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

Political System and Democratic Discourse in Central Asia:
A View from Outside

Prof. R.R. Sharma

The present day Central Asian States, namely, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrghistan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan, came into being after the October revolution in 1917.  They owe their existence to the Soviet nationality policy.  Looked at from this perspective, they have, indeed, a short history as independent, separate nations.  However, they share a host of common specifics, which include a common Turkic ethnicity, a Common Muslim Cultural tradition and language, a similarity of history, predominance of rural population, low socio-economic mobility, low level of technical skills and qualifications.  Tajiks like to project their somewhat different identity in terms of Persian language, which was, in fact, the language of local rulers and elite before the advent of Turks and their language in Central Asia.       The apparent homogeneity is, however, quite deceptive.  There exists a large diversity, which is articulated in many significant ways.  For example, Uzbeks, who constitute the largest national group of over 17 million people, take pride in projecting their ethnic/national identity not entirely in terms of religious (sunni) or linguistic (Turkic) bonds, but primarily in terms of superior urban civilization which had developed by the side of Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya.  Tajiks also consider themselves as sedentary. As against this, Turkmens and Kyrghiz are basically nomadic. Therefore, their geo-cultural identity is restricted.  Along with this, there is strong tendency, which cuts across practically all the Central Asian States, to closely identify with a specific

*Prof. R.R. Sharma, former Vice-Chancellor; Jammu University, is Professor & Dean, School of International Studies, J.N.U., New Delhi.

region, and the ethnic sub-divisions. The articulation of identities in a variety of particularistic terms has severe implications.  Significantly, they also have fairly large ethnic minorities, such as slaves.  All this makes the political scenario basically friction oriented, and hence rather fragile.

The process by which national independence was achieved by the Central Asian States was basically similar.  Their emergence as Sovereign States was the result of the collapse of the Soviet State.  The large mass of the people of these states did not wage any struggle for a separate nationhood.  The fact of the matter is that there was no such moment at all.  It is no exaggeration to point out that they somewhat reluctantly became independent states.  The infrequent violent outbursts of national feelings were largely directed against other indigenous Central Asian ethnic groups, and rarely against the sizeable Russian population in these republics.

To put the matter in perspective, it needs to be clarified that “Central Asia inherited from the Soviet period a generally literate population, comparatively well developed state institutions and personnel, clear and for the most part legitimate state borders and modernized economic infrastructure.”  The region looked much better than the Middle East at the time of decolonization. At the time of collapse of the Soviet Union, the economies of the republics were reasonably in good health.  They had realized respectable levels of economic growth.  They were forging ahead practically in all walks of social and economic life.  And then it came to a grinding halt in the first years of independence.  The republics which were used to receiving help, and direction, from Moscow were now on their own with a whole host of economic, political and ethnic problems.  The political elite tried to generate a belief that the road to their salvation must run directly to the outside world and not to Moscow.  They took a few years to learn that a closer economic union with Russia, as well as other Common Wealth of Independent States (CIS) was essential to control the growing crises.  Soon it also became quite obvious that the new situation called for a major economic and political reform.  Perhaps the foremost imperative to move forward was, and is, to overhaul the political system.  The republics were overflowing with several political problems, which were further aggravated manifold because of the tough neighbourhood.  In fact, political reform is critical to ensuring economic growth and the security of the region.  Political problems in Central Asia make quite a few economic problems more difficult to solve.      It is well known that there is a great deal of “democracy deficit” in all the Central Asian republics. Their political regimes are devoid of legitimacy as well long term political and strategic vision. The fragile character of the political system in these countries is largely due to “façade democracies” which have been imposed from above. The façade democracies have been instituted in these countries in accordance with the minimal principles of democracy, namely the so-called elections. Obviously, it has limited the efficiency and efficacy of the political structures. The lack of elite-mass linkages and socio-political dialogue not only retards socio-economic development, but also encourages traditionalist- conservative formations.  It certainly pushes back the formation of a healthy civil society. The façade democracy is “static and fragile”, and it invariably brings wide ranging instability and insecurity for itself, and most of all for its neighbours. This is exactly the outcome of existing situation in Central Asia.      Political scientists have identified two democratic values, which are recognized as “twin pillars” in the democratic value system: Competition and Participation.  The well known political scientist, Robert Dhal regards them as “the two theoretical dimensions of democratization.”  By competition, he means, “competition of elites”, and participation implies “the participation of the whole population in the political processes.”  Dhal argues that participation and competition as basic democratic values have been invariably incorporated in the constitution of all democratic countries. However, there is a “huge gap” between the declared democratic values of the Constitutions and the socio-political realities in façade democracies.  If we apply Dhal’s model of democratic values to the countries of Central Asia, we obtain the following result.

