October 29, 2003

Martha Brill Olcott, Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, DC

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today.

The challenge of building democratic societies in Central Asia is becoming more profound with each passing year, and unfortunately there are no easy answers to the question of how to alter this situation.

Twelve years ago the Central Asian societies all had the opportunity to develop democratic institutions, as well as to become market economies. While some of these countries, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in particular, have made major strides in becoming market economies, even these countries have faltered along the way of creating participatory political systems. The countries that have been the most reluctant to precede with economic reform, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, have performed most abysmally with regard to opening their political systems up for participation by their citizens. Tajikistan, which experienced a deadly civil war from 1992-1997, is somewhere in between.

In all of these cases decisions to restrict the arena of economic competition have led to the restriction of political competition as well. This pattern was established within the first five years of independence, in a period in which the U.S. presence in Central Asia was a tenuous one. There are political prisoners in all five countries. Almost everywhere the first, if not the most celebrated cases, have involved prominent political and economic figures, who have been jailed, forced into exile, or been placed under house arrest. Added to their number have been prominent critics from the fourth estate, and certain "troublesome" human rights activists. Religious "extremists," those who preach the introduction of the rule of religious law by either peaceful or violent means have been arrested in all five countries.

How Big A Threat of Islamic Extremism and Terrorism

The practice of Islam is still state-regulated in Central Asia, and Central Asian leaders have not taken pains to distinguish between religious activists, religious extremists, and Islamic terrorists. Effectively, anyone who advocates the primacy of religious values over secular norms is understood to be "an enemy of the state," whether or not this primacy is to be achieved through persuasion or through force.

The Uzbek government is most frightened of the threat posed by radical Islam, fearing that their own Islamist population could make common cause with Islamists in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan, although radical Islamic groups have been outlawed throughout the region.

Over the last decade the Uzbek government has arrested thousands of devout Muslims, who were "suspected" of having ties to radical Islamic groups. Sometimes those arrested have been members of illegal groups, like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or Hizbut Tahrir. Others were arrested for simply distributing religious literature, or because they were believed to have studied in an unsanctioned religious school, or were "known" disciples of "fundamentalist" clerics (clerics who were of the Salafiya tradition or ascetics who accepted the locally dominant Hanafi tradition). In some cases, people have been arrested simply for "looking" like a fundamentalist. Members of the IMU and Hizbut Tahrir are subject to arrest elsewhere in the region, as well, as are those distributing radical Islamic materials.

The Central Asian elites are exaggerating the threat to the state that is posed by those advocating radical Islamic ideologies, and U.S. policymakers will be making a great mistake if they allow shared goals in the war on terror to blind us to the short-sided and potentially dangerous policies that are being pursued in the region with regards to religion.

Central Asia's leaders may label the religion practiced in their countries moderate Islam, but more accurately it is state directed Islam. Although some who work in the state apparatus that supervise religious institutions are themselves religious believers, many are not, and are still holdovers from the atheistic communist regime. Because of this many believers see the state as an opponent of the faith, rather than its protector, a perception which often works against the encouragement of moderate trends within Islam, and serves the goals of radical Islamic groups.

Many people jailed for treason or sedition have been guilty of little more than wearing "Islamic" clothes, or having a beard, or protesting the arrest of a relative. Uzbekistan still has thousands of political prisoners, and untold numbers of them fit into this category. These prisoners also include, again untold numbers of people, who have had evidence of religious extremism planted on them by corrupt police or security officials seeking bribes, and then were jailed for refusing to buy their way out of trouble. This practice is common throughout the region, but in countries with large populations of political prisoners it is even more widespread, and destructive of support for the very secular values that harsh anti-extremist legislation is designed to eliminate. One of the major messages of Islamic fundamentalist groups is the corruption of the state, and in the police states of Central Asia there is all too frequent demonstration of this.

It is also difficult to gauge the threat to the secular state that some of these radical groups pose. Many of those arrested are members of Hizbut Tahrir, an organization, whose origin and funding are from outside the region. Although long in existence, the Hizbut Tahrir has only recently become active in the region. The organization advocates the creation of an Islamic caliphate, which is the reason why the organization has been viewed as seditious by definition, despite the fact that publicly members of the Hizbut Tahrir maintain that they are committed to the peaceful transformation of secular societies. The structure of the organization, which operates in discrete cells, is akin to that of a revolutionary organization, and that raises strong suspicion that its membership would at a later stage endorse the use of arms, and there are strong suspicions that some of the same groups that fund al Qaeda also channel money to the Hibut Tahrir.

