Eurasia’s Potemkin Democracies

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Eurasia’s Potemkin Democracies

Central Asia remains difficult terrain for democracy, and prospects seem bleaker than ever.

Eurasia’s Potemkin Democracies
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office, Kremlin

Central Asia is one of the most authoritarian regions in the world. Although there are substantial differences among the five “stans” in terms of government and freedoms allowed, none of them can be characterized as free and democratic.

In a recent report on Post-Soviet Eurasia by the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) – published as part of the Next Generation Democracy project initiated by the Club de Madrid – Central Asia (except Kyrgyzstan) scored significantly lower than the South Caucasus (except Azerbaijan) and Eastern Europe (except Belarus) on matters such as political participation and rule of law. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan trail in every ranking in the report and had previously been characterized by Freedom House as being among the ten “worst of the worst” worldwide. Political changes in Kyrgyzstan and international engagement might once have inspired hope for democratic development, but the picture today looks ever bleaker.

The European Union’s democratization approach for Central Asia is mostly geared towards human rights dialogues with the regimes, which are an accomplishment in themselves but have little to show in practical terms; and a rule of law approach that seems to be a debate forum rather than a process to spearhead reform. Meanwhile, the United States seems to be disengaging from the region now that most ISAF troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan; Washington’s sole, modest democratization effort focuses on Kyrgyzstan. Turkey, which is not actively promoting democracy but could be considered a model for Central Asia, is becoming a less shining example of democracy nowadays.

Yet the biggest impact on Central Asian governance is the authoritarian model that Russia offers the region. The Maidan protests in Ukraine and the collapse of a corrupt but legitimate government are seen in Central Asia as further proof that opening up to democracy leads to Western-inspired havoc. Although Central Asian regimes are nervous that Russia’s hegemonic aspirations, like its annexation of Crimea, could reach their own countries (some of which harbor large Russian minorities), they do acknowledge Russia’s leading role in Central Asia. The Russian model of governance is seen as a suitable alternative to Western-style democratization.

Configurations of governance and planning differ significantly within Central Asia. Kazakhstan is the success story of the region, until recently boasting high growth figures and attracting lots of foreign (especially European) investment. Kazakhstan’s past lip service to Western-style democratization has recently been replaced by the opaque objective of building its own model of “distinct and culturally attuned democracy,” which has not yet led to a significant improvement in governance. Another concern is presidential succession, as “the father of the nation” Nursultan Nazarbayev is well into his seventies and there seems to be no plan in place for a successor.

Worries about succession are even greater in Uzbekistan, which is led by 76-year old President Islam Karimov with powerful influence from the country’s security community. Uzbekistan regularly promotes legislative changes, arguing that reform is underway, but evidence of it has been scant. The parliamentary elections on December 21 were carefully orchestrated with only four parties taking part, all of which support the president. He himself has indicated that he will run again in the presidential election planned for March.

In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has created his own power base since December 2006, which has not led to opening the country. Although the energy-rich country lacks any independent civil society or political opposition, the president has taken small steps to build a managed democracy, for instance by allowing (controlled) opposition candidates in elections. Turkmenistan remains one of the most isolated countries in the world.

Kyrgyzstan experienced a second regime change in 2010 (the first was in 2005). The ethnic violence that followed has left deep scars between the Kyrgyz and the Uzbek minority while the new democratically elected leadership has done little to bring about reform. Moreover, the parliament is now considering “a foreign agent law” based on a Russian template. If the law is passed, the country risks losing its reputation for being relatively free and open.

Tajikistan is led by strongman Emomali Rahmon but it does allow one genuine opposition party (the Islamic Renaissance Party) in parliament as a remnant of the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1997. Nonetheless, tensions over the growth of Islam are rising and the government is increasingly taking a hardline approach towards various forms of opposition. The country is characterized by widespread and endemic corruption, which also inhibits economic development.

The ‘Threat’ of Democracy

While Central Asian circumstances differ, there seem to be three features that apply to all five states to different extents.

First, democracy is seen by the leaderships of the Central Asian republics as a direct threat to their existence. The notion of democracy is at odds with the vested interests of the elites (ruling families and/or the security sector and bureaucratic elites), and it is seen as countering the stability they believe provides for their needs as well as for their outside business partners in Russia, China and beyond. The regimes argue that the focus should be on fighting terrorism and radicalism instead of pursuing Western democratic values. Security threats are indeed challenging but they arise mostly from bad governance, poverty, and a lack of opportunity for the new generation. The biggest threat to the Central Asian populations is the regimes themselves, which choose regime security over state security.

Second, Central Asian regimes often argue that the historical development of Central Asia is different from other parts of the world and so their values cannot be put on a par with Western values. This idea is closely linked to the negative connotation that democracy carries among the population, where it is seen in connection with the robber capitalism and uncertainty that characterized the nineties. Strong leadership is needed, say many Central Asians. This may be true but would the average person on the street object to free and fair elections, an independent justice system, effective governance, and basic human rights?

Third, Central Asian regimes have built up most of the institutions of a democracy but they lack any democratic practice. Although the law is articulated on paper, legal practice is absent. A façade democracy that includes a government, parliament, and a judiciary with a basic division of power are installed to satisfy Western powers and to give civilians a feeling of state-building. Central Asian regimes have become quite efficient at building Potemkin democracies by doing things like establishing and funding civil society organizations (GONGOs) and regulating the existence of political parties that support the government.

Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the poorest countries in the region, do offer limited space for a bottom-up democratization process but this will take time to foster. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan occasionally seems inclined to take small steps towards a more open society. All three will need incentives and sometimes pressure to engage in democratic reform. The chances for meaningful democratic change in Uzbekistan and especially Turkmenistan appear even slimmer.

The Central Asian states feel they need to survive between the two powerhouses, Russia and China. The former’s influence in security and politics is great, and the latter’s economic clout is growing continuously. Not a fertile environment for democracy to blossom, one could argue, but good enough soil for the incumbent regimes to extract gains from their populations and outside investors.

Jos Boonstra is head of the Eastern Europe, Caucasus and Central Asia program at FRIDE. Please see FRIDE’s EUCAM website www.eucentralasia.eu for more on Europe-Central Asia relations.