Silencing Central Asia: The Voice of Dissidents

For my testimony, I will offer a broad perspective on developments in Central Asia. We are focusing today on the threats to the basic freedoms of expression and assembly in Central Asia. It is clear from the public record, as well as from the testimony of my colleagues on this panel from Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists, that there are flagrant violations of these basic freedoms in all of the Central Asian states. But I would like to stress that restrictions on the media and the infringements on freedom of assembly are only two manifestations of much broader repression in Central Asia.

Regional governments justify this repression as a necessary feature of a concerted campaign to stamp out acts of terrorism, get rid of Islamic militant groups either emanating from neighboring Afghanistan or operating across borders within Central Asia itself, and to curtail the activities radical Islamic political movements. But, in continuing to abuse basic freedoms, Central Asian governments are in effect radicalizing their own populations rather than effectively rooting out the individuals or groups engaged in terrorism or promoting extremism. Looking across the region:

  • In states like Uzbekistan, large-scale arbitrary arrests, detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment are becoming the norm. This is exacerbated by the virtual absence of due process throughout Central Asia, and a prison system in a state of collapse where chronic overcrowding and mistreatment have led to catastrophic outbreaks of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.

  • Freedoms of religion have been impinged upon. Practicing Muslims have been arrested and mosques closed.

  • Prominent opposition leaders have been hounded abroad, and dissidents have been arrested, imprisoned and killed.

  • In some states, political opposition movements have been outlawed and public demonstrations have been forcibly broken up or banned.

  • Journalists have been subjected to trumped up judicial proceedings, intimidated, and beaten.

  • Newspapers have had their offices raided by various government paramilitary forces and subjected to mysterious arson attacks. They have had issues confiscated, access to printing denied, electricity cut off, or their operations simply closed down.

The reports on daily incidents and systematic violations of human rights in Central Asia can neither be dismissed nor ignored. These abuses are consistent with a pattern of political development across the Central Asian states. They also contribute to the further destabilization of an already fragile security situation in the region.

Opposition groups have now been forced underground and every government clamp down or arrest of innocent civilians increases sympathy, if not support, for extremist groups. Groups like Hezb’ ut Tahrir, an Islamic renaissance party, have made considerable inroads into states like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, among educated urban youth as well as among the rural poor, by espousing an ideology of political reform, social justice, and wealth redistribution that is increasingly compelling to a disaffected population denied other forms of association or political participation. The fact that Hezb’ ut Tahrir also seeks the creation of an austere Islamic caliphate in Central Asia has been overshadowed by its appeal to common grievances.

Little Fundamental Change at the top of Central Asian politics

In considering the situation in Central Asia, we need to bear in mind that ten years after the dissolution of the USSR, at the top of Central Asian politics there has been little fundamental change. While the leaderships of these states have implemented some political reforms by creating parliaments, political parties and electoral mechanisms, in general the vertical power structures of the USSR remain intact. Executive rule is strong, and legislatures are weak. Politics are focused on the routine of elections but presidents manipulate these elections and rule by decree to bypass parliament.

Indeed, with only one exception, the “new democratic” Central Asian presidents are former Soviet party secretaries who have preserved their old authority. They and their close associates have also effectively privatized the Central Asian states. State assets have been transferred into the hands of networks of elites that have replaced or simply evolved from the old Communist Party nomenclature. These networks are based on geographical association, common educational background, and extended family ties and they are clustered around the presidents.

The entrenchment of these old-Soviet leaders, their families, and close associates at the upper echelons of power has constrained the development of a new generation of leaders, and prevented opposition political parties from presenting themselves as viable alternatives to the ruling regime. As in the Soviet period, the people of Central Asia have few intermediaries between themselves and high politics.

Restrictions on the development of the press

The press, which should and could play the role of intermediary, is—at best—denied advertising revenues and other means of ensuring financial sustainability by the region’s persistent economic crisis. It must rely for support on the patronage of the state or powerful business cliques with their own agendas. The press is thus vulnerable both to manipulation and direct repression. Journalists must answer more frequently to big political and business “bosses” than to their own editors and the population. In regions far from capital cities, the media is even more vulnerable to pressures from local leaders. Low salaries and inadequate training also often result in bribe-taking among journalists and poor professional standards, eroding public support for the media as a democratic institution. At worst, in states like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the media is heavily censored and kept under tight control.