Tyrannical Democracies

These are the gross distortions of majortian type democracies.  The tiny political elite have manipulated the parliamentary majority, and refer to it for its legitimation.  The elites act as tyrants and refuse the necessary compromise in political and social life. They refuse to establish “consensual democracy for the purpose of fundamental charge”.  Consequently, the political system resembles an “infantile disorder”.  The Central and West Asian countries represent an outstanding model of tyrannical, façade democracies.

The process of nation-building in Central Asia has muddled on.  This is an obvious outcome of the fact that these republics have witnessed the emergence of authoritarian regimes, poor governance, and extensive corruption. The incumbent political elites are largely interested in holding on to power.  They violate basic human values and brutalize their own people.  Thus, they have created a nourishing environment for the growth of extremism and instability, both within and around them.

Apparently, all the five states in Central Asia are stable.  They have not faced any major social turmoil or political dislocation after attaining independence in 1991.  Tajikistan is, of course, an exception.  The top most leaders of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgysthan are unchanged and still control the reigns of power.  From all accounts, the overwhelming bulk of population is not opposed to the political regimes in power.  It is only a minority which is hostile to their governments.  It is only a minority which is hostile to their governments.  It is argued that “most Central Asians seem to value political stability, material well-being and personal security above all else, and they fear the violence and dislocation that accompanied Islamicization in Afghanistan and Chechnya.”  Some research surveys have also unfolded the fact that though the large majority of the people, in these republics describe themselves as believers, they however, prefer that the secular law should govern their societies. This goes well with the ruling regimes, which are formally secular.  Obviously, the leadership feels secure and unchallenged.

However, the apparent calm is highly deceptive. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the economies of the whole region are in bad shape.  In fact, the collapse of the Soviet Union “was a disaster for the region” in economic terms.  Most of the republics have “lopsided economies, ” and there are huge disparities both between urban and rural areas as well as among regions.  The proportion of poor, according to UNDP study, has jumped manifold.  According to the World Bank, average wage in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan covers only one-third of the minimum needed to survive.  Therefore, widespread poverty, declining rates of economic growth, “deepening income and wealth disparities, unemployment, organized crime and above all pervasive corruption serve as fodder for the mobilization of political grievances today, and they will continue to do so well into the future.”

The apparent stability thus rests on a quicksand.  It can vanish in no time.  Obviously, “reducing poverty is seen as vital to stability in the region and international finance institutions, from World Bank to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have been pushing for faster economic reforms.”  However, it is easier said than done, because the political problems come in the way, and make many of the economic issues more difficult to solve.  Also political power has become “increasingly intertwined with business interests, if not outright corruption.”

Obviously, the crucial question is why are countries in the region “stalling, some would say backtracking, on democratic political reform?”  While the ruling elite does not pretend to any democratic ambition, it is nevertheless fully aware that its chances of survival are minimal if it relaxes its grip on political power.  Stephen Sestanovich, who was special adviser to U.S. Secretary of State and ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001, informs that there is widespread belief in Central Asia that democracy is just not right for the region: “I have heard that argument from virtually every President in Central Asia.  I have also heard it from despairing human right activists and from journalists who visit these countries from time to time, only to discover that things seem unchanged or worse from their last visit …. Central Asian elites know that if they are simply seen as backwaters of same sort of contemporary ‘oriental despotism’, they are not going to command the attention of the outside world, much less its resources.”  Therefore, the defensive argument that the countries in Central Asia are not ready for democracy or “even real constitutionalism” is an eye-wash.  The argument is advanced to conceal the fact that the ruling elite are not ready for democracy.  It is hard to imagine that the ruling elite would ever win an open election.