One of the major focuses of the campaign against radical Muslims is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), an organization that was designated as an international terrorist group after a series of bombings in Tashkent in February 1999. The linkage between these explosions and the IMU has never been conclusively demonstrated, but allegations that the IMU was tied to the al Qaeda network were well documented by materials seized in their camps in northern Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002.

There was convincing evidence that the Uzbek security forces needed to use considerable force to break up terrorist training camps in the mountainous border regions of southeast Uzbekistan (in an area that abuts both Afghanistan and Tajikistan). There was also strong evidence linking the IMU with armed incursions on the territory of the Kyrgyz republic in 1999, attacks accomplished through Tajikistan, where the state of relative lawlessness allowed them freedom to operate openly in certain parts of the country.

The captured documents, some of which I have been able to personally examine, depict the active collaboration of the two groups as being a very recent one, from 2000 or even early 2001. This said, it is important to note that the leadership of the IMU was sent into disarray as a result of the U.S. led campaign in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, and many were killed. Improved intelligence capacities by Uzbek security forces have also increased the arrest rate of IMU fighters and IMU sympathizers in Uzbekistan. While it is important to be sensitive to the fact that members of the IMU who have passed through terror camps in Afghanistan or elsewhere do pose a persistent threat to the security of the Uzbek state, this is a threat that at this point in time the Uzbek state is more than competent to defend itself against.

Despite the existence of real threats to the security of the Uzbek state and to the rule of President Islam Karimov over the past twelve years, the response of the regime must be judged as excessive. And through their own excesses the state has contributed to the severity of the threats that they and future regimes are likely to face.

There is even less excuse for the excesses in Turkmenistan, where religious extremism, no matter how it is defined, has never posed a threat to the state.

Turkmenistan, too, has a large prison population, which is almost entirely political in composition. In recent years the Turkmen government has made indiscriminate threats against relatives of the accused, and made even more use of intimidation and torture than had been the case in Uzbekistan. In the latter country, the UN rapporteur on treatment of prisoners has recently been allowed to visit and to make a report to the government. With far less interest in developing a multi-faceted strategic alliance with the U.S., Turkmenistan's President Saparmurad Niyazov has been able to proceed with virtual impunity.

The situation in Tajikistan has also been a very ugly one. There are far fewer political prisoners than in Tajikistan than in either Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, but the legacy of the brutality which followed the seizure of power by President Imomali Rakhmonov in late 1992, is a permanent stain on his regime and in the memory of the Tajik people. In the beginning of the second phase of the Civil War, that of political consolidation by the victors, the streets and back roads of the country flowed with blood, as religious "extremists" and other "enemies of the state" had vigilante justice administered to them.

Since the beginning of the War on Terror, the degree of U.S. engagement with these societies has increased. U.S. foreign assistance to the region has increased, and there has been increased use of conditionality in administering U.S. assistance programs. And although some of the countries of the region have begun to behave with less contempt toward democratic principles, the prospects for building democracies in this region have not really appreciated substantially. This creates enormous challenges for U.S. policy-makers who seek to influence outcomes in this part of the world.

Why Has Democracy Building Been So Difficult in Central Asia

As we look for explanations about why the road to democratic nation-building has been so hard in this part of the world, it is tempting to point to cultural or religious factors. Frequently it is argued that these nations are Asian, that not long ago, these were feudal societies, and that democracy is alien to them. Such arguments are an oversimplification of Soviet history.

Initially "transitologists" viewed the post-communist countries as states that were all going through similar, if not identical processes of economic and political transition. And because the transition in Central Europe had begun a few years before than in the Soviet successor states, people with experience in the former group of states hurried in to apply their expertise in the latter. But they found their successes from Central Europe hard to duplicate. So fairly quickly, it became commonplace to argue that the nature of the transitions being experienced in the Central European states, as well as in the Baltic republics, was really quite different from that of the post-Soviet states, because the former group of countries had a history of prior statehood, which the Soviet successor states, save Russia, all lacked. And that this was the reason why many of these Central European states had an easier time transforming their centrally planned communist economies into market-based ones, and seemed to be making relatively smooth transitions to democratic or quasi-democratic political systems.

