Dialogue  October-December, 2004, Volume 6  No. 2

Political Landscape Across Central Asia

P.L. Dash


A highly contradictory imperative in the political process overwhelmed Central Asia soon after the Soviet collapse. The region’s five republics, now five sovereign independent countries – Kyrgzystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan plus Kazakhstan1 distinguished themselves in several ways. On the one hand, following the Soviet break-up, they joined uninvited the bandwagon of the newly formed Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), thereby implying their overt loyalty to the Russian led Commonwealth. On the other, they nurtured their fond hope for independence and sovereignty and endeavored to assert that in all possible ways. When Russian leader, Boris Yeltsin, apparently basking in the glory of his velvet revolution, proposed that the Commonwealth countries would have a common security arrangement, a common foreign policy and a common currency, the Central Asian countries were cagey about accepting Yeltsin’s proposal and traveled the opposite way. Thirteen years after their sovereign existence, their independent status is evidenced by what they have done on all these three fronts. Central Asian countries have formed their nascent national armies, they have established diplomatic missions of their own in foreign countries and all of them have introduced national currencies. What they have not done was evident in the political realm. From institutions to constitutions and from rulers to the ruled, little has changed practically, save the names. A further contraindication was wrapped in another duality: tied up with Russia in various ways; yet trying to break away from it in several ways. This is discernible in their deportment. Instead of looking at Russia as they

*Professor & Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

had looked around the time of Soviet disunion, all five countries have been looking in the other directions for succor and help and have endeavored to argue their intentions in favor of their national interests and supremacy over any other extraterritorial considerations.

For the first time in history, independence had provided these five countries in Central Asia a chance to build their nations the way they liked. Independence had also provided them the opportunity to go democratic from authoritarian communism. It had kindled hopes among the masses that their countries might soon become prosperous and famous. Famous they became; but prosperity remained an elusive daydream. For the first time, they had before them the multi-prong opportunity of treading democratic, autocratic, theocratic, presidential, dictatorial, parliamentary and other ways to governance, any of which they chose. Thirteen plus years of sovereign existence precludes democracy from Central Asia is a common concern shared by all. The regime of yesteryears had changed; but not the human resource component of the new set-up that replaced the old one. As a result, we find haphazard attempts at political reforms and concerted efforts to stick to power. This paper makes an attempt at analyzing the dominant political trends across Central Asian countries, the actors and factors responsible for these trends, the endeavor to buttress the opposition and provide some political forecast for a few decades to come.

Undercurrents of Politics

Thirteen years down the lane of independence, Central Asia has entered the perplexing crossroads of its post-Soviet existence between economy and politics. Riddled with a fundamental question of regime characters, sooner or later, each country confronts the puzzle: democracy or authoritarianism?/ state control or market economy? The bewildering impact of these questions has been haunting as much the below thirty generation as the ruling elite, who were tempered in the communist years in a typical mould of egalitarianism. Analysis of the general trends of political development amply unfolds the veracity of Central Asian political reality. All countries, save Tajikistan, have avoided sanguinary civil wars. The explosive situation in the Ferghana valley would have engulfed three bordering countries –Uzbekistan, Kirgyzstan and Tajikistan - with that menace. However, nothing of the ilk happened. All countries have remarkably coped with the trauma of transition, despite Russian economic aid drying up in the aftermath of Soviet collapse.2 All have successfully integrated themselves into the existing system of international relations, by befriending countries of the east and west alike in the fight against terrorism. The fear of Russian comeback is no longer haunting them, although Russia’s pervasive presence in economy and societal ethos remains a matter of concern. Some countries like Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have even embraced foreign help in laying gas and oil pipelines independent of Russia to exploit their energy resources and market them internationally. A country like Kirgyzstan has been following a policy of leasing out Manas air base to the USA and Kant airbase to Russia3 Reports were that it had sold a piece of its territory to China, apparently to buy harmony. Similarly, Uzbekistan had also permitted its air base at Karshi Khanabad with 1.700 US troops stationed by the USA there for dealing a body blow to Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Tajikistan has tucked with India in a strategic alliance and both countries have signed a deal for renovation of the Ainee airbase with Indian assistance.4 Whatever may be the political equation within each given Central Asian country, these are all forward looking ventures to assert independence and sovereignty themselves, the basic ingredients for their political survival.