Governments in general—again as a hold-over from the Soviet period—see the mass media as a tool of political propaganda. In Kazakhstan, for example, President Nazarbayev’s immediate family and associates directly control most media outlets as well as the bulk of the economy. While there are no significant alternatives for financial support, independent newspapers and TV stations will remain small in size and scope in Central Asia.

Patterns of political development in Central Asia

Looking across the Central Asian states, there are common patterns in political development but also distinct differences in the political situations of states like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, on the one hand, and Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, on the other.

Turkmenistan is the most extreme of the Central Asian states and is well on its way to joining the ranks of states like Belarus and North Korea that have turned inward upon themselves, retreating from interactions with the outside world and reducing their dependence on it, rather than seeking engagement. Here, an insular political regime has been established with a Soviet-style personality cult around the president—the self-styled “Father of the Turkmen” (Turkmenbashi) and recently declared “President for Life”—that brooks no other contender for power. There are no political parties, no political opposition, and almost no manifestations of civic life outside the sphere controlled by the government.

Uzbekistan has also become a closed society and closed economy in an attempt to stave off what its leadership perceives to be inevitable political and economic collapse if reforms are enacted. All political opposition has been repressed, although there is some modest scope in some spheres for activity by non-governmental groups (NGOs), especially on a local level and in areas of the country that have been particularly hard hit by social and environmental problems.

Tajikistan has fallen apart at the seams after five years of civil war in the 1990s. The state has been effectively regionalized, if not communalized, and the government’s influence is confined to the capital, Dushanbe. While this precludes effective attempts at authoritarian rule, it does not prevent abuses of authority when actors outside the government—particularly local journalists investigating high-level corruption—try to challenge the president. But a daunting array of social and economic problems, and poor inter-regional communications, have distracted the government and loosened controls. As a result Tajikistan has a flourishing grassroots NGO community, and public debates have taken place openly and regularly in Tajikistan that are rare elsewhere in Central Asia.

In Kazakhstan, while the president dominates political life, keeps a tight rein on the opposition and has effectively exiled leading political figures, the country’s huge energy reserves have also brought the country closer to the West and have generated resources for development. Growth in the private sector has already begun to drive a modest degree of political reform with the emergence of a more active middle class and property-owing interest groups who have a stake in democratic as well as economic development. NGOs operating in the private enterprise sector, such as small business advocacy groups and professional associations, have been fairly successful in Kazakhstan. The Kazakh government has also been somewhat flexible and open to innovation, especially at the community level, allowing grassroots and civil advocacy groups to lobby for legislative improvement and change. In addition, the government has pursued an active and ambitious program of sending the cream of its youth from all social backgrounds to study in the West and then finding employment for them in government ministries and international organizations. This does not compensate for the continued attempts to stifle the media and other civil actors in Kazakhstan, but it does offer a space in which more progress can be made.

In Kyrgyzstan, which was once touted by the US government and other international observers as a bastion of democracy in Central Asia, the president has cracked down on opposition groups and attempted to ban domestic monitors from observing elections. But, in the period preceding this crack down, NGOs and other grassroots organizations were able to establish themselves as part of the political landscape. Even now, the NGO movement has retained a voice with the Kyrgyz government and it is not uncommon for NGOs to advocate through the courts, parliament or legislature even as the government arrests and detains activists.

Sense of crisis in Central Asia

Overall, at this juncture, there is a sense of impending crisis in Central Asia. Regional governments have developed a siege mentality. The intensification of the civil war in neighboring Afghanistan, and the activities of regional militant groups like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have contributed to this, as have the mounting domestic economic and social problems.

When the USSR collapsed, the Central Asian states were the poorest and least developed of all the Soviet republics, as well as the most geographically distant from the West. Over the course of the last decade, the Central Asian states, as a group, have fallen further behind former Soviet neighbors as well as the West. Soviet-era achievements in education, infrastructure, industrial development, and health have been seriously eroded.

The Asian and Russian financial crises of 1998 set Central Asian economies back further—leading to the devaluation of currencies, untenable debt burdens, and the withdrawal of foreign investment. Although Kazakhstan has the potential to become a prosperous country in the future by virtue of its energy resources, landlocked, resource poor countries like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have little hope of effecting a turn around. Recent regional drought has put them at risk of a humanitarian disaster, and a staggering 70-80% of their populations have fallen beneath the poverty line. In recent years, as a result of this economic deprivation, there has been a massive exodus of ethnic Russians and the most progressive members of indigenous ethnic groups from Central Asia. Reports from Kyrgyzstan suggest, for example, that one tenth of the total population has left for Russia over the last decade.

