The “New Class”: The Rise and Fall of NGOs in Central Asia

by Laurence on 10/1/2006 · 3 comments

I had a number of requests for copies of the presentation delivered yesterday at the Central Eurasian Studies Society, held the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. I gueesed that Registan readers who couldn’t make it to Michigan might be interested, as well. So, here’s the text:

The “New Class”: The Rise and Fall of NGOs in
Central Asia
By Laurence Jarvik

What follows is an attempt to put the rise and fall of Western-sponsored non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Central Asia in context. The goal is to go beyond the stated aims of the parties involved (for example, “human rights” or “national sovereignty”), to examine their interests as two distinct classes: (1) a traditional Central Asian national elite; versus (2) a new class supported by Western NGOs.

In my opinion, post-Soviet national ruling elites, essentially an ancien regime, viewed NGOs as agents of a project of subjugation by new international elite, reminiscent of the Bolshevik seizure of power. Instead of dismissing such concerns as paranoid or anti-democratic, it might be wiser to try to better comprehend the nature of the post-Soviet response. In this respect, I believe that Milovan Djilas’ classic, The New Class: an Analysis of the Communist System; helps explain the perspective of those who have suffered for almost a century under the influence of a non-governmental, international elite acting in the name of “democracy” . They have no desire to exchange one class of commissars for another.

Djilas showed that, in spite lip service to “democracy” and a “classless society,” the Communist Party became “a new ruling and exploiting class…unable to act differently from any ruling class that preceded them.” The Communist Party’s “political bureaucracy” had “all the characteristics of the earlier ones as well as some new characteristics of its own.” Like other classes, the new class came to power by “destroying the political, social, and other orders they met in their way.” Unlike other classes, which arose gradually as the result of economic and social forces, the new class promoted revolution in order “to establish its power over society” while justifying its power from “an idealistic point of view.”

In my opinion, this perfectly describes the mindset many “civil society” actors in the post-Soviet space, often themselves the children of Communist elites. In some cases, they actively championed revolution, such as the so-called “Tulip Revolution” in Kyrgyzstan. Likewise, their American sponsors were many times children of America’s “new class,” as defined by Irving Kristol, in his critique of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” It became clear that the conflict between US-supported NGOs national governments was a power struggle to determine who would make up the new ruling class. Like all dominant classes, NGOs and their staffs are prone to a cult-like sense superiority and entitlement, the lures of bureaucracy and self-dealing, and the inevitable corruptions of power. Their idealism enables them to justify almost anything, as described by author David Rieff:

…despite the reality of its financial dependence on states, humanitarianism had always been something a bit like Communism, even in the minds of those defenders who were alive to its flaws. For Communist fellow travelers, there had always been a clear distinction between what they were pleased to call “actually existing Communism”—that is, regimes such as the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and Cuba—and the Communist ideal. And no horror—not the Gulag, not the famine that was unleashed in the late 1950s in the wake of Mao Test-Tung’s so-called Great Leap Forward, nor any of the other disasters of the seventy-one-year reign of that dogma—was able to unseat this ideal.

In the field of international relations, this means that NGOs feel themselves (as did dedicated Communists) to be superior to other actors such as nation-states. It is my hypothesis, therefore that Western NGOs represented a threat of class replacement as a form of revolution, peaceful if possible–but violent if need be. The model was indeed Georgia or Ukraine, despite Western denials. The problem was that Central Asia had certain specifics and peculiarities not found in Europe—for the sake of shorthand, although anthropologists don’t like to talk about it, cultural issues to which many Europeans and Americans appeared tone deaf. As a result, unlike a number of American NGO personnel and consultants, Central Asians did not hate the legacy of their communist past—they rather preferred it to the alternatives they saw before them: chaos, civil war, or fundamentalism.

Americans tend to assume that this attitude was due to brainwashing and propaganda. But it is pretty clear that the national elites had a great deal of legitimacy—more than the NGOs, despite their deeper pockets. The clash over Andijan revealed that the old elites were far more vigorous than Western analysts had guessed; while the “vigorous” youth were no match for established authority.

