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Prospects for Democracy and Political Reform in Central Asia

The region of the former Soviet Union known as “Central Asia” has vast energy resources of interest to Russia, Iran, China, Europe, and North America. Gregory Gleason, professor of political science and public administration at the University of New Mexico, says that the five newly independent governments of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – have adopted contrasting development strategies, leading them to significantly different outcomes. Professor Gleason is the author several books on the former Soviet Union, including Central Asian States: Discovering Independence and Markets and Politics in Central Asia.

Gregory Gleason says it is quite clear that Kazahkstan made the “right choices” in the 1990 to 1996 period by developing a market-based, democratically oriented system. But the other countries have failed to transition to a modern form of government that would “integrate smoothly into the international community.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and VOA Uzbek news anchor Navbahor Imamova, Professor Gleason says Turkmenistan in particular has been “punished” by having isolated itself and refusing to integrate.

A few weeks ago, Turkmenistan held its first officially contested presidential elections after its long-time President, Saparmurat Niyazov, died suddenly in late December. His successor, acting president Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, reportedly won a nearly 90-percent majority. The new president has promised a modest set of political “reforms,” but Professor Gleason says it is too early to tell if he will follow through. Most of Turkmenistan’s gas is now exported through Russian pipelines, but Gregory Gleason says the long-term prospects for a trans-Caspian pipeline to Europe that bypasses Russia are “good,” but there are currently serious “financial constraints.”

Since they became independent in 1991, the Central Asian countries have largely failed to adopt democratic practices, Professor Gleason says, because of their leaders’ tendency to “protect entrenched political elites” and because of their failure to understand that improving their governance will provide greater “opportunities” for their people. For example, Uzbekistan has been largely isolated from the West since the government’s brutal suppression of the 2005 uprising in Andijan and the international criticism of President Islam Karimov that followed. After Tashkent closed the U.S. air base in southern Uzbekistan, relations with Washington further deteriorated, but Russian influence seems to have increased. Professor Gleason says he thinks there is unlikely to be any reform in Uzbekistan in the near future. But, he adds, the revolution in computer technology around the world is “making so much information available” that Uzbekistan will not be able to resist influences from the outside in the long term.

Gregory Gleason observes that Uzbekistan, along with Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, have policies of violating “internationally accepted principles” of human rights and treatment of the media and of political participation. On the other hand, he says, Kyrgyzstan has made some progress regarding the “principles of democratic practice and policy.” However, he thinks the country with the greatest “opportunity” for political and economic development is Kazahkstan.

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