More fundamental for independence is the economic foundation. As noted, Russian economic help has ceased to come by since 1991. This was simply because the colonies and metropolis in the post-Soviet space were located in similar form of transformation from a centralized socialist economy to a market economy, where neither was in a position to help the other. This typical situation, however, offered the Central Asian a unique chance to choose and pursue their economic objectives independently in order to ensure a systemic change. Centrality of their geographical location, the vast endowment of their natural resources, and the business opportunities 55 million Central Asians might offer to the world, allured many countries to consider the “Heartland of Asia” as their investment target in various fields of economic activities. The European Union, Japan, USA, Russia, India and China as well as all major countries from far and wide had come to make Central Asia their investment target. The most interesting case study is presented by neighboring China that has opened a floodgates of commerce via Xing Xiang with Central Asia. The growing trade deals with China was mutually complimentary in a sense that the trade vacuum created by Soviet Union is being filled up by other countries, especially China through its adjoining Xing Xiang provice. In a sharp contrast to trade ties with other regions, Central Asia’s trade with Xing Xiang has witnessed a mushrooming growth for which as Loughlin and Pennel suggested “proximity, economic structure, evolving transport linkages, complementary economic needs”5 are largely responsible. While eruption of ethno-cultural sentiments and the demands for a separate Uighur state within are dealt with mutual politico-diplomatic maneuvers, the imperatives of economic cooperation have taken inevitable strides to an unknown future. In any case, four concurrent phenomena: Islamism, ethnic complexity, democracy and Authori-tarianism are at interplay in Central Asian political landscape; and they largely determine the shape of things to come.

First, in the initial years of independence, two simultaneous models were in the horizon to emulate; the Turkish and the Iranian models. The historical Turko-Islamic character of Central Asian countries supposedly leaned them toward Turkey as a model to follow. It implied In terms of economic reforms the mixed economic model of former president Turgut Ozal, political model of a secular Islamic states, diplomatic demeanor as westward looking states and overall exposure to the world of western democracy. However, thirteen years of experience reveal little of any achievements in all these realms. Similarly, the most fearsome Iranian Islamic reform models, in the line of Ayatolla Khomeini, were propounded for emulation. It was in fact a model that had never allured the Central Asian leaders. The ground reality of today is vastly different from what was anticipated 13 years ago. Neither radical Islam of the Iranian type, nor liberal Islam of the Turkish type are embodiment of state models. Although Central Asia has passed through the traumatic experience of Namangani phenomenon and the penetration of proscribed Islamic Renaissance Party although the past years, radical Islam is no longer a state model to follow. What has sustained in the region as role model is the revival of Islam and mosques as per individual choice of the populace, closely watched and controlled by the state and with insignificant political role. Kazakh president, Nazarbaev preferred Mogul ruler Akbar in India as his religious role model for his country and Central Asia. After a visit to Mecca and Medina, when asked about his approach to religion, he told journalists: “here was an Indian ruler called Akbar. He built a huge temple and considered it as his religious imprint. There were many doors leading to the temple. From one door to the same temple entered the Christians, from another Muslims. There were also doors for Buddhist and Jews. He wanted to unify them. I, for example, hold the same position”.6