By siding openly with the new class, seeking to use Andijan as a rallying point to overthrow Karimov, the Western powers essentially overthrew themselves. Both the leadership class and the majority of the population looked positively upon the return to the Russian sphere of influence. Even Kyrgyzstan, previously the most pro-Western state, has “tilted” in the aftermath of NGO bungling. The reason for the West’s failure in Central Asia is rooted in failure to correctly analyze the class conflict. Until now, discourse surrounding conflict between NGOs and Central Asian governments has appeared both moralistic and emotional, involving name-calling or choosing “good guys” over “bad guys.” In my opinion, this cannot be a productive approach to understanding or improving relations between Central Asia and the West.

While Western NGOs are rightly concerned about Stalin’s legacy, local elites have grown up seeing European and American powers as the font of imperialism and aggression. Britain does not have clean hands in Central Asia, and even before Iraq, America was known for its war in Vietnam as well as support of South Africa. The NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia was widely perceived as a war-crime in the former Soviet Union, and Central Asia is no exception. Thus, the first responsibility of a leadership class—protection—had been perceived as protection from the USA and European imperialism. By kicking out Western NGOs, traditional elites were living up to their traditional roles. There was no mass base for American or Western NGO involvement; they were in Central Asia only because the traditional elite had invited them. Thus, contrary to their self-perception of greater legitimacy, the NGO class interest was to ally with the traditional elite until transformation of society had been achieved. By prematurely challenging the authority of traditional power structures, NGOs and their western sponsors sealed their own fate.

Further, some NGOs felt that working with religious populations would pave a path to power. This was obviously threatening to elite that had its root in a revolution against theocratic aristocracies. The Waqfs or Islamic pious foundations were perceived as a relic of the past that had been thankfully left behind on the road to socialism. To bring them back through NGOs threatened a return to the Middle Ages. Central Asians saw themselves as far advanced over their neighbors in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. National pride cannot be underestimated as a factor—a factor that national elites had access to in ways that internationally sponsored NGOs did not.

Meanwhile, NGOs appeared to be attempting to form a new class, a cadre developed with foreign support in order to replace the existing elite. Then-British ambassador Craig Murray explained this strategy to NPR correspondent Robert Rand:

RR: What’s your prescription? How do you cure Uzbekistan?
CM: I think you’ve got to just get rid of the present leadership entirely. Lock, stock, and barrel. I don’t see any other way that it’s going to go forward at all.
RR: And replace them with whom?
CM: Much younger. Much younger people.”

As a “brain drain” led the best and the brightest to work for NGOs, lured by high pay, travel, scholarships, and prestige networks, the existing elite perceived a threat. Following regime changes in the Ukrainian and Georgian “color revolutions,” in the context of American military action in Iraq, combined with bellicose rhetoric about “unipolarity,” it is understandable that established governments would not willingly perform suicide. Given the stark choice—as it appeared to those in power—of regime change or expulsion of NGOs, the choice was clear. The ruling elites in these countries were not stupid.

In Central Asia, this struggle for power between the established order and the rising new class took place in a different context from Europe—namely, against a backdrop of Islamist extremism. While NGOs tended to downplay this threat—and there are numerous reports from NGOs arguing that point of view, well-known to most CESS members–leaders of Central Asian states did not. They had participated in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and knew what the Taliban was. They had seen the civil war in Tajikistan. They understood the geopolitics and strategic issues at play in the region. They sided with the US and Europe, as long as we appeared to be winning. As the situation worsened, they took stock and changed calculations in a way not open to Western-sponsored NGOs. National elites watched the unfolding of increased religious influence in Afghanistan and the rise of Shia clergy as powerbrokers in Baghdad with apprehension. They saw the modernizing achievements of their brand of socialism—built by their parents and grandparents, not by some abstraction–threatened by medieval religious fanaticism. Their power base was the segment of the population that looked to Russia as an “older brother” and model. This class, the established nomenklatura of the Soviet period, minus the Russians who had emigrated or lost out in the return to nationalism, was in closer touch with the population than Westerners. In other words, the old regime was composed of the existing national elite, created by the Soviet system. These were represented by the presidents of the Central Asian republics—all autocrats, yes; but more importantly for this analysis, in their own view patriots and defenders of their nation.

