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Central Asia Faces Political Challenges

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan -- five Central Asian nations, landlocked between Europe and China -- declared independence following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, these countries have attracted world attention because of their proximity to Afghanistan and Iraq, and their wealth in oil and natural gas.

During most of the 20th century, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were republics of the Soviet Union. Moscow controlled their political and economic development for decades, which left them without experience in self-governance. When the Iron Curtain fell, the five countries found themselves ill equipped to make a smooth transition from the old communist regime to democracy.

Post-Independence Turmoil

After independence, Tajikistan descended into a bloody civil war that lasted five years. Turkmenistan's government under the late President Saparmurat Niyazov was considered one of the world's last remaining totalitarian dictatorships. Uzbekistan has a place on the list of the world's most repressive states, and in Kyrgyzstan, several opposition members of parliament have been assassinated in recent years.

Oksana Antonenko, Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Central Asia really was seen as one of the most underdeveloped, backward parts of Asia. “Those are traditional societies, which have no meaningful civil society that will apply pressure on those in power to reform,” says Antonenko. “And also, of course, [there is] the commitment on the part of the leadership to use all means at their disposal to crack down on any kind of political pluralism or any dissent."

"We have been seeing the emergence of new governments echoing, uncannily, the spirit of the old Soviet system," says Karl Meyer, a Central Asia expert at the New York-based World Policy Institute and author of the book: The Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in The Asian Heartland.

"I use the pejorative word 'Godfather States' to describe the five post-Soviet Central Asian countries,” says Meyer. “You have authoritarian states succeeding where there had been a previous authoritarian state. The big problem that all of them face in terms of moving forward is [that] they have a political system that in varying degrees is very repressive and autocratic."

And Meyer says these five predominantly Muslim states emerged from the Soviet Union as pre-industrial societies. "The astonishing thing is that 60 years of communist rule really did not transform these societies. They still resemble what they were in the 19th century. Islam persisted very much [in] defining institutions in the post-Soviet world."

Building Civil Societies

Most people in the region, says Mayer, don't think of themselves as citizens of unified nations, but identify themselves with their families, clans, tribes, localities or religions. Gulnaz Sharafutdinova, a political scientist at Miami University in Ohio, agrees. She says many Central Asian institutions hark to the feudal past.

"These societies are very much based on kinship lines and that norm of organizing society is very different from a more individualistic, Western society. Those societal differences play into how institutions work, how government works and what is perceived as corruption and non-corruption, whether helping your distant relative is legitimate or illegitimate. All those views would be different in Central Asia than in Western societies," says Sharafutdinova.

But Sharafutdinova points out that many people in the region are working to adopt more open societies. "Business-based opposition has more of a potential in Kazahastan. At the moment, businesses are behind the government. But there is [an] autonomous economic force and thus a potential for a stronger opposition,” says Sharafutdinova. “And we have Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which are more pluralist than Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Kyrgyzstan went through what was referred to as a 'Tulip Revolution'. Others have suggested this was not a revolution, but a change of elites. But at least there was a change of government in Kyrgyzstan that is not present in most other countries in Central Asia."

But many experts say slow economic progress and the growing gap between rich elites and the vast poor majority is fueling unrest in the region. Eurasia analyst Oksana Antonenko with the International Institute for Strategic Studies adds that poverty coupled with the lack of an institutionalized means to express dissent is creating fertile ground for radical Islam.

An Extreme Road Ahead?

"Radical Islamic groups [are] now capturing that sentiment of dissatisfaction of the population, many of which are impoverished and live in real economic hardship,” says Antonenko. “So instead of giving them some space in the political spectrum where they can express their views, they have nowhere to go, so they go to radical Islamists. As a result of that, we have seen a rapid rise in all sorts of underground Islamic movements in Central Asia."

And Antonenko warns that religious extremism could gain an upper hand in the region. "We could even see in a worst-case scenario the emergence of Islamic states, which are similar to Pakistan, Afghanistan or even Iran. This is not the issue of tomorrow. But in a 10-year, 15-year perspective, if there is no way to change the political system, I think the radicalization is going to continue and then form a critical mass within those societies, which will be able to challenge the power of the elite."

But Antonenko and other analysts say these trends are not irreversible. They say political and economic reforms are key to the long-term stability of Central Asia.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.