Secondly, the region is ethnically complex, a legacy of Soviet yesteryears, often catapulting republican leaders to the center stage of politics from among minorities. There were three major flashpoints of inter-ethnic hostilities in Central Asia – the Alma-Ata riots, the Ferghana and Osh clashes and the Tajik civil war. The Soviet years had not eliminated the clan tribal loyalties of the native communities; yet it had introduced new elements of complications at a different planes, some of which are extremely interesting and at the same time extremely intricate to resolve. Some glaring figures would illustrate this complexity. As a result of Soviet break-up, “some 25 million Russians were left in the 14 other non-Russian countries; 10 million of them were in Central Asia alone, making it a singular ethno-political issue for Central Asians to tackle with. While nearly 80 percent the Russians living outside Russia reside in just three countries- Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, 7 18 million citizens of other 14 countries were left outside their respective homes, and more than 17 million people were left without their own statehood, 8 largely because of fearful or coercive migration to unsolicited areas. Thus, the problem of non-eponymous nationalities in Central Asia remained a major political issue in all countries. In Tajikistan, the civil war torn asunder the social fabric. It was officially reported that some 190, 000 Tajik refugees live elsewhere in the CIS countries; various estimates suggest that between 11, 000 to 19, 000 live in Afghanistan. In Uzbekistan, population displacement was large. By the end of 1994, about 1000 Russians were leaving daily, while conflicts in neighboring Tajikistan and Afghanistan brought in refugees from those countries, estimated to be in the range of 8, 000 Afghans and several thousand Tajiks by March, 1993.The Osh riot alone had made 160, 000 Meshkhetians homeless.9 Although Turkmenistan signed a bilateral agreement with Russia to facilitate the return of Russian refugees and aired the idea of dual citizenship, non-Turkmen were finding it hard to dispose off their properties and assets. Around 1994, some 12, 000 Russians were waiting to receive their re-settler status. The migration from Kirgyzstan started around 1989, after the June riots in Ferghana. Over the years some 10 percent of the country’s 1 million Russian population, 110, 000 Germans and many other non-Kirgyz had left the country. Kazakhstan, where native Kazakhs were less in number than the Russians, had witnessed the Alma-Ata riots in December, 1986. Ever since, the situation has considerably improved in favor of the Kazakhs. Of the million or so resettled Germans, some 60, 000 have left for Germany. The mosaic of ethnic panorama in Central Asia includes such issues as cross-border settlement with each country having nationalities of the neighbor living within it, trans-border migration, facilitating free movement of citizens to meet relatives living across each others’ borders, the Russian factor, the deported and resettled nationalities and various other related issues. Absence of transparent ethnic policy, reportedly led to the arrest of Kirgyz cattle grazers by Uzbek border guards. And only political reforms in ethnic policies of concerned countries could combat such anomalies. The countries must not shy away from their Soviet past, admit that Russia continues to be a predominant factor, and many families have relatives and families across the region, who need free movement, thus making ethnic policy a political imperative for resolution.

Thirdly, democracy in post-Soviet Central Asia has never been in the classical sense of governance “by the people, for the people and of the people”. Instead it has been “by the elite, for the elite and of the elite” A remarkable feature of Central Asian regimes in post-Soviet years is governance by the communist nomenclature of the previous years through authoritarianism. The democracy in its present form has been imposed by the ruler from the top rather than the participatory, grass-root democracy from below. For example, in 13 years of his reign in Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov had conducted the general presidential elections only once – in 1991.10 Through these years, efforts were made to eliminate the political opposition, and as an outcome, we saw in the Uzbek parliament in 1992 only 5 percent members in the opposition, who vanished over the past few years. In 2002, it was more a referendum than election. The case in other countries is not much different either.

Political Spectrum

Like all other republics of the former Soviet Union, the five Central Asian countries too had adopted their sovereignty declaration in the Soviet era. This inclination for sovereignty had, however, defined itself within the framework of former USSR and not as viable independent states. As usual, the period between August and December, 1991 was politically fluid and highly uncertain. The popular front movements such as Birlik, Adolat and Erk in Uzbekistan, Lale Badakshon and IRP in Tajikistan, Ogzybirlik in Turkmenistan, Erkin in Kirgyzstan, Azat and Zeltokstan in Kazakhstan, were in their respective ways, mighty movements by people from below against pro-Moscow communist nomenclature. However, when independence dawned unexpectedly on the horizon of these countries, the irony of republican politics sidestepped these parties and movements completely and subsequently tortured the remnants of it into complete, apolitical oblivion. It was the communists, who wore the cloak of democracy and began governing the countries in their so called new ways to guided national democracy.