On the other side, recruiting children of the elite through scholarship schemes and highly-paid jobs, western-supported NGOs attempted to create a new class of “future leaders” (there were actually American programs with this name) that would look to the West. To this end, NGO demands for freedom of religion can be seen as an attempt to develop a mass base for the new class–since a small number of privileged alumni of student exchanges would not be sufficient to take over a national government. The “muscle” would be not peasants and workers, but “oppressed Muslims.” One scenario for the breakup of Uzbekistan was discussed by George Bloch, an American who worked for the United Nations in Tashkent until he was expelled by the Uzbek government: “It is not too far-fetched, I think, to argue that some of Uzbekistan’s consitutent parts, in a worst case scenario of total chaos, could attempt to go their own way: the Ferghana Valley as some sort of Islamic entity; Karakalpakstan as an independent entity; elsewhere, some sort of crisis-driven hunkering down by clans (Samarkand, Tashkent) or ethnicity (there are significant numbers of Tajiks in Bukhara, for instance).”

Unfortunately for Western NGOs, there were significantly fewer of these religious cadres than they believed existed. Soviet Central Asia was not Afghanistan. And, unlike Western Ukrainians, who had not been part of the Soviet Union until the end of World War II; or Georgians, who had no source of income after the collapse of communism; Central Asia had been part of Russia for over 100 years, was rich in natural resources, and the system had been fully integrated into the USSR. Perhaps, in a way, Central Asians were more Soviet than the Russians.

Thus, traditional elites had an advantage over the Western-sponsored NGOs: they knew their society organically and were masters of how to balance different elements—whether clan-related, geographical, ethnic, business, political, or international. In a traditional society, they had tradition on their side. The existing political and business elite could co-opt or threaten any businessmen who sought to switch sides.

On the other hand, Western-sponsored groups were limited to two basic constituencies—impatient elite youth, who would otherwise have to wait in societies that respected age and experience; and religious Muslims who felt excluded from traditional power centers. Despite much wishful thinking, this Western-backed coalition was not viable—and failed every test which attempted to overthrow the established class, including Kyrgyzstan in my opinion, where personnel changed in the “Tulip Revolution”, but not the dominant class.

The final chapter in the NGOs role in Central Asia was marked by the Andijan violence of 2005. After what local leaders perceived as an attempted putsch by Islamists supported by Western NGOs, European and American governments—the Uzbek government moved against what it perceived as a fifth column. Among the organizations shut down were the Eurasia Foundation, Freedom House, the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), ACCELS, CAFE, PAD, the American Bar Association, Counterpart International, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL).

While NGOs might have been tolerated as a “price of doing business” with the West as partners in the global war on terror, once the partnership had been dissolved, there was no incentive to pay any further price. The ancien regime remained in place, further reinforced as a source of protection and defender of the nation against outside aggressors. The turn to Russia and China, former brotherly nations from the days of socialism, was inevitable.

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Bill Walsh October 1, 2006 at 10:53 pm

Exceedingly well-argued piece. It’s a political perspective I hadn’t considered and provides an explanation for any number of events and conflicts over the past few years. Thank you.

Dolkun October 3, 2006 at 3:36 am

Indeed an exceedingly well-argued piece. It would have to be, being wholly devoid of evidence or examples to support its claims.