The view from outside is that Central Asia is “a heaven for tyrants and ruthless dictators and a poster child of acute economic underdevelopment and all the pathologies that go with it.”  The profound lack of constitutionalism and the rule of law is a huge hindrance in the evolution of healthy preconditions for social and political stability over the long run.  It also perpetuates acute economic under-development, because the investors from outside feel greatly reluctant to invest in the face of instability and lack of transparent rule of law.  The outside investors “want to know if the laws on taxation of their profits are going to charge whenever it suits the son-in-law of the president to take over their company.”

While the ruling political party has held the political system to ransom, the opposition parties also seldom rhyme with political and moral rectitude, and credible alternative.  They are there because of their regional or tribal affiliations rather than for their political vision, ideas and programme. It is aptly argued that “most conventional opposition parties are flimsy structures with little grassroots support.”  In many cases, the elements from the ruling elite have broken away to set up their own opposition groups, and they are like a “debating club”, enjoying very little support.  Their departure from the power structure in most cases is connected with power struggles, or “business interests rather than with their democratic conscience or distaste for corruption.”  Moreover, the opposition is hopelessly splintered into small groups, and is politically ineffective.  Consequently, the base of the opposition goes on dwindling, and the people are loosing faith in their efficacy.  Some of them eventually turn to Islamic radicalism.      No one would feel unduly concerned if it were an obscure region, or part of the world.  But Central Asia is after all Central Asia, which is one of the most important regions of the world. It has indeed gained greater importance in the aftermath of 11 September, 2001 and particularly after President G.W. Bush declared his so-called global “war on terrorism”, which he also labeled the “first war of the century.” Central Asia is strategically placed between Russia, China and Europe. Moreover, “it lives in a tough neighbourhood”, of Afghanistan, which continues to be a significant destabilizing force for both Central and south Asia.  Geography ensures the continuing importance of the region.  Thus, it has emerged as a major factor in the security scenario, both regional as well as global.  Obviously, the major global and regional power, Russia US, China, India, Iran have a vested interest in boosting the security system in the Central Asia.  In the absence of a viable collective security system in the region, the US has stepped in to fill the vacuum, and assume the role of “a security manager.”  It is estimated that the US in the last two years have advanced $42 millions to Kyrgyzstan, $40 million  to Tajikistan, $45.5 million to Uzbekistan in security and humanitarian assistance.

Hence the pressure, particularly from the West, to improve human rights and promote the development of civil society and free press.  The Central Asian states are listed “among no freedom nations” by various human right organizations.  The US money that came together with the troops has not worked.  This has only reinforced the pseudo-democratic regimes. In a testimony to the Senate in 2002, Lynn Pascoe, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, outlined the US goal to push the Central Asian States towards free markets and democratic policies to strengthen stability.  The contradiction between the proclaimed US commitment to democracy and the real action is obvious here like in all previous cases of the US cooperation with worst kind of dictatorships. This rhetoric obviously serves the US interests.

The Central Asian regimes, apparently believe that the problem of political instability can be addressed through tight controls.  “Such control comes in varying shades, from blunt repression in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to more subtle legal guerrilla warfare in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but everywhere the mix includes rigged elections.  Some of the methods may differ, but phi8losophy is the same”.  It may give us better insight if we look the state of politics in each Central Asian republic Uzbekistan.

Uzbekistan was the first to offer the greatest promise of change.  The president of the republic agreed in principle to support democratic reform and designed a new security cooperation and framework with the United States.  It declared: “Uzbekistan reaffirmed its commitment to further intensify the democratic transformation of its society politically and economically (and set) priority areas such as building an open civil society, establishing a genuine multiparty system and independence of the media and strengthening non-governmental structures and improving the judicial system . . . improve the legislative process, develop low based government system . . . and enhance the legal culture.”

