Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 11

Opposition parties in Central Asia remain under fire

by David Nissman

The former Soviet republics of Central Asia–Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan–became independent atthe end of 1991 with little recent, or even historical, experiencewith the rights of individuals, and only slightly more in therealm of practical democracy. This inexperience, and often thelack of commitment on the part of their new (old) political leaders,and the consequences of both for political freedom are reflectedin their media (although generally not in the country affected)and in detailed studies by the CSCE and the Helsinki Commission,the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices of the USDepartment of State, and the reports of the many institutionsand foundations now seeking to educate the future leaders of theseancient countries in the mysteries of modern democracy. To date,the Central Asian countries do not have a good track record eitherindividually or collectively.

The countries of the region have certain common features, butthe differences in this area at least are noteworthy because theyare so seldom attended to. In three cases–Kazakhstan, Turkmenistanand Uzbekistan–the current president earlier served as the firstsecretary of the Communist Party of his republic. Akayev of Kyrgyzstanis the lone exception: although a member of the Communist Party,he was not an activist. As far as Tajikistan is concerned, ithas had several administrations, with authority seemingly extendingno farther than the city limits of Dushanbe since independenceand has been engaged in interclan and interregional warfare duringits entire existence as an independent state.


Kazakhstan’s ethnic structure is different from that of the otherrepublics. It is the only one in Central Asia in which the titularethnolinguistic group does not form an absolute majority of thepopulation. Kazakhs now total 44 percent of the population, theRussians 36 percent, and the Ukrainians 5 percent, with the restscattered. This situation, and the past Soviet policy of Russification,mean that somewhat more than half of Kazakhstan’s population isrussophone, and somewhat more than a third is Russian. This flavorsthe political debate in the country, as the language issue powersmuch of the country’s political debate. Until five years ago,all governmental business was conducted in Russian. Current legislationrelegates Russian to the status of an "official" languageand a "language of interethnic communication," a positionthe draft constitution now under consideration does little tochange. Like her neighbors, the Kazakhstan government has pursueda kind of affirmative action program in linguistic and politicalaffairs, something which has infuriated many Russians and drivensome of them to leave.

By the end of 1992 there were almost 100 parties and movementsin Kazakhstan, but only three had received official registrationand blessing. Kazakh laws distinguish between political partiesand movements. Political parties are required to provide detailedinformation about each member if they hope to receive officialstatus. Submitting to this requirement, many politically activeKazakhs feel, smacks of Soviet-era controls and is a major reasonwhy many of them have refused to register at all. Only one partyhas any power, the Socialist Party, which replaced the CommunistParty of Kazakhstan in August 1991 and is run by the country’spresident Nursultan Nazarbayev, even though he is not a member.According to a CSCE report, Nazarbayev "has defined the ideologicalline of the party as one of ‘authoritarian democracy’." Asimilar judgment was rendered last week about the new Nazarbayev-backeddraft constitution by six members of the country’s supreme court.


In Uzbekistan, the politics of independence followed much thesame pattern as in Kazakhstan. After the August 1991 coup, theCommunist Party of Uzbekistan was renamed the People’s DemocraticParty. Uzbekistan declared its independence in August 1991, althoughthe referendum on independence was not held until December. Oppositionmovements to the then Communist regime appeared as early as May1989 when Birlik ["Unity"] party was formed. Later,another party, Erk, broke away from Birlik and was able to registerin 1991, although it was subsequently banned. The leaders of bothlive abroad. At one time, the Tajik Society, also known as theSamarkand Movement, had a substantial following, although it toois now banned because Uzbek law forbids the activity of politicalparties organized along ethnic or religious lines. Hence, theIslamic Revival Party, which has adherents throughout CentralAsia, is also banned. Another banned movement is the People’sMovement of Turkestan which advocates the basic unity of CentralAsia as Turkestan. There were also numerous other parties whichsprang up just before or after independence, but these also havebeen outlawed.

Even if political rights are not well represented in Uzbekistan,the bureaucracy of human rights now is. A human rights commissionerwas appointed in February 1995, and a deputy premier responsiblefor women and the family was named in March. The first officialhas been active: in June, he set up a Commission on the Observanceof the Constitutional Rights and Liberties of Citizens. Its membersare mostly lawyers, but two are physicians or psychiatrists, oneat a specialized psychoneurological hospital.


Turkmenistan followed a path similar to that of the first two,but perhaps in a more thoroughgoing way. Prior to the failed August1991 coup, the Turkmenistan Communist Party decided to dissolveitself and form the Turkmenistan Democratic Party in its stead.In December 1991, Saparmurad Niyazov, the former Communist partyfirst secretary, was elected with an overwhelming landslide andsigned a decree conferring TDP membership on all members of theformer TCP. Formally, and unlike the Communist party, the TurkmenistanDemocratic Party does have an opposition, but its leaders areregularly harassed if they happen to be out of prison or are notin exile. As the Helsinki Watch report on political freedoms inTurkmenistan put it, "There are regular violations of freedomin Turkmenistan: criticism of the government is suppressed, censorsapprove only what is in harmony with government policy, and residentswho dissent or who have contact with dissidents are preventedfrom leaving the country, impeded from associating freely withsome foreign observers, and are put under de facto house arrest."

Since 1989, Turkmenistan has had a small but active dissent movement,the most active part of which called itself Agzybirlik ["Unanimity"].In Soviet times, it was first registered with the Presidium ofthe Turkmen Academy of Sciences as the "Society for the Preservationof the Turkmen Language". But it was closed by the Sovietauthorities when the society’s leaders announced that they wantedto mark the anniversary of the battle of Gokdepe which led toTurkmenistan’s forcible annexation by the Russian Empire in 1881.The independent Turkmenistan government followed the Soviet precedentand continued to persecute the Agzybirlik group. Its leaders arenow in hiding.


