Central Asia’s Slow Decline

by Joshua Foust on 4/12/2011 · 12 comments

Despite the boosters out there who think Kazakhstan is on a bright shining path to the future, a number of people seem to be avoiding the spin. Joanna Lillis, for example, is straight up mocking the election observers who say this most recent election was super-awesome. She profiles Daniel Witt, who runs the International Tax and Investment Center, or ITIC.

ITIC, if you recall, sponsored an observation mission that I, too, mocked rather ruthlessly, especially when one of those monitors appealed to its sponsorship to claim he wasn’t in any way compelled to issue statements favoring Nazarbayev’s electioneering. As Hugh Raiser notes, there is “something of the Twilight Zone” between the OSCE mission, which was sharply critical of the election in almost all respects, and people like those on the ITIC mission.

Put simply, this year Kazakhstan’s prospects for a democratic transition regressed sharply, and pressure on any non-Nur Otan parties increased at the same time. The political situation in the country is so farcical that Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, Nursultan Nazarbayev’s political advisor, is now planning to use a business investment organization that just happens to be run by Nazarbayev’s son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, to foster a “top-down revolution” in Parliament. That is, using the main ruling party to create an opposition based on fealty to that same ruling party. It’s bonkers.

But Kazakhstan is probably the least of these, even if it’s right now the most visible (and, given the angry defenses ITIC observers have begun mounting of criticism for their sycophancy, the most annoying). Kyrgyzstan just celebrated the year anniversary of the revolution that swept Kurmanbek Bakiev out of power, led to several months of protests and appalling ethnic cleansing, and left Rosa Otunbayeva in charge of the interim government.

It was not, as this photo from neweurasia.net shows, an ebullient affair. A year on, the issues that underscored the tragic violence, both against Uzbeks in Osh and against Kyrgyz nationwide, remains unresolved. The government struggles to function, as it is beset with in-fighting and squabbles over petty bases of power. The transition plan, which Otunbayeva crafted to much acclaim, remains at best only partially implemented. The economy remains in tatters, and it remains to be seen if joining the Belarus-Russia-Kazakhstan customs union will help it much. Many analysts are wondering just how long the government can continue in this state, as it is teetering on the brink of abject failure.

To the east, Tajikistan is also sliding into decrepitude. The State Department just downgraded its government to “authoritarian,” where it joins Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, the State Department report said, “President Emomali Rahmon and his supporters, drawn mainly from one region of the country, dominated political life. The constitution provides for a multiparty political system, but in practice the government obstructed political pluralism.” The government is so incapable of providing services to its people that it’s had to extend the power rationing system, putting poor people under extreme duress. And there remains fighting at the Kyrgyz border, when there’s not fighting in the central valleys, where an ad hoc groups of Islamists, drug smugglers, and other thugs clash routinely with security forces.

The closed Uzbek-Kyrgyz border continues to keep people on edge. While Uzbekistan deserves praise for its handling of the thousands of Uzbek refugees that fled the border during the pogroms in Osh and Jalal-abad, its human rights abuses have not improved. Just last month, Uzbekistan kicked out Human Rights Watch, the final shred of any international rights monitors that were able to remain there. As Nathan has been documenting, the government has also demonstrated a worrying rejection of international investment, which is preventing the economy from even hinting at recovery or dynamism.

Turkmenistan is still… Turkmenistan. It almost seems stuck in the Brezhnev era, where even mild criticism of the government results in imprisonment in a psychiatric ward (because opposing President Berdimuhamedov is a mental illness, you see). The government seems to be opposed to educating its students, and even something as basic as getting a mobile phone is apparently a nightmarish process.

NOW, none of this is to be all gloom and doom. The region is will not, for example, fall into ethnic war (despite what happened in Kyrgyzstan), nor is there some impending breakdown of the regional or international order. What is so worrying, however, is that each of these countries seems to have made anti-progress in the last couple of years. Some places, like Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, seem to be stuck in a time warp, while others, like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, have actually become worse in many respects (though in Kazakhstan, the economy seems to paper over many of the other problems people face).