It was indeed a tall list of reforms to be undertaken.  In a way, it implied that the existing structure of governance was seriously flawed.  Nevertheless, it was announced that there shall be a free and fair election for the new bicameral legislature in 2004.  It has remained only an empty promise. To date, no independent political formation/group(s) party(s) is operating freely in the country.  There is no respite for the press and other media.  The censorship of press continues to operate in one form or the other.  There are various reports of relentless assault on press freedom. “In all the Central Asian republics, independent journalists seriously attempting to democratize the once-closed societies are either already behind bars, or have been sacked or physically assaulted, sometimes to the extent of suffering permanent injury and even narrowly escaping death. Turkmenistan Reportedly, the political situation in Turkmenistan has “gone from bad to unsupportable since 2002.”  While the leaders of other republics make some effort, however small, to improve their democratic image, President Niyazov has no such democratic ambitions, or pretensions.  In 1999, he got himself elected President for life and there is Stalinist personality cult around him, naming himself Turkembshi, i.e., “Father of Turks”.  The whole country is littered with his golden statues and palaces. This is in spite of the fact that the country has a very high level of foreign debt.  He has targeted every section of political and social life, leaving the Turkmen intelligentsia diminished in numbers and bereft of its ability to function.  There is pernicious corruption all over.  Apparently, he is loosing support of the leftover political elite.


The republic has comparatively a much better record of democratization.  Reportedly, the political opposition is functional, human right activists are apparently more vocal and the media enjoys a little more freedom. The economy of the republic is growing, and is the most growth oriented in the whole region.  However, there are reports that the republic is sliding considerably in such areas as governance and freedom of press, electoral processes, etc.  It is confirmed by the fact that President Nazarbayev managed to get a bill passed in the parliament “that conferred political legal rights to him and his entire family granting blanket immunity against any charge that he had already been made or that would be made in the future.”  The opposition has alleged that the republic is a “super presidential republics” where the president decides everything.”  The opposition, however, is not unblemished. Most of the opposition leaders have had a taste of power, and they are “much more politically savvy.”They also have money “which buys some media influence”.


The republic stands out, comparatively, as a model of democrati-zation in Central Asia.  The regime, headed by President Asker Akayeb, is apparently “for more tolerant than any other Central Asian government.”  The regime has allowed a space, through limited, for the opposition to organize.  It has also allowed, under pressure, to allow civil society to grow, and NGOs to operate at gross-root level.  The other Central Asian leaders often refer to him that “he lacks the toughness” to restore order.  President Akayeb, who was originally an academician, has declared that he shall actually step down in 2005.  It does so; he will set an example, unmatched by any other leader in the region, who has extended their terms in a series of fake referendums

Tajikistan falls in a different category.  It descended into a civil war for the most part in 1990s.  Finally, the peace agreement was signed in 1997, which was brokered with Iran’s help.  The Islamic revival party (IRP) allied itself with the United Tajik opposition (UTO) and chose a nationalist agenda.  The UTO was a signatory to the peace agreement and it was given 30 per cent share in government.  The IRP has by and large honoured its promise to follow democratic rules.  It is the leading opposition party in the country, which functions largely unhindered.  However, lately, the party is becoming increasingly critical of the growing concentration of power, as well as the muzzling of the opposition. It is also a part of the political scenario that a number of Islamic groups have emerged and grown and they are visually active.  This forces the Central Asian governments to follow a tougher stance against them, and follow a regime of tough and tighter controls.  In the process, obviously, the rule of law becomes a causality. The political reform in the given circumstances takes a back-seat.  This particular angle can hardly be ignored or minimized.  Slow progress towards political reform can be rationalized.  There is no credible political alternative to present leadership, which is basically secular.

