Meet the Stans: An Introduction to the Former Soviet Republics of Central Asia

Rebecca Frost

22 May 2018

President Vladimir Putin meeting with leaders from Central Asia at the 2016 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Heads of State, held in Uzbekistan. 

President Vladimir Putin meeting with leaders from Central Asia at the 2016 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Council of Heads of State, held in Uzbekistan. 


 

The former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan rarely feature in the coverage of Western media outlets. To many who live in countries outside the immediate vicinity of Central Asia, they are a motley gaggle of countries that end in “stan” and not much else. Despite the sparse attention they receive on the world stage, “The Stans” are a remarkable set of countries that, while sharing a common history, have taken distinct paths that set them apart from each of their neighbours.

The Stans were all part of the Soviet Union and gained their independence in the lead up to its collapse. While part of the Soviet Union, they were the republics of Uzbek, Kazakh, Turkmen, Tajik, and Kyrgyz. Post-independence, these former Soviet republics have taken on the Persian suffix “stan” – meaning “land” or “place of”.

Despite their similar histories, political life looks very different in each of The Stans. Kazakhstan has experienced a relatively stable government and respectable economic growth. Its current president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in power since Kazakhstan’s independence in 1990. In 2015 he enjoyed 97.7% support in an election with 95.5% voter turnout. Although the lack of substantial alternatives on the ballot is important to note, he is thought to be genuinely popular. Journalist and researcher Dena Sholk has attributed Nazarbayev’s popularity to the economic growth and stability Kazakhstan has experienced under his reign and a generally conservative Kazakh political culture that values security and stability in the face of the uncertainty posed by nearby conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq.

In contrast, Kyrgyzstan’s politics are characterized by considerably more turbulence; in the words of journalist Catherine Putz, Kyrgyzstan has had almost as many prime ministers as it has had years of independence. It has emerged from two revolutions, one in 2005 and one in 2010, and many more public backlashes against the corruption, violence, and mismanagement that has plagued its politics since independence. One persistent element of political unrest in Kyrgyzstan has been frequent failure of the country’s power plants (helpfully, often during cold snaps), which are often attributed to corruption and mismanagement on behalf of the government.

None of the countries discussed here can be considered full democracies. They all ranked between 141 and 162 out of 167 countries on The Economist’s 2017 Democracy Index; Kazakhstan ranks the highest at 141, while Turkmenistan comes in near the bottom of the list at 162, only ranked higher than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Chad, Syria, and North Korea.

Turkmenistan does hold elections, but its democratic institutions mostly serve to create an illusion of democracy. Both parties that oppose the ruling Democratic Party of Turkmenistan (DPT), (the former Communist Party) endorse the positions of the DFP, don’t put forth any initiatives, and are only mentioned by the state media around election time. Interviews of Turkmen citizens conducted by Radio Free Europe in the lead up to several of the country’s parliamentary elections have revealed that most voters knew almost nothing about the candidates who were running for available seats. The lack of information about candidates is not the only roadblock democracy faces in Turkmenistan.. One of the few candidates that featured in public consciousness in the lead up to the election in March 2018 was President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s son, Serdar Berdymukhammedov. Sedar, only 36 years of age, has held a seat in Parliament since in 2016 and seems to be being groomed and positioned to eventually succeed his father as president.

While Turkmenistan glances forward to a likely predicable transition of power, Uzbekistan’s similarly authoritarian regime has undergone a more abrupt shift. In 2016, its long-time president, Islam Karimov, died suddenly, leaving his former prime minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev to fill his place. Despite his connection to Karimov’s regime, Mirziyoyev has been instituting a slew of reforms dubbed the “Uzbek Spring”. These reforms have included elevating elected councils to positions of greater power, meeting with human rights observers, and slightly relaxing state control of the media. There is skepticism about the permanence of the reforms, but some are hopeful. Long-imprisoned Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov told The New York Times that he felt hopeful about the reforms.

Economic motivations are key to the Uzbekistan’s future stability. Sean R. Roberts, professor of international affairs at George Washington University and expert on Uzbekistan has observed that projected economic difficulty seems to be driving a lot of the reforms. Uzbekistan will soon be unable to find employment for its enormous youth population; this leads Roberts to speculate that the reforms may be intended to open the country up to investment while keeping the political sphere relatively closed.

Economic pressures are also mounting on the final of our Stans, Tajikistan. Tajikistan is a small, authoritarian nation with a generally poor human rights record. It was rocked by a civil war from 1992-1997 that has led to socio-political conditions that have driven its economy into the ground. To make matters worse, the 40% of Tajikistan’s GDP that comes from remittances from Tajiks working abroad (largely in Russia) has been threatened by the collapse of the ruble and stricter controls on the presence of foreign workers in Russia.

Despite its weakened economy, Tajikistan remains a nation of notable geopolitical importance. Along with Kyrgyzstan, it sits on 80% of the region’s water supply; which is important as the Stans have not been able to negotiate a deal that suits all party’s interest. It is also of enduring political interest to Moscow as it borders Russia’s sphere of influence. For this, Tajikistan receives economic support for its projects as well as substantial financial aid from Russia. It is also an area of interest for China. China has been expanding its economic influence into Tajikistan by extending credit to resource development projects in the country.

In summary, while they share striking similarities, the Stans have distinct political lives that merit consideration beyond what they tend to receive. Their little known diversity and dynamism serve as a reminder of the stories worth listening to that tend to fly under our radars.