We could speculate until the cows come home about why this is the case. I don’t think there’s any one reason for it, as each country seems to be struggling with its own issues. Whatever the causes, to see the region experience this kind of a slide is sad. It has such promise, and while progress is by no means a straight line, I wish its national leadership wasn’t so opposed to seeing it do better.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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AJK April 12, 2011 at 11:39 am

unrelated question: since when did all of the links from Registan.net got to a shortening service run through Registan.net?

It’s hardly a huge issue, but it’s frustrating for those of us that want to see where you are citing your sources from without having to open a new window.

Nathan April 12, 2011 at 11:51 am

Shoot me an email to remind me to change it back. It’s a “feature” of a twitter plugin I use. I would rather it only do that for our own links, not external ones. I’ll see if I can fix that.

Nathan Hamm April 12, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Fixed it.

Jangak April 12, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Nice article Joshua, as usual

Caomengde April 12, 2011 at 8:28 pm

“Kazakhstan, have actually become worse in many respects”

Care to elaborate?

I personally would like to hear some indigenous Kazakh speaking about the issue of quality of life inside Kazakhstan. From my limited knowledge and contact, young educated Kazakhs in China seem to really approve of what Mr. Nazarbayev is doing inside Kazakhstan. But I am sure they must all been deluded by Propaganda.

Kuda April 14, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Young, educated Kazkhs tend to come from urban centres. Urban Kazakhs live better than rurual Kazakhs. Plus ça change.

How much do young, educated Kazakhs know about their country? Rurul Kazakhs are pretty anomynous in media reporting. In my experience, Kazakhs studying abroad are moneyed and pro-Nazarbayev as mummy and daddy do well from the regime… as for those on the Bolashak programme… well, they have houses with strong roofs.

Caomengde April 16, 2011 at 12:15 am


I wasn’t speaking of Kazakh exchange students in China. I am referring to Kazakhs born and raised in China’s Xinjiang region. Most of them feel that Kazakhstan is their ancestral land and feel deeply attach to it.

Kuda April 16, 2011 at 5:07 am

Hi Caomengde,

Sorry, I mis-read your post. It would be interesting to hear such voices.

I have to admit I know little about how much of a cultural identity indigenous Kazakhs (or Kyrgyz) who live in China retain. Or are ‘allowed’ to retain.

Toshkan April 13, 2011 at 1:14 am

@caomengde. These Chinese kazakhs certainly weren’t deluded by any local propaganda in that case. Maybe the jailaus of Altay too are filling with the scent of jasmine…. 😉

Stan Wythe April 13, 2011 at 8:29 am

Interesting analysis. I would make the case that Kyrgyzstan, while still on the brink in many ways and in spite of serious ethnic violence in the past year, has made significant progress by adopting a democratic constitution and by holding the first elections in Central Asian history, perhaps, where the result was not known before the election.

Nathan April 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

True and fair points. As I will briefly discuss in a longer post I plan to publish this week sometime, there have been some troubling signs in Kyrgyzstan. The uptick in nationalism and discrimination is a black mark, though in fairness the government lacks the capability to do much about it. However, I think there’s a case to be made that this government is moving to have the most repressive religious policies of any Kyrgyz government.

Joshua Foust April 13, 2011 at 10:57 am

To follow up on Nathan’s point, as one example, here’s OSI reporting about the Kyrgyz police:

That same spring, the cousin of a Kyrgyz acquaintance of mine was beaten to death in a police station that had been modernized and equipped through the OSCE Police Assistance Project (PAP). A year later, an open letter from Kyrgyz civil society representatives complaining about this and other incidents related to the PAP was suppressed by the OSCE Ambassador in Kyrgyzstan, and never reached the OSCE Secretariat in Vienna via the official channels.

And so on. It’s not as bad as, say, STRATFOR wants us to think, but it’s also not as rosy as people like Richard Weitz would like us to think, either. I look forward to see what Nathan writes about this.

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