When Is Democracy a Threat to Stability?
Central Asian Leaders Argue Their Case
By Charles F. Carlson
About the Author
Lecture delivered as part of the “Hot Spots” series sponsored by the Jackson
School of International Relations, University of Washington
I can imagine that the title may have caused some raised eyebrows, and
therefore a word of explanation is probably called for, together with a
discussion of the connotations of the terms "democracy" and "stability."
These are concepts that mean very different things to us in the U.S. on the
one hand, and to the rulers and people of the new Central Asian states on the
other. These five states are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan,
Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
First, what do we in the U.S. mean by democracy?
In a nutshell, I would suggest that for us democracy means a political system
in which there are the absolute minimum of legal constraints and restrictions
on individual citizens participating in the political process at either the local or
the state level, on joining existing political parties, creating new political
parties, and running for elected office. And, crucially, it means a system where
elections are free and fair and if you're defeated in an election you grit your
teeth and admit defeat and step down as gracefully as you can to let the other
guy or the other party try to prove that they can do a better job than you did.
As for stability, it's something that we take more or less for granted. True, you
can have a stable authoritarian society if people are so scared of stepping out
of line they avoid doing anything to rock the boat. And democracy doesn't
necessarily guarantee political and social stability, as events in France over
the past six months have shown. But generally, I think we would agree that
democracy and stability are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive.
In Central Asia, however, democracy means something rather different.
First, we have to bear in mind that the five Central Asian republics appeared
on the map as independent countries only 15 years ago, when the Soviet
Union collapsed in 1991. For the previous seventy years, they had been
republics within the Soviet Union -- like Ukraine or Armenia -- but those
Central Asian republics were established more or less arbitrarily to divide up
and rule a huge expanse of territory that otherwise would have proved
The majority of the 58 million people who live in the five Central Asian
republics today are of Turkic origin, like the Turks in Turkey, and they speak
languages that are similar to Turkish and quite similar among themselves.
The second largest group are the Tajiks, who are related to the Persians and
speak an Iranian language.
But until the 20th century those Central Asian Turks thought of themselves in
terms of their religion -- as Muslims -- rather than in terms of ethnicity.
Because Communism was incompatible with religion, the concept of being a
Muslim was in practice taboo. Instead, the Soviet leadership promoted the
concept of being an Uzbek or a Kazakh, and the republics developed their
own "national" cultures, including a new language and written literature, and
until 15 years ago there was never any such entity as an independent Uzbek,
Kyrgyz or Kazakh state on the territory that comprises those countries today.
Most Central Asian leaders are descendants from two nomadic nations: the
Mongol Empire and the Turk Empire of Mongolia and Western China, the
traditional cradle of many nomadic empires, including those of Central Asia.
Although they were conquerors, the Mongols were extremely tolerant of other
peoples within the Mongol Empire, and other religions, and they did practice
democratic elections. Tribal leaders would gather in a large qurultay (a large
gathering), vote, and elect their leaders. It is true that the leader was elected
for life, but he was elected. The leadership would pass to the most worthy
son upon the death of a leader such as the great khan.
Elections of tribal leaders were also held at gatherings of elders by the
Kazakhs and Kyrgyz before the arrival of the Russians.
The memories of lifting the elected leader on a white felt rug after his election
and bring him down is still present among the Kazakh and Kyrgyz as a symbol
of steppe democracy.
The Orkhon inscriptions, the record of the Turk Empire dating back to the
middle of the 8th century, inform us of the existence of rule of law.
"When high above the blue sky and down below the brown earth had been
created, betwixt the two were created the sons of men. And above the sons
of men stood my ancestors, the kaghan, Bumin and Istemi. Having become
the masters of the Turk people, they installed and ruled its empire and fixed
the law of the country… These were wise kaghans, these were valiant
kaghans; all their officers were wise and valiant; the nobles, all of them, the
entire people, were just. This was the reason why they were able to rule an
empire so great, why, governing the empire, they could uphold the law."
Nevertheless, the men who were the leaders of the Soviet Central Asian
states in December 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed nevertheless had
to start virtually from scratch in creating independent sovereign democratic
Hugh Pope of the "Wall Street Journal" in his recent book Sons of the
Conquerors quoted Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev's
explanation of what that meant in practice. Nazarbaev told Pope:
"There was no such thing as Kazakhstan. It was just a chunk of the Soviet
Union. I had to build a country, establish an army, our own police, our internal
life, everything from roads to the constitution. I had to change the minds of
the people 180 degrees from totalitarian regime to freedom, from state
property to private property. Nobody wanted to understand that. My
comrades from the communist party were against me. I had to train myself
too… I wasn't raised with democracy and freedom of speech."
What sort of political system did Nazarbaev and his fellow presidents inherit?
Basically, you could call it centralized top-down one-party-system socialism
that had had most of the stuffing knocked out of it by the reforms instituted in
good faith by Mikhail Gorbachev after he was elected Soviet leader in March
Gorbachev had realized that in the early 1980s the Soviet system was in a
deep economic crisis and had to be reformed. And so he launched first
gradual economic reforms intended to make the economy function more
effectively, and then socio-political reforms under the banner of "glasnost" or
openness, which meant first allowing writers to discuss hitherto taboo topics,
and then gradually promoting democratization within the political system,
allowing the creation of what we would call non-governmental organizations
and then alternative political parties.
