How Central is Central Asia?
WARSAW—As illustrated by recent events in Ukraine, the post-Soviet space is still undergoing significant economic and political transformations. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the world welcomed 15 new sovereign states. Each of them chose a different path, some of which led to democracy and others that went astray. Central Asian countries are still resolving many issues of statehood. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all gained their independence in 1991. The first few years after the USSR’s breakup were marked by enthusiasm for democracy, especially in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The new electoral systems in these countries were characterized at first by a great deal of innovation.
However, the political nomenclature, firmly embedded in a communist era, has failed to deliver. The U.S. political scientist M. Steven Fish claims that the depth of change among elites determines the efficiency of economic reforms in countries transitioning to democracy. Central Asia’s past political model could not have served as a basis for a constructive future. The ruling classes still share the Soviet mindset, leading to a centralized political system with a high level of economic and political state penetration. The controlled media are vulnerable to pressure, and the opposition movements, if they exist, are blocked and marginalized. The worst situation is probably in Turkmenistan, which is continuously among the lowest-rated countries in freedom assessments. The Central Asian states are all distinct, but they share certain common features. The dominant religion is Islam, ranging from 60 percent in Kazakhstan to over 90 percent in Turkmenistan. After the Soviet era, national languages were revived, four of which — apart from Tajik — belong to a Turkish language family. Central Asia’s republics are also struggling with a crisis of national identities. The process of rethinking their national origins started only in the early 1990s, and is defined by many factors. One of them is ethnic complexity. More than a hundred ethnic groups live in Central Asia. The number of Uzbek minorities in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan oscillates between 9 and 14 percent of the respective population; ethnic Russians, present in every country, constitute approximately one-fourth of Kazakhstan’s people. After the Soviet Union disappeared, the ideological vacuum in Central Asia was filled with the region’s centuries-old clan system. Nowadays, the internal politics are often dependent on informal networks. It is tribe affiliation that determines the distribution of power and wealth. For instance, the Kazakh model historically consisted of three tribal unions called Zhuzes, which are divided into the Uly (senior), the Orta (middle), and the Kishi (junior). A number of ministers in Kazakhstan hail from the same senior clan as the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Corruption, along with patronage, is also a principal component of the clan system. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan tie for 168th in Transparency International’s corruption index.
Another similarity among Central Asian countries is the longevity of their heads of state. Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have been ruled by their presidents for more than 20 years. It is very difficult for democracy to take root without power transitions. Despite the region’s ups and downs, Central Asia remains an important intersection of various economic and geopolitical environments. Due to its location in the heart of Eurasia, it has significant trade connectivity potential. The Modern Silk Road is a vision that, if realized, could be profitable for multiple stakeholders. When it comes to natural resources, Central Asia is polarized. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are land-locked states with limited deposits; however, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan are oil- and gas-based economies, among the world’s major exporters. The Central Asian security architecture is also of vital importance. The main issues of concern in the region are Islamic radicals, drug flows, and illicit arms trafficking. As the ISAF/OEF troops exit from Afghanistan in 2014, the regional system — already fragile — will be exposed to even more danger. A key priority for the United States, however, is to maintain its military presence there. Currently, NATO forces operate from the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, which will be closed in July, and small contingents, mainly French and German, function in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Washington is urgently looking for a new military facility to secure its interests in Central Asia. Tajikistan, after a series of initials talks, is thought to be a potential partner to host the U.S. base.
In Samuel Huntington’s theory, Central Asia is an area over which different civilizations could clash. The region is crucial not only for Russia and China, but also for the United States and Europe. Washington, as the biggest aid donor in Central Asia, should promote a stable and prosperous vision of the future by continuing to support civil societies, and maintaining a balanced, but strict, position toward authoritarian governments. If the West does not engage, other actors will gladly step in, as in Ukraine, and supporting democracy may be low on their policy agenda.
Michał Romanowski is a program coordinator for the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.