High unemployment among those who remain has fostered the smuggling of raw materials, and trafficking in arms and drugs across porous regional borders, but legal cross-border trade has broken down. Protectionist tariff policies, stringent visa regimes, and corrupt customs officials have all ruptured the so-called “shuttle trade” in food stuffs and consumer goods across Central Asia and with Russia that the region’s population relies on to survive. Government searches for drugs and weapons are often used as ruses by border guards to shake down traders. And the government of Uzbekistan has also begun to mine its border with neighboring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan—ostensibly to guard against incursions by Islamic militants, but more evidently to curb routine border crossing. Uzbek mines have killed or injured more than fifty Tajik citizens alone since the mining began this spring. The majority of casualties have been inhabitants of border settlements who were visiting relatives or tending livestock. In addition, there have been a rash of highly-publicized suicides among desperate Kazakh and Kyrgyz shuttle-traders who have been stripped of all their money and goods by officials on other international borders.

Disease has had an easier time crossing the region’s borders. The heroin trade across Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan from Afghanistan has created a burgeoning intravenous drug problem and an HIV/AIDS outbreak that mimics the early epidemic in Africa. Regional health workers fear an escalation in the next two years that will overwhelm local medical systems and the region’s miniscule international programs. A major HIV/AIDS crisis would be the final straw for states like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The growing HIV/AIDS epidemic along drug routes threatens to undermine the entire region’s meager economic and political achievements.

It is clear that—outside Kazakhstan where the economic situation is more robust and Turkmenistan where a quasi-totalitarian system is in place—the other Central Asian governments fear a social explosion. They have good reason to do so as frustration with misrule and lack of significant progress with reform continues to build up. Both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have recently contended with, and crushed, major street demonstrations.

In May, the Kyrgyzstan government directly blocked a series of protests and street rallies by opposition groups against the suppression of freedom, human rights violations, and steep rises in the cost of food, electricity, gas, and water. The government banned public demonstration during holidays and weekends, tried to confine those that took place to remote locations, sent directives to students and workers warning of dire consequences if they joined rallies, spread rumors of clashes and bloodshed, and even organized distractions with street sales of low-priced food, outdoor concerts, and races to lure away would-be demonstrators. Protest leaders who chose to proceed with rallies were arrested, accused of trying to destabilize society, and fined. Pensioners, the unemployed, and street traders who also participated in the rallies were harassed by police. These developments were covered by local journalists with assistance from the London-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting.

Earlier this month, in Uzbekistan, the authorities were slightly less creative but just as determined to break up demonstrations of women and children protesting the detention of their relatives and members of the Hezb’ ut Tahrir organization. Women in religious dress were seized directly from city streets, even if not gathered in distinct groups, and taken into custody and fined. Again, this crackdown was reported by local human rights organizations and journalists with the assistance of international counterparts.

Kyrgyz and Uzbek opposition figures predict that demonstrations such as these will become more frequent over the next several months as more poverty-stricken and persecuted citizens vent their rage in public. This will in turn increasingly frighten the governments, resulting in further repression and stricter punishments.

Conclusions and recommendations

How should the United States react to the violations of basic freedoms given the course of developments in Central Asia?

I would argue that, in spite of the persistent infringements on rights, we must not disengage and cut these states off diplomatically. Without the involvement of the US and other Western countries in Central Asia, these violations will only get worse, not better. These are fragile states and they are vulnerable to outside pressures. In the absence of engagement with the United States and with the West, the Central Asian states are likely to be pulled by all their immediate neighbors (including Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran) in directions that will not necessarily lead toward democracy. The strong impulse to conform to the negative exigencies of the neighborhood is clearly exemplified in the fate of Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev, who embraced relations with the West and genuinely pursued a democratic path in the early years of his presidency, but was unable to sustain it given Kyrgyzstan’s political and economic isolation and its dependence on Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Russia.