This concept of liberalization took hold like a bush-fire and spiraled out of
control just as quickly. Within a couple of years, the Baltic republics and
Georgia were demanding independence from the Soviet Union. New political
parties were created, the post of president was introduced, the Baltic states
seceded and were formally recognized by the U.S.
In August 1991, a bunch of diehard Communists decided things had gone too
far and tried but failed to depose Gorbachev. But things had indeed gone too
far to turn the clock back -- within days, most of the republics had formally
declared their independence from the USSR. On Christmas Day 1991,
Gorbachev threw in the towel and announced to the world that the Soviet
Union no longer existed.
It's important to note here that the Central Asian republics had been much
less enthusiastic about Gorbachev's process of democratization and
liberalization than were, say, the Balts or the Georgians. As elsewhere in the
Soviet Union, the five republics had elected their own president, and in four of
the five, the man elected was a current or former first secretary of the
republic's Communist Party -- in line with the precedent set by Gorbachev,
who was the leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union before he
was elected Soviet president.
The one exception was Kygyzstan where it took several rounds of voting
before a political outsider was elected president. That man was Askar Akaev,
a physicist who had spent most of his career as an academic in St.
Petersburg and unlike his fellow presidents was not a career Communist
The other four men -- Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan, Rakhmon Nabiev in
Tajikistan, Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan and Islam Karimov in
Uzbekistan -- were career party functionaries. And this is crucially important to
understanding the paths they chose as presidents.
The Communist Party in the Soviet Union was the key to upward mobility, but
if you joined it and kept your nose clean and played by the rules, even if in
your heart of hearts you didn't believe 100 percent in the ideology, then you
could go a long way. Nazarbaev was born into a family of poor farmers and
began his career herding sheep. Because that was a dead end, he signed up
in 1960 at the local foundry and joined the Communist Party and worked his
way up first to head the factory, then to be the top party official in charge of
industry, and then in 1989 to be elected head of the Communist Party of
What is interesting about Nazarbayev is the appeal he has to his people.
Nazarbayev was raised in the tradition of the nomad. He sings with the
dombira, speaks excellent Kazakh and is able to communicate with the
Kazakh people. This charisma he has makes him popular with the people.
Niyazov's father was killed in World War II and he grew up in an orphanage
after most of his family died in the earthquake that devastated the Turkmen
capital, Ashgabat, in 1948. But he too worked his way up the party ladder to
be elected first secretary in 1985 and president in October 1990.
In other words, these men began from the humblest origins, and succeeded in
attaining the highest degree of political power and influence available to them.
You can do that in the U.S. as well. But in the U.S., you can bow out of
political office and branch out into something new -- on a corporate board, or
in academia -- and there is no stigma in doing so. In that respect, the Soviet
Union was totally different: there were two alternatives, either you died on the
job like Stalin or Leonid Brezhnev, or you were kicked out in disgrace and
became a non-person, like Nikita Khrushchev, or out maneuvered like
Gorbachev. Therefore, if you were prudent, you made sure that none of your
subordinates became popular enough and influential enough to pose a
challenge to you. And there was the added incentive that if you lost your
political clout, you also lost privileges for your family and buddies, and the
opportunity to enrich yourselves and them, possibly by methods that are not
entirely legal. Gorbachev recently complained to Time magazine that he has
problems making ends meet on a pension of $1,400 per month. I suspect that
more than one president in Central Asia will have reacted to that news by
saying "serves the bastard right!"
Therefore, the presidents of the Central Asian states had every incentive to
ensure that they remained in power indefinitely, which meant that real genuine
western-style democracy was a threat.
The problem they were faced with was how to retain power while creating at
least the facade of embryonic democracy, because that was what the West
expected of them. If you couldn't preserve the status quo, the next best thing
was controlling the pace and direction in which the political and economic
situation evolved. And to rationalize: to declare -- and persuade the
international community -- that you personally are the guarantor of stability,
but at the same time you unequivocally support the idea of gradually
transforming your country into a full-fledged democracy whose citizens will be
free to vote you out of office once the prospect they might actually do so will
not inevitably lead to chaos and anarchy and civil war.
But at the same time, you resort to every trick in the book to bend the rules of
democracy and make sure that you are not voted out of office.
For example, you can hold a referendum to amend the constitution and
lengthen the presidential term from five to seven years, as Tajikistan did in
You can remove the limitation on the number of consecutive presidential
terms one man can serve, or even elect him president for life as the Turkmen
You can bar your most dangerous rival from running against you in the next
election on the flimsiest pretext. Former Kazakh Prime Minister Akezhan
Kazhegeldin was barred from participating in the presidential election in 1999
on the grounds that he had been convicted of some trivial offence, and Feliks
Kulov was similarly not allowed to register as a candidate for the Kyrgyz
presidential election in 2000 because the election law said all candidates must
sit an examination to prove they speak fluent Kyrgyz and he refused to do so,
and because of his poor knowledge of Kyrgyz, he probably could not have
passed it anyway.
You can interfere in the election and dictate to the Central Election
Commission the margin by which you would like to win.
You can decline to invite the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, which is the body that monitors elections in the former Soviet Union,
to send a bunch of observers to do so until it is too late for them to organize
such an election observation mission.
And finally, if the international community condemns the ballot as less than
free and fair, you can contradict them -- especially if you can persuade Russia
to back you up -- or admit that this election wasn't perfect but pledge that next
time round the ballot will be squeaky clean.
