In the last two months, we’ve born witness to more incidents of illiberal democracy or democracy’s “doubles” here in Central Asia/Eurasia, from Kazakhstan’s parliamentary elections which many say was an experiment in pseudo-pluralism; to Turkmenistan’s surreal presidential election that has left those of us on the outside (and, indeed, many of those on the inside) scratching their heads wondering what it was all about to begin with; to Russia’s intriguingly complex and probably historical presidential poll. Still to come in the next few years are parliamentary elections in Armenia and Tajikistan, and presidential elections in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan, none of which are expected by Western observers to be free and fair. The question I hear a lot from non-specialists is: why are these societies even bothering with the charade? At the moment, this is the shape of my answer:
Central Asian/Eurasian politics can be easily dismissed as tired Sovietisms re-worked into cynical caricatures of the West. Unfortunately, as I get to know this part of the world better, I’m increasingly not so convinced that it’s us Westerners who are being mocked; instead, what’s happening to the concept of liberal democracy here is actually very much part of a universal phenomenon. Just ask any civil society activist and they’ll tell you how “liberal democracy” can and is frequently bastardized to mean “popular legitimacy”, and “popular legitimacy” is, in turn, bastardized to mean “approval for the regime’s policies”. The uncomfortable reality is that this as true in the archetypal liberal democracy, the United States of America, wherein elected officials routinely and conveniently distort the widespread (albeit diminishing) voter apathy of the country to mask the hijacking of policy-making by special interests, as it is true in, say, Kazakhstan, whose consistently high voter turnout (in comparison to the USA), masks the authoritarian tendencies of the dominant ruling party (all the more so if the turnout figures prove to be false). In both cases, what we’re really dealing with is legitimacy-engineering, intended to buttress a constellation of elites and their related pet institutions and industries by a transference of moral authority from the grassroots to the top.
Make no mistake, the target of the legitimacy-engineering is primarily internal: the grassroots itself (particularly the electorate), as well as rivals for power (real or perceived). The electorate, thanks to a terrible education and media system, simply don’t know any better; the rivals, having achieved a position of relative elitism to have access to more information, do know better but catch the hint and respond accordingly (i.e., silence and subterfuge). Insofar that the legitimacy-engineering has an external orientation, this is a secondary, although not unimportant goal, namely, to deflect criticism via the logic of national self-determination. Indeed, democratic elections can accomplish what divine right of kings or Marxist dialectical materialism never could, namely, to give the impression of collective agreement with respect to a regime’s choices. And yes, in all of this I am talking as much about my homeland as I am about the Central Asian/Eurasian states (I am probably sounding like a very bitter expatriate right now). The benefactor of the legitimacy-engineering is not as clear in the American context as in the Central Asian/Eurasian one, but in both cases, it’s really a system that’s receiving the moral authority, not just the man on top.
Yet, speaking of the men on top, just as presidents of the United States can be prone to messianic depictions of themselves — either of the Terror or Hope variety of eschatology — Central Asian/Eurasian presidents notoriously have a penchant for the salvific. Besides the late Niyazov, Karimov spring to mind, and in his own way, Bakiyev had a tinge of the deliverer to his administration, as well, and Putin and Aliyev frequently co-opt still-fresh memories of societal turmoil in their favor. Along these lines, I actually have a begrudging respect for Nazarbayev: his golden handprint in the Baiterek is actually not so much an expression of megalomania as it is a statement of fact, namely, that he has left an indelible mark upon his country, like it or not, for better and for worse. That’s more than I can say for all the “Change” that’s happened in the United States since 2008 (at least in my cynical moments). But again, in all cases, the target is internal, the goal still is and always is legitimacy-engineering. The era of elections setting the course of a nation rather than approving a pre-set path — if it ever existed — is fast receding into the past here and in the West.
But then there’s Turkmenistan. I think, unfortunately, this country is an outlier. I’ve got a sinking feeling in my gut that it is increasingly fruitless to seek any kind of rationality oriented toward the outside world from the Turkmen president, even vis-à-vis his immediate neighbors, much less the West. If there is any logic to his behavior, then it’s most likely in response to internal power dynamics, the nature of which are invisible to the outside eye (although there are clues). But before we start thinking that this is still in keeping with the overall trends in managed democracy, we should consider the thoughts of my colleague Annasoltan, who has come to fear that what we’re really looking at in Turkmenistan is the possible mental deterioration of Berdimuhammedov. The presidential election, then, may have really been driven by the illogic of ego and insecurity: this time around, the legitimacy-engineering was directed not at the grassroots, but by the establishment toward the president himself.
Power-plays and madness are not mutually co-exclusive, of course, and in fact the latter can sometimes be a pretty good tool in the former, just ask Caligula. Moreover, determining how much of this exercise in megalomania was the initiative of Berdimuhammedov and how much of it arose from the overall regime, and for which purposes, could be enlightening. Until those facts can come to the light of history, unfortunately, all the rest of us can do is stand outside Turkmenistan’s parallel universe and wonder about its strange physics, a political physics in which the logic of liberalism and democracy are twisted to reduce an entire society into instrumental extensions of one single ego.