opposition groups have been forced underground or to flee the country. Uzbekistan has a long and rich tradition of religious debate between Islamic radicals, modernists and traditionalists which the regime is now stifling. The nature of religious opposition is such that anti-regime groups have been able to better position themselves than have their secular counterparts. The number of Muslim followers of fundamentalist ideologies has increased in the past several years, as the first wave of revivalists has now trained its successors, allowing the number of devout believers to increase in a geographic progression. It should not be presumed that all Islamic activists are potential terrorists, they obviously are not, but a serious Islamic threat now exists in Uzbekistan that did not previously. Partly, it is the neighborhood; Islamic activists have been able to receive formal training in maintaining underground organizations in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have also found new ways of self-financing, through foreign assistance and by accepting overtures from the drug trade.
This does not mean that Uzbekistan will have a religious revolution, or that it should suppress religious opposition. In fact, quite the opposite is true. One of the major casualties of Uzbekistan's crackdown on non-sanctioned political groupings is that there is still no natural accommodation between the country's secular and religious traditions. In theory the two could exist in relatively comfortable and close proximity, but in practice efforts by the government to regulate religious life are making relations between the two more strained.
As a result religious themes are far more likely to be used as a way to mobilize popular opposition to the regime than might otherwise be the case. It is not beyond the realm of the possible that secular and religious opponents could make common cause, with the weakened position of the former increasing the likelihood that the latter would dominate.
This is why the question of economic reform is so critical in Uzbekistan. The longer it is postponed, the more difficult it will be for an alternative secular political elite to develop an independent economic base. Delaying economic reform doesn't eliminate the risk of social unrest, it merely postpones it, and the weak record of civil society institution-building in Uzbekistan has made it unlikely that this protest will be channeled in peaceful and easily managed ways should it develop. Much will depend upon local and traditional political stakeholders and how they respond to any future political crisis. This crisis is not necessarily looming, but it is sure to materialize as President Karimov weakens physically, given the failure of the Uzbek government to institutionalize any mechanisms for national elite recruitment and succession. What makes the situation in Uzbekistan most unstable is the inability to predict when this will occur, as the social landscape of the country is not nearly as static as the state of political institution-building.
The situation in Uzbekistan has had an obvious influence on developments in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Southern Kyrgyzstan is very permeable, along its borders with both Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The risks associated with this permeability were clearly demonstrated at the time of the Batken hostage crisis in summer and fall 1999, when a group of Uzbek fighters held Kyrgyz and Japanese hostages for several months in a remote mountain region.
These actions occurred at a time when the Kyrgyz government was in the process of backing away from its commitment to democratic principles, and provided a further justification for them. The real motivations behind the Kyrgyz government actions are really more complex. Like most of its neighbors, at the time of independence Kyrgyzstan had a nascent democratic movement, which was further empowered by supporters of a putsch within the communist party, as it served their purposes in undermining the role of Kyrgyz communist party leader Absamat Masaliev. Once he came to power (by vote of the Supreme Soviet in October 1990), Akaev became a champion of these groups, and even more vocal one after the failed August putsch in 1991.
Akaev, who was probably the most astute observer of the west in the region, understood that advancing the cause of democracy in the country would work to the national as well as to his own personal interest. This strategy worked for the first several years. Kyrgyzstan was considered a model in the region, a state committed to democratization and economic reform. This led to a much higher than average per capita foreign assistance to the country, and attracted some foreign investment which otherwise might not have gone into the country.
In the Kyrgyz context the policies of political and economic reform greatly increased the number of stakeholders in the regime. The policies of economic restructuring in Kyrgyzstan have had positive effect, in helping to stimulate some new business activity. Most promising are reforms in agriculture, as they create the possibility that the poorest part of the population will become economically self-sufficient.
However, the standard of living of most Kyrgyz is still continuing to deteriorate, which is contributing to President Akaev's growing unpopularity in the country. This unpopularity makes him vulnerable to defeat (although not definitionally unelectable). He has also become more fearful of defeat. One reason for this is the growing corruption in official circles. At the same time that many Kyrgyz have grown poorer, members of the official family have grown richer, and have begun to dominate certain key sectors of the economy and to be monopolists in trade as well. They have managed to use the courts and the tax courts in particular to gain control of assets that they desire.
