Elections in Turkmenistan and the leaership handover in Central Asia

TheJournal x Limesclub

On March the 12th, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, son of the long standing and eccentric dictator Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, won with a landslide majority the clearly not fair nor free elections in Turkmenistan.  However, why is that important for the future of Central-Asian region?

Geopolitical features in the region

First of all, it’s crucial to take into account the big picture of Central Asia, in order to understand the massive leadership shift that is happening in this region during the last few years. After the fall of the USSR, most of the so-called “Stans” followed the same identical path. An autocrat, often an influential member of the former local Communist Party, assumed full powers and built a regime focused on the cult of his personality, supported by small technocratic elite and aided by a big-tent party, lacking a clear ideology except for a vague nationalism.

The regime brought stability to the country and enjoyed good relations with Russia (thanks also to the support of the Kremlin), but was haunted by nepotism and systemic corruption. This same scheme can be easily applied to almost all the countries in the region.

Now time is passing and the old guard of rulers is slowly fading away. Indeed, in Kazakhstan, the ex-president Nazarbayev stepped down in 2017 after a 30-years mandate, and after the recent 2022 riots his successor Tokayev has started dismissing Nazarbayev loyalists from important government positions. Recently Kairat Satybaldy, Nazarbayev’s nephew, was forced to sell his 28% stake in the largest telecommunication company of the country, Kazakhtelecom. Similarly, their southern neighbour, Uzbekistan, was ruled by president Islam Karimov from 1989 until his death in 2016. Regarding Tagikistan, the country is still under the iron fist of Enhomali Rahmon, who is president since 1993; but, considering that he is turning 70 this year, the problem of his succession is an issue the country is going to deal with in the next few years. The only exception is Kyrgyzstan, which, after the unexpected dismissal of Askar Akayev in 2005, has gained the reputation of being the only hybrid-regime in the region, enjoying multi-party elections and having some other limited features of a “normal” democracy.

Giving that the leadership of Central Asia is changing after a long period of political immobility, there are two main issues revolving around it. The first one is the possibility of a democratization, as opposed to the survival of the authoritarian apparatus. It is clearly a bold assumption to think that the end of the old dictatorship is going to lead a country automatically into a democratic transition. Despite some good signs such as the decision of Kazakhstan president Tokayev to limit his own presidential powers, to meet the protesters and to grant some liberties, according to many analysts these are just mere symbolic moves that are not going to reshape the nature of the political structure.

Something is changing

Likewise, in both Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan continuity with the past is the dominant keyword of the new presidents. For example, the well-known American think-tank Freedom House has acknowledged some improvements in Uzbekistan since the beginning of Mirziyoyev presidency in 2016, but still considers the country a “consolidate authoritarian regime” with a democracy percentage of 4.17/100 (one of the worst results in the world). To sum up, for what matters the democratization of Central Asia, the ongoing leadership handover has brought some very limited improvements (such as the release of many political prisoners for example). In addition, this current leadership did not trigger a true reform process, as all these countries still have some of the worst human rights records and their judicial system is tightly controlled by the executive power.

The other main issue, which can be easily called the “elephant in the room”, is how this change will affect their relationship with Moscow. During the last years, some events suggested a shift from the Russophile stances traditionally kept. For example, in an attempt to please the rising nationalist feelings of the Tajikistani population, the dictator Enhomali Rahmon dropped the Russian sounding -ov ending of his surname and also removed his patronymic Saripovich. In Kazakhstan, where 97% of the population is fluent in Russian, the teaching of the Russian language as primary language has created a controversy, sparking a movement for the promotion of the local Kazakh language. Recently, Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Russian communist party, accused Kazakhstan of Russophobia. Nevertheless, clearly cultural frictions cannot be equated to a shift in foreign policy. Moreover, the invasion of Ukraine is testing Central Asian willingness to be still part of the Russian sphere of influence. On March the 2nd, during a vote in the UN General Assembly condemning the invasion, three of Central-Asian countries abstained and two simply did not show up. None of them recognized the people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and Kazakhstan even publicly deplored their recognition by Russia. President Tokayev also dared to spoke directly with Zelenksy once. The governments of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan reiterated their commitment to Ukrainian territorial integrity and allowed some small protests against the invasion. Despite being a member of the Russian-led CSTO, Kazakhstan allegedly refused to join Russian military operations and tried to propose itself as a mediator. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan chose instead a more cautious approach, avoiding publicly addressing the war in any way. The only sign of support for Russia was the vote at the UN general assembly to expel Russia from the human rights council, in which all of them voted “nay”. Obviously, their economic and military reliance from Russia is a factor that should be considered and that is for now preventing a more muscular policy towards Russia. Although not being properly a break with Russia, Central Asian countries reaction to the invasion of Ukraine marked an important and unprecedented signal of a discomfort that could eventually generate a fracture between Russia and its closest allies in the next future.

A cura di Michele Santolini

Resources

The Stans want nothing to do with the invasion of Ukraine, The Economist:

https://www.economist.com/asia/2022/03/26/the-stans-want-nothing-to-do-with-vladimir-putins-invasion-of-ukraine

Il nuovo Kazakistan di Tokayev, Asia News:

https://www.asianews.it/notizie-it/Il-nuovo-Kazakistan-di-Tokaev-55374.html

Uzbekistan country profile, Freedom House:

https://freedomhouse.org/country/uzbekistan/nations-transit/2021

The common theme in central Asia response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Carnegie endowment for international peace:

https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/03/30/common-theme-in-central-asia-s-response-to-russia-s-invasion-of-ukraine-pub-86764

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