The Gorbachev approach to democratization -- going too far in multiple
directions and much too fast -- was unacceptable for the leaders of the newly
emerged Central Asian states if they wanted to avoid meeting the same fate
as Gorbachev did. But there was a role model at hand that was acceptable to
both the Central Asians and the West, and that was Turkey.
Like the Central Asian states after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Turkey
had been forced to reinvent itself after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in
1917. One man -- Mustafa Kemal, better known as Ataturk -- had played the
key role during the first two decades of that process and built the foundations
of a democracy while retaining a strong degree of state control over the
economy and allowing religious freedom in what was predominantly a Muslim
But there were limits to how far democratic freedoms could be abused in
Turkey, and on three occasions -- 1960, 1971 and 1980 -- the Turkish military
had intervened to impose order in the name of "stability." More recently, the
Turkish military played a key role in forcing the resignation in 1997 after only
one year in office of the country's Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan.
Moreover, Islam as a political factor in Central Asia took markedly different
forms than in Turkey. The Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen, whose ancestors
were nomadic, were and are less devout Muslims than were the Uzbeks and
Tajiks, whose cities of Samarkand and Bukhara were renowned centers of
Islamic learning and arts in the 10th and 11th centuries -- and their
architecture reflects that.
But this does not mean that Islam did not pose a danger in 1991, and does
not continue to do so.
One of the forms that Gorbachev's glasnost took in Central Asia in the late
1980s was that it created conditions in a country that had more or less
banned religion for seven decades for people who were nominally Muslims to
re-discover their religious roots. That process led to the emergence in
Tajikistan of an Islamic political party -- the Islamic Renaissance Party -- that
was one of the protagonists in the 1992-1997 Civil War.
Fortunately for the Central Asian leaders, 9/11 presented the Central Asian
leaders with the perfect excuse for cracking down on any Muslim
organizations that they perceived as a threat in the name of the war on
But if Islam did not pose an immediate threat when the Central Asian
countries became independent in 1991, there was another important
phenomenon that needed to be factored into the equation, and that was the
role of family, clan and regional groups and allegiances. In all the Central
Asian states, what part of the country you were born in (in the case of
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), or in the case of Kazakhstan and
Turkmenistan, which tribal group you belong to, is of paramount significance.
In Kyrgyzstan, for example, from 1991 to early-2005 politics was dominated
by the family and close associates of President Askar Akaev, from the north,
and pent-up resentment on the part of rival politicians and people from the
south was one of the key factors that triggered Akaev's ouster in the wake of
the 2005 elections. And in Turkmenistan, President Niyazov, who belongs to
the Tekke clan, has, according to an 1995 interview with his former Foreign
Minister Avdy Kuliev consistently kept representatives of the rival clans out of
key political positions.
So what approach did the five Central Asian states take towards
democratizing their respective countries?
Kazakhstan possibly had the best chances of them all in 1991. As you can
see from the map, it was by far the largest country, although it had only the
second-largest population (after Uzbekistan). And crucially, it had any amount
of oil and natural gas that Western oil companies were just itching to get their
On the minus side, at that point there was no way to export that oil and gas to
the West in large quantities. And politically, Kazakhstan had one big
weakness, and that is that in 1991 half of the population were not Kazakhs but
Russians who had been brought in by Nikita Khrushchev and even earlier to
develop both industry and agriculture. What's more, those Russians had
settled primarily in the north of the country, creating a potential north-south
divide and the specter that if Moscow wanted to cause trouble, it might
encourage the Russian north of Kazakhstan to secede from the Kazakh south
and join the Russian Federation.
Kazakhstan, like almost all the other former Soviet republics with the possible
exception of Uzbekistan, suffered an economic meltdown in the first few years
after independence accompanied by sky-rocketing inflation. Nursultan
Nazarbaev's immediate priority in the early 1990s was therefore economic
stabilization, and by the mid-to- late 1990s Nursultan Nazarbaev had
succeeded in bringing down the inflation rate, stabilizing the economy, signing
contracts with Western oil companies to develop oil and gas reserves, plus
another contract to build a new pipeline to export that oil.
It's reasonable to assume that Nazarbaev intended to remain in power as long
as he could simply by virtue of being a product of the Soviet system in which
being booted out was by far the worst fate one could imagine. But Nazarbaev
had an additional reason to want to remain in power indefinitely: he has a
political vision of establishing his country as the nucleus of a Eurasian Union
-- a union of states that were not European-style democracies, but which in
terms of their combined wealth, population and geo-political influence could
serve as a counter-weight to the Europe Union.
So for the past decade, Nazarbaev has repeatedly reaffirmed his commitment
to creating "an open society," while stressing at the same time that the
process of building democracy cannot and should not be rushed, and that it
needs a solid economic foundation in the shape of a middle-class. This have
been the same opinion of Islam Karimov.
For example, he argued in December 1999 that Kazakhstan "will not rush" the
process of liberalization.
In April 2000 he blasted unnamed critics who said progress towards
democratization is not fast enough, saying that they "don't understand the
difficulties" the leadership has to contend with.
In the same speech, he pledged that "I am conducting reforms and want
Kazazkhstan to become a truly democratic free nation...I simply fear that on
our road to freedom, to true freedom of speech we should not risk
destabilizing the country by abrupt changes of course."
In his annual address to the Kazakh people in April 2003, Nazarbaev said
there will be no retreat from reform, and that Kazakhstan was moving forward
towards open society following the principle of first strengthening the
economy and then setting about political transformations.