At the same time it has become more difficult to complain about these abuses. Formal and informal restrictions on the press have increased, and there have been new restrictions placed on public protest. Most serious though are the abuses of the electoral system, and in particular the treatment of opposition politicians. For the past few years the tax courts have been used for political purposes, but the incidents of this abuse increased dramatically during the period of the recent parliamentary elections. Even before the campaign began, popular opposition figures felt that they were vulnerable to arrest. Their fears proved to be quite warranted. The most disturbing arrest is that of Feliks Kulov, former number two man in the Kyrgyz government, and most recently Mayor of Bishkek, as he was a major presidential contender. Kulov and his supporters charged vote fraud when he failed to gain a seat during the recent parliamentary elections, and now a record of successful administrative or criminal prosecution would disqualify Kulov from seeking further office.
Kyrgyzstan's turn away from democracy poses real challenges for the foreign community, as Kyrgyzstan's political system really was this small, isolated and poor nation's most redeeming feature. If there is not a rapid reversal in political developments, it will be hard for the western community to maintain its earlier strong support for the Akaev regime. Political crackdown in Kyrgyzstan need not be a recipe for civil war or even civil unrest. It is a way to guarantee, though, that a poor country will simply grow poorer, and more dependent upon powerful neighbors. Kyrgyzstan could even become a failed state, especially since the growing drug trade through Central Asia is leading to the criminalization of the economy especially in southern Kyrgyzstan.
The current pattern of behavior in Kyrgyzstan is similar to that of Kazakhstan. In 1999 President Nursultan Nazarbayev held very questionable parliamentary and presidential elections. Here too opposition was sharply limited common in their participation and the main political opponent of the president, in this case former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin was arrested in order to bar him from seeking office. Unlike Kulov's arrest, the detention of Kazhegeldin was a brief one, although his entourage continues to be hassled by the authorities.
However, in many ways the crackdown in Kazakhstan is less troubling than that in Kyrgyzstan. The problem is that the nature of stakeholding in Kyrgyzstan was directly linked to the policies of reform. By contrast, there were multiple sources of stakeholding in Kazakhstan, simply because of the complexity of the former society. Kazakhstan is implicitly pluralistic, given the country's enormous size (roughly two thirds that of the continental US), its economic complexity and ethnic diversity.
This informal pluralism is not a substitute for formal pluralism, but it does help keep alive the potential for democratic development in the absence of a supportive environment. That supportive environment is no longer present in Kazakhstan. Initially, until about 1995, the government of Kazakhstan pursued a policy of encouraging the development of pluralistic institutions, or at least of not actively seeking to restrict their development.
From that time on the government has been on the defensive in the political arena, although considerably increasing the scope of independent economic activity. Executive power has been strengthened, legislative power diminished, and the judiciary serves the interests of the incumbent regime. Kazakh media is also growing less free with time. Economic reform has been episodic, but has been largely linear, and it is currently much easier for foreigners to do business in Kazakhstan than anywhere else in the region. This does not mean that investment is secure, or that the playing field is level one. Here too the presidential family is becoming increasingly more powerful, as are those who are close to the "court." Currency is freely tradable, property is relatively sacrosanct, and the diversity of the economy is such that independent economic stakeholders are beginning to develop throughout the country. Regional economies are also beginning to develop. As yet neither the regions, nor the independent political actors have much political influence. They are also still too cautious to actively seek it, but they are likely to be a force that will need to be reckoned with at the time that power begins to ebb away from President Nazarbayev.
Much of Kazakhstan's future stability depends upon the success of economic reform, and whether the government is able to help the increasingly more impoverished lower third to half of the population maintain a minimal standard of living. The growing criminalization of the economy is a threat in Kazakhstan as well, although Kazakhstan is more removed from the risks of extremist or terrorist groups than is Kyrgyzstan. However, unrest in neighboring states would cast a shadow over prospects of foreign investment in Kazakhstan as well, and make the potentially diverse economy of the country more dependent upon oil and gas development, pipelines and pipeline politics. This would be troubling, as economic development is Kazakhstan's best recipe for success and for the eventual development of a civil and pluralistic society.
