Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by Dr Neil Melvin, University of Leeds


  The emergence of the newly independent states of Eurasia following the collapse of the Soviet Union has created a wide range of opportunities for western nations. In this submission I will argue that while British interests in the region are clearly tied to economic and business development, prosperity in the area is premised upon the creation of stability and the appropriate political systems. British policy in the region must, therefore, look both at the immediate opportunities for the exploitation of hydrocarbon sources, metals reserves and other business prospects and to more long-term political goals. A key element for British engagement in the region should be a strategic programme to promote the goals of political liberalisation, the rule of law and the establishment of human rights. Indeed, I argue that unless these elements are developed opportunities for British business will be severely constrained and the costs for the UK, in terms of possible political and military engagement in response to future crises, may be considerable. In short, British engagement with the region can best be effected through the promotion of policies that link political and economic reform, rather than approaching the region piecemeal. In particular, only the development of liberalised political systems in the region is likely to secure the peace, stability and growth that will enhance British interests.


  In the following paper I will confine my remarks to a consideration of the political dimension of development within the states and societies of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan). Given the need for brevity, my remarks are thematic and I only turn to elements particular to individual states in the final part of the paper. Despite important differences between the states and societies of the region, each of the Central Asian countries has experienced broadly similar problems and the authorities have reacted to them in common ways. The principal political dynamics across the region are thus not dissimilar.

  I begin my submission with an overview of the challenges that faced the countries of the region at independence. In the next section, the ways in which the regimes of Central Asia have responded to these challenges are outlined. The dangers inherent in the strategies that the Central Asian regimes have employed during the independence period are then explored. I conclude with some suggested directions for British policy to support a more sustainable form of political development in the region.


  Following independence for the Central Asian states the initial optimism about future prospects was quickly replaced by a difficult political and economic situation. In this context, the early hopes for a modernising and liberalising agenda in the region gave way to the politics of reaction and corruption. There are four main and interrelated domestic challenges that have critically shaped the political evolution of the region: forging new states; fostering national identities; the revival of Islam; and reform of the political system. Below, I argue that the regimes of Central Asian have failed to develop appropriate approaches to these major challenges.

  At independence, the Central Asian republics functioned as proto-states. Each republic contained the trappings of statehood in the form of some limited bureaucratic organisations but core elements were absent. Critically, the countries of the region lacked institutional capacity, trained personnel, and national administrative systems to operate as effective and efficient modern states. During the Soviet era, administrative capability was concentrated in the ministries in Moscow, with only branches in the republics. Moreover, many of the functions of modern states were performed through the structures of the Communist Party. The collapse of the unified Soviet state in 1991 and the disintegration of the Communist Party severely handicapped the capacities of the new governments to implement reform. Given the weak institutional capacity of the state, establishing appropriate mechanisms to cope with tension and conflict was critical. Creating the means to develop and implement policy was also an urgent early priority for the authorities in the region.

  The second major challenge for the regimes of Central Asia at independence was to foster national identities that could unite the diverse populations found within the newly independent states. In the 1920s and 1930s the Soviet authorities carved out the five Central Asia republics from the multiethnic principalities and nomadic communities previously found in the region. In subsequent decades Moscow pursued policies to promote common national histories, unified languages and ethnic identities. At independence, however, the populations of the region had still only weakly developed national identities. Instead, basic political loyalties were often to a locality, a region, to religion, to clans, or to ethnic communities, thereby undercutting the notion of single and united nation-states.

  A particularly significant task for the Central Asian authorities is to develop a political relationship between the secular authorities and Islam. During the Soviet era, the Communist Party carefully controlled Islam. While "official" Islam was permitted, unsanctioned religion was severely suppressed. From the mid-1980s, and in some areas earlier, Islam began to revive resulting in a mushrooming of the number of mosques and clerics in the region. The secular leaders in Central Asia, perhaps reflecting the background of many of them in the Communist Party and fears about a repeat of the events in Afghanistan, were particularly alarmed about Islamic activities beyond the control of the state.

