Transitions from communism to liberal democracy consist not only of success stories, but also of obituaries. Although some scholars still claim that “after communism’s collapse, there is no principled alternative to democracy left” (Fairbanks 2001: 55), during the past few years a growing number of politicians and observers in the West have begun to express their disappointment with the political and economic performance of Central Asian countries. The only surprising element of their disappointment is that they were surprised at all. It was based on wishful thinking and exaggerated expectations. With regard to such countries as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, it was also connected with the disjunction between appearance and reality that had existed in the beginning of the transitional period. Still, the failure of the democratic scenario in Central Asia could have easily been predicted and, in actuality, had been predicted by a number of scholars. The transition from communism consists of two main processes that are far from completely intertwined: the transition from totalitarianism to another political order (whatever this order may be), and the transition from state socialism to the market economy. Many ex-communist states, including the Central Asian ones, face the additional problem of nation-state building. Thus, in order to succeed on the path of development, everything in the excommunist countries should be rebuilt, and in Central Asia should even be built anew from the ground up: the economic system, the social organization, the political order, and ideology. However, the main contemporary, Western patterns of ideological, political, and economic orientation, such as authoritarianism, conservatism, liberalism, and social democracy, are not applicable to Central Asian countries without serious reservations. To analyze their current order one should develop different criteria and notions. At the moment, all Central Asian countries might be characterized as authoritarian; however, in some important respects they are different from the authoritarian capitalist countries that one has been acquainted with. Under authoritarian capitalism, the government and administration do not abide by the rules of the democratic game. However, the economic sphere remains sufficiently autonomous. Although authoritarian rulers in capitalist countries may sometimes intervene in the economic sphere through populist, protectionist, and/or other measures, the market system and private property remain basically intact. To a
significant extent, the economy is not monopolized by the state, and political elites have to coexist with economic ones. In Central Asia, the state still reigns supreme not only in politics, but also in social and economic life, and the newly emerging economic elites do not have an independent existence. In fact, the Central Asian states are weak where they should be strong (the maintenance of law and order and management of coherent, orderly and fair market-oriented reforms), and strong where they should be weak (excessive control over the economy and society). It seems that the best way to characterize the contemporary Central Asian societies is to call them post-totalitarian. In the political sphere, their characteristic feature is a whimsical combination of totalitarian, authoritarian, and in rare cases even formal democratic institutions and characteristics, although the latter are always very weak and are nowadays in retreat. In the economic sphere, the socialist institutions and forms of property frequently underwent insufficient change. At present, they coexist with the state monopolistic ones, the latter not very different from the former, as well as with the still much undeveloped institutions and forms based on private property and free enterprise. To provide an explanation for this sad state of affairs, one should take into account many factors, including historical ones. With regard to Central Asia, one can recall the old saying that history is destiny, at any rate it has been so far. To start with, the independence of Central Asian states was not won in a struggle with the All-Union Moscow center. Because of the economic and political weakness of the region, the Central Asian leaderships to the very end were the most persistent champions of the preservation of the Soviet Union. They only wanted more power for themselves and more subsidies from Moscow. With the exception of Kyrgyzstan president Akaev, who faced an attempted mini-coup in his own republic, all other Central Asian leaders either gave conditional approval to the August 1991 coup in Moscow or took a wait-and-see position. One could say that their countries’ independence was, if not a sudden gift from heaven, then the almost imposed consequence of the Belovezhskaia Pushcha agreement (December 8, 1991, marking the disintegration of the Soviet Union) in which they had no part. Correspondingly, the institutional break with the Soviet past and the turnover of the ruling elites were insignificant in Central Asia (Khazanov 1995: 129 ff.). Contrary to some European republics of the USSR, Central Asia lacked sufficiently strong counter-elites, which at the proper moment would be ready and capable of coming to power. In the Brezhnev period and later, the dissident movement, especially the secular and democratic one with specific political demands, was almost non-existent. Only in the late perestroika years (1988-91), which, incidentally, were the most liberal years in the long history of the region, did the first rudiments of civil society appear in Central Asia. However, they were too weak and unstable to challenge the ruling elites. It is true that in 1988-91 various groups and organizations began to emerge in Central Asia, in which the intelligentsia and the educated urban middle strata in general played the most active and organizing role. However, the formation of the opposition movements took place in significantly more difficult conditions than in many other republics
