Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Central Asian States on Divergent Paths

Managing succession when veteran leaders leave the stage is greatest risk factor for region's stability, leading American expert says.
By Dina Tokbaeva
  • John Schoeberlein. (Photo: D. Dalton Bennett/Sons of Hedin)
    John Schoeberlein. (Photo: D. Dalton Bennett/Sons of Hedin)

John Schoeberlein is currently a visiting professor at the Eurasian National University in the Kazak capital Astana, on a year's leave from his position as lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.

IWPR interviewed Schoeberlein while he was in Kyrgyzstan speaking at a conference called “Twenty Years of Central Asian Independence: Shared Past, Separate Paths?”, organised by the American University in Central Asia in Bishkek.

Schoeberlein is a long-time observer of post-independence Central Asia, researching national identity, the role of Islam, and other issues.

IWPR: How different are the Central Asian republics now from the way they were 20 years ago?

John Schoeberlein: At the time they gained independence, the countries in the region were almost at the same starting point. It is striking how many differences there are now; how the paths they took altered and diverged.

People often speak of a process of convergence – a turn towards authoritarianism in all countries in the region. I think that in some ways that’s true, but still the differences are remarkable. Even if there are leaders who aspire to authoritarianism, the opportunities for this vary from country to country.

In Turkmenistan, there’s never been any effective opposition, and that makes for a rather different picture even compared with Uzbekistan. And that leaves a legacy, in terms of how the government behaves.

If we take the case of Kyrgyzstan, where because of a variety of circumstances you’ve had a much more open system, a much more diverse set of political actors participating in a real competition for positions and so on – that affects the way the country will develop in future, no matter what orientation any given leader might have.

It also really affects the climate for development, not just politically but in many senses. So for example, the academic environment is much more open in Kyrgyzstan than in any other Central Asian country.

Kazakstan has been blessed with resources that have allowed it to develop, but which also have some other effects that aren’t always positive. In the case of Kazakstan, there’s been a consistent effort by the state to exert control over many spheres of life. That has constrained the development of journalism, the political process, and even academia.

Tajikistan’s capacity was severely destroyed by the [1992-97] civil war experience. For a while the state did not intervene in many spheres, but it gradually increased its ability to intervene.

IWPR: What external political and economic influences dominate Central Asia today? Are the links still with Russia, or is it China these days?

Schoeberlein: That’s difficult to say. China looms large in the region, and its economic power makes it a force to be reckoned with. But I don’t believe China is oriented towards projecting tremendous political influence in this region, except to the extent needed for its own economic and security concerns. So its ambitions will be much more limited than those of Russia.

Russia will continue to play a role because of its proximity to Central Asia. It has much more capacity to influence things here. And we shouldn’t forget that Central Asians remain very oriented towards Russia in a variety of senses, above all labour migration. The way people in Central Asia think about the world is very much connected with the view coming out of Russia, whose media have a huge impact.

IWPR: What about the growing role of Islam in Central Asia?

Schoeberlein: All across the region we see an increasing orientation towards Islam among wide parts of the population. It’s not oriented towards political goals, but more focused on social, moral and personal issues.

Here I am not talking about what we tend to call radical Islam. I don’t see those things as being connected. The radicalisation which is going on is much more connected with the problem of those governments and the sense of unjust distribution of resources among the people.

The problem comes when Islam is seen as the only avenue for political expression. The situation only grows worse when a state acts against Islam, limits activity related to Islam, and creates confrontation between the state and those people who would like to become committed to Islam.

IWPR: Do you see differences between the ways that Central Asian governments are handling Islam?

In this regard, there is much less difference between them than one might expect. And the reason is that leaderships of all Central Asian states have very strong – I would say Soviet – instincts on the issue of religion and society. They view religion, especially Islamic religion, as being very dangerous.

On one hand, they want to embrace Islam as the national heritage and they’re happy to celebrate the anniversary of important Islamic figures who came from their territory. But at the same time, they view Islam as a difficult-to-control social force that ordinary people might be mobilised around. They see it as very dangerous and anti-modern.

So there is a symbolic embrace, but in practical terms, there is no vision for what an Islamic role should be.

In part, this problem will die away. The people who maintain power at the present time are the people who were formed under the Soviet system, in which religion was viewed as very dangerous and very backward. And their attitudes and instincts remain very powerful today. But it will change with time, as a new generation comes to the forefront of societies, a generation which will be much more comfortable with Islam, or with some forms of Islamic expression.

IWPR: What about levels of official tolerance of people expressing their religious beliefs?

Schoeberlein: In Uzbekistan, we have a very actively intervening government which tries to prevent various kinds of Islamic activity. And in parallel with that, in this country we have very strong and sometimes quite radical forms of Islamic orientation, and people who are formed in that environment of tension between Islamic observance and the state.

We see that now Tajikistan is Islamic only in a limited way. It has a legal Islamic party, but the government has effectively kept its role very marginal and limited. That party has connections with broader forces of civil society which has roots in the Civil War period when there was some institutional development of Islamic institutions and of leaders with charisma and public followings and so on.

You don’t have that in Kazakstan, where there is no public institution of Islam that would be accorded popular authority.

In the case of Kyrgyzstan since there is a more open environment for all kinds of different developments, including that of Islamic institutions and groups. And the state’s desire to limit it is less ambitious

IWPR: Is the brain-drain that has affected all the post-independence Central Asian states a risk for the future?

Schoeberlein: Yes, it’s a real risk. It’s something Central Asia has been going through since 1992, when there was a very well-educated population and a rather flourishing intellectual elite that was oriented towards the world and trying to understand it better.