  Finally the establishment of the Central Asian states in 1991 appeared to offer an important opportunity to break free from the authoritarianism of the Soviet and pre-colonial era. Indeed, many sections of the Central Asian leadership spoke in favour of democratisation and the establishment of the rule of law, and of systems of human rights. An institutionalisation of democratic mechanisms (parties and parliaments) and the development of new forms of territorial administration appeared to offer effective methods to approach some of the deep-seated conflicts within Central Asian society.

  At independence, the states of Central Asia faced a multitude of political tasks. In particular, policies and actions were required to construct modern bureaucratic states, promote civic nation-building, develop a new relationship with religious movements, extend the political liberalisation that had emerged in the final years of Mikhail Gorbachev's programme of perestroika and develop the role of law and rights. All of these were integral tasks to the parallel agenda of promoting the development of sustainable and dynamic economies. While the challenges of the independence period were clearly daunting, they offered new opportunities as well as problems.


  Initially, most of the Central Asian regimes appeared to be approaching the transition period by promoting an agenda that engaged many of the more important political issues outlined above. In the early independence period the governments of Central Asia adopted civic definitions of citizenship, allowed opposition movements to operate, and in some cases even permitted a pluralism of opinion in the media. Constitutions were produced that appeared to enshrine many of these principles and parliaments were established. In speeches, regional leaders gave their support for reform and guaranteed the future place of minority groups within Central Asian societies. Electoral support for many of the presidents of the region confirmed popular endorsement for a programme of inclusivist reform. Attempts were also made to promote the creation of the legal bureaucratic structures central to the operation of modern states and to staff them with trained personnel.

  Even in this early phase of development, however, it was becoming apparent that the trajectory of the Central Asia states was moving away from the agenda of liberalisation and modernisation towards the creation of authoritarian regimes reliant upon coercion, corruption and nepotism. The foundations of the transition to authoritarian regimes were laid with the creation of powerful presidential systems in each country at the outset of the independence period. Using the justification that Central Asian societies faced particular problems (notably political instability) that required strong leadership, power was formally concentrated in the hands of the presidents, who were given considerable resources and discretion in policy making. Rather than developing creative solutions to ethnic and regional tensions, perhaps in the form of devolution of power from the centre, all of the states embraced a strong unitary structure based upon executive power.

  On the basis of the presidential systems (systems often built upon the former Soviet nomenclature) powerful authoritarian regimes have emerged across the region. At a formal level, constitutions have been rewritten, presidential terms of office extended by dubious referenda, and the reappointment of incumbents assured through elections that are neither free nor fair. Parliaments and parties have been dissolved or turned into psuedo-institutions. Opposition to the current leadership of the Central Asia states has been eradicated, often in a cruel and bloody manner. Opposition figures are hounded by security services, even in exile. The region's media has gradually been shackled to the ruling regimes, while external broadcasters and news agencies have faced obstacles to the dissemination of independent news and opinion.

  With opposition forces and democratic institutions systematically destroyed, power has been concentrated almost exclusively in the hands of the presidents and their immediate entourage. The emergence of such informal and non-institutionalised political systems has opened the way for a considerable expansion of the role of patronage politics based upon corruption and nepotism. In some countries, the regime fosters a cult of personality around the president. The emergence of potential rivals to the president from within the regime is prevented through regular purges of leading figures.

  With the regimes increasingly isolated from society, the authorities have come to rely on the coercive agencies of the state, even for the most minor issues. The Central Asia governments are consistently criticised by human rights organisations for their failure to observe basic legal norms. In this environment, channels for moderate and constructive forms of opposition to the existing regimes have been closed and extremist organisations, particularly of an Islamic type, have begun to emerge. The appearance of such organisations has frequently been used by the region's regimes as a justification for further repressive measures.

  The failure of the project to develop modern states and to create political systems that rely upon consent rather than coercion, has been accompanied by important shifts in the nature of the nation-building projects in many states. While the formal commitment to establishing civic and inclusive polities remains, informal processes have begun to move the regimes of the region toward more ethnic based definitions of the nation. National identities are increasingly defined in ethnic terms through the promotion of titular languages, the construction of ethnically exclusivist histories, and the employment of ethnic symbols as national symbols. The development of ethnic elements to national identity has frequently served as a means to legitimate the concentration of power in the hands of the ruling elites.