By while it was abundantly clear by the mid-1990s that the post-Soviet states were having a harder time of it than those in Central Europe, it was less clear why. And when the cookie cutter approach was proved wrong many began to doubt the wisdom of the goals rather than the implementation process that was being followed to reach them. They argued that many of the post-Soviet states, especially those in Central Asia, were not really "ready" for political and economic reform, given their long experience under the Russian and Soviet colonial "yoke." They were encouraged to embrace such views by Central Asia's own apologists of failed reform. Many of these arguments were no less simplistic than the sociological and historical renderings of Soviet scholars, long mocked by the same kinds of Western analysts that were now willing to accept reconstructions of the past, that although different, were equally crude.

Facts that got in the way were conveniently forgotten, such as the fact that the Central Asian states were inhabited by highly educated populations, with the same, or nearly the same access to technologically advanced professions as any other nationality living in the Soviet Union. As to the Russian yoke, it was an ambiguous tethering at best. Though the Central Asian nations were not ruled by an elite of their choosing (and neither were the Russians or any other Soviet group) they were largely ruled by an elite that was not ethnically dissimilar from the population that they were ruling. And while this elite took dictate from Moscow, they were also able to be absorbed into the very ruling elite at the center, which issued the ruling decrees. In fact, all of Central Asia's current rulers thrived under the Soviet system, and gained many of the skills during their initial rise to power that have enabled them to be effective (albeit not very democratic) rulers. Uzbekistan's Karimov, Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev and Turkmenistan's Niyazov all are Communist party first secretaries who first renamed themselves presidents in 1990, whereas Kyrgyzstan's Akayev was a senior functionary in the Communist party apparatus that supervised science and education. Only Rahkmonov came close to being a common man, and even he ran a large Soviet farm in his home region in Tajikistan.

As to not being ready for economic reform, for the last ten years two Central Asian states, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, have been way ahead of the other post-Soviet states according to many macro-economic indicators, or at least keeping quite close to Russia. Kyrgyzstan was the first post-Soviet state to engage in financial restructuring, Kazakhstan has one of the two strongest banking sectors in the Soviet successor states. Both countries have introduced private ownership of land, albeit with some restrictions, and both countries have reorganized pension systems, health care systems and education systems to make them financially self-sustaining.

Nonetheless, despite these areas of high performance, Western observers have not been willing to hold any of the Central Asian nations to the same high standards that were applied in Central Europe in the area of political reforms, allowing them to hide behind the curtain of their "Asianness" and to emphasize the role of the amorphous factor of "history of prior statehood."

Given the strong performance of a number of Asian economies, the invocation of Asianness is a slippery concept, and is generally used by the Central Asian leadership to justify a model of economic development partnered with strong one man or oligarchic rule, and sees little value in political liberalization, at least until such time as economic growth rates are judged sufficient.

The absence of prior statehood is an even more amorphous idea, as the region's leaders simultaneously stress the newness of their nations as well as the ancientness of all of these peoples. Here too a great deal of rewriting of the history of this part of the world in the past thousand years is going on to create an argument of "statehood restored," but nonetheless few would disagree with the claim that the ideological glue of nationalism based on "statehood denied" was in relatively short supply in most post-Soviet states, including throughout Central Asia.

But it is less clear how important a factor this is in predicting success in economic and political reform. Nationalism in Russia was both a complicated and complicating factor, as it was very difficult to separate what was Soviet from what was Russian, making both potentially destabilizing to the redefined Russian state. Moreover, those post-Soviet states, like Georgia and Armenia, which viewed independence as statehood restored regardless of how the broader international community viewed it, have been having at least as difficult an economic as well as a political transition as the other post-Soviet states.

There were small nationalist movements throughout Central Asia in the late Soviet period, the largest proportionally in Tajikistan (although in absolute figures the movements in Uzbekistan were larger) and the smallest in both absolute as well as relative terms was in Turkmenistan. Ordinary Central Asians also had complex feelings about both Russian domination and about Soviet rule, which they saw as overlapping but not identical. And it should be instructive that most of the nationalist movements in Central Asia were movements for cultural and political autonomy, and those that became independence movements did so only after it was fully apparent that the USSR could not survive.

