DICTATORS AND THEIR USES - The absence of democracy in Central Asia

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By Aloke Sen
  • Published 30.12.13

If democracy and the Central Asian states have proved to be mutually exclusive, there are two reasons: history and geography. Lee Kuan Yew in his The Singapore Story, recalling his country’s expulsion from Malaysia, writes, “Some countries are born independent. Some achieve independence. Singapore had independence thrust upon it.” In 1991, the Central Asian states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — constituent units of the disintegrating Soviet Union — found themselves in a similar situation, suddenly and reluctantly independent.

In 1993, when I reached Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, on assignment, the pains of independence were everywhere: confusion over the nature of future relations with Moscow; a teetering economy; at the individual’s level, widespread distress at the disappearing social safety net (assured income, medical care, food ration, the annual holiday); anger over job losses. One thing, however, remained unchanged: the leaders to rule these countries.

Once part of the Soviet Union’s nomenklatura, dutifully doing Moscow’s bidding in their respective republics, Central Asia’s leaders, post-independence, effortlessly morphed into unrepentant autocrats. It was not too difficult. They were already steeped in the ways and culture of a communist behemoth, and the people were conditioned to be timid. Besides, it was thought that the traditional culture of family, clan and regional loyalties made the Central Asian states fertile soil for authoritarianism as they journeyed from feudalism to socialism.

Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev and Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov began their iron-fisted rule in 1989. Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, who had himself declared president for life, ruled for 21 years until death claimed him in 2006. In Tajikistan, Emomali Rakhmon has been in power since 1992, having embarked on his fourth term recently. Only in Kyrgyzstan, the flickering hope of the West’s democracy warriors, there have been a few changes: Askar Akayev, initially seen as a ‘liberal’, increasingly turned authoritarian, and was ousted in 2005 after 15 years’ rule by Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who, in turn, was overthrown in a ‘revolution’ in 2010, on startlingly similar charges of corruption and ineptness. One understands that the leaders of Kyrgyzstan are now in favour of parliamentary democracy, and the country — a ‘parliamentary republic’ — presently has a divided executive with more powers assigned to the parliament and less to the popularly-elected president. But given Central Asia’s track record, whether this would be sustainable and bring democratic bliss is difficult to say.

The point of all this is that the people of Central Asia in their living memory have not known democracy. Projection of strong, muscular leadership has been the common stratagem for their autocratic leaders, and crafting of a personality cult a most useful device. Niyazov of Turkmenistan took ‘personality cult’ to previously unscaled heights with his giant billboards, golden statues, absurdities like introducing a self-composed rambling ‘spiritual book’, the Ruhnama, as alternative religion, or re-naming the first month of the English calendar after himself. His was admittedly the most glaring case of manic self-projection. But his peers in Central Asia all understood the value of casting themselves as larger-than-life and irreplaceable, a bulwark against instability and mayhem. There was, of course, method in Niyazov’s madness. An overpowering personality cult, combined with a state apparatus under the leader’s choking hold, was designed to numb the people and bestow monarchical power on the leader. The time would come when the man and the myth could not be told apart.

Central Asia’s strategic location — bounded by the giant neighbours, Russia and China, and abutting on Afghanistan and Iran — is the other factor that has effectively led to the perpetuation of its autocratic political culture. Russia, the erstwhile colonial power, has extensive economic, political and security links and interests, and is keen to keep out foreign influence so that Central Asia remains a backyard, a ‘near-abroad’. China, home to restive Xinjiang, sees Central Asia as an extension of its internal security agenda, while contributing to its domestic economic growth. China, too, is against the West making inroads, and has been in fierce competition with Russia for the leadership of the region. (Observers believe Russia is losing the race to China.) For the United States of America, Central Asia had proved to be an important staging post in its War on Terror, as also a theatre where it could try and checkmate a resurgent Russia or China, or stop the spreading influence of Iran.

The tussle for securing access to military assets (airbases) in the Central Asian states to provide logistical support to American troops in Afghanistan had pitted the US against both Russia and China. But it can be surmised that once its force draw-down from Afghanistan takes effect after 2014, the US’s need for, and strategic interest in, Central Asia would diminish.

None of these countries showed any particular concern about the absence of democracy in Central Asia so long as their own domestic and diplomatic goals were being met. Ineffectual pro-democracy noises were, therefore, left to be made only by the likes of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the European Union or the United Nations Development Programme. The sermons were summarily dismissed. The political condition of Central Asia comes under scrutiny because of the reality that the key leaders — Nazarbayev and Karimov — are getting on in years and have health problems; and the realization that post-2014, there are going to be significant changes on the ground in Afghanistan, which would have an impact on the Central Asian states in unpredictable ways. Both demand a readiness to handle change, including of leadership.

That they are not equipped for orderly succession became plain when rumours began to swirl some months back that Karimov, 75, was not in good health, physically or mentally. Like his brother-presidents, Karimov had not encouraged any alternative leader to emerge, and used every trick in the book to keep the political opposition at bay. So speculation was rife that there could be a dynastical succession in Uzbekistan. This was actively fostered by his elder daughter, Gulnara Karimova, a self-described “poet, mezzo-soprano, designer and exotic Uzbekistan beauty”. Under her all-powerful father’s benign gaze, she had also been, over the years, a businesswoman, a high priestess of charity (the key to her own little personality cult) and a diplomat. But according to reports coming out of Uzbekistan, Gulnara has got embroiled in a raging family feud and other favoured insiders have started to surface, so the shape post-Karimov Uzbekistan would take is hard to predict.

That is the heart of the matter: the Central Asian states simply do not have in place the arrangements and institutions that can ensure a smooth, democratic transfer of power. So changes are likely to be abrupt, perhaps violent, and of uncertain quality. Either an autocrat would succeed another (as has happened in Turkmenistan under the new president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov) or the process of change would be so muddled there would be despair about its actual worth (as seems to be the case with Kyrgyzstan).

A dictator has his uses. It has been seen elsewhere too — for instance, in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — that whatever his other demerits, such a leader can effectively keep a whole lot of fissures in society sealed for the sake of immediate stability. But the suppressed ethnic, religious, social or economic grievances are bound to come out in the open once he departs the scene. It is no coincidence that the raw ethnic violence of Osh, in 2010, happened when the Kyrgyz political leadership itself was in tumultuous transition. Departure or diminution of the international forces now in Afghanistan, of course, should be another cause for the greatest worry. Central Asia would have to anticipate export from that country of arms, drugs and radical ideology, and would need stable and mature leadership to handle the challenges.

Discussions of the lack of democracy in Central Asia is, therefore, no longer academic. Unless the tradition of autocratic leaders is to continue ad infinitum, the absence of a participatory political system would hurt Central Asia badly. It is obvious Central Asia’s leaders did not take their own mortality into consideration, in their long years of rule, to prepare their countries for shock absorption.

The author is India’s former ambassador to Turkey, Cambodia and Myanmar