Crossroads Asia

Central Asia Still in the Democratic Doldrums

Democracy seems to be going into a global decline.

Central Asia Still in the Democratic Doldrums
Credit: Public Domain

For those following democratization efforts in both North America and Central Asia, the past year has been a strange tour of unexpected developments. The United States’ democratic credentials — especially as embodied by its current executive, who routinely demonizes media and the judicial branch alike — have clearly eroded. All the while, Uzbekistan’s new leadership, between releasing jailed journalists and rekindling relations with Tajikistan, has tacked toward something of a long-overdue thaw.

Of course, Tashkent has significant obstacles to overcome until it can be considered anything less than one of the world’s foremost dictatorships, just as the United States is, for the time being, far from an autocracy. But a new round of numbers from the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index help shine a bit of light on where Central Asian states stack up both within the Asia-Pacific and the broader schema of global democracies, dictatorships, and everything in between.

It’s worth noting at the outset, as the EIU does, that global democracy scores have dropped slightly (on a scale of 0 through 10) over the past year, sagging from 5.55 to 5.52. “Some 72 countries experienced a decline in their total score compared with 2015,” the report reads, “almost twice as many as the countries which recorded an improvement (38).” Perhaps most remarkably, the United States has officially regressed from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy” for the first time, settling in with a score of 7.98.

Meanwhile, a trio of other Pacific states follow first-place Norway to crack the top 10 globally: New Zealand (4th place), Canada (tied with Ireland for 6th), and Australia (10th). On the whole, as the report notes, “Asia has made more headway in advancing democracy than any other region, increasing its regional average score from 5.44 in 2006 to 5.74 in 2016. However, despite making impressive progress over the past decade, the region is still some way from catching up with Latin America (average score 6.33), Western Europe (8.40) and North America (8.56) and cannot afford to stagnate, as it did in 2016.”

Much of that stagnation, and outright regression, can be found in Central Asia. To that end, Kyrgyzstan, coming in tied for 98th place with Bhutan — just behind Turkey — continues to present the region’s brightest spot, albeit after a notable drop from 5.33 to 4.93 over the past year. Kazakhstan, meanwhile, lurched into 139th place, falling behind autocratic stalwarts like Cuba, Vietnam, and Egypt, and beating Zimbabwe by only .01 points. Rounding out the bottom-10, unsurprisingly, are Uzbekistan (158th place), Tajikistan (161st) and Turkmenistan (162nd), barely edging past countries like Equatorial Guinea, Syria, and North Korea.

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Still, if there is something of a silver lining to the region’s democratic developments, it may have come in Uzbekistan, which has now beaten out Tajikistan in two of the past three years. Of course, that may say more about Dushanbe’s decline than Uzbekistan’s improvement. Between spending the past few years decimating the country’s remaining opposition — as well as their lawyers — and entrenching rank nepotism, Tajikistan’s done nothing to bolster its democratic credentials since 2014. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, has entered a post-Karimov phase by freeing long-imprisoned journalists. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Meanwhile, Russia has seen a staggering drop over the past decade, listing from 5.02 in 2006 to 3.24 in 2016, good for 134th place. The EIU scored Moscow particularly poorly for “functioning of government” and “political culture.” Beijing comes in two slots lower, tied at 136th with Guinea, featuring the lowest possible score for “electoral process and pluralism,” although its overall score is still an uptick from 2014.

The picture within the EIU’s report is a bleak one, especially as it pertains to the state of democratic affairs in Central Asia. Still, it’s a strange, unexpected turn when Uzbekistan presents a (nominally) liberalizing regime while the United States regresses into flawed democracy, but here we are and there’s little telling, at this point, what may come next.