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Episode 96. Democracy in Central Asia

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Central Asia stands at a pivotal crossroads, with the next few months likely to set the course for the region going forward. What lies at stake in Kazakhstan's delicate balancing act? Will political stability give way to democratic progress or plunge into uncertainty? Does Kyrgyzstan's strongman rule signal a step backwards for democracy or a formidable power to reckon with? As Uzbekistan extends its ruler's reign until nearly 2040, can we ignore the unsettling erosion of democratic principles? And in Tajikistan, where power seamlessly transfers to the ruler's children, what implications loom for democratic processes? Moreover, with Turkmenistan's freedom index ranking lower than North Korea, are we confronting an unprecedented democratic crisis? What is the future of democracy in Central Asia? We are our panel of experts.


Episode Overview:

Part 1: Succeeding Through Stalemate (4:02)

  • Alexander Cooley kicks off our discussion by focusing on Kazakhstan, giving an overview of the nation's history in the post-Soviet era under the rule of Nursultan Nazarbayev, who served as President from 1991 until 2019. He points towards the Colour Revolutions of the mid-2000s in post-Soviet nations being perceived as security threats to these regimes, including by Nazarbayev.

  • Cooley talks through the protests building towards Nazarbayev at the end of the last decade, which saw him vacate the presidency but into the newly created position as elbasy, keeping him protected and privileged.

  • We discuss the role of the second President of Kazahkstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and his challenge to slowly remove Nazarbayev and his connections from power while struggling against the perception that he is Nazarbayev's personal appointment and the legacy of two decades of rule.

  • Cooley likens Tokayev's challenge to that of post-Franco Spain, slowly trying to separate the nation from the long-term rule of one man, without demonising the past.

  • We discuss Tokayev's extensive foreign policy experience and his attempt to position himself and Kazakhstan as the leader and key conduit for Central Asia. We conclude with an evaluation of the domestic challenge from an activated civil society within Kazakhstan and the prospects of further uprisings.

Part 2: The Contentious Khan (27:33)

  • Erica Marat guides us through the most democratic of the Central Asian republics, and the paradox of this progress under the rule of strongman presidents, including the current President Sadyr Japarov. We discuss Japarov's remarkable rise to power from prison in 2020 to ruling Kyrgyzstan, including winning an election in 2021.

  • We discuss the pattern of alternating rule between a candidate from the north, followed by a candidate from the south, and the reaction to Japarov's attempts to consolidate power, including the prospects of an uprising against his regime.

  • We discuss the prospects for Kyrgyzstan's reputation as the freest democracy in Central Asia enduring given recent events.

Part 3: A Traditional Tyranny (39:03)

  • Temur Umarov begins our discussion of Uzbekistan with a brief overview of the repressive rule of previous President Islam Karimov, in power from the collapse of the Soviet Union until his death in 2016, and the subsequent rule of Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who served as Prime Minister under Karimov from 2003 until 2016.

  • Many assumed that the leadership of the country would pass to Karimov's eldest daughter, Gulnara Karimova. We discuss how Karimov sidelined Gulnara and allowed Mirziyoyev to manoeuvre to take power after his death.

  • We discuss the tangible differences, including some reforms and freedoms restored, under Mirziyoyev and the limits to this thaw, including the current state of the political opposition.

  • We discuss the surface level appearance that Uzbekistan may be separating from Russian influence and the reality of this critical relationship. We conclude with what the future of Mirziyoyev's rule may entail.

Part 4: The Eternal Executive (55:49)

  • Steve Swerdlow paints a harrowing picture of the direction of Tajikistan's democracy and human rights under the current regime of Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled for more than 30 years, making him the longest serving leader in the region.

  • We discuss Rahmon's (formerly Rahmonov) consolidation of power, despite the nation conducting elections since the end of its civil war in 1997, and his myth-making to erase any abuses by his government while demonising opposition parties and challengers.

  • We discuss the economic reliance of Tajikistan on Russia, particularly through approximately 3 million Tajiks working in Russia and sending funds back to the nation, and the leveraging of this relationship by both sides.

  • We discuss what Rahmon's approach to transition of power might be and who ultimately will call the shots; Rahmon, his family, or Vladimir Putin.

Part 5: Dynastic Despotism (1:10:02)

  • Bruce Pannier commences our final section by describing the absolute nadir for democracy in Central Asia, Turkmenistan, and the bleak situation facing both its citizens and the few visitors who are permitted to visit.

  • Pannier goes into the long history of dictatorial rulers in post-Soviet Turkmanistan, first under President for Life Saparmurat Niyazov until his death in 2006, before the non-democratic election of Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow ruling until 2022.

  • His inexperienced son, Serdar, took power in 2022, before Gurbanguly effectively created new roles and a power sharing arrangement between them less than a year later, possibly due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We discuss who is actually in change in the country in 2023.

  • We discuss why there have not been uprisings against this autocratic rule, similar to the other Central Asian republics.


Episode Guests:

Alexander Cooley

  • Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University

  • From 2015-2021 he served as the 15th Director of Columbia University's Harriman Institute for the Study of Russia, Eurasia and Eastern Europe

  • Author and/or editor of eight academic books including Dictators without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia

Erica Marat

  • Associate Professor and Chair of the Regional and Analytical Studies Department at the National Defense University in Washington, DC

  • Previously she directed the Homeland Defense Fellowship Program at CISA, NDU.

  • A native of Kyrgyzstan, Dr. Marat’s research focuses on violence, mobilization and security institutions in Eurasia, India, and Mexico

  • She has authored three books, including most recently The Politics of Police Reform: Society against the State in Post-Soviet Countries

Temur Umarov

  • Fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center

  • His research is focused on Central Asian countries' domestic and foreign policies, as well as China's relations with Russia and Central Asian neighbours

  • A native of Uzbekistan, Umarov is a respect analyst of Central Asia, its geopolitics, and its relations with Russia, China, and the wider region

Steve Swerdlow

  • Associate Professor of the Practice of Human Rights in the Department of Political and International Relations at the University of Southern California

  • A human rights lawyer and expert on the former Soviet region, Swerdlow was Senior Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, heading the organization’s work on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and founding its Kyrgyzstan field office

  • Swerdlow publishes regularly on human rights issues in Eurasia and US foreign policy.

Bruce Pannier

  • Journalist and Correspondent specialising in Central Asia

  • His work has been published by Al Jazeera, The Economist, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

  • Host of the Majlis podcast for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty


The Red Line's Central Asia Reading List:

We’ve compiled a list of further reading to better understand the geopolitics of Central Asia.


Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia Alexander Cooley

Sinostan: China's Inadvertent Empire Alexandros Petersen and Raffaello Pantucci

The New Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan


For episode transcripts, monthly geopolitics Q&A’s, member-only videos and to support the show, check out our Patreon here:

This episode is dedicated to our Patreon member Khoare, Thomas Garrison, and Nola Nowlands.



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