  The development of powerful state-led nationalising impulses causes considerable alarm amongst minority populations, encouraging migration if this is possible and the generation of tensions if exit is not an option. In 1989 and 1990, Central Asia was home to some of the worst ethnic-based conflict of the perestroika period and future conflicts seem likely. Significantly, Central Asia contains large diaspora populations, usually located along state borders, that are also subject to the programmes of nationalisation and which may draw diasporic home-states into conflict with their neighbours. Large numbers of Uzbeks, Russians, Kyrgyz, and Kazakhs are found scattered throughout Central Asia. Recent cases of crossborder tension around diaspora issues involve alleged Uzbekistani involvement in an uprising in northern Tajikistan in late 1998 and accusations about Uzbekistani activities to destabilise the Uzbek minority in the south of Kyrgyzstan.

  While the issues that I have outlined above are broadly political, it is important to consider the close relationship between the nature and direction of economic development in the region and emergence of political forms. In particular, the rise of powerful elites focused upon the presidency in each country has not simply rested on the exercise of political power. The new regimes have become deeply involved in the manipulation and control of the domestic economies of the region as a basis for the redistribution of resources in their favour and to ensure continued domination. While the form that economic manipulation has taken has varied, from the welfare authoritarianism of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the more reformist approach of Kazakhstan, in all cases the result has been a failure to produce the type of economies necessary to meet the needs of the local population or to encourage foreign investors.


  A principal justification made by the leaders of Central Asia for the establishment of the region's authoritarian regimes is that such an approach is required to promote political stability in the region. The shibboleth of political stability has been used to rationalise the extension of terms of presidential office, the removal of constitutional restrictions on the number of times an incumbent president can be re-elected, the retreat from political and economic reform, and the suppression of not just opposition forces but all independent voices.

  The assumptions that inform the notion of political stability promoted by the political elites in Central Asia need, however, to be examined very closely. Too frequently the idea of political stability serves as a cover for the protection of vested interests, defines stability only in terms of the short-term, and links instability to any challenge to the president's unchecked powers. Most importantly, the way that the sources of political instability are presented by the regional regimes and the policy responses to this definition of instability fails to address the real problems of Central Asia and may actually be promoting basic tensions.

  The threats of instability (variously defined to include ethnic separatism, radical Islamic groups, opposition forces and foreign governments) have been used by the elites of Central Asia to justify the rapid concentration of power in the informal networks hinged upon the presidencies of Central Asia, and backed by coercive forces. The increasing reliance on authoritarian methods, however, does not tackle the fundamental problems in society. Instead, tensions are suppressed or channelled in alternative and more dangerous directions.

  The close interlinking of political and economic power threatens to stifle the economic initiatives and activity critical to economic development in the region, the development that is vital to tackle the poverty and fierce struggle for resources that frequently underlies ethnic and religious tension in the area. Instead, corruption, mismanagement and problems with enforcing contracts have plagued the countries of the region. This difficult business environment has discouraged investment in the region by all but the largest western firms, who have sufficient resources to be able to operate in the difficult conditions of these countries.

  As well as creating immediate problems for business and political life in the region, the current political arrangements of Central Asia leave the region poorly placed to weather problems in the future. Paradoxically, the more that the regimes of the region rely on coercion, the more vulnerable they become to coups or the assassination of the president. As a result of the destruction of political institutions in the region, there are no clear mechanisms to replace a leader. In addition, the policies of repression currently employed by the region's leadership ensure that there are no obvious candidates to succeed the present leaders. Any power vacuum at the pinnacle of the region's regimes could well lead to the type of political fragmentation along regional and sectarian lines that destroyed the Tajikistani state in the early 1990s.

  In an environment were there are no regular political channels for the expression of discontent and the articulation of alternative agendas, inevitably extremist groups have risen to the fore of political life in the region. While the authorities are keen to highlight the emergence of radical Islamic groups, in part because the establishment of such a threat forms part of the ambitions of some of the regional leaders to act as strategic partners for the West in the struggle with political Islam, strong nationalist and regionalist sentiments also threaten to destabilise the region. In early 1999, a series of powerful bomb blasts wrecked parts of central Tashkent suggesting that extremist organisations are already active in the region.

