The five states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) raise fundamental questions about the process of democratization in post-Soviet states and in the Muslim world more generally. There is a view shared by a part of the policy community that the U.S. should have different expectations in Central Asia than in Russia or in the other parts of the post-Soviet space, because Central Asia's history, in particular its Islamic past, makes the region a special place. At the same time the local rulers argue that the various peoples of Central Asia lack the cultural and historical underpinnings necessary to support a democratic polity.
Dr. Olcott believes that the process of democratization in Central Asia and in the Caucasus need not be different from the process of democratization in other parts of post-Soviet space. The unfulfilled promise of Kazakhstan is its failure to become a pluralistic quasi-democratic multi-ethnic state. In the early 1990s there could have been a Kazakhstan with strong regions, many arenas of political competition, an independent media and judiciary, religious tolerance, and a market economy in which there were strong incentives both for diversification and bringing broad sections of society into economic life. All these conditions were beginning to develop in the early 1990s, but with the exception of religious tolerance, none were realized.
Starting in late 1993 a small and diminishing political elite was limiting access to the market economy, and the number of economic stakeholders were not maximized. The growth of economic power of the Kazakh middle class has been restrained by efforts from the top. The general atmosphere of corruption, which goes down to the lowest levels of society and the political elite make it difficult to implement serious anticorruption legislation. Moreover, without a decisive change in the public image of the ruling family, any corruption control effort is impossible. The restriction of the market economy made political transformation in Kazakhstan even more difficult. As economic power remained consolidated, the ruling clan became more unwilling to share political power as it feared losing its power to control the economy the spoils that brought. By the mid-1990s the ruling families throughout Central Asia realized the incredible scale of economic wealth that they controlled and their kleptocratic behavior soon became notorious.
In the course of economic consolidation in Kazakhstan the state paid off different groups: the elite of the oil-rich regions, nationalists and young reformers, in an effort to co-opt them. With the time the government began to perceive that it did not have to share economic and political power to maintain a good relationship with the West, as long as it ensured the delivery of country's oil assets. Even though the U.S. and OSCE would occasionally urge the Kazakh government to democratize, there were never any consequences if the Kazakh government failed to heed U.S. warnings. As a result, the U.S. at present has few remaining levers left to influence the Kazakh leadership compared to the mid 1990s when the United States really could have had an impact.
According to Dr. Olcott, one of the reasons that both Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan moved away from democratic reform in the mid-1990s was the shift of the center of political culture in the region from imitating Russia's quasi-democracy to imitating Uzbekistan's authoritarianism. When criticized, the Kazakh and Kyrgyz regimes can defend themselves by claiming to be less authoritarian than neighboring Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan.
In November 2002, at the time when Dr. Olcott's book went to press, Kazakhstan was at the crossroads. There was a tension growing within the ruling family between the sons-in-law and those who were not intimately tied to the family. The latter were trying to persuade the regime to introduce a degree of economic and political transparency. The latter young reformers realized the prospects of economic development in Kazakhstan were hindered by a lack of true reform. Although the inflow of the money to the country remains stable, there is no guarantee to the foreign investors that their investments will be secure. If the government became transparent, it would mean that authoritarianism in Kazakhstan was waning and passed its peak. A failure to implement transparency measures and reform would pave the road to making the state look increasingly like an African country.
Nevertheless, Dr. Olcott believes that democratization in Kazakhstan is still possible, but will be harder to achieve now than six months ago - when the young reformers were ousted from government. A quasi-democratic succession struggle that could unfold in different parts of the region may lead to a greater democratization process and may allow for a quasi-democratic scenario in Kazakhstan in particular and in Central Asia in general. Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are potential tipping points in the region. The former because of the possibility competitive presidential elections may be held, and the latter because of the fragility of the regime.
Dr. Olcott believes that the issue of human rights could not be the U.S. sole lever or a deciding point.
There is a need to support human rights groups, but it has to be accompanied by a strong realistic model of development, explicit economic goals, a vision of what the stable or secure Central Asia should look like. This could help to prevent long-term threats posed by failure of national economic development and the failure to solve regional problems, such as energy, water and border issues.
Power vacuums like Afghanistan and some African states come about slowly, but are made ever more certain when weak states pose threats to slightly stronger neighbors. If the states of Central Asia remain unreformed, a regional aggressor is likely to appear in Central Asia within five to ten years. Dr. Olcott's advocates developing a regional market in Central Asia that would have regional multinational firms in a variety of sectors including service sector, hydroelectric power and communal services, food, as well as textiles and clothing. If trade barriers between the states are substantially reduced, states will be able to use their natural potential for developing regional trade.
International financial institutions should make it a priority to assist the region with loans and projects. In the long-term, this could help Uzbekistan because no political reform there is possible without economic reform under the current regime. It will eventually have a positive effect on Kazakhstan, because Nazarbayev's regime is self-propelling partly because it is the most dynamic economy of the region.
In terms of security policy, the U.S. appears to look to the Central Asian states as facilitator areas of current American policy and as islands of security that can be helpful in the future, but the U.S. has not yet decided on a role for these countries in the long run. Most likely we will witness the creation of a roving alliance system, but it is not clear whether this system can meet the long-term needs of the Central Asian states. Dr. Olcott sees the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan as a laboratory for experimenting and changing American policy in the area. There should be an even greater effort to try and integrate Kyrgyzstan's resources into the international Afghan assistance program which could create economic opportunities for the Kyrgystan. At the same time it is necessary to make it clear that these economic opportunities are being created because the U.S. has tough political expectations and a whole complex set of goals for Kyrgyzstan. Dr. Olcott believes, that given the country's small territory and still surviving pluralism, the political trajectory of Kyrgyzstan could be modified towards greater democracy.
Dr Olcott pointed out the important task of helping the Central Asian states to maintain their secular nature. Secularism, however, has fewer chances if there is a lack of political freedom, whereas political freedom cannot be achieved without a certain degree of economic development. For all the evils of the Soviet rule, at their birth as sovereign states they inherited such advantages as education and health-care systems, as well as occupational distribution of women.
Unfortunately, decolonization in Central Asia is becoming increasingly reminiscent of what occurred in parts of sub-Saharian 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. The expectations remaining as part of the region's Soviet heritage must now be incorporated with both nationalist and Islamic agendas that exist in Central Asia. If this is not done successfully, the authoritarian part of Soviet legacy or most radical part of the Islamic tradition may come to dominate in the end.
Summary by Marat Umerov, Junior Fellow, Russian and Eurasian Program