And one year later, in May 2004 he argued that "an emerging, developing
country should have strong political power" and that parliamentary elections
"should be held honestly so that the entire spectrum of political forces is
represented in parliament."
The problem, however, is that if you hold free and fair elections you run the
risk that people will vote you, or the political party that backs you, out of office.
And that means disaster not only for you, but for your immediate family and
your close political associates. But in a country like Kazakhstan where kinship
and clan ties are so strong, it could also -- or so Nazarbaev would argue in his
defense -- precipitate a struggle between the three broad clan groupings for
political influence and economic wealth.
That is another reason to promote the emergence of a strong middle-class
who will have every interest in preserving the political status quo as the
guarantee of economic stability and growing prosperity, rather than risk the
advent to power of a new leadership.
And so Nazarbaev created obstacles both for rival politicians wanting to
contest presidential ballots -- I referred earlier to his banning of former Prime
Minister Kazhegeldin in the 1999 presidential election-- and he had parliament
push through new legislation setting strict conditions for registering political
parties in order to sideline and neutralize the strongest and most influential
By last year, however, with presidential elections imminent in which he
intended to seek a third term, either the mask was beginning to slip or
Nazarbaev was growing tired of continued Western pressure over the face of
democracy, or he was beginning to be seriously worried by the post-election
revolutions that had toppled Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia in November
2003, Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine in late 2004, and Askar Akaev in
neighboring Kyrgyzstan just a couple of months before.
In June 2005, Nazarbaev suggested that it was unrealistic, at least at this
stage, for the West to expect Kazakhstan to turn into a model Western-style
"We ask our Western partners to abandon the idea of the 100 percent transfer
of Western values in their current form to Kazakhstan... We believe
democracy is a culture that needs to be developed and we intend first to form
a responsible electorate which would develop small businesses and a middle
He repeated that argument two months later:
"Since our economy is not yet competitive enough and our civil society is still
at a nascent stage, any hasty, radical political reforms may destabilize social
life and cause our people to reject liberal values and curtail democratic
processes as we are now witnessing in certain former Soviet republics."
And in the presidential election on 4 December Nazarbaev was duly
reelected, with official returns giving him over 90 percent of the vote.
So to sum up, if asked when democracy poses a threat to stability, Nazarbaev
would probably say:
When it could result in the election victory of a rival presidential candidate or
party who would undo everything that I've achieved so far in terms of
economic growth-- and I've achieved a lot -- and would prevent me from going
down in history as the founder of a new geo-political bloc, the Eurasian Union.
When it would threaten the balance between the three main clans, or bring
one of the other two to power, because my clan would never forgive me.
When it could give rise to a political party representing the Slav population of
the north who might vote to split the country and become part of Russia.
But if you asked him to state his political credo in one sentence, I suggest that
it would be "power-sharing is for wimps."
So how does Kyrgyzstan compare?
Askar Akaev had far more reason than did Nazarbaev to worry about the
economic component because his country was far poorer, and without
Kazakhstan's oil and gas (in terms of mineral wealth all it has is gold which
accounts for a goodly chunk of GDP). And when I say poor, I mean dirt poor --
in 2000 there were thousands of children in mountain villages in Kyrgyzstan
who didn't attend school because their parents could not afford to buy them
In May 2001, then Prime Minister, now President Kurmanbek Bakiev said that
of a population of slightly over four million people, 52% could be described
as poor: 17.8% of them live in extreme poverty, and 80% of citizens with
low incomes live in rural areas. The monthly average wage was about $25.
Even in the capital, Bishkek, the poverty rate in late 2001 was 30 percent.
Unemployment was probably somewhere in the region of 40 percent, with 1
million of the 4.8 million population making a living from so-called shuttle-
trade, which means traveling to Turkey or China to buy cheap consumer
goods to bring home to sell. Unemployment was not confined to rural areas,
or to the older generation -- it also encompassed thousands of young college
But in spite of the problems he faced, of the five Central Asian leaders, Akaev
was the one who embraced the twin concepts of democratization and the free
market with the played-up enthusiasm, pledging to transform his remote,
mountainous landlocked country into the Switzerland of Central Asia. He
pushed democratization and economic liberalization faster and more
consistently than any other Central Asian leader, and initially in the eyes of
the international community he couldn't put a foot wrong. And international
financial organizations continued to advance huge loans to finance economic
reform and help reduce poverty. But not all of that money was spent for the
purposes for which it was intended, and quite a lot was creamed off and
ended up in the off-shore bank accounts of the Akaev family and Akaev's
most trusted cronies. And that high-level corruption fuelled bitter resentment
among the poor and unemployed.
But eventually Akaev too was faced with a political rival who seemed to be
getting too big for his boots. That man was Feliks Kulov, who served as vice
president then security minister and then mayor of Bishkek. In April 1999 he
wrote an open letter to Akaev announcing his resignation and accusing Akaev
of acquiescing to actions which cannot be reconciled with democracy and the
rule of law.
When I was working for RFE/RL I had the privilege of meeting Kulov
personally while he was still mayor of Bishkek. He struck me as an extremely
competent and cordial individual. At the end of our meeting he offered me
several bottles of Kyrgyz wine which I still keep. Later I met and interviewed
him while he was under house arrest. He had lost his earlier vigor but still
maintained his integrity.