There are several critical questions about Central Asia.  The Central Asia is fairly important because of its proximity to Afghanistan and South Asia.  The Russian withdrawal from Central Asia after the break up of the Soviet Union gave rise to a variety of security problems.  The region was left without a security manager.  Intra regional feuds and rivalries eroded the possibilities of region-wide cooperation and consolidation.  The “commonwealth of Independent States” did not live up to its expectations for a number of reasons.  The Central Asian republics had therefore to content with domestic insurgencies, cross- border terrorism, growth of militant Islam, drug and gun running, etc.  The republics witnessed the emergence of authoritarian regimes, poor governance and extensive corruption.  Because of political and security vacuum, the region has gradually emerged as a hotbed of factional and big power rivalries.

In 1997, the Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbot, gave a major address outlining the US approach to Central Asia.  He argued that the US has no compelling interest in the region.  The region was in no way of critical, strategic importance to the US: “It has been fashionable to proclaim, or at least predict, a replay of ‘great game’ in Caucasus and Central Asia.  The implication of course is that the driving dynamics of the region, fuelled and lubricated by oil, will be the competition of the great powers.  Our goal is to avoid and actively discourage….”  However, if “internal and cross border conflicts simmer and flare, the region could become a breeding ground of terrorism, hotbed of religious and political extremism and battleground for outright war.”  Strobe Talbot was, however, telling only a half-truth.

The strategic importance of the region grew manifold after September 11.  Central Asia which was for some American analysts “a strategic quicksand” or a “mission too far” became mission immediate and urgent.  To begin with, the US decided to be “Central Asia’s security manager”.  However, Eugene Rumer makes a bold observation, which is at the heart of the issue.  He says: “In the aftermath of September 11, though it would be short-sighted to define US interests in Central Asia merely in terms of operational counter terrorism requirements and ongoing military operations in Afghanistan.  The tragedy of the terrorist attacks has given a new and very different meaning to the notion first articulated by US policy makers in 1990s…. the absence of geopolitical competition…”

This was officially confirmed by Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Eurasian Affairs in a testimony before the US Senate Sub-Committee in December 2001.  Jones testified that US had no intention of abandoning Central Asia after the Afghan War.  She outlined four US priorities in the region: Combating Terrorism, reform, the rule of law, and Caspian Sea energy resources.  Collin Powel also confirmed that Kazakhstan’s oil was of “critical importance” to the US.  Military presence is essential for the US to control Caspian Sea and Caspian energy resources.  Apparently, this is a “sub-text of the war” in Afghanistan.

The US cannot however maintain its footprint in Central Asia without the active cooperation of most important regional powers, namely, Russia, China and Iran.  Each of these nations has a huge stake in the region.  These nations have offered their cooperation so far in the interest of regional stability and security.  However, their concern for stability and security does not “outweigh fears of US preponderance”.  Tensions are bound to rise, and resolving the growing tensions obviously would be a formidable task. Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Iranov, in fact, reminded the US that it had promised to close down military bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan after the completion of its military operation in Afghanistan. “We did not object to the bases, but set a condition that they operate only as long as it takes to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan”, Iranov informed a NATO Conference in Colorado Springs. He went on to assert that the “CIS is an extremely important security zone for Russia … we have boosted and will further boost our presence in the Commonwealth of Independent States.” Russia is thus showing a new assertiveness towards the CIS as a part of a broader revision of its “defense doctrine post-9/11.”  There is thus a clear signal to the US to accept Russia’s dominant role in Central Asia. The signals emanating from the US indicate that it is working towards its known agenda of regime change in Central Asia also.  The Russian Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, was forced to publicly declare: “It is to be regretted that the methods of pressure and interference in internal affairs that were used in Georgia are also being used in other countries.    We are informed that the leaders of Central Asian republics are “on the U.S. hit list”.  Apparently, President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan is at the top of the list. Several Kazakh officials have been reportedly bribed on behalf of several U.S. companies.  There is a move to bring about a change of elite in Kazakhstan in the Parliamentary elections scheduled to be held in 2005. “Detailed instructions on ‘how to make velvet revolution in Tajikistan’ were reportedly “circulated in the capital Dushanbe against the backdrop of stepped up activity of Soros Foundation and demonstrative Contacts of U.S. diplomats with opposition leaders” in Tajikistan.  Obviously, Russia and the United States are heading for new rivalry in Central Asia.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati