Progress or Profits?

Autocratic yet energy-rich, the Central Asian Republics are drawing the attention of nearby investors

by Rajendra Prabhu

The prospect of freedom lit the hopes of the five Central Asian Republics when the USSR disintegrated in 1991, but in the intervening years, that hope has been reduced to a flicker by successive or long-serving autocratic presidents. With Russia to the north, China to the east, and India to the South, however, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have now fallen within the economic sights of their neighboring BRICS powers. Any hope of progress now relies on the interests of their investors.

Five Regimes

A free and independent media was the first step for a region that had experienced only authoritarian regimes under the Tzarist and then Communist thumbs of Moscow. Many years ago, this journalist visited to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan in the early post-Soviet era as a member of the International Federation of Journalists’ delegation to a five-day seminar organized by the U.N. to instruct the media in the five republics how to organize under the principles of democracy. The workshop was inaugurated by Nursultan Nazarbayev, then-President of Kazakhstan, who expressed the hopes that liberty would win out in the region–but did not fail to praise historic conquerors from his country’s past like Genghis Khan.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, now 75, is still President of the largest of the Central Asian Republics (CAR), and the story is similar for the presidency of four of the five republics. Last April, Nrzabayev was so brazen about being “re-elected” this year, he lamented that his 97.7 percent of the vote was due to no-one worthwhile coming forward to challenge him. Brushing aside criticism from observers of an international team who condemned his consolidation of offices, the President said, “I am sorry that for super-democratic states these figures are unacceptable but there is nothing I could do. If I had interfered it would have been undemocratic.” His challengers were a tiny communist party and a former Governor.

The Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe admitted that there was a “lack of a credible opposition in the country”. But how could there be when the persecution of opposition leaders and shutdown of free media are the hallmark of Nazarbayev’s regime? In any case, given the lack of challengers, President Nazarbayev took the precaution of amending the constitution to allow himself an exemption from the two-term limit on his office. He also declared himself “leader of the nation” in 2010, authorized to speak for the entire people. Who, therefore, needs an opposition?

Geographically the largest among the Central Asian States, energy-rich Kazakhstan is described as …

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