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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Interview on Central Asian Politics

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Interview on Central Asian Politics

In an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty I discussed the way Central Asian leaders in countries like Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan are using the rhetoric of "newness" to portray their administrations as agents of change.

You can find a link to the entire story here.

Same Old Tricks In The 'New' Countries Of Central Asia?

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- New Uzbekistan, New Kazakhstan, New…Kyrgyzstan?

In Central Asia, leaders are talking up fresh pages, new chapters -- even new countries.

In Uzbekistan, President Shavkat Mirziyoev made New Uzbekistan the catchphrase of his 2021 reelection campaign, five years after he became the country’s second head of state.

Next door, Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev caught the bug a few months later.

He coined New Kazakhstan some three years after he ascended to the presidency, and after the worst violence in the oil-rich republic’s years of independence finally left his meddlesome predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbaev, out in the political cold.

Now Kyrgyzstan’s leader, Sadyr Japarov, is at it, too.

At the beginning of this month, Kyrgyz media reported on the publication of a new book authored by the president titled The Path To Building A New Kyrgyzstan, in which Japarov lays out his vision for the development of the impoverished country.

But in any of these cases, how “new” is “new,” really?

Assel Tutumlu, a lecturer at the International Relations and Political Science Department at the Near East University in Cyprus, noted that the strategies of the five former Soviet countries of Central Asia are remarkably consistent.

“Central Asian states have been very much engaged in trying to ensure the stability of their regimes” while retaining “a framework of political economy, whereby most of the economic benefit goes through a very small clique,” Tutumlu said in a recent episode of RFE/RL’s Majlis Podcast, which was titled Exploring Central Asia’s Present And Future.

“At the same time we see that populations are changing. That, to me, is what is new about Central Asia,” Tutumlu added in the discussion.

The Long March To New Kyrgyzstan

Given that Kyrgyzstan is the Central Asian country that has seen the most change in terms of leadership -- six presidents, of whom three were forced from power -- it is perhaps ironic that Japarov, unlike Mirziyoev and Toqaev, is not claiming that Kyrgyz are already living in their new country.

To the contrary, “it will take at least 20-30 years to build a new Kyrgyzstan,” Japarov wrote in his new book, calling on the “multinational people of Kyrgyzstan to begin building Kyrgyzstan together.”

This is the second book attributed to Japarov, with more than 40,000 copies printed.

An earlier tome released in 2015 -- when Japarov was still in opposition sitting in a jail -- saw him fire broadsides at his political rivals, chiefly then-President Almazbek Atambaev.

This work is far more statesmanlike, targeting big concepts like poverty, justice, and the green economy, even if Japarov’s prescriptions for Kyrgyzstan’s success in these fields are vague.

One thing that is clear is that Japarov the president no longer looks favorably on the Kyrgyz street-protest culture that propelled Japarov the opposition figure from a prison cell to the presidency in less than two weeks in 2020.

In the book he notes that democracy depends on “the observance of the rule of law by both ordinary citizens, people, and the authorities.”

“Democracy must not be allowed to turn into anarchy!” he warns.

Few would deny that Japarov has changed Kyrgyzstan at some level.

The 2021 constitution passed by referendum strengthened his office at parliament’s expense while doing away with a clause preventing incumbents from running for a second term.

Yet in many ways that has simply reset the political system to the one that existed under the authoritarian administration of second President Kurmanbek Bakiev, in which Japarov headed an agency charged with fighting corruption prior to a 2010 revolution.

Japarov acknowledges there is a long way to go in continuing that fight, citing the example of police reform in his book.

“Let's be honest, in most cases ordinary citizens do not receive proper protection from law enforcement agencies,” he wrote. “On the contrary, they become victims of the actions of individual representatives of law enforcement agencies.”

But is Kyrgyzstan’s head of state a long-term solution to the problem or just a part of it?

Among the achievements that Japarov listed as putting Kyrgyzstan on its path to newness is the state takeover of the Kumtor gold mine -- a move that boosted the new president’s appeal early in his term.

Since then, however, at least two prominent figures formerly known as allies of the president have been either dismissed or jailed in connection with alleged corruption schemes linked to the mine.

And there is plenty of evidence that nefarious figures, who enjoyed the protection of previous presidents -- from drug kingpins to former customs officials -- continue to enjoy impunity while critics of the president face pressure and jail.

I'm Newer Than You

Anyone waiting for “new” versions of two other Central Asian states, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, might be waiting a long time.

The reason for that is simple enough.

Veteran leaders Emomali Rahmon of Tajikistan and Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov are still running the shows in their respective republics, even if Turkmenistan’s Berdymukhamedov has allowed his son, Serdar, to take the presidential hot seat.

But in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- Central Asia’s two largest countries by population and economy -- new rulers have found it convenient to put distance between themselves and long-sitting first presidents who came to be associated with everything wrong in the country.

That necessity has only grown as demand for change in both nations heats up.

Speaking on June 17, Toqaev called Kazakhstan, “the only country in our wider region that has carried out such substantial changes in the political system in such a short time.”

“We have formed a qualitatively different configuration of key institutions of power, significantly expanded the participation of citizens in decision-making, and comprehensively strengthened the system for protecting human rights and freedoms,” Toqaev claimed, calling the current system “more fair, open, and competitive.”

Those boasts are certainly questionable for anyone on the ground in Kazakhstan.

Although this year’s parliamentary elections did feature opposition candidates, not one of them won a seat in the legislature.

Meanwhile, several of them presented video evidence that they claimed showed ballot-rigging in favor of more palatable candidates to the state.

Uzbekistan can make a stronger claim to an overhaul, in part due to the very low bar set by the ultra-authoritarian administration of Mirziyoev’s former boss and Uzbekistan’s first president, Islam Karimov.

As noted by Columbia University’s Alexander Cooley, another political scientist who took part in the Majlis podcast discussion, Karimov’s was a government that “almost as a badge of honor didn’t care what [its] international image was.”

Mirziyoev’s administration has proven more sensitive to foreign perceptions, not to mention hungry for credit and investors.

The former prime minister’s first term, therefore, saw the country lavished with praise as his government cracked down on systemic forced labor, permitted some freedom of speech, and made its national currency fully convertible.

Those reforms, which earned Uzbekistan The Economist’s “country of the year” honor in 2019, have lost momentum since then.

What hasn’t, according to several investigations carried out by RFE/RL’s Uzbek Service, are the business empires of key members of the ruling family -- a regional tradition almost as old as Central Asia’s ex-Soviet independence.

Still, it is perhaps unrealistic to expect politicians from any country to pass up branding opportunities, according to Jennifer Brick Murtazashvili, founding director of the Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh.

Compared to some of the extravagant political branding seen in many Western democracies, “New Kyrgyzstan and New Uzbekistan” are “pretty milquetoast,” she told RFE/RL.

“The use of the title ‘new’ is clever because it implies [something] different, but is so generic that it doesn’t provide a lot of insight into what direction these countries are going. That seems intentional,” Murtazashvili said.

After initiating constitutional-reform drives, Central Asian leaders “want to help people understand the impact of the changes with their own branding…. This speaks to the fact that leaders, even in authoritarian states, face public constraints on their power,” she added.Return to reading