Unfortunately, the areas where bright people flourish – for example higher education – have narrowed and there is little support from the state, so people don’t get paid very well and the best people don’t want to be there. It’s difficult to remain – it isn’t that you have to hide it, but being bright and education-oriented has so few rewards associated with it.

This is less true of Kyrgyzstan, but in the other Central Asian countries, educational institutions are themselves quite corrupt, so the rewards are not for being a good thinker or a good teacher, but for being a good bribe-taker. Those who have the determination to prioritise teaching really well and doing serious scholarship get little reward for this. There are other negative trends as well, for example in Kyrgyzstan, where the rise of nationalism is very anti-intellectual and discourages openness to the wider world.

Turkmenistan and Tajikistan both present very negative scenarios. In the case of Turkmenistan, the state itself acted very systematically to destroy the intellectual sphere, apparently on the premise that intellectuals are trouble-makers so it’s better not to have them.

Tajikistan’s civil war had a devastating effect on so many things. As a result, there is a missing generation of scholars and intellectuals. Some people went abroad for their education, but local institutions almost completely lost their intellectual potential. We have an older generation that was trained in the Soviet conditions, but there isn’t much to replace them. This affects many things, like the public discourse that you can have in a society.

If discourses are being driven more by political considerations than the efforts of thinkers and leading intellectuals, then they can potentially be quite dangerous for a country. We can see that in the case of Kyrgyzstan, where the nationalist discourse among intellectuals has become quite strong. I don’t think it’s going to provide any solutions, but it’s certainly attractive to a lot of people, and it’s going to generate greater tensions in the country.

Another part of what is driving people out of intellectual spheres is the dominance of the previous generation. There is a real tension between the older generation and those who are open to borrowing from the West or suggest improvements in the way things are done. Those people have been heavily discouraged because the senior generation still has tremendous influence. We’re reaching a point where those people will inevitably move out of the picture, and depending on which country we’re talking about, this change will probably come quite soon.

I’d like to believe it will happen sooner in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. These countries have been quite open to interaction, there are lots of people studying abroad, and there is a real flourishing of a generation that can replace previous ones.

In Turkmenistan, there’s nobody to fill that role – there is no rising intellectual group. The ground has been completely closed out except for a few people studying abroad, in other former Soviet countries, in the United States, or wherever. These people will have difficulty being accepted and establishing themselves when they come back.

In Uzbekistan there’s been an effective exclusion or isolation of intellectual movements. Throughout the 1990s, there was relative openness, which led to higher expectations and some real flourishing in intellectual spheres. But in the last ten years, we’ve seen a closing of that space and the exclusion of people who want to play those roles. That’s a real setback.

It’s hard to say how long it’s going to take for a new intellectual elite to rise in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, as we don’t know what’s going to happen next. You can compare them with Myanmar [Burma], a country that’s been extremely closed and controls its intellectuals very tightly. But in spite of that you have the emergence of some influential intellectuals, even though they’ve only been able to play a very limited role.

We can’t just say that it’s inevitable that intellectuals will eventually emerge – it could be this will be prevented forever. North Korea is an example of a country where there’s probably nobody that represents that trend. But I don’t think Uzbekistan will follow that path, as it’s too open to the outside world structurally.

IWPR: Given that some Central Asia leaders have stayed in power since independence, succession is a problem in the region. To what extent will this have an impact on stability?

Schoeberlein: I believe that the greatest concern for stability in the region is precisely associated with the problem of succession. Leaders have concentrated their efforts on ensuring their personal continuity in the leadership, as opposed to building institutions that can ensure a stable transition of power.

The leaders of some of the Central Asian countries are quite old, and they will have to pass on power to someone in future. The question of transition to the next leadership could be a painful process in a place like Uzbekistan, since the political process itself is very closed. There is no obvious person who has been set up to fill the role.

In Kazakstan, I would say the succession is likely to be more smooth and is also very likely to yield to a more enlightened leadership amenable to a more open political system and greater openness of information. The values that support a more open society have, relatively speaking, flourished in Kazakstan, whereas they haven’t done so in Uzbekistan, as a lot of the people in power are very skeptical about whether it’s a good idea to have an open society.

Other potentially destabilising factors, such as inter-regional and ethnic tensions, the gap between the haves and have-nots, Islamist mobilisation, and foreign powers' efforts to intervene, can very easily be drawn into the struggle for power among members of the power elite that is likely to ensue in the moment of succession following the current leaders’ demise. This problem is present in all of the Central Asian countries, to one extent or another, inasmuch as they all have factions within the elite that can mobilise against one another, tapping into these factors of instability to further their bid for power.

IWPR: What is the general mood among people in Central Asia today – what do they think about their own countries?

Schoeberlein: In Kazakstan, there are large segments of the population who have a sense that the country is generally flourishing. But there’s another segment of population that has an absolutely different view and they have no confidence in their government as they believe it’s very corrupt.

If you take Uzbekistan, throughout the 1990s it was able to present itself as an up-and-coming country rapidly moving towards a better kind of modernity. But now, while the economy is in such bad shape, there are so many of Uzbekistan’s citizens who see there’s no future for them within their country.

The feeling of uncertainty about the future is especially true in Kyrgyzstan, because there is a fear that none of those in leadership is able to provide stability.

On the other hand, people in Central Asia in general are not so philosophical. They tend to think more about how to earn a living, how their children can be successfully married. For example, lots of Kyrgyz people are now travelling to Russia, making good money, and they’re able to support their families. And this is true in most parts of the region – while the 1990s were a period of great disruption and people were barely surviving in many places, now they have worked out ways to manage in difficult circumstances.

Dina Tokbaeva is IWPR Central Asia editor in Bishkek.

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