of the Soviet Union, because the political culture of the masses was extremely undeveloped. National intelligentsias in Central Asia are a rather new phenomenon; they are a creation of the Soviet regime and are still not numerous. They lacked the tradition of democratic political process and did not have a clear vision for the future of their countries, in the form of either Western-type liberal democracies or any other system. Instead, they are inclined towards ethnic nationalism, because to them the dominance of their own nationality seemed to be the best safeguard and an improvement of their own position in society. Thus, human rights and identity issues have become closely intertwined. A liberal democratic system, based on individual merit and competence and guaranteeing equal rights to all citizens regardless of ethnic membership, began to be considered as detrimental to the interests of politically strong and the most numerous but economically disadvantaged titular nationalities. In all, during the restructuring period the opposition in Central Asia proved to be not influential enough to lead broad and stable political movements with clearly formulated goals. It is notable that many of its leaders preferred to escape anti-communist slogans, were rather moderate in their political demands, and were ready for collaboration with political elites. Often their criticisms of these elites were leveled more at personalities than at institutions. No wonder that the old communist political elites, the nomenklatura in the Soviet parlance, remained in power, and even managed to strengthen their positions with little difficulty in the new conditions of independence. For this they spare no efforts, and for now they are doing this quite successfully. It is true that in some Central Asian countries one could witness the struggle for power and spoils of state property between different factions of the nomenklatura. However, this struggle did not endanger the dominant position of the whole stratum in their countries. In the beginning of the independence period, there were still more or less conspicuous differences between the hard-line dictatorships, represented by the regimes of Presidents Karimov in Uzbekistan and Niiazov in Turkmenistan, that acquired grotesque forms in the latter; and the less repressive autocratic rule of Presidents Akaev in Kyrgyzstan (written before the fall of Akaev) and Nazarbaev in Kazakhstan. But even in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, which in the early 1990s were often praised in the West as virtual beacons of democracy in Central Asia, the prevailing political tendency is also authoritarian (Kurtov 2001). All Central Asian countries share such common characteristics as hyperpresidentialism, the absence of a real separation of powers that at best exists only on paper, fragmented opposition, very weak and ephemeral political parties (where the multi-party system has any meaning at all), a lack of mechanisms of real public control and monitoring to hold officialdom and bureaucracy accountable, and constant violation of free speech, free press rights, and other basic freedoms. The most significant changes can be traced to ideology and the legitimation of power. Communist ideology was thrown overboard. It was replaced with the
ideology of ethnic nationalism and (ethno)national statehood building. Ethnic nationalism, with all its usual attributes-from a rhetoric of post-colonialism and a victimization complex; to a search for the ‘glorious ancestors’ and obsession with alleged autochthonism; and to an elevation of statuses of indigenous languagesis propagated by the ruling elites and many in the cultural elites (Koroteeva and Makarova 1998; Adams 1999; Kuru 2002: 73 ff.; Roy 2000: 165 ff.; Manz 2002; Olcott 2002: 58 ff.; Kosmarskii 2003; Ilkhamov 2004a). It is considered instrumental to societal consolidation and, in fact, it helped the former to neutralize or convert to its cause some strata of the indigenous populations. In spite of the proclaimed course aimed at the transition to the market economy, so far the economic reforms in Central Asia have not been sufficiently deep and consistent to become potentially dangerous for the monopoly of power of the ruling elites. Private enterprise is still of limited importance to economic growth. All ex-communist states are facing the problem of redrawing the boundaries of their own activities, reducing their involvement in the economy and paving the way for private entrepreneurship and foreign investors (Balcerowicz 1994; Linz and Stepan 1996: 390-1, 435; Khazanov 2004: 37-42). However, in Central Asia, the states still maintain control even over privatized sectors of economy through anti-competitive practices, licensing, arbitrary regulations, and other administrative measures. Their policy choices determine not only the general direction of economic development but also the fate of individual enterprises. In addition, squandering scarce resources for economically unsound projects has become a common practice detrimental to the overall well-being of ordinary people. On the orders of President Niiazov, a luxurious international airport, many five-star hotels, and a soccer stadium have been built in Ashghabad, the capital of Turkmenistan, where the water supply and sewage systems remain hazardous to the health of its residents. This occurred at a time when the government had to introduce food rationing. Meanwhile, the airport is never used to its full capacity, and the hotels remain empty most of the time due to insufficient numbers of visitors to the country. Even rare international soccer games are attended by less than 1,000 people, since this game has never been popular in the country. Instead, the city-dwellers are invited to enjoy a huge, 14-meter-high gilt statue of Niiazov, rotating on a 70-meter-high pedestal, which was erected in the center of Ashghabad.2 Nowadays, a new grandiose project is on the agenda: the construction of a large lake in the middle of the Kara-Kum Desert. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbaev’s project to transfer the capital from Almaty in the south to the small northern city of Akmola, later renamed Astana, has already swallowed billions of dollars. The project was driven not only by Nazarbaev’s personal ambitions but also by some political considerations, including the goal of strengthening the ethnic Kazakh presence in the Russiandominated northern part of the country (Bremmer 1994; Huttenbach 1998; Wolfel 2002). However, building the roads, power lines, gas pipelines, residential complexes, numerous office buildings, and presidential palaces required, and still requires, huge sums of money. Even in 2003, the opposition criticized
the government for investing about 850 million dollars in the development of the new capital, and only 85 million dollars in agriculture. In all ex-communist countries, denationalization of state property was not a result of the further expansion of the private sector. To a greater or lesser degree, they all experienced a conversion of power into property. But in some Central Asian countries, privatization is still in its initial stages, and even in those countries where it advanced further, it has not resulted in the emergence of independent economic elites. On the contrary, power and property have become inseparable. The ruling stratum seizes or controls the property without giving up their power. Just like in some other developing countries, state autonomy from societal pressures more often leads to disastrous rather than beneficial developmental outcomes. The new economic order that has emerged in Central Asia as a result of the commercialization of governance can be characterized at best as political capitalism-the fusion of the ruling elites with a new stratum of proprietors, whose very existence depends on their ties with those in power. The transfer of former socialist enterprises to holding companies has not changed much. Key enterprises, monopolies, and even whole sectors of the economy are controlled by members of bureaucratic elites and/or relatives and close associates of the presidents. Good connections with the governments and administrators are a much better guarantee of economic success than the risky entrepreneurship in an open sea of free competition. The lack of effective political representation, the absence of mechanisms for holding the governments and presidents accountable for their decisions, and the monopolistic structure of the industrial sector allow the ruling elites to use the national resources and revenues for their own enrichment and for further consolidation of their power. The struggle within the ruling elites for shares in these revenues so far has not threatened the stability of the authoritarian rule. The main danger of the nomenklatura privatization and control over the economy consists not of the violation of social justice. Historical justice is like a train that comes to the station late, if it comes at all. It would be very naïve to expect that justice might immediately become rooted in the region after more than 70 years of ruthless communist experimentation and many centuries of previous despotic rule. The problem is of a different order. Often, economic policies in Central Asia are not connected either with economic rationality or with genuine national interest. Many nomenklatura members or people close to them acquired property, or control over it but have not learned how to run it in an efficient capitalist way. In fact, Central Asia has very limited, if any, history of private ownership in the modern Western sense. No wonder that at the moment there is a very limited understanding of liberal capitalism there. These circumstances aggravate the general inefficiency of the region’s economies in the transitional period. All authoritarian countries share some common characteristics, although in politics more so than in economics. At present, the economic policies in Central Asia have little resemblance to those conducted by such East Asian countries as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. They resemble more closely the policy that was pursued in the 1950s and 1960s in some Latin American countries. Their regimes were consumed with rent seeking-manipulating import licenses, foreign
exchange controls, subsidies, government jobs, and so on-by high officials and their cronies and clients. I should hardly remind that such policies in Latin America, as well as in other countries, resulted in complete economic failure. The first post-independence decade was a period of rapid economic decline in Central Asia (Kalyuzhnova 1998: 104-5, passim; Rumer 2000; Sievers 2003). The countries lost a significant part of their GNP: Tajikistan lost two-thirds of its GNP; Turkmenistan just under half; Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan two-fifths. Uzbekistan has managed with only a relatively small dip of around 10 percent, but this is according to official statistics, which can hardly be trusted. In practical terms, this means that the bulk of working people earned between 2.5 and 9 dollars per month, with 15 dollars considered a good salary and 25-30 dollars very good indeed. Taking into account the average number of dependents per family, not infrequently the per capita monthly income amounted to just under 3 dollars. This was a very significant drop in living standards in comparison to the late Soviet period. This situation and deteriorating health