The United States can engage in Central Asia without reinforcing authoritarian regimes and facilitating governments’ infringements of basic freedoms and human rights. The Central Asian states have already made some political commitments to Western norms, which they can be pressured to live up to through active diplomacy. It is important to local governments how they are perceived on the outside—especially in the United States. With the exception perhaps of Turkmenistan, all the Central Asian states have either forged close relations with the US or would like to do so, and the US is a major donor to the region.

There are several approaches the United States can take. It can censure Central Asian governments with punitive measures by cutting back on aid and programs and making their restoration conditional on verifiable improvements in government policies and behavior on human rights. Conditionalities and binding constraints are clearly important in trying to mitigate against continued violations. Or, instead of cutting aid and programs until some improvement is seen, the US can also look at how its current assistance is being used and target it more effectively. I would in fact recommend the latter approach.

In general, expectations are critical in promoting changes in behavior and encouraging reform. The Central Asian states need to have a sense of where they are going. While Russia and some of the other former Soviet states can reasonably expect to move toward the West in its broadest conception over the next decade or so, the Central Asian states can realistically have little expectation of doing so. In Central Asia, we are not likely to see democratic systems, as we understand them, develop in our lifetimes, given the magnitude of the political and social changes necessary to effect this. But we need to maintain our interactions and keep the hope alive of improved and eventual close relations with the West.

The US shares the security concerns of Central Asian states about Afghanistan and radical Islamic terrorism. But while militant groups are real threats to regional security, the human rights abuses perpetrated by Central Asian governments are becoming an equal threat as they increase public support for the extremists. Here, the United States has considerable leverage with regional governments to encourage a change in behavior. A significant proportion of US assistance is currently targeted toward initiatives to bolster border security as well as to increase the effectiveness of regional militaries in counter-insurgency operations. This includes programs implemented through the State Department and the Pentagon, as well as through the US Agency for International Development, the FBI, the Treasury Department, the Department of Energy and other agencies.

Congress has a special role to play here and it has already stressed the importance of ensuring the protection of human rights through US foreign assistance. For Central Asia and other former Soviet States, the protection of Human Rights was emphasized in the 1992 Freedom Support Act. In 2000, Uzbekistan came close to losing congressional certification for military-military programs, funded under the auspices of the Freedom Support Act. As a result, the Pentagon elevated human rights issues in its special forces training curriculum.

However, there has not been similar scrutiny of other US government programs such as those training customs officials, drug enforcement agencies, and police, for example, to examine whether or not these programs emphasize the protection of basic freedoms. There is already considerable evidence from independent as well as official studies that drug interdiction efforts in countries like Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, funded by the United Nations as well as the US, have become riddled by corruption and permitted violations of civil liberties.

The US Congress can emphasize mutually reinforcing security and human rights objectives throughout Central Asia by mandating cooperation between the Pentagon, State Department and other US government agencies, and international human rights groups. It can also mandate close monitoring, evaluation, and assessment of US-funded programs related to security issues and require regular reporting on the impact of these programs on human and civil rights from the full range of agencies that implement them.

In addition, Congress can emphasize US support for regional non-governmental organizations that seek to increase citizen participation in government and access to objective sources of information. In Central Asia, local advocacy groups need sustained support from international counterparts like Human Rights Watch, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, and others if they are to keep up their pressure on governments to stop blatant abuses of human rights and to curb the increasing tendencies to crack down on dissent. Outside pressure from international organizations and governments like the United States has been effective in securing the release of journalists and activists from prison. International organizations in conjunction with local groups and journalists highlight government abuses and incidents that would otherwise go unremarked abroad. In addition, the offices of international organizations in the region have frequently served as safe havens for those fleeing abuse while pressure on Central Asian governments has been exerted on their behalf. These activities should be given significant US political and financial support.

Finally, US government funding for broad-based civil society programs and NGO development remains essential. US foundations like the Eurasia Foundation and the Open Society Institute, which have been active in Central Asia for almost a decade now, have forged active partnerships with experienced local groups and are now focusing on creating permanent institutions in the region that will be able to support civil society once Western donors have withdrawn. Creating local capacity to effect and sustain reform is crucial. In closed states like Turkmenistan, simply maintaining an international presence on the ground is important. By funding even small numbers of people through democracy initiatives supported directly by the US Embassy and other activities, the US can demonstrate that countries like Turkmenistan can not remain completely isolated in the 21st Century—even in Central Asia.