In the political front, the communists turned democrats followed a line of personal authoritarianism, although the degree and extent of dictatorial tendencies varied from one country to another. For instance, Turkmenistan is a country that remained largely untouched by and unrepentant of democratic transformations. While countries around it were overwhelmed with changes, it maintained a degree of so called neutrality, and as a result, dissociated from the mainstream regional developments. It selectively chose only those aspects of relations with other countries such as providing vacation facilities to the Talibans and allowing Russians to guard its pipelines, that apparently suited its interests. The power structure in the country has been totally centered around one man – Turkmenbashi Saparmurad Niyazov. Niyazov, who has reposed all his faith on excessive centralization and continues to ignore the basic elements of democracy, shuffles his ministers and bureaucrats for plum postings, keeping in view their clannish lineage with a view to striking a balance between various political pressure groups of different clans within the country. He successfully initiated the practice of holding a referendum to extend his tenure as president in 1994 for five more years, a practice that has been followed in rest of Central Asian countries. However, the totalitarian nature of Turkmen regime was finally cast in December, 1999, when at a joint session of the Khalk Maslakhati, (Peoples Council), Council of Elders and All Turkmen Movement Galkynysh, Niyazov had obtained the mandate for presidency without tenure. Subsequently, on demand of the people, he has agreed to remain president lifelong.11 Ever since he has been the symbol of a patriarchal Bonapart in the Pamir Platue.

Closed, centralized economy and open democratic society are clashing political categories in a system of governance. More clashing in nature are euphemistic propaganda about democracy and autarkic practice in reality. Uzbekistan in the past 13 years is a classic example of such clashing categories. Talking loudly about democracy, it has loathed on political reforms and proved to be a recalcitrant reformer of its economy, trying its best to preserve the Soviet style governance and management methods to the best extent possible, at a time when the country, the most populous one among the five with 26 million people, inevitably must locate itself in the threshold of globalization. Islam Karimov, the Uzbek president, followed Turkmenbashi in extending his tenure by 2 more years in January, 2002, thus enabling him to continue in office up to 2007.12 Little of what could be called democracy is visible in Uzbekistan. Rigged referendums instead of freely contested elections, draconian practice of dealing with political opponents, suppression of all voices of protests, including student demonstrations and intolerance of critical view points are all pointer to democratic centralism of Soviet yesteryears rather than anything to do with people’s democracy and civil society.

Supposedly more democratic countries such as Kazakhstan and Kirgyzstan have also weltered in the vicissitudes of changes. The contagion of extension of presidential tenure soon spread into neighboring Kirgyzstan, where a constitutional referendum was conducted in February, 2003 to extend Askar Akaev’s tenure until December, 2005.13 In January, 1989, this author was privy to listening to some exiled journalists from Kirgyzstan at a Duma forum of the Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Moscow, where the speakers were openly complaining about Akaev appropriating all powers to himself and indicting journalists of unwarranted criticism. Although initial trajectories of democratic reforms were alluring in Kirgyzstan, including its extensive agrarian reforms, the picture was soon sullied by nepotism and personal rule of a coterie close to the president. President Akaev was not a typical communist leader, his vision was initially far-reaching, he wished to make Kirgyzstan the Switzerland of Central Asia. Under his initiatives, his was the first former Soviet republic to have joined the WTO. This liberalized political atmosphere soon relapsed into comatose and substituted by an environment, where seemingly an open society clashed with a closed economy and both these elements together clashed with a personalized power structure led by the president.