The year 2000 marked Akaev's definitve retreat from democratization. Kulov's
Ar-Namys party was barred from contesting the parliamentary elections in
February-March. And as I noted above, Kulov was barred from the 2000
presidential election that fall after he refused to take a test to demonstrate he
spoke Kyrgyz fluently, and he was subsequently arrested on corruption
charges and sentenced in July 2001 to a lengthy prison term (he was
released during the March 2005 revolution and became a national hero and
then prime Minister).
Akaev rationalized his retreat from democracy on the grounds that one
shouldn't go too far too fast and risk destabilization. In an interview published
in the Russian daily "Kommersant" in July 2000, for example, he argued that
society "has not yet completely discarded the totalitarian heritage," that
Communism remains a significant force, and that "Western standards are not
always appropriate" in Kyrgyz conditions given the problems of strong
regional affiliation. But in the same interview, Akaev rationalized that "if we
embark on revising the outcome of the parliamentary elections it could trigger
a wave of dissatisfaction among the population." Or in other words, too much
democracy is dangerous.
Subsequent events proved that Akaev was right to be nervous about the
strength of regional affiliations in Kyrgyzstan. In March 2002 there were mass
protests in the south of the country after a popular local politician, Azimbek
Beknazarov, was arrested on what appeared to be trumped-up charges of
abuse of office deriving from a decision he took seven years earlier when
working as a local prosecutor. Up to 2,000 people took to the streets for days
in protest, eventually demanding not just Beknazarov's release but also
Akaev's resignation. The protests stopped only after police opened fire, killing
at least six demonstrators.
Akaev faced another political crisis less than two months later when people
took to the streets to protest parliament's ratification of a border treaty with
China that involved Kyrgyzstan ceding thousands of square miles of territory.
Those protests triggered the resignation of Kurmanbek Bakiev as prime
But the rigging of the outcome of the 2000 elections and the other obstacles
Akaev and his government placed in the way of democratization did not stop
him complaining in July 2002 in an interview with the Russian paper
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" that "nascent democratic traditions have not yet
become part of our flesh and blood and norms of everyday behavior." In the
same interview, he still insisted that "during all the years I have been
president I consistently fought to introduce democratic traditions to
In another interview in the summer of 2002, Akaev sought to offload the
blame for the protests earlier that year onto the police, who he said didn't
understand how to act in a democracy.
Kyrgyzstan is -- so far -- the only Central Asian state where the population has
lost patience with the gulf between their leaders' lip service to democracy and
the dishonest and sometimes illegal and even criminal actions those same
leaders will resort to cling to power. During the parliamentary elections in
February-March 2005, dozens of opposition or independent candidates were
pressured to withdraw from the ballot. For example, former Foreign Minister
Roza Otunbaeva was forced to step down in a constituency where Akaev's
daughter Bermet was running. So the outcome of the vote was rigged to give
Akaev's supporters and cronies a majority in the new parliament. This was too
much for the Kyrgyz -- protesters took to the streets in Bishkek and after
several days of demonstrations they finally stormed the government building
and literally chased Akaev out the way the Georgians had toppled Eduard
Shevardnadze after a rigged parliamentary election in November 2003.
Akaev, therefore, is the embodiment of the argument that democracy is a
threat to stability when that democracy is directed against me, my family and
my closest associates.
But how does Akaev's successor as President, former Prime Minister Bakiev,
see the situation?
Like Akaev, Bakiev has repeatedly professed his commitment to democracy,
but he faces a problem similar to that in Armenia, namely the fact that a small
group of politicians has become so wealthy that they can easily buy the votes
of impoverished villagers who can't even afford to send their children to school
and thus get elected to parliament in what on the surface looks like a
democratic vote. And some of those politicians would be only too happy to
see Bakiev ousted from the presidency and welcome Akaev back. Bakiev is
currently in a standoff with the parliament elected last year and has
threatened to dissolve it, which the constitution empowers him to do in the
event of major tensions between the legislature and the government.
But to give him credit, Bakiev has taken a major step to demolish one of
Akaev's arguments against democratization, namely that it is not workable in
a country where regional allegiances are so strong: Bakiev, who is from the
south, named Kulov, from the north, as his prime minister.
In the view of Kyrgyz analyst Kurmanov, while the earliest forms of direct tribal
democracy have definitely left a positive impact on the Kyrgyz people, the mix
of traditional society with the later legacy of Soviet authoritarianism and an all-
out confrontational style of politics does not provide hospitable ground for
western ideals of democracy. Consequently, one should find that new political
traditions are more negative than positive, often leading the country towards
the path of devastation and self-destruction.
Of all the five Central Asian states, Tajikistan is the one that has suffered the
greatest degree of instability since independence, in the form of the civil war
that broke out in the spring of 1992 in which the nascent political opposition
dominated by Islamists, many from the south-west of the country, sought,
unsuccessfully, to seize power. That struggle against the Islamic faction
united politicians from the former Leninabad region in northern Tajikistan,
today renamed Sughd, who had dominated politics prior to the collapse of the
USSR, and a rival group from Kulyab in the south, including Imomali
Rakhmonov, who was elected president in November 1992 to succeed the
Soviet-era Communist boss Rakhmon Nabiev.
