Crossroads Asia

Not Much Room for Criticism in Central Asia

Human rights group issues report cataloging violations in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

Not Much Room for Criticism in Central Asia
Credit: Man with taped mouth via

A report released by the International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR), a Brussels-based organization, says that increased efforts to crackdown on dissent and pluralism in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are “part of a region-wide trend of shrinking space for independent voices.” The report draws on monitoring carried out by organizations in, or specifically focused on, each of the three countries.

The report’s release coincided with the United Nations’ annual Human Rights Day, which aims to celebrate the anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948.

In brief, the report’s findings aren’t good. For each country, the freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and access to justice, non-discrimination and protection of vulnerable groups are assessed. Some common themes emerge across all three countries.

First, economic stress contributes to lessened toleration of opposition. Layoffs in Kazakhstan’s oil sector, a result of lower global oil prices, stir up worries of protests which make Astana incredibly nervous. In 2011, Astana reacted violently to protests in the oil town of Zhanaozen. In Tajikistan, remittances from migrant workers in Russia have fallen dramatically, providing a background of economic stress to increased intolerance on the part of the state of opposition.

Second, vaguely worded laws are wielded by authorities to curb dissent and even nominal political pluralism. This is clearest seen in Tajikistan, which has essentially become a one-party state in 2015. The Islamic Renaissance Party (IRPT), according to nearly all outside observers a moderate or even nominal source of opposition, has been close down, its leaders arrested and the party banned as an “extremist” group. In Kazakhstan, vague charges of “inciting hatred” are levied against journalists and activists, and the same has occurred in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as well. As I’ve commented before, the troubling habit to present crackdowns on opposition in legalistic language demonstrates an immature view of the rule of law.

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Lastly, modern communications technology presents a challenge to state authorities. In Turkmenistan, the authorities declared a war on satellite dishes earlier this year. The dishes, besides being ugly, are many citizens’ only link to non-state news and information. The website for RFE/RL’s Turkmen Service, Radio Azatlyk, is blocked but can be accessed via proxy servers. Kazakhstan and Tajikistan have also routinely and randomly blocked websites and social networking sites. Kazakhstan recently unblocked Livejournal after four years and apparently wants to spy on its citizens’ browsing habits. The Swedish telecom TeliaSonera has repeatedly reported on its website requests from Tajik authorities to block various websites. Tajikistan, for its part, has made these requests legal in recent weeks by passing legislation which allows the authorities to block internet and communications in areas where ‘counterterrorism’ operations are ongoing.

A core takeaway, perhaps, may be that there does not seem to be space in Central Asia for the concept of a loyal opposition. The term “Loyal Opposition” is credited to a British politician from 1826 but has come to define a core element of democracy: the idea that dissent must be aired without fear of being accused of treason and is necessary to a functioning democracy. Especially in difficult economic times, opposing views are necessary for charting a course to recovery and prosperity.