Going Backward, Into the Future

by Nathan Hamm on 4/13/2011

In his overview of Central Asia’s downward slide, Josh closes by saying we could spend plenty of time reflecting on why each country in the region has become less free and/or able to provide basic services to varying degrees. While true that each government is dealing with its own particular problems, there is a common theme in what’s happened in each of these countries. This suggests that there may be a shared source of this slide. But first, what exactly is it that’s happened?

In a weekend story on Kazakhstan’s presidential election in The New York Times, Ellen Barry describes how the way of holding an election in independent Kazakhstan in 2011 has become the way of holding an election in the late Soviet period.

But documents published in an opposition newspaper a few days before the election suggested that official pressure had pumped up the results. A memorandum faxed to the municipal government in the city of Saran laid out something called “Operation Snowball.” In technical language befitting a military operation, workers were asked to provide officials with lists of their contacts — family members, neighbors, subordinates — and make sure each one voted. This evidently went beyond neighborly encouragement, since, according to the document, the government was to be provided with “a full list of the enterprise’s workers, with family coefficient, and time of vote (100 percent vote to be completed at 11 a.m.).”

It all struck me as a little surreal, but my colleague Viktor Klimenko, who has worked in The New York Times’s Moscow bureau for more than 20 years, felt right at home. In the Soviet Union, Viktor was recruited to work as an “agitator,” assigned several housing blocks in which he was to ensure 100 percent turnout. He went door to door checking lists of individual voters, and then visited again to deliver a short biography of the candidate (there was only one).

Barry says that “this system has been reconstituting itself across the post-Soviet space.” And clearly, the Soviet way of ritually conferring democratic legitimacy on the country’s leadership is not the only artifact of pre-independence government to find its way back into regular usage.

I have wondered recently whether or not there is an under-appreciation for the extent to which current practices of Central Asian governments are the result of the preservation or resurrection of Soviet institutions, modified though they may be. Especially to someone who knows the region well, that might seem like a silly observation, but take the State Department 2010 Uzbekistan Human Rights Report, for example. It starts right off by calling Uzbekistan an authoritarian state and continues to detail many of the very nasty things that go on in Uzbekistan. What really makes Uzbekistan a pervasively oppressive country though is that it’s a totalitarian state with a grand vision for the future run by oligarchs in which coercion and force are for the most part unnecessary because the consequences of being noticed stepping out of line.

Barry notes that this lack of coercion was a feature of the Soviet system,

Viktor, who is rather an expert at matters of persuasion, never came right out and told them that he had been assigned to make sure they voted. He just asked them to vote in the morning, so that he could go home early.

“Everyone would go,” he said. “They had been threatened for 70 years of Soviet power. No extra threats were needed.”

The SOAS report on Uzbekistan’s 2009 cotton campaign [PDF] found evidence that people do not need to be reminded of the consequences of failures to comply with the state’s desires. I am fully confident that one need not scratch very hard to find similar evidence that Kazakhs did not need any reminder of the importance of registering their vote early on election day.

Similarly, one doesn’t need to put forth much effort to find backsliding everywhere in the region (with the possible exception of Turkmenistan, which had nowhere to go but up following Turkmenbashi’s death). Religious freedom is certainly on the decline in Tajikistan, and there are signs that it is declining or at risk in Kyrgyzstan in spite of other liberal advances since Bakiev’s overthrow. Uzbekistan devotes significant airtime and column-space to attacks on foreign ideas that turn Uzbeks, especially youth, away from “centuries-old national and spiritual traditions.

Obviously, none of these countries are perfectly characterized as Soviet replicants with national characteristics. However, the state-society relationship seems to be fundamentally unaltered. Each government acts as if its primary function is to shepherd its citizens toward a goal spanning from Kazakhstan’s mundane but admirable and realistic desire to be wealthy and important in the international system to Uzbekistan’s abstract, hard-to-pin-down desire to build a distinctly Uzbek super-awesome-state that everyone will avoid looking directly in the eyes because it’s so super-awesome.

That each of these governments has a somewhat to downright adversarial relationship with their respective publics helps, I think, explain a good deal of the “why?” to which Josh referred at the end of his post a couple days ago. But it doesn’t satisfactorily answer the timing. Shevardnadze’s overthrow might be a decent explanation for why the slide began when it did, but the answer for why things seem to have really gotten so bad recently in places like Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan might be as leaders feeling that they have little time to secure their legacies. Ultimately, there probably are no answers that satisfy; restricting society may just be a proven, comfortable, and reliable solution to Central Asian elites.

As was already noted the other day, it’s a damned shame.

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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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