Democratization in Central Asia: Perspectives and challenges

The recent events in Kyrgyzstan that have toppled another President via force from power (the third one since 2005), have brought about the questions of whether it is possible to build a functioning democracy in Central Asia or whether the region got trapped in between authoritarianism and hybridism? Indeed, the issue concerning the state of democracy in the five former Soviet Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan is a topic of significant interest among observers of the region that has no clear-cut answer.

With the exception of Kyrgyzstan, which has in the course of the last 10 years or so, experimented with democracy with varying degrees of success, the Central Asian region is considered by many Western analysts “as one of the most repressive regions in the world”. Some commentators argue that in comparison with two other former Soviet regions of Eastern Europe and South Caucasus, Central Asia shows the least inclination towards democratization.

On the other hand, those who are in favor of the current leaders of Central Asian states would be inclined to depict the picture in a more positive light. Their main argument would be based on a notion that despite certain impediments, Central Asian countries are moving towards building a modern democratic state based on rule of law, but because of historical and cultural factors, it would take time for this process to be accomplished. Indeed, Central Asian countries have all attributes of full-fledged democracies with multi-party elections, checks and balances between various branches of the government, as well as constitutions that declare adherence to human rights. According to proponents of this point of view, the most important priority for Central Asian leaders at this stage is stability. Hence, they believe that democratization is achieved only through stability.

However, it seems that neither of the above-stated two explanations is completely satisfactory and both do not show the whole picture of the state of democracy in the region. Transformations and level of democratization processes in Central Asian countries make it difficult to define them in simple categories of totalitarianism, authoritarianism and democracy. The level of transformations taking place in these countries varies. If Kyrgyzstan is considered as more or less success story of democracy in Central Asia, albeit with frequent violent ousters of their presidents except two peaceful transfers of powers in 2011 and 2017, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’s models can be defined as authoritarian modernization, whereas Tajikistan and Turkmenistan show no signs of serious reforms with the latter being named by human rights watchdog Freedom House as “a repressive authoritarian state where political rights and civil liberties are almost completely denied in practice”. Therefore, this brings us to a need to make distinctions between countries in the region in terms of their political systems as well as degrees of their adherence to constitutionalism and rule of law.

In her article “Problems of Constitutionalism in the Republic of Kyrgyzstan” published in 2007, Nartsiss Shukuralieva eloquently captures the essence of the debate on labeling and determining the degree of democracy in Central Asian countries by arguing that “contradictory types of democratic and nondemocratic regimes are creating unusual political systems that can be defined as “hybrid regimes”, “imitative democracies” or “delegative democracies”. The ambiguity of these regimes is making it difficult to classify them according to the well-known categories. On the one hand they contain many elements of an authoritarian state, while on the other, they appear to be close to democracy. Thus, it could be stated that political regimes in Central Asian countries consist of both traditionally authoritarian and hybrid regimes, which is characteristic of today’s complex situation in the region.

In order to elaborate more on the subject, one must focus on origins and cultural environment existing in the region. There is no doubt that Central Asian countries are different from each other, yet despite differences in their socio-political development, there are common features and trends that unite them. Most importantly, as observers indicate, the political culture of the region is very much influenced by traditional communal way of life making it distinctive, for example, from the Western one, which in turn is characterized by a high sense of individualism. Societies in Central Asian countries consist of pyramids at the top of which exists the main pyramid headed by a single strong leader.

In reference to the nature of political regimes in the twelve successor states to the USSR except the Baltic countries, Dr. Kirill Nourzhanov, senior researcher at the Australian National University asserts that they all without exception belong to the genus of sultanism. According to political scientist Alfred C. Stepan, sultanism is a generic form of leadership with little distinction between the private and the public, characterized by a strong tendency towards family power and dynastic succession, and no distinction between a state career and personal services to the ruler. Thus, Nourzhanov further elaborates that “personalization of power, the endemic patronage networks, the opaqueness of the rules of the political game, and the reduction of political contestation to capturing the centre of political authority represent hallmarks of sultanism.”

Similarities inherent in ruling elites of Central Asia could be attributed to their common totalitarian past. All heads of state in Central Asian republics enhanced their personal power by assigning to themselves the role of the “father of nation”. Moreover, almost all of them extended their terms in office or like in case of Kazakhstan, put in power his own chosen successor. The lack of meaningful mechanism of a peaceful transfer of power adds to the anxieties regarding the future of these countries.

Regionalism and localism also pose serious challenges to instilling democratic values in the region. Tajikistan is one of the countries where regional division of society manifests itself most clearly. As Russian expert Irina Zvyagelskaya notes, Tajik society is still rather fragmented. Their identity is foremost based on regional lines, and this fact coupled with the struggle for power and resources among regional elites led to the Civil War in the country in 1990’s. Similar situation exists in Kyrgyzstan, where political and social networks based on regional and kinship ties are putting hurdles to development of a sound democratic system.        

In conclusion, the ruling elites of the countries of Central Asia all declare their commitment to the democratization and modernization of society. However, their so-called “special path of democratic development” to a larger extent serves to the purpose of covering a retreat from democratic principles. Although mechanisms of democratic government can vary, its basic principles such as free and fair elections, transparent government and vibrant civil society should all be there. It is important for each Central Asian country to find their own way to build a democratic system that fits their socio-cultural specifics and values. And therefore, it is too early to state that they need to move forward to a liberal democracy as the only possible way of their development, because the imposition of a single value system of another society would not bring about positive results. Taking into account that Central Asian countries consist of significant portions of educated populace, they are prepared to take much larger steps towards democracy. This would certainly help them to avoid having their political systems being labeled as either authoritarian or hybrid.

Tugsbilguun Tumurkhuleg

Tugsbilguun Tumurkhuleg is a Mongolian diplomat, who served as Director-General of the Department of Neighboring Countries at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and later as Ambassador of his country to Thailand and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP). He received his Master of Arts (International Relations) degree with honors from the Australian National University and BA in International Affairs degree from the National University of Mongolia.  

The views expressed in this article are his own and do not reflect the position of the Mongolian government.