But this did not mean that the various Central Asians were somehow less fit to build democratically rooted polities than their counterparts in other parts of the Soviet Union. Levels of educational attainment here were somewhat lower than most other parts of the Soviet Union, but were very high when compared with most non-European countries. The Central Asian societies were relatively rural but all were also industrialized, and many factories were located in what were classified as rural settings. More importantly, the gap between rural and urban was easily breeched, through mobility provided by Red Army service, universal access to merit-based higher education, and through the hospitality provided by even distantly related urban family members through obligations of kinship. If anything, the gap between urban and rural was much smaller in Central Asia than in Russia or other European parts of the Soviet Union, where there were not always the same cultural supports for upward mobility.

Structural distinctions, rather than cultural ones, may have been far more important. In the case of the post-Soviet states, a much more difficult transition was being attempted than was the case in Central Europe. Not only did the constituent parts have no tradition of modern statehood, but a very complicated vertically integrated whole was being divided into its constituent parts.

It is often argued that the whole of an economy is more than the sum of its parts. It was certainly the case that the economies of many of the newly independent parts of the USSR were much less valuable than they had been proportionately while functioning as part of the Soviet Union. Even those parts that would benefit from being able to integrate their economic assets directly with the global economy faced a difficult transition period before the value of their assets could readily be realized, given the relative geographic remoteness of all the Central Asian and Caucasian states.

But should it have been harder for the Central Asian states to be able to adjust to independence than the European parts of the Soviet Union? In the mid-1990s, just about the same time that transitology began to fade, it also began to be frequently argued that one shouldn't expect too much of these Asian republics of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately this coincidentally occurred at about the same time as western policymakers began to realize how vast the mineral assets were.

But were the Central Asian states really more poorly prepared for the transition to market than the other post-Soviet states? In fact Uzbekistan, much like Azerbaijan and Georgia, seemed better prepared for the transition to a market economy than countries like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, because in Uzbekistan (and these other states) there was capital accumulation in the Soviet period, through the functioning of the gray economy.

One could almost say that the Uzbeks were natural entrepreneurs, as tens of thousands of Uzbeks found ways to bend the rules in the Soviet period to accumulate capital even during the Soviet period, selling goods that they themselves produced, or those they managed to steal from the state. In fact, the Uzbeks built a virtual parallel economy that existed alongside the formally sanctioned Soviet one, where surcharges for goods and services levied on top of the official Soviet price structure effectively reflected what the market would bear.

Ironically, many fared far worse during independence, because Soviet era constraints were not removed so much as they were modified. Quite possibly this was because the Uzbek regime led by Uzbek president feared that the entrepreneurial class would be too successful in their adaptation to market conditions, and that as their economic power increased they would demand a commensurate share of political power. As a Soviet-era economist, Karimov may not have fully understood the workings of the global market, but he was well versed in political economics.

To be sure, Karimov also feared what would happen if the Uzbek population was forced to absorb the shock of rapid deregulation of the economy. In the early 1990s radical Islamic groups were gaining in popularity, especially in the densely populated Ferghana Valley, where over sixty percent of the population was under 21. The Civil War in Tajikistan, which was at its bloodiest in 1992-1994, created a frightening specter for Karimov (and his fellow Central Asian leaders) of what could happen if the struggle for political power spun out of control. For Karimov, though, the problem was more than just imitation, he feared that Uzbekistan would become a place of refuge for Tajikistan displaced religious elite as well as its masses, and the influx of ethnic Uzbeks or ethnic Tajiks from Tajikistan posed a threat to Uzbekistan's own delicate ethnic balance.

Similarly, it is claimed that the presence of extremist groups, in countries like Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, makes it too risky to turn the governing process over to the people, who might through their inexperience be tricked into abandoning a secular path.

Such arguments are more facile than truthful. It is true that Islamic radicalism was a fact of life in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and even in isolated pockets in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, from the early days of independence. But its rise and increase in popularity were the product of developments within the Soviet Union in the last years of its existence, rather than the influence of foreign forces.