  Above I argue that there is a critical link between the emergence of authoritarianism and the development of an economic system that is damaging to Central Asia and which serves to hamper British engagement in the region. While the leadership of the Central Asia regimes argue that the forms of political economy that have been established since independence serve to counter political instability, I suggest that this is not in fact the case. The types of political and economic systems that have developed in Central Asia are arranged primarily to serve the interests of parasitical elites which use their control of the state to extract resources from the rest of society.

  These are not developmental elites and they have not constructed developmental states, as might be argued was achieved in parts of Asia under authoritarian leaderships. The systems that have been established in Central Asia serve to stifle economic development and, critically, function to intensify the instability that they are ostensibly designed to prevent. The current form of political development in the region also points to serious problems in the future. Rather than establishing strong and sustainable political institutions in the region, the current leaderships of the Central Asian states are building highly personalised, informal political systems that rest upon patronage and coercion. Such systems are in fact ultimately fragile and their disintegration is often accompanied by some of the worst forms of conflict.

  Given the likely important role of Central Asia as a supplier of energy resources to the global economy and the complex geopolitical situation concerning the regional powers of the area, notably Russia and China, instability in Central Asia in future decades is likely to have serious implications for states located outside the region, including the United Kingdom. The current difficulties facing western powers in addressing the complex set of conflicts in Yugoslavia point to some of the problems that may be in store if political instability develops in Central Asia. For these reasons, now represents a critical time to seek to promote more viable and appropriate forms of political development for the region. Getting this task right now is clearly one of Britain's central interests in the region.


  Although I have sketched a picture of a widespread move towards authoritarianism in Central Asia, there are significant differences amongst the states of the region. While the Tajikistani state collapsed in the early 1990s, Kyrgyzstan has managed to develop a strong NGO movement. In Kazakhstan, the media is able to engage in criticism more easily than the media in some other states of the region. The diversity of regimes across the region suggests that there are important opportunities to explore and foster political forms other than authoritarianism.

  Reflecting my interpretation that the current form of political development in Central Asia is unstable and harmful to British interests, but that there are opportunities to promote alternative political forms in the region below I outline a few elements which might form part of British policy in the region:

    (i)  Violations of the constitutional and legal systems in the region cannot go unremarked in terms of British relations to the governments of the region. The OSCE's criticism of the recent presidential elections in Kazakhstan provides a positive first step in marking international disapproval of the actions of governments in the region. Upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Central Asia will provide opportunities to ensure that the regimes of the region observe international norms. The widespread and systematic abuse of rights and use of torture must be firmly opposed.

    (ii)  In the future, key opportunities will arise for the establishment of good practice in terms of observing constitutional norms. Some of the older leaders of Central Asia are likely to depart from office in the near future due to illness or death. Such change will represent dangerous moments for stability in the region, but also offer opportunities for the establishment of proper mechanisms for the transfer of power to new leaders. At such times, strong support should be offered to the employment of transparent and accountable processes.

    (iii)  The establishment of effective and efficient state institutions in place of the informal networks of power that dominate the region is a priority. British assistance to the region should be broadened from a focus on narrowly defined economic assistance to the promotion of the political and economic institutions necessary for the functioning of modern, pluralist and efficient polities and economic systems. Training programmes for civil servants and other state employees as well as opportunities to share experience with British civil servants could be a valuable way to transfer knowledge to the region. Support should also be given to programmes that aim to develop legal norms and the observance of legal processes.

    (iv)  Opportunities to share with key decision-makers in the region the British experience in the promotion of mechanisms to tackle ethnic and national tensions (for example the process of devolution for Scotland and Wales and the Northern Ireland peace process) should be established. Increased contacts between British parliamentarians, particularly bearing in mind plans to modernise the British parliament, could also provide a valuable way to exchange ideas about the proper functioning of parliamentary systems.

    (v)  The governments of the region should be encouraged to develop long-term definitions of development and broader definitions of security that focus on poverty, population growth and guaranteeing basic resources to populations such as land and water.

  The diversity of political and economic development found across the region will require that different programmes are developed for each country in Central Asia but in each case the principal goals should be similar. In each instance, creative solutions will be required for complex problems but the establishment of properly functioning states, inclusive nations and liberalised political systems are the only way to ensure long-term prosperity and stability.

March 1999

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