services also resulted in a decline in the life span. By 2001, the average life span in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan dropped to 54.3 years, in Kyrgyzstan to 52.6 years, in Turkmenistan to 52.0 years, and in Tajikistan to 50.8 years (Sovetskaia Rossiia October 6, 2001). Although in some countries the economy has begun to climb back in the past few years, it is still premature to consider this animation as a sign of stable economic recovery in the region. During the past few years, there is a certain improvement in living standards only in Kazakhstan. Large sectors of populations, however, are still living below the poverty line. In some Central Asian countries, especially in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, drug trafficking has become a major part of local informal economies, in which many unemployed people are involved. In addition, drug addiction has become common across the region (Lunev 2001: 61-2; Madi 2004). One may come to the conclusion that the statist model of modernization, which has been chosen by Central Asian regimes, has so far turned out to be inadequate. The region desperately needs large-scale foreign investment and know-how. The decay of the modern sectors of economy with their obsolete technology and equipment can not be overcome by Central Asians themselves. However, with the exception of the oil and mining sectors (by 2002, the Chevron Texaco corporation alone had invested four billion dollars in the oil sector of Kazakhstan-see Yermukhanov 2002b), the prospects of attracting them seem dubious at the moment, given its geographic location, its shortage of infrastructure and skilled labor, its political instability, weak legal protection, and completely corrupt and inefficient administrations. The positive impact of future oil and gas revenues should also not be overestimated. Although these are often seen in the region as the only hope for alleviating the current situation, there are many reasons to doubt that they will secure the sustained economic growth and sociopolitical modernization of Central Asia in general, or even of its individual states in particular. First, of the five countries which constitute former Soviet Central Asia, only Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan possess significant hydrocarbon resources. The reserves of Uzbekistan are sufficient only for satisfying domestic consumption. Second, for many reasons their
windfalls-to-be are still rather problematic, considering the political and economic problems connected with oil transportation from this landlocked region. Third, capital-intensive projects generate a limited demand for labor, and a threat of “the Dutch disease” may become quite real. Successful development in the hydrocarbon sector may be accompanied by growing backwardness and unemployment in other sectors. Just as in the present, in the future the capitals and largest industrial centers, with their more or less Westernized populations, may remain islands in a sea of basically pre-modern society. One of the most alarming post-Soviet developments in the region is the plummeting quality of primary and secondary education, especially in rural areas, which even in the Soviet period was inferior to that in other parts of the Soviet Union. Still, one of the main Soviet achievements in the region was the almost universal literacy of the population. Nowadays, a growing number of children, especially girls, have no chance of attending secondary schools and have to work to supplement family income; some of them even drop out from primary schools. In Tajikistan, school enrolment shrunk to 61 percent in 2001 (ICG 2003a). In Turkmenistan, the government reduced primary and secondary education from 11 to nine years (actually, to six years if one takes into account the time the schoolchildren have to work in the cotton fields) and university education to two years (ICG 2004). If this trend continues, the region may well soon have a generation of illiterate and semi-literate people who will lag behind their parents in education. I have mentioned but some of the many negative trends that are nowadays so conspicuous in the political and economic development of the Central Asian region. However, were I asked whether the development could take quite different and more successful forms, I would have to reply: “In my opinion, no.” At present, Central Asia is overburdened by its past. Not only many institutions and traditions of the Soviet past, but also those which go back to the pre-revolutionary colonial one and even of the pre-colonial past of the region are still alive and often make a negative impact on the current situation there. Of all the numerous problems that Central Asian countries are facing now, the most acute one remains their underdevelopment. The Soviet leaders liked to refer to the Central Asian example as the model for successful development along socialist lines, which the developing countries were encouraged to emulate. The reality, however, was quite different from the Soviet propaganda. In the Soviet period, modernization was pursued in Central Asia with a minimal participation by the indigenous population, and none of its processes-be they industrialization, urbanization, demographic revolution, revolution in education, or occupational mobility-were fully implemented there (Poliakov 1992; Fierman 1991; Kul’chik 1995; Patnaik 1996; Panarin 2000: 90). The so-called interregional division of labor carried out by the Moscow center clearly contradicted the interests of the Central Asian republics, because it condemned the region to the role of supplier of raw materials, which left the region for other parts of the Soviet Union, mainly in unprocessed form. All Central Asian countries were dependent on direct budgetary support and other forms of subsidies from Moscow.