In the late 1990s the situation changed, and international Islamic groups (those seeking violent overthrow of the state, as well as those asking Muslims to embrace their faith by peaceful means,) became a factor in the region. But by then the pattern was established, the Central Asian regimes had defined religion in highly restrictive terms, as part of the states' assumption of increased control of their citizens lives. As was true in Soviet times, those running the state had decided that it was their job to set the limits on the practice of Islam (and to varying extents other religions as well), by requiring that clerics be licensed by the state, and allowed to work in only state registered mosques and religious schools.

While there is some variation from state to state, this same model of social engineering is applied in the areas of political reform as well. On these political questions it is less the will of the state (as reflected by oftentimes fairly broad elite consensus on questions of regulating Islam), than the personality of the president himself that is being exerted.

The region's presidents all seek the right, either directly or indirectly, to designate their successors, to manipulate parliaments so that their structure and membership are people amenable to them and supportive of the cause of strong presidential power, to shape political parties so that they represent political continuity rather than change, and to insure that media can not be used to endanger their control of the political and economic processes. In some places in Central Asia this manipulation is less total and less crudely attained than elsewhere.

But the Central Asian states are all entering a challenging phase of political transition. Those states that have gone the furthest with economic reforms, also have the most open political systems. And for all the reverses in their movement toward democracy, there is likely to be strong and continuous internal pressure for democratic change, as newly empowered economic interests keep the pressure on for economic reforms. Of the two states that fit into this category, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, one is resource rich, and the other is resource poor. And Central Asia's resource rich state, Turkmenistan, is the region's worst performer in terms of both economic and political reform.

Those states that have been slowest to reform, will face greater challenges as they move toward modifying their systems, as they will still have to face the challenges of transition, and do so in an atmosphere of populations that have grown more frustrated and poorer. Moreover, as they move forward either toward reform or toward continued stagnation they will be doing so in an international environment more fraught with danger than a decade ago, and in which the threats of terror and extreme ideologies are now at their very door-steps. Given this situation, there will be a tendency to claim that the risks of premature democratic reform out way the benefits, but given the kinds of internal challenges these regimes all face, policies of political exclusion will only create new and more frightening risks, as none of these states has a security apparatus capable of indefinitely repressing their populations.

How Can U.S. Be More Effective in the Region

In their dealings with the Central Asian states, U.S. policy makers must be careful not to inadvertently buy into local agendas. It is not the place of the U.S. to help them enhance their repressive capacities. It is one thing to target individuals with known terrorist links, and quite another to repress an entire nation, because there is a risk that ordinary citizens might decide at some point to cast their lot in with extremist groups because their living conditions are becoming so dire that they have nothing to lose.

At the same time U.S. policy makers should take a sober look at our strategies in the region, and ask whether or not we are effectively serving to enhance U.S. long-term goals.

Current spending on democracy assistance programs are predicated on the idea that we can influence long-term outcomes, by planting "seeds" of participation in society. But in viewing developments in Central Asia we must be aware of the fact that short term and medium term developments may create very different long-term developmental trajectories. Some of the money that is currently being spent might be put to better uses, both within the area of legal reform, and with regard to support for education reform more generally. Moreover, U.S. assistance to the region would have to be increased substantially if we expect any of these programs to enhance state capacity over the medium term.

At the current rate of U.S. expenditures on foreign assistance in Central Asia there are really very few effective levers that U.S. policy-makers have to try and influence near-term outcomes in Central Asia. This does not mean that we should not use the diplomatic and assistance-based tools at our disposal to try and nudge these societies to move in the direction of greater political participation and economic reform.

But we are not spending anywhere near the kind of money in the region that would allow us to apply strong sticks alongside the carrots. Moreover, it is not clear that all of the money that has gone into the region has been well-spent. A large portion of the democracy assistance money stays in U.S. hands, either in overhead or in salaries for U.S. citizens based in the region, making the pool of U.S. dollars that are spent in country more modest even than the budget allocations imply. In some countries the money has been given year after year to a narrow group of non-governmental organizations, who cater their message more to the perceived mandate of the U.S. funding agency than to finding ways to make this message more comprehensible to the local population.

Pressure from the U.S. does lead to better outcomes for certain political prisoners or human rights activists, and the U.S. policy-makers should be proud of U.S.-sponsored programs which broaden the range of participation for even limited numbers of people. But those of us engaged with Central Asia, legislators, policy-makers, and analysts, should not delude ourselves into believing that through "soft needling" we will get the ruling elites in these countries to modify the core practices at the heart of their regimes.