BACKGROUND: Sudden independence in 1991 imposed on the five Central Asian countries a transitional process from the Soviet command economy to a type of market economy. Today, their economic systems have all the negative characteristics of the two systems while lacking most of their positive ones. They suffer from numerous problems with a direct social impact, including declining living standards, high unemployment and increasing poverty. Led by the Soviet elite now turned nationalist, their political systems are mainly the inherited Soviet ones without its Communist orientation, but with its shortcomings and authoritarian nature. Added to rampant corruption, this disappointing political and economic situation has fostered a growing social discontent. Right after independence, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, fearful of the rise of political dissent, opted for authoritarianism characterized with a policy of zero-tolerance of political opposition. In fact, both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan faced a sudden emergence of anti-government religious and nationalist groups, which led to a devastating civil war in Tajikistan that ended only in 1997. In Uzbekistan's case, the government uprooted, severely weakened or forced into exile all anti-elite groups through an iron-hand policy. The absence of any significant political opposition did not discourage the Turkmen elite from opting for authoritarianism, which has taken a Stalinist form thanks to President Saparmurad Niyazov's cult of personality. Facing no significant opposition, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan initially settled for relatively more tolerant political systems. Yet the worsening economic situation and emerging popular discontent have gradually convinced them to follow the regional trend. Today, authoritarianism has become the dominant form of government in all the Central Asian countries.
IMPLICATIONS: The suppression of dissent increased significantly in the post-September 11 era. Prior to that, concern about international condemnations inspired caution in Central Asian governments' dealing with their political opponents. In the post-September 11 era, these governments have taken advantage of the situation to justify and intensify their suppression of dissent in two ways. Firstly, fighting Afghanistan-based terrorists has diverted the international community's attention from the abuses of human rights in many countries to the suppression of terrorists. This reality has given those governments the opportunity to continue their abuses with much less concern about international reactions, especially because their geographical location has given them a role in the war in Afghanistan. Their "utility" has convinced many countries, including the United States, to turn a blind eye to their abuses. A blatant example of this development has been Kazakhstan. Suppression of opposition has intensified and taken a violent form since the 11 February 2002 speech by President Nursultan Nazarbayev, in which he attacked the opposition media for their alleged wrongdoings. A government crackdown on opposition followed, as well as the intimidation of opposition journalists. As a recent example, on May 22, "unidentified attackers" destroyed the offices of the publishers of Delovoye Obozrenie Respublika, a newspaper connected to the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), a non-violent opposition party founded last year by a number of government officials and businesspeople. Two of the party's leaders were subsequently arrested. In a separate incident happened a day earlier, the offices of SolDat, an opposition newspaper connected to the Republican People's Party led by ex-prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin, were broken into. Two journalists were beaten, and newspaper properties were stolen. Both newspapers received threats to cease operations. Secondly, the global support for the fight against Afghanistan-based terrorists has provided a golden opportunity for Central Asian governments to suppress opposition under the pretext of fighting terrorists. Most opposition forces are now linked to al-Qaeda or the Taliban, or presented as like-minded. Hundreds of people have been arrested on unsubstantiated charges of alleged terrorist activities or links to these groups. Most obviously, the Uzbek government has directly connected the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to those groups to justify its new wave of suppression of dissent. While the IMU is an armed fundamentalist group and may have had contacts with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, it is not a branch of al-Qaeda. The IMU used war-torn Afghanistan as a base, but there are no similarities in the objectives and methods of al-Qaeda and the IMU to suggest their pursuit of common goals. Prior to September 11, Uzbek President Islam Karimov's open support of establishing ties with the Taliban in recognition of their rule over most of Afghanistan further weakens the argument of the IMU's cooperation with a group operating in Afghanistan with the Taliban's full knowledge, i.e. al-Qaeda.
CONCLUSIONS: The rise of political dissent in Central Asia is a natural phenomenon caused by political, economic and social problems. Fearful of losing power, the regional governments' banning or restricting peaceful expression of dissent and their practical elimination of elections as a means for the peaceful change of government have created grounds for the rise of extremist ideologies. The latter promote violence as the only way to change governments seemingly unable to address the problems of the Central Asian countries. At a time when those governments' legitimacy is being questioned by a growing number of their respective populations, harsh suppression of political opponents will only increase the popularity of extremist ideologies and groups, although their envisaged political systems are even worse than the existing ones. So long as the social conditions for the rise of such groups exist, their suppression may, at best, interrupt their activities, but leave their raison d'être intact. Against this background, the Central Asian governments' opportunistic use of "war on terrorism" to legitimize their abuses of human rights will only raise doubts about fighting terrorism as a legitimate objective. It will also worsen the situation in their countries by contributing to the radicalization of their populations, on which extremist groups could capitalize. Needless to say, the result will be far from the desired goal of assured stability in those countries.
AUTHOR BIO: Dr. Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in International Relations.
Copyright 2001 The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst. All rights reserved.