Kazakhstan experienced significant political and economic reforms in the aftermath of independence. Its president, Nursultan Nazarbaev, an experience member of the Soviet politburo under Gorbachev, set his country into motion by initiating bold political reforms through competitive presidential and parliamentary reforms. His initial euphoria, however, evaporated and he ran into difficulties with his Speaker and Prime Minister repeatedly. After he ensured his second term in office through a referendum in April, 1995 that extended his tenure up to 2000, Nazarbaev was soon found in bitter conflict with Prime Minister, Teresenko. Who was replaced by Kazhegeldin. Tactful gerrymandering of electoral laws, effective exclusion of political parties, and Yeltsin style reshuffling of Prime Ministers on the ground of inefficiency created a conducive atmosphere for the president to lord over others in Kazakhstan. In the process, Kazhegeldin was disqualified to contest election, and he along with his wife, was arrested in Moscow in September, 1999.14 Although experience of four Prime Ministers from Tereshenko through Kazhegeldin and Balgymbaev to Tokayev has been a long journey, the Kazakh strongman, Nazarbaev has mellowed in his native environment. He had won the last presidential elections held in January, 1999 with 81.7 percent votes cast in his favor, thus throwing the opposition to bewilderment. Although analysts and scholars consider Kazakhstan as the fore-post of democracy in Central Asia, international election observers like the OSCE are unhappy with the way elections were held, particularly with many exclusion rules and insufficient time for preparation. There seems to be no scent of change in Kazakh political scenario although there has been a republican political party, patronized by the president and steadily emerging in the form of OTAN or “Farther Land”

The Tajik case is a wee bit different. The country fought a civil war, while its neighbors were building their nations. One may hark back to 1990, the peak of glasnost ethnic uprisings sweeping across USSR, when Tajikistan had her boldest ever political tryst with democracy by putting up a coalition of democratic opposition consisting of Rastokhez, the IRP and the Democratic Party as an alternative to the communist rule. The coalition contested the presidential elections held in November, 1991. Tajik communist boss in the republic, Rakhmon Nabiyev officially won the elections, but the combined opposition did not accept the results on the ground of rigging and fraudulent practice. The massive demonstration that followed in the winter of 1991-1992 resulted in a power sharing arrangement in April, 1992 that did not last long because the Nabiyev government was loath in implementing it. When the agreement evaporated into nothingness, the country plunged into a bloody civil war that lasted until a peace accord was signed in 1997. This accord put in place the Rakhmanov government, a compromise president by acquiescence of the United Tajik Opposition. Thus, the Kulyabis, the Pamiris, the Badakshanis and Khozantis have all buried their hatchets to put up a brave face of seemingly democratic governance. International observers say that the Presidential elections in 1999 and parliamentary elections in 2000 were “neither free nor fair”. The accord, however, was the single most achievement of Rakhmanov that provided for the assimilation of opposition forces into the national army of Tajikistan and granted 30 percent all administrative posts to the UTO.15

While this the political scenario prevalent across five countries of the region and the presidents are well ensconced in power in their respective countries, in practice, they have miserably failed in the realm of participatory democracy. Gregory Gleason attributes Central Asian policy orientations as a follow-up of the Russian pattern and concludes that although “national legislation has been separately adopted in each of the countries, it tends to be drawn from models developed in Russia. As a consequence, legal and regulatory practice tends to be uniform throughout the region.16 While Gleason’s conclusions are debatable, it is certain that in policy formulations, Russia has a deep imprint simply because the leaders and the upper echelon of the Central Asian bureaucracy were tempered in the Russified nomenclature. However, while classifying the states on the basis of their approach to reforms as a political process, Gleason differentiates the five countries into two categories: Kazakhstan, Kirgyzstan and Tajikistan are pro-reform countries, while Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan belong to statist-oriented countries.17 Although such political bifurcation of the region broadly coincides with nature of the existing political structures in Central Asia, a careful study of constitutions, legislations and pattern of governance indicate a combination of symmetries asymmetries, where symmetry heavily overweighs asymmetries. The symmetries are more in nature of overlapping interests than anything else. However, measuring by all political parameters, all five Central Asian countries are no where near democracy because they have been ruled for thirteen years by the same presidents. Permanency of leadership and presidents for life are no indication of real democracy.