Ataman Rakin October 3, 2006 at 7:34 am


The existence of ‘NGO aristocracies’ (for those interested, that has also been elaborated in detail in Olivier Roy’s, “Soviet legacies and western aid imperatives in Central Asia”, in: Amyn B. Sajoo (ed.), Civil society in the Muslim world: contemporary perspectives, I.B. Tauris and the Institute for Ismaili Studies, 2002, pp. 96-122). The same actually goes for international organisations (e.g. UNDP), though those tend to have %-age of children and relatives of regime cronies among their staff.

Besides, even if this does not has to be generalised, several of the concepts promoted IOs and int NGOs on the region are outright outlandish e.g. all these randy EU-funded consultants, NGOs promoting gay and lesbian rights (as if the people there have no other priorities!), etc… and it is true that many local NGOs are merely grant-grabbers (a situation that is not unique to CA btw).

That some NGOs are a cover-up for other activities (evangelist proselytizing in particular, eg. CAFÉ, CADA, … ) is correct as well. On the other hand, I find that so-called alliance between western(-funded) NGOs and ‘Islamists’ to be outright paranoid. If there is a link between western(-funded) NGOs and religion, it is to be situated more in the evangelist Christian sphere.

But what I would like to know is, what alternative you propose? The status quo? IMO, that is a dead-end, for the following reasons:

1) The regime in Uzbekistan is, essentially, a continuation of Soviet bureaucratic authoritarianism minus the social advantages of the Soviet system; so is the mentality and political culture of its ‘elite’; is other words, its main reference framework is Soviet (or Soviet-feudal); yet even if Sovietism undoubly had its postive achievements and advantages, in the end, it showed to be a complete failure. As such, it is basically dead as a project for the future.

2) They may see “the modernizing achievements of their brand of socialism—built by their parents and grandparents, not by some abstraction–threatened by medieval religious fanaticism”, today the question is to what extent that what they see is rather the illusion and façade, of modernism (that is also very Soviet: a lot of bluff, façacde, smokescreens, white elephants)? I mean, let’s stay serious: in 15 years’ time, the positive achievements and social capital of the USSR have been largely squandered by the Soviet native compardore elites that stayed in power after 1991 as well as by the IFI (general impoverishment including intellectual; falling social indicators; neo-feudalism; child labor; the ‘general bestialisation of society’ as one CAsian friend put it, …).

3) The regimes and their power elites are shrewd enough to buy survival time by playing off everyone against each other (US, Russia, China) in a region with many conflicting interests. Yet in the end that is also going to bring their downfall. Precedents galore: what they basically do was done already, at other times and in other contexts yet along bang the same mechanisms, by the Mobutus and Siad Barres of this world. It’s a game where the jackals tear each other up. In that sense, I think that the US, *at least if they want to keep face and the slightest credibility in the region* , can not let the recent series of humiliations, spittings and face-slappings by the karimovites go by unforgiven/unpunished. Likewise, I do not think that the present ‘friendship’ between the Tashkent regime and the Kremlin-Gazprom wil last. Either case, their fate is sealed.

4) Everyone who has *seriously* been following the region over the last 10-15 years does no buys into that mantra that ‘ first there must be stability and economic growth then democratisation’. All blabla and lip service, yet we know that this is simply not going to happen. The karimovites (and Türkmenbaşi for that matter) know *very* well that if they live up to that they basically undermine their own power base which is one of controlling the key sectors of the economy and keeping the bulk of their subjects in structural poverty.

5) That the average Sovok in CA indeed associates ‘demokratiya’ with ‘bardak’ (a ‘mess’: impoverishment, crime, corruption, a loot ‘n boot economy, … ) is a fact. Yet that does not means that there is no popular need for breathing space and participation (saying that is basically one more of these mantras and fallacies of the regime and syphilitic expats in cahoots with them). In my experience, what the people long for, to start with, is economic democracy as opposed to the status quo where every economic initiatve that is not controlled by the presidential family and it cornies is made impossible. They also long for what is called ‘freedom from fear’. Bu the way by, and form in which, it will be achieved, however, will probably not be what the West had in mind or promoted.

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