One of Rakhmonov's former aides, Iskander Asadullaev, wrote that "the
government Rakhmonov inherited was burdened by a ruined economy, a
destroyed administration and a highly fragmented society. Thus the challenge
to his presidency was to launch state-building in a way that would support the
peace process. The problem was compounded by the need to establish
Tajikistan's status and political orientation, to signal the type of state it would
be and to choose between the guiding principles of communism, Islamicism
and democracy. Many in Tajikistan, particularly among government
supporters, favoured a destructive and ultimately deadlocked option of
'fighting to victory' aganist the Islamic opposition. On the other hand, many
opposition supporters adamantly opposed communism and advocated an
armed struggle to establish an Islamic order. Rakhmonov's government chose
to distance itself from both communists and militant Islamists and advocated
The UN-mediated peace agreement that ended the civil war in mid-1997 was
probably the closest to genuinely democratic power-sharing that any of the
Central Asian states has ever seen: it gave the Islamic Renaissance Party 30
percent of posts in the national government and in local government bodies.
But the fomer Communist Party, now renamed the National Democratic
Party, continued to dominate the parliament, and several groups of mavericks
aligned with the Islamic Renaissance Party refused to disarm and launched
And in May 1998 the parliament passed legislation outlawing political parties
formed on the basis of religious affiliation, including the Islamic Renaissance
Party, a move that served to send the message that in Tajikistan, democracy
is a threat to stability if radical Islamists are given the freedom to abuse it.
Rakhmonov sent the same message in an article he published in the Russian
paper "Nyezavisimaya gazeta" in August 1999, in which he stressed that the
civil war, in which some 60,000 people were killed (of a population of around 6
million) and hundreds of thousands were internally displaced, was the result
of an attempt by a specific group -- the Islamists -- to "impose democracy by
force." In the same article, Rakhmonov affirmed that the overwhelming
majority of the Tajik people want a law-abiding democratic secular state.
In September 1999, Tajiks voted in a referendum on three questions, two of
which were intended to expand the parameters of democracy and one of
which encroached on them. On the one hand, they approved the creation of a
bicameral instead of a single-chamber legislature and to lift the ban imposed
15 months earlier on religious parties; but on the other, they approved
extending the presidential term from five to seven years.
The referendum was supposed to be followed by parliamentary elections by
the end of the year, but those elections were postponed until the following
year, which marked the beginning of a roll-back of democracy.
One of Rakhmonov's fomer aides Rakhmatullo Zoirov, now head of the
opposition Social Democratic party, suggested several reasons for that roll-
back: that Rakhmonov personally was under pressure, possibly even being
manipulated, by some of his close supporters, including people who have
amassed huge fortunes from facilitating the smuggling of drugs from
neighboring Afghanistan via Tajikistan to Europe; that he was afraid of being
ousted by former Tajik Prime Minister Abdumalik Abdulladjonov, whom he
narrowly defeated in the November 1994 presidential election. Abdulladjonov
left Tajikistan the following year for Moscow and is believed to have been
behind three local insurrections in Tajikistan between August 1997 and
November 1998. Alternatively, perhaps Rakhmonov was acting on orders
from Moscow, which maintained border troops in Tajikistan to prevent any
incursion by the Taliban from Afghanistan -- by late 1999 Russia was again
embroiled in a war in Chechnya and had very little sympathy for the prospects
of Islamists participating in governments, especially half-way democratically
So what is Rakhmonov's argument against democracy? How much of that
argument is sincere and how much is self-serving rationalization is a moot
point, but for what it's worth, it probably runs something like this.
Democracy in Tajikistan is a double-edged sword. We've been through one
civil war and that's enough for my lifetime and that of my kids. Once the war
was over, we let the Islamists into government and most of them then
retreated from their religious fervor and set about amassing fortunes for
themselves the way the communists used to, which is not what people expect
from good Muslims. Moreover, since the peace agreement, Russia has
poured money into the reconstruction of our economy to keep us afloat, and
the population at large has seized on the opportunity to create small
businesses, which are flourishing -- they too don't want to see everything
they've rebuilt destroyed in another power struggle.
We've reached a convenient accommodation between all the regional groups
which allows each of them to embezzle a share of budget funds. And for the
moment at least the Uzbeks, who have always been a thorn in my flesh, are
not openly out to meddle and make trouble for me, but still I don't trust them
not to try to co-opt any opposition party that looks as though it stands half a
chance of winning parliamentary representations.
You must understand that I have to play safe -- We have a moral
responsibility not to let any misguided hotheads rock the boat and endanger
stability! So we'll carry on allowing NGOs and some free media and a few
carefully selected opposition parties to function -- after all they don't have any
real influence and they're good for my image -- but at the same time we'll
make sure that we retain control over parliament -- and I personally will run for
another presidential term in 2006 and maybe again in 2013, why not, given
that the constitution allows me to. Meanwhile, let the good times roll!
So we come to Turkmenistan, which is unique among the Central Asian states
in terms of the discrepancy between its president's understanding of what
constitutes democracy and the totalitarian regime he glories in having created.
On one level, Turkmenistan's president Saparmurat Niyazov, also known by
the honorific title of Turkmenbashi, or Father of the Turkmen, is so grotesque
that you literally don't know whether to laugh or cry. You also begin seriously
to doubt whether he is sane or a total megalomaniac.
Believing Turkmenistan to be a nation devoid of a national identity, Niyazov
attempted to rebuild the country to his own vision.
Niyazov has renamed countless towns and villages, plus two of the months of
the year, after himself or his mother. He renamed the town of Krasnovodsk on
the Caspian Sea Turkmenbashi after himself, in addition to renaming several
schools, airports and even a meteorite after himself and his immediate family.