Emerging Syndromes

The indicators of political transformation sweeping the immediate neighborhood of Central Asia provide us with some clues to forecast the emerging shape of things to come in politics of Central Asia. An analysis of political development in recent years provides us with four predominating and two subsuming syndromes, concurrently operating in the neighborhood, and likely to cast a shadow on Central Asia. The first is the Yeltsin syndrome. Like Yeltsin in 8 years, Nursultan Nazarbayev has changed four Kazakh Prime Ministers in thirteen years. This unhealthy trend is not paramount in other countries, but a fear of someone challenging personal authority provokes the presidents of all Central countries to behave like laggards in political reforms. They could have easily groomed visible successors by now, but have invariably failed to do so. However, they have looked to successors in the family, where they are unavailable. Nazarbaev’s daughter has floated a political party, The Akaev family is deeply entrenched in politics. Karimov is reported to have encouraged his children to enter politics and so on. The fear of challenge by the opposition and the concern about their personal future safety are synonymous with Yeltsin’s concerns four years ago, who on demitting presidency, had a deal with Putin that he would not be prosecuted for his past deed. Such apprehensions arise out of the deep involvement of Presidents’ extended families in business.

The second is the Putin syndrome. Like Yeltsin, any of Central Asia’s five Presidents or even all of them, may choose a little known apparatchik as successor and catapult him to power unexpectedly. However, such a syndrome is fraught with unpredictable results and unforeseen methods of governance. Kazakhstan and Kirgyzstan, once considered as “oasis of democracy” in the Central Asian desert have systematically muzzled the opposition, whenever it has raised a voice, not necessarily against the presidents, not against any individual, but certainly against the ways the countries are governed. So intolerant are the regimes in these oasis of democracy that “when “respublika”, an independent minded newspaper, criticized Kazakh authorities, the editor received a funeral wreath with her name on it. Then the body of a beheaded dog was hung on a window of the newspaper’s office. In May 2002, the premises were gutted by fire.18 Similar situation is not uncommon in other countries. If at all some one like Putin is chosen, he has to take the opposition into confidence to build democracy, and not destroy the very opposition that serves as pillar of democracy. Central Asia cannot expect democracy and oppression to rhyme together, nor it can expect opposition to evaporate in the shadow of benign dictatorship.

The third is the Aliev syndrome. Azerbaijan’s age-old stalwart, Heidar Aliev, had not abdicated power until his death. In a remarkable attempt to cling to power, he decided to make king of his son, and both, father and son, contested the same elections in October, 2003 and both won the elections. While the father was languishing in Turkish hospital, he was still fond of power. And before shifting to the USA in a dying condition for treatment, elder Aliev named son Ilham Aliev the Prime Minister of Azerbaijan.19 for whom the constitution provides for succession in the event of death of the president. All Central Asian presidents know the grim inevitability of death as well as the adage “Man is Mortal”. Yet they prefer unceremonious perpetuation to graceful exit from power. Karimov of Uzbekistan is reported to have leukaemia and Niyazov of Tuekmenistan has a weak heart.20 In the event of any exigency, like Aliev groomed Ilham to contest elections along side himself, the Central Asian presidents can opt for a similar scenario in their respective countries to perpetuate their family rule instead of democracy.

The fourth syndrome is what happened in Georgia in neighboring Caucasus. After Soviet break-up, when Edward Shevardnadze returned to his native Georgia from Moscow, he was given a red carpet welcome in Tbilisi in 1993. However, after years of misrule and unfulfilled promises, when he failed to meet the aspirations of the people, he conducted a fraud and rigged elections to get himself elected. The opposition tartly rejected the election results, took to streets demonstration that spread like wild fire, and finally despite his protests, showed Shevardnadze the exit door in November, 2003 The Georgian scenario and Shevardnadze syndrome may serve as grim reminder to all Central Asian presidents to be chary about political opposition in their countries. Far too long in the past, they have suppressed the opposition, muzzled the media and issued autocratic diktats to lord over others, and far too long into the future, they ought not expect such trends to prevail and deliver desired results.

