Former Soviet countries in Central Asia experienced the unique opportunity to create new democracies out of the collapse the Soviet Union. Nearly 25 years since the introduction of democracy, how has the region evolved? Countries like Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have all adopted parliamentary democracies – but overseeing organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) have yet to give those countries the final seal of approval. This leads us to ask, what makes a successful democracy?
Through free and fair elections, a democratic voter uses their voice to choose who represents them. Good governance ensures the government structure is divided among a system of checks and balances to maximize efficiency and avoid totalitarianism. A balanced government respects and protects unalienable human rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of press. These two freedoms are the fundamental bases on which democracy pivots and, without which, a democracy cannot mature. These foundations of free democracies, which the West tends to take for granted, are still goals towards which Central Asia is working.
Turkmenistan is arguably one of the most restrictive countries in Central Asia. President Saparmurat Niyazov – criticized as an extremely totalitarian and repressive dictator – ruled as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Turkmenistan from 1985 until Turkmenistan’s independence in 1991, and as President for Life until his death in 2006. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow became acting President in 2006, and faced no meaningful opposition in his 2007 election nor 2017 reelection, winning by a substantially large margin. According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan remains one of the world’s most repressive countries, virtually closed to independent scrutiny and with citizens under the constant threat of government reprisal and limited in basic freedoms.
Uzbekistan, once as restrictive as Turkmenistan, has the potential to make progress in the next few years, but they are still a long way away from Western standards of democracy. Islam Karimov served as the first President of Uzbekistan from its independence in 1991 until his death in 2016. During his tenure, President Karimov introduced restrictive laws on opposition, and the United States described Uzbek elections as “fatally flawed” —neither free nor fair, with Uzbek citizens offered no real choice. After President Karimov’s death in 2016, Shavkat Mirziyoyev won election in what the OSCE’s ODIHR said underscored the need for comprehensive reforms in Uzbekistan due to President Karimov’s extended power. The ODIHR noted that “while the election administration took measures to enhance the transparency of its work and the proper conduct of the election,” the limits on fundamental freedoms led to a campaign “devoid of genuine competition.” Since President Karimov’s death, President Mirziyoyev has begun the long and arduous process of reforming longstanding policies which have held back the Uzbek economy and isolated the country internationally.
In Kyrgyzstan, the 2005 Tulip Revolution brought a more authentic multi-party system, and the 2010 Kyrgyz Constitution was one of the first in the region to explicitly limit the power of the head of state. The President is limited to one, six-year term. In late 2016, President Almazbek Atambayev introduced constitutional changes which reorganized the powers of the President and Prime Minister, significantly adding to the power of the Prime Minister. The President’s opposition believes these reforms would allow President Atambayev to retain influence after his term if he were to become Prime Minister. The recent constitutional changes, along with the detention of a prominent opposition leader in February, show that Kyrgyzstan is still struggling to resolve the same issues faced by its neighbors in the region. With the election still a few months away, the world will watch to see if Kyrgyzstan can continue the democratic progress it has made, evade corruption, and perhaps even influence its neighbors to do the same.
With precarious transitions come fragile foundations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, former member states had to rapidly change their entire political and economic systems, hardly having the time to develop strong pillars of democracy. Only 25 years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and so this region is still trying to navigate the complex issues of a capitalist and democratic society, while coping with vestiges of communism. It is no easy task, one that requires partnerships and political, economic, and social investment from global governments. As countries like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan pursue the highest internationally-recognized standards of democracy, the international community must recognize the responsibility of us all to become stakeholders in their futures and support their efforts at democratization.