In many ways Turkmenistan is the most opaque of the Central Asian societies. It has an anachronistic political system. Saparmurad Niyazov, has taken the name Turkmenbashi (head Turkmen) in the style of Attaturk, but constructed a cult of personality that makes him more like a space-age version of a traditional medieval Khan. A seventy-five foot gold likeness of himself sits atop the Arch of Neutrality, which rotates with the sun to cast Niyazov's shadow over most of downtown Ashgabat, the nation's capital. Most prominent institutions are named after Niyazov, his photo is displayed at just about every important intersection and on all but the most insignificant of the Turkmen currency. Media is tightly controlled, and there is no intellectual life to speak of in the country.
In the first years of independence, when it looked like oil and gas wealth was just around the corner and that there would be plenty of revenue to raise the general standard of living of this small underpopulated nation, the peculiarities of the Turkmen political system seemed less troubling to potential political and economic stakeholders. This country has never had a large political opposition, and Niyazov's rivals from within the old communist party elite have been forced to leave the country. The President has managed to use foreign interest in Turkmenistan's oil and gas resources to accrue personal wealth for his family and close cronies. However, the other branches of the economy (especially the cotton sector) have allowed leading regional families (often powerful because of their tribal background) to continue to maintain some economic influence. Niyazov has tried to keep them at arm's length by periodically rotating the cadre close to him (which include representatives of these families), but these powerful regional families are certain to try and assert their influences in any subsequent succession struggle. However, they will have no democratic institutions to make use of in these efforts.
In many ways Tajikistan has made the most strides toward creating a civil society, in large part because the only way out of the crisis engendered by the civil war was to build a coalition government. The civil war itself was partly a product of the desire of certain elite groups (including those around the incumbent President Imamali Rakhmonov) to avoid power-sharing arrangements, especially with the Islamists. Tajikistan is the only country in the region to allow the Islamists a formal role of the governing of society, and Islamists are included in parliament and in the cabinet. The current coalition though under-represents the long-dominant Uzbek (or Uzbek oriented) elite from northern Tajikistan (Khujand province). The government in Dushanbe also exerts only very loose control over the Pamiri population of the country (who live in the Badakhshan region). Tajikistan also has the most criminalized economy in the region, creating a state within a state. Drugs dominate in the border areas with Afghanistan, and the mayor of Dushanbe is said to meet his municipal needs by taxing the drug trade. The pervasive atmosphere of lawlessness makes other Central Asian leaders frightened of the Tajik example, rather than eager to imitate the country's more open and inclusive political style.
Should the US Try to Change the Situation
This brief survey of the region is a depressing one from the point of view of democracy-building. While it would be unfair to say that US efforts in this regard have done no good, it is also clear that they have not yet had the desired effect. In the past two years the two states that showed the most promise of democratic reform, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have retreated from their earlier commitments. The two that were least interested in democratic reform, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have begun to function increasingly as security states. Borders throughout the region are tightening, but these two states are sharply monitoring the internal movements of people as well. Tajikistan has had some success at democratic institution-building, but it is unclear whether or not the Tajik state will be able to recover from the civil war that it experienced.
This does not mean that all US efforts have been for naught. There is a tradition of independent media developing in most of the countries of the region, even if what they can broadcast is still restricted. A new generation of lawyers and other legal experts is receiving training, and with time they should be able to provide a more forceful lobby for the need for legal reform. The number of people with formal training in business and economics is also increasingly, and they too seem certain to push for the need for legal reforms in the area of protection of property. The next generation of administrators throughout the region should be better trained than the current one, and they will be able to draw on the expertise and involvement of those active in the growing non-governmental organization sector. This sector is increasing throughout the region, although its vitality is greatest in non-political sectors.
It is in US interest to continue our investment in the human capital of Central Asia. However, we shouldn't exaggerate the influence that these training programs are likely to have. Young people with knowledge of the west and a notion of how a pluralistic society operates are certain to be more effective interlocutors, but they need not make better and more dependable partners for the US. The institutions that are developing in Central Asia are not generally supportive of democratic values, and as young people get recruited into them, they are more likely to bend to the existing institutional patterns of behavior than to reform them.
This does not mean that the US should not engage in Central Asia. But as we do we should be mindful about how slowly and incompletely societies are transformed, even in the global information age. Five new states are developing in Central Asia, each with its own unique blend of old and new, traditional and modern, western and non-western, democratic and non-democratic features. Ethnic, religious and national loyalties are all showing their fluidity, and as they evolve they will lead to the shaping and reshaping of political as well as economic institutions. The first big transformation or upheaval is likely to come with the current group of officials leave power. Until then it is too soon to speak of the long-term prospects of democracy in the region.