Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 12

Human rights not doing well in Central Asian states

by David Nissman

The new republics of Central Asia–Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan–are struggling to create legal systemsto protect the rights and freedoms of individuals. As in thecase of their regulation of political opposition groups, so tooin this sphere, the Central Asian states have several things incommon but far more differences.

Among the commonalities is a set of constitutions passed shortlyafter independence which, at the insistence of Western governments,enumerate the standard list of democratic freedoms. But despitethe similarities of these proclaimed rights, actual practice varieswidely. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are true successors to theSoviet system. Their constitutions notwithstanding, politicalfreedoms are virtually nonexistent, and political power is concentratedalmost exclusively in the hands of the presidents, who themselvesearlier served as republic Communist party chieftains. Kazakhstanhas a slightly better record in the protection of individual rights,although the authoritarianism of the past continues. Kyrgyzstaninitially made a genuine effort to implement democratic freedoms,but economic problems have often been the pretext for undemocraticactions even by its more democratically inclined president. AndTajikistan, a country in the midst of a civil war, has not beenin a position to be either authoritarian or liberal: the situationthere is too chaotic for either. For what it is worth, however,the US State Department has praised Tajikistan’s new constitutionas "a significant improvement over the Soviet-era document."

Another characteristic in this area of law that all the CentralAsian states share is a zero-option citizenship law. That meansthat all residents of the given territory at the time of independencehad the right to claim citizenship in the newly independent state.But if someone did not declare for that country’s citizenship,he became, by definition, stateless. Of course, many people inCentral Asia considered themselves to still be Soviet citizensor to be citizens of other countries which emerged when the USSRcollapsed. And still others, such as the Crimean Tatars who hadbeen deported to the region by Stalin, sought to return home andclaim a very different citizenship. But because each of the otherformer Soviet republics had its own standards for citizenship–oftenquite restrictive unless one was resident there at the momentof the declaration of independence–many of the non-indigenouspeoples in Central Asia found themselves trapped.


Kazakhstan’s Supreme Soviet approved the country’s first constitutionin January 1993. Its preamble defines Kazakhstan as a "democratic,secular and unitary state" and embraces a whole range ofhuman rights. One of its declaratory passages designated Kazakhas the sole state language, while Russian, spoken by more thanhalf the country’s population, was relegated to the status ofthe "language of interethnic communication." The constitutionbanned dual citizenship except when the Kazakh government allowedit in particular cases. But other portions of the constitutionbanned several kinds of public associations, including politicalparties which proclaim or seek to advance "racial, ethnic,social or religious intolerance, or class exclusivity, or whichcall for the violent overthrow of the constitutional system."

When this constitution was being discussed, most of the country’spolitical parties opposed it, but a member of the ConstitutionalConvention said that his body had "no reason" to payany attention to these objections. But not only the democratsobjected to the document. Ultimately, it proved too restrictiveeven for the country’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. And in1995 he has drafted, and will seek to have endorsed, a new basiclaw even more authoritarian than the 1993 document. It will givethe president the power to dissolve Parliament, declare a referendumand to establish the order in which laws are approved by parliament.It will also allow the parliament to grant the president additional,but nowhere specified, powers to deal with crisis situations. In 1994, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europeconcluded that Kazakhstan was not yet a democracy. The new constitutionwill not make it any more so.


The constitution of Uzbekistan, adopted in December 1992, alsoenumerates a broad range of democratic freedoms. But its principlesare seldom observed by the Uzbek government. The Tashkent regimehas crushed opposition media with judicial and extrajudicial means.

One particularly blatant example of the government’s approachwas the trial of the Erk newspaper staff. First, the editorsof this paper were accused of plotting a coup in Uzbekistan, thenthe trial was delayed for three months so that there would beno information about it during the tightly controlled elections.And then when the trial resumed, the state charged the Erk paperwas recruiting young people to go to Turkey to be trained to workagainst Uzbekistan. As in Soviet era trials, the defendants initiallyall confessed but later retracted their statements, saying thatthey had been wrung out of them by "pressure and deception."When the trial ended in March 1995, the defendants weresentenced to jail for five to 12 years.

