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11 1 Political Regimes in Central Asia Two Decades after Independence The seeds of democratization were planted in Soviet territory in the mid1980s , when Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union’s charismatic and progressive new leader, launched his extraordinary perestroika and glasnost reforms. Gorbachev’s limited democratization measures removed the obstacles set up by the communist regime to suppress the political activity of the masses. His new policy of electoral democracy permitted the Soviet voters to choose among multiple candidates competing for political posts. Several of the Soviet republics where the non-Russian “nationalities” constituted the majority of the population quickly took advantage of this democratic opening.1 The first competitive elections held in these constitutive units of the Soviet federation brought to power reformist and nationalist movements. Encouraged by the experiences of their neighbors from the former Soviet bloc, the newly elected governments of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania called for secession from the Soviet Union. The nationalist and pro-democracy movements that sprang up in other parts of the USSR unleashed the centrifugal forces that eventually tore it apart. Unlike the Baltic states, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, the republics of Central Asia demanded neither greater democracy nor national independence. Although these southern territories were not completely immune to interethnic conflict and popular dissent, their leadership was either quiescent in the face of looming changes within the Soviet Union or loyal to the central Soviet leadership and supportive of the preservation of the Soviet federation, as was Nursultan Nazarbayev, secretary of the Communist Party of Kazakhstan. In the end, sovereignty was thrust upon the 12   Democracy in Central Asia Central Asian countries, which were among the last republics to declare their independence. As the tide of democratic fervor submerged the newly independent states, the Central Asian governments declared their unwavering support for democratization. The leaders of these republics openly renounced their communist beliefs and surrendered their Communist Party membership cards. Encouraged by the democratic rhetoric and reform orientation of these Central Asian leaders, scores of Western international organizations launched development, democracy promotion, and security-related projects in these states. Although there were legitimate concerns about these republics’ susceptibility to political instability and economic crisis, there was also hope that, with the Western governments’ support, these countries would undergo quick political reform and marketization and would transform into liberal democratic states. None of the Central Asian states has met these expectations. Today, as they were twenty years ago, these Central Asian regimes are located along a continuum of autocracy rather than democracy. Freedom House, a US-based international NGO notable for its research on and advocacy for human rights and democracy, has consistently placed the Central Asian states in the “Not Free” category for the majority of years since their independence . Despite important differences in the extent of control and coercion employed by the Central Asian governments, the underlying political realities are very similar. The power and authority in these republics are firmly concentrated in the office of the president and maintained through a combination of repression, co-option, and political constraints on societal institutions. Former communist functionaries have filled the ranks of new political movements and parties calling for greater democratization, political and economic liberalization, and market reforms. Presidential and parliamentary elections are among the most popular demonstrations of the governments’ “unwavering commitment” to democratization, but they typically fail to meet basic democratic benchmarks. Scores of political organizations are either orchestrated or co-opted by these governments, and most people are unable or unwilling to exercise their political and civil rights. Additionally, political authority in Central Asia has been personalized and conceived in traditional ways. Patronage networks continue to play an important role in determining access to authority and holding important political decisions hostage to the orientations and interests of the ruling elites.2 Political Regimes in Central Asia  13 Kazakhstan Kazakhstan’s regime exhibits many of the aforementioned characteristics . The republic has been ruled almost single-handedly by its only president , Nursultan Nazarbayev, who assumed leadership in 1989 through his appointment as first secretary of the republican branch of the Communist Party and, later, as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Kazakhstan. Following Kazakhstan’s independence, Nazarbayev ran uncontested in four consecutive presidential elections, all of which he won by margins greater than 90 percent.3 International observers have criticized these elections as neither free nor fair.4 Following the 2005 presidential election, Kazakhstan’s parliament eliminated the term limit for the president, and in 2010...


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