There are statues and posters of him and his mother everywhere, including a
gold-plated statue in himself in Ashgabat, the capital, that revolves so it is
always facing the sun, and one in the middle of the Kara Kum desert. He has
spent billions of dollars in revenues from the sale of natural gas on grandiose
projects, including a string of luxury hotels that remain empty because it is
next to impossible to obtain a visa to actually go to Turkmenistan. He has
banned ballet and opera as alien to national aesthetic tastes; gold teeth are
also considered unaesthetic.
Niyazov's face appears on all Manat banknotes and large portraits of the
president hang all over the country, especially on major public buildings and
avenues. Niyazov has commissioned a massive palace in Ashgabat
commemorating his rule. He has been given the hero of Turkmenistan award
five times. "I'm personally against seeing my pictures and statues in the
streets – but it's what the people want," Niyazov said.
The education system indoctrinates young Turkmen to love Niyazov, with his
works and speeches making up most of their textbooks' content. The primary
text is a national epic written by Niyazov, the Ruhnama or Book of the Soul.
This book, a mixture of revisionist history and moral guidelines, is intended as
the "spiritual guidance of the nation" and the basis of the nation's arts and
literature. With Soviet-era textbooks banned without being replaced by new
publications, libraries are left with little more than Niyazov's works. In 2004,
Niyazov ordered the closure of all rural libraries on the grounds that he
thought that village Turkmen do not read. In Niyazov's home village of
Kipchak, a complex has been built to the memory of his mother, including a
mosque (est. at $100 million) conceived as a symbol of the rebirth of the
Turkmen peoples. The walls of this edifice display precepts from the
Ruhnama along with suras from the Quran.
In addition to placing himself at the center of Turkmen culture, Niyazov has
sought to promote the culture to the world and cleanse it of Russian
influences. He introduced a new Turkmen alphabet based on the Latin
alphabet to replace Cyrillic and renamed the days and months after national
heroes and symbols described in the Ruhnama. According to this new
calendar, January is called "Turkmenbashi."
After an alleged assassination attempt against him on November 25, 2002,
the Turkmen authorities proceeded to arrest massive numbers of suspected
conspirators and members of their families.
In 1997, Niyazov explained to a Russian journalist that from day one of
independence, "we decided not to copy any existing model, no matter how
successful it had proved to be elsewhere, but we examined all existing
political models to determine to what extent they could be applied in light of
the mentality and traditions of the Turkmen people."
What that meant in practice was that he intended to dominate politics by dint
of putting the fear of God into literally everybody, from government ministers
down to the most humble peasant farmer, and by doing so take total control of
the wealth generated by the extraction and sale of natural gas, of which
Turkmenistan has the third largest reserves in the world.
That may seem weird but relatively harmless, but other seeming whims aren't
Niyazov does not allow any political parties except the one that supports him,
or any opposition media; he has had parliament proclaim him president for
life and then a prophet -- something which is anathema to neighboring Iran.
True, he has hinted that in the next presidential elections he will allow several
other candidates to participate, but if he runs, there are no prizes for guessing
who will win a minimum 99 percent of the vote -- and heaven help anyone
naive enough to have voted for one of the others.
As in the case of Kazakhstan, any politician in Turkmenistan who became so
influential or so popular that he came to pose a threat to the president was
forced to leave the country -- former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev was my
colleague for several years at RFE/RL in Prague. Another former Foreign
Minister, Boris Shikhmuradov, was less lucky- he returned in secret to
Turkmenistan in late 2002 and tried to stage a revolt but was arrested,
subjected to a Stalinist-type show trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
In addition, Niyazov has demolished the free public health service to save
money but presided over the building of a luxurious state of the art private
clinic in case he ever urgently needs heart surgery or a kidney transplant.
So what is Niyazov's rationale for virtually catapulting his people back into the
Middle Ages? Like Nazarbaev, he stresses that he had to begin from scratch
creating a new country and new national traditions. He claims that the
Turkmens have their own understanding of what democracy is and how it
should work, which differs from the Western concept. And he also stresses
that Turkmenistan is a secular state even though its people are traditionally
Muslims -- in other words, he sees himself having prevented any spillover of
Islamic fundamentalism from the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.
The tragedy is that the long-suffering Turkmen people would probably
welcome Islamic fundamentalism with open arms given half the chance on the
grounds that even that has to be better than the dictatorship under which they
are currently condemned to live.
By contrast with Niyazov, Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov looks
positively liberal, although many human rights organizations consider him the
most authoritarian of all five Central Asian presidents after Turkmenbashi. In
1991 Karimov, like Nazarbaev, ruled that democratization could stay on hold
until he had the economy sorted out -- he is an economist by training and in
the 1980's served as deputy head of the government economic planning
agency. And Uzbekistan is not only the largest country in Central Asia in
terms of population, it has the potential to be one of the richest on the basis of
supplies of oil, natural gas, gold and other strategic metals, and one of the
world's largest producers of cotton. So it was natural that Karimov was
attracted to the Chinese economic model in which part of the economy --
small business -- was liberalized but the foreign currency earning sector
remained under state control.
Karimov was overwhelmingly elected president after the Soviet collapse in
December 1991. In the early 1990s Karimov had to balance Uzbekistan's
powerful clans with stability. Political parties were allowed to register, but
rather than a multi-party system, the government bases its legitimacy on the
kind of slogan inscribed on Amir Timur's statue: "Strength in Justice."
Another important symbol for Uzbekistan is the poetry of the national Uzbek
poet, Alisher Navoi.