Two more significant, but subsuming syndromes are evident in the trends of political Islam and militant Islam, often termed too as radical Islam. The Islam that is rooted with the people is real political Islam, the Islam that is targeting its gun against authorities is radical or militant Islam The widespread revival of it across Central Asia has been witnessed with awe and amusement; awe because it might pose a challenge to the existing regimes and amusement because Islam’s reappearance on the communist/atheist land of Central Asia was received more with joy than regret. Both of them are potent force to shape the future of Central Asian politics in the years to come.

Future Course

The emerging new polity, educated in western countries, fluent in English and more appreciative of western mores and manners than the Russian ones, is likely to change the political landscape, should they have a chance to govern their countries. The likely scenario will be a shift from the northward (Russia) looking to a westward (US) looking policy orientation in all spheres of life. The much hyped Turkish model of development has evaporated. The countries have become more assertive, and at the same time, introspective in their action and forward looking in their approach. Experience of a decade shows that national interests have driven them more than any specific model or orientation. Thus, between 2010 and 2020, these countries will have leadership of a new generation. From a fully Russianized past they would prefer a combination formula of taking advantage of trade and commerce with Russia and political path of western democracy that would provide them more space to elbow out Russian competition. More freedom, more openness, competitive spirit in place of comradeship and complete new ethos of election conduct will induce elements of pluralism, thereby replacing authoritarianism by rule of democracy.

Thus, we have an emerging picture: Uzbek president Karimov is the oldest, (born in 1938) followed by the contemporary duo, Nazarbaev of Kazakhstan and Niyazov of Turkmenistan ( both born in 1940), further followed by Akaev of Kirgyzstan (born in 1944) and Rakhmonov of Tajikistan (born in 1953), the youngest of all five. The present leadership in all countries is communist- authoritarian and autocratic. Given their age profile, it is likely that the elder presidents will be in political oblivion in a decade from now at the maximum. Of these three presidents, Karimov’s reported leukaemia, a serious hematological disorder, may sap him off in a few years, making him physically and politically debilitated. Niyazov’ s weak heart may give him unending health problems. Both of them may not continue for ten more years in office. Both Niyazov and Nazarbaev, are sixty now and may continue for a decade if they successfully strike a balance between their authoritarian rule and a demanding opposition, between aspirations of the people and interests of the elite and between growing religious fervor and deteriorating living conditions. They have time to choose their successors. The initial political climate in Kirgyzstan and Kazakhstan was relatively more liberal than it was in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Therefore, Kazakhstan and Kirgyzstan, headed by healthy presidents, have more lee ways and rooms to make choice for a political future than Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan headed by two ailing, authoritarian presidents.

The case of Tajikistan is different, where power equations are based on regional representation. The country’s president is 50 plus years old, fairly young compared to other countries. The fragile peace will linger there until regional aspirations hold good for the central authorities. Any clash of interest may result in power struggle between regions and leaders, repeating history the same way it was in the 90s.

All countries have failed to groom a middle level leadership. With its experience of past communism and present democracy and without being groomed very much by the leadership, the cliques and coteries grope in the dark now in search for a viable alternative leadership pattern to replace the communists turned democrats. In the second decade of this century, those who now grope in the dark, would provide a mixed picture of governance where state control would be diminished gradually and democracy will take deep roots. It is the next decade that would make long-term impact on governance with sterling contributions to democracy. They evolve even a system of governance that would blend the best and humane elements of democracy with positive elements from Islamic theocracy and a civil society. Religion as a component of political governance has not yet revisited Central Asian politics in post-Soviet years. It has to take shape. Any system of governance has to take religion seriously, while thus far, the state policy looked at Islam gingerly; rather fearfully; and not benevolently at all. Central Asia’s future aspirations are burdened with bequeathal of its past. Islam of peripatetic gypsies was replaced by Godless atheism; now substituted by rising revivalism combined with democratic liberalism. The state at this turn of opportunity could evolve a method of synthesizing best elements of Islam with best elements of past socialism and subsume too the best elements of western democracy. That way only Central Asia could show a novel way of governance to other Islamic countries.

