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The Rising Tide of Authoritarianism in Central Asia

06 May 2021
By Jonathan Eales
Kyrgyzstan, photographed by Jon Eales, used with permission.

Central Asia has not been immune from the decline of democracy. There are now fewer chances for people to speak out against injustices or participate in political society without fearing the consequences.

Four out of the five countries in the Central Asia region are considered authoritarian, with the notable exception of Kyrgyzstan. Yet even Kyrgyzstan has seen a significant drop in the democracy index since 2018. In Kyrgyzstan, the 2020 October parliamentary elections were considered flawed, having been marred with violence, protests, and intimidation. The country’s then-acting president, Sadyr Japarov, was allowed to bypass the constitution in order to declare himself acting president. This year, on 11 April, a referendum was held whereby a new constitution was voted in, expanding the power of the president while reducing the size of the parliament by 25 percent.

Only 37.1 percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum, with almost no public discussion about the proposed changes to the constitution.  The low turnout for the referendum could signal further political tension in the country as dissatisfaction mounts with the growing number of recorded electoral violations. While covering the electoral process, four journalists were detained by police. Just days after the referendum, Marat Kazakpaev, a Kyrgyz political analyst and journalist, was arrested by Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security for treason. Kazakpaev has not held any position which would give him access to classified information which he could pass on to a foreign power. While there is hope for the political situation in Kyrgyzstan to stabilise and improve, already there have been moves to introduce legislation aimed at targeting citizens who incite “political enmity.” This piece of legislation could be used to target journalists whose reports are considered unfavourable towards the current government.

The most authoritarian government in the region, Turkmenistan, continues to repress fundamental freedoms while concealing the fate and whereabouts of dozens of citizens who have been forcibly disappeared. The political situation has become increasingly severe, with the regime putting pressure on those who wish to travel overseas as well as on citizens currently residing abroad. The Turkmen Ministry of National Security (MNB) and the Migration Service have proposed to tighten the rules for issuing foreign passports, in effect bringing in the Niyazov-era exit visas. Part of the proposals include much stricter tracking of students enrolled in their final year at foreign universities.

Already there have been signs of increased surveillance and pressure on Turkmen citizens abroad. For example, Khanum Rasulova, a Turkmen worker in Istanbul, had her family threatened and her fiancé beaten by Turkmen authorities due to a protest she had organised against President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. A Turkmen activist, Rozgeldy Choliev, was then denied asylum in Russia due to pressure from Turkmen authorities who accused him, without sufficient evidence, of being involved with Wahhabism. The MNB then interrogated Choliev’s parents, telling them that Choliev would be deported back to Turkmenistan and arrested. It is clear that Ashgabat will continue to work with foreign governments such as Russia and Turkey in order to ensure that its citizens abroad cannot effectively protest against the regime. While this style of repression is reactive in nature, it does highlight the fear of the authorities towards their own citizens, whereby sustained dissent abroad could lead to a popular uprising in Turkmenistan.

While there have been small positive steps taken in Uzbekistan since the death of hard-line President Islam Karimov in 2016, not enough has changed. There was some hope in 2019 when the current leader, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, stated in a speech that “…Uzbekistan has opened up to the world and wants to convey the whole truth to the international community. Most importantly, you can discuss, criticize.”

In Uzbekistan, a country without a developed media, bloggers have largely replaced journalists in reporting injustices that have occurred around the country. However, many of these bloggers have been targeted by the government for their reporting. Uzbek political blogger Nafosat Olloshukurova was placed in involuntary psychiatric care for three months due to alleged violations including petty hooliganism and participating in unauthorised assemblies before fleeing the country. At the time, she had been reporting on the alleged abuse of power by law enforcement personnel. Another political blogger, Otabek Sattoriy, was detained and charged with extortion and could face up to 15 years in prison. Many believe that these charges have come about due to his criticism of local authorities in his hometown of Termez.

The political situation in Uzbekistan hasn’t improved, with an opposition politician, Khidirnazar Allakulov, being detained by law enforcement agencies. Additionally, the formation of a new political party requires 20,000 signatures, a precondition which is incompatible with the government’s own development document, which emphasises the importance of “…the strengthening of the role of the political parties in the life of the state and society.” Without a legitimate opposition party, it is unlikely that Uzbekistan will be able to move forward toward democracy.

Central Asia has not adequately developed the social institutions and laws required to allow democracy to fully flourish in the region. All five states appear to be going backwards and this, in many respects, reflects a wider and very concerning global trend. While there is hope that Kyrgyzstan can reverse its slide towards authoritarianism due to its active media landscape, it is unlikely that any of the other four Central Asian states can make any substantial progress in this direction.

Jonathan Eales currently works as a research analyst at the Strategic Intelligence Research Group @StratInt_RG based in Canberra. His primary research interests cover Russian foreign and defence policy, post-Soviet Central Asia, and North-East Asia. He completed a double Masters at Macquarie University in International Security Studies and Policing, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorism.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.