In a 1995 referendum, 99.6 percent of Uzbekistan eligible voters approved an
extension of Karimov's term from 1997 until 2000. In 2000 he was reelected
for another five-year term, but in January 2002 another referendum was held
extending his term from 2005 until 2007. Next year's elections will be critical
for the future of Uzbekistan, and there is yet no indication of who will run.
Karimov does not dominate politics in Uzbekistan to the extent that
Nazarbaev does in Kazakhstan -- let alone Niyazov. Martha Olcott in her
recent book Central Asia's Second Chance characterizes him as a strong and
autocratic figure, but he is not all powerful -- his key advisors have
discretionary power and much administrative responsibility as do the leaders
of the country's regions.
Hugh Pope writes that in 1997 Uzbekistan was well on its way to becoming
"the economic powerhouse of Central Asia." Oil production had tripled, the
foreign debt was held to $2.4 billion, and factories were turning out new
export-quality goods. Pensions and salaries were small but usually paid on
time. Planes left on schedule and alongside a few new buildings, more old
ones were being refurbished. In addition, major investors were expanding,
and there was a lack of ethnic tensions. Karimov seemed to be passionately
committed to making the country succeed.
One reason for the Uzbek's self-confidence could have been that their history
is more urban than that of their Turkic cousins like the nomadic Kazakhs,
Kyrgyz and Turkmen. In a park where czarist and communist statues stood is
a fairly new equestrian bronze statue of the new national hero, Prince Timur.
The Uzbeks now like to remember the grandeur of his 15th century Central
A remarkable achievement by Karimov was to turn Victory Day, which is
celebrated on the 9th of May, into a "Day of Remembrance."
But since early 1999, when a series of bombs exploded in Tashkent,
Karimov has moved to restrict the activities of opposition political parties and
media, and crack down on radical Islam. Some analysts think that this
has only made things worse: there were more bombings in July 2004 for
which Karimov held Islamists responsible.
Then just one year ago, a band of heavily armed men stormed a national jail
in Andijon, a jail in which some of their friends were being held, releasing their
friends and also several hundred other inmates, many of whom had been
sentenced for capital crimes. The attackers allegedly killed some sixty people
in the process, including prisoners who, out of fear for their lives, tried to
return to the jail. A large crowd assembled and within hours armed security
forces fired into it, killing a large number of persons.
Beyond these bare facts, nearly everything concerning the Andijan events is
surrounded by controversy. But the mass of conflicting evidence on these
basic points has not prevented "experts" in many countries from sharing with
the public their conclusions on the matter. Thus, the US and Europe have
systematically discredited the Uzbek government's version of what happened
and relied instead on the testimony of human rights activists and partisan
journalists, many of them with long histories of opposition to the government
However, many feel that Andijan is where Karimov went too far. U.S. and
international organizations continue to demand an independent inquiry.
Karimov for his part continues to rule out any such enquiry, and has hit back
at Washington by closing U.S. funded NGOs and also RFE/RL's Tashkent
bureau. If after 9/11 Uzbekistan was proud to claim the role of a key U.S. ally
in the war on terrorism, now it sees Washington's pressure as inappropriate
If you asked Karimov when democracy is a threat to stability, he would
probably reply, like Nazarbaev:
When it poses a threat to my efforts to create a new, Uzbek national identity,
and to what I've achieved in managing to create and preserve a tenuous
balance of power between regional elites, some of whom are real snakes.
When it poses a threat to me personally, given that not everyone appreciates
stability and some of those who are very poor resent official corruption -- even
though it is as old as the desert.
And when it could lead to an Islamic party winning a free and fair election,
because I don't want to go down in history as suffering the same fate as the
last Shah of Iran.
So what hope is there for democracy in Central Asia in light of the stated
readiness of at least four of the five presidents to sacrifice democracy if need
be in order to preserve their own hold on power?
On the plus side, none of the five countries exists in a total vacuum with no
knowledge of what is happening elsewhere -- especially such developments
as the peaceful revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. In four of the five there
are still opposition parties and independent media, even if they are struggling
to survive. None of the presidents is immortal and two -- Niyazov and Karimov
-- are in their 60s and rumored to be sick. In Kazakhstan at least, there is a
generation of younger politicians, many of them educated at Western
universities, who are content to bide their time and wait until Nazarbaev
leaves the scene.
Human rights groups, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in
Europe, relentlessly chronicle developments and publicize human rights
abuses and cases of political repression in Central Asia. But unfortunately,
some countries, including the U.S., tend to focus on democracy only when it
suits them to do so, or to send ambiguous messages that Central Asian
leaders can construe as reassurance that they have carte blanche to carry on
as before. Only a few days ago, Dick Cheney told journalists after talks with
Kazakhstan's President Nazarbaev in Astana that "I have previously
expressed my admiration for what has transpired here in Kazakhstan over the
past 15 years," he said, "both in terms of economic development as well as
political development.," but not a word about democratic reform.
Meanwhile the European Union is cozying up to Turkmenistan's President
Niyazov because it sees his country as an alternative to Russia for supplies of
Not an encouraging prospect even for those of us fortunate to live in a flawed
but functioning democracy.
Jeane J. Kirkpatrick in her book Dictatorships and Double Standards writes:
"It is the nature of a democratic pluralist system, based on free elections that
government is supposed to pay for its mistakes… Of course the people in a
democracy suffer the consequences of their government's errors," in a non-
democracy they may suffer even more so.