Uzbek security services have also been kept busy by the Karimovregime, not only in the country but also in others. With the aidof their Kyrgyz KGB colleagues, they kidnapped Abdunmannob Poulatov,a major Uzbek human rights activist, in Kyrgyzstan’s capitalin December 1992, put him on trial in Tashkent for "insultingthe dignity of President Islam Karimov, "and sentenced himto three years imprisonment. Following protests by the internationalcommunity, Poulatov was freed and allowed to leave the country.At the 1993 hearings of the Commission on Security and Cooperationin Europe, Poulatov said that "the new situation for humanrights in Uzbekistan is terrible, similar to that in the 1970s…Theold political structures still exist with only the names changed.Political terror is used. There is no freedom of speech or conscience.Meetings and demonstrations are prohibited."

The US State Department’s 1994 review of human rights practicessummed up the situation in Uzbekistan nicely: "Governmentobservance of human rights did not significantly advance in 1994.To control the political arena, the Government continued to denyregistration to political parties and to some other social groups,which legally may not function until they are duly registered.It continued to suppress unregistered opposition parties and movementsand severely limited distribution of opposition literature. Itcontinued to ban unsanctioned meetings and demonstrations. Securityforces detained and arrested opposition activists on false charges…"


The Turkmenistan government’s use of its constitution parallelsthat that of Uzbekistan. Article 1 of the Turkmen Constitution,adopted in May 1992, defines Turkmenistan as a "presidentialrepublic." It has a president, a prime minister and a parliamentstill called the Supreme Soviet. In addition, the legislativebranch includes a khalk maslakhaty ["people’s council"]which is to be assembled to pass constitutional amendments. Ina report published in 1993, Helsinki Watch pointed out that "withfew exceptions…all members of this ostensibly highly powerfulcouncil are appointed, not elected, greatly diminishing its abilityto function as a legislative body, and compromising the principleand practice of the separation of powers." There is alsoa Presidential Council whose members are appointed by the pesident.This Presidential Council is the most powerful group in the country,but all these structures are under the absolute control of PresidentSaparmurad Niyazov. The Constitution’s provisions on parties andpublic actions are so ambiguous that the regime has been ableto claim that it is acting within the law when it seeks to smotherdissent.

In addition to placing severe limitations on any political opposition,the Turkmen authorities also control the media by censoring thepress. As in Uzbekistan, controls over the opposition extend beyondTurkmenistan’s borders. In October 1994, for example, Turkmenpresident Niyazov demanded that Uzbekistan extradite a numberof Turkmen dissidents. Tashkent arrested and deported two of them. They were first charged with embezzlement and then with planningthe assassination of the president. Because one of the two wasa Russian citizen, Moscow filed a protest, but unsuccessfully. The case did not come to trial until June 1995. According toa report in the Moscow newspaper Trud, the two were alsocharged with terrorism. At the trial, two other individuals werecharged with the same crime, but being in Moscow, they were ableto leave for Sweden.


Kyrgyzstan initially attempted to democratize all its politicalinstitutions and to privatize all the state property there. Its1993 constitution defines Kyrgyzstan as a democratic republicand guarantees freedom of the press, speech, conscience, and politicalactivity. But by 1994, Bishkek’s efforts to promote democraticfreedoms seemed to falter.

As in other parts of the former Soviet Union, the Kyrgyz parliamentwas dominated by former Soviet bureaucrats who often blocked democraticinitiatives, and who often were prepared to cooperate with authoritarianregimes elsewhere in Central Asia. This situation became worsein 1994 and 1995. In January 1995, many democrats began to sayopenly that Kyrgyzstan was "not ready" for Western-styledemocracy; and some of the actions of the country’s democraticleaders seem to bear this out. Most dramatically, the governmentclosed several opposition papers. That move and others like ithave led the US State Department to conclude in its 1994 reporton human rights in Kyrgyzstan that the Kyrgyz government "hasmaintained its hold on power by means of two one-sided referendums,the closure of two newspapers, the manipulation of the parliament’sclosure, and a series of presidential decrees."


But despite all these problems, Kyrgyzstan’s record on defendinghuman rights is far better than any of its neighbors. At theother extreme is Tajikistan, a country at war and one in whichassassinations, torture, and other abuses are common and in whichfreedom of speech and the press are nonexistent.

1. See David Nissman, "The Sad Fate of Opposition in CentralAsia," Prism vol.1, no.11, pp. 7-9.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University