When Tajikistan became independent in December 1991, it had beenthe scene of a struggle between the Communist regime and variousethnic and Islamic groups for several years. An ethnic disputebetween the Kyrgyz (in Tajikistan) and Tajiks had erupted in 1989over the allocation of water for irrigation, and a long-simmeringconflict between the Uzbeks (who total almost 25 percent of Tajikistan’spopulation) and the Tajiks has been recurring sporadically overthe last 40 years. More important than these conflicts are thosebetween regional and clannic groupings, and between more and lesssecular groups.

Regional conflicts have arisen because even in Soviet times,the Khujand (Leninobod) faction in the northern part of the countrycontrolled power in Dushanbe for 40 years, while the Garm (orPamir)clan in Gorno-Badakhshan was excluded from power then andnow, and is the primary source of support for the Islamic RevivalParty and the Afghan mujahedin operating in Tajikistan. Untilrecently the Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube clans supplied what manyhad hoped would be the nucleus of a modern Tajik opposition.

Despite the turmoil, a Communist government reasserted its positionat the end of 1991. It restored censorship and added some extremelypunitive measures. But this repression did not stop the mass protests.And when the president fired his Minister of Internal Affairs,who happened to be from Gorno-Badakhshan, the minister’s supporters,also from Gorno-Badakhshan, protested in the square in front ofthe Parliament building. They were joined by a coalition of threeopposition parties, including the Islamic Revival Party. Parliamentstill refused to make any concessions.

In May 1992, the government finally gave in and a "governmentof national reconciliation" was formed which limited thepower of the presidency and put several opposition members inoffice. But this government soon fell and was replaced by a regimeof former communists. In the meantime, the series of regionalconflicts which had dogged Tajikistan in the late 1980s had turnedinto a full scale civil war. Refugees began to flood neighboringcountries, including Afghanistan. This war not only destroyedthe possibility of the emergence of a democratic opposition, butalso encouraged Tajikistan’s neighbors to adopt an even more authoritarianapproach than they had first intended to.


Kyrgyzstan was the first Central Asian republic to develop anopposition to the then ruling Communist Party. The Ashar Partywas founded in June 1989 to stimulate the growth of democracyin the country. At first, it encountered a lot of opposition fromthe Kyrgyz and Communist establishment. The distinguished authorChingiz Aytmatov even questioned the need for a "popularfront"(as Ashar was then known). Nevertheless, the partysurvived, and no serious action was taken by the regime againstits members. Next to form was the Kyrgyz Democratic Movement (inMay 1990). Its program calls for opposition to all forms of totalitarianism.Another major group was the Erkin Kyrgyzstan ("Free Kyrgyzstan")movement which seeks to increase the rights of the indigenousKyrgyz population in their own republic "without jeopardizingthe rights of all the people of Kyrgyzstan." Importantly,most Kyrgyz parties are multi-ethnic. .

In 1990 Askar Akayev was elected president with the backing ofa coalition of these and other parties. As a passive member ofthe CPSU, Akayev was not a member of the ruling establishment.He formed a presidential council consisting of advisors drawnfrom the Kyrgyz intelligentsia and technocrats with democraticleanings. But at that time the Communist party still had the reinsof power, even though its total membership amounted to only 3.5percent of the population. During the August 1991 coup attempt,Kyrgyzstan was the only Central Asian republic to actively opposethe coup and to back the dismantlement of the party state. Bythe fall of 1991, Akayev had successfully removed all communistsfrom positions of power. As he did that, he was supported by theCommunist party media in the republic.

The collapse of the Soviet Union found Kyrgyzstan with a democraticgovernment in place, and with the support of a developing multipartysystem. Akayev and his government were recognized as being themost democratic of the new republics of Central Asia. Kyrgyz democracy,however, stood on very weak foundations. The Kyrgyz parliamentadopted a Fundamental Law embodying democratic principles in May1993; but by January 1995 the Russian media were reporting thatmany people in Kyrgyzstan were saying that perhaps Kyrgyzstanwas not ready for a Western-style democracy, and that a periodof transition was needed. Akayev indicated that he was basicallyin agreement with this notion. A quick look through the pronouncementsof Nazarbayev, Niyazov, and Karimov will show that each has expressedsimilar sentiments, and has employed this excuse to justify actionsagainst individuals and groups in the name of stability and nationalsecurity.

Is Akayev about to follow the path of the other Central Asianleaders? It appears so. Aleksandr Sabov wrote in the February22 Literaturnaya gazeta that the "democrat" Akayev"in a completely Karimov style" had closed an oppositionpaper which had stung him by its publication of the president’sstanding in the polls and by suggestions that he had covered upcorrupt officials. "When the coordinator of the Parliament’sdemocratic faction and the leader of the united opposition inParliament were asked by Sabov to define the political situationin Kyrgyzstan, one said that it is "a dictatorial regimecamouflaging itself as a democracy," and the other respondedwith a play on words: "On that score, we have a dispute:is it "akaymunism" [a reference to the president] or"akimunism?" [a references to a senior rank in the bureaucracy]

Many thought Akayev’s crackdown on the press was the beginningof the end of democracy there. But public criticism of the presidentcontinues. Unlike the other four republics of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstanis not on Freedom House’s list of countries where there is nofreedom of speech. The fate of one newspaper may not representthe end of democracy in Kyrgyzstan, but it does suggest just howdifficult a situation the opposition faces even there.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.