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Mainstream, VOL LV No 16 New Delhi April 8, 2017

Twentyfive Years of Independence of Central Asian States: Painful Transition to Democracy and Development

Sunday 9 April 2017


by R.G. Gidadhubli and Sanjay D. Deshpande

All the five Central Asian States (CAS), namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have celebrated the 25th anniversary of their sovereignty and independence after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. In this context the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to three CAS on February 27 and 28, 2017 was significant as it also marked the 25th anniversary of Moscow’s diplomatic relations and by that he wanted to showcase Russia’s interest to strengthen political ties with the CAS. In quick succession of this event was the visit of Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on March 7 and 8, 2017 to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, for the meeting of the five-nation Eurasian Economic Union that was formed in 2015, the objective of which is to enhance multilateral trade and economic relations since Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are members along with Russia, Armenia and Belorussia. Thus Putin has shrewdly demonstrated Russia’s geo-political and geo-economic interest in the CAS which are its southern underbelly.

Looking back, the CAS were the last to declare their independence since they were least interested in the break-up of the former Soviet Union in 1991. This was because they were beneficiaries of being part of the Soviet Union for over 70 years in terms of political stability being part of the superpower and social and economic development such as high rate of literacy and education, good health care, increase in life expectancy, full employment and so on as compared to other countries in the Middle East and Central Asian region.

Hence it is worthwhile to make an overview of the major trends in developments in these CAS after independence.

Firstly, the CAS have made some achieve-ments in terms of political stability throughout this period of quarter-century with perhaps different intensities and slightly different ideological manners. The political leadership, elites and experts of all these states have been describing this first stage of independent development as ‘transition period’ from the former communist system to political demo-cracy and market economy. However, the objective of achieving this transition has not been fully realised even as the process has been difficult and painful.

Political democratic institutions are partly in place because in contrast to a single Communist Party that prevailed in the past, there are political parties listed in these countries though many of them are not effective. In fact autocracy prevails in most of the CAS. Moreover, as opined by some analysts, the Kyrgyz Republic has made better progress as compared to the rest. This is because the elected President can be in power for only one term in Kyrgyzstan while that is not the case in other four CAS. There is a contrasting situation between Kyrgyzstan as compared to the rest of the CAS which is also evident from the fact that the former President of Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiev, was sent-enced in absentia to life in prison after being convicted by a court in Kyrgyzstan of involvement in the killing of almost 100 protesters during the 2010 uprising against him. He is now in exile in Belarus. The President of Kazakhstan, Nazarbaev, has been in power for the last over 25 years. Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan and Saparmurad Niazov of Turkmenistan managed to remain in power as Presidents for several terms till their death.

Thus many analysts opine that the prevailing political systems of the CAS are far from democratic.

Moreover, they are grounded on the nurtured cult of personality of the Presidents (with the exception of Kyrgyzstan). This is partly because, as opined by some analysts, having inherited the Soviet tradition of ruling, these regimes’ foundations are well described as the Asiatic mode of production. This peculiarity of the domestic political process is complemented with the preoccupation of the regimes, elites, and societies superimposed with the feeling of ethnicity and nationalism.

Secondly, security issues have become important for the CAS. All the CAS are Islamic states and they follow moderate Islam. A few hundreds of youth, who are attracted to radical Islam, are punished by the governments for joining the ISIS. In fact security was under serious threat when the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) was very active during the 1990s. But this was controlled by effective policy decisions under the leadership of Islam Karimov. Ethnic differences have prevailed among the CAS but these are partly under control except the Andijan event that resulted in the death of hundreds of people about 20 years back. It is important to note that the CAS, except Turkmenistan, are also members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which assumes significance for dealing with security issues. Hence by offering support for the CAS on matters relating to security, Moscow has been able to maintain and strengthen its influence in this region. Thus it was not surprising that on February 28, 2017 during his visit to Kyrgyzstan, Putin asserted that the Russian defence air base has been playing a key role for ensuring security and stability in the region. At the same time to ensure sole control in the region, Russia managed to get terminated the only American military base in the area.Moreover, being members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the CAS have reasons to feel doubly confident of their security being ensured by Moscow and Peking.

