Less than a decade ago, Kazakstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were integral parts of a highly centralized Soviet Union, with the Communist Party firmly in charge. Electors simply voted for a list of candidates provided by party bureaucrats, and parliaments were rubber stamps. Now the Communist empire is gone, but the Soviet-era leaders remain, the same men who held office when the USSR collapsed. The only exception is Tajikistan, whose Communist leader, Rahman Nabiyev, died in 1994.
Having risen to the top under the Soviet system, it’s hard for such leaders to fully shed their authoritarian ways and accept credible opposition as an indispensable part of the political process. As a result, although impending elections suggest that Central Asia’s post-Communist governments are committed to democracy, a key element is missing: The polls may be free, but they aren’t necessarily fair.
Of course, the men in charge do pay lip service to the virtues of multi-party democracy, in order to assuage the world’s only superpower, maintain membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and shore up their fragile economies with funds from the IMF. Thus, they’ve responded to the challenges of this post-independence period by switching from centralized to market economies, creating democratic political institutions, and forging new national identities, while simultaneously maintaining social stability against a background of rising ethnic tensions.
Still, the disappearance of an all-encompassing state ideology created a dangerous vacuum. Lacking a history of democratic practice, the region was susceptible to ethnic nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism, which appeal to particular sectors of the population rather than the people as a whole. Every central Asian state is multi-ethnic. In Kazakstan, for example, at the time of independence, ethnic Russians and other Europeans outnumbered ethnic Kazaks and other central Asians.
During the Soviet era, ethnic rivalries were suppressed but not eliminated. Thus, the collapse of communism opened the door to pent-up tensions, capable of escalating into wide-scale violence or being exploited by demagogic politicians. The dangers are very real. After the 1991 vote in Tajikistan, in which the opposition won a third of the parliamentary seats, the country slid into a five-year civil war between Communists and an alliance of Islamists and democrats. The death toll was 60,000.
Central Asian leaders argued that the priority was to build the nation and the state, leaving multi-party democracy for later. Turkmenistan President Saparmurad Niyazov was the most ardent advocate of this line. It’s no coincidence that, while Turkmenistan has been the most stable of the new states, its democratic progress has been minimal. Progress has also been slow in Uzbekistan, where President Islam Karimov has refused to allow opposition groups to function freely.
In Kazakstan, President Sultan Nazarbayev used the intractability of his country’s ethnic and economic problems as a rationale for concentrating power, and has clung to office by means fair and foul. He passed laws heavily weighted against the opposition, and also found a way to extend his tenure without the bother of an election.
A referendum was staged on private property, the character of statehood, the official language – and postponing a presidential election. When voters endorsed his multi-point program, Nazarbayev was secure for five more years. In Uzbekistan, Karimov used a similar device to extend his term.
Last January, Nazarbayev’s government provided voters with a multiple choice in the presidential election for the first time. But he disqualified the leading opposition figure, former Prime Minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin. The OSCE protested in vain. In September, however, the OSCE sent in observers for Kazakstan’s Senate election – the first multi-party vote for the 49-member chamber. Tajikistan’s presidential election is scheduled for Nov. 6, followed by voting for the parliaments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan in December.
Before the Kazakstan vote, OSCE team member Linda Edgeworth of the US warned, ÒThe deployment of the election observation mission does not add legitimacy to the election process, nor does it imply endorsement of the legal framework, administrative practices, or the political environment in which the election is being conducted."
In short, despite a string of elections, there’s still a long way to go before democracy truly takes root in these new nations.
Dilip Hiro is the author of Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia.