Does authoritarianism exist in Central Asia? Well, the simple answer is yes, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. On paper, the countries within Central Asia have put together governments that tick most of the check-boxes of a full-fledged democracy. They have elections, checks and balances between parts of the government, and constitutions that exercise due diligence in positively framing human rights. But it doesn’t take much to realize that most of these governments aren’t functioning as they’re supposed to. A cursory Google search about countries in the region will bring up a deluge of articles detailing everything from bizarre eccentricities of the rulers to atrocious human rights abuses.

Thus, Central Asia has a problem with authoritarianism. But how exactly does authoritarianism look like in the Central Asian context? Oftentimes, it looks like a Soviet-style autocracy masquerading as liberal democracy. Just look at the example of Uzbekistan, a country known for its less-than-admirable adherence to open government. Islam Karimov, the last ruler of the Uzbek SSR and the first ruler of independent Uzbekistan, was at the helm of the country from the twilight of its Soviet days until his death. He held onto power from 1989 until 2016, despite elections and a well-ignored two-term limit present in the constitution.[1] Only three other political parties are legally registered in Uzbekistan, and none attempt to genuinely oppose the president.[2] In addition, as phrased by Freedom House, the legislative body of the government simply “acts as a rubber stamp for the President”, a phrase that Freedom House has continuously used to describe the country’s parliament since its first report in 1999 up to today.[3] The judiciary also provides no check against the executive. A similar, albeit less-strict, version of this model can be seen in Kazakhstan. Turkmenistan provides perhaps an even more ludicrous example, with the country’s first president, Saparmurat Niyazov, being titled “President for Life” in 1999, and exacting total control over all aspects of public life until his death in 2006.[4]

Freedom of speech likewise remains fragile throughout the region, and even when genuine elections take place, limits on free expression are still common. The most extreme cases can be seen in Turkmenistan, where print and broadcast media are controlled near-completely by the state, and virtually all foreign political media is banned. The internet is heavily censored, and foreign news websites, as well as major social media networks like Facebook and WhatsApp, are inaccessible via the country’s two service providers.[5] In Kazakhstan, opposition publications are snuffed out by the government. Opposition newspapers have been banned, opposition journalists have been imprisoned on dubious charges, and the internet remains restricted and its use monitored.[6] Even where democracy seems to be faring better, freedom of speech is still limited. In Kyrgyzstan, a domestic journalist was recently fined an equivalent of 60,000 euros for “offending” current president Sooronbay Jeenbekov;[7] this follows a 2015 court ruling which ordered the owner of a local newspaper to pay a similarly gargantuan fine for “insulting the honor” of then-president Almazbek Atambaev.[8]

So if Central Asian governments have a penchant for authoritarian tendencies, why do they bother to put forward all of this rhetoric about democracy in the first place? The answer, simply, is survival. To be titled a “democracy” equals international legitimacy, and that legitimacy keeps open lucrative support options from international powers and institutions. And so, in order to keep this title, the qualities of democracy must at least be nominally implemented by these governments. To improve the legitimacy of these quasi-democracies, these countries often imitate each other in many respects. Oleg Antonov and Artem Galushko, researchers at the Centre for Baltic and East European Studies at Södertörn University, phrased it succinctly: these countries, which share many authoritarian tendencies,  aim to band together; thereby making these particular expressions of authoritarianism look more legitimate, more acceptable, on the international stag. [9]

However, it is also important to note that the characteristics of each Central Asian government have changed dramatically with the changing of individual regimes. When an individual ruler holds so much power, swings in policy from one leader to the next can be dramatic. This has, to some extent, resulted in positive changes for certain countries. In Uzbekistan, the successors of each founding autocrat have instituted slight reforms, though the power of the president still remains ultimately unchecked and unchallenged.[10,11] Kyrgyzstan, on the other hand, has seen five leaders since independence, yet has only experienced one peaceful transfer of power from one regime to the next. Despite this, Kyrgyzstan has maintained a relatively high rating with Freedom House, though it has slid backwards somewhat since 2015.[12]

Overall, authoritarianism in Central Asia can be characterized by a re-branding of authoritarian practices to appear compliant with a system of democracy. That is to say, the leaders of each Central Asian country have recognized the global dominance of democracy, and therefore understand that any overtly non-democratic practices need to be disguised as to appear democratically compliant. Though the degree to which authoritarian tendencies are exhibited differs greatly from country to country, an overall trend can be observed in the region: that democracy and pluralism are, in some cases, games to be subverted.

Written by: Nathaniel Matala, American University of Central Asia, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
Animated by: Urmat Ulanov, Motion Design, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

List of literature used:

[1] “Uzbekistan: President Rigs Extended Term of Office,” Human Rights Watch, January 4, 2002, https://www.hrw.org/news/2002/01/24/uzbekistan-president-rigs-extended-term-office)

[2] “Republic of Uzbekistan Parliamentary Elections December 2019 ODIHR Needs Assessment Report,” Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, July 9, 2019, https://www.osce.org/odihr/elections/uzbekistan/428687?download=true)

[3] Oleg Antonov and Artem Galushko, “The Common Space of Neo-Authoritarianism in Post-Soviet Eurasia ,” Baltic Worlds XI (2018): pp. 20-29, http://balticworlds.com/the-common-space-of-neo-authoritarianism-in-post-soviet-eurasia/)

[4] Bruce Pannier, “Turkmenistan: Niyazov Named President For Life,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, December 9, 1999, https://www.rferl.org/a/1092970.html)

[5] “Freedom of the Press 2015 | Turkmenistan,” Freedom House, 2015, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2015/turkmenistan)

[6] Nick Kennedy, “On Press Freedom in Kazakhstan,” International Policy Digest, April 16, 2019, https://intpolicydigest.org/2019/04/16/on-press-freedom-in-kazakhstan/)

[7] “Hour of Truth for Media Freedom in Kyrgyzstan,” Reporters Without Borders, April 16, 2019, https://rsf.org/en/news/hour-truth-media-freedom-kyrgyzstan)

[8] “Freedom of the Press 2016 | Kyrgyzstan,” Freedom House, 2016, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-press/2016/kyrgyzstan)

[9] Oleg Antonov and Artem Galushko, “The Common Space of Neo-Authoritarianism in Post-Soviet Eurasia ,” Baltic Worlds XI (2018): pp. 20-29, http://balticworlds.com/the-common-space-of-neo-authoritarianism-in-post-soviet-eurasia/)

[10] “Freedom in the World 2019 | Uzbekistan Country Report,” Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/uzbekistan)

[11] “Freedom in the World 2019 | Turkmenistan Country Report,” Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/turkmenistan)

[12] “Freedom in the World 2019 | Kyrgyzstan Country Report,” Freedom House, 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/kyrgyzstan)