Thirdly, the Great Game is being replayed in Central Asia by major global powers. For Russia, Central Asia is its southern underbelly and hence Russian President Vladimir Putin is keen to sustain and expand its political and economic interest in the region. For the USA and West European powers, the break-up of the USSR and independence of the CAS was highly welcome and assumed importance to contain the influence of Russia by enhancing their own presence with investment and eying on the energy resources of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. In this regard during the last over two decades, the West has partly succeeded by laying pipelines linking the energy-rich Caspian region with Turkey and Europe. The Great Game has become even more complex and significant with the entry of China, which has emerged as a crucial player in Central Asia during the last over a decade, with huge investment and tapping energy and mineral resources for mutual benefit and development. In fact linking Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan through pipelines apart from investment in other sectors of economy have radically improved the interest of the CAS towards China. From the perspective of its own national interest, Uzbekistan has been swinging between Moscow and Washington, while Turkmenistan has remained neutral.

Fourthly, the CAS are part of macro-economic region and hence intra-regional cooperation was expected. In the 1990s the CAS along with Turkey and Pakistan formed the Economic Co-operation Organisation (ECO) that had limited achievement. As compared to that, the CAS along with Russia and Belarus formed the Eurasian Economic Community (EAEC) in 2001 on the basis of a customs union which showed better results. In 2002 the Presidents of four CAS, except Turkmenistan, signed the Central Asian Cooperation Organisation (CACO) focusing on regional infrastructural development, sharing of river waters and security, which indicated serious efforts being made by them from time to time. It needs to be noted that Central Asia being a semi-arid region, water plays a critical role for agricultural development. But intra-regional differences among the CAS emerged from time to time on issues of sharing of Syr Darya and Amu Darya river waters between upstream states, namely, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, and downstream states, namely, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, even as they have been under control by the leadership of the CAS.

Fifthly, energy-rich and mineral-rich Kazakhstan, being the largest country in Central Asia, has made substantial development in the economic sphere and is better off among the CAS. In contrast, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, being the smallest among the CAS and relatively less endowed with energy and mineral resources, have been the worst affected after the Soviet break-up resulting in large scale unemployment of the youth, millions of whom are forced to migrate to Russia for work. Thankfully their remittances largely support their families at home and partly their economies. Energy-rich Turkmenistan, being over-dependent on energy exports, having not too cordial and consistent relations with Iran and Russia, has been badly affected due to the decline in oil prices and has been hoping to be bailed out by China. Uzbekistan followed its own model of development of state control over the economy that prevented a crisis in the 1990s and sustained a moderate growth. Thus the CAS have managed to demonstrate considerable achievements in the economic, political and social transformation that need to be appreciated. This is evident from the fact that they occupy middle position in the world countries ranking, according to the UNDP Human Development Indexes for 186 countries: Kazakhstan —56, Kyrgyzstan — 117, Tajikistan — 127, Turkmenistan — 106, Uzbekistan —109. (For comparison: China — 90, Thailand — 93, Malaysia — 62, Indonesia — 110.)

As opined by some analysts, the death of the first President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, in September 2016 symbolised the completion of the transition period and the beginning of the new breakthrough in regional affairs. After his death Shavkat Mirziyoev proclaimed the Central Asian region a priority in the foreign policy of Uzbekistan. After his election in December 2016, he has already initiated impressive and far-reaching innovations in the system of governance, entrepreneurship, combating corruption, protection of human interests and in some other spheres. Whether these measures will create an “Uzbek miracle” is yet to be seen.

In Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukha-mmedov was sworn in for a third seven-year term as Turkmenistan’s President on February 17, 2017. He has declared his intention of strengthening ties with the CAS and undertaking reform measures to improve the economy.

It is highly appreciable that the 76-year-old President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbaev, who is the last communist-era leader still holding power in this former Soviet republic, proposed amending the Constitution to give the government Ministers more power and responsibilities over the management of social and economic development; this was approved by the parliament on March 6, 2017.

Lastly, India’s political relations with all the CAS are close, cordial and consistent. This is evident from the exchange of visits of heads states during the last over two decades. But trade and economic ties are far from satisfactory partly due to lack of geographical contiguity, which need to be enhanced by the leadership of India and those of the CAS for promoting closer South Asia and Central Asia cooperation. In this context it needs to be mentioned that during the short visit of the Prime Minister of India to Turkmenistan in 2016 the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline was proposed for supplying oil and natural gas to India; this is ambitious under the prevailing conditions in the region.

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a former Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai. Dr Sanjay D. Deshpande is the Director, Centre for Central Eurasian Studies University of Mumbai.

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