Three probable scenarios come to mind in the Central Asian context. For now and in the short run, the present leadership, dictatorial, authoritarian, atheists turned God lovers, democrat for name sake and autocrats in reality, has no challenge whatsoever; no quick alternative is foreseen either. In the medium run, 10 years from now, the leadership is likely to change in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, where presidents are over sixty years old. However, no substantive political or systemic change is foreseen until then. Their replacements will struggle and strive through a mosaic of difficulties. That will be the most interesting phase of Central Asian transformation into future, when local versus the global and national versus the international will vie to find harmony with each other along with tolerance of faith supplementing economic growth and progress. The long term scenario, 20 years from now, will be based on these achievements and would proffer a different picture, a permissive mixture of past and present with less dictatorial, quasi-religious approach to problems and with a leadership more tilting toward democracy, rhyming with religion instead of discarding it and heavily inclining to development of indigenous entrepreneurship that would use the mineral, natural and human resource potential of the region to their best advantage.

Notes and References:

     1.   The Russians exclude Kazakhstan from Central Asia and consider it a separate entity. As a consequence, in all academic literature, we come across “Central Asia and Kazakhstan”.

     2.   For the prevalent positive and negative trends in Central Asian Politics, please see, Devendra Kaushik, Central Asian Republics: The Balance Sheet of a Decade of Ozodi, Eurasian Studies, Summer, 2001, p.6

     3.   As reported by RIA Novosti, in April, 2003, Russia and Kirgyzstan signed an agreement about permanent deployment of some 700 air force personnel in the Kant airfield, 20 kilometer east of Bishkek, to keep a vigil on and safeguard the air space of Tajikistan and Kirgyzstan. There are also some 800 to1000 US troops based in Manas air base. See. Mid Day, May 3, 2003, Mumbai, p.8.

     4.   The Times of India, November 15, 2003, p.9 and the Financial Express, November 15, 2003, p.6.

     5.   Phillip H.Loughlin and Clifton W.Pennel, Growing Economic Links and Regional Development in the Central Asian Republics and Xing Xiang, China. Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, Vol.42, No.7, 2001, p.469.

     6.   Power for the People, An Interview with Nursultan Nazarbaev by M. Husman, Russia and the Muslim World, No.5, 2002, p.84.(in Russian)

     7.   Paul A Goble, Ten Issues in search of a Policy: America’s Failed Approach to the Post-Soviet States, Current History, Vol.92, No.576, October, 1993, p.306.

     8.   Ibid.

     9.   Background Brief, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London, July, 1996, p.6.

   10.   Muhammed Salikh, Uzbekistan Ne Doros do Demokratii, Russia and the Islamic World, No.6, 2002, p. 98.(in Russian)

   11.   Sergei Kamenev, Contemporary Socio-political Situation in Turkmenistan, Russia and the Muslim World, No.8, 2002, p.54.

   12.   Pauline Jones Luong, The Middle Easternization of Central Asia, Current History, October, 2003, p. 334.

   13.   Ibid.

   14.   Devendra Kaushik, A Decade of Azodi, op. cit., p. 11.

   15.   Pauline Jones Luong, op. cit., p.334.

   16.   Gregory Gleason, Interstate cooperation in Central Asia from CIS to the Sanghai Forum, Europe-Asia Studies, Vol.53, No.7, 2001, p.1078.

   17.   Ibid.

   18.   The Dead Dog warning, Perils of the Opposition, The Economist, June 1, 2002, p.60.

   19.   Azerbaijan’s succession: King Jong Ilham, The Economist, August 9, 2003, p.42.

   20.   At the Crossroads, A Survey of Central Asia, The Economist, July 26, 2003, p.8.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati